Marshall Jefferson: ‘It’s about who is going to sell more records’
Marshall Jefferson is one of the few men who can claim to have played a part in inventing modern dance music. His 1986 anthem Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem) was one of the genre’s most influential early works — and the first house tune to use a piano. He stands inside a sacred circle of pioneers — alongside Farley Keith, Chip E, Joe Smooth and the late, great Frankie Knuckles — credited with creating the Chicago sound from which all house music was spawned.
You’ve lived in the United Kingdom for 20 years. Why is it that Europe “got” house music first?
There was less financial investment needed to promote the music. In the United States, when I first started, to get a song on national radio, it cost US$150,000 [Dh550,000] a single, minimum.
Paying off the stations?
Not officially, but you’d have to pay a radio plugger, and he would do what he needed to do to get the song on the radio. In the 1970s there was one guy dominating it. He got put in jail.
There’s a mirror with blues and rock ’n’ roll, where it took the British Invasion to sell an American-born art form back to the Americans, a bit like EDM today.
In the beginning, you always have the older, uglier and less marketable artists making the music — they’re the ones with the creativity. Then you have the beautiful, marketable artists. It’s basically a matter of what’s financially appealing — are you going to take a 400-pound [181kg] man, or are you going to take Madonna? It’s not a matter of race, it’s about who is going to sell more records. It’s just economics.
While Nashville has country and New Orleans has jazz, Chicago spawned both electric blues and house. Is there any link?
There’s a definite link — black people started out making it, but we weren’t very marketable, like the blues guys. Chuck Berry and Little Richard doing it? Nope. Get Billy Haley, The Beatles or Elvis doing it and — bang, home run.
Did it feel like you were making history back in the mid-1980s?
Personally, I wanted to expand the genre as much as I could. And I think I might have got a little bit too much money too early, because I got lazy before I finished what I needed to and it seemed like the genre had stopped expanding at some point.
I tend to make a little bit of money and keep back, rather than keep going. Financially, I’ve always been like that — make a bunch of money, and then I’m done, I quit.
1988. The early 1990s — 94 to 97. Probably 2000 to 2006, and then 2008 to 2009. I don’t announce I’m retiring, I just stop.
What were you doing then?
Just chilling and spending money.
Is this why you only ever made one artist album, Day of the Onion?
Yeah. The thing is I could do a very heavily promoted album if I got singers to do the vocals for me. But I never felt comfortable with that. I don’t really want to get up there behind the decks, dark glasses on, and say: “I’m the artist.” I don’t have enough of an ego to be the man sitting behind the decks with my finger in the air.
There are many who do. Do you think this EDM explosion will last?
It depends on the quality. With the number ones that they’re getting, these guys are starting to look for a lot more credibility. They know people are joking and laughing at them, and I don’t care how much money you’ve got, you don’t want that to happen. It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have respect. And I think they’re going to take steps to get that respect.
If you could go back in time, what would you change?
I would have paid somebody else to press up my records. I could have made a few million extra out of Move Your Body alone if I’d pressed it up on my own label.
You’ve spun in Dubai before. How did you find the crowds?
Very reserved — I was playing my set and there was no screaming or hands in the air. Then afterwards, everyone was telling me: You rocked it. Y’all don’t make too much noise out there.
So when’s your next period of “retirement”?
My next break may be about 10 years, if not permanent. I plan to have a lot more money when I stop this time.
• Marshall Jefferson spins for Superheroes at The Dek on 8, Media One Hotel, Dubai Media City on Thursday, March 12. Doors from 6pm, free entry. His new single Lock the Door is out on Monday
Updated: March 11, 2015 04:00 AM