In Conversation with Ron Trent
On Friday, December 17th, Coloring Lessons is making it’s return to Nowadays for a special night that will feature the legendary Ron Trent. For those who may not know much about Ron, please take a moment to get familiar. Ron has been a perennial presence in the dance music world for over 29 years. In addition to releasing several 12” singles, EPs, and three solo albums of his own productions, Ron Trent has been running his own labels (Prescription, Future Vision, Electric Blue, Music And Power) and his own club nights (Giant Step at Shine nightclub, among others) in a mission to let the roots of house music grow across the globe. From his first release “The Afterlife” in 1990, to his remix of “Shelter” by musclecars in 2020, Ron continues to be an architect within music scene.
We chat with the legendary Ron Trent, ahead Friday’s Coloring Lessons party, on December 17th.
We chat with the legendary Ron Trent, ahead Friday’s Coloring Lessons party, on December 17th.
Coloring Lessons: Can you talk about how music was involved in your life as a child? What artists and genres were your parents playing for you in your early life and what were you seeking out on your own?
Ron Trent: My father was a musician; a musician among other titles. What I mean by that is that he was really into education and had plans to become a lawyer before he passed away. When he passed, I received his degree and had the opportunity to walk across the stage at his graduation. He was also a percussionist, DJ, and Vice President of the record pool back in the 1970’s. I would consider that to be one of my earliest exposures to DJ culture.
CL: What about your mother?
RT: My mother was a music enthusiast and a dancer. She had danced professionally until I was born. Music was extremely valuable in my home as a child. Everything from Blues and Rock, to Jimi Hendrix and Spiritual Jazz.
Growing up, my parents were Pan Africanist, and we had a conscious way of living, a very love thyself kind of environment. The music that was played at home was the soundtrack to that— Soul, R&B and Jazz were staples in the house.
CL: So when you first started playing at parties, were there any DJ’s that you looked up to at that time?
RT: Yes, there were really only two people, Ron Hardy at The Music Box and Frankie Knuckles at The Warehouse. There were others, such as my cousin Lee Collins, who now DJs with Sadar Bahar. Lee is official, like really official. He is one of the only people (living) that has had the opportunity to play at The Music Box. I believe that Frankie had a couple of guest spots, but The Music Box was strictly Ron Hardy. Lee Collins is a DJ’s DJ, and was an avid record collector back in the day.
CL: You’re from one of the city’s where it all started and so we assume you have a very intimate connection with the scene there. As you mentioned, back in the day, Chicago had the glory days of the Music Box and The Warehouse to get everyone emersed into this music. How do you feel about the current state of Chicago’s dance music scene and how does it differ from when you were coming up? Do you still feel inspired by the city?
RT: Let's just say Chicago is a shell of itself. I would say Chicago used to be on par with New York— how New York used to be, you know? It was electric. You could feel inspired and all those good things.
Now, to me, it's like a lot of that has gotten muted out and it's a combination of things and different reasons. I pay attention to spiritual energies and that kind of thing. So I know that there's a lot of disenfranchisement in Chicago— there's a lot of people [in our community] that have passed away. There are many different factors that have made for something that hasn't really been able to fully actualize and develop.
You get spurts of beautiful things that happen, sure. Don't don't get me wrong, Chicago is a beautiful city. Beautiful city, beautiful skyline, great food, you can live well there, where the cost of living is not bad. However, in terms of the artistic development and things flourishing, it’s just not what it used to be. Not nearly as edgy as it used to be.
CL: Absolutely. Compared to what we hear from our mentors who were around in New York City’s glory days, there are so many different factors as to why the scene isn’t flourishing like it was. There were those early cabaret laws that Giuliani used to wage war on our city’s nightlife scene, and then 9/11, only to be followed by the commodification of dance music paired with the rise of the white-washed EDM era. New York has also had an uphill battle when it comes to regaining our nightlife culture.
RT: Yeah, and that’s why it’s hard to have conversations with people who just moved here because it’s like, if you like it now, you would’ve been turned out back in the day. It [the culture] was soulful— and not soulful like we’re talking about soul; it was rich. Such a different energy. But it also gives us the ability to change things and move the culture forward. This is why it’s important for people like us to keep this thing going.
CL: It’s definitely a major responsibility.
RT: An ancestral responsibility to make things move a certain way and create a certain vibration with our music.
CL: While we’re on the topic of New York, in the late 90’s, you came to NYC for 10 years to be a producer and A&R at Giant Step’s imprint, but was that the same time you had a residency at the Giant Step parties?
RT: Yes, I was the A&R, and in house producer for Giant Step. To elaborate on that, we had a relationship with Sony and some of the Sony artists that weren't doing well would come through Giant Step. We would put them on our label and I would take on those projects— producing, remixing, or re-packaging them and then playing their music at the party.
CL: Is that how the remix with Donnie came about?
RT: Well actually that was an original. That was Donnie’s first release that I produced and it also happened to be the precursor to him getting a deal with Motown.
CL: So we could imagine in those days you were establishing a very real connection with New York City. Can you tell us more about that connection and how your residency and time here influenced you as an artist? Was there was anything about the city’s sound or scene that kept bringing you back?
RT: Yeah, so interestingly enough, at that time I did the Giant Step parties on Thursdays. This was the same era where Body & Soul was going on and Shelter was happening. So you had three major parties happening in the city.
It was almost like we were talking to each other musically, right? I would break records on Thursday— Timmy [Regisford], or Danny [Krivit] or Joe [Claussell] or François [Kevorkian] would come and hear me play, right? Then Saturday, Timmy might be playing and breaking shit (and me as a baby powder kid, I was on the dance floor doing my thing) but I listened to Timmy thinking "okay, I may want to play this track next Thursday". The same thing would happen on Sunday with Joe, Danny, and François.
What I'm saying is that there was this real camaraderie going with the music and we were all friends. We were breaking new music and very much breaking boundaries.
CL: Do you remember what you were playing at that time?
RT: I was definitely playing edgy stuff that wasn’t your average four on the floor. I was playing Johnny Hammond, right alongside Roy Ayers, right alongside a Ron Trent production, right alongside Atjazz, and the list goes on. I was playing stuff that wasn't your norm at all and breaking that kind of stuff.
CL: Yeah there were definitely a lot of records where we hear you were the first to play them and make them popular.
RT: Absolutely. That’s our job— to break music and turn people on to new shit. We’re the alternative ear, and so it’s our job to take that and make it into something real for people on the dance floor.
CL: Speaking of an alternative ear, you’ve produced many different genres and under a few different aliases, as well (Cinematic Travels, Warm, RT Sound Factor, Gemini Jazz, Romantic Flight, etc). Do you have a specific mood or story to tell with each moniker? How do they differ from Ron Trent?
RT: Each one of those aliases has a different brand and feeling. Gemini Jazz is more jazzy, experimental, and has duality. That project has its own world. Romantic Flight is a combination of ethereal things. I try to create these different worlds under aliases to put people into their own moments of imagination. The style of RT Sound Factor lives in the Frankie Knuckles realm. There’s a certain level of elegance with that sound.
CL: You put out a tribute record for Frankie when he passed called “7th Heaven”, right?
RT: Yes, because of his unfortunate passing, I did that record. I remember one specific night at Sound Factory, when Frankie was playing back in the 90’s. I came here for a conference called New Music Seminar, and all I can say is that hearing him in that room changed my life. It was a combination of the sound system and the way that Frankie played, it was truly an ethereal moment.
That sound system would eventually have a significant impact on me, because that was one of the motivating factors for starting Prescription Records. Listening to music on that system was the first time that I could hear layers in the music being played, and it really brought out new elements in the records.
CL: So you started Prescription Records to release your own music, but also to bring certain elements to this music that you maybe thought was missing from the scene?
RT: Oh, absolutely. We were certainly thinking about that. We we wanted to change the game. The truth of the matter is Chicago was known for tracks and what we found was that many of those tracks were underdeveloped. There’s also surely a beauty in minimal stuff, but we felt like there could be a level of sophistication with the music. Where we can, once again, break the ceiling— the boundaries.
CL: What we’re also curious about is the ownership side- we’re you business conscious and mindful of master ownership at the time of starting the label? Outside of your own music, what else attracted you to creating your own label?
RT: So the music part was also translating into the actual ownership of our own rights as a creative. We believed in having that, you know? It comes from us, it's our legacy, and it should be passed on to those that are deserving of that. Ownership of all that and being able to control our stuff, especially learning from our forefathers, was most important. You know, I got screwed over on my very first record…
CL: We hear that far too often— how many artists got these really bad deals when they signed to other labels.
RT: Exactly, it’s because we didn’t know— but now we fucking know. So I’m like, "okay, yeah, you got us. That’s cool. You had the business, we had the talent and we didn't understand the business". But we aint doing that shit no more. So absolutely we had to be very conscientious of that aspect.
CL: It seems like when it comes to music production, you don’t miss! Whether it be your background in percussion, or your many years of production experience, you’ve found yourself to be one of the most consistent artists of our time. Having done 2/3 of our favorite remixes of the year (Shelter & Rose Rouge) and a long list of what are now known as “classics”, how do you approach the process of creating timeless music?
RT: Thank you, yes, that’s the idea. I don’t like making gimmicky music. I could do it, I could make commercial music if I wanted to because it’s all formulaic. With my own music, sure people will listen today, but the real question is, are they going to listen to it later? For me it’s important that when I’m making music it could act as a time capsule— that idea of timelessness. It’s dope now, it’ll be dope 20 years from now, even 30…Anything you put your hands on you should craft it with the long term in mind.
CL: Yeah, we remember hearing you play Morning Factory out and we were blown away. That could’ve been made this year.
RT: Exactly— in your legacy, and with what you’re crafting, you want people to feel it. With the timeless works of artists like Basquiat and Warhol, we’ve seen their work stand the test of time. When we make music it should be the same.
Just an aside, and this may sound crazy, but I was producing Hip-Hop for about two years. I knew that I could do it, and do it well, so I did it. But then it started to become a thing, cats in the Hip-Hop world were asking for my beats, and it was cool for a while. What I didn’t like was the business model. There was talk of putting out my music for free. As soon as I heard that shit I thought “maybe this ain’t working out anymore” (laughs). Dealing with the Hip-Hop world put me in the commercial realm to a degree, and gave me insight into the more formulaic commercial market.
CL: To be formulaic, does feel very much like you're being put in a box and it can feel very rigid. On the other hand, we think that with consistency does bring about some kind of process or ritual. For the young producers still figuring out how to hone in on their sound, would you say you have any kind of processes or formulas when it comes to producing?
RT: Probably not. I think my idea of formula is more being able to consistently pour myself into something. That's the formula and I figure out different ways and approaches to do that. I get inspired by so many different things and so it’s never "I’m going make something like this". It’s more of "I'm inspired by this; I’m going to translate this" or "I have this idea in my head and I need to lay it down".
So the bottom line is that the only consistent thing is change, right? As we go through life, we should also be evolving and I think that the music should do that. Sure, there should be a consistent theme, but we should evolve and push things forward.
CL: Absolutely. Do you have a favorite record that you’ve released?
RT: I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite, but a record that I’m really proud of is “Pop Dip and Spin”. I released that in the early 90’s, but it didn’t gain popularity until later on. When I created that, there was really nothing else like it at the time. It was during the Prescription Records days and we were into things that were more uptempo. When “Pop Dip and Spin” came out, people didn’t really understand it. To see the record grow over the years and hear people say that it’s amazing, and for them to find out that it came out in 95, is a great feeling. That track was something that I originally believed in and I watched mature over the years.
CL: We love that one— especially the Kurt Harmon Project vocal. You have so many highly regarded collaborators including one of our mentors Anthony Nicholson (USG), as well as Chez Damier (Chez n Trent). What was it about the early chicago scene that brought about so much collaboration?
RT: I mean, Chez and I had a different type of situation where he sought me out through another friend of ours by the name of Carl Bias (Master C&J, producer of Liz Torres, etc). Chez came in town looking for me and out of us talking and hanging out, we were just hyped to do something together. When we did it, we realized we had something special. There was energy there. And then we were recording out of KMS Studios, which was Kevin’s [Saunderson] spot in Detroit. Beautiful million dollar studio. It was perfect. But I’m thankful because we had that really dope studio where we could make anything we wanted. That was pretty much a perfect situation. We were doing exchanges where we would do stuff for Kevin, remixing his stuff (like Inner City) and then do our own stuff; experimenting and spending large amounts of time doing that.
Anthony actually used to be best friends with my cousin Lee Collins. And so that's how I met him, which started the USG era. He’s gone on and created his own ventures and some of that stuff I really like.
CL: Is collaboration still a common process for you now? Do you still desire to work with artists today?
RT: Ah well, in the future there may be some collaborations, but I like to collaborate if people's heads are right. I'm coming from a place of art— you know, artistic nature and creativity, and other people may be coming from a place of popularity and power.
CL: For sure! A thousand thank you’s for taking the time to chat with us and we’re super excited to welcome one of the legends to our party. Before you go, can you fill us in on what you have coming up?
RT: Expect the unexpected with your brother Ron Trent!