Larry Heard

Larry Heard, house-music originator, started playing drums at the age of 17. Later, as Mr. Fingers, he carved his place in history, producing early Chicago

Larry Heard, house-music originator, started playing drums at the age of 17. Later, as Mr. Fingers, he carved his place in history, producing early Chicago classics like “Can You Feel It,” “Washing Machine,” “Bring Down the Walls,” and “What About This Love.” Heard started producing in 1984 — after stints in rock, R&B, and jazz bands — applying the principles he learned as a drummer. At the time, particularly in Chicago, electronic music was just beginning to break, and the club scene became its forum. Artists such as Heard brought their demos into the clubs, where DJs including Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy played them on the spot and got immediate response from the dance floor.

“Nobody was thinking anything or trying to do anything,” remembers Heard, now 41. “The blueprint wasn't established. Now everybody has the blueprint to work off of. When you're creating the blueprint, you don't even know you're doing it. You're just having fun, getting to be creative, without anybody putting any restrictions on you.”

Although he is quick to point out that he's a musician — ”I can DJ, but I'm not a DJ” — Heard dabbled in DJing to learn about the culture in which he was involved. His early public appearances (notably at New York's Paradise Garage) were not DJ sets but live performances featuring Robert Owens on vocals and Heard on keyboards. Even now Heard DJs only rarely, with just eight gigs in 2000 and none at all in the previous three years.

A Chicago native, Heard moved to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1997 to remove himself from the house scene he helped create. But distance hasn't stopped him from producing music. He has 16 full-length albums to his credit. All of them have been released overseas, mainly through British labels. Shockingly, only two, 1992's Introduction and his latest, Love's Arrival, have been released domestically. Heard attributes that state of affairs to American ignorance and to the fact that domestic audiences don't buy house in substantial numbers.

“The same thing that happened to rap music could happen to house music,” he says. “The record companies, stores — they don't argue with you about what you want to buy if you have money in your hand. All they want to do is sell it to you. They will jump on the bandwagon if there's a significant number of people coming in stores constantly to buy this music. It's not philosophical or technical or anything. It's cause and effect.”

Today, Heard's early 12-inch singles fetch between $300 and $400 apiece on eBay. There are tentative plans to rerelease his early work, but according to Heard, there's no reason to do it: “Consumers say they're serious about the music, but every time it comes down to buying something, everybody wants a free copy. We hear all these nice compliments. At the end of the day, I can't take your nice compliments to the light company and pay my bill. I can't buy a new keyboard with your compliments; I can't buy the latest 12-inches that come out with your compliments. I don't even want to hear that. Michael Jackson don't want to hear it. It's nice, but it's not a real compliment if there's not some supporting evidence. It's just talk. Compliment me at the cash register. That's what you do.”