Todd Terry

Original DJ deity puts the needle on the record to create smash remixes and new productions

Photo courtesy Strictly Rhythm

It's interesting that dance music's top DJs are often labeled “gods” by their adoring fans. While spinning other artists' records before a crowd isn't really enough to qualify for deity status, somebody's got to do it, right? Known as “Todd the God” by his global network of fans, New York City DJ/producer/remixer Todd Terry has been a hit-making machine for the better part of 25 years. His productions and remixes have sold in the millions, and he's known for building DJ sets around unreleased tracks, works in progress and his own stellar back catalog. He's also an artist with a rebellious fire; his 1999 drum 'n' bass album Resolutions (Astralwerks) was a shock to house music's foundation — here was a house DJ all of a sudden producing music that you can't dance to — and while it was critically panned, you have to respect his nerve.

Raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Terry greatly admired and was influenced by early hip-hop artists such as Grandmaster Flash, Spoonie Gee, Rakim and Mele Mel. He was into the type of hip-hop that could also work on the dancefloor, and his early productions fell more into the freestyle electro sound (rather than straight-up house music) made popular by the likes of Arthur Baker, John Robie and John “Jellybean” Benitez. Terry's first major production, 1987's “Alright, Alright” (Fourth Floor), came out under the Masters At Work name (along with Franklin Martinez and Mike Delgado). According to Terry, the legendary Masters At Work guise was originally given to his crew of DJs who played out in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and was adopted for record releases. The Masters At Work name was then passed on to Little Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, who popularized the name throughout the world and added the signature hip-house-jazz style sound.

“Alright, Alright” was a huge success for Terry and one of the most important singles for the development of New York City house music. It also put Terry on a path to focus solely on house music for the future. “At the time, I didn't know about the dance scene, so [the track's success] didn't mean much to me,” Terry tells Remix. “I was still into the hip-hop thing and was really doing house music just to pay the bills. When I saw how people were going crazy for house music, I decided to put hip-hop to the side.”

Terry spent the remainder of the late '80s and early '90s on a wild ride of releasing smash singles under numerous aliases, including Todd Terry Project's “Bango (To the Batmobile)” (Fresh, 1988), Royal House's “Can You Party?” (Idlers, 1988) and Black Riot's “A Day in the Life” (Fourth Floor, 1988), among many others. “Back in the day, the only way to get my name out there and many records out at the same time was to use aliases. [Labels] wouldn't take another Todd Terry record, so I had to release records under a different name,” Terry says.

As a remixer, Terry had a hand in some of the most popular and highest selling remixes of all time. His eclectic discography of remixes includes reworkings for Sting, Annie Lennox, Technotronic, Cerrone, Irene Cara, Cajmere, The Sugarcubes, The Shamen, Janet Jackson, Tina Turner and most famously, the Jungle Brothers' “I'll House You” and Everything But the Girl's smash “Missing.” Terry's winning remixing formula has always been very simple, and he stays true to the original song. “For the most part, I always just added a beat, a bass line and a little melody to the songs. When you have a great song, it makes things so easy,” he says.

With Terry's productions, remixes and DJ sets flooding all corners of the dance-music market, fans began referring to the omnipresent artist affectionately as “Todd the God.” “My music really got into the people. The music got past the industry, and the people made it powerful,” Terry says. However, despite being such an integral part of the development of house music, Terry still finds the United States to be a very difficult market. “The U.S. is horrible,” he says. “They just dog all the greatest DJs. We are all here and can't get a gig. That's just the way it is. We can't get a gig here, but a lot of UK DJs probably go through the same thing where they can only get gigs here. It's just part of the bullshit of the industry.”

Despite all his successes on the remix front, Terry has taken a hiatus from working on future remixes because he believes that it saps his artistic juices. “I haven't done a remix in the last year and half. I just rather stick to my productions right now,” he says. “Remixing kills your creativity, and I was doing so much remixing that I couldn't do my own stuff.” Several of these new productions (Todd Terry featuring Tara McDonald on “Play On” and Todd Terry All Stars featuring Kenny Dope, DJ Sneak, Terry Hunter and Tara McDonald on “Get Down”) are on Strictly Todd Terry (2007), a retrospective mix CD released on Strictly Rhythm.

As with most old-school DJs, the majority of Terry's career was built by spinning vinyl on four turntables. However, while he now DJs with CDs, that's pretty much the only change Terry's made throughout the years. Sets are built around his own unreleased tracks, edits, experiments and music that nobody else will ever have. Of course, his classic tracks still provide the highlight of most evenings. “I've been playing ‘Can You Party?’ and ‘Bango (To the Batmobile)’ for years. It's the request, it's there and it still gets the crowd going,” he says. “I get tired of playing ‘Bango,’ but the crowd always chants for it, and I go ‘aw, shit,’ and play it for a little while. Still, I like playing these songs because the crowd likes it a lot, and that's what it's all about.”