Don't start Curtis Jones talking about Jesus–you'll likely never get him to stop. "I have no problem tellin' it like it is, 'cause I know I'm going to live on forever!" he laughs on the phone, nodding to Christianity's promise of an eternal life in heaven. Though Jones–the production veteran you know as Cajmere and Green Velvet–is easygoing enough to crack a joke or two about his religion, nothing about his devotion is less than sincere.
Jones came out about his born-again status on MySpace about three years ago. These days, he posts frequent blog entries proclaiming his love for the Lord; he's listed Cajmere's band members as "The Holy Ghost and me," and cross-references Green Velvet's sound as techno/house/Christian. His 2005 single, "No Sex," is as overtly in favor of sexual abstinence as pop music–particularly in the dance genre–gets. That same credo gets shouted out on his new mix, a Ministry of Sound double-disc (one part Cajmere, one part Green Velvet) that is heavy on Jones' original productions (11 tracks) and tempered by a slew of house joints by producers such as Mark Grant and Trouble Men. The Cajmere disc is punctuated by "He Is," an ecstatic track by Song Williamson with the refrain "My joy/Yes He is!/My faith/Yes He is!/My strength/Yes He is!/My freedom!" It isn't so ballsy a move in a genre known for its spiritual vibes and gospel roots, but nonetheless, the message is a bit heavy-handed.
"People are like, 'Oh my God, he's trippin','" Jones relates. "They always thought I was weird, but for me to be talking about Jesus, they're like, 'Oh he done really lost it now.' But my whole thing is that I'm just here so I might help somebody who might be catching Hell, being chased here and there by the devil. I'll be like, 'You know what? No worries. There's hope. There's a way out other than drugs and suicide.'"
Jones says his spiritual awakening was a long time coming. Though he's been making music since 1993, his popularity soared during the mid-'90s rave boom–an era in party culture widely associated with unregulated hedonism. He candidly admits that he spent the first decade of his career experimenting sparingly with drugs and researching various sorts of religions–sometimes both in tandem–battling depression and often feeling tremendously alone, despite his rising success.
Not that Jones was ever really so scandalous, at least as far as superstar DJ/producers go. The subject of his first and most enduring hit, "Percolator"–despite its thigh-wrenching beat–is no more titillating than its author's anticipation for a freshly brewed pot of coffee.
Even so, it would be reductive to take anything Jones releases at face value. He plays with contradictions of tonality and layers of mimicry. He can set his emotive dial at the furthest extremes–from sinister to celebratory–and make it convincing, packing relatively simple production with subtly powerful sonic nuances and making seemingly straightforward dialogue ooze with subtext. The resulting narratives emerge rife with double-speak, a sort of riddle listeners have to think their way out of. "La La Land," for example, is a fist-pumping techno track which features Jones grumbling in monotone over a petulant, industrial bassline: "Something about those little pills/Unreal/The thrills/They yield/Until/They kill/A million brain cells."
Peeling away the layers of irony can get exhaustive: What do we make of the gleeful, drugged-out partiers on the dancefloor, proudly singing along? And what of the wizard behind the curtain? Is he actually reveling in such lowbrow sarcasm?
Talking to Jones, the answers come slow and steady–though, like his songs, they need a bit of deciphering. Full of flamboyant energy, he loves to laugh. His jokes assume a level of intimacy with their listener–no matter how offhanded or cynical his remarks, they're underscored with a great deal of compassion. Part of that understanding stakes some claim in his authenticity as a true rags-to-riches artist: He dropped out of grad school one year shy of attaining his degree in engineering to make music on a $20 Yamaha keyboard, which is what he used to make classics like "Percolator," "Flash," and "La La Land."
"When I look back on it now I'm like, 'Oh my God, what was I thinking?" he says. "I must have been the biggest fool to think I could do it! I'm a little bit wiser now, and I don't think I would make that same decision–I don't know. But at that time in my mind, music was what I was meant to do. I had some really, really rough times, but when I was at the lowest of my low I prayed and it all turned around. That's when 'Percolator' came out. It was rough. They use the phrase 'starving artist' and I'll tell you' was living it for real."
Jones takes a lot of pride in tackling some of the bigger social issues through his music, including racism ("When?"), drug use ("Genedefekt"), and sexual abstinence ("No Sex"). "The young people–who, mind you, are my audience–are always trying to make sense out of it at all," he says. "Like there's a lot of young people who are aware of racism and sometimes they don't understand why the older people in society don't do anything about it. They're like, 'Well' know that something's not right here, so how come nobody's stepping up?' And I keeps it real. So I'm stepping up. You gotta step up or get stepped on."
It's that tension between eccentricity, comedy, and worldly realism–spiced with a bit of fire and brimstone–that typifies Jones, now 39 and a veritable elder of electronic music. Still, like all true house heads, it's about the music, above all else. The latest Green Velvet single, "Shake and Pop," embraces that very ethos. "On the dancefloor I feel the beats more/My body starts to jack/Like back in '84," he sings in this tribute to DJ- and club culture. "It's just a fun song," says Jones. "I had been going through so much stuff spiritually, it's like, well, you know, we still can have fun."
"My Best Tracks" Mixtape
Cajmere "Percolator" (Cajual, 1992)
The "Percolator" was the first time I had gotten a track to sound the way I wanted, but nobody was loving it as much as I was, so I just kept remixing it. The "Percolator" (that got released under that name) is actually the third version of the track. I liked the original much more, [which is now released as] "Keep Movin'." But it blew up. I was totally surprised.
Cajmere "Brighter Days" (Cajual, 1992)
I did [this song] with one of my favorite people, Dajaé. She's from the school of doing Top 40 songs and she knows how to bring it. "Brighter Days" was one of the first vocal songs I did and I was really happy with how it all came together. I like trying to write positive, uplifting themes, because that helps us get through whatever we're going through.
Green Velvet "Flash" (Relief, 1995)
In the '90s, when the raves were happening I was seeing some stuff that was not right at the parties–bad little kiddies doing bad little things. I came from the school of it being all about the music, and then I started seeing the drug element creep into it. Around '97 the media started to sensationalize it and really focus on the drug aspect. From that point forward it's like the kids thought that once they went to the raves it was all about taking drugs. That's what "Flash" is about.
Green Velvet, "La La Land" (Relief, 2001)
When I did "La La Land" I was like, 'Oh' like this! It's so hot, I gotta start the show with this one!' I did a couple shows and started off with "La La Land" and people were not having it.
Green Velvet Shake and Pop" (Relief, 2006) "
"Shake and Pop" is just a fun song. In the beginning, a lot of people didn't get it, but now they've warmed up to it. That's the story of my life. I'm always trying to do things that are a little bit different than what's going on; it's understandable if people don't appreciate them initially.