20 Questions: Mike Dunn

The house legend talks James Brown, synthesizers, and early Chicago memories.

He’s a lover man who’s not shy about sharing his bedroom tips (“Phreaky MF”); he’s a guy who gives props to a higher power for his innate groove skills (“God Made Me Phunky”). But most of all, Mike Dunn is an artist who lives and breathes acid house. The Chicago veteran knows there’s something about the rubbery pings of a 303 paired with crunchy wallop of an 808 that’s almost Pavlovian in its appeal, and that’s why, 30 years after he first hit the scene via the release of “Dance You Mutha” on the Westbrook label, acid remains at his core.

Dunn most recently released My House from All Angles, his first long-player since 1990’s Free Your Mind—and though the album lives up its name by featuring a touch of variety via tracks like stripped-down disco number "Have It 4U Babe" or the hip-house cut "DJ Beat That Shhh," the 303 is the defining sound. The LP is a love letter to old-school jacking, its appeal summed up in the lyrics to “Body Muzik: "It's the body music that keeps you in a trance / makes you wanna jack, makes you wanna dance." We caught up with Dunn for our latest instalment of 20 Questions to find out what keeps that body music coming after three decades in the house business.

1. Describe your surroundings right now.

I’m in my home studio, I’ve just moved so I’m currently just getting my gear all set up and building up the studio. I’m still using a lot of hardware 808, 909, 303 etc.
I’m looking forward to getting back working on some new projects and my label Blackball Muzik that’s launching this year, for my own productions as well as bringing through some new talent.

2. What kind of music were you exposed to as a child?

I was exposed to everything, from hard rock, jazz, Motown, Philly, northern soul, disco, you name it; I heard it all played in my house as a child. I used to love going to the record store with my Mom, she would be picking up disco "12s, soul, funk etc. My pops used to play a lot of jazz and rock, so I was exposed to all sorts of interesting music, that I still listen to today.

"That was the first track that made me fall in love with house music."

3. Do you remember the track that made you fall in love with house music?

I started out before house music, so would have to say the garage track, "Is It All Over My Face" by Loose Joints. I couldn’t stand it at first; the woman sounds like she's drunk—but my childhood friend Ty Cambell’s brother used to go to the original warehouse with Frankie [Knuckles] and he had lots of tapes. Whenever I went around to his house to go hang out, he’d have that tape and that song on and it grew on me! That was the first track that made me fall in love with house music.

4. Do you remember what your first real DJ gig was like?

I started out DJing and my friend King George heard me and said, "Man, I’m gonna start using you for parties." He was a DJ but he wasn’t mixing; he couldn’t mix two records together, that’s where I came in. The first big thing I did was at Ogden Park in Englewood, in a gymnasium. Then I caught the bug and never looked back, playing at block parties, then clubs and it grew from there.


5. You came up in Chicago as house was really taking off, alongside people like Bam Bam, Marshall Jefferson, Tyree Cooper, Armando, etc.—did you have a rivalry at all with those guys, or were you all in it together?

We were all together, it was unheard of to have a rival; we were actually all helping each other out. Armando and I set labels up together, Muzique, Warehouse Records, and Dance Mutha—so Warehouse was Armando’s, Muzique was a collaboration between the two of us, and Dance Mutha was my label. Now when Bam Bam put out my first record, Dance You Mutha’, we were staying at a house on 63rd Artesian and then later on Marshall moved in. I’d known Marshall for years, Tyree lived around the corner and so did Hugo H. We were the three amigos! We made lots of music in that time, that’s all we were doing. Great times that I’ll never forget!

6. What is it about the sound of a 303 paired with an 808 that is so appealing?

It’s a match made in heaven. I love 808s. I've always been the 808 man; those toms and that kick drum, it’s just phunky man. Working on my album, I’ve gone back to the original equipment/hardware, 808, 303, 909. There’s something about hardware that gives an extra dimension.

7. Do you still use a 303 or an 808 in your current productions?

Of course! My latest album has a lot of that sound, I wanted to go back and tweak it a little. I’ll never stop using the 808; the 808 has never left my production and I don’t think it ever will. I used both the 303 and 808 on the album as I went back to using hardware in my productions to give them an extra edge. I left the 303 for a while but never the 808. It's possibly my favourite piece of kit.

8. What is your current go-to piece of hardware?

I use a lot of dangerous music stuff—the Apollo UAD, and I love the NI massive (plugin). I also use a lot of my older stuff such as Roland; I use a lot of different pieces, 808, 303, JP08, because I love them! I’m a big tech freak so I’m always looking at new technology to see how it can be used in my productions. It’s hard to give you one, as it’s about whatever gives me that’s spark when I'm working.

9. When you released "Dance You Mutha" way back in '87, did you have any idea you'd still be making and playing house music three decades later?

Once I got the bug, I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, and still having an opportunity to do that is a blessing, 30 years later. Music was something that once I got into it, that was it for me. It really got me. I’m honoured that I’m still able to travel all over the world playing for people and to new audiences and a new generation that love house music.

10. How did you come up with the iconic vocals on "God Made Me Funky"? Was it spontaneous, or did it take a lot of work?

"GMMP" was the filler track, that was the last track I needed to do—I needed to come up with another track for the B side, for an Italian label I was working with at the time, so I came up with the track very quickly and laid down vocals on the fly, in that JB funky style, inspired by the godfather James Brown. It was spontaneous; I never write down lyrics, like "Phreaky MF," that was spontaneous, that was something I was working on and wanted to get it finished before I was DJing that night so I had something new. I just turn on the mic and let it rip!

11. You’ve released several iconic tracks over this time period—like "God Made Me Phunky” and "So Let It Be House!” But is there one piece of music that you’re most proud of?

I take pride in all of the work that I do. If you ever heard Frankie [Knuckles] talking about that in interviews, he’d say that once he gave it to the world then it belongs to the world. I couldn’t narrow it down to one piece of music. I’m proud of all the music that I do because it all has a place in my heart.

Mike Dunn5

12. My House From All Angles was your first album in 27 years. Was the album your attempt to sum up your career so far? Or something else?

Yes and no, hahaha! Well, yes, I would say yes—My House From All Angles means that throughout my career I’ve used Mike Dunn and a lot of pseudonyms (like QX-1, JAss Man, MD III, MD Connection) and so my whole concept was to bring all the pseudonyms plus me together to make one complete project. That way people would see, "Ah, ok, he did this, that and this, etc." I just thought it would be great to bring them all together. That's where the album title comes from.

13. How do you feel the album is different to your previous work?

Well, previous work was a learning process, engineering, EQing and production; a lot of stuff was trial and error back then. It came out great but now when I get something, I know what I wanna do, where I wanna go with it and how I'm gonna do it. I think you use everything that you’ve learnt throughout the years.

14. When writing music, do you always start with a specific idea, or do you just experiment until you find something you like?

Experimental, ninety percent of the time, although there are times when I’ve got ideas in my head that I just need to get them out. I love going in the studio, turning on the gear and seeing what comes out. I may get inspired while travelling and can’t wait to get home to get the idea down. But as I say, I love to turn on the machines and just seeing what comes out.

15. When and where was the album produced?

I started the album in late 2016, here in my home studio, so I was lucky I could spend a lot of time on it. I got the first tracks together and kept on working on tracks and sending them over to my manager, and we soon realised there was enough for an album and that it would be cool to release the tracks as one body of work rather than across singles. I’ve released under a lot of pseudonyms over the years and some people don’t realise that Mike Dunn was behind them so the album gave me the chance to showcase all the different house styles I’ve worked on and connect the dots.

16. What do you do in your spare time—away from music?

Nothing, it’s always music hahaha…most people don’t know but I’m a big political science junkie and sports fan, so I’m always watching MSNBC or ESPN. Sports and politics fill my spare time; when I’m not in the studio or travelling that’s what I’m doing.

17. What was the last thing that made you really laugh and why?

I try to laugh all the time, laughter keeps you fresh laughter keeps you young, there’s always something I’m laughing at every day with my friends.

18. If you had to listen to one album for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Hmmmmm….James Brown The Big Payback. It's funk at its finest.

19. Do you foresee making and playing house music for the rest of your life?

Of course!. House is my first love. House music is my life.

20. What’s the first thing you'll do after answering these questions?

Take a breather, haha! I'll go and smoke my cigar and then come back to my room to finish setting up my studio so I can get some more music done.