Chicago Spotlight: A Conversation With Mike Dunn

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Growing up record shopping with his mom and listening to his parents’ music collection at home in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Lower Development Homes, Mike Dunn fell in love with soul, funk and disco music, and later, house music and hip-hop. That love took him outside his home when he began DJing block club and basement parties in and around his neighborhood, then progressed to clubs and events around the city, working with house music legends such as Bam Bam, Tyree Cooper, Marshall Jefferson, Armando, and others. In 1987, Mike produced his first house music release, “Dance You Mutha” on Westbrook Records. As he continued to work in the studio in Chicago and in clubs around the world, Mike’s signature Chicago house track/acid house and hip house sound emerged and was reflected in a string of releases, including house classics “So Let It Be Houze!”, “Pressure Cooker” “Life Goes On”, “Magic Feet”, “God Made Me Phunky” and the infamous “Phreaky MF”.  Mike later added hip-hop and R&B to his production plate when he inked a deal with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records for his imprint, Dunn Ruff Entertainment, through which he released the Chicago anthem, “On My Momma” by True Enuff featuring Swing & Bigg Huss. He also produced records for Public Announcement, Do or Die, Syleena Johnson and Jennifer Hudson. Most recently, Mike has teamed up with long-time friend and fellow Chosen Few DJ member Terry Hunter to create House N’ HD, a production group. The newest member of The Chosen Few DJs, Mike joined the group in 2012.   (courtesy of ChosenFewDJs.com)  I had a chance to talk to Mike Dunn about his career, his work ethic, his vision and his new album, My House from All Angles, coming out December 1st.

Black Widow:  Your career spans 20+ years, what attracted you to house music?

Mike Dunn:   I come from the disco era, so the transition was smooth.  If disco had a child, it would have been house.  I used to go to the record store with my mom.  My mom always wanted the disco version of a song.  She always asked the lady at the record store if they had the “long version” of a song.  That’s what got me into the music.   I was always into music. My mom and my dad were musical people.  When we lived in the projects, my dad and this other guy in my building, Rico, were the only two people that had a real sound system.  He had Boise speakers, Dynaco amps, Boise 901’s, and things like that.   I got the DJ bug when I went to Rico’s house. Rico had two turntables and a mixer. Back then you weren’t mixing, you were doing seamless. As soon as one faded out, the other faded in. I was into all of that. By the time I went to high school, I moved in with my grandma in Englewood. That’s where I met Tyree (Cooper).  We were trying to be DJs back then and a year or so later, Hugo (Hutchinson) came. It was always the three of us.  We would do all the high school parties; Limbloom, Hubbard., etc. That’s what got me into house.  I remember my grandma opened an account for me and had like $4000 in it.  I got brave one day and grabbed it because I knew where she hid it. She hid it under the mattress and I took it and went to the bank and got all the money and went to Import Records and got everything!

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Black Widow:   NO! MIKE SERIOUSLY? [LAUGHTER]

Mike Dunn:  I had to bring the records to Tyree’s house because I couldn’t walk into the house with all that.  Now we had everything. Tyree had his record collection and I had mine so now we had doubles. You had to have doubles if you wanted to do tricks and stuff like that.

Little side note:  the original “On and On” record was a limited release, so it was hard to get.  That record was pressed from my copy which I bought from Otto for $50.  Back then it was a lot of money to pay for a record.  Tyree took it to Larry Sherman and Larry pressed it off my copy…just a little history!

Black Widow:  A little side note huh? [LAUGHTER]

Mike Dunn:   Everyone thinks I popped on the scene or something but that’s for the new house people. I’ve doing this since ’82.

Black Widow:  Who were some of your early influences?

Mike Dunn: Listening to Farley and Leonard Roy made me want to DJ.  Farley was on the radio, so I’d listen on my Walkman to the lunchtime mixes. When I went to parties, I would go to the Rink Zone on 89th & Ashland.  That’s where I saw Leonard. He used to do amazing tricks and things like that. When Tyree introduced me to him, we went where all the DJs on the south side had to go.  You had to go through this house or you weren’t considered a DJ.  That was Greg Hines and his brother Otto’s house.  Their company was BTO. Everybody came through there.  He had the 1800 technics, Teledyne mixers, and a couple other mixers but they had every record ever made as far as disco. It wasn’t even house yet it was the Euro-Italo stuff. It was during our preppy stages.  It wasn’t considered house because none of those records were made yet.  We would go through there and I saw Leonard doing his edits for parties and I remember once he was editing Kasso, “One More Round” and that’s one of my all-time favorite Italo/disco records. After seeing that, I knew what I wanted to do.  Later down the line, I spun with Ronnie (Ron Hardy) a couple of times but was more into Frankie (Knuckles) because he was more technical.  Ronnie was more of a programmer. He knew what to play and when to play it. He found records nobody thought of playing. He was great at that. He didn’t do tricks and stuff like that. He knew how to pick songs, how to play them and when to play them…he was the master at that.

Black Widow:   You’ve had a successful residency for almost 10 years now. Next year marks Reynolds 10-year anniversary.    What’s the key to a successful residency?

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Mike Dunn:  I’ve always been a resident DJ. Starting with Ogden Park, The Courtyard, Jacks, High Society etc.… I knew what it took to be a resident DJ because I followed Frankie’s blueprint from afar. There are a few keys to having a successful residency; the right people, a great sound system,  friendly hosts and security and a DJ knowing their crowd.   If anyone came to Frankie and said security was mean or disrespectful, they were fired immediately. Like that night! He didn’t stand for that.  When I say know your crowd, I’m saying when I come in, I speak, shake hands, take pictures, interact.  When you take time to do that, people feel connected to you, so they continue to support you.  When people tell me I’m your biggest fan I tell them not to say that, say you are a big supporter. Fans cool things off, supporters keep you hot.  I don’t want any fans. They jump on and jump off.  People who support you, support you forever, fans come and go on to the next hot thing.   It’s all about not being afraid of your crowd. 

I play stuff and sometimes they look at me like “Mike Really? You playing this?

Black Widow: [LAUGHTER] True!

Mike Dunn:   But that’s what keeps people interested and coming back. Every week I got something different. Either I’ve retouched it, made it myself or edited it. Every time you come to Reynolds you are going to hear something you didn’t hear the previous week.  You are never going to come in and hear the same stuff every week. I’m going to always go different directions. It may be classics, or the new stuff, the soulful or the afro. You have so many avenues and directions as far as house music.  A lot of folks want me to disco them to death or bang them to death, but if I do that, it becomes boring and predictable.  You come every week because you want to know if I’m gonna give it to you this week and if I don’t, you come next week to see if I’m gonna do it this week. So, I give ya a lil bit…

[LAUGHTER]

That’s what keeps you coming back. You get that hit and you keep coming back! It’s the blessing and the curse. I feel like I’m the most loved and the most hated sometimes. It’s the gift and the curse. A lot of people like to bash us (Reynolds). Why are we still around? Why are we still doing this? You won’t give anyone a shot? You won’t give anyone a chance…stuff like that. It’s crazy. We never did Frankie like that. We never did Farley like that. We never did Ronnie like that.  We paid homage. The thing is, they ask the wrong question. The question is not why are we staying around so long?  The question is how are we staying around so long?  Once you ask the right question, you get the right answers.

Black Widow: You had a time in your career when you were at Bad Boy doing hip hop.  What was it like returning to house after that?  

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Mike Dunn:  For me it’s about reinventing yourself.  I had to reinvent myself all over again.  That’s why I ended up at Reynolds. I felt like Reynolds was the beginning.   It’s not the big club or spot with the big dance floors. It’s how I started when I started DJ'ing.   Reynolds is a little spot that I made a staple over time.  My guy Gil Carpenter, we call him “Scatterman”,  kept telling me to come back to house music. When my deal was dropped with Bad Boy, I was in a funk. I was depressed…you know…losing a million-dollar deal does something to you.  I sold a lot of stuff and I lost a lot of stuff because I felt like I was good at it but that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. You only go so far before you hit a brick wall.  Once you do that, you know that’s not what you are supposed to be doing. Some people keep trying to hit that brick wall and knock it down and it never happens and, so they drop off. That’s why it’s so many angry DJ’s.  You know, it may not be what God put you here for. You may love to do it and that’s cool but don’t force it.  That’s why success doesn’t come, or why you only have a certain amount of success and that’s it.

 

"I know what I was put on this earth to do. When I touch those tables, I know this was what I’m supposed to be doing".

Black Widow:  What do you think your role is as a producer?

Mike Dunn:  People think a producer just makes the beats and music but that’s not it. A producer gets a project from beginning to end.  I’ve been around a lot of great producers and I’ve learned so much from them; what to do and what not to do.  I’m a sponge and still a sponge in the game. I still listen and I’m still learning. I listen to the younger cats doing stuff now, it keeps me fresh and it keeps my sound fresh. I don’t sound dated unless I want to sound dated. Ya dig? [LAUGHTER] I have to stay fresh. My ear is always to the streets and what’s going on.

Black Widow:  And you are constantly learning?

Mike Dunn:  Yeah…constantly! Anyone who really knows me, knows…I read a lot.  I watch videos, and tutorials.  I’m a sponge. I want to know everything. That’s how I was as a kid. I want to know how things work. I remember my grandma bought me a component set when I was young, and I took it apart.  A few days later, I put it back together again.  That’s just me. I don’t just want to know that it works. I want to know how it works and why it works this way.  Once you understand that you can manipulate it any way you want because you learn what its capable of.

Black Widow:   So it’s not just about making the beats? It’s all encompassing…the beats, music, the sound, the editing, mixing?

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Mike Dunn:   Yeah…I wanted to know everything. I not only produce, I engineer, mix, master, remix…I want to know everything about the game.   I’ve come up under great engineers and watched them in sessions. Folks like Peter Mocrum, Ron Gresham, and Larry Strom (RIP); some of the best engineers in Chicago.  That’s always been me.  I wanted to be self-sufficient. When you make yourself that valuable, you become invaluable because somebody is going to have to deal with you in some capacity.  I remember when I was working with Puff (Sean “Puffy” Combs) and bringing stuff to him, he was like, “Who did all this”?  I’m like, “Me”.  He couldn’t believe it.

Who Mixed it?...Me        Who produced it?...Me  

Who made the track?...Me.

That was important to me.  You know, Michael Jackson was my favorite artist, especially because we share the same name, but it was Prince that showed me how I wanted to do it.  He did it all. He could go into the studio and not need anyone. Look at the credits!  Drums by, Guitar By, Produced by, etc...that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go into a studio and do what I wanted to do from beginning to end.

Black Widow:  What takes a track from good to incredible?

Mike Dunn:   It’s a few things that must be aligned.  First, the energy has to be good.   When you are making the track, or recording a track and putting it together, it has to be good energy in the room. If the artist or musicians or anyone’s energy is off, I’ll send them home. It’s not a good day.  It’s a marriage. The track and the vocals have to be seamless. Everything has to melt together. It’s like when you are cooking, all those ingredients in those different measurements have to go in the dish. You have to have the right amount and combination of ingredients for that track to be incredible. One of my favorite producers knows how to do that. That’s Louie Vega. He knows how to put that shit together.

Black Widow:   That Musical Gumbo!

Mike Dunn:  RIGHT!!! Terry (Hunter) too, he knows how to put that shit together.  Even though I may come to help Terry in the studio, I’m still learning. He may do something I wasn’t even thinking about in the studio and that will send me home wanting to try it but put my own spin on it.  You know what I mean, you can’t copy and claim stuff, you got to put your spin on it. That’s what makes your style.   Everyone wears clothes but what makes yours different? It’s your flavor.  It’s nothing you can do but you know it when it happens.  That’s the magic.  That magic doesn’t have a formula. If there was a formula, everyone would have hits.  There are steps and things you can do to get you close, but when the magic happens it just happens. That’s the moment when you are listening to the playback and go WHOOHOOOO!!  When Terry hears something, and I know he really likes it, he goes WHOO! WHOO! When I hear that from Terry, I know I got some shit!

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Black Widow:  [LAUGHTER] He did that when I did the vocals for Fenix!

Mike Dunn: [LAUGHTER] If I don’t hear that, I’m going back to the drawing board! If I hear that WHOO! WHOO! Then I know I got some fire! 

Black Widow:   You have created so many tracks over the years, but this is your first album release since 1990. What made you decide that now was the time to do an entire project?

Mike Dunn:  I just felt like I couldn’t get people to understand what I was doing with just a single here and there. My guys out of London, Paranoid London, did their album and it was a lot of the old stuff.  When I talked to them, they were talking about how much they looked up to what I was doing, Armando, a lot of Chicago cats were doing and that’s what inspired them to do their album.  That inspired me to do an album. I felt like I needed to capitalize off that.  We are the last on the totem pole to be compensated on an entire sound we’ve created. I wanted people to understand where this music came from. The album was for the newer and younger house kids that are “doing us”.  I’m always asked to do vocals on songs because they want that old classic, God made me funky, Chicago House sound.  They love that! They want some jackin shit!  I said to myself, should I deny myself and my listeners who still love the acid and the funky stuff?  I wanted to put all my pseudonyms together and make one album; MD express, Mike Dunn, QX1, Jazzman, all the pseudos’ I’ve used in the past and put them all in one project.

Black Widow:  That explains the sound and variety of subgenres on the album…

Mike Dunn:   I wanted to go back to the old feel. I didn’t use a lot of plug in’s.  I went back to my sound modules and analog. I went back to my analog gear.  I just wanted it to sound authentic. I didn’t want it sound like I was trying to make it sound like that, but I wanted it to SOUND LIKE THAT. When you listen to it, take note, I purposely made it sound like that! It’s that way for a reason.

Black Widow: Aside from talent and/or natural ability, what qualities are important to you when working with an artist’s?

Mike Dunn:  Hungriness!  When I came into the game, I was extremely hungry.  I go back me being a sponge.  I wanted to know everything…just let me sit in the studio and observe.  That’s what I used to do.  If folks needed food or coffee or whatever...I just wanted to watch.   I would carry Tyree’s records to get into parties.   I remember one day, Sam Chapman came up to me and asked me, what do you do?  I told him, I DJ.  He’s says, I’m going to give you a shot and he did.  This was when he had High Society and that’s where I showed him what I could do. So, I started opening and Tyree was closing. A few months later, I was the closer. 

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Black Widow:  You created opportunities and chances to learn?

Mike Dunn:  Yeah…I didn’t go out bashing and talking crazy. I wasn’t out here saying, Y’all ain’t putting me on, yall ain’t giving me a shot, I’m the coldest…blah blah blah… NAH.   I wasn’t doing all of that.   I always tell people to let their work speak for itself because your mouth will get you in trouble.  A lot of cats want to spin in Europe or go overseas to DJ but it’s never going to happen for them.  They don’t like that kind of stuff.  They don’t want to deal with all of that.  You may think you are talking for your people here, but other people are seeing you and saying…aww naw!  If they were thinking about booking you, you just ruined it. You turned them completely off because you don’t let your work speak…you let your mouth speak instead. Anything may come out your mouth, especially when you are clicking and typing. You may mean it one way but a person will read it another way. So then have to go back and explain yourself and you dig a bigger hole and get yourself in more trouble.

Black Widow:  Meanwhile, someone else is moving forward and progressing because they kept the focus on the craft!

Mike Dunn:  Exactly.   I remember a moment a while ago on social media that just made me laugh.   There was a post on Facebook saying, “some so-called legends” (side note: when you see stuff like that, they are talking about us 90% of the time, us being The Chosen Few) Anyway…the post said, this so-called legend doesn’t have a passport and can’t travel out the county blah blah blah… so everyone starts posting theirs. “I got mine”! I got mine! I got mine!  [LAUGHTER] Everyone knew they were talking about me.  I just sat back and laughed because I was already in the process of handling that.  I said to myself, I’m just gonna wait.  I’ll take pictures when I’m out the country. I don’t have to address anything. My work will always speak for me.

Black Widow:  I can show you better than I can tell you!

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Mike Dunn:  Listen… I’m a Bad Boy for life.  Once you are a bad boy, you are a bad boy for life.  What I mean is Bad Boy Records.  Real Bad Boys always move in silence. That’s why I don’t react to anything or say anything.  People are always gonna post stuff and say stuff.  Folks say, “well why won’t he respond, it must be true”.  NAH!  I don’t get into any of that.  I have too much to do.  I’m working.  When you have business, you have no time to worry about other people’s business. 

Black Widow:   What a Word!!! [LAUGHTER]

Mike Dunn:  I’m so glad we are doing this interview. You are getting the realest interview I’ve done, and I’ve done a gazillion of them! [LAUGHTER]

"People who grind are trying to get it, people who work are trying to keep it." 

That’s why you always see or hear me saying, let’s go to work. I got to keep it so I gotta go to work. 

Black Widow:  What does 2018 have in store for Mike Dunn?

Mike Dunn:  Blackball Muzic!  That’s what poppin in 2018!!! Of course, I’m going to be heavily involved with T’s Box but I’m also getting Blackball Muzic off the ground. Blackball will be a bit different, so I can still do what I do with Terry. 

Black Widow:  You guys have been friends for the longest.  What makes this duo work so well together?

Mike Dunn:  It’s funny, people say crazy stuff to me sometimes. Why you under Terry?  Oh, you are Mike Dunn, blah blah…  Let me tell you I’m a smart one!   I’m not going to sit here and pump my chest up or let anyone else pump me up.  I came to Terry and said put me back in the game because he was on. You know how Terry is.  He wanted to do it but was hesitant.  I had to prove myself. Folks were trying to get in my head, even some of the big guys.  They don’t get it.  You get more done with numbers. We work together like peanut butter and jelly.  That’s my brother! This ain’t no new shit. We’ve been friends for years.  If he needs me, it’s no hesitation and vice versa.  No Question.

Black Widow:  Friends for real! He respects and values your opinion.

 CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MY HOUSE FROM ALL ANGLES!

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MY HOUSE FROM ALL ANGLES!

Mike Dunn:  Yeah but like I said, that’s my brother. That’s how the House N HD came about. I wanted to be a modern-day Masters at Work.  They were my favorite duo in the 90s!  Kenny and Louie were killing it! It was nothing they couldn’t touch. That’s what we want for the kids now.

Black Widow:  So BlackBall Muzic, House N HD, T’sBox…

Mike Dunn:  Man I got that "Fiyah" coming!!!

Black Widow:  Yeah…like a Black Widow Project coming soon!  

Mike Dunn:  BLACK WIDOW!!! Ya Dig!

Black Widow:   I’m ready! [Laughter] This was fun!   Mike thank you so much for talking with me!

Mike Dunn:  You know it! 

I hope you enjoyed another great interview! Until Next Time,

See you on a dance floor!

Black Widow

You can find Mike Dunn at the following:

  • Facebook: @therealmikedunn
  • soul106.3radio.com
  • Twitter: @therealmikedunn
  • Instagram: @therealmikedunn