Steve Thompson is a Grammy winning writer, producer, arranger, mixer and remixer who has worked with the likes of Madonna, Guns n’ Roses, Wu Tang Clan, Whitney Houston, Blues Traveler, Metallica, Korn and others. In this interview with Bernard Lopez of DiscoMusic.com, Steve Thompson describes his beginnings as a DJ/remixer in the 1970s, New Wave/Alternative/DOR remixer for the like of Talk-Talk in the 1980s and his move to extensive producing and writing from the 1990s onward.
Steve Thompson, Disco and the 1970s
Steve, please tell the readers of DiscoMusic.com how you became a Disco DJ?
That’s a good question. It started sometime around 1972. I was a guitar player in a band and I also worked at a record store and had a huge record collection. I went to this club called Leones in Deer Park, Long Island (New York) and they had a lot of live entertainment there and they would have a separate area where the band played and another for the bar. When the band cut off, everybody listened to a jukebox.
I remembered going to a couple of gay clubs even though I’m straight, and I saw they had DJs so I told the owners of Leones, “Hey, why don’t you get a DJ in the main room with the band so this way you can keep the party going when the band gets off?” So a couple of months later they (Leones) call me and say, “We got a DJ booth-you want to be our DJ?” ha, ha…
So, you’re a Long Island kid?
Yeah, well actually Queens, Manhattan, Long Island, everywhere. I was born in Brooklym, New York and I was raised in Queens. My family then moved to Long Island around 1964.
How did you get into the whole club scene, did you always like Disco, R & B…?
I loved it all. When I grew up during my school years I had this friend, Dotty West, who everyone was afraid of in school. She was a heavyset African-American woman and during school in those days you had to be quiet and she’d come in strutting around with a portable record player banging James Brown on it. She turned me on to James Brown and we became good friends.
I loved R & B and I loved Rock. I had some friends who were in the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and they turned me on to Miles Davis so I was always interested in music-all types of music. I worked at Sam Goody’s record store after school and was actually going to be an architect, but I worked at Sam Goody and got a huge record collection in the process.
(Getting back to the DJ job offer from Leones): The owners of Leones knew I had a great record collection so they asked me if I would be the DJ so I said, sure, why not. I got on-the-job-training and I wanted to better myself as a DJ, so I would hang out at the gay clubs cause I felt the DJs there were awesome and that’s how I learned.
How old were you around this time and how much were you getting paid to DJ?
I was probably around 20 and getting around $35.00 a night. I loved it. I started getting steady work and getting better. I eventually joined up and was one of the original members with Jackie McCloy and his Long Island Disco DJ Record Pool and later with Judy Weinstein at For the Record. I formed a bond with many of the DJs and I remember Vince Michaels, I believe it was, and Vince would come hear me and say, “You can’t mix!” ha, ha, ha. So that gave me a wake up call and then I really, really practiced hard since I had the turntables at home.
I started hitting all the clubs and I worked at all the popular clubs in Long Island and worked at some gay clubs like Equus, which was very rare for a straight DJ to work in a gay club. Vince actually worked at Equus and got me in there and I got my chops together. Hung out with guys like Paul Cassella who worked at The Enchanted Garden in Queens, which Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened before Studio 54.
And then I did all the top clubs in New York and became a Billboard reporting DJ and I started doing a lot of guest spots like at Studio 54. The ultimate was doing guest spots at the Paradise Garage with Larry Levan. Larry was a good friend of mine. I used to hang out with Larry Levan, Shep Pettibone, Tony Humphries, Larry Patterson…
I was one of the few that got along with everyone. It was very important to me because I found out that the gay clubs were the best clubs for a DJ to play at because the clubgoers came for the music. A place like Studio 54 was just a scene-I actually f’cking hated it, but it was actually cool to get to DJ. I remember one night Truman Capote came up to me and said, “Steven, will you play I Will Survive” and I took the record and literally broke it into four parts. The funny part that I really enjoyed about Studio 54 was we would have like five people in the club and 15,000 people waiting to get in [Thompson is obviously exagerating for effect]. Steve Rubell would go on a rampage–he would sit in this chair outisde just picking and chosing who he wanted to come into the club–it was hysterical, absolutely hysterical.
Richie Kaczar was the DJ at the time, anyway, I did a couple of guest spots at 54, became friends with Bruce Forest and did a couple of guest spots at Better Days, Club Zanzibar in Newark, New Jersey, worked clubs out on Fire Island…
What clubs would you visit and how did you become friends with Larry Levan?
I would hang out at The Paradise Garage and what I would do is work at my club and at 4am go to the Garage. I became friendly with Larry Levan and he would sometimes be exhausted so I would take over for him. Playing music on that Richard Long audio system gave me the biggest woody! I remember one night we had Chaka Kahn perform and it was f’cking awesome! Just to play at the Garage was the ultimate, I mean, that was as good as it gets.
What other things did you do during the Disco years?
Did a lot of radio shows for WBLS (107.5 FM), Kiss-FM (WRKS 98.7 FM), and Disco 92 (WKTU 92 FM) during the late 1970s and early 1980s. My show was like the number one rated show on BLS because my format was very, very urban and at the time [The late] Frankie Crocker [who is black] was playing a lot of white Disco. Frankie Crocker actually called my format, too black, for his station!
Besides the R & B and black sound, what else did you like from the Disco era?
I love Love and Kisses, Voyage, and The Ritchie Family especially Ritchie Family’s, Brazil–I used to play that whole side.
What was the hardest group of people to please when you played a club?
It was Studio 54 because they were kind of lame in their music taste. They wanted a lot of popular Disco and I was into more underground Disco and importa. The easier clubs to play were like Paradise Garage and all the gay clubs because they really got me on my game and I was very in tune with new music. Their taste in music was my taste, so it was easy for me.
I hated playing clubs where they wanted Top 40 as I hated that stuff. I was never into stuff like Born to be Alive and all that other ’79 Disco crap I call it. La Bamba, I would just f’cking die when I had to play $hit like that.
Before we move on, what discotheques/dance clubs did you work at regularly during your time as a Disco DJ?
Out of all the DJs you worked with, which ones did you admire? Were there any that you bumped heads with? Did you share techniques or new music discoveries amongst each other or did you keep things to yourself?
Larry Levan really knew how to work a crowd by playing the right songs, at the right time. I thought Bruce Forest was technically great. I love Larry Patterson. Paul Casella, back in the day I thought was awesome and Robbie Leslie was great. There are others that I’ll try to recall.
As for not getting along, not really. I was one of the few that got along with everybody. As far as sharing, I used to hang out with this guy Phil Silverman and we belonged to the record pool, but we would go into Manhattan almost every day and raid every record distributor to get new records. We would literally go home with boxes of records on the train. We would go to Alpha Distributors to get our Motown material on top of all the record companies and then we would go buy imports at all the record shops that were big back then in Manhattan like Vinyl Mania, Downstairs Records, Rock and Soul, Discomat… I mean we were just so stoked, smoke a lot of pot and just play everything.
Entering the Recording Studio
How did you make the transition from Disco DJ to doing remixes in the recording studio?
Back around 1977 I worked at a club called Barrymores and the owner was Ron Raydom. He was f’cking amazing, I would tape my show each night and after the club closed we would have a private party and play back my show and he would brag about how good it was. We then lost touch till around 1978. He calls me up and tells me he is working for Henry Stone at TK Records and tells me that he brought up my name to Henry.
The first song I worked on was Fly Me on the Wings of Love by Celi Bee and I worked with Michael Arato who DJ’ed with me at Uncle Sams nightclub on Long Island. Mike and I put together two records and phased it, extended it and put it on tape and sent it to Henry Stone and he loved it. Henry Stone then put me in a studio, which I had no f’cking clue.
Actually, the first record I worked on was Disco Hustle in 1977 and it was a double record set on Adam 8 Roulette where Roy B told me to compile the best Disco music of the day. I put this whole compilation together and we wound up selling millions of records on it and I got a $250.00 check and no credit on it. I was even in the television commercial for it as a dancer as I used to give hustle lessons.
Anyway, Henry Stone really liked the work on Celi Bee and then tracks by Kat Mandu, Uncle Louie, Queen Samantha… followed so there was a lot of stuff we did for TK Records. Didn’t get paid very much, but it was a great way to get into the music business. I have no regrets about doing any of it. Henry Stone is the reason why I am still here today. I give him a lot of credit.
What records did you do besides the material on TK?
I later mixed records for Neil Bogart’s, Casablanca Records label. He had a house in The Pines on Fire Island that was called the Casablanca House and we used to hang out there all the time. I worked on Love’s In You by Nightlife Unlimited. There were some others including a Village People record, but I can’t recall them right now.
A while back on the DiscoMusic.com forums, you had disclosed that you had tried to add lyrics and vocals to Kat Mandu’s The Break, which we all know is an instrumental. Please tell us more?
I had gotten this instrumental which was done by Denis Le Page originally called DJ’s Instrumental and I thought let’s put some vocals on it so I brought in Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston’s mother) and a couple of studio singers from New York. We tried coming up with lyrics and never came up with anything that really made sense and felt it would be tacky so we kept it as an instrumental. I wound up playing percussion on it, blowing the whistle and handclaps… We did that at Media Sound in New York.
Out of all the TK label material you mixed, which was the most memorable?
Queen Samantha’s, Take A Chance. I love that f’cking track. I just loved the vibe of the track. It was kind of slinky… Everybody was like, it has to be like Kat Mandu since it was so successful or George McCrae’s Feel My Love. I remember Larry would play the $hit out of it (Queen Samantha) at the Garage and I thought that was cool.
Listen first to the original French album version and then Thompson’s better known yet dramatically different 12 inch remix version:
Thompson’s Ever Changing Sound
Most remixers have a signature sound or utilize the same technique over and over, but Steve Thompson’s mixes have always been different from one to the next, why?
I purposely did that because I always paid attention to the song, the melody, the key changes. It was fashionable for most remixers to put everything in minor key and not really follow the chord changes of the song. I always liked excitement and dynamics in music and that’s why I work with the changes in the song.
When I did remixes, I would bring in keyboard players and percussion people and we didn’t really have samplers back in the day. We basically had to–we had an emulator, we had an even time harmonizer so that was all.
We did tape edits that were unf’cking-believable… the editing that we had to do was all manual without computers. It was just hands-on the console
How did you learn studio and remixing technique so quickly?
I went through a lot of engineers and I found this guy, Michael Barbiero and what I love about Michael is he has the ability to go to all music genres. I said that from day one, if I’m gonna make music my career I have to be good at every genre and I don’t want to get bored because I’m a person that gets bored very quick.
Michael Barbiero was able to adapt and he was an amazing engineer and he went to the same school as Bob Clearmountain. Michael Brauer-who did Coldplay, Harvey Goldberg, Bob Clearmountain-they were all top engineers. I watched what Michael Barbiero did and I was always the kind of guy that can’t sit in the background and I have to be a hands on guy and I just watched him and learned from him.
I don’t know how long it took to learn, but I was very aggressive in my style and at the end of the day I felt that was right and Barbiero was more conservative and we would try to find a meeting place in the middle. We stopped working together around 1992 and after that the shackles were off.
So from the very beginning you had it in your head that you wanted to do different things. It wasn’t that you were doing Disco remixes and when the bottom fell out in 1979-80 you struggled to find something else?
No, I remember in the early 1980s I went back to full time club DJ’ing and then around 1982 I hooked up with Polygram and started working on artists like Stephanie Mills, Bar-Kays, Cameo… and started doing that kind of music.
I then got a phone call from Yoko Ono to possibly work on the album that she and John Lennon had put out after his death, Milk and Honey. It was a very interesting project. She must have interviewed thousands of people and I remember going into the Dakota and she interviewed me while reading my Tarot cards. About a month or two later, I get a call around 5am from her assistant, Sam Havadtoy. Now I was in Long Island at this time and they are in New York City and Sam says, “Yoko would like to see you now.” I just got out of a club and I drove into NYC, I got there and they gave me the gig. I figured Yoko’s a millionaire so I said why don’t you pay me what you feel I deserve. Big mistake, I think I got paid $1,200. per song.
In the meantime, Yoko’s vision for that album was originally to bring Paul Shaffer and a bunch of musicians and enhance these so-called demos that John did. I thought there was a charm to the songs that I pleaded and begged Yoko, let’s just mix it the way it is. After a while, I talked her into it and what was great was that when the reviews came out, they really appreciated the fact that Yoko didn’t add additional musicians and I didn’t care that she got the credit. I just felt that John Lenon’s precense was in the studio while we were doing this.
Now you’ve also done producing. How did that come about?
Basically, when I was mixing, I was adding a lot of production work in my mixes. I would bring muscians in: bass players, guitar players, whatever. So I found myself having a great communication with musicians and I was a guitar player as a kid-I sucked at it, but I had some sensibility and I felt that maybe… Like the first record that I seriously produced was Belouis Some in 1984…
It was interesting, David Bowie was the reason I got into the music industry, to go back a little bit. I saw David Bowie at Radio City Music Hall in New York around 1974 and saw him do Ziggy Stardust and it blew my mind. I mean, I went to a lot of shows and saw people like Jimi Hendricks, Led Zeppelin…, but when I saw Bowie, it changed my life. I really loved what he did and I followed his career and I thought it was so amazing that a guy would have a style, be very successful with it and then totally change it up on the next record. That to me was f’cking cool! Bowie also got me into Classical music. Classical music to me is the ultimate in dynamics and I think that my approach… people call me from my Phil Spector-ish “Wall of Sound” approach. I get that analogy a lot.
What song from the Disco era would you have liked to mix, but didn’t?
I really liked the Prelude stuff especially Disco Circus by Martin Circus. I would have kept it the same, but everybody goes to the break of the song and there’s a lot of crap in between it. I would have made it more groove oriented from the beginning-more percussive and take it on a trip. Stuff from West End Records and Salsoul would have been great to do. The Peech Boys…
The Art of Remixing
I know we earlier said that you don’t necessarily have a signature sound in your remixes, but what would you pick out as being a constant feature of your remixes?
I was always known for good long intros, good breaks, good outros and everything like that to give the DJ something. A lot of times I would have percussive outs and end cold, so you could either mix out on it or end it.
I do structure and if you take It’s My Life by Talk Talk, I remember when I did that record, the band f’cking hated the remix. I heard the other remix and it just felt shallow. Maybe it’s because they wanted it to be more experimental, but meanwhile the record went number one. Okay, I loved it because, what I love about my remixes is that I keep the songs intact. Remaining faithful to the original version means everything to me.
What I would do is take the weaknesses of the songs and make it their strenght, but at the same time keep the integrity of the songs. That was always very important to me and again, nowadays it’s a lot easier, you can take a vocal and time stretch it for whatever groove you want.
At the time I was doing Madonna’s Open Your Heart, I was getting calls from Michael Austin from Warner Brothers and they had the True Blue album out and they wanted to give one more song a shot and they were ready to go on to the next record so they weren’t really expecting much. So here I get a call do some Madonna $hit, this is cool! I took Open Your Heart, now understand that the track was originally played to a live band, so it wasn’t perfect. To sequence beats and keep the production style was a lot of work. I wound up making that song ten minutes and twnety-five seconds. I want a record that I call the “DJ bathroom record” where he can go to the bathroom and not worry about your ten minutes and twenty-five seconds of excitement-that was my achievement on Madonna!
Regarding radically remixing songs, Jonathan Fearing’s remix of D.D. Sound’s Caf is probably the earliest example of a remixer drastically altering a Disco song. Fearing took almost all the vocals out and reworked this song so much, that when one hears the original European album version, you would swear it was a different song. What are your thoughts on this?
My philosphy is, that whatever works, go for it. Everybody has their style. I remember talking to Tom Moulton about six months ago and he was remixing the Marvin Gaye stuff. Tom Moulton is the godfather of remixes and he started playing me the tracks and he was trying to keep the integrity of the songs, whereas I would have taken it a step further, but that’s me. Working with musicians and knowing what I can get away with, I would take a little more liberties and at the same time keep the integrity going.
Do you have any regrets about anything you did in the Disco years?
I really can’t say I had any regrets because it all was a progression for me, but I would say probably not playing more gay clubs–like Ice Palace would have been great.
Versatility and being able to play a wide range of music… Tell the readers of DiscoMusic.com more about this?
It was interesting because… when I was DJ’ing in the mid-1980s I played to a lot of different people say at a club like Speaks… I can play Hip-Hop, Rock, Dance, House… anything went at that club and I would have about three thousand people there and that was pretty cool-I like that.
The crowds always like my style… At the club, 231 I had a very urban format to a white club… It was interesting because they had about one percent black and then on my nights they had about twenty percent because of the music I played-it was great. I was always into good urban music like Koke by Tribe, Dennis Coffey’s Scorpio, Happiness Is Just Around the Bend by The Main Ingredient, Rainby Dorothy Moore, Parliament / Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove and Knee Deep, Creative Source…
Do you still find yourself playing this old music?
Oh yeah, when I can, sure. I love stuff like that.
Inside the Recording Studio
We spoke about some of the challenges of mixing back in the early days, but could you describe some recording studio challenges you had?
At that time a lot of songs were recorded on 24 or 48 tracks. Lionel Richie was one of the exceptions where we had a (reggae) song, Se La with about 120 tracks. We had to bounce those down to 72 tracks-which would be three tape machines
How involved is it to use that many tracks?
With Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, that was done on the first experimental 48-track setup at London’s Advision Studios. It was real interesting, I got the call to do the project so I went to London and I worked with Jeff Wayne and his engineer. When I heard the tapes, all the top end was virtually wiped off because they had worn the tapes out from so much playback because the album was originally started in 1977.
Basically, I had to bring musicians in to recreate a lot of the frequencies that were lost in the original recording plus add overdubs to make it more danceable. The only problem I encountered was (at the time), you had to play both machines together (which took forever to synch-up), as you could not make a slave reel. A slave reel is when you do multi-track recording and instead of running two machines, you could do stereo bounces (merging down) of like drums… to get the gist of the song down to like eight tracks so you had another sixteen tracks to play with or record on.
It was a logistical nightmare, but it was a great experience. I was kind of a novice then so I felt like a hack at times.
That must have been a great sense of accomplishment once you got to work it all out? Would you say that the thrill was “doing it” or hearing the results?
The biggest thrill was being able to play something I did in the studio and get a response and then it goes on the charts, on radio.
Something that scared the living $hit out of me was when I did Madonna’s Open Your Heart and the first time I played it in a club, it cleared the dancefloor. Whitney Houston’s I Want To Dance With Somebody, which became a number one hit and I won a Grammy for it, cleared the dancefloor!
Meanwhile, when I did Appetite for Destruction for Guns N’ Roses, I had a Rock crowd and the people went nuts
Did that experience of your track clearing the dancefloor shatter your faith
A lot of times the crowd has to “know something” before they can embrace it
So would you say your experience as a Disco DJ helped?
Oh, without a doubt because I was always looking six months to a year in advance instead of looking what was great today. That’s how I approach my productions today. I don’t go by what’s hot now because I realize if I work on a record now, by the time it’s out and promoted, it’s a year from now. You always have to look ahead and DJ’ing made you do that.
Do you subscribe to the thought that a DJ has to educate the crowd?
I educate the crowd all the time. They expected that. Make ’em wait. You know what songs they want to hear so you make them wait a little bit to bring that tension up a little. If you play everything they want at all times, then the crowd becomes stale. If you make them wait for it, when they finally get it, it’s like euphoria. Then they go off.
What were some of the difficulties you encountered mixing in a club?
With turntables floated on what were essentially large rubber bands, the records would skip and drive me f’cking nuts.
I’m a Technics 1200 guy. I’ve done the older 1100s, the Bozak mixer. Working with knob mixers was a pain in the ass. I wound up using four turntables at once. I even had a special turntable that would play the record backward. I brought keyboard players in and even rappers in the early 1980s. You know, when I see guys like Sean “Puffy” Combs or Jay-Z, I would have kicked them out of my booth-that’s how lame I thought they were. I had rappers that were really good.
A lot of times you work in great clubs, but the equipment would quit like the amps would fry out because they didn’t have proper ventilation and the turntables-it was a nightmare. Most clubs would spare no expense on decoration, but skimp on the audio setup.
What would have been your dream DJ setup circa 1979?
Technics 1200 turntables-no doubt. As for mixers, everybody liked the Bozak for the sound, but I was more into the faders and levels that I could control things better. Bozak was the primo mixer at the time, but it’s just with knobs, you can’t control as well as with faders. Richard Long sound systems, like the one at the Paradise Garage, where GREAT audio systems!
Steve Thompson Links Up with Michael Barbiero
Let’s go back and talk about Michael Barbiero…
He’s an engineer that actually worked with John Luongo and that’s how I met him. They had both done Jackie Moore’s This Time Baby together. I was auditioning engineers around 1979(?) and we just developed a bond. I liked him because he was totally professional and knew what the hell he was doing and understood the sound I was looking for and Mike Barbiero was a very loyal guy. Once I started working with him for a while I wound up having him be my partner and we split everything 50/50. I thought that was important to keep a relationship-that’s how you do it and not screw ’em on the money end.
Another name I have seen on the credits with you is Michael Arato. Tell us about him?
Michael Arato was a club DJ from Long Island with me at Uncle Sams. He was a very good DJ and we had a very good chemistry together, but we’ve since lost touch.
Dawning of a New Musical Era
Once you left the Disco years, what was the turning point in the 1980s/90s?
After doing Madonna and it went number one, Whitney Houston-number one, Aretha Franklin-number one, Earth, Wind and Fire-number one… I need to be challenged and I remember making a phone call, you know in the early to mid-1980s I was doing a lot of Alternative and New Wave like Psychedelic Furs, Tears for Fears, Ultravox, Simple Minds, Missing Persons and that whole genre-I had done all that… Talk-Talk, Icicle Works to name a list a mile long. I really need to be challenged so I called a friend of mine who was the A & R at Geffen Records and I said, “Tom Z., give me some Rock bands cause I’m going f’cking nuts here” and the first two bands he gave me were Guns N’ Roses and Tesla.
Weren’t you scared $hitless?
Hell, f’cking no! I wasn’t scared. I always had a confidence about me. I never take on anything I can’t do. Once I did those, it was all over. Then I got bands like Metallica, Soundgarden… and I started doing all those heavy Rock records.
What other styles of music do you like?
I’ve always liked Trance and Techno music. I’m a big fan of that stuff and absolutely love it. When Aurora (UK) did Ordinary World that blew me away cause I remember the orginal song and I just loved what they did. I have every Techno compilation you can think of-I f’cking love it! I love the melody in Techno and Trance.
I have Satellite radio so I listen to BPM and the other stuff. I found that Techno kind of got bland and I realize a lot of it is House based… My new studio is up in Ontario, Canada, which is like a ten-hour drive for me and I’m banging out Techno all the way there.
Metallica and Madonna
How about some strange facts or interesting tidbits?
When Metallica hired me to do And Justice For All they hired me because of the work I did on Madonna-who would have figured that! They loved the drum sound I did on Madonna.
I remember when we did Tear for Fears’ Shout, Hank Shockley who did Public Enemy said, “When I heard that drum sound (on Tears for Fears), I had to use it.” I took that as quite a compliment. I alse recall when I worked with Anthrax and Public Enemy–Also love Public Enemy, N.W.A., Cypress Hill, Eric B. & Rakim–f’cking love them.
Then I got the opportunity to work with Public Enemy and Anthrax in Bring On the Noise, which is a groundbreaking record. I realize that Run DMC and Aerosmith did their thing, but Bring On the Noise-that was groundbreaking. I’ve always been known for doing groundbreaking work like when I did Korn’s Follow the Leader in 1998, I mean, Rock was dead because Back Street Boys and N-Sync were competing to be number one and then Korn became number one.
What would you consider the highlight from your 1980s mixing output?
I love Such A Shame by Talk-Talk, I just love that mix and so did the group. They once told me, “We appreciate that we are number one with It’s My Life, but can you be more experimental” and that’s all they had to tell me!
Another band was The Psychedelic Furs, which I though was a reincarnation of David Bowie. Loved Richard Butler, the lead singer. Worked on the Midnight to Midnight album and we would play chess everyday…
What kind of pissed me off was when they started putting out remix albums… Talk Talk was one of them were the labels put those lame mixes by some other people and I’m the type of person that says, put the best version out. I don’t care if it’s mine or not, but put the best version out that everyone wants to hear. They do the same with the those ’80s various artists CD compilation.
I have to say one thing though, you know who blew me away in the 1970s? Barry White’s remixes… My Sweet Summer Suite-loved it. Gene Page, who was Barry White’s string arranger and conductor, was my hero. I just loved the lushness of that and that’s why I love the Ritchie Family as well. I love the strings that they did on records like that.
You’ve run the gamut of styles and genres.
It’s very important to me because people say, “what are you listening to at home” and I can’t give them a definite answer. I mean, one of my favorite Rock bands today is Muse. Other bands I really like are Silversun Pickups, Airbonre Toxic Event, and in years past, loved Coldplay‘s first album… I can go from Classical, to Trance to Rock… Hip-Hop I’m not really into so much nowadays and it’s a shame because I was into it. Larry Levan used to tell me in the early days, “Why are you playing Hip-Hop in the clubs?” and I said, it’s cool and creative. What I really loved about Hip-Hop back in the day was that they ripped off James Brown grooves and James Brown was the funkiest man in the whole wide world. East coast Hip-Hop was James Brown and West Coast was Parliament-Funkadelic. I mean One Nation Under A Groove and Knee Deep were staples in my club.
Understand that I worked in a lot of formats and clubs and understood them all from Hi-NRG to House, from Hip-Hop to old classic R & B. Being in New York and you being from New York, then you know what a melting pot it is and I was fortunate to work in a lot of different formats and I loved it. A lot of times you’ll walk into a club and hear the same format and the DJ does the same thing at the same time-and I hate that. I guess some people like that, so they know what to expect. I used to get a lot of complaints from people asking, “When are you going to play something I know?” That was always the biggest complaint I got at straight clubs. I spent a lot of money buying imports and getting records way before they came out and these were the same people six months later who now wanted to hear the song they didn’t like back then.
Tell us what it was like working with Nile Rodgers of Chic.
With Nile, I remember remixing some Bowie stuff that he did, the Madonna stuff… I love Nile, we still speak now and then and he is a great guitar player and I have everything great to say about him.
Begin the Beguine
It’s time to dig up some syrupy stuff on you, what’s the deal with Johnny Mathis‘ Begin the Beguine?
I LOVE THAT F’CKING SONG! Let me tell you something, absolutely love that song and I’ll give you a little history on it: We did a double-sided 12 inch for Columbia Records; John Luongo did Gone, Gone, Gone and I did Begin the Beguine. Now I have a version somewhere where I just solo’d the vocals and the piano… I love Johnny Mathis and that’s a Cole Porter song and that’s about as cheesy as I’ll get. That’s like The Sound of Music, which is one of my favorites.
I remember I was working on Korn in L.A. for six months and I went shopping one day for clothes at a boutique somewhere on Melrose and all of the sudden I hear Begin the Beguine banging and I just go, “Holy $hit!” It brought back some memories and I just got goose bumps when I heard it.
Johnny Mathis was obviously big in gay clubs and I had a chance to work on Begin the Beguine and I wanted to keep it classic, I mean that was my big thing, I didn’t want to f’ck this up and I wanted to keep this true to the original production, but just beef it up a little bit so I brought in a percussion player and I just re-arranged it and everything like that.
What were some of the biggest technological advances in the recording studio during the 1980s-90s?
Time stretching, sampling, Pro Tools is amazing technology when it’s not abused. The problem I have with a lot of music today is that everybody tries to be perfect so we’ve lost the human emotion in music. Generally speaking, it’s becoming homogenized, it’s taking the human quality out and it sounds like crap with people over-compressing and there are a lot of producers who don’t have a f’cking clue how to get a performance out of an artist.
Why so much over-compression nowadays?
Well, the problem is that when you deal with MP3s, $hitty computer speakers and things like that, the only thing people want to compete with is, who is louder and that’s a problem. In order to make something very loud you have to take a lot of bottom-end out of the sound because that’s what has most of the headroom. So you basically have to sculpt out the sound to take a lot of bottom-end out and just make it super loud and hit the compressor. That doesn’t work in my produtions because the fact is my productions are very dynamic.
Do you feel pressure from the labels to over-compress?
Not at all, because they have faith in me and my skills. I’m very particular and I’m more critical than any record company could ever be in what I do. You have to understand that I’ve sold 250-300 million records worldwide and won five Grammys, but my philosophy is that I’m still sixteen and I still have the hunger I did thirty years ago.
I love technology, ProTools is one of the best things that ever got invented as long as you use it as a tool and not a performer. Now there’s a lot of people that take this… and again, dance music is totally different cause that can be technical. Before you had House you had to have your 124-128, but with Rock music the song has got to breath a little bit. They have to speed up a bit, they have to slow down a bit and you can’t beatmap out a song and make it great. You need to rehearse the band to get the spontaneity of a great song.
Dance music is totally different. All the technology is great. To me, groundbreaking in music was the technology in Hip-Hop back in the early days. The technology of Trance and Techno blows me away. I absolutely love the creativity that came out of that musuc. When I heard Techno, I said that is so f’cking refreshing with the styles of keyboards, filters and everythig like that. Going back, I would say Giorgio Moroder was the Godfather of Techno and was so technologically advanced for his time. I alos love the megamix Patrick Cowley did of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.
Any music you don’t like?
I’m not too familiar with Polka! 🙂 When Country became ’80s Pop, but what I like about Country music was the vocals. I think they are very strong. I find the formual is a little over-used, but it’s great vocals and lyrics.
I loved Hip-Hop so much that I am so hating it right now. I think rappers like P. Diddy and all the bling-bling-booty-shake thing destroyed it. I mean I have to give it to P. Diddy for being a great business person, but as far as a rapper, he sucks. When he did that Led Zeppelin song, it made me want to cringe.
Are there some things that you would like to do, that you haven’t?
Well, I can tell you some stuff I did that never got out. I produced a song called Undone for a Blondie album a few years ago and it never came out. I did a Rock version and a Techno-like version. The Techno version f’cking smoked and to me was the definitive version and should have been on the album, but she wanted to be more Rock. It really pissed me off. [Steve proceeds to play clips from both versions and the Techno version was awesome!]
Does that really get to you or do you try to let it go?
Oh, that got to me because being a producer and knowing good music and knowing what the right version is, I said, “You’re making a mistake, Debbie. This version would be international. Don’t be afraid of this.”
Do you feel Dance music is still viable?
Dance music has always been viable especially in Europe. Like with Hip-Hop, it’s gone astray a little bit. When I listen to dance stations it’s all just tracks. There are no songs there. It’s probably great for those doing ecstasy in a club with that consistent pounding, but what I liked about Techno was that it took you somewhere. It was the ultimate euphoria.
Winding up, we get into a hodge podge of topics so I will briefly go through them in no particular order as this conversation with Steve Thompson lasted over three hours.
Any closing thoughts on your DJ accomplishments?
I was very fortunate to grow up in New York and experience the whole–I was very honored to be a part of that early DJ history as I was one of the early straight DJs and I’m very proud of that fact because you know at that time in the early 1970s, the only clubs that had DJs were the gay clubs.
How’s your hearing after years of loud music?
It’s actually amazing, I’ve lost a little top end, but when I’m in the studio, I hear things others don’t so I’ve been very fortunate.
Do you ever get burnout from hearing the same thing over and over in the studio?
No, I don’t. I’m the type of guy that can work eighteen hours a day in the studio and go back to my hotel, put my headphones on, and listen to what I worked on that day for another two hours.
Any general statements about your early DJ and remixing days?
I was the guy that was under the radar for a long time.
The Challenge of Staying Relevant
Do you think that’s the reason why you stayed relevant so long because you didn’t burn out early?
Oh, without a doubt. I’ve always had a philosophy that the day I’m not relevant, I’m out of here. No one’s going to have to tell me that, only myself. I always retain the hunger. When I make a record nowadays, it’s like, it’s the last record I’m ever gonna do so don’t f’ck it up.
Does remaining relevant come naturally or do you have to work at it?
Both. I always re-evaluate myself on every record project I do. I never stay with the same blueprint. Each artist is different and I want to capture that and that’s important to me. Where I like to give an artist their own identity instead of doing like everyone else does-what I call assembly line production. You can’t stick with a format.
Clive Davis probably gave me my best sensibiltiy of music and songs. We did Whitney Houston together, Expose, Aretha Franklin. I was told in the beginning not to worry because Clive always rejected everything the first time, but he never did that with me as he knew I understood him.
Clive knows a great song. If you look at the history of his artists, they’ve become famous because of his mentoring. Like with Whitney Houston, Clive was able to get a pool of writers and hand pick songs for Whitney. I love him. I learned what a great song is from him.
What was the first project you did where you got credit for writing?
I got ripped off on a lot of projects. You wind up writing on a lot of stuff you work on being a producer. Although I’d rather not say for whom and what songs, I have written on songs that became big and never got any writing credit.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse?
I never grew up.
A big thank you to Steve Thompson for taking time out to be interviewed for the readers of DiscoMusic.com. He is very down to earth and a lot of fun to speak with. Steve is looking forward to seeing your comments and possibly answering any questions from readers so please post a comment below.