Trax – The House that built Chicago

Trax – The House that built Chicago

Astonishingly, Jefferson says he had to pay Sherman for what actually became Trax’s 14th release, the ‘Virgo EP’. “I looked on the label and found out where Jesse Saunders got his records pressed up, ’cause Jesse had his own label. I thought I might as well go to the same place, so I went there and the guy [Larry Sherman] says ‘Sure, I’ll press up all your records, just give me the money’. So I gave him the money and he pressed up the record. I paid about $1500 to get that record pressed and to this day I haven’t seen any money from it. Larry sold… just loads of that, but I’ve never seen any money.”

Ron Hardy’s club became the perfect testing ground for Trax material. If a record worked for Ron Hardy, most likely it would work, period. Other attempts at A&R were less successful, according to Marshall.

“Larry didn’t know nothing. [laughs] I remember he didn’t want to put out ‘Can U Feel It’ by Mr Fingers, he thought it was boring, but I said, ‘No man, you gotta put it out’. He’s like [adopts Sherman voice] ‘There’s no words on it! I don’t get it’!” [more laughs]

But Trax was no longer alone on the Chicago scene – many artists worked for Trax and Rocky Jones’ DJ International imprint. DJ International has itself provided a fair slice of house music’s early standards, such as Sterling Void ‘Its Alright’ and JM Silk (Steve Hurley) ‘Music Is The Key’. There was rivalry between the two – Trax’s 30th release was Boris Badenough’s ‘Hey Rocky’ – but where The Power Plant’s more soulful style had contrasted with the rawer sound of The Music Box, so did DJ International lead the way with the vocal releases as opposed to Trax’s, er, trax. And it was DJ International which made house’s first breakthrough into the mainstream with Farley Jackmaster Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, reaching the UK Top 10 in August 1986 via a deal with FFRR. The same year in the UK, the first house clubs opened in Manchester and London. Steve Silk Hurley’s ‘Jack Your Body’ followed early 1987 and house had its first number one.

Trax’s glory years were the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1987 they gave the world its second gift when Phuture released ‘Acid Trax’. Written by Herbert J, {ln:DJ Pierre} and Spanky and produced by {ln:Marshall Jefferson}, it was the first {ln:Acid House – The History ‘acid} record.

The label’s parting shot was, in effect, the Jamie Principle-penned (but credited to Frankie Knuckles) ‘Your Love’, a hit in 1989. By now things were beginning to take a turn for the worse.

In short, it seems that the Chicago scene began to disintegrate. There are plenty of theories as to why, but the truth is more likely that there were several things to blame.

One is the outbreak of backbiting and infighting which followed the relatively rapid expansion of the scene in a matter of just a few years – indeed Jesse Saunders left Chicago to pursue his Jesse’s Gang project with Warners after disagreements surrounding ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, first between Farley and Steve Hurley, then regarding the licensing of the track for its UK release. Radio, too, was important, far more so than it ever has been over here. In house’s nascent days radio DJs had played a vital role in bringing the music to the straight black community, most notably the famed Hot Mix Five – Farley, Hurley, Mickey Oliver, Kenny Jason and Ralphie Rosario. Chris Westbrook aka Bam Bam was running his own Westbrook label at the time and two years ago told MF:

I was getting support from local radio and the DJs and everything, until the DJs started up their own labels. That’s what killed the scene in Chicago! I don’t care what nobody says! What killed the scene in Chicago was when the radio DJs, who were initially playing our music and helping us, started their own labels and started competing against us! And they was only playing the records they were putting out or that their partners were putting out.

Rachael Cain agrees. “In the beginning that didn’t happen. At first it was great because people were really helping one another. And then I guess it was because everybody was starting to say, ‘Hey, look what’s happening, these records are breaking. I’ll just do my own thing, push my own music.’ So yeah, I think that’s right. Right now, there are a few DJs in Chicago that are just playing their own stuff.” “When I think of the fact that here in Chicago, right now, there’s not a dance station – why not? If ever anybody should just herald their own music..? It wasn’t that long ago that the Chicago Tribune ran a story about House music being an ‘orphan at home’. Our support for the house music scene has basically been from England!”

And Trax had its problems as well, says Rachael. “What a lot of people don’t know is that when Larry was at his peak, around ’88, ’89, and was selling a lot of copies, Landmark, which was the biggest independent distributor in America, closed its doors and Larry had to declare bankruptcy. He’s since gotten out of that, but at one time Trax was bankrupt.”

Larry Sherman is a peculiar but vital figure in the history of house music. As you may already know, or just have guessed from Saunders and Jefferson’s earlier comments, his business practices are the stuff of legend.

MJ: “Larry’s in this circle of Jewish guys, right, and all of them own each others’ businesses. So you come to sue Larry or bring up something about Trax records, and some guy in Japan owns the company. Larry’s like ‘oh, I don’t own this pressing plant, this guy in Japan owns it and he’s not here’. [laughs] So they could never pin him down, man!”

marshsheIt seems that Sherman was not averse to the odd shortcut here and there – he was only too willing to press onto old LPs and poor quality second-hand vinyl, which explains why most Trax releases sound like they were recorded outdoors. In the rain. Bootlegs, too, were on the agenda for Larry, says Saunders: “He knows what he’s doing. He even had a label called Bootleg Records, he just… did it.”

Frankie Bones released ‘Bone Up’ on Trax in 1996. He tells a similar story.

“Larry’s a very eccentric type of guy. He’s gotta be the most eccentric person I’ve ever met in the music industry. They buy, like, scrap records and he doesn’t mind throwing records in, like, other companies jackets, Motown jackets, and shrinkwrapping them. It’s really bizarre. I think the only reason I wanted a record on Trax was because of the whole bizarre background Trax has, y’know?”

Remember though, that Trax was a loose outfit full stop. Nobody cared too much about acting like a major label at first. Jesse Saunders description of Trax’s contractual arrangements makes the point:

“There was never any paperwork. You gotta remember, back in those days he owned the pressing plant, I made the music. It was easy for us to make something and put it out, and it didn’t really matter. So there was no paperwork or any of that stuff, we just did it, made the money and moved on.”

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