The term legend gets bandied about willy nilly these days, someone can release a track and be hailed a legend before it's initial run has even sold. But, every now and then, you get the opportunity to meet and chat with artists that really have made a deep, indelible mark on the culture and therefore warrant the term. And, within the house music universe, Robert Owens and Gene Hunt indisputably fall into that category. Mr Miles Simpson sat down with the two of them during Gene Hunt's recent trip to London to play at Thunder, to talk about The Warehouse, Lil Louis, Phuture, Ron Hardy and Gene’s appearance on Boiler Room TV...
So, how did you guys meet originally?
Robert Owens - Back in the warehouse days… Probably a little after then?
Gene Hunt - Yeah it was a little after then.
RO - Yeah you was younger then in the first warehouse days, when they opened up with Farley and started to do the radio and all that.
GH - WBMX was around at the time, 326 was still open, but me and Robert met at Loop Records, a record store on State Street that used to have all the hot records.
RO - I forgot about that… I’m the old one, so he can remind you a lot more than me!
GH -We met at Loop Records on State. I had just heard a few things by Fingers Inc and I was just sitting up looking through some records.
RO- You know, I can actually picture that now that you say that!
GH- Yeah, I remember it like it happened two days ago! A friend of mine named Steve Nobles was talking about Robert, saying stuff like, “I know Robert Owens blah blah blah” and this and that, and I was like, “Yeah okay”. So I was in the record store at Loop buying some records and it was ironic that Robert was right next to me shopping in the next bin and there’s someone saying, “There’s Robert Owens wow wow wow!”. It instantly caught my attention. I turned to Robert and I introduced myself and we started talking,
I asked him if he knew Steve and he was like, “Nah, I never heard of him”. Anyways, we talked, we exchanged numbers, we hung out and all that. Then the next day I went to see my friend Steve and I asked him again whether he knew Robert Owens, he said “Yeah”, and was like, “Well Robert Owens don’t know you!” I took the red line to get to his house the first time, because I lived on the west side and Robert lived up North by the lake, so I had to take two trains, kinda like the tube. I just came over and Robert started giving me music, I was giving him stuff, we exchanged stuff and we just automatically connected and once we clicked, it was a never-ending relationship, as you can see.
I would get him to sing together with me on some track - we’d hook the reel up and put records on, then I’d make tracks and he’d sing on ‘em. We were just going back and forth and created a great friendship. What was crazy, and what was super ironic is Robert lived on a street called Balmoral, and it just so happened that Ron Hardy and Robert Williams lived across the street from him. It was easy for me to just flip-flop, that was my family. Then later on I met Larry Heard and then Larry would let me programme tracks in his living room and I would programme his drum machine and stuff like that, I just got into the Fingers Inc circle. Robert would give me a few things to play and I’d play them
at the parties and everyone would look at me like, “Where did you get that?!”. Between my tracks and the tracks that Robert gave me, I was able to build up my name cos I was playing unique stuff. I was dangerous with that reel and that tape! For real!
There was a picture online recently of Gene really working an old reel to reel…
GH - Somebody sent me a picture of me when I was 12 or 13-years-old turning the reel with a little tanktop on and I showed my son and he said, “Dad that look just like me”, and I said “That IS you!”. I look just like my son! But yeah, long story short , we met at Loop Records. About a week before I met him, someone had played ‘It’s Over’ on the radio and then we met and that was it, it was over after that!
So what was that, 1987? Something like that?
GH - Yeah 86-87…
And you were already DJing then?
GH- Yeah, at 11 or 12-years-old…
And what about you Robert, were you DJing then?
Hmm, more just small things, house parties. That escalated up to pubs and universities, but never something serious. It was always just a little local things. The most serious thing I did was some pub joint, I can’t even remember the name of ‘em. But within Chicago, within the right circles, everyone knew each other, so no matter where you were, someone within that collective knew about what you were doing. It was seriously one big family.
I spoke to Marshall Jefferson recently about that sense of community in the Chicago house scene. It seems like its endured, the original guys seems to be sticking together, is that right?
RO – The one thing is, promoters in different countries don’t book us in the same venues together, but when we do get together, it’s like yesterday. I just played with Marshall for New Year’s and it was just like seeing him all those years ago. He was like, “How you staying so slim?!” and all that. Seeing Gene now is just like yesterday, you don’t lose that memory of when you really embraced love with individuals, it’s just like catching up from where you left off.
Lil Louis might be in town today too! He was all about the Bismarck Hotel parties in the late 80s right?
GH – He started off at The Ascot, even before that as well, but I can’t remember the name of that place. He kinda just worked his way around, doing his own thing. He came up with a concept called Diamond Corps. He had a pretty big family, so he would have his little brothers and sisters out in suits, sitting outside the clubs and the schools. It was a family-orientated business cos Louis’ parents had a restaurant called Mama’s House and the food was… Oh my god! So good, you pass out after you eat it. So, it was a family orientated business, with this
one sister Marilyn doing the co-ordination and a lot of brothers who would just go out and help their brother build his name. He’s always had a keen sense of business and that’s one thing that I was glad that I learned from him coming up. He taught me how to manifest a business, take a lil something and turn it into something. I admire him. We both come from the Westside, you had your DJs who played up North and South, but we were the top dogs out west. It’s a lot different now, but back then we used to do this thing called Firehouse, at a fire station. Me and Lil Louis would go to this thing and throw parties and everyone would come and we’d set up a system and everyone would party. That was cool, but the Bismarck was the big stepping stone, then he moved onto the Hotel Continental. He was real good for starting off in one area and then slowly building himself up. The one thing I do recall, this was before French Kiss and the actual productions came out, I remember a DJ named Chip Veasly sold Louis his 808 for $300 at the end of the party and whatever programmes was on it. Louis took that, got a keyboard and started making Frequency and all those other tracks. Marshall Jefferson helped Louis make Video Clash, people don’t know that, but truth be told…
GH- At the same time French Kiss and Music Takes Me Away and The Frequency and all that, Louis bought that 808 drum machine and next thing he knows, he took it to Ray Barney, a very big record distributor with Barney’s Records. He was responsible for all the juke, ghetto and booty-house and Louis started Diamond Corps Records and Ray Barney did the distribution. He started putting releases out and next thing he know he came up with the concept for French Kiss, it got licensed and he got a deal. Then things began!
One of my early house memories is the video for French Kiss on Top of the Pops with wind-up toys going in circles, it really stuck in my mind - that track was massive over here. What was the crowd like at The Bismarck? Was that a little bit younger than The Warehouse and The Music Box?
GH – Yeah it was, it was more like high school kids at that time. I was the only person who was at high school who was pro, so I would hang out with Fingers, Larry you know, but shit, I was a teenager. Everyone I knew was my age but I was on the pro circuit playing with the big boys. Basically, the Bismarck kinda crowd was projected more towards people my age. That was a long-ass time ago, I’m 41 now. Back in them days, the Bismarck was Lil Louis’ plateau in terms of jump starting other stuff. I saw him gradually work his way up. Louis has been playing since the mid-70s.
RO – I didn’t realise that!
GH – Yeah, yeah, Louis was playing for quite some time.
RO – He came over and he interviewed me.
GH – He came to my house!
RO – Yeah, he said he’d gone into filming or something.
GH – He brought his cameras and all that shit over to my house and he made me turn my heat and lights off. You see, when you come to my house, and Robert’s stayed at my house many a time, when you go downstairs in my basement, I have the posters and stuff from all the old days. So I got these Three Stooges chairs that I had to almost beat this lady down to win in an auction, I had to buy them. Louis said he liked the chairs, so he wanted to do the interview on them, but he said he had one problem. He wanted me to take all the posters down and put
all the posters with our name on them in the background. That’s just Louis. So me and Louis take down the posters and put up all the Gene Hunt and Lil Louis posters up from Da Vinci Manor and all the different places we played over the years. We sat down for a couple of hours and he interviewed me.
RO – So what’s going on with the whole movie thing, is he still filming?
GH – He doing that and says he ain’t DJing no more. Obviously you are, you DJing tonight and this weekend! Louis is Louis, that’s just how he is. It’s like glory, we’re not going to stay away from something that we love so much.
RO – It’s about the people. If you’ve experienced making people happy, you don’t forget that and it never goes away.
GH – And you don’t want to let that go because you need that sense. They need it just as bad as you do.
RO – It’s food for your soul.
GH – It most definitely is.
Talking about Gucci Productions earlier, didn’t that give you the break into the big scene?
GH – Yeah! With Gucci Productions, Steve Poindexter is also a great DJ and makes wonderful tracks as well. He kinda took the promotional aspect and created this thing called Gucci Productions with John Hunt and they would throw parties at this place called the Hyde Park Athletic. It was a tennis club and they would throw events in this facility. The main DJs who would spin would be myself, Farris Thomas and Ron Hardy. On occasion, Ron had to spin at The Box and then, of course, Farris was Farris and he would be doing college frat parties things of
that nature. So one night, Ron comes in and he doesn’t have nothing, no records, no headphones. He just came in with a sweater on. He said, “Gene, where your records at?” and I said, “Why you ask?”. He says, “You don’t answer a question with a question. I might need to borrow a few of yours… I don’t have time to go into any explaining, but let me see that record bag junior.” So he stroll over to the bags and pull out some nice stock and says, “This is my set and I’m gonna be playing tonight and open up for you.” Ron used to open up for me, we had that
kind of relationship where he would do his thing and then just go and dance in front of a speaker. I remember this one time me and Tyree played at a place called AKA’s, when cell-phones first came out, and Ron called me and asked me where I was cos he just wanted to dance! He said he was about to kill Tyree andhe just couldn’t take it any more. We were family. RO – He was a beautiful spirit, a lot of people admire Ron.
His legacy lives on doesn’t it - your working on a Music Box compilation, aren’t you?
GH – Well the compilation is actually finished, it’s just a case of Rush Hour compiling whatever they need to compile. They have all the material they need to put it out, they came to Chicago and interviewed Robert Williams and some of the people who used to partake and participate. I sorted them out in order to get the truth, because you know that some people would come out and do bootlegs, old stuff from a tape of a tape of a tape, you know? When they press it on vinyl it’s not acceptable. I know they’re desperate to hear it, but come on. One thing about me is, even when I was a teenager, when I made music, I didn’t give it out to nobody.
RO – I went to his house and I heard things that I made and I can’t even remember. I’m shocked he even kept them.
GH – For example, remember the song Moody by ESG? Robert Owens has a song called I’m Sleazy. Larry programmed the drums like Moody, but put his own flavour to it and Robert did that too. This is stuff you’re not gonna get your hands on. Trax calls it The Holy Grail (laughs). It’s sacred amongst family. Marshall called me and asked me what the bassline to The Jungle was cos he forgot and asks me for all these records, Life, Just a Little Bit, all this stuff and he’s like, “You got everything!”
RO – That’s amazing…
GH – I have everything, it’s sacred.
Are you a bit of a hoarder then?
GH – I’m a pack rat. I got everything, I still got the cassettes, I still got the reels. Everything in high quality. I didn’t hesitate to buy cheap stuff because it still works now. I can put a reel to reel on a reel right now and it’ll play just like I recorded it yesterday. But now, with the new technology, I can take a tape and enhance it, make it sound big and full. You would never know what hit you. The other day I was listening to something that Robert gave me called Freedom and its just a TRACK (Does impression of the keys). I played it out maybe a week ago
and everybody looked at me like it was some new stuff that Robert was coming out with, even though it’s about 25 years old, because I just took it away and enhanced it. I gotta send him back his own stuff (laughs)
RO – I’m just too mobile to hold onto stuff.
GH – I told Frankie Knuckles a couple weeks ago that I had some stuff he would probably want back. He asked what it was, so I sent him a snippet and he was like, “You still got that?!” Yes, when I picked him up from his residency from the Riviera on Sundays it was always a real nice hang out. Everyone would be there, Louis, Robert, Craig Loftus, Mike Western, everyone would just come to the Riviera and Frankie would just be in the booth with a lot of new material. I still have it, as well as a lot of Steve Hurley’s stuff. One night me, Steve Hurley and Chip-E played together because I won the 2006 Global Mix Award. They play with computers now, so for some strange reason their Serato or whatever
didn’t work. So they were like, “We can’t play tonight”. But I opened up my CD collection and showed them the Chip-E section and the Steve Hurley section and told them to get to work. Chip looked at me and was like, “Oh my gosh, this is so clean, where’d you get this from?”, I said , “You!”. So I had to give them all their stuff back (laughs). It amazed them.
RO – It is amazing that you kept all of their stuff!
GH – I kept everything because I knew that this day would come for some strange reason, something in my heart told me to keep this on ice. I knew that it was going to help me get my second wind in my music career. And it worked…
Are you surprised that there’s still the enthusiasm for what you guys were doing back then? Robert, I know you live and DJ in London regularly now, there’s been a fantastic reaction to you being over as well Gene. It’s 25 years on now and there’s still this enthusiasm in Britain for what you were doing.
RO – It’s not a big surprise. Children’s fathers and mothers have inspired them to seek out the house music and the origins of where it’s come from, it’s passed on from generation to generation. I was in South Africa recently and I had kids come up to me and say, “My Pop’s told me to come and see you”, it’s beautiful when it’s passed on. I think it’s the same principle as when you look back at Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, it was a family unit in Chicago. It’s always been about that and supporting DJs and looking at them as extended family, almost like escapism
from your normal reality. You might have been going through something difficult, but you went to those places to meet up with your family and relieve you of any kinda negative thing you was going through. I think it’s the same now, you can give that to any place you go. You can inject that same emphasis and give back love and unification.
When it was blowing up the first time around, were you aware of what was going on in Britain with the acid house scene?
RO – I come out of the disco era of things. Ron Hardy used to play a place called The Den One and before it closed I went back there and rented it out and hired Ron. Two weeks before he died, I hired him to come back and play there. I went there and sat in the booth with him and he was shocked that I did that. Even though I stayed on the outside and I never tried to get too close, we had personal moments and experiences that were ours, you know? Me, and many other people in Chicago, had a great respect and love for him and I feel privileged to have been associated with him.
Music Box is probably what Ron is most associated with here…
RO – Yeah, that’s coming into the whole house era, but before the house era, it was the disco scene. So what I’m talking about stems out of the scene with Larry Levan, The Garage and all that, the first origins of all of that. I have little experiences from that angle and then later on meeting people like Gene, they were the inspiration for the house scene and making it develop and blow up. He can educate more on that because I’ve never really interacted too much, I’ve always been on the side.
Do you feel that people thought that house was just an evolution of disco?
GH – Most definitely.
RO – Yeah, a lot of people were inspired by the disco scene. Gene used to bring obscure things over to my house that I’ve never heard of.
GH – And then he’d play stuff that would blow me away, so we would trade. Then the next week when I’m playing some party and I’m busting something out, I got everyone asking me where I got it from.
RO – A lot of that was getting pulled up by Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy. They was pulling up some obscure things that we hadn’t heard, with Isaac Hayes and Love Can’t Turn Around inspiring a lot of things.
You’re playing disco now aren’t you Gene? I can remember you playing Dr.
Armando’s Deputy of Love.
RO – I don’t have that no more!
GH – By the end of the night you will!
You played a few edits as well, disco’s a theme running through your
GH – It’s most definitely like that. In reference to me coming out here and playing, I just wanted to give y’all a story. I’m more like a story teller when I play and my whole objective is to show how I learned from Robert and Frankie and all the guys. A lot of DJs can just put something on a record and play it, but I was taught to know how to work it. I know how to work the box and break it down. I know how to bring out the potential of what that record really has, jump inside it and become one and make it sound different. You can play a record and I can play a record, but I’m gonna do something different. That’s because Gene is putting his spirit and his heart in it and let it explode out. Those are different tactics that I learned, I’m gonna go past, present and future on you because I wanna take you on a ride. I want us to do it together, give you a bit of something you’re accustomed to and then educate you on something because that’s what it’s all about. That’s my formula and it’s obviously been working for me pretty good, so I just got to stick to that, there’s no reason to change it.
How have you found it over here in England? Has it been what you’ve
GH – It’s fantastic.
RO – I’m really glad you made it over.
GH – From the last time I was here, maybe 9 or 10 years ago, it’s something I had on my wishlist. I wanted to be able to re-establish myself in the UK, especially because Robert’s been over here for so long and it gives me a chance to rekindle my relationship with him. It gives me an opportunity to explore another level of my career and do other things I want to do, like play in Berlin at Panorama Bar. To be back in London now, it’s something that I want to do on a regular basis.
You know Farley’s here too?
RO –Farley’s here? I didn’t know that!
GH – Yeah, but he’s in Scotland. He’s working his way back (laughs).
You mentioned Panorama Bar, how did you find that?
RO – It’s amazing.
GH – Yeah, it’s amazing.
RO – Playing Watergate and places like that too.
GH – Putting out the Rush Hour stuff and getting back in the studio, that’s really triggered things off again. I didn’t realise that back when I was a kid compared to the tracks I’m making now just how far in the future the stuff I was making was. It’s just starting to pay off now. About a week ago I pulled out some old reels and I’m thinking to myself, “When did I do this?”, and I can bust out stuff I made when I was 16 or 17. It’s great to be able to forget that you made something and then pull it out and it sounds brand new to you. I preserved all that stuff and I didn’t realise I was working that hard when I was younger.
RO – Something beautiful never loses its vibe.
GH – I’m really excited for the Gene Vs. Gene album because it gives you a sense of the nostalgia of Gene Hunt when he was younger, with a collage of pictures of me when I was younger with no facial hair wearing a leather coat (laughs). It’s amazing to see the transition of the teenage Gene to the mature Gene, with the album contrasting the old and new stuff together. It’s good for younger guys who are into that raw rugged 909 vs. the new stuff that I do, it’s a good comparison.
On the subject of production, there was a track I wanted to ask you about. On the second Phuture record, Spank Spank / Slam, you’re listed as being one of the co-producer on it?
GH – It kinda happened tripped out. I was playing at Photon’s one night, a club in the south suburbs, and Pierre and Spanky and the Phuture guys came to the party I was playing at. They approached me and said, “I know this might be kind of spur of the moment and last minute, but after you finished playing do you mind coming to the studio with us to mix down the record?” I said I’d love to and they pulled everything off the big 2” reels, Pierre was real serious about their sound, in a studio that wasn’t too far from the venue. Once they put everything
up on the board, with all the automation and the engineer there, I sat there and spent the night in the studio. I did a mix on We Are Phuture and Spank Spank all in one night and slept on the couch. I had my old high school friend Zernel Gillie with me and now he’s starting to do his thing a little bit, but that’s a bit more eclectic and disco-ey. Zernel was always one of my best friends and I asked him whether he was going to get in trouble staying out all night with me. He said he didn’t care if he did because he was having the best fun of his life. We stayed all
night in Star Trax [studio], it’s amazing how I remember all this, I sat and helped Spanky and Pierre with We Are Phuture, Slam and Spank Spank. I thought it was a good thing to do and after that they gave me a lot of unreleased stuff that they don’t even have any more. Herb just came to my house the over month to shoot a commercial for me and I let him hear some of the stuff and he said they didn’t have any of that stuff any more.
All still in the basement?
GH – Everything. I asked them if it was okay to use one of their tracks in this upcoming projects and they said sure, but it’s always good to ask first. The only thing I had to do was give them back their stuff and agree to do remixes when they do their new release. There is an unreleased Phuture track on that Gene Vs. Gene album. There’s gonna be some snacks on that package.
RO – When is the album released?
GH – I’m just trying to find someone now cos I was gonna put it out on Rush Hour, but my boy Christiaan just left them. They’re still interested though, so it’s just a case of me talking to Antal and making sure the numbers make sense. As far as the artwork goes, I’ve got an amazing collage of old pictures of me and Robert and all that.
RO – I’m shocked that he even kept any of this stuff. I don’t have none of it.
GH – I think it’s going to be an exciting album, because all the stuff I’ve been doing on Rush Hour thus far has been real good but the Music Box compilation and this will be amazing. There’s gonna be a nice rhythm to get me better and I’ve now got the opportunity to get something consistent in the UK. I like to create relationships with people and just deal with them and once I get a good vibe I wanna build off that. I don’t wanna deal with someone out of the blue and I want to be free.
RO – London is such a collage of places, it’s great you coming here. It’s a great place to come and you’ll just catapult yourself and branch out to everywhere. Once people hear that you’ve travelled out here to London, they’ll wanna book you constantly because you challenge yourself. There’s a lot of respect for London across the globe.
GH – It just really opens up a lot of doors.
RO – It’s about time people heard you – I talk about you all the time interviews.
GH – Obviously you have to test the waters first, but once you do and everbody sees the result, let the games begin! Plus it gives me the chance to link up with my brother here again!
What have you got lined up for Boiler Room, you were saying you don’t like playing the same thing in two different sets?
GH – I like to challenge myself. I know Boiler Room is my last stop whilst I’m over here, so I got my steel box with me and it’s got some goodies in there. I’m planning on going from beginning to end, 45 minutes, non-stop no hesitation, just laying it down. Once I go to Boiler Room that should put the stamp on everything after that. It’s gonna be fun.
That Music Box 12” that came out recently is interesting that there’s a whole new
younger audience that’s getting tuned into house music, more specifically what
you’re doing. You’re the name that people have been really impressed with. It’s
been insane, the club [Thunder] was full at 10.30
GH – I walked in and looked at my watch and was like, “You gotta be kidding me…” (laughs) Then I came out to have a smoke and people spotted me and asked me to get them in!
RO – I was in Italy though…
How are you finding DJing in the UK? You DJ at Society right?
RO – It’s like a family thing down here, I love this gig. It’s just a warm feeling when you come down here with everyone. There’s been parties where it hasn’t been packed, but you feel that sense of love.
And that’s still here for you?
RO – Yeah definitely. Whenever I come back to London, it’s always the same thing. It’s always a unit of people; you feel that people are there to support you. It reminds me of The Music Box.
What’s The Music Box like then? What was the crowd and vibe like?
GH – Family. Just like everybody know everybody, everyone looking forward to it. We know we’re in for a treat and everyone’s on the same level. If you’re drinking the water or you’re eating the fruit, somebody, naming no names, would spike it, so we would all be on that level.
RO – Remember when that speaker caught on fire?
GH – Yeah! (laughs)
RO – I was actually near it and it didn’t really dawn on me, I just thought, “He beating The Box so hard the speakers are on fire!” It it still didn’t hit me what was going on…
GH – It was serious. The sound system with those hard wood floors…
RO – And it was always about you putting your personal technique of adding yourself into a record. When you were mixing, certain DJs had their certain style. When they played a record, you heard it a different a way because of the way they manipulated that sound system according to their vibe and expression of what they felt about that record. Ron was a classic for doing that.
GH – I remember the first time I heard Your Mind, oh my gosh…
RO – He was shocked.
GH – Then I found out later on that him and Larry made that.
RO – I just took a bunch of tracks from Larry Levan that he didn’t like. I had a lot of stuff that Larry didn’t even have and I’d sit and take cassette decks and put them together and edit it. I’d just overdub and overdub, like I did it with Your Mind. I gave it to Ron Hardy and he started playing it, it was so trippy, but it still became popular.
What was it like to DJ down there?
GH – It was amazing with him because it was interesting. He’d put you on the spot and just wander off when he was tired. You don’t have a choice.
RO – One time he rang me when he was sick and I was plastered out my mind! I thought they was joking, so I just start putting records on and they weren’t saying nothing so I carried on. I was so plastered I was just raising them in and out. He got sick again one time and I played Can You Feel It for the first time and they tripped out. That’s how I knew something was up. Then later I gave them to Ron and Frankie, but that was the place where I’d know how people felt about new tracks.
You said you gave them to Frankie, was it quite different crowds at
Warehouse and The Music Box?
RO - All the same crowds, just different nights. Maybe different attitudes.
GH – Frankie had the people wearing their furs, Ron had the people out The Projects (laughs). But they would all party together!
What was the difference in the vibe? Was The Music Box kind of sweatier
RO – Yeah, street.
And Warehouse was a bit more about melodies and blending in disco and stuff like that?
GH – Nah, the music was the same, it was just about the clothes really!
RO – If you went in The Music Box for fashion, you left there broke down.
GH – I remember one night, Ron played I Lost Control and this lady passed out with her titties hanging out her shirt! We just laid her outside to get some air and someone asked whether she was dead and we said, “Nah, she just lost control!” (laughs)
Check out Gene Boiler Room set from later that night: