Chicago Spotlight: A Conversation with Russoul

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Russell Pike Jr., also known as Russoul, discovered music production at the age of 13. Lil' Louis "French Kiss" and "Cajmere "Percolator" were two big House tracks that Russoul would try to recreate on his keyboard workstation. After graduating Cum Laude in music from Clark Atlanta University, he realized that he was fortunate to be granted the opportunity to learn to play on all instruments. After receiving a publishing deal, Russoul took his advance and used it to purchase his own recording equipment. This multitalented student of music would stay up day and night creating, singing, and recording in an effort to bring to fruition different ideas. He took his demos to every DJ in town, and landed some tunes on the major local radio stations in Chicago. Russell traveled and lived in different cities to work with various and diverse artists. It was then that he realized that creating music was one small aspect of the music business. He saw the importance of the DJ and would humbly ask them to give his music a chance. That's when Russoul decided to get his own DJ equipment. Some people took an interest in his musical production and vocal ability. This included the likes of Green Velvet AKA Cajmere, Sonny Fodrera, Mark Grant, Gene Farris, and rap artists like Kanye West, Rhymefest, Mickey Halsted, and MC Juice.

I sat down with him to talk about his musical career, the lessons he’s learned, his many talents and future goals and plans. Today I’m pleased to bring you my interview with the multi-talented artist known as Russoul.

BW: So tell me a bit about your background and introduction to music

Russ:  At the age of 6 years old, I begin to learn how to play piano and sing and I would perform for my mom’s guests and at church. She was the minister of music at First Grace Church on the West Side.  She started the first black chorus at the University of Illinois Chicago. Because of that, she always had musicians working with her.   She would encourage me to sing and was my music teacher as well.  By the time I was 13, I played the piano.  Then she bought me some equipment and I would learn how to play beats on it and record it to a cassette tape.  I would make these beats and go to school and play them for my friends.  I would enter talent shows and at the age of 10, I joined the Soul Children of Chicago and began to sing with a traveling choir.

BW:  Oh I’m familiar with the Soul Children and Walt Whitman.  I have a few friends who were part of it.   What was that like?

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Russoul:   Being around Walt Whitman and the Soul Children gave me a speed course on professional musicianship. He would have popular artists sing with our choir. My first professional experience was on Motown 30 and we backed up Gladys Knight. I remember meeting Heavy D and Stevie Wonder.

BW:  Stevie Wonder?  Wow that had to be something for a kid!

Russoul:   Yeah it was!   I was about 14/15 when I met Stevie Wonder. When he shook my hand, it was confirmation that singing on stage, performing and making music was what I wanted to do. I understood the seriousness that was involved at a very young age.  I knew the discipline and dedication it would require. I wasn’t prepared for the difficulties in dealing with the music business. I was a child and was sheltered by that by my parents.

BW: So you DJ, Sing and Produce …?

Russoul:  No, I actually sing, DJ, produce, engineer, and mix and master my own music.  I remember when I got the Sony Deal, Randy Jackson asked me “if I gave you a million dollars what would you do with it”?   I didn’t feel mature enough to take that offer so I didn’t.  Randy said that’s a smart answer. He said you need to work, learn and be around those who do this.  I was still very young and didn’t know anyone in the business.  A guy he put me under asked me if you had $15K what would you do? He said most would put it on studio time and I said, "I’d buy equipment". He was like that’s the right answer! 

BW:  So you used that money to purchase equipment?

Russoul:  I sure did!  I was 18 years old now and had all of my own stuff so I learned how to use it all.  I was fortunate to be connected with people I could learn from.  They were tough on me but I learned a lot.  That’s why I’m able to create, engineer, master and mix my own music now.

BW:  You started so young in this business. How did your career progress?

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Russoul:  I initially attended University of Illinois in Champaign.  I was majoring in business but I always wanted to do music. My parents weren’t supportive of that at the time. When I was in college, I remember auditioning for this event called “Cotton Club”.  I composed and performed my first piece there and it was received well.  I was getting my chops wet down at school.  I remember in college, I was supposed to play piano for a girl who was auditioning for the Wiz and wound up getting a part in it as well. I played the Tin Man [Laughter].  I got a standing ovation and after my parents saw me in that, they allowed me to pursue my passion. They saw my dedication. After 2 years, I transferred to Clark Atlanta University in Georgia and received a fellowship from the Philharmonic society at CAU.  That was the same time; I got my Sony publishing deal.   

BW:  A publishing deal while still in college?

Russoul: Yeah but it started earlier actually. At 17, a producer who was affiliated with Def Row brought me in to learn from him. He was a client of my uncle.  He made me a songwriter for his team at 16. I was writing music for him and by the time I turned 19, I had my 1st publishing deal as a songwriter with Sony Publishing.  

BW:  So you are in college and writing music and performing, how did you manage all of that?

Russoul:  Not well.   Funny story I was supposed to be in a group with the singer, Avant, his manager wanted me to join him on Magic Johnson’s record label but my parents made me stay in school.  So that never happened. He went on to sing and I went on to get my degree from CAU Cum Laude in music. After that I moved to Minneapolis. Randy Jackson wanted to give me a solo deal but then we decided to put me in a group and the group was called Black Ice and I moved there to work with them.  But it was crazy there, we got robbed and a bunch of other crazy stuff happened so I moved back to Chicago.

BW:  Oh damn! That’s a lot!

Russoul:  Yeah it was crazy.   I came back home after that.   My parents built me a studio at my house and that’s around the time when I won Chicago Idol. The experience taught me a lot though.

BW:  You are supposed to be singing R&B music and are getting robbed and shot at? That sounds like you are a hip hop artist!!!  

Russoul:  I know!   It was too much honestly.   I left it all alone for a while. I wasn’t willing to risk it. Prison, getting shot… I felt like if I can’t make a career being an upright citizen making the music I wanted to I don’t need to do it.  It’s funny because I was told if you want to be famous, if you want to blow up, you got to get the hood behind you first. If you want to become famous do and sing about whatever you see in the hood.   I tried to for a while but honestly, I didn’t share that experience.   By the time I was 21, I had songs on WGCI that were R&B.  I had a song called “Hit em up Bang Bang” and “Count the Ways” then another song called “2nd Chance” that I did with Kanye but after that, I just decided I didn’t want to do it.  I realized that wasn’t who I was or what I wanted to portray.

BW:  “Get the hood behind you”? Interesting.  You sound like you were dealing with a lot of preconceived stereotypes of the hood.   Did you find that some of the commercial R&B music was a contrived or preconceived notion of masculinity as well? 

Russoul:   Ummm… sort of.   Some parts of it just didn’t sit well with me. There were some things that I didn’t want to deal with; Machismo, contrived sexuality in artists, a lot of restrictions. I didn’t like the restrictions and watching the music industry capitalize on what I call “minstrel” music.  I wanted to express myself more intellectually and it was increasingly difficult to do that as a black man in this industry. That’s my take on it. If you want to make songs like Stevie Wonder, executives would say, “We don’t think kids want to hear that type of music”. That saddened me.  But that’s where house music came in.

BW:  So you had a few R&B projects going?

Russoul:  Yeah, there was a project I did with twilight tone called Superstar. It’s one of my favorites.  I did two R&B/Soul Albums, one was called R&B and the other was called, “People need love” album. I even had a song from the People need love album picked up for the HBO show, Insecure.

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BW:  What was your introduction to house music?

Russoul:   In high school, I’d make house tracks that I loved, like Lil Louis “French Kiss” and Cashmere’s “Percolator”.   I’d make my own house beats too and give them to a DJ at school and he would take records and put them to beats I made.  What I love about house music is that it unifies.   When I think about the places I’ve been and how I’ve seen others represent their cities, especially in R&B, I just want to do the same for my city and I want to bring others in.  You know, I would love to do one big Chicago House Album with DJs and artists that I admire and respect.

BW:  Oh really, that’s a very ambitious project.  Who would you include in this dream project?

Russoul: Oh man…I’d love Mike Dunn, Terry Hunter, Gene Farris, Cashmere, Derrick Carter, Steve Maestro, Ron Carroll just to name a few then I’d add some singers like, Ari Lorde, Jon Pierce and a few others!  I just think it would be really dope!

BW:  What made creating house music different for you?

Russoul:   For me house music gave me the freedom to make the music I wanted to make.    One of my best friends from grade school was related to DJ Mark Grant.  We met and I auditioned for him and made my 1st record with him in 2004 called “Girl with You”.  When I won Chicago Idol, I was supposed to get a contract with Good Music but that didn’t happen. I was disappointed but I still had house music and Mark Grant was working with me and making tracks.  The song we did, “Girl with You” got picked up by Defected Records and was a hit.   After that Cajmere took interest in me and we began to write songs together and we did a song called “Let’s Dance”. Then he brought me to the techno world and we created a song called “Milli Vinilli”.  It was my biggest song in that genre but it didn’t come without controversy.  

BW:  Why the controversy?

Russoul:  A lot of people didn’t like that especially because I was singing R&B stuff.  They felt it was commercial because techno is a commercial version of house to a certain degree.  It’s like the commercial kept following me.  [Laughter]

BW:  What was working with Cajmere like?

Russoul:   I began to see a bigger picture with Cajmere. I got to see what it meant to be a global artist. That was more appealing to me at the time because you really get to see different ideologies and cultures and ask yourself what makes sense to you as a human being.   I got to witness other parts of the world.

BW:  You’ve had some very hard lessons learned in this business. Do you ever feel jaded?

Russoul:   I’m not going to lie…I definitely have!  I swear if I ever blow up for real, my behind the music will be a weeklong episode! Not about success either but failure [laughter} Now I'm in a really good place and feeling good about what I'm getting ready to do.

"...I realized my gift is house music and using my voice to unify and build in our scene.  I love to play and share my gift but I also appreciate, admire and learn from others.  I’ve been doing this for a while but it’s always something new to learn..."

BW:  [LAUGHTER] I think your story is very real.  It’s not always a smooth road in this business.  The twists and turns and bumps along the way have shaped you and I suspect, help feed you creatively. 

Russoul:  [laughter] it will definitely make you tough. Like I said, right now I’m in a great place.   I’m just enjoying it right now. Not stressing about who’s coming, who’s buying it and stuff like that.  I know what I represent and what I’m trying to accomplish and I’m willing to stand on that.

BW:  So what made you decide to start DJ’ing and who were some of your influences?

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Russoul:  Honestly, I wanted to get my records played.  Nowadays you have to be multi-faceted and DJ'ing was another way for me to get my music out there while enjoying and playing other music I love as well.  I respect the art form of DJing and the ones who came before me.   I admire and listen to them often and watch how they transition records.  I enjoy Ron Carroll, Sean Alvarez, Twilight Tone, Mark Fullaflava, Derrick Carter, Sadah, and my cousin, Gantman; he was an inspiration to me.  Honestly it’s so many.

BW:  So you sing, act, produce, engineer, DJ and now you have your own record label, Pike Unlimited Music.  What made you start your own record label?

Russoul:  I understood what it meant to have an established label in the music industry.  I witnessed the advancement in music technology explode. Over time I noticed human talents were being replaced with computerized vocoders and the talent to truly play instruments was being replaced with computer sequencing. I just felt that it was time to take a stand and create a label that showcases real talent with technology, rather than technology and no talent.  Pike Unlimited Music was created to push recording artists, my own compositions, and market my collaborations with international artists to the world.  Right now I have an artist named, Ari Lorde that I work with.  

BW: Thank you so much for speaking with me today!

Russoul:  No thank you, it was my pleasure

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Check out Russoul's latest release, "In The Dark" on Traxsource!

Check out Russoul's latest release, "In The Dark" on Traxsource!

 

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Black Widow

D.Sanders, a Chicago native, is a devoted mother, blogger and writer who is passionate about her family, friends, women's rights, living authentically and telling her story.   She is also a spoken word recording artist under the name, Black Widow. She has been writing and blogging for over 15 years providing commentary and expressing thought on life, love and relationships. Her artistry can be heard on two house music singles, “Rough”, and “Gruv Me” released by Grammy Nominated Producer and CEO of T’s Box Records & T’s Crates, Terry Hunter under the production of Mike Dunn and Dee Jay Alicia. . Both singles reached #1 on Traxsource’s Afrohouse and charted top ten overall as well reaching the top ten in their year of release.  She splits her time blogging about the Chicago Dance Music Scene on www.blkwidowmusic.com and on her book’s website, www.thesumofmanythings.com.  She is excited about her debut book, The Sum of Many Things, scheduled for release in June 2017.   She wears many hats but refuses to be placed in a box.  She believes that women are "The Sum of Many Things".  Embracing all of her roles as a woman, she firmly believes in breaking free of preconceived notions of womanhood.   She believes it is her mission to define her own life experience, femininity and sexuality and not have it defined by society.  She openly shares her story with hopes that women understand their worth, power and place in this world.