This Old House

A dance-music lifer, Derrick Carter is still going strong after two decades.

Derrick Carter, with Doug Burkhart and Misterbradleyp Modä, 1871 West 25th Street 10 p.m. Saturday, January 17, $10 advance, $15 day of show, 216-781-3805
Derrick Carter's label is called Classic, and so is his - music.
Derrick Carter's label is called Classic, and so is his music.
Derrick Carter is about as close to being a house-music lifer as one can be. Laying down tracks since the mid-'80s, he's that rare entity who gets equal props for his ability to move crowds and his prowess behind the boards, where he's one of the world's most highly demanded producers.

Carter's production style and DJ approach are often deemed quirky because of his uncanny knack for making seemingly disparate elements work in harmonious fashion. He flips R&B a cappellas into his sets as if that's precisely where they always belonged, and in doing so, he's helped inspire the market for bootleg remixes of current radio smashes that can now be found in mom-and-pop dance-record shops across the globe.

Two decades ago, when independent releases from house pioneers such as Marshall Jefferson and Farley Jackmaster Funk were helping to define the house sound, a 15-year-old Carter was teaching himself what he calls "the ghetto version of multitracking" with two tape decks, an old Casio, and the sound of his voice.

Already possessing a solid foundation in music (he sang in the choir, performed sax in the school band, and could play piano), Carter continued developing his writing and arranging skills, immersing himself in the technical aspects of recording and engineering. This satisfied his need to create and worked in conjunction with his mastery of mixing records, which stemmed from his desire to please people -- that underlying need that fuels so many top-flight DJs.

"I always liked playing records at parties for people," Carter says. "My parents or relatives would have parties, and I'd end up manning the jukebox or the stereo."

He relished the musical authority the grown-ups bestowed upon him and felt a responsibility to keep the party moving. "I could always see what people liked and what they'd get into," he says.

As he continued to master his craft and build his reputation, Carter did a little of everything. He sang on releases, engineered, and even dabbled in the business aspects of the house scene, developing relationships with labels, distributors, and record pools. By the early to mid-'90s, releases on labels like Cajual and Organico helped cement his position as a producer to be reckoned with. And by the time Carter embarked on his Classic label venture with U.K. producer Luke Solomon in 1996, both sides of the Atlantic were buzzing about him as both a top-rank producer and intuitive crowd-mover.

It wasn't luck. Carter worked his ass off to create that buzz, and he has put himself in a position that only a handful of DJs achieve. Classic has more than 60 releases in its catalog, including Carter's 2002 effort, Squaredancing in a Roundhouse, which has moved more than 40,000 units in a genre where 10,000 is considered a hit. The label's reputation has enabled it to endure the questionable business practices of a third partner, which came to light at the same time that Classic's distributor went belly-up, owing the partners money in the six-figure neighborhood.

But Carter and Solomon have quickly rebounded, with a new distributor and a gang of anticipated releases that will keep Classic alive when probably 95 percent of house labels have folded. The fact that Carter had the available financial resources to clean up the mess in the first place instantly separates him from the thousands of cats around the world who spin records in clubs. He built his wealth mostly by spending about 35 weeks each year on the road playing parties, a relentless travel schedule that "would kill the normal person," as he says. At any time, he may be booked to play five gigs in five countries in five days; he's performed at a music festival in Belgium in the afternoon and rocked London at midnight the same day.

"I'm constantly circulatin' all over," he says. "I feel like blood pumpin' through the system."

Yet despite his hectic schedule and self-described "freaky scatterbrain" nature, Carter somehow finds time to craft tunes that are among the most distinctive in house music. Aside from his own projects, he has done remixing for the likes of Mark Farina, Audio Bullys, and Seal. His home setup includes 17 keyboards, 25 synth modules, and an 80-channel mixing board, as well as a road unit composed of three Powerbooks, which enables him to edit, render, and import at the same time.

Carter's November release, Poverty De Luxe, has a different sound from the in-your-face approach of Squaredancing. The album, titled for the ability to make every situation seem favorable and inspired by a photograph of kids playing basketball using a stray shopping cart hung from a trash receptacle, is more nuanced, textured, and layered, but still prominently features Carter's fondness for unorthodox sounds -- particularly on the low end.

"I like bass lines that sound slobbery," Carter explains. "Like a big old wet Saint Bernard."

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