Chicago label Still Music rescues decades of house history from a south-side storage locker | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Chicago label Still Music rescues decades of house history from a south-side storage locker 

Jerome Derradji is restoring dozens of decaying reel-to-reel tapes and releasing their contents—including unissued tracks and DJ mixes from some of the genre’s early giants.

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Jerome Derradji of Still Music inspects a multitrack tape from Record Al’s house-music cache in his Humboldt Park home. For the photo shoot, he made the obviously unpremeditated choice to wear a T-shirt for another one of his labels. - KRIS LORI
  • Jerome Derradji of Still Music inspects a multitrack tape from Record Al’s house-music cache in his Humboldt Park home. For the photo shoot, he made the obviously unpremeditated choice to wear a T-shirt for another one of his labels.
  • Kris Lori

Last summer, Chicago DJ and producer Jerome Derradji returned to his native France for the first time in a decade. He needed to clear his head after a legal battle with a New York distribution company nearly sank Still Music, the dance label he'd founded in 2004. After spending a few weeks abroad, he felt better personally, but his business was in the same sad state he'd left it in. It was a lousy time for him to get a phone call from an unfamiliar record dealer offering him a very expensive once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

From the point he'd signed with the distributor, Derradji's ordeal had lasted for two and a half years. "They promised us a really great pressing and distribution deal, and they completely messed it up—a year later, we had four records out and none of the re-presses that we needed to do," he says. "I sued them, and that cost me a ton of money. I had to get my rights back and my catalog back."

Through arbitration Derradji regained the rights to Still Music's catalog, but a huge amount of damage had already been done. "Almost two years of the label completely gone because of those guys, more than a third of my stock lost that I'll never find again, that I couldn't forward to artists or anything," he laments. "Almost 13 years of work down the garbage."

When the stranger called with his offer last August, Derradji had to face the grim situation his label was in before he could even think about answering. The dealer asked if he wanted to buy a batch of reel-to-reel tapes—mostly 1980s radio mixes by house-music DJs. That description didn't sell Derradji on the collection. "I remember very well telling him, 'I'm not really interested in radio mixes. I don't know what I'd do with it—I'm a record label,'" he says.

In response the dealer, who goes by Record Al (his real name is Brehon Charles Allen), sent a photo of the tapes. Derradji noticed that some of the reels were in wide boxes, which seemed to indicate multitrack recordings. Radio mixes aren't typically recorded that way—plus Derradji knew he'd be better able to rework and restore music on multitrack tapes, not least because the recordings were likely to be of higher quality. The following day, he met Al at a south-side storage facility. "He opens his storage locker, and it was full of tapes, literally right in front—it's incredible," he says.

In the collection Derradji bought, smaller tapes like this are likely to be radio mixes. - KRIS LORI
  • In the collection Derradji bought, smaller tapes like this are likely to be radio mixes.
  • Kris Lori

Derradji organized the boxes into different piles: radio mixes, multitrack tapes, and label masters (which were also multitrack tapes). "I had, at this point, no intention of buying it," he says. Between hearing from Record Al and visiting the storage facility, he'd learned a little more about the collection from Kevin Starke, a fellow DJ and producer (and owner of the late KStarke Records). Al had first contacted Starke, who'd referred him to Derradji. "I thought the guy wanted $10,000 for it—that's the number I heard that he'd been asking around for a while," Derradji says. "It looks like he's been trying to sell that stuff for ten years. I heard famous companies in Europe were approached but didn't really realize what it was."

What Record Al turned out to have is an incomparable time capsule of Chicago house from the mid-80s through the mid-90s, preserved on nearly 170 reel-to-reel tapes. It was enough to make Derradji wish he had $10,000 to spend—but after everything his fight with the distributor had cost him, he just didn't. The recordings include master tapes by Dance Mania artist Victor Romeo, aka Victor Parris Mitchell, and the popular trio Ten City (specifically a couple tracks from their 1994 Columbia album That Was Then, This Is Now). Some of the music is unreleased, including material by revered house vocalist Kevin Irving, who died in December 2014. Most of the radio mixes had been aired on WBMX or WGCI by iconic house collective the Hot Mix 5 (whose cofounder Ralphi Rosario performs Saturday at the Chosen Few Picnic). Those mixes offer a snapshot of what records the giants of house might've played in clubs when the genre was breaking out.

"You don't see things like that anymore, as far as house music goes—that's like winning the lottery," says Starke. "Things like that get lost or tossed, or no one thought they might be worth something 20, 30 years in the future." Derradji struck a deal with Al to buy the reels, arriving at a price per tape. He saw it as "karma" that this treasure fell into his lap just after his label had suffered such an unfair blow. He won't say how much the tapes cost him in total, but it was less than $10,000.

"It turned out to be really affordable for me," Derradji says. "I think he was happy to see them gone. He made a little money, and he understood that I was gonna work with it and not just sit on it or try to put it on eBay."

Still Music has released this 1986 Frankie Knuckles radio mix as part of the four-cassette set JACK to the Lost Reels. - KRIS LORI
  • Still Music has released this 1986 Frankie Knuckles radio mix as part of the four-cassette set JACK to the Lost Reels.
  • Kris Lori

In April, seven months or so after Derradji closed the deal, Still Music released the first batch of recordings from Record Al's trove, a four-cassette package of radio mixes called JACK to the Lost Reels. (Each tape is titled with a letter in the word "jack.") The J tape is a Frankie Knuckles mix that was broadcast by WBMX on June 25, 1986, and the first side of the A tape is a shorter Steve "Silk" Hurley radio mix.

Earlier this month, Derradji dropped the first vinyl sourced from the reels, a 12-inch of three beat tracks from 1988. The material he got from Al doesn't include any information about who created them, though, so the record is simply titled The Lost Chicago Beat Traxx (1988). The unissued Kevin Irving tracks will soon see the light of day, and another batch of JACK cassettes is due by the end of August. At this rate, he could keep releasing this music for another decade.

Derradji grew up in Poitiers, a university town four hours southwest of Paris. In 1998 he got hooked on the style of dance music sometimes called "French touch" (Daft Punk, Alex Gopher, et cetera), and during a 1999 trip to Zurich he bought his first Chicago house record, Roy Davis Jr.'s new 12-inch "Electric Soul" b/w "Someday." That same year he took a trip to Chicago to visit one of his sisters and wound up meeting his future wife at Smart Bar. He moved here in 2000, and at his wife's encouragement he looked for work in the music industry. He was hired at Dr. Wax's Elston warehouse, the first in a series of jobs that brought him to Groove Distribution a few years later.

"While I was at Groove, one of my jobs in the beginning was to open new stores," Derradji says. "I started opening all these stores in Detroit. And one in particular was Vibes New and Rare Music—Rick Wilhite's store." Wilhite is also a producer and DJ, and in 2004 he invited Derradji to a show featuring his group 3 Chairs (with Moodymann, Theo Parrish, and Marcellus Pittman). "I kinda had this epiphany around that time, that all this music that those dudes in Detroit were making was completely not supported and not really reaching a lot of people, except niche people," Derradji says. He launched Still Music the same year, intending to release contemporary Chicago and Detroit house on vinyl. The label's second catalog entry is the Soul Edge E.P. Part 2 by Wilhite's project the Godson.

A year later Derradji launched the Still Music imprint Stilove4Music to focus on edits and remixes by new artists. Unlike its parent label, Stilove4Music uses blank hub labels on its vinyl—a nod to the culture of bootleg or promotional "white label" records in dance music. Derradji didn't get into reissues till 2007, when he launched the funk, boogie, and disco imprint Past Due—which partnered with Numero Group co-owner Rob Sevier to release the 2008 compilation The American Boogie Down. "It was really a test for me to see if I could reissue music," Derradji says. "It worked pretty well. We licensed the compilation to BBE—they did well with it. I reissued it on vinyl recently. It was the key point where I was like, 'Well, I wanna do the same thing, but with house music.'"

It wasn't quick work, but four years later Still Music released its first archival house recording, 122 BPM: The Birth of House Music, a three-CD or double-LP set compiling music from two of the earliest Chicago house labels, Mitchbal and Chicago Connection. "I have this weird determination to prove that the underdogs were really good," Derradji says. "I'm not making a comparison between a really famous guy and an unknown guy—I've basically determined that it's equally good, and I have to present it the same way and try to do my best for it to sound excellent, to look excellent. I have to document it so people can actually read and learn about the talent that is on that record."

Soon Derradji enlisted freelance writer Jacob Arnold (also a Reader contributor) to write liner notes for Still Music releases. "I like the fact that he's a local person reissuing Chicago music," Arnold says. "I'm not originally from Chicago—I'm kind of a carpetbagger myself. But we both settled here, and I think that's important, just to understand the city a little better and to keep up these relationships with the artists." They first collaborated for the 2013 compilation Kill Yourself Dancing: The Story of Sunset Records Inc. 1985-1989, which had its origins in an Oak Park thrift-store score.

"There was a ton of Sunset Records in there, and I bought those at a dollar apiece," Derradji says. "I had no idea what it was. I was listening to it and I was like, 'Man, this is so awesome.' I tracked down [Sunset cofounder] Matt Warren, and we started talking."

Still Music went on to release archival house compilations documenting another Matt Warren label, AKA Dance Music, as well as early west-suburban label Let's Dance and the KStarke label. Starke says he's had other offers to reissue his material, but he'd rather work with Derradji—even though he knows the process will be slow with such a small operation. "As long as no one's ever done anything to me, I stay loyal to guys," he says. "Jerome's proven that to me time and time again. I'm patient."

The tape boxes sometimes come with surprises inside—in this case, a concert flyer and a channel plot for a mixing board. - KRIS LORI
  • The tape boxes sometimes come with surprises inside—in this case, a concert flyer and a channel plot for a mixing board.
  • Kris Lori

Starke had another chance to prove his loyalty to Derradji when Record Al contacted him—without that referral, those precious tapes might still be slowly decomposing. Al says he acquired them around 18 years ago, when someone who'd bought a storage locker contacted him after finding roughly 9,000 records and a bunch of reel-to-reels among its contents. Al bought them all, but he had a tougher time figuring out what to do with the tapes. "I kept them because I didn't know the value and I didn't know what they could become," he says. "The good thing about me—thank you, Jesus Christ—I never needed money. So I never got rid of stuff just to make money."

By his own admission, as a collector Al sometimes used to go past "savvy" all the way to "cutthroat." "He was untouchable," Starke says. "Guys would see Al, and they knew Al had money. He could go in there and take collections away from guys, and they were definitely fearful."

Al says he worked as an inspector for the Chicago Department of Buildings' Strategic Task Force, and his job took him to so-called troubled properties where there'd been arrests for drugs, gambling, prostitution, and "those type of vices." If he noticed likely-looking records on the premises, he'd let folks know he was up for making a deal. "Whenever I'm in the field working—in other words, if it looked like something beneficial for me—I would call my timekeeper and I would get off the clock," he says.

Al is a jazz fan first and foremost, but he knows plenty about other styles of music. Starke remembers running into him at the Maxwell Street Market. Starke had picked up a rare house 12-inch, and Al asked to see it. "I'm thinking, 'Well, he doesn't know anything about this house-music stuff—let me let him look,'" Starke says. "He sees it and he kept going, 'Oh my God, oh my God, I can't believe you found it! Motherfucker!' He's causing a scene, and guys—rock guys—are like, 'What'd you find?' I'm like, 'Oh, nothing.' And he starts yelling at the guy who's selling the records, 'I told you to let me look through this stuff!'"

The record in question, a 1989 compilation on Marcus Mixx's Missing Dog Records, has sold for up to $500 on Discogs. And Starke says Al has calmed down in the years since that encounter.

Record Al isn't just a collector but a dealer—a skill he's developed in order to find good homes for music he doesn't want to keep. He's invited other collectors to his house for that purpose, among them Starke and soul historian Bob Abrahamian. He had no trouble unloading the records from the storage locker—mostly disco and hip-hop radio promos and white labels—but he'd never sold a reel-to-reel tape before. "They were just in the locker the whole time," Al says. "I had no market for that, and I didn't look into a market for that."

Selling the reels became more urgent for Al after he bought a house in North Carolina in summer 2016. He planned to move there in October 2017, and thus had a deadline. "I wasn't gonna move all the stuff I didn't want or have any interest in," he says.

He turned to Starke, who recommended Derradji: "I was like, 'Well, you should call this guy Jerome, 'cause he definitely has the drive and the love for the music here—he's basically the main guy I would say doing a lot for all that old-school house, more than anyone else I know in Chicago.'"

Many of the tapes Derradji now owns previously belonged to Ed Crosby, who’d been a member of house group Master C&J and released his own music via Get Down Records. - KRIS LORI
  • Many of the tapes Derradji now owns previously belonged to Ed Crosby, who’d been a member of house group Master C&J and released his own music via Get Down Records.
  • Kris Lori

While Derradji was still at the storage facility on that first day, he walked Al through the labor-intensive process that would be necessary to salvage the music on the tapes—part of his effort to bring down the price. "I said, 'You can do it or I can do it—I know how to do it, because I've done it before, but I know what it takes, and literally what it takes is a lot of money to clear everything, to transfer everything, and to do it proficiently,'" Derradji says. "He asked me for a ton of money, and I said no, and we negotiated and he came down." Derradji drove home with 105 reels that day. A week later Al called with news that he had found more reels in the locker, and Derradji returned to retrieve another 60 or so.

Once he'd brought every tape home, Derradji set about organizing them. He numbered each reel and began building an Excel spreadsheet to organize whatever information accompanied each tape—labels, dates, whether the music had been released. That took about three weeks. Because the name "Ed Crosby" appears on most of the reels, Derradji figured that might be the previous owner and set out to find him. That search lasted another few months, ending after he found a Facebook flyer that listed a phone number for Crosby's gospel radio show on WBGX 1570 AM.

Crosby declined to be interviewed for this story, but according to Derradji he was ecstatic to hear that his collection had resurfaced. Decades ago Crosby used to hunt down Kenny "Jammin" Jason of the Hot Mix 5 at club nights to pass along mixes he'd made, and in the late 80s he played with Chicago house group Master C&J—he'd met future bandmates Carl Bias and Jessie Jones while working at Loop Records. He also released solo recordings on his own Get Down Records during this time, and he eventually got more directly involved with the Hot Mix 5.

"On Ed's part, it was like, 'I can't believe it, the Lord sent you,'" Derradji says. "I explained to him that I bought everything, and I wanted to work with him and talk about reissuing stuff and writing his legacy and his story." In early November, Derradji met Crosby at WBGX's headquarters in Harvey, and about a week later Crosby visited Derradji and Arnold to go through the reels. They were immediately convinced that Crosby's direct contributions to house—not just the tapes of other people's music he'd amassed—were worthy of preservation.

"One of the cool things he did do—he was playing his 909 drum machine with a cappellas over top to create original material for his mixes, which not all of the DJs did," Arnold says. "I think that's how his 'Party Time' record came about—that was his first record. That's kind of a classic, in my opinion."

While Derradji was still looking for Crosby, he'd started to listen to the tapes. He borrowed a reel-to-reel player from local dub and reggae DJ King Tony and tried baking the tapes with a food dehydrator. "What the baking does is it puts all the elements of the tape back on the tape. With time, moisture, and temperature, the recording that's on the tape basically starts sticking to the back of the other side," he says. "You have to bake it to give it its integrity back, and transfer it once so you can have the most audio out of that tape."

Old tape is fragile, and baking it risks melting the substrate. Even if everything goes right, the process is slow. Derradji says it's taken him roughly four hours apiece to bake the radio mixes, and his friend Dan Dietrich at Wall to Wall Recording spends 12 hours on one. After treating maybe 20 reels at home, Derradji threw in the towel: "I was like, 'It's too advanced for me.' I have to hire my friend to do it."

Having this done professionally is expensive, unfortunately. "Once I calculated the cost—baking those tapes and transferring everything—I realized I had to find a way to finance that without impacting the current budget of the label," Derradji says. "I was like, 'There's all these radio mixes, let's do them as cassettes—like the way people were listening to it at the time.'" Derradji had digitized about 20 mixes, and he picked his favorites to release as JACK to the Lost Reels. He was able to reach some of the DJs to ask permission, and none of them insisted on money. "They wanted the mixes to be heard again, so fans could get a direct vision in how they were DJing at the time," he says. Crosby especially hopes to see as much of this music as possible released, so he's happy for Derradji to sink the proceeds into more reissues.

This Frankie Knuckles radio mix, also from 1986, comes with a track listing. - KRIS LORI
  • This Frankie Knuckles radio mix, also from 1986, comes with a track listing.
  • Kris Lori

That's not to say everyone gave their blessings—some of the DJs have proved hard to find. The C and K tapes prominently feature an artist who went by Devastating Daryl, and Derradji is still trying to figure out who that is.

Technically the DJs aren't the only people who'd need to give approval for these releases to be totally above board—their mixes consist largely of tracks by other artists, which in a perfect world would also have to be licensed. But the world of dance music is a messy one, and DJs have a long history of releasing mixes marked with the words "for promotion only"—it's a way of signaling that they're not trying to siphon revenue away from the creators of the tracks they spin but simply want to showcase their own turntable artistry. Derradji has stamped that phrase on the JACK tapes too.

Baking and transferring the reels for the four JACK cassettes cost $400, according to Derradji. He's made 100 copies of each, and he's selling them for $13.99 apiece (or $53.99 for the set). If all goes well, he should clear a few thousand dollars after expenses. The modest scale of the release is also part of his attempt to avoid seeming exploitive, as is his decision not to stream the mixes or sell them digitally. "It will be impossible to license all the music on there properly," he says. "And also it would be completely cost prohibitive."

Derradji thinks he handles reissues honorably. He typically offers artists half of any profits, and he's realistic about what that might mean. "I'm very transparent—there's no fake promises of stardom or huge sales. It's more about, 'Hey, why don't we do it together and see what can happen,'" he says. "If somebody doesn't want to work, we try to license stuff from them. We'll figure out everything together."

Derradji also asks musicians to help with their own liner notes. He wants old photos, biographical details, and anecdotes—even though artists aren't always eager to share, especially if they think a story doesn't cast them in the best light. He says transparency helps mitigate that reluctance too. "There's never a moment where the artist doesn't know what I'm working on with them and what is happening, or they can't see the artwork or can't see the text," he says. "They always take a pass at editing stuff, they always take a pass at how it looks, so they feel like we're still doing what we're doing. I think that's really important—it's their vision anyway."

To ensure that money from the release of the unissued Kevin Irving tracks, "Don't Keep Me Waiting" and "Just for You," went to Irving's next of kin, Derradji found Kevin Irving Jr. He also mixed Irving's songs according to the original studio notes, where were included with the reels. Even Derradji's remixes of the tracks reflect the era of the source material. "I'm trying to make a remix that somebody would have done in the 90s, so it doesn't sound like you're releasing a track from '91 and the remix is, like, minimal Berlin techno," he says. "I'm trying to be authentic on this one, thinking about, 'How would have Kevin approached people about doing a remix?'"

Derradji fits a tape to his reel-to-reel machine. - KRIS LORI
  • Derradji fits a tape to his reel-to-reel machine.
  • Kris Lori

Derradji is still listening through the reel-to-reel tapes and still discovering surprises in them. He's found a flyer for an Underground World Futureshok show, a typed-out mix tracklist from Frankie Knuckles, an Ed Crosby "Hot Mix 5" business card, soundboard-channel notes from the Chicago Recording Company, and handwritten lyric sheets from Ten City recording sessions, among many other things—enough to spruce up a pretty extensive book of liner notes.

The project of restoring these tapes and releasing the music they contain (as well as the ephemera packaged with them) is part and parcel of Still Music's core mission: documenting the house scene of Derradji's adoptive hometown. "We need to preserve that heritage. We need to talk about the legacy of each and every one of those guys as much as we can, so that it doesn't disappear, so it's not absorbed, put into a book, and whitewashed into something that it's not," he says. "We have this fantastic opportunity that's hugely viable for this music—we can reissue it, document it, make it proper, and give cred to all those guys. And they have a chance to share their genius again."  v

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