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Gene Farris Talks "Space Girl," Rave Safety & The Return Of The "Bedroom DJ"
Chicago-bred DJ/producer Gene Farris has been keeping the rave going with energetic, buoyant house tracks since the '90s, and he hasn't slowed down. Growing up in the birthplace of house music, as a teen he DJed underground parties during the scene's golden age, inspired by the greats around him like Lil' Louis and Cajmere a.k.a. Green Velvet a.k.a. Curtis Jones. In 1994, Farris' first release dropped on Jones' iconic Relief Records imprint, and the powerhouse Chicagoan pair would go on to become lifelong friends.
In 1998, the "Move Your Body" artist founded his own dance label, Farris Wheel Recordings, which has released hundreds of dance floor bangers from Farris and his ever-growing group of talented friends like Nathan Barato, Will Clarke, Sonny Fodera and, of course, Jones (and his many aliases).
In 2020 alone, Farris has dropped over a half-dozen tracks so far, his most recent one being the trippy tech-house slapper "Space Girl," his first single on Claude VonStroke's beloved Dirtybird Records. The Recording Academy recently caught up with the legendary house head to learn more about the new track, his relationship with VonStroke and his early years in Chicago's underground. We also got real about mask-wearing and handwashing, his love of Star Wars, how Jones is still one of his heroes and more.
Your new track "Space Girl" just came out on Dirtybird. I'd love to learn a bit of the backstory on the track, as well as your relationship with Claude VonStroke and his label.
How can I start? I'm a massive Star Wars fan. A massive galaxy, universe, Star Wars, "Star Trek," anything that has to do with outer space. The concept of "Space Girl" kind of came from that love for Star Wars, from my obsession as a child with Princess Leia. It is dedicated to Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia.
My relationship with Claude, oh man. First time I met the big guy was about five, six years ago, out here in Chicago, he was doing a show. I'd always been a fan of him obviously, and Justin Martin, Worthy, J.Phlip, the whole crew. I was just a fan of the whole thing that they were doing.
And finally, I was out in San Francisco when they were doing a Mezzanine party, maybe four years ago. I just popped in, ended up hanging out, smoking a doobie with Worthy. Got to meet J.Phlip and Justin and they all just kind of welcomed me with open arms. And then Claude booked me for the Dirtybird Campout in San Francisco maybe three years ago. And then we just hit it off there. He came and listened to my set and I followed him around and listened to his sets.
I did a record with Riva Starr on the label, right before the Campout, we did a really big song for them. It was my first record on Dirtybird and it did really well. And then I did another song with Tim Baresko after that, called "Fly With Me," on another Dirtybird compilation.
And then I made "Space Girl." And I sent a couple tracks directly to Claude and when he heard "Space Girl" he was like, "Whoa. I definitely want to put that on Dirtybird." So it ended up being my first single with them. I'm super stoked about that.
And it's just the timing of the world right now. It could be worse, but at the same time it's a good thing because most records now, I believe they're going to have a little bit more longevity than they normally would because we'll be able to play them again once this is over. It'll be like brand new music again, most of the stuff that came out. And they'll have fan life, because a lot of the people who are listening to Spotify and stuff will listen to it and they'll know the songs when it comes back in the club.
It really is such an unprecedented time for music. The clubs and the festivals are probably going to be the last thing that can safely come back. But I feel music is such an important thing right now because no matter who you are, it can be healing or let you escape for a moment.
Well, I think it's absolutely important. And back in the '90s raves, we all used to wear a mask and gloves anyway. I think [when things open up] the parties will be packed again and there will be a bunch of people wearing masks and the people who are really worried about things will be wearing gloves. I think it will be a couple of things that would change. People would probably bring their own cups to the clubs so the bartender could just pour the alcohol right in there. All the bartenders will have on mask, you won't know if a girl is hot or guy is hot. [Laughs.] I'm thinking, I'm optimistic, but hopefully by the end of July or August we should be back.
The good and bad thing—for DJs it's a good thing—Americans are really stupid. We love our money here [in the U.S.] more than we love people, that's proven. At some point everybody's just going to crack and everything's going to open. The important thing is for people like ourselves is to be safe and keep ourselves masked up and gloved up. If you're an entertainer and you gotta be in the middle of all this and if you're a patron as well, you need to be responsible.
And we need to wash our nasty-ass hands. The good thing that can be taken out of this is that we don't get to be nasty-ass humans anymore. We have to be a little bit more sanitary and that's okay. I don't mind not passing my joint on my left. If all my friends join, if they want to smoke, I'll roll them their own personal joint because I love them. I never was one to share my drinks or anything out of my cup, I don't really drink alcohol, but my water and stuff. The only thing that's drastically changed with me is that now I wash my hands like 98 times a day.
I want to talk about another track you released this year: "Spirit of House" with ATFC. What elements where essential to you to bring in to it to reflect the spirit of house and its Chicago roots?
So ATFC is a good friend of mine. I was in London when I recorded the vocals for that. We were in the studio over there and he let me hear this real raw version, and it immediately hit my brain. I was like, "Oh, this was great. This is going to be old school but new school." Old-school wording and phrasing to get that vibe. But with a new-school production, new-school synergy. It still captured the sound of today but the sound of yesterday as well, with Chicago.
And as soon as I heard the piano chords he came up with, I knew exactly what to do. I was thinking about old Marshall Jefferson on the "Move Your Body" track. All his rhythms, and the rhythms of old Chicago and the original piano house, I would say. And it just clicked, everything just kind of worked. And the song did really well us.
Back in 1998, you launched Farris Wheel Recordings in Chicago. What was your original intention with the label and in what ways do you feel it's grown beyond that?
Oh, wow. That's a great question. 1998 was many moons ago. I was a young, silly little boy and my whole original plan with Ferris Wheel was to have a label that my friends and I could put anything out on. For my close circle of friends at the time, it was five of us. I was just beginning to get a little bit of popularity at the time. And I was like, "I want to start a label for all these tracks that these labels keep turning down. I know they're good." My original idea was nothing more innocent than being able to have another outlet to release my music for myself and my friends.
How she's grown into her own little beast. She's outgrown that little dream; we've had probably 100 artists on the label over the years. Now, maybe more than that. We've had hundreds of releases, I'd say 150, 160. And I've had the opportunity to work with some of my heroes; Green Velvet's done a record on the label. Paul Johnson, Miguel Migs, Jay-J. So many people over the years, even the newer guys. Now we got Will Clarke on the label and this new kid that I got, he's massive now, John Summit. And DJ Sneak's done stuff on the label. We've had almost everybody from Chicago there, Derrick Carter's done remixes on there, Mark Farina's done a record on there.
Everyone from Chicago in the '90s, the golden era, has been on the label at one point in time. It's totally awesome. Now we get probably—nowhere near as many demos as Dirtybird I'm sure—but we get roughly 15, 20 demos a week. From the smallest artists all the way up to the biggest. I'm proud of her. She's my girl.
What role do you see yourself having in sort of passing the torch or sharing your wisdom with the younger generation of DJ/producers?
That's another awesome question. Most of the people I work with, outside of Curtis a.k.a. Green Velvet and Barclay a.k.a. Claude VonStroke, are much younger than me. It's only a few of us from my generation who've found a way to stay relevant, stay current and stay inspired. It's not many of us left from my generation who've managed to keep going.
With the younger generation that I work with, it's not that I'm just giving all this knowledge, like I'm Yoda on their back giving them all these notes. It is more of a give and take thing. As I try to teach some of my younger friends, they don't listen to me. They're smart, they know not to listen to a word I say. [Laughs.] But I try to teach them some things or explain some things. I'm also learning from them about what's going on today, how to stay current and what's popular at the moment. It's not all just a one-sided thing of me just dumping wisdom on my little brothers.
It's just more sitting down and having talks with a lot of my younger friends and younger producers and stuff. We've put stuff up on the label, and we just kind of bounce ideas off each other, it keeps me current. If you get to an older age, you just don't go out as much. If you don't go out and don't have any younger friends, you only have the people who grew up in your era, you're losing a lot. I think it's going to be very difficult to stay current, to stay relevant under those circumstances unless you're a nerd and constantly on Beatport and things like that. Even then, you won't get the essence of the energy of the current music scene.
I have a lot of younger friends, thank goodness. I have a wide range of friends of all ages, creeds, colors, gay, straight, all of it. I still get to know what's going on with the scene and everything today. I still go out, my wife's only 28 years old.
I think my biggest advice for anyone in my age group is to get a young friend. Hang out with somebody who you don't think you can learn anything from, party with those guys and kind of see where their headed at with the music and you'll learn some things you can incorporate in the music that you're making.
And on the flip side of that, the young guys who want to learn some stuff from us, I say just be open; a lot of us are older and a little bit outdated, but give us time. Some of these older guys are definitely willing to work with some of the young generations.
Well, the real question is, do you have a TikTok account?
I do not have a TikTok account because I thought it was lame. [It's] absolutely nothing to do with age, [I] just feel like, "this is lame, I can't do this." With that being said, my managers, who sometimes call me an old fart, they're telling me, "G, you need to get a TikTok." I'm like, "Aw, come on, man." But don't be surprised if you see me get a TikTok account.
It's crazy, essentially how you chart on Billboard now is if you have a popular song on TikTok.
Wow. Unbelievable. Maybe I should do that with "Nursery." The Eeny, meeny, miny, moe song. Put that on TikTok, that probably will go viral. [Laughs.] That'll fly right in.
When you were first starting out, who were your biggest influences? And was there someone you saw that made you feel like you had a place in making dance music?
Absolutely. My biggest influence, I had only one the person I looked up to, fanboyed, when I was in my teens was Lil' Louis. He was my hero. I grew up listening to all his tracks from "French Kiss" to "Blackout" to "I Called You," "Club Lonely," "War Games," "Jupiter." I was, and still am, a massive Lil Louis fan. He was my biggest influence for sure.
Seeing him play was the first time I ever saw anyone DJ in front of a 1000 people, which was a lot back then. He blew my mind and I was like, "I got to figure out a way to be like that." I was already DJing at the time, but I needed to figure out how to get where I was as a 16-year-old kid to that, to him.
Somebody else who had a massive influence on my life is one of my best friends, Curtis, Green Velvet. He put out my first record in 1994 on his label Relief Records. He took me to Europe for my first time, to [London's] Ministry of Sound, my first gig in Europe. I even work with him a lot still today and we still talk regularly. And before I even got to meet him, he was already a hero of mine. I mean this was the guy who made "Percolator" for God's sake. He's also had a massive influence on me and played a pivotal part of my life.
I would say, those two guys as well as DJ Rush, he's a Chicago guy. I would say those three are people that inspired me to want to do this, to try to be a world-renowned producer and DJ.
When you look at the evolution of house music from its birthplace in the '80s Chicago underground to this huge multi-subgenre, global thing, what does that mean to you?
I think it's great. I have dreamed my whole life about house music being a global thing that is as big as hip-hop. That everybody knows about it and knows the songs. My dream is that it's as massive as Lady Gaga or anything else. We're getting there for sure. But you still want it to have an underground feeling.
I was just talking to DJ Pierre about this. He's like the godfather, he's one of the people who started this. We were talking about how massive it is, but how it still has the basic element that was started in Chicago. The basic elements of a dark room, low lighting, massive strobes hitting every now and then, massive sound. And not so much lighting on the DJ; all those elements of the dark room, big sound and the low lighting started in Chicago. The whole structure of the party itself, the underground, the warehouse, the feeling, all of that started here. Those elements are still the key elements to any festival, any party, any club you go to in the world with electronic music.
If you go to a hip-hop show, it's a bit different. The stage is much more lit, really focused on the artists. Rock concerts are lit up like a Christmas tree. EDM even, the big commercial stuff, it's just kind of lit up, cannon balls are going off and it's just a completely different thing than what we do. We kept the essence of the raw warehouse, underground feeling.
Do you feel that there's something that needs to happen with house to ensure it honors the people who created it and where it came from?
In a sense, it's definitely important for the youth to know and the world to know that the music started in Chicago. That is absolutely important. But it's also very important for us as Chicago artists to stay current so people know who we are. They can have interviews and talk to people like you and inform them on what it was and what things are. They have the opportunity to keep the torch going. It's not the world's opportunity to bow down to Chicago, it's definitely the world's opportunity to know where it's from and that we did start house music and electronic music for the most part.
I believe we have to earn our stripes. I don't think anyone should sit on their oats of what they've done 20, 30, even 40, 50 years ago. There are some like Frankie Knuckles obviously, R.I.P., and Ron Hardy, RIP, and Lil' Louis as well. These are people I would say are the Mount Rushmore of house music, Larry Levan as well, he was from New York City. I think everybody else needs to try to stay as current as possible so you can keep the torch going on as long as you can, if you're still on active duty. [Laughs.]
It's a balance of honoring the past, but then also being, "Yo, we're still dope. And here's why."
We are still dope. And we have a lot of really dope people from Chicago right now here. You got myself, you have Green Velvet, you have Derrick Carker, you have Mark Farina, J. Worra. I think J.Phlip's is from Chicago too. We're lurking in the bushes, we're doing some things. [Laughs.]
With all the craziness in the world right now, what is one thing that gives you the most hope?
The thing that gives me the most hope right now is the music. I hate to sound corny but out of all of this, the one thing that hasn't stopped is the output of new music. Also, the return of the bedroom DJ, I'm loving that right now too. Everybody's back DJing, they got live streams going on and everybody's still in love with the music. And the people who aren't doing that are the fans who are tuning in still. I think that is making me very hopeful that once the ban is lifted, that the parties are going to be berserk, they're going to be off the chain.