Ron Trent: Student of a Golden Era

Before he takes to the Electric Frog and Pressure Riverside Festival, Chicago's Ron Trent speaks about his musical education, his reaction to the death of mentor Frankie Knuckles and the state of modern DJ culture

Feature by Ronan Martin | 06 May 2015
  • Ron Trent

"I’m one of these people that like to take experiences, synthesise them and turn them into music."

This simple philosophy has served Chicago’s Ron Trent well over the years. From his formative early experiences within a lively scene in his hometown to his involvement in various projects today, the house legend has always lived and breathed music. His devotion to the craft has produced a colossal back catalogue of classic work, released through revered labels such as Cajual, Peacefrog and his own Prescription imprint, and he continues to tour the world as one of the most esteemed deep house DJs around.

Frequently characterised by warmth and melody and always brimming with soul, Trent’s work is a clear reflection of his desire to stay true to a particular vibe. Speaking to us from his temporary studio space in Berlin, ahead of his appearance at the Electric Frog and Pressure Riverside Festival, Trent sees the burgeoning scene in the German capital as reflecting the buzz in the US when his tastes were first developing as a youngster. "It kind of reminds me of New York City a bit in the early stages," he says. "During the developmental years in the late 70s and early 80s, downtown New York was poppin’. With me being a student of that era and that culture, it reminds me of the energy then."

What’s instantly clear from speaking to Trent is how his work has always been shaped by that influential age, when his father was involved in the record business in Chicago. "Radio was different in the 70s," he reflects. "It was way better. You had DJs that were selecting the music themselves. It was a different attitude towards hearing new stuff, versus hearing the same thing over and over again nowadays. That’s pretty much the status quo nowadays in music culture on the radio, but there was a different flavour back then."

Whether you were around for it or not, it’s hard to dispute the importance of a period Trent jovially refers to as the "wonder years," particularly as so much of the music he and his contemporaries grew up with is still finding devoted audiences today – acts like James Brown, Herb Alpert, Donny Hathaway and Roy Ayers were all big influences on Trent, and certain sounds were constants in his musical education. For him, these are acts that are still “monumental now.” 

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Trent became involved in music himself, playing drums and later being exposed to DJing by an older cousin. His father had been part of the generation of DJs who played one record after another without blending, though Ron soon mastered the emerging art of mixing; "making the records talk to each other." His interest in music wasn’t limited to simply playing the work of others, though – "I was always curious about the creation of records," he adds. "When I got the opportunity to start using drum machines and things of that nature in the mid 80s, I liked the idea that I could create my own music and play it. It added a whole other dimension to what I was doing and I just dove in."

Having taken that leap towards production, Trent quickly found himself in the enviable position of having a massive hit with his first release. He recalls being most proud of the title track from the Afterlife EP, but it was B-side Altered States which really took hold in clubs at first, and its impact was crucial. During the years that followed, Trent continued to hone his craft, showing a knack for forming fruitful partnerships along the way – perhaps most apparent in his collaborations with Chez Damier, with whom he eventually co-founded the seminal Prescription label, releasing their own tracks alongside the likes of Peven Everett, Roy Davis Jr, Romanthony and Abacus.

This development properly established a deeper and distinctly more musical form of house than the classic Chicago "boom boom kind of tracks" coming from the likes of Cajmere, who worked out of the office upstairs from Chez and Trent, and who helped them out with distribution early on. "Prescription was based on a lot of ideas," he says when asked where the motivation for the outlet came from. "I can’t really put it into a Reader’s Digest version – it would almost be a fucking book!

"The main thing was to put out a certain level of quality of instrumental, mind-provoking music. If we did something, it had to be meaningful, but it was also part of a theme. It was like a Native American way of prescribing medicine – a spiritual prescription. Whether it's herbs, or some kind of spiritual incantation, it has to be something that evokes healing or power. Of course, everybody else took it however they wanted to take it. If they wanted to take it as representing a drug or some shit, then that’s their thing. But the essence of where we were coming from was based on a spiritual, shamanistic idea."

Nowadays – having taken a different direction from Chez Damier in the mid-90s – Trent primarily focuses on his other outlets, Electric Blue and Future Vision. The former has largely been a vehicle for his own productions – still characterised by a rich and expressive sound – while the latter has served to introduce a number of newer artists who reflect the kind of vibe Trent has always strived to put out. He talks of his mentorship of artists like Trinidadian Deep and Missing Soul, and enjoying throwing ideas back and forth with other likeminded artists. "I appreciate watching that process - seeing people being able to grow and express themselves. That’s a beautiful thing.

"I think that like spirits attract each other, so that’s how I do A&R. If it’s meant to be, it happens. I don’t really go trying to canvass this and canvass that. If you’re on the right path, then other paths will cross – those that are supposed to cross."

Trent’s mentoring of other acts seems to complete the cycle in terms of his own career in music, which he has always spoken of in terms of being a student – of earlier eras and of older teachers. One of those he frequently cites is the late Frankie Knuckles, who passed away in March of last year, leaving many in the Chicago house scene and the wider music world mourning the loss of one of the genre’s original icons. His passing prompted Trent to release 7th Heaven, a soaring 11-minute track intended as a tribute to the energy of Knuckles’ work. "Outside of my father, Frankie was probably one of the most influential people in my musical development," he says without hesitation.

"He was somebody I looked up to as a young up-and-coming DJ and producer in Chicago – in terms of his level of influence, professionalism and the energy that he brought to Chicago. Later I became someone he ushered into the business. It was because of him and David Morales playing the record that Altered States developed legs. By him getting behind it the way he did, it opened doors. So there are no words or anything I can use to thank him other than just being true to what it is I began in the first place.

"But he also became someone I could pick up the phone and talk to – an elder or mentor. That means a lot. He made his transition and it wasn’t necessarily expected and it hurt. It definitely hurt. I made the track two or three days after he passed. I tried to synthesise my feelings and my interaction with him with during one of the more brilliant moments that I had listening to him – at Sound Factory in New York City. He had a particular sound and I’m a student of that sound, so I tried to get it out with what I had in front of me. It was a way of coming to peace with it. I spent the first couple of days crying every time I thought about it. But out of that mourning process came a beautiful piece of music.”

Alongside his production work and running the labels, Trent still impresses as a DJ and his approach hasn’t changed much after several decades behind the turntables. "I follow an older ethos or mentality," he says. "When DJing became popular, people were more concentrated on the attention that you could get versus the actual craft itself. I come from a different place. I was attracted to the art. I’m not going to speak for everyone, but you can tell who’s attracted to the art and who’s not, you know what I mean? There lies the difference."

He reinforces his point about differences in priorities with reference to mainstream music: "There’s been good and bad pop music, but most pop nowadays has no fucking content – there’s no soul there. It might have some catchy words or whatever, but it sounds so fucking bubblegum that it leaves nothing for you to desire. In 5 or 10 years from now, chances are that you’re not going to be playing that shit.

"Here we are, 30 or 40 years later, talking about old records. Why? Because they had content and they had soul. It’s the same thing with a lot of these young DJs and DJ culture – there’s no content. There’s no story; no narrative. When I wanted to hear somebody or when I was buying a song it was because there was a spirit there that made you get uplifted or made you feel a certain way. I just don’t get that nowadays, and that’s because [newer artists'] perspective on what they’re doing is different."

Given the history of seminal music emerging from places like Detroit, Chicago and New York, it must be frustrating for Trent to see the explosion of the EDM scene, whose US enthusiasts seem to have no knowledge of the music that came from their own back yard in the 80s and 90s. "Yeah, there’s a disconnect," he says. "If you listen to the EDM stuff, it’s really just a whole bunch of noises in a pattern. Listen to it [he imitates a tuneless bleeping noise with his mouth]. It’s just fucking noise – energy noises and drum rolls that never end," he adds laughing. "It’s almost like a hyped-up version of video games."

Thankfully, regardless of where the priorities of the wider music world are positioned, Trent remains committed to developing his own sound, and that of those he introduces through his labels, in a way that is consistent with the ethos of a golden age of music. That is not to say his sound will remain the same – his recent collaborative project with Jerome Sydenham and Aybee as SAT showcased a more robust techno-leaning style, and there has always been room for variation in his work. What will always persist is that commitment to doing things a certain way, and putting the work before anything else. 

With plans to establish more sub-labels and continue his work developing other acts in the coming years, can we assume Trent will remain busy for the foreseeable future? "Oh yeah, no question, man," he declares. "The music never stops."

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Ron Trent appears at Electric Frog and Pressure Riverside Festival on Saturday 30 May. £40 day tikets, £75 weekend