'Mind Ur Step' in the Exploitation Business: Q&A With Dennis Ferrer

dennis ferrerr

New York's Dennis Ferrer is somewhat of an anomaly in the house music world: an artist beloved and respected by the underground scene, but one who has crafted and created some of the genre's biggest crossover anthems over the last few years. He comfortably straddles both sides of this musical fence, writing the hits that the crowds love, and releasing the tracks that the DJs love to play. His latest monster jam, "Mind Ur Step", continues this tradition: it's an instantly catchy, hook-laden "song" that's backed up by a beefy bassline and an undeniably hypnotic dancefloor groove. Last week, he released a set of remixes of the track (from himself, Nick Curly, and Andre Hommen) on his own Objektivity label that take it further down a deeper, dubbier, more European path.

Quality over quantity is one of the guiding principles in his career, which is why he releases only a handful of tracks (either remixes or original productions) a year. As he prepares to return home to the Big Apple for his debut at Marquee New York, he spoke with us about his process, about getting himself into "character" when he writes his music. In a scene with a proliferation of disposable music and copycat artists, Ferrer's care and dedication to his craft is compelling. He's refreshingly honest as well, unafraid to challenge some of the sacred cows of the industry (including the belief that every artist is capable of running their own label.)

As a DJ, Ferrer is an energetic, enthusiastic performer who clearly loves being on the decks and in front of a crowd. His sound is the perfect fit for our Friday nights at Marquee, as we close out the summer this Friday with a house-heavy set -- and a rare hometown appearance -- from this maestro.

Greetings Dennis -- how are you doing? Where are you at?

I'm doing great! Thanks for asking. I'm currently on Ibiza headed back home to do a gig at Marquee in NYC.

Summer's starting to wind down and it's been a big one for you. What's been the highlight of your season so far?

Not getting food poisoning from the local food stand [laughs]. Seriously. I love eating locally so it's always a risk. This is what makes traveling special though. What's the point in eating everything you can eat at home? I'm pretty much willing to try anything once. I suppose that's what gets me...my inquisitiveness. Now if we're talking about gig wise? Hmmmmm, that's a bit harder to pin down. Maybe Ushuaia in Ibiza with Luciano this summer. That was a lot of fun.

Any lowlights you'd care to share with us?

Not being paid by a promoter in Italy in the contracted time frame. Then waiting for payment to clear last minute and getting right back on a plane in Napoli, Italy at 6am, when I'm supposed to be playing at the club mind you, because of it. Not cool. I suppose things could be much worse but it puts a kink in your scheduling, money management, and it's disappointing to fans who have no knowledge of the behind-the-scenes drama. An all-around cluster dump.

"Mind Ur Step" is another great Dennis Ferrer record. Tell us about the process behind putting this record together. How did the production process go, from the beginning to the end?

Normally the way it goes is that I'll have some kind of lyrical idea written down; a concept of some sorts which I throw myself into. Like an actor. I'll begin to sketch out the feeling...what I'm trying to convey, how do I want the listener to feel and how do I resolve the story by the time the chorus comes around. Sometimes, like I did with "Mind Ur Step", I'll just have the vocalist come over and we'll refine it or make it up as we go along. Normally, I'll have some kind of track I quickly put together as a frame, which rarely becomes the actual soundtrack to the record. I usually switch it by the time the artist hears it again. I'll drive myself nuts for a week to two trying to get it right. Then, voila! It's done.

I've always said if I could bottle creativity, I'd buy it by the crate. This one was a bit closer to home than usual though. People in the entertainment business tend to be very alienating and narcissistic by nature. We quite often trample and run rough shod over the people who actually love and care for us. Actually believing our own hype after a while and thinking that our loved ones are privileged to be in our lives. It's a very messy situation. We live in a fantasy world. Nothing is real to us until the money and fame runs out. So this was just an ode to that. It's about the significant other who makes themselves always available to you and you just assume this is normal behavior hence the "always on a plane, train or in a car...." line and reference. I'm just reminding everyone, myself included, to mind our steps.

We're curious about your process because your approach is so different from the vast majority of producers out there. Your original releases are few and far between, but each of them is so memorable. What does it take for you to want to release a track? Where does it start?

It just starts by coming across an "aha!" moment. A trigger in my life at the current place and/or time. It could be anything, anywhere. Somebody walking by and I hear an unavoidable piece of the conversation. I hear the idea, remember it, or jot it down and then go to the studio. I'll recall the idea and then it's time to read the script and act. Everyone goes "huh?" right now when I say this [laughs]! Let me explain. For me, the key to writing a meaningful song is to place myself in the situation I'm trying to convey. Whether it's from my own experience or not. If not, then I'll lie to myself enough times in my head until it's almost the truth. I know this sounds a bit strange, but my theory tends to fall on the premise that if you don't believe it to be true, then no one else will either. It will sound like you're just trying to write a song about something you don't have the slightest clue and idea about. That there is the trick: place yourself as the listener and not the creator. Be objective and when you write, allow the listener the opportunity to make the song fit to what they need it to be for themselves...all the while stealthily delivering your message. That's it in a nutshell.

How many tracks do you begin that won't ever see the light of day? Or do most productions you start wind their way to completion?

For every one track released I can guarantee you there is another twenty that no one will ever hear. Some for good reason [laughs]! I'm way too critical. I've never believed in releasing everything you create because 7 times out of 10 it's garbage. So you sit on stuff.

Tell us about the "Mind Ur Step" remixes that you've got coming out. How do you choose who makes the cut to remix a Dennis Ferrer track?

At the moment we have Andre Hommen and Nick Curly within the remix package. As far as who makes the cut with remixing a release on my Objektivity imprint? I suppose it all comes down to a producer that we like at the current moment. I must admit though, most of the times it's through networking, friends and an opportunity presenting itself for both sides. I'd love to tell a fantastic story behind it...but the truth behind this one is quite dull [laughs].

These remixes are released on Objektivity, your own label. How important is it for you as an artist to run your own label? How do you see the relationship between you (Dennis Ferrer) and the label?

I don't believe that every artist should own and/or run their own label. How would it be if all of us one day decided to be brain surgeons? Do you really want to take that chance? Well, that's how I feel about artists owning labels. This probably sounds nuts coming from an artist and I wouldn't blame anyone if they thought I was being elitist and a bit pompous. I will begin by saying i'm going to spill the beans to what most label owners think, but are afraid to publicly say. The way it's seen is that this career choice is -- and should -- be viewed as a special privilege to the few that are lucky enough to be allowed into it. Releasing a record was a dream and still is...one that many worked hard to get to and still often do. Blood, sweat and tears. Making records should be about that. It's called sacrifice. It's supposed to be difficult. It's not supposed to be easy and not everyone is supposed to be able to do it. The same way that being a doctor, lawyer or a head of state isn't. That's life. It's just the way it is. Make of it what you will.

Unfortunately, these days an artist owning a record label tends to be a crutch...a sort of back up proposition. All because A) they've made mediocre records that an authoritative, compelling and "hot and in" record label will not sign, or B) they made bad deals, feel bitter and now figure they're done being exploited. Or C) The "I'm too artistic for them to understand my art" bunch. Or D) all of the above. It seems like everyone nowadays feels deserving and don't want to put the work in. They refuse to be honest with themselves. At the same time. many don't and/or refuse to understand that the game they longed so hard to get into is actually called the exploitation business. You make them money and they make you money. If you did your due diligence you might get a partially fair deal, but don't complain if you don't give them something they can work with and exploit!!! I'm not saying I'm the leading authority with this view, but I will say that even I once upon a time thought about option A) until I got reality checked and pulled my bootstraps up. Now that I'm thinking... I still have to pull them up every day.[laughs] Like I've said before....you're only as good as your last record.

As a producer, your tracks touch on so many different sounds and styles. What's inspiring you on a personal level these days?

Eighties stuff and alternative bands. So much creativity was happening in the '80s with the discovery of synthesizers and samplers. Alternative music is as close as it's been to those days. Honestly, dance music has been a bit stale now. Same old bleeps..bloops...no content. Your record lasts two-three weeks and then it's gone. Poof like it never existed. Next.....

What are you looking forward to most about playing Marquee New York on the 30th?

It's home....it's always special playing at home. Plus, I get to go home and sleep in my own bed for once after a party. [laughs]

As a native New Yorker, do you prepare for a gig in NYC differently than you would anywhere else? Does it feel different or special to you to play in your hometown?

I prepare the same as everywhere for me. I wouldn't be me if i changed. I Just make sure I play current with a bit of history thrown in...and it's all good. No difference to me.

You are credited with helping the Martinez Brothers get established in the industry when they were young, and now you're featuring 19-year odl Nasser Baker as a new talent to watch. What kind of guidance and support do you provide to these artists? Why do you have this instinct to help others get to the next level in their career?

I offer help because that's what was done for me. I wouldn't be where I am career-wise now if it wasn't for the beautiful people who graced my life with their presence. Talent only gets you so far. Believing in this, I offer mentoring and guidance. Not only of the musical kind but of someone's life experiences in your chosen profession. It is invaluable. It's the "love thy neighbor" principle and I believe it takes a village to raise a child. Unfortunately from what I've seen from the new generational behavior, it's become a "me first", anti-social and introverted society fixated on money, the latest technology that they can barely afford, and degrading behavior. No longer does the village raise a child...technology and their money does. So I just give me and hope that the help they received allows them to achieve their goals and dreams. It's my payback to the art that's given me so much.

Where do you see yourself as an artist? You're someone who has made both big anthem hits (like "Hey Hey"), and really deep underground tracks? How do you strike that balance?

I just do what I feel, yet I try to make sure that it appeals to as many people that it can without so-called "selling out". Whether that's overground or underground that's not for me to dissect. If i do something that tends to be more so-called "commercialized" a bit then I've realized that I've alienated a certain sector and i just make sure that i make it up to them. [laughs] It's a very fine line to walk. It's difficult.

Finally, do you have a chart or top 10 for us?

Honestly if I made a top 10 for you it wouldn't be valid in two-three weeks! That my friends is the state of the record biz. Enjoy...

Dennis Ferrer debuts at Marquee New York on Friday, August 30th along with Sleepy & Boo

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