He's been here so long that his gentle accent and ubiquitous cigarettes are really all that's left of his former life as a German national. His name's been shortened to Matty, he's currently living in his fourth neighborhood in underground's deepest borough of Brooklyn, and his sound is widely accepted as a true representation of quality New York house. But make no mistake, prolific producer and old school trendsetter Matthias Heilbronn, still maintains his old world charms along with a soul-deep commitment to crafting great music. His multi-page discography, global DJ following and upcoming album projects only scratch the surface of this versatile music man. Blessed to have apprenticed with several of the culture's most talented (and successful) innovators, he has earned a place among them as a peer who is really just getting started. We caught up with him over dinner and more than a couple of drinks so please forgive the length of this one. However, when someone is serving up the blueprint for a successful music business career…sometimes you just have to be greedy. Dig in…
We're going to of course, start at the beginning... you grew up in Germany, where?
Matthias (ma · tee · us) Heilbronn: In the north in Bremen, which is a harbor city that's close to Hamburg... we lived about an hour's drive from there.
What was it like growing up there? Did you have a real quiet life or was it busy and full of culture?
MH: Well, it went in phases. I was born in the North but when I was one, we moved down to the South to a very small village. My parents were both teachers at a University in the South and we lived outside of that in a smaller town. When I was two, they broke up and my father moved to the North. My mom and I stayed down there until I was six when she decided it was better for me to grow up in a big city. She got a job as a teacher and we moved back to Bremen. It is a fairly big city with about 750,000 people living there and we lived pretty much in the center of the city. That makes me something of a city guy.
That was pretty cool of your mom to decide you needed that. What did she teach by the way?
MH: My father living in that city played a role in us living there. She wanted me to be able to see him. Even though my father remarried, they were still getting along and they were friends. I was the divorcee kid… spending weekends with my father and the weeks with my mother. My mom taught English and German.
Where did you get the music from?
MH: I got the music from my mom. She was always playing music at home. She was a big Beatles fan but also the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and a lot of different stuff.
How did you get your first DJing gig?
MH: I was friends with a guy whose record collection and knowledge I really respected and he knew someone at a club. He got me a job there. I was a busboy for about half a year or a year until one day, the DJ didn't show up.
Gosh, how many people's story starts like that? Even Frankie Knuckles' story starts like that?
MH: Yeah, right? It's funny, you know? I was 16, I think. They didn't know anything about me. That was around the time when clubs would buy the records. You as the DJ would go to the record stores, but the club would give you the money and the records would stay in the club. Record collections were very specific to a club and not necessarily to a DJ. Then we started buying our own records or keeping the records from the club - that happened sooner or later, and is always part of the story. When they sold the club and I had bought all those records, I made sure my favorite records were with me cause they would have just gone on to the next club. I had a big interest in music and had already started my own collection by that time and I just got lucky. The first night went really well there and from then on, I did Wednesday nights.
Was this also the beginning of club culture in Germany or had it been going on long before you came along?
MH: As long as I can remember, there were clubs. I first got interested in clubs when I was maybe, 12 or 13. There was one club they would let us in where there were a lot of students. We got in because we knew somebody, whatever. Same story as here. From the moment I knew about clubs, they were always about people dancing… DJs playing. Like that.
How were you getting exposed to the music outside of the clubs, before you were able to go?
MH: Well you know, we had a lot of the soldier radio stations in Europe and just because of that, there was a lot of interaction musically with different styles. I remember when I had my own party, we had a lot of GI's come down - people that had been DJs and people that would tell me about Chicago. Most of the time they would say they were a rapper. Everyone wanted to be a rapper and grab the microphone and it would ruin the night sometime and sometimes it would be really cool.
I had this one guy there, who came to the party a lot and he would say how much he liked the music - cause we were playing house already… and he would say, "I used to be a DJ in Chicago. "I was like yeah, yeah sure, and thought the next thing would be "Could I play some records?" But that didn't come instead he said, "I have a lot of records with me and if you want to, I'll bring them by next week and if you want to play them, you can or you can take them home and listen to them, whatever." I didn't believe it and sure enough the next weekend he came by and brought me about 200 records. What was great about that was he brought a lot of classics because we didn't grow up on classics in Germany. We grew up on The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk… whatever. He had like, Loletta Halloway "Hit and Run" and…
Was the GI your first exposure to this music?
MH: I had been to New York on a vacation and had gone to clubs including the [Paradise] Garage, so I had heard those records but I didn't have them. You know what you can hear in one night [at Garage]; he brought the whole history of the music. A lot of stuff that I hadn't heard or had only heard once, he gave them to me to take home. That guy also had papers…
MH: Acid… I really wasn't familiar with that but he gave me some of those and he gave me the records…
He gave you the listening equipment!
MH: Yeah. I went home, took a paper, laid down on the floor and listened to one record from beginning to end. One after another. I spent probably,twelve hours just absorbing that music.
What was it like the first time you played that music at the club?
MH: It was great. It was great. It was a party that had been going for a long time and I had a following. I had the crowd in a state of mind where I could play whatever I wanted and they would first of all, accept it and if they decided they didn't like it, they would then go off the floor. It's not like you play a new record… they go away. They listen to it… and then they give it a shot. They gave everything a try. It's a matter of education, and letting people hear something and get used to it. Anything that was funky. I could play "Rock Creek Park" and people were going off on it, you know? You would think, "Oh Bremen, all those whities!"… but it wasn't like that.
Considering you had educator parents who probably wanted you to stay in school and become a professional something, it must have been a difficult choice to say I want to DJ.
MH: You know what, I didn't have that much contact with my father anymore - it was mainly my mother. She was concerned that I get through high school and college. Our school system is different from yours. In Germany, university starts when you are 21 and you take it for a long time depending on what you are studying and since the government pays you to go to school, most people just become…
MH: Yes, for 10 years! My mom was concerned that I would pass the thirteenth grade and be able to go to University because and at least, I would have another option. She was very afraid that if the music didn't work out, what would I do? I had started DJing at sixteen so the last important school years, I was more interested in playing at the party, going out, hearing other DJs play and whatever.
What was the scene like then?
MH: I had a very specific crowd and we had our own clique. It was all the same people every weekend and then you had the other clubs with the other people.
Was it easy to get this music?
MH: No. When I started playing house music and classics and all of that, I got a lot of grief from other DJs in town. What happened was the two other really important DJs in town, started working at the biggest record store there and they were in charge of ordering dance music, hip hop and whatever. In the beginning when they didn't like dance music, they would just not buy those records. I couldn't get them [in town] and I would have to drive to Hamburg or Berlin to buy records there. Berlin was like a five-hour drive from my hometown and Hamburg, about an hour. West Berlin was inside East Germany and there was one highway to take you there - you couldn't leave that road. It had really tight security because you were driving through an Eastern block country and then you get into Berlin.
They just wouldn't buy those records and they would make fun of me. You know what they used to say in the beginning? "It's all computer and there is no soul in the music because it was created by machines and drum programs." At some point, they just changed their minds. They really got into house music and since they ordered the records and I was their competition, they would only get two copies of the good records and either keep them for themselves or give them to somebody else. I had a long time of really having to fight for my records.
Could you go to other record stores?
MH: No, in my town, there were two record stores in the beginning and then the big one that swallowed everyone else. Those two guys were working there. In Hamburg, there were probably two that were in competition and between the two of them, you could get most of the stuff. They still exist, one of them I remember was called Rocco.
What made you think about moving to the States?
MH: Well the first thing that happened was they closed the club down where I did my main party. I still had one night here and another night there, though. I did a reggae night in one club and a mixed night somewhere else. I couldn't do a full house night anymore because the club just was not catering to those kind of people anymore. I had to play hip hop, reggae, some classics and little bit of house.
I was getting into cooking and started working in a restaurant for a while. I worked myself up to a sous chef. I was just getting by but was making good money on promotion gigs as well. I was part of a promotion team that made advertisements for products and we traveled around the country. I worked for a mineral water company for a while and went from store to store doing little stands, and trying to sell the product.
So you were square and having a real job for a while?
MH: Not really. I remember one day, we were sitting in a little mini-van, me and about four other guys that were all my age. We were smoking weed all day, missing our stops… it wasn't a real nine-to-five. We also did cigarette advertising at some point and we had to go to clubs. In the whole of North Germany, we would have to go to like eight different clubs a night and we would have to convince people that our cigarette company was better than what they were smoking and shit like that. I was still involved in the night life but this was nothing that was making me happy.
That was when I came to New York for the third time on vacation with my girlfriend. I had met people here already like Rob Sperte. He used to be the manager of Axis Studios [François K's studio] and is now A&R for WAVE and a DJ as well. We met the first time I came… by the second time I returned, we had become close friends and by the third time, we hung out a lot. He had actually moved from Assistant Engineer at Axis to Studio Manager and he offered me an internship. He said "If you want to stay here, you can work as an intern. Learn a little bit about the studio… if you don't like it, you can go back home. I live in a big apartment with a friend of mine and if you want to, you can move in there. I'll charge you next to nothing for rent…" I decided to stay.
Really!! (both laugh)
MH: It was hard for me, because they were giving me, like $5 a day! I had to live on that, basically. I was really lucky and actually got a lot of DJ gigs right in the first couple of years.
Where were you playing?
MH: I played all over the place… I played at Nell's off and on; I played Club USA… I had a lot of one time gigs in all these places. My mom was supporting me for a while and was paying my rent here. With the rest of the money that I made through Axis and what I got from DJ gigs, I supported myself with food and stuff like that. Back then a lot of places would play a combination of reggae, hip hop, classics and house. Sometime they would have an extra reggae and hip hop room. I played at Nell's quite a bit and that was a place where you had to play everything. Which was great because I loved all that kind of music and my idea of dance music still is anything that you can dance to should be played at a dance party… not just house music or The Roots.
That went on for a while. I worked at Axis for at least a half a year as an intern, then started at minimum wage, like $4.25/hour. I was a general assistant, which meant answering the phones and doing a little of everything.
So what was the trade-off? What were some of the perks of being here?
MH: If there were no clients recording anything, we could go into the studio and work on any piece of equipment. Try to learn it, read the manuals, try it out… he encouraged us to. That led to me and another guy that I lived with for a while, starting to produce our own stuff. Nothing that we ever played for anybody or put out, but we learned the sampler, the computers and we were ready to do some drum programming. We played all the keyboard parts. A friend of mine came from Germany and she sang a little bit.
MH: Andrea! Exactly! I have a song with her, when she was Merimade.
Right and now she's back to Andrea for the new release coming out called "Andalu" from Taha down in D.C…. but we digress…
MH: Well that was one perk. Another was that I worked as an assistant engineer as well. We could help the engineer and at the same time, learn what he was doing and how he was getting sounds. If he needed a certain piece of equipment patched, we would do that. Or we would get the room ready for him and set up mikes. Sometimes we would help record the mikes or work the computer. We were the link between the studio and the engineer helping everything work.
My first day of work at Axis, was my first moment to meet someone famous. First of all, I got there and Shep Pettibone was standing outside talking to Madonna and Rob Sperte was there, so I got introduced to both of them. Then I went on the elevator with Madonna who was going upstairs, and correct me if I'm wrong, but she was going upstairs to record the vocals for "Vogue". I'm not a big Madonna fan but I was star-struck. She looked funny… like she had just gotten punched in her face, but she had silicone inserted into her lips or something, and they were all swollen. She had glasses on, her hair was a mess… it was great to see the real deal.
People who worked in the studio a lot were C+C Music Factory before they got their own and moved to 23 West. They were recording their albums upstairs and downstairs so they were there a lot. I became really good friends with David Cole and I was one of the only people that would really get along with the other guy, Robert Clivilles.
He was tough?
MH: He could get very rude and demanding. I guess he was just being a star. One kid actually quit after being yelled at by Robert repeatedly. I think because I had been a DJ and when you are somewhat in the spotlight, I was pretty confident… a little cocky. I was in New York and I had all these DJ gigs, blah, blah, blah… and so I had some balls I think, that's why he never came down on me and I ended up assisting a lot of those sessions.
I decided pretty quickly that I didn't want to be an engineer. That's what you train to do in the studio really, but in François' studio it was a little bit different because he actually encouraged people to become writers, producers, programmers, editors and whatever. I wanted to be a producer and to be more involved in creating the music, than in the tuning of the end product. I became fairly close to a lot of the people that worked there like Danny Tenaglia, Todd Terry and Tommy Musto - back when he was doing Michael Jackson and Gloria Estefan. I got really close with Tommy because I ended up working with him as well.
What was it like to be around these people, were they cool and nurturing to you?
MH: The environment in the studio was very much based on helping and teaching each other. But between the clients, because they were all very close to François for some reason or another from the past, it was mainly friends and family you could say. One of the things that I thought would be good for me to start in was editing. I started practicing and building relationships with the people that would hire me to do an edit even though I had no former experience. They would take a chance, let me edit something… fuck up, learn and get better. They could have hired someone who would charge $50/hour and who would get thru it pretty quick but they gave me the chance.
Another perk was I got to meet Larry Levan and to work with him. I met Tom Moulton who actually hired me for a while to do his editing and programming. I taught him how to edit and how to use Pro Tools and Sound Tools, which led to him not hiring me anymore and doing it himself. But he would call me at three in the morning - Tom! - and be asking me for advice on how to fix things!
These guys are legends, and they are respecting and accepting you like a peer, what was that like?
MH: Larry was one thing [as for as notoriety], but Tom Moulton… I was still reading and listening up on things that I didn't grow up on. Larry, had a very special place in my life because he completely changed my view of music, dance music, DJing and my life in general because I was there and I experienced it. I went to the [Paradise] Garage the last month before they actually closed down. I missed the last party because I had to leave the weekend before. It was good to just take the memory, without having to see everybody cry. But Tom didn't have the same effect on me that he did on other people, because either I didn't know the records he had done or I didn't know he did them. I learned more about what he and François had done while I was working with them. Like how Tom did the first 12" and the first remix. François did the first dub version in dance music, which was "Keep On", by D-Train.
I did a lot of editing and nobody really knows this about me, but I edited about 500 records in my life and that includes the stuff with C+C Music Factory, Danny [Tengalia] and Todd [Terry], but it also includes SWV, Boyz to Men, Sting, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, you name it …
How did people know how to find you? Or were you in the house where that was happening and that was the job you did?
MH: François had one of the first edit rooms in the city with digital editing on the computer. At first, we were editing on half-inch tape. I was doing most of my stuff on this when I started out. Musicians would print a finished mix to ½" tape rather than to DATs or CDs as you can now. Then I would bring several takes and go in with the tape machine to cut and splice tape. François was really into computers early on and he got this program called Sound Tools/Sound Designer which edits digitally so you could record the track into the computer from a DAT for example, and then cut and paste without actually doing 'destructive editing'… you wouldn't throw anything away. Everything you would cut would still be there. I really got into that and was one of the first people to do it. It saved a lot of time and money because you didn't have to print to the ½" tape anymore which was a lot more expensive. The DAT tape would fit a lot more versions and you know it was a lot quicker. I got really good at it and at least in New York, became well-known. RCA would just work with me for example and people would call Axis and ask for me. At this point Rob Sperte was also managing, which helped a lot.
What does that mean in terms of money? How much were you earning? Is it a good paying job in the industry?
MH: I worked myself up from about $15/hour to about $65/hour within a year probably. Then it depends. As the computer programs got more and more advanced, it went from Sound Tools to Pro Tools where you could have more than one track. Or even on Sound Tools, I would max out what you could do on it and I would offer and be able to put loops on the records, add accapellas on top of instrumentals. For example, I put Wu Tang Clan on an SWV record. I'm not sure what that record is anymore [ed. "Anything" from 1994 ABOVE THE RIM Soundtrack], but the Wu Tang Clan would never have been on a SWV record if I hadn't done it. I worked on the "Right Here" record which was a combination of Michael Jackson and SWV. I did all their records and got platinum plaques for a lot of stuff.
Are they hanging in your house?
MH: No they got destroyed in a break up…
MH: I didn't have a lot of them anyway. I lost a few at that time but there are a lot of them that I didn't get for some reason.
Let's get back to the story… when did you first meet and start working with Todd Terry?
MH: I met Todd when he worked with Martha Wash and she was at RCA. I went into the edit room, and Todd was already there and he said, "Okay, I am blah, blah, blah." I already knew who he was because I had been playing his records for a long time. We hit it off right away and he said "The A&R guy is going to come in and he wants to edit stuff with you. He's going to tell you to cut all this stuff and whatever you do, don't do it! Don't cut any of my stuff." That's how we first met. Then he started using me for all his stuff, which led me from editing, to programming, to co-producing to just being his best friend.
I was still working on my own stuff in the studio with Jimmy, and the first person that we played anything for was Tommy Musto. He was doing SUB URBAN RECORDS and he said, "I want to help you mix it a little bit better. Make it sound a little better, be more dance floor friendly and then I want to put it out." That was "Sensible House." He helped us a lot and showed us what not to do in the studio. What you tend to do, especially if you have a lot of equipment in front of you like at Axis, is use everything. You have 48-tracks, you can expand it another eight and a track that might only need 10-12 tracks, would always go into 48 and 64-tracks because we could.
What does that mean in terms of the process of creating music?
MH: It means that you start a song from an idea. You do a kick drum and a high-hat here, a drum pattern, bass line, keyboard. Then you would add another loop, and then you would have another idea. You are insecure because you have new ideas and then the old is a little bit… you know, you've heard it already 48 hours and you don't know where to stop yourself which is very important. Realizing that less is more a lot of times and the first idea, probably, is always the best to go with.
I've always heard that where you start on a record is not often where you end up, is that true for you?
MH: I don't think about a record before I go into the studio. I start thinking when I play the first chorus or program the first drums. I let it take me somewhere. It's like DJing, you may go into the club with this idea of playing hip hop all night but it just doesn't work out that way. If you're sticking to your idea, it won't work out. So I try to go into DJing or into the studio with a completely clear mind. Jodi [Blea, his partner in crime and manager] always asks me if I'm excited about going into the studio or if I'm nervous or excited about a DJ gig. I never am until I'm there or about an hour before because it's better that way. I admire people like Quincy Jones because he can write a whole score in his head before he even goes into the studio, I can't do that. I get a basic idea and I try it out, but I can't do that.
Do you hear music in your sleep or is it just random ideas? Do you play any instruments?
MH: I have random ideas. I just had one on the way to meet you and I called myself at home to leave it on the answering machine. I don't write music but I can sing it to myself or to someone else and I'm pretty experimental. But I know what's on key and what's not. I played guitar for about four years. Mainly South American guitar, but my teacher didn't show me how to write music. Then I did drums for another two or three years.
How is your approach different when working on a remix than on an original production?
MH: When you work on a remix, you have a basis, you have a vocal let's say. Normally you work with the vocal's melody and it gives you the keys that you can work in. With an original production, you are starting from zero and you can go anywhere you want to. Since I come more from a drums/percussive background, that is where I normally start. I create music with the drums and with congas as well. I start with drums on the remix too, but basically the melody is there and the timing of the vocal determines how you are going to play the drums.
Who are some of the musicians you work with often? How do you find them?
MH: I work a lot with Gene Perez the bass player, Mike Ciro on guitar, Albert Menendez and James Preston on keyboards. I've been working with Gene Perez for a long time, he's a very good friend of mine and he has introduced me to a lot of different musicians over the years that he works with. People that he trusts and thinks he works well with. I have a base of people that I work with.
Is it always live?
MH: Mainly. I like using those people. It's like having a band and I think they are pretty happy with the direction I take it into and the freedom I give them to play. Depending on the session and the mood, there are certain records you do where you don't have to say a word. Like the Abstract Truth record, when I worked on that with James, we didn't have to talk to each other, it just all came.
Which one was that, "We Had A Thing"? What was going on behind the scenes on that one?
MH: Yeah. We were both just completely in love with the record. I had done the drums and I had taken it into one direction. And what normally happens when the keyboard player comes in is, he sits down and just plays around with the chords to find out where the record goes. What keys can I play? What are the chord changes? The minute he sat down with the record, it was all there. We just had to look at each other. We both were feeling it and it kept going like that. The bass line was right there, then he suggested to do some background vocals on it and it just worked like that.
Was that your first hit?
MH: My first hit was Deep Zone featuring Ceybil Jeffries, "It's Going to be Alright." Then after that, we did "Dangerous Minds" and then we did "Lift/Take Me Higher" (SUBURBAN RECORDS) they were at that time, pretty big records. Mike Delgado used to be my partner in Deep Zone. After that, I went to Germany to work with Mousse T for a while and was managed by Peppermint Jam. I was not collaborating much with Mousse T on remixes, but I was working in his studio and using him for keyboards sometimes. I had a few big records there… Byron Stingily "Sing a Song," Blue Boy "Remember Me" (that was really big over there) and Rebecca Ryan "A Woman in Love" (that was pretty big) Booom, feat. Inaya Day, Backstreet Boys and Alexia…
What did you do for the Backstreet Boys?
MH: I did the remix for "Everybody" and a ballad… "As Long as You Love Me." They were both #1 records in over 20 countries.
What's that like and what does it mean to you when these records do well or are #1?
MH: With Abstract Truth, it was my mix that made that record popular, but it was not #1 or anything. The Backstreet Boys would have gone platinum without me but I did a version that made them dance floor friendly and I did a dub version that was something that I could play. I got a lot of response out of that. I also did an R&B version, and I saw a video of them performing to one of my versions. I got a call from them when I was at Peppermint thanking me because they really liked my remix.
How often does that happen, that an artist actually calls you and thanks you for a remix?
MH: Finley Quaye called me, and the Backstreet Boys and that's probably about it. You hear through the A&R or the management whether they like it or not. Most of the time, the artist's like my mixes but when you deal with major label artists, there's always something that needs to be changed. Finley Quaye wanted to change his vocals and it turned into a nightmare and ended up as a record that was never released outside it's test pressing stage.
Even when that happens, you still get paid right?
MH: Yeah. I just did a remix for someone which I thought came out really, really nice and everyone likes it at the label, but the artist doesn't like it. That rarely happens and that's the hardest thing to hear. What I try to do is compliment the artist and their voice, and make them look good. Obviously, I need to make myself look good too, but the only way I will continue working in this business is if I fulfill the purpose of making [the artist] look/sound good in a different environment than the one they usually are in.
So that's the point of the remix, to help an artist fit into a particular market and when labels call you they want the "Matthias sound" to help them do that? Is that hard for you to define?
MH: Totally. I am at the point that I have not had anything returned to me… somebody saying "We don't like this at all, go back into the studio to do it again." So that encourages me to do what I feel. But sometimes, record labels ask for something that really isn't me. I just did a remix for a Japanese artist that is really big over there and they asked me for a "New York sound" mix, with the examples of Hex Hector and Jonathan Peters. Not that the music is bad, but I don't like it, it's really not me.
So you turned it down?
MH: Well they called specifically for me and they wanted my sound which is a NY sound… they just gave those two examples that didn't really fit. I'm going to do what I do. I have plenty of material out there, I'm not someone that you send into the studio and tell me what to do so, I kind of gambled with that project. But when the guy came over here, and he heard it, he was completely blown away. He didn't know what he wanted but he knew when he heard it.
Let's deal with the technical and the business side of this, going from the handshake to the piece of paper of the contract. Was that an easy transition for you?
MH: The thing is, our part of the business is based so much on friendship. We know each other and we are all friends, and when it comes to the contract part, it's very hard. You don't want to offend your friend that signs your record, cause it's always a friend that signs you somehow. We are doing what we love so the business shouldn't play a big roll into this and you should be paying me correctly because you love what I give you. You learn out of experience pretty quickly. That's my first tip I give to everybody, make a contract about everything and have somebody to look over it. I know the basics. And it's really important that you know the basics.
…and the basics are?
MH: That you know what points, royalties and mechanicals mean. What people mistake a lot of times is what advances and royalties mean because house labels in the US have been screwing you over all the time. They give you an advance, they get you in to do something with the advance and then they give you a contract where at the end of the day, you don't make any money on the back end. Now when records were selling well maybe that was fine, you asked for $5,000 or maybe even more than that as an advance and you knew that was all you would get. It's a good payoff for two or three days in the studio - maybe a little bit more. Nowadays, most records don't sell that well, so the advances have gone down drastically! I've heard [as little as] $500 for a small house label offer, but nothing more than $3,500 in the last year or so.
How do you know when to ask for points?
MH: [For an original project,] you have to negotiate the points in the deal that you are doing. If you get a low advance and you have to pay for your studio time, the musicians and end up making $500, then you want to see something on the back end. If your advance is low, then you will recoup quicker depending on how many points you get. But there is so much more in the contract. What else are they charging you for? Are they charging you for mastering? That goes out of there. Are they charging you for the sleeves? That goes out of there. Are they charging you for the promotion, for phone calls or the dinners they're having? The record company can charge you for anything and you won't know it if you don't read the contract.
Even if you are getting twelve points, they charge so much of what they are doing with their label to you. They're probably paying all the employees first before you, and you never see anything. Are you paying for the remixes? Say a label signs you and gives you a good advance and good points, but then they hire ten different remixers and are paying them all $5000. You sell sixty thousand records but these remixers have to be paid first. If you get twelve or eighteen points - are you getting if off the wholesale or retail price? That means are you getting forty cents per single or are you getting seventy cents per sold single? That's why you have to get it straight in your contract. How much of your money is being used and how much will come from the label's side?
On remixing, you get paid a fee. You don't get any points on a remix, unless you are a big shot and you request two points or whatever. For example Todd Terry, after he blew up "Missing" [Everything But The Girl], on the next record he could say I want two points because without my remix, that record and your band would have been shit. You can't do that on every record but, if the record blows up and you're selling 500,000 copies then those points make a difference. If the record doesn't do anything, and only sells like twenty-five hundred copies you probably recoup just about what you got as an advance and it doesn't make a difference.
What are some of the good labels you have worked with that you would recommend?
MH: Well there are good and bad experiences working with any label. I have been with two labels for a long time, WAVE and SUBURBAN and I haven't done much for other labels. I am starting to work more with KING STREET now. We've all been together in the business for a long time so we have had our ups and downs. Some people are doing it better than they were before, some are not around anymore. One record label that I trust right now and who I signed my album deal with is BBE.
That's Peter Adarkwah out of England. He's really coming up with the stuff that is turning people's heads because it is very different and very dope, and definitely independent. What is the new project all about and what's the experience been like working with him so far?
MH: I've known Peter for about two or three years now, through Jodi. She introduced me because of his club mainly [Bar Rhumba] and then he started the label stuff. I've played at his Night People party a couple of times and every time I go to London now, which is about ten times a year, we hang out and go to dinner. We were talking about doing a mixed CD together and then we started talking about doing an album. It was very easy; the discussions were easy and very informal. We talked about what he wanted, what I wanted money-wise and musically - and we agreed on both. We just took it from there.
What's the new project going to be like… the first Matthias album?
MH: Actually this is my second album. The first was DAZE OF MADNESS - it was a Deep Zone project with Mike Delgado for a Japanese label that went broke right before they put out our record. They actually passed it out at a Winter Music Conference about five or six years ago on CD and some vinyl, and out of that, people in England made bootlegs. This new record is going to incorporate all the styles of music that I like along with all the musicians that I work with. There are some new musicians that I am trying out now or that have worked with before but not that much. I'm going to listen around for some new singers… I want to work with some people that Peter has worked with before.
Does that mean you will be producing some of it in England?
MH: No. I am not doing any of it in England. The stuff that Peter is putting out that I'm talking about are JD, Pete Rock the whole Detroit and Philly posse. Jazzy Jeff (who was working with Jill Scott) is the next album that he's going to do. I'm going in that direction.
What musical styles will you be including… some deep house, trance?
MH: Hip Hop, R&B, Reggae, Jazz… I want to do a lot of jazzy and more live oriented stuff. I don't know if this is in Peter's interest, but my idea is to be able to bring the whole band on tour.
That's something that I believe in too, but it speaks to the difference in the way international labels approach marketing product through live shows, accessibility to the public and/or TV. What kind of support do you think you are going to get for that, especially from such a young label like BBE?
MH: I saw him do it on a tour with Jazzy Jeff. They had [some dates] with the band and some without a band, him just scratching and DJing or whatever, and it worked, both ways. He tried it at different venues and I saw the interest in him trying to figure out what kind of audience likes it, which venues were better and what works the best to promote this record. In this case, what he liked were the singers, musicians and Jazzy Jeff DJing on top of it. He has that vision and he wants to do it. You test it out first and then you do a tour with it.
Is there a time-frame for the completion of this album?
MH: The BBE project I won't start until the end of March and it depends on how creative I will be. Maybe I'll put something together in three months or it can take a half a year. But it should be right and done well. It's just a matter of getting all the contractual things together… the negotiating. In the meantime, I have other projects I want to do. I'm doing a record for WAVE right now. It's a vocal that is a cover version of an old Stevie Wonder song; I'm doing a remix for Roland Clark's URBAN SOUL on KING STREET; and I'm also doing a follow-up single for KING STREET.
Okay so you have all that, what's that James Brown song I heard about?
MH: That's the Roland Clark record. He did a song that's called "Brown James" and it is very James Brown "Get Funky, Get Loose" type stuff. His is very electronic, it has fake horns on it. I want to go into the studio and try to do it very traditionally with guitars, and drums and percussion. A little bit of organ and horns. For me, that's what a producer does. I think he had a great idea and he laid it all down. But to me, it's very rough, so I want to use his idea and take it a step further. Hopefully to where he had in mind, when he wrote it. I.e., whenever you play horns on the keyboards it never sounds right. When I heard that record, I thought wow, this could really sound like a James Brown record only updated, with a new singer and a new idea. Then the Stevie Wonder thing starts off and after that I will have to start on the production for the KING STREET single. It's the follow-up single for II Deep Allstars... an African thing with a jazzy kind of musical undertone to it. I also just got an offer to do an album for another label, due this year if everything goes thru.
That's a lot of stuff… are there any specific DJ gigs or productions that make you feel like you've made it?
MH: There is no one specific gig like that. A lot of gigs give me kind of a feeling, not that I've made it, but that I did a good job tonight. I'm really happy with what happened and how the dancers responded to the music I played. It can go different directions. I've played at Body & Soul and that was a great experience…
MH: Because I had been going to Body & Soul and in the beginning, it was the closest thing to the Garage that I could remember. I always thought, I want to play here and oh, what I could do with this crowd and I finally got an opportunity. What was different was that I played with two other people and I didn't play a set. We were working back and forth. I wasn't able to do what I wanted to do. I was able to keep up and play with them, the crowd was great, and every time I played I had a good time, but it wasn't my thing. I played at Twilo a couple of times which was special because I hung out there in the early days when it was Sound Factory and Junior Vasquez was playing really well. I had a lot of anxiety and was very scared that night because it was a completely different story and at this point, Friday was trance and I played for Respect is Burning. The music was different and I played at five in the morning, but I rocked it. It was a great experience, not necessarily with the music I wanted to play and the people were not what I wished for, but I was able to rock them and play on that great sound system. Then there are a million smaller parties that I've played and had incredible times but wished that the sound system was a little bit better, or that the place would have been bigger, or that I would have played there more than once.
You recently had a gig in Moscow… how did someone in Moscow know about you? What was that like?
MH: Pretty simple, I played at Novecento on West Broadway. [It's] a small place and one of the DJs that played there named Alexey moved back to Russia and he really liked the way that I played and he wanted me to come and play for his parties. He hooked me up with the promoters there and I went. It wasn't much different than anything else and the crowd responded great. It was just the same as it would be in England or anywhere else.
I came off the plane and ended up in the bus with a band from Manchester called Crazy Penis. I didn't know them but I had a safety net there and was not by myself. The three guys in the group were performing and also DJing, and we spent that whole time there together. I was there for three days and had a very nice promoter who took very good care of us… we had really good food and we saw as much of the city as we wanted to. I was pretty exhausted because it was a long flight from New York and I had to play two nights in a row and then I had to go straight to England and play another night. I spent a lot of time sleeping then just going to eat and seeing the city at night. I have some crazy pictures because it was Halloween and they were celebrating it for a whole week. They were dressing up like crazy.
What's the lifestyle of the traveling DJ like? The good and the bad…
MH: It's a lot of sitting in a cab, plane or a hotel and thinking that I am in another hotel, another taxi, another plane. It's restless… makes me not be able to sleep at night and to watch TV a lot and fall asleep during the day. Just be completely outside what's going on at home. My girlfriend works during the day and I'll probably sleep during the day and then by the time she gets home, I'm up or the other way around. When she wants to go out, I'm just tired and I have to cram a lot of stuff into a few days. I'm away for the weekend and playing two gigs so I'm gone for at least four days. That leaves about three days for me to handle my business, my bills, my laundry, my relationship and my remixing and production and getting my other gigs. It's very stressful, you never have enough time for anything.
I love DJing and I've been around the world and made a lot of friends, so it's always great when you go somewhere and see people you haven't seen in a while. I love to experience food in different countries and I make a point of going into a nice restaurant and trying traditional food whether in Singapore, Italy or Spain. I also love learning about culture's and meeting new people. All because we don't get to play in NY.
Would you prefer to play in New York and give up your salary to stay here and not travel as much?
MH: You have to understand that I do produce and remix a lot but I don't do it enough or get the kind of budgets that I could support myself exclusively on that. I need to have those DJ gigs, I can't give them up. Also, I see what clubs over here pay to DJs that come from England. I do gigs for free here when I have the time and energy, but when I play at Centro-Fly and they only give me a certain amount, I don't agree with that. I know people that come from the West Coast and get double or triple the money, plus the airfare and the hotel. It doesn't matter that I have more records out, might be much more respected overseas… just because I live here means that I should just be thankful for getting to play in my home town. Still, I like to play here even though you don't get the support from the people the way you wish you did. Plus, you can play different things here than you can't play anywhere else… it's always a challenge and inspiring.
This year, I want to work on two albums and I want to concentrate more on production and remixing as well. Just because of that I will travel less. I can't be gone every weekend if I want to finish these LP's. When I have deadlines, sooner or later - even though both labels said they want a good project and I can take as long as I want, after you pay the advance and half a year later, there's still nothing and you want more money… I don't want to take too long. I want [the projects] to be continuous and for the records that are on the album to flow into each other and work with each other.
Who are your mentors officially? Who do you love to come out and hear at a club?
MH: A lot of people have inspired me to be in this business and one that I look up to and admire, definitely, is Quincy Jones or musicians like Stevie Wonder. A person who has taught me a lot or who has started me in this business… #1 is François. He's been my mentor for twelve years and he enabled me to be here. He taught me everything I know about studio work and a lot about the music business whether it was one-on-one or through people that worked at his studio. Tommy Musto gave me my first record deal and took me on as a production assistant and taught me a lot more about working in the studio, how to produce and engineer. Larry as a DJ from the first time I heard him till the last time I heard him. Todd Terry's approach on working on music has taught me a lot as well.
I have to say there's isn't anyone that I enjoy going out and listening to right now. There was a guy in Madrid I enjoyed - Tony Rocks. He was great because he was just playing all the music I liked and he just played the way he wanted to. Everything was completely deep the way you want to hear it, but he played this record and then that one and he completely made it work. I would have never played those records together. Usually when I go out, I hear a lot of records that I've heard/bought already or records that I don't want to hear.
Do you buy a lot of records or do they get sent to you?
MH: I buy a lot of records from Dub Spot [now closed], Dance Tracks and Satellite. I can tell you one thing… if I go to Dub Spot, I listen to about twenty records and I buy maybe nineteen. I go to Satellite, I listen to about 100-200 records but they go all different directions. I have people there that I like as DJs and I like their musical tastes so I have them pick records for me, whether it's trance or techno or deep house. I get records there that I don't get anywhere else. I have to listen to a lot of bullshit, but I still end up spending $200. For my hip hop, I go to Rock & Soul or Fat Beats on Sixth Avenue. I buy a lot of CDs now, too.
Do you prefer them over vinyl?
MH: In my situation as a producer, when I record something and put it on a CD I can play it that night if I want to. I don't have to go and burn an acetate and pay $40 or whatever it was for a 10-inch double-sided record that I have to turn over. It lasts about two months and then you can't play it anymore. You have to take so many records when you travel… like if you go to Japan and you have to play for 12 hours, what are you going to do? It's impossible to bring enough records for a twelve-hour set! How are you going to get into the country and say you are not working, but you're there as a tourist? I don't think that's going to work. The new stuff you get, whether it's your work or what you get from other people, you can play right away. Making acetates is a lot of money and with mixing, it's so much easier. You still have to have skills and you still have to have that hearing, you still have to make sense from record to record. It's almost easier to work with the CDs, if you know how to work them.
I still love the feel of vinyl and with CDs, I don't really like the sound as much as vinyl. I would prefer to have vinyl of everything but if you can't have it… CDs break, they skip and you can't lift the needle. If you buy one with a scratch, the fucking thing is ruined. The cases break all the time and the art-work is horrible. I have vinyl that's thirty years old and you can still play them.
So what's next? Where do you see yourself ending up in this business?
MH: Well, I'm open-mined to anything. I'm very happy in this business and I'm not thinking about leaving it. Especially since I am doing what I wanted to do for a long time… the two albums. See how that goes. I'm still DJing and doing pretty well. I'm taking this as far as I can and if doesn't work anymore, I'll do something else. But if I can do this for the rest of my life, I'd be the happiest man on earth.
In parting, what do you say are the most important things you've learned about getting into and staying in this business?
MH: The most important thing I could share is that anyone who feels music, as being so important in his life that he wants to do it for the rest of it, then they should do it. Learn as much about every angle there is to learn. If one thing doesn't work, be able to do something else. The benefit I had out of working in the studio was that I could engineer, program, edit, DJ, write and play… if something didn't work, I could do another thing to make more money.
I never made any enemies, at least I hope I didn't, with the people that I worked with and if they have work and want to work with me, I could do that. Music is not just one thing and especially if you are in the house music business, it's best to put your feelers out in different directions because one thing is not going to carry you through. Keep yourself widely versed, technically first then musically so you are not always tied to a market that depends on an in-crowd that will jump on the wagon and jump off. The more you focus on one thing, the less opportunity you will have.
Is there anything you feel like you didn't say?
MH: Well, there's a lot I didn't say…
I think we'll just leave it at that! Thanks for the time!