Know it or not, if you’re into electronic music, you owe a lot to Chicago-based TRAX. The label, founded by Larry Sherman and “Screamin” Rachael Cain in 1984, was a crucial outlet for early house music and has profoundly impacted dance culture. Unsurprisingly, there’s a fantastic story behind it all, and we had the pleasure of speaking to Rachael Cain about precisely that. We’ve sprinkled the piece with TRAX classics for your listening pleasure. After the label’s first ever tour date in Paris last month, the next will be in New York on September 10th. For more info on TRAX live events, contact MN2S Booking Agency.
Bizarre Culture: So to start with, tell us more about how you got involved with the scene and the label.
Rachael: I was involved doing underground punk parties at a place called Space Place, while Frankie Knuckles had the Warehouse right around the corner. Jessie Saunders and Vince Lawrence heard me and they were looking for someone to sing on one of their songs, Fantasy. When the Space Place was raided, someone told me Frankie Knuckles was spinning my record, so I stopped in to see what the Warehouse was all about and it just changed my life.
After the success of Fantasy, when we wanted records pressed up we went to Precision Pressing Plant, and that was how we met Larry Sherman. With continued radio support from Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and The Hot Mix 5, Larry realised that we were actually making money selling these records out of the trunks of our cars, and wanted in! He was like the designated adult. We were like 14 at the time, it was crazy.
We realised that this music we were making wasn’t like songs, it was more like tracks. Larry couldn’t spell, so with that happy accident, the name came about. It was just a small group of friends who were influenced by the warehouse party scene, and it became a whole youth culture really. I fell in love with the way people were moved by house music. Disco had become so overproduced that it lost its soul, and when TRAX came along we deconstructed everything down to the barebones minimum. It had the power of punk music but it made people dance. Chicago was divided racially too, and in many ways I think house helped bring people together.
“Starting the label from a vinyl pressing warehouse made all the sense in the world.”
Starting the label from a vinyl pressing warehouse made all the sense in the world, we had a lathe and all the equipment right in the warehouse, so could make reference discs and test the records in clubs straight away, with support from people like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy. Ron also worked at TRAX doing A&R, and most of the artists helped out packing boxes and shrink-wrapping records – we were involved every step of the way.
When we exploded in a big way, people started moving to New York and working with other labels, Frankie did some stuff with Virgin, Jessie was with Geffen for a little while. I got really involved in the party scene in New York. Everyone was getting far too involved in drugs, people were being killed, it got crazy. The whole New York chapter had become so decadent and got so out of hand, so far removed from the purity of the house music that started in Chicago.
Larry saw all this on the news and asked me to come back to TRAX. I agreed only if they made me president, and that’s what got me on the path to where I am today. Not everyone was a fan of how Larry Sherman did things, and now that I’m running the label as an artist myself, I’ve got sympathy for our artists and I’m certainly not there to take away their music or rights. From there, we started rebuilding TRAX. While trying to broaden the label’s profile, big companies actually took a lot of control and it’s another miracle that I managed to get it back. I learned a lot of hard lessons, about who true friends are. In all that though, I realised that the fans had been there for me throughout, and those are the people that I live for.
BC: Why isn’t the story and role of TRAX more well-known, in the UK for example?
R: I think it’s because we’re so small. We never advertised and rarely even had people doing PR for us. We just didn’t have the promotional resources that other labels did. In many ways I’m glad we didn’t get caught up in all that, even at the times when we almost lost everything – people wrote about us because we were good and we deserved it.
“It’s a strange combination of being small but with a big footprint.”
At the same time though, last year Beatport had us as the most influential dance music label in the world, the music has stood the test of time. It’s a strange combination of being small but with a big footprint. We didn’t have big marketing bucks behind us, so there isn’t the same knowledge or notoriety surrounding the label, but the music has been timeless and that’s what I’m proud of. If you speak to people like Daft Punk or Kaskade, they’ll tell you they were influenced by TRAX. There are people who know, but it’s sad that the story isn’t more celebrated, especially in the UK since that’s where we really took off in the beginning.
BC: Where does TRAX fit in with the music industry now?
R: I was mentored by Sylvia Robinson, the lady behind Sugar Hill Records. When Russell and Def Jam came in, they sort of took over. The incredible people at Sugar Hill, like Grandmaster Melle Mel and Flash and Dougie Fresh, have been kind of lost to history, and people think that Hip Hop started with Def Jam. After seeing that first hand for hip hop, I committed to never letting it happen to house music. I wanted us to be remembered, I didn’t want someone else to come along and take that from us, for people not to know about Marshall Jefferson or Farley. After people had made fun of house, calling it stupid unimportant black gay music without a message, I wanted it to be recognised.
“After seeing that first hand for hip hop, I committed to never letting it happen to house music.”
Especially after the tough times, when Larry and some of the others in the warehouse said no one wants this old shit anymore, I set out to prove that the whole world cares about this music. We’ve always made our music in our own way, we put our soul into it and we do what we believe, and hopefully people like it – if they don’t then we know we’ve done our best and we’ve done what we believe in. Major labels will come and tell you how to make music.
Ultra called me today to say that they want to make a deal with us to use parts of our tracks for their artists to deconstruct because of the magic in these songs. It seems that they want to go back and use what we had because the formulas are not working. Some artists are even using popular Google search words in songs, that’s insane. Here’s this monster label that spends millions on promotion coming to me and asking to use things we made. We made the music we loved without caring what the charts had to say.
“They don’t want to use the word House because it started with the black and gay community, so they’re trying to whiten it up with superstar-image ‘EDM’ DJs.”
I hate the word EDM. They don’t want to use the word House because it started with the black and gay community, so they’re trying to whiten it up with superstar-image DJs, hoping people will forget House. I don’t want that to ever happen. It’s so important for people to know that there was this little group of people who had nothing, and they somehow made this sound that changed the world.
BC: What’s next for the label?
R: I bumped into Farley and we started talking about how great it’d be to start working together again. He said he’d written a song about France after the terror attacks, whilst Marshall has a new project with Sleazy D, so we’re all working together to rebuild. I have nothing but faith that all these great things are happening for us for a reason. I’m hoping to take the TRAX family around the world and introduce some of the new artists. Having the biggest parties in the biggest clubs in New York didn’t have the same heart as what I’m doing now, I’m truly happy.
We might also have a TV series on the horizon, working with Eddie Barbini on that. A US show called Unsung just interviewed a lot of the original house crew about Frankie Knuckles, and that’s due to come out. I’m also optioning my screenplay about TRAX, I don’t even know how happy I am about that because I have to maintain creative control, that’s how crazy I am about the things I do, I don’t want anything to be plagiarised or destroyed or cheapened.
We want to start releasing stems to the public so people can have fun mixing and remixing with TRAX’s music. I’m going to be speaking to Native Instruments about that soon. People having fun with them is totally different to major labels making them into something they were never meant to be. Some of the people I work with think I’m crazy for not just selling it all off or trying to make commercial music. I just want to make a living and help create music that future generations will see the same way this generation sees TRAX’s earliest stuff.
Interestingly, everyone wants us to do what we did, but that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to be anyone else, or regurgitate ourselves. We’re not going for our old sound, we’re certainly not going for the cool sound, we’re going for a new sound we believe in. When you’ve got that magic, you’ll break through to the right people without needing to fit the format.
There’s people that don’t get TRAX now, but they didn’t get TRAX back then, so nothing’s changed really, it’s not for everyone. It took a long time for people to get it, they used to say it’s not even music. I met Gene McFadden, the big soul singer/songwriter, he wrote things like Ain’t No Stopping Us Now and Backstabbers, and he laughed at me and said House doesn’t sound like music. I stood by it, and I’m so glad I did.
BC: You had your first ever label night at the end of July Why now? Why Paris? Why not Chicago?
R: More than ever, presenting quality music and getting the story out there is so important. Being so small and just trying to keep our heads above water, we never got into booking or management until we met Milk and Two Sugars from the UK who really take an interest in putting some events together.
People think Chicago has this huge house scene, but that hasn’t been the case for a long time, the city had forgotten its own. For years we were the orphan, or at best a step-child to Chicago, they didn’t even want to let us do free concerts. That’s why not Chicago, our biggest support from the start had always been the UK and Paris. I noticed in France, because the kids don’t even have to be 21, it was a really young crowd, but they were literally hanging from the rafters, you could tell how much love they had for us.
“For years we were the orphan, or at best a step-child to Chicago.”
It took Frankie Knuckles’ death in 2014 for them to realise our story was worth knowing about, and that’s a real shame, if only Frankie had seen it within his lifetime. They finally acknowledged us with an exhibition. I let them use some of my things and they lost my first edition original copy of Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body! That can never be replaced. The exhibit itself was beautiful though. There were people actually crying and people left notes about how House had saved their life, kept them off the street, got them off drugs. It was a testament to the power of House.
As mentioned above, TRAX’s next night is in New York on September 10th. You must RSVP for entry at firstname.lastname@example.org