After the UK's Second Summer of Love in 1988 and '89 gave house music a firm foothold across the Atlantic, Derrick Carter was part of the first wave of Chicago DJs and producers to invade Europe, in the process permanently altering its pop-music landscape. A couple of decades later, songs built on a house-music framework have started to dominate the pop charts in America too—it wouldn't be hard to draw a straight line connecting Carter to radio juggernauts like Will.i.am and David Guetta.
That's not to say most people would even recognize him. At the Wicker Park bar and grill where he suggested we meet—a surprisingly jocky place for a house-music legend to hang out—our server either didn't know who he was or kept it to herself. She seemed mostly worried about his food—he was so busy talking that he never touched the chili he'd ordered, and she must have asked us six or seven times if everything was all right.
Carter prefers this relative anonymity—he'd rather be an influence behind the scenes than have his face on magazine covers. "You know what," he says, "I have such a comfortable existence that is built on not having a crossover. I like to live a normal life. I mean, OK, there's like this crazy—I've done Australia and New Zealand. I'm about to go to Istanbul on Friday, I was in Belfast on Saturday, I got back from London yesterday. So there is this fantastic element. But it's really much more commonplace than it sounds. It's work. And I come back, and I got to pick up dog shit, and I got to go to the grocery store because we're running out of food, and there's company coming tomorrow so I have to do some dusting."
Globe-trotting superstar DJs are often able to fit the self-regard of an entire arena-rock band into one person, but Carter's default mode seems to be nonchalance. He describes his late-80s collaborations with Mark Farina, which more or less launched the entire genre of ambient techno, as "basically just some suburban kids that fooled around in a studio and came up with some stuff."
That mellowness doesn't carry over to the music he spins, though. Carter recently released Fabric 56, a mix in the highly regarded series curated by forward-looking London club Fabric since 2001, and it's full of massive songs built on the kind of polyrhythmic beats he's known for—funkier and less bare-bones than the beats in old-school first-generation house, they fill up large swaths of the audio spectrum, and they're frequently accompanied by exhortations to get lewd on the dance floor. He's been DJing since the late 70s, when as a grade-school kid he took over the decks at a family reunion, and the black music of that decade left its mark on his aesthetic. "I liked funk. I liked disco, but I liked funk," he says. "I like big slap basses. Like bow! Bar-Kays, and like James Brown, and who else was big? Parliament. I liked groovy stuff. Anything that just settles right into the pocket and just rides the pocket." From there, he explains, it was a "natural evolution" for him to get into house.
Carter is a deft mixer and can build and release the energy in a room so subtly his touch is almost subliminal, but other than that there's nothing understated about his sets. This is an essential part of his practical-minded philosophy of DJing.
"Maybe there's a bit of an art form," he says. "I mean, it should be respected and it should be presented in a certain way. But I also feel like it's not . . . fuckin' we aren't DJing at the Louvre. It's music at a club—people are getting drunk, trying to get a little ass. There's a part of me that knows that the reason that people are here, the reason they've paid to hear me, is that they want to have a good time. Not to stand around and debate the finer points of the hi-hats or how the interplay between the bass and the kick kind of creates a third bass line, you know? I can do that too, but I just don't have the energy. I'm busy. I got shit to do. I gotta make this party happen."
Carter's Fabric mix doesn't contain much you could use to pin it to 2011, at least by ear—the styles that have occupied the sets of young, cutting-edge DJs in recent years, like dubstep, electro cumbia, and UK funky, are all absent. With its tracks from old-school artists like DJ Sneak, Roger Sanchez, and Cajmere (represented by his unkillable 1992 "Percolator"), it sounds like something straight out of the 90s. Carter explains the consistency of his style over the years by invoking his aversion to hype.
"I get sent so much shit," he says. "I get this shit with these taglines like, 'Get ready for Ibiza 2011 with this new house track that comes through with catchy vocals and a hot bass groove,' and it's just like so much hype and it's just like, get off me. Leave me alone. It stinks already."
At this point in his career, it'd be fair to call Carter a die-hard traditionalist, but if you talk to him about the mainstreaming of DJ culture over the past few years, he comes off less like an old crank and more like a bemused veteran. "They sell DJ equipment at fucking Best Buy!" he says, and laughs. "I had gone to get a flash drive, because the new Pioneers [CD DJ decks], you can put something on a flash drive and pop it in the B slot and play off those. So I found myself looking at DJ mix controllers and the pitch-controlled CDJs that they had there. And I was like, Hmm, that's not bad. But then I was like: What the hell am I doing?"
On the topic of the Guettas and Will.i.ams of the world incorporating house music into platinum-selling pop, Carter is agnostic. "It's kind of whatever, it's cool," he says. "I don't care. I'm not pro or con about it, because it doesn't really matter how I feel. I'm not gonna get up in arms about something that doesn't affect me. I'm not getting on the radio, and they're not coming to Fabric. So it's fine."
He also says he rarely thinks about issues like that unless journalists ask him to. "I never have the time to sit and think about, like, dissecting things. I don't have that particular bent. I just have a gut‚ and I feel it and it's fine. I don't start to question things. I'll just roll with it, and if it starts to seem a little off and I don't have my mood right, maybe I'll check it in the mirror."
I ask if he thinks his ability to stay true to his instincts has helped him keep his career going for so long.
"Well, you know, I've had this conversation with my therapist, who I recently started seeing because I'm getting old and I'm trying to make some sense of this shit before I get out of here," he says. "And what I feel is that some people are made for what they do. I just feel for me, the core of who I am suits this music thing. I've been doing it for 20 years. I still fly off every weekend and pop back on Monday. Maybe a little bright-eyed—tail's a little bushier than before. And I talked to my therapist and she said, you know what, this just suits you, it fits who you are, and that's OK. So I was like, all right."