It’s been an incredible 30 years since (Screamin’) Rachael Cain co-founded the legendary TRAX Records. A nomination in Mixmag’s recently launched Label of The Decade Poll highlights just how relevant and innovative the label remains today, as it continues its output of quality electronic music. We recently caught up with Rachael Cain at TRAX’s HQ in Chicago to discuss the resurgence of hip house, Chicago’s gang culture and how gut feelings are central to unearthing killer tunes. Rachael also lifts the lid on TRAX’s new ‘I ♥ NY’ compilation, plans for a solo artist album, and a forthcoming Paradise Garage party.
Interview by Fred Fleet
Rachael, a big welcome to DMCWORLD…where in the world are you right now?
At the moment I have just returned to the Home of House Music – Chicago!
You’ve dropped a new compilation on TRAX titled ‘I ♥ NY’ featuring a number of high profile NYC DJs and producers, either those born and bred or those from outta town who are currently rocking the scene, the likes of Johnny Dynell, Christy Love, and even the journalist Michael Musto! How did you go about selecting these artists?
The interesting part of all this is that the entire project started with Michael Musto! It all happened in a roundabout way because when speaking to Michael at an event at the Standard Hotel in NYC where Johnny Dynell was spinning, we had a conversation about who he thought would be great to sign to TRAX, and he suggested Tyler Stone. There aren’t a lot of people who realize that I lived in NYC for a very long time and have a history with most of these DJ’s. When I meet with Tyler Stone and heard his music, I knew it was special and that he himself is an amazing vocalist, DJ and producer. I feel he has what it takes to be of the caliber of a Mr. Fingers. You see, Trax is a very small operation and we don’t sign or work with anyone that we feel cannot live up to our legacy. As for the I Love NY album, Tyler wanted to do a very special project and I believe in him. He kept sending the music to me and I got the chance to reconnect with some of my friends and meet some of the other DJs on the project so it was a done deal. Tyler basically curated it and I LOVE IT!
Why chose Youth Communication as the charity to raise money for? Were you ever involved in gang culture as a youth yourself?
I chose Youth Communication because I have been a mentor to teens there and I’ve also been on their board for about 8 years. They are turning 40 this year and have an amazing history but have fallen on hard times. Their mission statement is “Youth must be heard and understood.” They also have the longest running teen newspaper in the USA called ‘New Expression’. People who are interested can read many of their papers which have been archived by Columbia College in Chicago. I’ve always loved to write and in fact wrote for Streetsoundz Magazine years ago. Music and the creative arts literally saved my life and I would like to give back by helping others to do the same. I don’t know if you have seen Donald Trump’s declaration about sending the troops to Chicago to stop violence? Well, I think there is a better way. In fact I am sure his threats won’t work so Chicago and Youth Communication have never needed our help more than now. I’ve always been around gangs all my life but thankfully never been a member and I’ve never lived or gone to school in areas of Chicago where you are just about trapped to join. I’ve mentored a lot of teens who would have to take secret routes to school and I had a number of friends killed, especially in Englewood. It’s very sad but I’ve seen great success stories too.
One of the teens I mentored, Deontae Moore, received a full ride scholarship to Northwestern University’s highly esteemed school of Journalism Medill. That one story of many but I’m proud to say I was personally involved. If we could each just guide and save one young life, we could surely change the world.
You’re Chicago based. What’s the love affair with NY about?
New York will always be my second home. I love everything about it especially the club scene. It’s so mixed culturally. NYC is a melting pot in all ways and I live for the fact that everybody parties together. You don’t know how many times people say to me, that’s an all-black party, all straight party, gay party, kid party. BORING! I need a great mixed party of interesting people with a fabulous DJ and I can always find that in NYC! Things aren’t segregated like that outside the country, but here in the states there is still a lot of that. NYC also has great talent. A lot of house people have moved to Europe so these days I really get my creative fix in the Apple and I have so many great friends that I love there. We work on music, movies, acting, scripting. I can’t get enough of it.
Were you surprised with Michael Musto’s offering in his first outing as a producer – is it what you expected?
Michael Musto is an amazing talent who never ceases to amaze me with his varied abilities. We’ve known each other for many years yet I feel his creativity is shining more than ever. When it came to this production he really had an idea of what he wanted his sound to be like. He loves Motown and captured some of that in his vocals and music. Michael decided to work with Tyler and they make a great team. Trax is very excited to begin his album project. When I listen to “I Got Ya Back” it hits me in my heart and makes me feel good. The song is infectious and so is Musto and I mean that in a good way!
There’s a bonus track on the album by TRAX’s A&R Tyler Stone featuring your wonderful-self, called Ain’t No Stoppin’. It also features ex-gang members turned rappers, Co-Still and Sinbad Wicked. How did you get them involved? What’s their story?
I’m so glad that DMC asked about the Ain’t No Stoppin’ Track! Sinbad Wicked and Co-Still are my friends, my real homies, and the only others to participate in the project who don’t live in NYC – we are all born and breed in the “CHI”. They have been helping out with Youth Communication and will be heading up our new program visiting neighborhoods like Englewood to connect directly with troubled teens. They have both been saved by music and I can’t even begin to tell you enough about them or their legacies in Hip Hop. I’ve known Sinbad Wicked from “Wicked Entertainment” for about 15 Years, we’ve shared offices and through good and bad we are a family. Wicked is to Hip Hop what Trax is to the underground in Chicago. They’ve worked with Twista, Crucial Conflict, The Legendary Traxter and many more. Co- Still is one of the biggest and most respected rappers in Chicago with a string of radio hits and mix tapes. Sinbad and me go everywhere and I’m never afraid. He loves to produce television, he also runs concert stages, works with DJ’s and discovers talent. He’s an all-around music man, but this is the first time he’s been on a record! He’s got me out of some serious jams with gangs, once over our Trademark “Juke” but that’s a whole other story! If I could take these guys everywhere with me I would, because we always have the best time! Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us is our story!
TRAX’s output has changed dramatically over the years. How would you describe its current sound?
Things at TRAX are constantly evolving, but we’ve always been like that. The funny thing is if you think about it, the TRAX Records sound has always been unique. I can’t compare it to anything or try to pigeon hole it because we really have no influences other than a gut feeling about a record, or sometimes a producer who we believe has a sound that fits the family. I would say we are HOUSE and that means we make music to dance to! So we haven’t changed that. Dancing unites people and I believe it’s therapeutic and cathartic. It’s crazy because we have always been idiosyncratic about doing music we love. Even the classics were all so different! Think about the soulful Darryl Pandy vocal on “Love Can’t Turn Around” then try to compare that to Acid TRAX. You really can’t… We are currently stretching, getting into some more live stuff like “The Dark Blue Orchestra”. We’re getting into positive feelings and messages again, and I guess I feel the world really needs to be uplifted now, but we are totally open to anything as we’ve always been. That’s why we are innovators. I’ve always loved real Hip Hop so you’re going to hear more stuff like Emskee, Co-Still and others. I feel hip house never had its day! They rarely even cover or mention it in documentaries. Our sound is TRAX that’s it! Completely independent renegades! Love us or hate us we do music for our fans, and thankfully we have many of them so I’m completely grateful for that and somehow in this huge digital universe there is still a little label that could and still does.
What do you look for now when you sign a record? Do you lead by genre, the artist’s profile or just a gut feeling that this is a killer record?
Everything about what we do is gut feeling. We don’t care about profiles, statistics or how famous someone may be. These days because of the internet, you could be anywhere in the world, like Carmelo Carone one of our main producers who lives in Italy. I’ve meet people and sometimes had a feeling they were right for TRAX before even hearing their music and I’ve had some amazing hunches!
What’s TRAX’s affiliation with the gay club scene? We notice that a lot of your current artists have a foothold there.
TRAX has always had a huge gay following and many gay artists like the legendary Frankie Knuckles from the beginning. We have always tried to support the GLBT community everywhere. I guess I just personally think of people as people, I don’t like the fact that society labels everyone. It’s very sad that the world is so archaic. One thing I love about house music is the way I see it: we are free on the dancefloor. TRAX Records has been involved with a movie trilogy called Vamp Bikers and it’s a wonderful microcosm of people who probably might have never meet if not on the movie set, club kids, bikers, drag queens, grandpas, hipsters every race you can think of and it’s beautiful to see them all coexist and have fun together. That’s been my world all along, I did not grow up with prejudice and frankly I don’t even understand it. Sometimes these diverse people ask each other about their lives and share likes and differences. In the end I think we all need to realize that good people are just good people.
How was the ‘I ♥ NY’ album launch party at the Ace Hotel?
There have been many times that I’ve seen music erase lines and The Liberty Hall event at the Ace Hotel was a great example of that! That party is going to go down as one of my very favorites! They give residencies to artists and DJs at the Ace so Tyler Stone will be there every Sunday this month creating and working to raise money for Youth Communication. I hope our New York and Jersey fans and visitors to the city will come out and experience the fun. We have a lot of wonderful things planned with the Ace Hotel including a huge fund raiser for GMHC in July. We are going to celebrate the Paradise Garage which, by the way, was the breaking ground for many of our early TRAX releases, so it will be a celebration of TRAX at the Paradise Garage. I loved Larry Levan, he was truly an inspiration to me especially his fantastic choice of music. Lots of people don’t realize he played hip hop too! I thank God I experienced it. It opened up a whole new beautiful world for me. Even though it was primarily a gay crowd, all the cool dancers, breakers and B-boys and girls came out and everybody felt welcome! It really was paradise… I’m going to DJ the party with Tyler and the team, and we will be putting together an incredible special playlist which will also be used to help raise money for the cause.
Let’s rewind to the glory days of TRAX. You were responsible for putting out the greatest house anthems of all time from the likes of Marshall Jefferson, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Larry Heard, and the late Frankie Knuckles. Were you aware at the time of just how historical these releases would later become?
I can rewind to the beginning days, but I feel these are the glory days of TRAX. In fact, when I DJ, sometimes I open with Madd Wikkid’s Trax Cut “These are The Days” and I quote, “These are the days that we’ll look back on and say, those were the days”. But yes, I always knew how special the music was and along with my very small team – Jorge Cruz, Carmelo Carone and Big Mark – we set out to fight for it, preserve it and save it. The music still doesn’t even have a presence in a museum as hip hop does. There is still much work to be done like comprehensive books, photographic exhibitions and bringing many more of TRAX hidden gems to light. But most important of all is to keep going on with new projects and music and never rest on our laurels.
Which of the original TRAX family are you still in touch with? Who would you consider your closest pals?
I’m still in touch with many of the TRAX Family, but there are many that I miss like Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Darryll Pandy and Armando, RIP. Lots of house people have moved to other cities in the country and world. But I still stay in touch with Farley Jackmaster Funk, Joe Smooth, Jesse Saunders, Marshall Jefferson, Harry Dennis, Robert Owens, Vince Lawrence, Dean Anderson, Gene Hunt and Paul Johnson, and if I didn’t name you, you’re still in my heart and you know it! I can’t pick closest pals because I love them all. We’ve had our spats here and there but when its down for the count we are there for each other.
What labels did you grow up loving?
I mostly paid attention to artists not labels growing up until I heard Sugarhill Records. That changed my life and I was lucky enough to get the chance to be mentored by Sylvia Robinson which brings me here today. But I can’t forget Chi- Sound, Chess, and Alligator Records, Chicago labels who forged the way for TRAX.
When was the last time you danced to a DJ?
The last time I really danced anonymously in a crowd was a couple of months ago to Michael Magnan in NYC at 1111. No one knew I was there and he happened to play my really underground cut “I Need a Party.” It is such a thrill to let loose and experience people dancing to your music, and just dancing when no cares, at all. It brought me back to why I did all of this in the first place!
And finally, what is coming next from you and TRAX studio wise…?
Right now I’m working on my new album and Carmelo Carone, is coordinating it. There are going to be works with classic people like Joe Smooth and cool new TRAX people including Tyler Stone, Michael Magnan and producer Shorty Capone. We are also coming out with a Hip House Mix tape. We really have a full exciting release schedule for the entire year. Most importantly, we’re working on a TRAX Tour. Interested agents, managers, and promoters can contact us through our site www.traxrecords.net. I’ll be performing at Midem in Cannes in June and we will be unveiling an exciting new technology based music partnership with the Track’d App. Now people everywhere can get involved at their own level getting tracked with TRAX.
‘I ♥ NY’ is out now on TRAX Records. Grab a copy now http://hyperurl.co/9myjca
Find out more about Youth Communication…
Photo credit : Ryan LaZara