Telekom Electronic Beats

Mentors: What Hieroglyphic Being Learned From House Pioneer Adonis

I met Adonis by coincidence. It was 1992, and he had just gotten back from the UK, where he had lived for a while. Somebody I had business dealings with back then used to hang out with him. When things fizzled out between us, she told me that she was hanging out with Adonis and asked if I’d like to meet him. Sure, I wanted that. I had seen him around at parties, but I never felt like walking up to him and introducing myself. He did his own thing, and I didn’t want to bother him.

But when we eventually met, we kinda clicked right away. We chatted about life and stuff. At first we didn’t talk about music production or anything like that, but I thanked him for his creations and contributions to house music. Eventually we started hanging out in his apartment, where he also had his studio. I was really curious about the process of creating music. I wanted to learn how to use the mixing board, how to program basslines, everything.

Adonis told me to start with something simple and to work myself up from there. He gave me a big bulky drum machine that was sitting in the corner of his studio, and I walked around with it for almost a year. It was a Korg DDD-1. He said I had to really learn it inside and out. “If you can program any interchangeable rhythm, measure or drum pattern on this, we will graduate to something else,” he told me. To him, being able to create an endless variation of rhythms would eventually help when we’d move on to chords and strings. He said it would help me create better melodies later. So that’s what I did. But after a while I really wanted to get my hands on something other than a drum machine.

At the end of the day, his mentorship was more on the spiritual side: how to deal with certain things in life. Before there was the music business, there was the individual being living in the physical world and dealing with the self. Everything else is just semantics and falls under that. He mentored me on how to survive in the music business and how to approach it. I was 19 and living so much in the moment, having fun, that I didn’t have a regard for the long-term.

He kept himself informed about the new generation, but he didn’t feel the need to try and stay relevant. He stayed connected to see what was new and fresh. But apart from that, he stayed autonomous and did his own thing. I was the complete opposite. I was out nearly every night, taking everything in, self-absorbed, driven by ego. I was young. I was learning. And I did report back to him afterwards.

He told me not to take the business too seriously. If you do, it’ll swallow and suck all of your energy out of you. He said the music industry can be a very depressed and lonely place—especially if things aren’t really working out for you. He was adamant that I always had something else to fall back onto, something other than music to share my energy with. In every industry or business, you have people who are out to use and abuse. I have been fortunate enough to have been insulated from certain events—especially while on the road touring. If something happens, I don’t take it personally. I don’t get emotional to the point that I start ranting about it online.

The bullshit waves ride themselves out. Always. That’s also something Adonis told me and that I’ve validated over time: every five years there’s a new generation. Things move quickly. So if there are things that I’m uncomfortable with right now, chances are good that they’ll fade out in a couple of years. I just have to stick to my guns and keep my head down.

1992 was a very precarious year for house music culture in Chicago. In a way, it felt like the end of something, but at the same time a lot of brand new things emerged. It felt like a new seed was sown. It was a time of transformation. Ron Hardy was dead, Frankie Knuckles had left Chicago for New York. There was special vibe in the city. You had Derrick Carter and his Rednail crew; you had Cajmere with Cajual and Relief Records; China Club; Shelter. There were a lot of crews and clubs that kept the culture alive.

After taking the drum machine practically everywhere, I went for nearly a year constantly working on beats, I knew that I was ready to do the next step. At that point, it wasn’t even about if he agreed with me anymore—I just knew. I could’ve started to focus on other things besides the drum machine six months earlier, but I stayed dedicated. I was very much invested in the moment and the process.

Adonis and I had the same idea and understanding about the process of creation. People can have the same feelings or energy, but they can’t fully explain it because they don’t have the knowledge or experience necessary. That was me back then. But somebody else can feel what’s going on with you and can express it because they’re in tune with you. Adonis was able to feel what I was trying to express and break it down to me intellectually.

We come into this existence as beings, and then we put other things into existence through creation. That’s what I learned from him: this whole thought process. If everybody had that mentality of honoring creation, then people wouldn’t be so keen to honor and hold up destruction and chaos.

People put so much energy, faith and worship into these machines that they totally forget about the human experience. Adonis made what he made because of his human experience. The human makes the machine—not the other way around. Some experiences in my life caused me to be the way I am. So when I started to create with his machines, I turned into a conduit of all these emotional and mental and spiritual experiences to transform them into a physical experience.

You can’t let the machine override your humanity. The result would be watered-down, fake. It would feel empty. So when I create, it’s basically like a sonic diary. I’m emulating and bringing into the universe. It’s an ongoing process. I’m still learning, still evolving. That will never stop. And musically, that journey started for me in 1992.

By the end of 1994, I self-released my first cassettes. In 1996, I put out the first vinyl releases on Mathematics as white-labels. After that I took a break until 2000, when I restarted the label. There were times where I was frustrated about not being heard. I was struggling. But Adonis’ advice helped me to keep pushing. Some people get burned and they walk away and feel bitter and defeated. But you shouldn’t complain about something and then just walk away. If you do that, chances are that nothing will change for the better. What you can do is mentor the next generation so that things can improve. If you start to teach the young hopefuls a new and unifying way to pursue their dreams in the music industry, things can shift in this culture. I think dance music is in a very chaotic and very fractured state at the moment. But look at Mike Huckaby; he didn’t complain about how things are. He took his resources and planted seeds and made a change. I look up to him for all the great work he’s doing teaching young black kids to produce music at Youthville in Detroit.

A while ago I got involved in my own mentoring adventure called Chicago Phonic. The facility is there and we’ll open soon—most likely in early November. The stage is pretty much set: the gear is there and we’re ready to go. The people I’m dealing with for this are private investors who don’t want to have their names out in public. They don’t care about facetime. So I’m kind of the face of the operation because we’re dealing with poor kids from Chicago. I come from that.

I don’t want to complain anymore. I want to give something back. And hopefully my involvement will encourage others to get involved, too. It’s not that hard to set something up—especially if you have a sponsorship with a gear company. Don’t fill up your crib with Moogs and whatnot just for yourself. Open up a facility for kids to use the equipment. Chicago Phonic will be very different from my time with Adonis, though. With him it was very personal: one-on-one. In a facility like Youthville Chicago Phonic, it becomes a classroom, and you have to refine your teachings. And you shouldn’t try to be their parent. You want to be able to convey a clear message—especially about the music business, but also about how their experiences in life will affect them. It won’t be all hands-on-gear right away. I’ll talk and explain my experience, and then I’ll ask each individual to explain hers or his up to that point in their lives. And then I will let them know: the conversation we are now having is the same you’ll be having with the machines.

Read more: Mentors columns with Robert Hood, Jlin and more

Published October 30, 2017.