Remembering Benji Espinoza, champion of Chicago house music | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Remembering Benji Espinoza, champion of Chicago house music 

His work for Quantum Distributors and the D.J. International label helped boost house into its exalted place in the global pop pantheon.

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Benji Espinoza (right) with D.J. International owner Rocky Jones - COURTESY ROCKY JONES
  • Benji Espinoza (right) with D.J. International owner Rocky Jones
  • Courtesy Rocky Jones

Benji Espinoza played a key role in promoting early Chicago house music to a global audience, both as founder of Quantum Distributors and by working in sales, distribution, and artist management for the pioneering D.J. International label. On Thursday, October 22, he passed away at age 57.

Espinoza was one of house music's biggest personalities and a true believer in its importance to the world. He was generous with his time and his contacts, meeting with me often to share his enthusiasm and his perspective on house-music history. Talking to him was like reading his all-caps Facebook posts. He was always pitching a new angle on the same story—how house sprang from humble origins, and it took real work to establish its place in history.

Over the years, Espinoza tried time and again to convince D.J. International owner Rocky Jones, who never talked to the press, to grant me an interview. I'd show up at a shoot for the label's satellite-television show, D.J. International TV, wait around for a couple of hours, and trade maybe a few words with Jones. Later I'd get cryptic Facebook messages from Espinoza. One in particular cracked me up: "I WILL CONTACT ROCKY, HE IS JUST ABOUT DONE WITH HIS VAMPIRE MOVIE. TALK 2 U SOON."

When I first met Espinoza in person in April 2010, it was at the Chess Lofts condo of DJ and producer Martin "Boogieman" Luna in the South Loop. Luna played a late-1980s video of D.J. International artists performing live in Europe. Loud music pumped from his bedroom studio. Over the din, Espinoza told me a fascinating story.

  • Footage from a 1988 D.J. International showcase in the Netherlands

In spring 1985, Espinoza was working at a record store called Baby O's in West Chicago. House-music producers—among them Kenny Jason, Ralphi Rosario, Matt Warren, and Jesse Saunders—came to the shop to drop off their records in person. According to Espinoza, artists couldn't seem to figure out how to provide stock in the quantities that stores wanted, which alienated many buyers.

"When I'd call Jesse up and say, 'Hey, give me 300 of this, give me 200 of this, give me 300 of that,' he'd say, 'Well, if you take a thousand, that would make things a lot easier,'" Espinoza recalled. "I was like, 'I don't have that kind of budget, my man.'"

Espinoza founded Quantum Distributors that year to help artists solve this problem. The first record he distributed was Jamie Principle's "Waiting on My Angel" in 1985. Though it had already been released, Espinoza was able to ramp up sales to 4,000 copies in a single week.

Around this time, producer Julian Perez introduced Espinoza to Rocky Jones at the Audio Talent record pool. Espinoza met producer Steve "Silk" Hurley there too. "At the time, Steve Hurley was in a battle of the DJs for the Hot Mix 5. He lost to Julian Perez, and he was really depressed about it," Espinoza recalled. "Rocky and I encouraged him to put out his music. He came in with a little Tascam four-track. He had 'Music Is the Key,' he had 'Jack Your Body,' he had 'I Can't Turn Around'—what he would do is play those at parties. He became pretty popular because of that."

Rocky Jones didn't want to release the tracks as-is, though Hurley and Espinoza liked their raw sound. Jones decided to turn "Music Is the Key" into a full-fledged radio song. "Steve had the bass line from John Rocca 'I Want It to Be Real,' he had the handclaps from 'Mix Your Own Stars.' So Rocky took it into Chicago Trax, a full 24-track studio," Espinoza said. "Rocky, Farley, Steve Hurley, they finally put the song together."

  • The "Basement Key" mix of J.M. Silk's "Music Is the Key"

With the "Music Is the Key" EP, released by Hurley and vocalist Keith Nunnally under the name J.M. Silk, D.J. International was born. "We just got promotion going on it, the record blew up, and we sold about 100,000 copies," Espinoza said. The single peaked at number nine on the U.S. Billboard dance chart in September 1985.

DJ and producer Chip E., who had already released the Jack Trax EP on his own label, saw that success and wanted to come on board with D.J. International. Jones applied the same principle to Chip's track "Like This," bringing it into the studio to make multiple mixes.

  • The "House Mix" of Chip E.'s "Like This"

Espinoza marketed not just D.J. International releases but also house music in general, and his efforts to drum up press coverage included bringing ten journalists to Chicago in 1986, among them Stuart Cosgrove for NME. He was understandably proud of what he was able to accomplish.

"Maybe I'm biased, but I tell people we were the true first house-music label, because our first record, 'Music Is the Key,' we marketed it and promoted it," said Espinoza. "We went to Billboard, Rolling Stone, the Tribune, the Times. Initially they were like, 'You've got to be kidding, this is garbage,' but then once 'Jack Your Body' went number one in the UK pop charts for two weeks, everybody was taking us serious. The first magazine, I think, was Rockpool magazine in New York. That helped me get interviews with others, like the Village Voice and Spin."

Chicago house music took its name from the Warehouse, an after-hours disco with a predominantly Black gay male crowd, but Espinoza argued convincingly that the sound we know as house today didn't develop until after that club closed in early 1983. "What was played at the Warehouse was disco," Espinoza insisted, his voice rising. "It had nothing to do with what started in '84."

Espinoza was adamant that house music began in Chicago, not in New York, because Chicago DJs were more in tune with Italo disco—it had a sparser, more synthesizer-driven sound than the disco and boogie records from New York City. "In New York, their BPM was slowed down, it was full production. It was like, 'Where's your cutting-edge sound?' Eighty-two to '83, Chicago was testing the Italo market, where they were getting a lot of the imports in, so that worked out perfect," he explained. "That's what Jesse Saunders was emulating." While both disco and Italo were certainly influences on house, Chicago artists developed their own distinct stripped-down style.

Initially, Chicago producers' biggest market was their own city. "When a new hot New York record's coming in, I only order 50 to 100 copies," Espinoza said, recalling his days as a retail record buyer. "When a new hot Chicago track's coming out, I gotta order 300, 400, 500 copies of 'em, 'cause they're gonna be gone by the end of the week. That's what was going on everywhere in Chicago. Chicago DJs were making records specifically for Chicago retail, and they were just consuming it."

To complement D.J. International's radio-friendly take on dance music, Jones and Espinoza spun off the imprints Underground and Rhythm Beat for rawer, more club-centric tracks.

D.J. International wasn't the only game in town, of course. Chicago's other major house label, Trax Records, was owned by Larry Sherman, who ran the city's only record-pressing plant but also had a reputation for shady business practices. D.J. International pressed their records with Sherman until Espinoza found evidence he was pressing extra copies on the side. "There was a distributor here, a one-stop, called Sound Video Unlimited, and I tried to become a vendor and set up an account with them, and [the owner] was like, 'Oh, I got all your records,'" Espinoza recalled.

"Larry Sherman said, 'Oh, they got there by accident,'" Espinoza continued. "He would basically back-door the records. We found them in Florida, found them in some of the other states. You didn't have to be a nuclear chemist to figure out to stop pressing the records there. If Larry would be an honest guy, Larry could've made millions just pressing everybody's records in the city."

The burgeoning house scene began to attract major-label attention almost immediately. J.M. Silk signed to RCA. Chip E. nearly got a deal with Sire. Espinoza helped sign Larry Heard to D.J. International after meeting him at record shop Importes Etc., and Heard's group Fingers Inc. became one of the label's biggest acts before moving to MCA. D.J. International established licensing and distribution deals with European labels such as Westside Records in Britain and BCM Records in Germany, further spreading the house sound.

  • The 1986 Fingers Inc. track "A Path"

In the late 1980s, D.J. International shifted to releasing hip-house records, with MCs rapping over house tracks. Fast Eddie and Sundance hit number one on the U.S. dance chart with the 1989 D.J. International release "Git On Up." Unfortunately for the label, hip-hop soon eclipsed hip-house, and in the early 1990s D.J. International closed its doors. Today its catalog is owned by Universal Music.

Nevertheless, over the course of some 35 years together, Benji Espinoza and Rocky Jones continued to collaborate, and in the 2010s they created the D.J. International satellite TV show. Espinoza lived long enough to see the City of Chicago begin to recognize its house-music heritage through festivals and honorary street names.

Espinoza tirelessly promoted Chicago artists and labels, bringing together the most unlikely combinations of people through his sense of humor and his infectious passion for house music. When I reached out to Jones via Facebook Messenger, he described Espinoza as "A friend to all DJs," adding, "I was most lucky to have known and worked with him." He will be greatly missed.  v

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