Interview Def Mix | David Morales, Hector Romero, Frankie Knuckles and Satoshi Tomeii

WHO: Def Mix | David Morales, Hector Romero, Frankie Knuckles and Satoshi Tomeii
WHEN: 30th Oct 2007
INTERVIEWED BY: Toni | Defected

The Interview Def Mix | David Morales, Hector Romero, Frankie Knuckles and Satoshi Tomeii

Could you all introduce yourselves, say where you’re originally from and what you’re best known for?

David Morales: I’m David Morales, president of Def Mix Productions, and I guess I’m best known for being me: Def Mix 1!

Frankie Knuckles: My name is Frankie Knuckles and I’m Def Mix 3. 1 and 2 can argue among themselves but I’ll always be 3! I’m from the Boogie Down, from the big BX originally. I live in Chicago now, and I think I’m known as the Godfather of house music.

DM: I forgot to say I’m from Brooklyn.

Hector Romero: Hello hello! I’m Hector Romero. If you’ve known me that long you can still call me Baby Hack. I’m from the Bronx as well, and what am I best known for? For being a stubborn pain in the ass, and for always having a smile on my face, why not?

Satoshi Tomiie: Ok my turn? Hi, it’s Satoshi Tomie here. I’m originally from Tokyo and I’m best known for, hmm, not sure. I’m a little slow today so I’ll pass on that.

DM: I’ll answer that one for him! He’s a DJ, producer extraordinaire!

David, how did Def Mix come about and did you think it would be as big as it is today?

Def Mix came about in late ’86 going into ’87. I really just used the name Def Mix as a remixing name. Some of the other guys doing remixes at the time had similar pseudonyms, so I had to have a similar name when I wanted to remix. Back then the word ‘Def’ was slang for ‘good’, ‘great’ so I started to use that. With Judy we ended up incorporating the word into our productions, and then Frankie came in from Chicago. There was no intention for Def Mix to be anything but a name, you know, we didn’t think it would become ‘a thing’. There was no plan.

Ok so Frankie, Satoshi and Hector, when do you guys come into the story?

FK: I think I probably come in next. I had just moved back to New York, and I had a lot of mixes that were being offered to me, mostly from the UK. I had a few from around New York City from a few different labels and I was told that I needed representation. Someone wanted to book me to do a remix or play a gig or something and they asked who my manager was, and I had worked up until that point without one, living in Chicago and before I had ever left New York in the first place, I had never had one. So when that person approached me it kinda threw me completely. And then I met Judy and she asked me the same question, and I had the same answer. We go way back, you know, even before the Record Pool, that’s how far back we go. And we talked about it, and she talked about what was going on with David and Def Mix and what they were trying to do with it. Honestly I didn’t think that much about it, I just though ‘Yeah that’s great!’ I thought of it as something to help me along while I’m regaining my footing back in New York City. I hoped that it would take me someplace else within the industry and it just took off from there. It was a place for me to be found and it gave me the opportunity to be able to bring something to the table. I’d already done quite a lot of work in Chicago, but it was not paid work, you know? Although for me I wasn’t really looking to get paid, it was more of an education than anything else which helped a lot. And joining Def Mix and working with David and all the other engineers and programmers, that was like finishing school for me.

ST: Ok, so I actually came after. I met Frankie in Japan while I was at University. I was helping out on a couple of parties while he was touring the country, about 7 different party’s altogether.

FK: Almost every night for a whole week!

ST: Basically the people organising the parties asked me to write the theme music that would be played each night.

FK: It was basically like a fanfare just before I was supposed to come on.

ST: So that’s the way I met him. Then after he went back to New York I made a demo.

HR: It was probably on a cassette.

ST: Actually I think it was! Ha ha! So after that I couldn’t actually meet him in New York, but he met with my friend, liked the track that I had given him, asked Judy and David if I could join Def Mix.

HR: I come in around ’94. Basically I was a young DJ from the Bronx, doing some parties around the city, and it was a special promoter from the city that hooked me up to play a gig with David. I had never met David but I used to go out to hear him play at Red Zone; that was like my Paradise Garage. I went religiously every weekend, just to hand out and listen to good music. We got teamed together to play this Bank Holiday Sunday party, and it was a big hit! I played before David, and he enjoyed what I did I guess! Ha ha! And from there he asked me to pay other gigs for him, you know be his warm-up, at Red Zone, Club USA, Tunnel, various clubs around the city. It was a pleasure for me to be the opening DJ. I also used to work at a record company called Emotive Records, and I wasn’t really happy there. Then David asked me to come on board and start Definity Records, and it basically just started from there.

Frankie, you are the owner of a Grammy. What does that feel like?

FK: I think the thing I was most proud of was bring it home to Judy and David. That was the biggest thrill.

DM: Ha ha!

FK: I’m serious!

DM: What was important was that one of us got it.

FK: I wasn’t really thinking about that. They can probably tell you, I was a mess two or three weeks leading up to it. I couldn’t eat I couldn’t think straight, I was a mess. I was really just trying to stay level throughout the whole thing, and then when it happened it was a blur, it just came and went so quick. I mean I’m really happy and really proud to have it, but the biggest thing about it was bringing it home to them. It helped to secure certain feeling within myself personally, about where I am personally within this company.

DM: *Sob* Ha ha!

FK: I’m serious! We’re a family, we’re a team. We’ve been through a lot together you know, good thing bad things. But at the end of the day we hold each other up, we stand beside each other.

Hector. Is it hard being the label manager and an international DJ?

HR: Yes! Ha ha! I love it though, that’s what I love to do, and that’s what I bring to the company because obviously I’m not a producer. I love what I do. And being a DJ that’s in my blood forever, so it’s an amazing job and I would never change it for anything in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to do the label thing, especially during these rough times, but we’re riding the wave.

You’ve all worked with some pretty big names over the years…any stories?

DM: I kicked Seal’s butt at table-tennis! He told me that American’s can’t play it and I showed him at thing or two. I also got Julio Inglesias to speak to my mum on the phone. She thought someone was messing around so he sang to her and of course then she lost it.

FK: You know we’ve worked with some pretty big artists. And they’re Pro’s, you know, they know their instruments. They may travel with entourages or whatever, but when it’s time to perform, they know their craft. I’ve worked with Luthor [Vandros?] and he just strolled in here and sat down on the couch beside me. We talked about his day-time diamonds and his night-time diamonds and we were just having fun, but the minute he went in the live room and it was time to perform, he nailed it in the first take. But he humoured me by giving me another 12, 16 takes, just so he could hang out and have fun.

DM: The biggest artist that intimidated me, bearing in mind I’d already worked with Mariah [Carey] and Seal among other, was Aretha Franklin. For me she was the ultimate queen of soul who had worked with some of the best producers in the business. And here I was a DJ/Mixer/Producer, and it was hard for me to feel confident, knowing the legends she’s worked with. I don’t even put myself in their league. You learn a lot from working with artists like that.

Have you all taken influences from each other?

HR: Always. For me as a DJ, I take a little bit from each one of them. That’s how I play music, and they’re like big brothers who I look up to.

DM: The most important thing for us is that there’re never any egos. We’ve always supported each other, you know, like I was talking about Satoshi ages ago before anyone had ever heard of him. Before they even knew how to pronounce his name! Same goes for Hector.

FK: It was great when Satoshi first came to New York, because everyone had already heard his song and they wanted to know who he was. Just to hear all these local people talking so much about someone they hadn’t met was great, for me that was thrill. It was an opportunity to add another element to what we were doing. We were playing the track everywhere and everyone was just going ape, ga-ga over it.

DM: Satoshi used to come and play live keyboard at my sets. We used to do live remixes together. Drum units, effects, reel-to-reel; it’s how we arrived at ‘a sound’ We were each doing out own thing, but there were a bit of each other in all of our songs.

FK: When you listen to an album like the Robert Owens album which was the first album that David and I produced together, Satoshi was at the centre of all of that. So when you hear that album you hear Def Mix in its infancy, but you hear just how rounded the sound was and still is.

20 years down the line, are you still learning?

DM: I don’t think you ever stop evolving.

FK: You never stop learning. It’s funny; Hector and I were just talking about gadgets and how he wants to get the new i-Phone and Satoshi comes in with ‘Wait for the second generation, never go with the first’ And he always knows best! Just being around each other and learning little things like that and keeping on top of what’s going on. At least it keeps me on top of it! Technologically I’m not the greatest, and these guys keep he updated with stuff that helps me out when I have to go work on something.

Could each of you pinpoint a high and low point of the last 20 years?

DM: Obviously winning a Grammy for sure.

FK: I would say it’s one of them. Not the highest point but for sure it’s up there.

DM: For me, having the 4 year birthday party in Mikanos, and having everyone together for that.

FK: There are more high points than low ones believe me.

DM: Between ourselves there are no lows. The only thing that I can think of that’s more of a general thing is the state of music.

FK: For me personally, the highest point that we have is the fact that we made it 20 years. 20 years! There’s no way that 20 years ago I would have believed we’d be where we are now, being as close as we were if not closer. I’d already been playing for 15 years before I even started with these guys. It doesn’t get any better than this…unless it’s 25 years!

Is it easier to be a DJ now you’ve all been travelling the globe for years, and how do you get treated by comparison?

DM: Like a rock star now.

FK: I don’t rest on it though. I don’t think it’s easier though, cos you have so many people trying to re-invent the wheel. We weren’t purposely trying to re-invent the wheel we were just making music because it’s the heart of what we are. People look at house music as something that was purposely invented; that wasn’t the case. It just came off the heels of the kind of music we were playing at The Warehouse and at The [Paradise] Garage and so many other places across the US. House music flourished and grew from that. Now there are so many young guys and so many new guys popping up all the time. In the UK they’re always looking for the next big thing and the next big superstar DJ. It’s difficult staying in it because industry states that I have to compete with everyone else, you know, but I don’t look at what I do as a competitive sport. I think I have just as much right to be out there playing as the next guy as long as people want me to do it. It’s awful when promoters or the media try and introduce a competitive element and try and pitch us against each other, cos that takes all the fun out of it. And if we can’t have then we can’t make anyone else have fun.

DM: Also the thing is that the audience that we initially played for are no longer going out. So then you have to almost start again and prove yourself to the next generation who really don’t know who you are. And with all that technology changes, music changes, taste changes. And you have to evolve with these changes if you want to stay in the game.

FK: It’s like we’re here at the WMC and where’s the hit record?

ST: Yeah this used to be the biggest opportunity to get a record out there, and in a way that opportunity it still there, but not as much as it used to be. Now people not involved in the industry just hang out in clubs, the original spirit has been lost. But now everything about music is different, the way it’s made the way it’s distributed. Even producing records has become more like part of the package necessary to be a DJ.

HR: There’s so much pressure, especially at the level these guys are at.

FK: There is pressure, but no-one could accuse any one of us of not putting in our all every time we perform. There are guys out there who go out, throw their hands in the air and just because they have a name for themselves think that’s enough. It’s not enough. I think if you don’t connect with your audience and see them looking back at you and smiling then you don’t have it. Doesn’t matter how big your name is you just don’t have it. And you have to have it for as long as I’ve had it to be able to make an impact.

Satoshi, was DJing or production your main drive?

Well my first love was Hip-Hop and I actually started producing and DJing at the same time. I got more into house music after meeting Frankie and later David. I’m a perfect example of the fact that unless you’re a big DJ already, in order to get gigs you have to make some records, so that’s what I did.

Where are the Def Mix residencies around the world?

DM: I have Stereo (Montreal)) which is a club that I own. Then there’s Pacha in Ibiza which I think we’ve been doing for 7 years. Grease in Italy which we’ve been doing for 10 or 15 years. There are other places where we don’t have residencies but we go and play at the same time once or twice a year.

Do all four of you regularly play together?

HR: Rarely! But tonight the Def Mix anniversary party will be special. Champagne will be flowing! That’s gonna be a treat!

DM: We all have different styles and different personalities, and because of the current fragmented state of house music, you know you’re either into electro or you’re into tech, or you’re into vocal house or whatever, it’s hard to go to parties where you go into a room and you just hear different styles of music. And it will be 10 DJ’s just all playing one style.

HR: I agree, but I also think that the genres are becoming more blurred once again and the general sound is becoming more organic.

FK: I hope so.

HR: Me being the A&R director and all! Ha ha! I really do feel that.

DM: When I do my residencies, playing for 10 hours or something, they know that they’re going to hear all kinds of music, across the board. People outside our culture of music, see our music as boring, because it’s just this linear thing. And back in the 70’s or 80’s there was so much variation in music, that there’s no way you could say it was boring. Today we’re missing the artist part of the scene.

FK: Technology has put the music into the hands of the DJ’s, which is great, but the one gripe I have is that some of the music being made is so two-dimensional. It’s great that you can sit in your bedroom and sample someone else and put together a track completely independently, but it’s even greater when you can create a track with others and use a vocal artist. There’s so much disposable music around at the moment that it’s resulted in the industry being where it is now.

DM: Before you had DJ’s and you had producers and the lines never crossed. Now you have keyboard players who are DJing because there’s a market for it and there’s money to be made.

ST: There’s no money being put into production now, and most of the time you can tell. And the result is you either have a huge hit, or nothing at all, nothing in the middle. It’s a tough market.

DM: When I started out producing, if I didn’t know how to do something, I hired someone who did, you know? I didn’t know how to play the keyboards so I hired someone who did, I didn’t know how to produce background vocals, so I hired a professional, and I learned from them and became a better producer myself as a result. Some people can do it and others can’t, some people can DJ and some can’t.

How do you decide which remixes and which tracks are part of the album?

ST: Making tracks is always interesting. I just go with the flow! Someone lays down a baseline and someone else some beats and we all add our own elements to it.

DM: It’s like a jam session. We used to literally live in the studio, 48 hours non-stop sometimes and put out a couple of records a week.

FK: For this current compilation, there are some songs we have in our back-catalogue that absolutely have to go on. ‘Tears’ obviously, ‘The Whistle Song’, ‘I’ll Be Your Friend’. Songs like that have to be a part of it because people get this package and expect those songs to be there. Those are gems, those are precious stones within our catalogue.

Fast-forward 10 years to Def Mix 30th anniversary; what’s in store?

FK: We’re still trying to grasp the concept of 30 years!

DM: Yeah, I think my kids are going to have to carry that torch.

FK: There’s always something left to achieve. I think at this particular point we’re all still raising the bar for ourselves. I’d like to think we will still all continue to play. Hopefully things will come back around to how they were.

HR: For me I hope to contribute more to this industry as a label manager and make a dent in dance music.

DM: I don’t think I’ll be playing in 10 years, but I definitely want to be making music, producing tracks. Work towards developing artists, writing songs. I’d like to grow more in a more mainstream market.

If each of you had a motto or a message that you would like to get across or that’s driven you, what would that be?

DM: I think the most important thing is to stay grounded. I’ve been fortunate to have someone in my life, my partner, to keep me grounded, because being a superstar DJ, producer, whatever you want to call it, it’s easy to lose yourself. I think it’s important to have someone to let you know when you’re crap stinks, when you need to reinforce yourself, because the regular tag-alongs would never tell you that your sound is stale. So I would stay be humble and stay grounded.

FK: I would agree with that. And love what you do, first and foremost.

Interview by Toni | Defected

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