Debuting on his first major world DJ tour, Dennis Ferrer steps into the spotlight and welcomes global dance heads into his unique SFERE. With past lives in electronic music production, gear sales and even a well-paid stint as a computer programmer, Dennis has finally found his best life in soulful dance music. We can thank his long-time mentor / friend / collaborator Kerri Chandler and Kenny Bobien for helping him connect to his soul but in typical ready for anything style, this Bronx-bred music man creates his own opportunities then takes full advantage. Jump in and read how he keeps it fresh, created the label he co-owns, and what he really thinks about record whores.
Let's start with the family… mom and dad, brothers and sisters?
Dennis Ferrer: Okay, here we go… the usual. Born in the Bronx...
DF: I lived in the Bronx the majority of my life…Over in Soundview...
We're from the same spot… how cool is that?
DF: Yeah? I grew up in Soundview, just around the park. When I was in my late teens I started hanging out in Brooklyn. I got introduced to music in a weird way because I used to do a lot of electronic stuff. I was listening to a lot of acid house - all that old stuff, when the opportunity came up in electronic music. A guy who was already in the business said "Hey, why don't you do something with me?" He hired me for some keyboard playing and I got into it. It wasn't where my heart was really at but that's what happens, you get offered an opportunity, you jump into it.
I knew there had to be some Brooklyn up in there…
DF: Umm huh… Brooklyn, Bronx, the city… I'm not really a Jersey-head.
But you're living out there now!
DF: Yeah, but I am a transplanted New Yorker.
You're out there with the players!
DF: All the hustler's live out here, you know that right? Louie [Vega] is down the block on 30th… Kerri [Chandler] is up the block from me. We live like two blocks away from each other but my studio is in his house. We have two studios in there. We rent two floors of a private house. The bottom floor he lives in and the upstairs is the studio… I have one small room and he has the bigger room, of course. This used to be his little lounge area and when I started out he said, "Put a table and a couple of things up there." I just took it over and stuck a full-blown recording studio in there! The place is ridiculous.
You had a lot of equipment already didn't you?
DF: I've always had stuff because before, I used to do electronic music. I jumped at the opportunity [when it was offered] and I was doing records for a label called EXPERIMENTAL which was run by Tommy Musto from Northcott. I started doing records with this guy named Damon Wild. Damon left that label to start his own and I went along with him. I was doing electronic music and getting about a thousand bucks an EP, which is incredible because there is a lot of work put into it and you can't survive on that. You have to do twelve EPs a year to survive.
An EP has a minimum of three songs each time?
DF: Yeah, it's crazy. After that, I got kind of bitter with the whole industry because I was offered an opportunity to own half of the label and that fell through. Words came about… We're still good friends today, but it's not the same. I jumped out of the music business and sold all my gear. After I quit music, I went to work at Rogue [Music Store] down on 30th Street because I was fed up with [the business].
Why? You thought you would be done forever?
DF: I wasn't done but I was a miserable son of a bitch! I went to work at the music store for a while and that's how I met so many guys in the music business. That's where I met Jerome [Syndenham] and where I met Kerri.
Do you tell your age?
DF: Yeah… I'm in my thirties. Actually, I'm thirty-one. This was about 1994 or something like that. Jerome and I used to talk but no one ever knew what each other did. I had a couple of records out that had a little history behind them, but I never did things under my name. I did them under different guises. I never knew who the hell Kerri was… he was just some guy who came into the store and bought gear. I always used to tell him, 'get this, get that.'
Was this a record or equipment store?
DF: It was a studio recording gear store. Kerri came in and I sold him a mixing board, we got to talking and I found out he lived up the block from me. I had moved to Jersey with my wife after we had lived in Brooklyn for a while. I met my wife when I lived in Brooklyn, near Bushwick and Myrtle. I had to get out of dodge per say, there was just too much stuff happening around me and I couldn't take it anymore. Like everybody else, you try to find a way out. I found myself in Union City because one of my friends that I did music with had an uncle that owned some property. It was cheaper rent so…
When I met Kerri and found out that he lived up the block, I didn't know who he was and I didn't care anyway because I was out of that stuff. I went up to his house and I was like 'Oh shit, you've got some nice stuff up here.' Then I told him how I would reminisce about how much shit I had. I kept seeing Kerri play around with some songs and I think this was around the time when the first Atmosfere the Lost Dubs was out on IBADAN. Kerri said "Why don't you come with me to this gig in Boston?" That's where it all started. He played "Why We Sing" and that almost brought me to tears. I was like, 'See, now this is what I want to do.' I want to write music like that.
I want to write music that makes you feel - that's soulful. I was busy doing electronic music but I was too soulful for that. That music is really more straight ahead and people can't dig it if it's too soulful. That kind of crowd is different, let me just say it like that. When I heard that song, I was like [voice deepens] 'Oh shit… that's dope!' He brought me back. When Kenny [Bobien]was up here, I thanked him. I said, 'Thank you, bro. Cause you don't know what that record did… that record brought me back.'
It was funny cause since meeting Kerri, I [had not seen] him DJ, and I was like, 'Who the fuck is this?' He was a friend of mine at that point but I had no clue who he was. I just knew him as a friend. The night with the Kenny Bobien record was when I found out. I saw Kerri spin and people were chanting his name. I think he really is one of the most under-rated DJs and it's a shame.
Have you worked with Kenny Bobien?
DF: Yeah, I did a song with him called "Reality". We did a swap - Kerri did "Reach" with him for SOUNDMEN ON WAX and I got to work with him on "Reality". That hasn't been released yet. It was floating around on CD for a hot minute, but we are gonna remix it and do it over.
Anyway, Kerri was very supportive and suggested I get a couple of pieces of gear in my house. I got something simple to work with and that's where "Faith" came. "Faith" came when I didn't have much equipment and it was released on SFERE. All I had was two samplers and a small ass mixing board - a cheap mixing board. It's not about what you have, it's what you can do with it.
Had you studied equipment and engineering at school?
DF: No, actually I went to school to be a computer programmer. I was working on Wall Street as a computer programmer doing C++ and BB. It was a nine-to-five corporate job and I got tired of it. The money was good… there was a lot of cash coming in, but my first love has always been music.
Do you have music in your roots from your family?
DF: Yeah, my mother was in a band. She traveled quite a bit. My parents died when I was very young, and I was raised by my grandmother. It's always been in me and though I have had no formal training, I can play. I play on all my records, whatever I do - I've played, except I don't play wind instruments and guitar. I play all the keys, anything piano - but I've never been formerly taught.
What are your thoughts on how to get more people to hear the music you produce?
DF: It's kind of difficult… and I've had this conversation with people before about how to make our scene more marketable. People come from wherever to dance, and that's cool but you have to look at the surrounding neighborhoods and what feeds this frenzy. Who's driving the market? Right now, it's the young kids who are eighteen and pissed off at the world - and they're from the ghetto. Kids from where we come from are homophobic and it's unfortunate. They say we make gay music. They only say that because we've been misrepresented by radio stations here in New York. Most people think that dance music is that shit you hear on 'KTU and it's a shame.
Look at Shelter now… all the hip hop kids are walking in and saying what the hell is going on here cause that used to he Speeed. They go "Oh shit!" but then they start bouncing. It's a crazy phenomenon. I was there a few weeks ago and I saw hip hop kid after hip hop kid come walking in, then they started bouncing. "Alright, I'm going to go get my drink on." Then they're like, "Alright, here we go!" I was like, look at this? They are hanging and hanging hard. It's difficult to sell house music to kids in the projects, I've always said that. And it's too hard for kids nowadays to buy two turntables, a mixer, some speakers - that their mom is going to keep saying turn them down anyway. All that is so expensive - those turntables are like $400 bucks.
But wasn't it more expensive back in the day?
DF: The thing is if you want to mass market something, you have to make it affordable to everybody. All these kids can afford a walk-man, a CD walk-man… how much is that? They can afford that. They can't afford two turntables, a mixer and speakers. Especially from where we come from, Donna. Everyone's struggling from one paycheck to paycheck. Therein lies the problem, how do we market our music? As long as we have that, we will always have the problem where the producer is not going to make that much money. Then they have to go out and DJ, which I'm doing now. I have to supplement my income because I can't do that many records. I've done a lot of records in the past year and I can't afford to live like that. You know it's a shame. I love to DJ, don't get me wrong, but I respect DJs too much to say that I am one.
You're not coming from the hard-core perspective of DJing and you are honest about that… how would describe your style and approach to spinning?
DF: I don't understand the train-spotter epidemic. When I play out I see train-spotters and I say that I will wear a t-shirt that says, "I am playing nothing new!" (laughs) Most DJs are running to get the next hottest jam, the next thing that's unreleased and I don't even know what to say, it's almost embarrassing - you're like a record whore. I get these requests for promos of unreleased things all the time and it's like who gives a shit if you play something I don't know, what the fuck is the point? So I can go, 'Oh where'd you get that from?' And you look like the man. What's the point of playing a record that the average Joe doesn't give a shit about because he doesn't know it? You don't have to impress me, or your friends who are all lining up around the booth and who don't want to dance - that's not who you have to impress. That's fifty out of three hundred people that you are impressing by playing that record… don't you think the majority is more important than fifty? Especially those who paid their $25 to get in that night.
I might pack one or two new things that I've done or that someone else has given me to play. I ain't trying to hear that, I'm trying to play records that I like. Put it like this, when I spin, I spin for the average Joe because I'm just average. I'm not like this guy who has all the hottest shit… No, I'm the guy who walked into a club saw a girl in the corner and thought oh she's hot, got my drink on, then I was ready to dance.
But you guys are doing something very new with the mixing of the MP3s from a laptop. Talk about that for a minute…
DF: Oh yeah, that. I'm starting to get into that now and will be doing that in my next couple of gigs. What's happening now is that we are using laptops to supplement mixing with the turntables because on our laptops, we can carry so much more 'vinyl', per say. I don't have to carry around 300 hundred records with me. The good thing about it is that it's all live - and I don't have to sift through all my CDs to see what's on them. I just use Tracktor or PC DJ and I run right through the folders to see what's there. I have everything in folders… classics or any song I feel like at the moment. I just look up and go bow! It all connects. We use the Stanton needles… it's this weird thing that Stanton makes that attaches to the head of the cartridge and allows for extra input. We're rolling like that.
Do you think it might help market the romance of the DJ to this missing segment of teens we can't reach?
DF: I think being new and different is important.
Are other people trying this technique?
DF: I don't think a lot of people are doing it; I think a lot of cats are afraid to do it because there are so many problems that can arise. There are glitches that we've had and it's not perfect, things can go wrong. At least vinyl you can let it play. You get a hard-drive crash, it's over with. You're night is done! There's a risk so Kerri doesn't just bring the laptop, he brings the records just in case. It is definitely different and I think he's headed in a good direction. I'm about to do the same thing.
I can't say that I am a DJ. Don't get me wrong, I can mix in and out and do my thing. But I respect them too much to say that is what I am. Just like a producer… you get some DJs who think they're producers [because] they get some cats that can play some keyboards and a bass player and right away, they think they can write records. They don't do shit but sit back and say, try to do this… oh yeah, let's put that together, that sounds cool. They get the engineer to mix the whole thing down. Now that's a slap in my face. I just started DJing February or March [of 2001], so I've only touched a turntable for a few months.
With regard to production work, how long have you been doing that?
DF: That's a lot longer. I've been apprenticing with Kerri for a while - about five years. It's been slowly building to the point where I can go out on my own. I had to try to establish myself a bit first. I think Kerri's taken me as far he can take me, now it's up to me to continue my education. He's given me the tools and now it's like, "Go west young man," type thing. But of course he has a lot of input in what I do, though.
I also know that you like a lot of the old school music, and as a thirty-something person, that's what you're supposed to say if you have any style. But how do you bring that into your original productions, are you writing your own stuff as well?
DF: It's kind of weird because we are more producers/songwriters/musicians. We play most of the stuff on our own, but if I need something like horns or something else, we just call up a friend to come up and play. I've always tried to be somebody else except me. I always sit down and say 'Damn, those drums on that Basement Boys record are off the hook! I got to do something like that because I'm looking bad.' Or I'll hear a Louis Benedetti [Soulshine] record and I think it's just so soulful. I'm like, 'God, I wish I could write keys like that.' My influences come from a lot of different areas and I'm never satisfied with the way things come out.
How do know when something is done?
DF: Like I tell everybody, when you can't put nothing else in it! When it's just packed and you say, 'I have to pull something out - this is too busy.' That's when you know it's really done. It's also a feel. I try to convey a feeling in my songs and I try to do that to the best of my ability. I always want a peak or valley in my songs. I don't claim to write the best songs… I'm never happy with the stuff I do. What I try to give the general public is quality. It might not be a hit but at least it's a well-produced record. I'm not trying to gyp you for your money. That's the most important thing. These guys that spend their money on me, I have to see it that way. I'm not some glamour guy just doing records. You are going out there and spending your hard earned cash on me, so it's up to me to do the best I can to give you a good quality product. In the end, that reflects who I am. I don't want somebody running around saying, "This is garbage!"
How do you stay interested and challenged in this business?
DF: It gets difficult. I try to do different things. I want people to go to a record shop and pick up my record and say, "What the hell is he on now?" I never want to do the same thing where I get stuck in a rut where you say "Oh, this is another Dennis record." You can decipher my sound and say that's gotta be Dennis but I don't want you to pigeon hole me. I want to switch it up and come out with an African thing, or this Brazilian thing or this gospel thing. I'm all over the place and that's the key - there's an element of surprise and I'll have a broader fan-base. I'm keeping everybody happy. This is music, why bore yourself and do the same thing over and over again.
There have been a lot of changes in the business lately since the WTC disaster, has that effected you very much?
DF: To tell you the truth, our business hasn't really changed. Thank God. We're blessed that we haven't been affected too badly. There's a lot of stuff in the pipeline. We've got a new Sfere album coming out called Second Steps. We have an artist album coming out called Third Ministry of Faith featuring K.T. Brooks. We have a whole slew of releases that we're just sitting on while we try to figure out our direction. What happened is I got kind of caught up this year doing projects for other people, so I'm kind of swamped for the next few months doing everybody else's projects. So Sfere had to take a back-burner till I cleaned up all my loose ends. I figure that by the end of the month of April, we will be rolling again. I'm not a big fan of putting things out for the conference, or rushing things. I take my time, it's my own label. Screw it. It comes out when it comes out.
We're an underground label and we try to be really underground. We give no promos out and if you don't get the release, you don't get it because we rarely repress. The thing is we sell a lot of records - which is crazy because we hardly do anything to promote [it]. I want to develop it into a bigger label, but I also like where we're at. I would like to put out twelve/sixteen releases a year, but I am not in a rush. This is music. I'm not trying to be here today and gone tomorrow. I'm trying to be here a long time. I feel that I have a lot of emotion to give everybody.
Where did you first start playing and what was the experience like?
DF: (laughs) I started practicing spinning at this little place called Solas in Manhattan… just like train-wrecking and shit like that. I wasn't that great, but I was doing okay in that little hole in the wall. It toughened me up a bit and since the crowd really wasn't into our music, it was great because I had to find something to move them. I learned some kind of crowd control with that gig. I play everything that I would want to hear over the course of that night, whether they are classics or other records that we know. I refuse to play the records that are played out because even when we were kids listening to the radio, we thought damn, they play that record a lot.
What would be an example of a record like that?
DF: I won't even go there! (laughs) I want to hear music that reminds me of my youth. I want my set to go through your past to say I met this person here and get's you in touch with your emotions. I want to touch people and new records don't really do that until they've been played. That's what gets me really peeved because you have so many train-spotters standing in front of the booth making you nervous not dancing… how can you vibe off of that?
Do they always get it though since a lot of that old school is not coming out and you have to introduce the new school to it?
DF: Most of the new school understands it. I tell everybody, straight up 'Fuck you'. I play what I want to play. I don't play for DJs, I play for people… that's what I got in this business for. [If] you get into this business to please producers and DJs, you'll be dead broke! There are only a handful of them. If that was the case I would just make records for my friends and never put them out.
What do you do in your free time?
DF: I go out occasionally with my friends but I can't enjoy myself at a club anymore because as musician, you hear it differently than someone who is just going out to go dance.
What do you hear?
DF:It's weird… I hear breaks and keys… the way things were played… I hear the fuck ups. I wind up dissecting every song that comes on. I heard the Stephanie Mills record the other night and I heard the tambourines were all off and I wondered how they got away with that. I can't enjoy it unless I have a couple of drinks and then the party's on.
So you are a family man…
DF: Yeah, I'm a family man. I have two children. A boy and a girl. They are the light of my life actually. My son is five and my daughter is three.
What do they know about what daddy does?
DF: They pretty much know that daddy goes to the studio and he doesn't come home for two or three days. They don't see me when they come home from school because I am usually working in the studio. It's not a glamour job unless you're making six-figure pay days every month.
Do you want to do that?
DF: It's an impossibility in our business and it's not going to happen for a long time. That's why I picked up DJing. It's almost of out necessity. I hate to say that because there are many a bedroom DJ who will kick my ass in a heartbeat spinning, they are bad ass and they can't catch a break. That makes me feel bad. There's so many talented DJs out there but I make a record and all of sudden I'm getting paid crazy to go spin. Therein lies the problem about DJs becoming producers and I know how DJs feel about producers being DJs. I think it's a bad break but you can't have too many kings in the kingdoms. I mean you got your serfs, and you have your lords…
I haven't heard that for a while…
DF: Unfortunately, that's just the way the world works. Everybody wants to be paid and have a high lifestyle but that's just not the way it works. You've got the haves and the have-nots, and its trickled down to our business. There are guys who make big money being mobile DJs but not as much money as they would if they produced. I just picked up the turntables a year ago but here goes the crazy money. But in essence, DJing is a popularity contest, who's hot? I don't have to play that game because I produce records. If I was just a DJ, then I would because that would distinguish me from the other thousands of DJs around.
So what has been the coolest gig you've played.
DF: My first major gig was the Toronto one - over at Garage 41, which was fun but also kind of a nightmare. [It was] the worst and the coolest. It was the mistakes that I made there that made it really bad.
DF: I picked up the needle off the wrong record. What happened was, I was coming on after Peter from 83 West. I was kind of nervous because it was my first gig out and I was by myself so the support was really thin that night. But the place was packed and I was really astonished. I thought I was going to mix in smooth and no one would notice the change from one DJ to the other. Pedro gets on the mic and announces who I am while I am in the middle of a record. Then it all went downhill from there. My hand started shaking on the needle and I couldn't put he needle on the record. All the train-spotters were looking around and then I put the needle on the groove on the wrong side of the lights and there was this brrrrrr-sound. I finally get the record on and I was like, 'Pedro you gotta get me a drink… Get me two drinks, no three drinks… Fuck it, just get me all the drinks you can get me!' So I start pounding them away a little bit and I finally started getting into the set a little bit.
I didn't train-wreck that bad… it only happened once. Someone was talking to me in the middle of a mix and they caught my attention and I was trying to answer them back and please everybody. I'm learning, this is all new to me. All these things I have to learn from the flip side of the coin like DJ etiquette. I was playing "Butterflies" and I was playing something on CD I did that was unreleased… I thought the CD was still playing and picked up Butterflies right in the middle of the song. The whole crowd sighed… I was like sorry and I put the needle back on the record. But at the end of the night, people were clapping and being supportive so I had a really great time.
So where are you off to now?
DF: Edinborough... then the following week is Russia.
What is the deal with Russia?
DF: Russia is hopping, it's off the hook. I don't know.
How did you get this gig?
DF: Well Shauna from Ibadan is doing my booking and that's all her. She's been booking me like a mad woman. I figured it was time to start going out. For producers, DJing is an act of promotion and that's what I look it at it as. I'm just promoting my music and hope everyone just looks at it like that. I'm not trying to take money from the next man's hand or mouth. I just try to play good records. If you're coming out to see me, I want you to have a good time and get your drink on.
Will this be your first time in Scotland?
DF: This will be the first time to a lot of places. I've been to London a couple of times but the rest of the world is going to be an adventure. I don't think I'll have a lot of time to explore things and I'm the type of person who doesn't like to go in and out. I would like to get out and see things. It would be a shame to go to Russia and not see anything. I mean how many people can say they've gone to Russia? It's a privilege and I'm honored that these places want to hear me play for them. It's crazy.
You mentioned the new singles coming out…
DF: I've got a lot of singles coming out, I've just been busy. I don't mean busy for money… I've just been busy. That's all I do all day. I leave the house and I go to the studio. I go in and write a song because I am feeling it. You'll hear something new from me quite often because I work a lot. I have a new African track on a new label that we are going to distribute called HOUSE AFRICA.
Coming from where?
DF: It's a label from Johannesburg. I did a remix of a South African record called "Mari Ye Phepha", and the group is Bongo Maffin. That should be released before the conference.
How did you hook that up?
DF: We worked a lot with Tim White over there and he is a very supportive guy for us out there. We've been on tons of his African compilations. We just worked this out… he wanted a mix and a record so we just worked it out. I'm supposed to fly out to Africa soon to work with Hugh Masekela also for a House Africa track. You know that I am going to wild out in Africa. That's a beautiful thing.
We also have a remix of DJ Pierre's "Good Love" on KING STREET coming out. The original was kind of tough because it had a harder edge for me. I smoothed it out a lot.
"NJF" is for my son because he always watched Tarzan, the animated series and they had all these bongos and drums so when they played, he was like, three and he would jump up and down so when I started doing it, it reminded me of that. Then I'm doing one now called "Daddy's Little Girl" and that's for the album. That should be interesting and it's really pretty too.
Sounds good and we look forward to hearing much more from you and thanks for spending so much time with us now!
DF: You're welcome.