DJ/producer/remixer Steve “Silk” Hurley has been at the forefront of house music since the genre’s infancy in the ’80s in Chicago. Brandishing a style that holds true to the underground while embracing R&B, soul and pop, Hurley has worked with a who’s who of talent, remixed the biggest artists in musical history, and has topped the charts and received four Grammy nominations in the process.
In this revealing interview ahead of his DJ gig at House Vibrations at The Great Northern in San Francisco on July 21, Hurley retraces his beginnings, dating back to the breakout success of his 1987 classic “Jack Your Body” and his role as one-half of JM Silk, through the ups and a few downs of his storied career. He also reveals what inspires him to keep his indie S&S Records going in a changing musical landscape and his plans for the future.
Favorite memory of the early Chicago house scene
Steve “Silk” Hurley: My fondest memories of the early Chicago house scene were all the times that I played my bedroom demos from a Pioneer RT-909 reel-to-reel deck or Tascam four-track cassette recorder at parties all over the city. At times Lil’ Louis and I looked down at the crowd of thousands from the balcony DJ booth as we each played our unreleased tracks at the downtown Bismark Hotel. Other times, a thousand young teens connected with my tracks at Jam Master Jay’s events (at Glenwood Roller Rink in South Suburbs of Chicago). In either case, it was a sign to me that our new music was being embraced by the teen-aged crowds everywhere, and we needed to feed the demand in a hurry!
How he got his nickname, “Silk”
Ironically, it originated in my early teen years, before I even became a DJ. We had a neighborhood dance group that consisted of my muscular friend Reggie, called Herc, a lanky friend Rudy, whose long arms earned him the name Stretch, and me, a kid with wavy hair who they gave the name Silk. When I started learning to mix records as a DJ, I kept the Silk moniker as a reminder to me that my blends should always be as smooth as silk.
Most surprising success
Although I didn’t know the magnitude until several weeks after it exploded in the U.K., “Jack Your Body” had to be by far my most surprising success. It was created in fun and was my most experimental record ever, combining blues riffs, comedy, and a nonchalantly sung vocal sample over a house groove. I didn’t expect it to go number one on any charts. What was more surprising was JYB topping the U.K. pop charts for two weeks. It was purely an underground track to put out to be a filler track in DJ sets, which is why we came up with the label called Underground Records to release it. I even drew my own artwork just for the fun of it.
Most surprising failure
After the massive hit “Jack Your Body,” I felt like I had a few under my belt. But my most surprising failures came soon after that when many of the songs I wrote didn’t become hits. However, I realized then that it would be my failures that would actually give me long term success. In other words, the more failures I had, the more I would perfect my craft…and the closer I would come to writing another song that connected with the masses. I also found out that sometimes those failures weren’t failures at all. They were just songs that were ahead of their time. It may be years later that a song becomes marketable. From that point on, I have always embraced each failure as a learning experience that made room for the next success.
DJ set he’ll never forget
I would say it’s a tie:
- Chicago, Sauers, 1982: In Dave Risque’s Gucci Productions Battle of the DJs, I started my set with a children’s record that said, “OK boys and girls, it’s time to march, march, march!” This was followed by the marching snare cadence in Yello’s “Bostich,” which was a brand new record at the time. After that, I stacked five records on each turntable and played them each for a few seconds back to back. I think at that same battle I may have put a cash register spool on the turntable and placed the turntable’s headshell upside down. Then I put a coin on the headshell to keep the pressure on the record so it could be played backwards. I won the battle and finally got my chance to play on the big stage from that point on. #LifeChanging!
- Chicago, Chosen Few Picnic, 2017: I’ve been fortunate enough to play for audiences that support my music for many years, but this time I finally got to play for 50,000 of my hometown supporters, colleagues, and friends. I enjoyed taking Chicago on a journey from past to present to future. I was really in the zone from the adrenaline the Chicago househeads gave me!
Why DJing is still important in his life
Because of my passion for listening to great music, DeeJaying is what I tried to learn to do as a young teen in high school. However, at that time, mixing two records together was something new that most had never even heard of. Everyone thought I was a little weird for practicing in my mom’s basement every day for hours upon hours and missing out on a lot of social events (as well as sleep). For that reason, it will always be my foundation. The fact is that I would have never become a producer, remixer or songwriter without first learning what music (and each element of that music) would resonate with the masses. Furthermore, I learned how to take that knowledge and break it down to the science of creating music.
So when I get the opportunity to play for a captive audience, especially one that has supported my music and the genre of house music over the years, I am grateful for this, and I want to give them the spiritual gift of being uplifted by the power of music.
His most memorable song
CeCe Peniston’s “Keep On Walkin’” was originally written as a song for Kym Sims. I created the track, hook, melodies and first verse, then pulled in Kym and M. Doc to help me finish the lyrics. Although we thought Kym’s vocals were good, we had written so many songs that fit her voice better. Thus, we thought it would be a great idea to let CeCe hear it since she wanted to do some R&B songs on her album that still had a house/dance feel. The forces against us were saying that a “house music artist” like CeCe could not also be R&B, and a “house music producer” like me couldn’t produce R&B. So Cece and I both felt vindicated when we reached number one on Billboard dance and number 3 on the Billboard R&B chart.
The late Donnell Rush helped me with the background vocal arrangements, especially the vamp parts at the end. The backgrounds were sung by Donell, Chantay Savage and, of course, CeCe.
I remember the vocal session with CeCe. She breezed through most of the vocals where she was using her higher range, but the verses became a challenge. She had no problem singing the notes. The issue was that the vocals needed to have a certain attitude and rhythm to properly tell the story in the lyrics.
I can still remember her singing the same parts for hours. Instead of letting the frustration build up, we took a break. When we came back, I decided to try something new. I felt like changing the way she pronounced some of the lyrics could help the notes come out cleaner, more percussive and more rhythmic. Those necessary changes were the essence of the verses. We approached each part one by one, and finally got the verses.
What we both learned was that pronunciation is key when singing vocals, and sometimes it’s pronouncing words another way that creates the right vibe. We used the same technique to help CeCe hit high notes on “We Got A Love Thang!”
His most memorable remix
Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time” was the first single from Michael Jackson’s comeback album, Dangerous. This single reflected three important things to me:
- This was my favorite song from the album;
- MJ (The King Of Pop) was my favorite artist of all time; and
- Teddy Riley was my favorite producer at the time. Because of all of those components coming together, it’s a “no-brainer” that “Remember The Time” is my most memorable remix. But it wasn’t just for those selfish reasons.
This remix was a result of the blood sweat and tears that I shed in learning how to become a music producer in the 10 years prior. I finally was asked to “just do what you do,” even for the immortal MJ. I remember listening to his accapella tracks in awe for hours and being grateful for the opportunity to sit at my keyboard and play along with his vocals, as though he were right there in the room with me. It was spine-tingling.
I really wanted to come up with music that complemented the lyrics and melodies he sang, but also wanted to use this song to further expose house music to the masses. Therefore I had to implement the energy of the House sound while keeping the song element of this already classic tune. A month later, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my version being played in regular rotation on several radio stations like WGCI (which was Chicago’s biggest station), and to see the official music video feature my remix in addition to the original version. A year later, who knew that I actually would be in the studio with him working on tracks for his History album?
I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to be able to just work hard at what I love to do, and for that to become enough for me to have a career in music and entertainment, without ever having to look back.
What it’s like running S&S Records in 2019
House music has always been about quality for me. Unfortunately, the business has taken a turn that has created an emphasis on quantity vs. quality. Thus, in this age of disposable music, we find ourselves needing to drop more frequent releases in order to keep the brands of the artists and the label relevant.
However, at S&S Records, Skip and I are still sticklers for quality. We embrace all forms of technology to be more efficient in the creation of quality music and in the marketing of it. In today’s industry, downloads are primarily supported by DJs on Traxsource, Beatport and Juno. In the meantime, consumers now prefer to stream Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal for a monthly fee.
Needless to say, that has changed the business model of independent labels in many ways. Streaming revenue is much lower per unit, but on the flip side, it is a great brand builder. As a result, the focus for marketing to the consumer is raising the awareness of the artist on the streaming sites, and encouraging artists to have a consistent stream of releases. Another key point is to make sure the artists, producers, and remixers are getting their proper credits, so fans can see their entire body of work when searching for them. These factors help the artist page grow exponentially, and consequently, their brand does the same!
Song it took the longest amount of time to finish
Steve “Silk” Hurley feat Sharon Pass – “The Word Is Love”
Sharon Pass definitely paid her dues as a demo and background singer for our ID Records camp, for artists like CeCe Peniston, Donell Rush, Jamie Principle and M. Doc, just to name a few.
Therefore, it was only right that she was able to shine front stage on my first single after the ID Records era called “The Word Is Love.” Sharon has one of the best tones and vocal range that I’ve ever heard. Her vocals truly shine on this record. Of course with me being the character that I am, I had to put some fun into the record with the “Oom-Da” background vocal bits.
What most people don’t know is that the main mix (Anthem Of Life Mix) was actually the third remixed version that I did in an effort to come up with something I really felt good about. I actually struggled for a few weeks trying to beat the dead horse of the first house version that I came up with.
I finally just laid down one remix that I settled on being called the original mix, which allowed me to start from scratch with the Anthem remix. I liked the drums and analog synths of the original so I kept them. But I wanted to go in a more hypnotic disco direction with the bassline rhythm, which I originally had Steve Turner play. I wanted to take people back to the late ’70s feeling with a real disco bassline. Maybe this was because I knew that Sharon’s voice could stand up to any instrumentation that I may put on the record, in the same way that singers like Loleatta Holloway, Martha Wash and Jocelyn Brown did in the disco and post-disco days. In the end, I just sampled the best sounding tones of Turner’s live bass and replayed them until I came up with a disco bassline that was hypnotic and punchy.
Song it took the shortest amount of time to finish
Roberta Flack – Roberta Flack – Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes) Hurley’s House Of Trix Remix
On this Quincy Jones production, it took me three days to put together an R&B mix that was reflective of my style. Unfortunately, I was paying by the hour to use a fancy digital studio and something was still missing. So I decided to bounce out the vocals to an a cappella and take the files back to my studio.
When I got back to the ID Productions Studio, it only took me seven hours to come up with something that I was excited about. A house mix! I actually did something that I usually did not do. I created an entirely new music bed for the a cappella. Traditionally a remix involved changing a few levels, adding percussive elements, some musical parts, as well as extending some breakdowns. However, this time I created a new track completely. This became my new and permanent method of remixing from that point on.
I went in a totally different direction with this remix. I guess the label did not think my version should be on the A-side. So they put it on the B-side. However, when the DJs got the promo copies, everyone flipped it over and played my version. Although it was created as an R&B ballad, it reached number one on the Billboard Dance charts and ended up on Roberta Flack’s Greatest Hits, so I felt pretty vindicated in the end!
Moment when you wanted to quit the most
While working on my Work It Out compilation for Atlantic Records, I was seeking to top my artist hits as JM Silk, and my solo tune, “Jack Your Body.” However, I found myself experiencing writer’s block. That is where nothing you write seems to gel and sometimes you just can’t think of anything! I think it was because I was just learning how to work with other artists like Jamie Principle and Risse. Also, I learned how to produce complete arrangements on a computer, as opposed to the simple grooves on a drum machine. Thus, I was learning how to be a one-man production crew while trying to also write catchy tunes.
I felt like I would never finish that album, but I fought through it. I have not looked back since. I try to face each new challenge head-on and fight through it. For instance, this year I have been studying music theory, and have been learning every aspect of my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), Studio One. I’ve also been learning how to better utilize the power of the software plug-ins (instruments, compressors, pre-amps, effects, etc.) that are available today. The hardware versions still exist in big studios, but for the average producer, have been totally replaced by software versions.
Artist he would like to collaborate with
Because I love great melodies, I am looking forward to working with Drake one day. Also, I love great voices such as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion (and I always wished I could have collaborated with Whitney Houston). I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many great voices already such as CeCe Peniston, Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, Chantay Savage, Ann Nesby, Rahsaan Patterson, Vernessa Mitchell, Sharon Pass, and even my daughter, B. Laurén. There are too many talented artists in the entertainment industry to name just one!
The secret of his success
I take time out to enjoy success for a moment, but then move on to the next thing almost immediately after the celebration. Additionally, you have to constantly evolve to have long-term success. Conclusion: You are always learning. When you think you know it all, you may as well go ahead and plan the retirement party.
I embrace the millennials and even younger generations’ music and their culture. Although it was more difficult to put together records in my early years, I embrace the way this generation utilizes technology to work faster. I actually have learned a new way to work on music that combines my experience with the way the new artists work today. I embrace everything new that happens in our industry. If you don’t take time to understand them, how can you perform and create music for them?