After a long week spent fielding strange philosophical and existential questions from Japanese journalists, today, Felix Stallings Jr., aka Felix da Housecat, is relaxing in his room at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan. While his curiously named sidekick, Dave the Hustler, is splashed out on the couch watching reruns of The Osbournes with the sound off, Felix is trying to regain his bearings after a media blitz that, he says, required him to conduct at least five trans-Atlantic conversations a day for the past five days, all through somber translators. “Their questions were almost like riddles,” Felix explains. “There would be, like, four questions in one. Sometimes, I had to sit up out of my bed and really focus because the things they were asking were so tough.”
The 32-year-old Chicago DJ and producer sounds exhausted just thinking about it. Devin Dazzle and the Neon Fever (Emperor Norton, 2004) is not only his seventh and latest album but also his first proper Japanese release. Based on the time he has spent analyzing every layer of his '80s-inspired electronic music this week, it's safe to say that the overseas response has been hysterically positive. “I would have never thought they would like this album in Japan,” he says, shaking his head. As he talks, his two-way pager buzzes constantly.
Felix's life has always been full of unexpected twists. He scored his first hit at 14, composing the late-'80s Chicago-house classic “Phantasy Girl” for DJ Pierre using just a 4-track recorder, a drum machine and some cheap keyboards. He helped pioneer the EQ-perverting “wild pitch” sound before moving to Europe and recording a slew of club hits under monikers including Aphrohead; Thee Madkatt Courtship; Electrickboy; Wonderboy; 2 Black Ninjas (with producer K-Alexi); and, best of all, Sharkimaxx.
Then, just as everyone started to lose interest, he reinvented himself with his dynamic, synth-funk-driven 2002 album, Kittenz and Thee Glitz (Emperor Norton). The disc earned Felix a Grammy Award nomination, reams of press and an instant social lift. “The whole thing with Kittenz and Thee Glitz was creating the party vibe and me making fun of it,” Felix says. “The ironic thing is, it brought all these celebs out who wanted to work with me, and I started living that life.”
More portentously, by employing the icy vocals of Miss Kittin and reviving a clinical new-wave sound, Kittenz and Thee Glitz landed him at the forefront of the electroclash movement — somewhere Felix never wanted to stand. “I hated that I was being labeled,” he says. “To me, electroclash is like some person in makeup and all this crazy neon gear, holding a guitar, and they can't play a note. It just has to do with the visual and nothing to do with the music. My other definition of electroclash is white music with no soul, no spunk. It's just monotone and straight — no melody, no nothing. Just straight electronic music trying to copy the '80s.” He sneers, “My goal is to just bury that period.”
After skewering the trendy and trashy with singles such as “Silver Screen Shower Scene” and “Madame Hollywood,” the last place that Felix should be showing his face is at one of his targets' main hives. Yet the Hudson, where Felix has been holed up during the past few weeks, is not so much a hotel as a chic nightclub with sleeping quarters. The bellboys look like Prada models, everyone at the checkout desk smells of Armani, and even the janitorial staff looks like it spends weekends lounging in Juicy Couture sweats and listening to The Virgin Suicides soundtrack.
But the main reason behind Felix's New York trip is even more ludicrous than the surroundings. Although he has his hands full getting the word out on Devin Dazzle and the Neon Fever, he's actually here to produce a new dance venture for multi-Platinum hip-hop mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs, aka P. Diddy. And at the moment, it seems that his boss is not happy that Felix's personal commitments are pulling him away from the studio. He's the reason the two-way won't stop rattling.
“The thing with Puffy is, he has a killer instinct,” Felix says. “He's like a beast. I've already done 20 tracks for him. You think you're done, and then he says, ‘Man, these other cats are bringing the heat. You're the one that's supposed to be representing. You the one who brought this all together for me. So you got to come with the heat.’ And I'm looking at him, like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? I just made you a gazillion tracks!’ He just says, ‘You got to get with it. I'm not trying to play mind tricks. I'm not using reverse psychology. I'm not trying to get in your head.’ Because that's what I thought he was trying to do. And then I look at him, and I look at Dave and say, ‘We got to grind.’”
Back at his home studio in Chicago, Felix relies primarily on synth-based hardware such as the Oberheim Matrix-12, the Sequential Circuits Prophet VS, the Korg Electribe ER-1 and the Roland Juno-106. “The only [software] technology I use is Pro Tools for tracking when it comes to vocals,” he says. “I'm not the kind of guy who makes a whole song out of a little computer.”
But because Puffy has such an insatiable appetite for new material, Felix has had to make some adjustments. “I already made 15 songs the way I make them at home,” Felix says. “And he keeps asking for more songs. I don't think he knows that dance is much harder to make than hip-hop because every four bars, everything has to change.” So yesterday, with Dave the Hustler's assistance, Felix came up with six brand-new songs while just using Propellerhead Reason and a laptop.
“What I like about working with Puffy is, he's the only guy who can drive and push me like he does,” Felix says. “I'm usually the guy who does the pushing. He's just on me. He's like, ‘I want something sexy. I want something I can groove to. You know what I mean?’ It's like a big-brother-type thing. He rides me to get at his level. I just think he likes to get in your mind and make you work harder. I respect him for that. It's definitely a new way of working. It's like guerrilla tactics.”
Felix admits that Puffy's work methods took some adaptation, particularly because he's used to moving at a considerably more leisurely pace when making his own records. “When we first hooked up, I lost my patience with him several times because I wasn't used to it,” Felix says. “But then I had to sit down and think, ‘He got where he is because of the way he works.’ Because when I work, I'll be playing NFL Fever on the Xbox upstairs, trying to get my rank up high. After that, I go down and work for an hour, then go have sushi with my boys, you know. But with Puffy, it's just grueling, nonstop work. It's like, you don't break until it's over. In the beginning, I was like, ‘Man, this is insane. This is like boot camp.’”
Now that he's almost through it, Felix is beginning to appreciate the lessons that he has learned along the way. “Puffy taught me to be straight-up and to-the-point,” Felix says. “You can work on something for hours, and if he don't like it, he'll tell you in a heartbeat. He ain't playing.”
The first time Felix encountered that, however, he wasn't too happy. “I was shocked,” he says. “But Puffy said, ‘Look, Felix, if you can't deal with criticism, you can't be in this business.’ When he said that, I realized that I have to take this to the next level. If he don't like it, he don't like it. So I make four or five tracks a day. When he likes something, he has a smile on his face like a little kid. If he don't like something, he don't like it. You got to respect him. I could just see at the end of the day, he really doesn't have time for slackers and playing games.”
Still, Felix isn't quite ready to trade in the vintage synths for a laptop. “At the end of the day, it's more fun to pull that old keyboard out of the box,” he says. “I like buying it and smelling it and messing with the knobs. You can't get that same feel off a computer.”
MAKING DEVIN DAZZLE
With Devin Dazzle and the Neon Fever, Felix emphasizes the soul behind his music. “I felt like I needed to get back to my roots,” he says. Most of Kittenz and Thee Glitz was recorded in a studio in Switzerland on borrowed gear. “We did the whole thing on the Yamaha CS1x,” he admits. “I walked in the studio, and that's all they had. I was thinking, ‘What am I going to make out of this?’ They didn't even have the E-mu. I told them to get one. I couldn't work off one keyboard, Cubase and a computer that was moving really slow. It was so old-school.”
To bring Devin Dazzle and the Neon Fever to life, Felix decided to take a more hands-on approach by employing real musicians. “I like to bring in characters who give a vibe to the music,” he explains. However, he didn't want their technical knowledge interfering with the '80s sound of his influences, like Duran Duran and Prince, so he instructed everyone to keep their playing flat — no effects, no nothing. “Just raunchy and raw,” Felix says.
Songs such as “Rocket Ride” and “Everyone Is Someone in L.A.” were built up using choice instruments from Felix's vintage-synth collection, including the Juno-106, the Matrix-12, the Electribe ER-1 and the Kurzweil K2500. “It's fully loaded,” he says. “The sounds are so rich on that. That's what I use when I want to get my Giorgio Moroder/John Carpenter vibe.”
Also at his disposal were a Yamaha CS2x and Motif, an Alesis Andromeda and a Sequential Circuits Prophet-600 and Prophet VS. “But my heart is the E-mu E6400,” Felix says. “I do a lot of my sampling on that. It's where I cut them up, disguise them, replay them, strip out what I sampled and bring musicians on top of it.”
Felix says that he replaced most of his outboard effects with Digidesign Pro Tools plug-ins such as Digidesign D-Verb, Bomb Factory Tel-Ray Variable Delay and GRM Tools ST, mostly to alter vocals. Then, he sent the music into Emagic Logic. “I put my flavor in Logic, and then we'll bring it back to Pro Tools to mix it,” he says. “Logic is good for sequencing, and Pro Tools is good for audio.”
Felix is keeping his production fairly old-school with Pro Tools LE on his three Macintoshes running OS 9.2. “I don't use big Pro Tools [systems] because the main thing you're buying is more effects and a high-end converter,” he says. “I'm happy with my effects, so I figured that I could just buy a kick-ass Apogee converter.”
Felix also used an Allen & Heath GL2200 board, and to make sure that he was getting that desired buttery sound, he replaced his Mackie monitors with Genelecs. “Mackies are better for hip-hop because they have more bass, but they give you a false reading,” he says. “I had to get something really accurate.”
BACK TO WORK
The two-way pager once again comes to life, this time even rousing Dave the Hustler from his tranquil pose. It's not Japan. It's Puffy. “It's strange,” Felix says, ignoring the message. “Puffy called me out of the blue. With him, I was just curious to go to his studio and see what he wanted. It was more curiosity to me to see why he wanted to do dance music.”
But then he rises. He can't avoid the chief much longer. Besides, having recognized that Puffy's foray into club music is not just another shrewd business move, but an inspired act of respect, Felix can't help but feel obligated to see this one through to completion. “He loves dance music,” Felix insists. “He's not doing it for the money. He loves it, and he really doesn't care what other people think of him loving it. He just wants to be a part of the dance world.”
Akai MPC3000, MPC4000 sampler workstations
Alesis Andromeda, Ion synths
Allen & Heath GL2200 mixing console
Apogee Rosetta AD 2-channel A/D converter
Avalon Vt-737sp tube channel strip
Avalon Vt-747sp tube compressor/EQ
Clavia Nord Lead 1 synth
Digidesign Digi 001 digital audio interface
Digidesign Pro Tools LE 5.0
Elektron MachineDrum drum machine
Emagic Logic Platinum 6.0 software
E-mu E4XT Ultra, E6400 samplers
Ensoniq DP/4 parallel effects processor
Korg Electribe ER-1 rhythm synth
Korg Electribe ESX-1 sampler
Kurzweil K2500RS synth
Oberheim Matrix-12, Matrix-1000 synths
Roland Juno-106 synth
Roland RE-201 Space Echo effects unit
Roland SVC-350 vocoder
Sequential Circuits Prophet-600, Prophet VS synths
Soundcraft Ghost mixing console
Studio Electronics SE-1X synth
Yamaha CS2x, Motif 6 synths
HERE COMES THE REMIX
Ever since Kittenz and Thee Glitz came out, the remix requests have been pouring in from every direction: Madonna, Yoko Ono, Iggy Pop, Kelly Osbourne, Britney Spears. The list is staggering. The thing is, though, everyone seems to want a “Silver Screen Shower Scene” knockoff.
“I have a different approach every time,” Felix says. “But for Britney's ‘Toxic,' they said, ‘Can you make something people can dance and strip to?’ My thing was like, ‘No, but I can make something dirty and street and raunchy.’ When I sent it to them, they asked if I could do another version.” Fortunately, Felix has developed a work-around to that particular problem: “I made sure the second version wasn't as good as the first one,” he says.