Burning Up the House

While Derrick Carter was firing up the dance floor at a party a few weeks ago, his apartment was burning down. The 26-year-old DJ arrived at his Roscoe Village home early in the morning, just as a board-up crew hammered the last nails into a sheet of plywood covering the front window. One of the city’s most active and well-respected club DJs and an esteemed remixer and recording artist, Carter lost most of his clothes, tape decks, a DAT machine, mixing boards, a sequencer, and more than 700 records–the tools of his trade. The cause of the blaze is still unknown.

But Carter, a self-described “happy-go-lucky kid,” hasn’t let it get to him. He jokes, “My TV was pretty much melted beyond recognition, but I plugged it in and it still works. You can’t stop the tube no matter what.” Following a hastily assembled but successful benefit to help defray his fire-related losses, Carter was off to Europe for three weeks to DJ and do some production work.

Born and raised in the western suburbs, Carter was into music from a young age, but during his teens Chicago’s house scene sucked him in for good. Before long Carter became a strong presence in the city’s underground dance scene. “When I got my driver’s license at 16 my sneak ability was validated,” he laughs. “I was a fierce bedroom jock for a long time. After you mix for the love of it for six or seven years, you get it pretty tight and you can take it on the road.” He got by working at dance-music specialty stores like Gramaphone and gigging at parties. Later he landed regular DJ stints at Shelter, Foxy’s, and Smart Bar.

Though he doesn’t spin much locally anymore, when he does he attracts large crowds. His sets are rooted in house, but he freely travels outside club tastes, seamlessly incorporating old-school disco, soul, jazz, and whatever else catches his fancy. Most of the time he works in Europe, where he’s become a minor celebrity among dance-music aficionados. And the money’s a hell of a lot better there. “It’s hard not to laugh on the occasions when you’ll make 20 times what you make in Chicago on a Saturday night, but there are also times when you do it just for the fun, like at home. So many people come up to me and say, ‘Man, I had the worst day. My girlfriend left me, I locked my keys in my car, but you turned me for two hours, and that made me able to get up in the morning.’ That’s the best thing going.”

In 1988 Carter, fellow DJ Mark Farina, and friend Chris Nazuka released an EP as the group Symbols & Instruments. The record had a strong influence on the burgeoning ambient techno movement in England. While it wasn’t a commercial success, it established Carter as an international figure in the dance-music underground. Since then he’s been involved with a number of recording projects, none more impressive than Sound Patrol, his solo vehicle.

Last year he released Sweetened–No Lemon, Sound Patrol’s debut album, on the local Organico label. The music exudes a soulfulness and low-key grittiness that resonate beyond the infectious grooves, departing from the machinelike quality of current dance-music fare. Most dance music won’t hold up to at-home listening, but Carter’s album has unusual depth. “It’s like my exorcism. It allows me to get rid of the freaky, almost garish nature that I have, and then I can be a social, nice, loving guy and keep my head straight.” Despite Carter’s characterization, the mostly in-strumental album serves up melodic deep grooves drenched in simple keyboard textures and surrounded by resonant, liquid bass sounds. The beat is strong but not overwhelming.

A big reason for the album’s homemade feel is that it was recorded in Carter’s inexpensive apartment studio. “In a big studio you can crank it up to 15 and there are no neighbors to complain, but at home you have to keep it down so that the kids downstairs don’t have a groove punctuating their sleep. With a big studio you lose that edge of being able to make a cup of hot chocolate if you want to. If someone calls in the middle of recording a track and they give you a better idea, then you can go and do it. You’re not locked into an eight-hour block. The music becomes a page out of a diary.”

Carter says that due to his growing notoriety his production talents have been requested by pop-oriented acts. But he prefers to remain underground. In that spirit he’s exceptionally vague about when the second Sound Patrol album will be relased. Although enthused about his own Blue Cucaracha label and a new UK-based imprint he runs called Classic, he’s reluctant to offer much explanation of either label’s MO–other than each releases records when the mood strikes him. “I like to keep myself pretty invisible. You may think I’m somewhere, but I’ve already left.”

You should, however, be able to find him spinning at Shelter May 17.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.