Curtis A. Jones would be one of Chicago house music’s most important figures even if all he’d done was start a couple of record labels. Twin pillars of the city’s mid-’90s second major house wave, Cajual and Relief were matched opposites—the former oriented toward club DJs for whom classicist, soul- and gospel-rooted house held sway, the latter focusing more on tougher, “trackier” music that played to younger rave crowds.
Between them, Cajual and Relief issued 12-inches and the occasional album by a Who’s Who of the era’s Chi-town luminaries: Spencer Kincy, DJ Sneak, Glenn Underground, Paul Johnson, Boo Williams, Roy Davis Jr., Mark Grant, Gene Farris, Johnny Fiasco, and Jones’s longtime friend Karen Gordon, née vocalist Dajaé.
Accordingly, Jones also recorded for both imprints, under different names—for Cajual as Cajmere (both names take off from Jones’s initials), and for Relief as Green Velvet, a nickname given by an ex’s father-in-law who liked to mock Jones’s first alias. Two Cajmere tracks from 1992 kicked Cajual into gear: “Brighter Days,” a house anthem sung by Dajaé, and the infectiously raw “The Percolator.” But Green Velvet was the wilder, more memorable persona; it was under that pseudonym that Jones made his greatest record, “Flash” (1995), which mocked the excesses of the rave scene by treating it like a tour guide from (and through) hell. Jones had a brief moment in the major-label sphere when short-lived Warner Bros. dance subsidiary F-111 issued a self-titled Green Velvet collection in 2000.
This year is Cajual Records’ 20th anniversary, and the label has been more active in recent years than it has in a while. SOTC spoke with the sweet-tempered Jones in March.
When do you remember house music first coming into your life?
Back in the mid-’80s; I was introduced to it via the radio. When I first heard it I just fell in love, because all my life I had been brought up listening to a lot of blues, jazz, and funk—some rock stuff too, with David Bowie. When I heard the house music, it was refreshing. It spoke to my generation.
Did you want to be a DJ first, or a musician? When did you begin writing songs?
I wanted to be a producer originally. I started writing songs while I was going to college in undergrad at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. They told me that I needed to have a hobby, so I started off with music as a hobby. From there I just fell in love with it, so I started to produce stuff. That transitioned into me performing out of necessity because people wanted to see me perform “The Percolator.”
How did you hook up with Clubhouse?
The owners are Hula and K Fingers. Hula and I were best friends growing up, we were close as close could get—really, really good friends as kids. We used to go and catch crayfish and all that stuff together. Get worms to catch the crayfish, just doing little boy stuff.
Midwestern boy stuff.
Yeah—catching crayfish with worms! Hula had been doing stuff in the music industry, with Jive Records. I came back from college and had a talk with him. At that time he stepped away [from running his own label] it because he was with a major label. I said, “Why don’t you start it back?” He said, “Well, it’s so dodgy—it’s shady. As far as distributors go, getting paid and stuff like that, who knows what would happen?” He’d had success with Lidell Townsend, with “The Nu Nu” [on] Clubhouse Records. They transitioned out of it because they got so popular with the stuff they were doing with Jive Records, like Will Smith, “Summertime.”
Where did you go to college?
I went to the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, around ’89-’90. I did not go the following year because I was pursuing my musical aspirations. At the lowest of my low, when I did not even have money for gas in my car…
You were probably a little older than the other guys you were to sign to Cajual.
Not much, maybe a year or two. Maybe four or five years.
Just enough to be an older brother type of figure?
“Percolator” went through a lot of changes over different 12-inches. Were you a perfectionist?
No. I was persistent. [laughs When the song first came out, it didn’t get that much attention. I was like, “I don’t believe they don’t get it,” because I loved the first version of it that I did. I did a remix of a track with Dajae called “Keep Movin’.” That was the origins of that sound. Because it got so overlooked, I was like, “Let me try it again!” [laughs] I put it on an EP with three other tracks. The standout track was “Chit-Chat,” which [New Jersey DJ] Tony Humphries used to play a lot. Because it was so popular, I decided to do remixes of all the songs on the EP, so that goes to the third version of it, where I came up with “The Percolator.” On the EP it’s called “Coffee Pot.” That’s when it took off. By the time I got to the third version of it I was tired of it. [laughs] When I heard it, I was like, “Ehh. It’s not as good as the first version of it.” I was totally surprised that it took off.
Did you always in your head have a split between Cajual and Relief?
No, it just happened out of necessity. A lot of the house people did not like when I was doing the harder, trackier stuff, so it just made it easier to separate the two so that the DJ’s would be happy and so they had it easier way of knowing what to buy.
Was there a distinct difference between the house and rave audiences in Chicago?
The house audience was more of a club audience, a little bit more sophisticated. That was more the people that went to the clubs and going to find someone type of thing, so it was more about looking good, dressing up and trying to find somebody. [laughs] The rave scene was about the music and about the love and about having a good time, so you didn’t have to dress up, you didn’t have to dress to impress. You just dressed to have fun.
There were songs like Robin S, “Show Me Love,” those were huge club songs which were played in black clubs, white clubs: Crystal Waters, “Gypsy Woman,” a lot of the stuff that Steve “Silk” Hurley used to do during that era. Those were more of the club songs but they didn’t translate very well, or not well at all, to raves.
Did you see a lot of the original Chicago house producers start to move to the coasts and pick up other kinds of music?
You had a lot of people who felt that they had to leave the city in order to make it, but I think it was just that they just wanted to try something new and different. I’m a huge fan of Lil’ Louis and Frankie Knuckles, and I know they went to New York. I guess they had to go where they felt that the love was. The only other person I remember who would [change styles] from house to hip-hop was Mike Dunn. He’s doing house music again.
Eighties Chicago house music is obviously raw, but some of it had pop aspirations. I think a big difference between that and what came later is that the mid-’90s stuff is that raw in a way that’s more aimed at the clubs, less at a bigger audience.
For sure, the stuff during the rave era in the ’90s didn’t need to have all this structure that is necessary to maintain somebody’s attention when they’re listening to commercial radio or radio in general. So the stuff during the rave era was really raw, and the kids loved it.
As a producer, was it more fun to work that way?
Yeah. I really love when I can just push myself creatively and do new and different things that sometimes challenge or push the listener, and it’s great if they give it a chance. The song that I can really think of that really sums up what we’re talking about is “Flash.”
You improvised most of that song. Did you do that with “Answering Machine,” too?
Yeah. [laughs] I was just making stuff off the top of my head. I had, and it’s so funny, I had been doing this stuff off the top of my head and the way they had me mic’d up you could hear my engineer at times, so you could hear somebody laughing in the background.
Did you do a lot of stuff that you ended up scrapping for that or did you just use everything?
I think I pretty much used everything.
How about “La La Land”? Obviously that’s the kind of thing where you wrote a hook.
Yeah. “La La Land” wasn’t improved. But I came up with the concept. That was more of a pop track.
But there’s a tonal difference between “Flash” and “La La Land.” “Flash” is funnier.
[“La La Land”] is funny! It was an effective song because I was able to relate to the kids, too. I was partying and all that stuff at the time, so it wasn’t something where they thought I was preaching to them, because they knew I was one of them.
“La La Land” came out about a year after you had done the self-titled compilation on F-111, the short-lived Warner Bros. dance subsidiary. Was it a response to “Flash” getting a bigger reissue in 2000?
The main reason wasn’t because of the “Flash” reissue. It was the fact that I had F-111 recording and believing in my music. When I realized that they were really serious about doing whatever they could for me and give me a push, I decided to come up with something that I just thought would really make their job a lot easier. I actually wrote “La La Land” with them in mind, and with another friend in mind that I was trying to get him to stop doing some of the drugs. It came out to be a little bit more structured because I wanted it to be a little bit more accessible so that the guys at F-111 would have an easier time promoting it and pushing it. But, being as it may, they folded, so [laughs] I just had to put it out myself.
Cajmere performs at Verboten at the Highline Ballroom with Josh Wink tonight.