Interview / James “Jimi Polo” Perri

James Perri, perhaps better known as Jimi Polo, was born and raised in Chicago. There he witnessed the rise of House music first hand. Later relocating to London as “Disco`s Revenge” soundtracked the UK`s “Second Summer Of Love”. Producing hits of his own, and finding himself in demand as a keyboard player by the likes of Robert Owens and Soul II Soul. Now based in Croatia he`s hooked up with Ilija Rudman`s Imogen Records, who are about to release James` three-track The Moods E.P. The archival material, dating from the early 1990s, features arrangements for clavinet, guitar, sax, an soaring strings. In the manner of classics on Talking Loud and Acid Jazz. Of Rose Windross` Living Life Your Own Way. Barrie K. Sharpe`s Groundbeat. 4Hero and Steve Spacek`s Future Soul. The Fusion-influenced Techno of artists such as AD Bourke. The musicality of it all casting a fairly harsh light on most modern productions.

James Perri Photo

You grew up in Chicago. What was your introduction to music?

Going to Baptist church on Sundays. The Preacher was quite an animated guy. He would play drums, then piano and B3 organ, and sing. He was truly a great entertainer. That was my introduction to the art of performing. On a spiritual level, it was going to the Deep South, doing the revival months, going to church with my Grandma and Granddad in Alabama. There were some great choirs. You could feel the music move through you. That was spiritual.

Also my Aunt Sug would play Motown and Blues records and sing along to them. We would jam together.

What was your introduction to House music? How old were you?

Checking out the Hot Mix Five on WBMX in Chicago in the 1980s, and the Mendel High school parties (home to Jesse Saunders, Wayne Williams and the Chosen Few DJs). I was 16 years old.

Did you go to the well known venues and parties, like the Music Box, the Warehouse, or Medusa`s?

Yes, I went to Music Box. That’s where I met Ron Hardy. He was the first person to play the records I produced, like Jeanette Thomas` Shake Your Body. I also went to Medusa’s, La Mirage, C.O.D.’s (Come On Down – a former Punk venue), the Bismarck Hotel (where Lil Louis was the DJ) and the Power House. Very exciting times indeed.

How did you get involved in making House music? 

I bought my first drum machine, a Roland 707 and a synthesiser,  a JX8P, and Tascam 4-track. I was inspired by what the Hot Mix Five were playing on the radio, and Disco. I was also listening to a lot of Prince. Early on, he had a great sound.

You released your first record, with Tony Bowie, as Libra Libra, in 1986. How old were you? How did it feel to have a record out and in the clubs? Are you still in touch with Tony?

I was 18 years old. I was new to the music business, and it was very exciting time. I felt very accomplished and proud, but I still had a long way to go regarding music and the business of music production.

As I moved on in my career I lost track of Tony. I relocated to London, and he wasn`t willing to make that ultimate sacrifice and leave Chicago. I haven’t seen him in many years. I hope he`s well.

You also produced Shake Your Body, with Tony, for Jeanette Thomas, which is an internationally recognised House classic. How did it feel to have a hit on your hands? Did it change your lives? Were you suddenly rich?

The Jeanette Thomas record was the turning point in my career. I was told by my friend Marshall Jefferson that the track was really doing well in New York. We didn’t know it would do as well as it did. All we knew was that it sounded good to us and it was fun to make. We only met Jeanette three times, but she was really cool lady. She came in and laid down a simple vocal that became a club anthem. And no, we didn’t become rich, none of us, from this track, but it did get us noticed. It gave us all a good name.

Both records were released on Mitchbal off-shoot, Chicago Connection. Was there a “gang” mentality amongst the artists on the label? Did you all help each other out? Play on each others recordings? Lend each other equipment? Or were you all competing against one another?

There was no gang mentality on Chicago Connection. Really it was just Libra Libra, Mr Lee and Jeanette Thomas. Everybody was really cool with each other. We all wanted to be famous and respected.

When and why did you move to London?

The House scene started to really take off there, and I really wanted to be a part of it. People were open to new ideas in the UK I really liked that. I was really inspired, and I took a lot of risks, but it paid off in the end.

Your Better Days was an anthem during the “Second Summer Of Love”. How did London compare to Chicago? What clubs and parties were you going to at this time?

When I arrived in London I noticed that black people and white people partied together. It wasn’t segregated like Chicago was. Nicky Traxx`s Confusion was one of the first parties I went to in London. It was the first place I played live with my synthesiser and drum machine. Also there was the WAG Club, Clink Street, 313 Holloway Rd. And my favourite, Finbar`s parties. This guy really took a chance on me, letting me play live at his raves. The Shock Sound System would also let me jam with them. They were groundbreaking moments, I have to say.

How did you end up working with Adamski?

Through Adam’s brother, Mark Tinley. A very good musician. He and a guy named Darrell (Lockhart) had a studio in Muswell Hill (Mark and Darrell were responsible for the classic Garden Of Eden track – with designer Pam Hogg). When I came to London I needed a place to stay and Mark recommended that I move into a bed-sit with his brother. I had my own room at 29 Camden High Street. That’s where it all started! I showed Adam the Ensoniq ESQ 1 and Kawai R50 drum machine I had at the time. I had brought these with me from Chicago, and I was going live with it and making moves. After that Adam stepped up and got the new Ensoniq SQ80 and Roland 909. His sound was more aggressive, and it was good.

Adamski also worked with Seal around the same time. Did you know Seal?

Yes I did know Seal. He was a really cool guy. The last time I saw Seal was just before he left for L.A. The rest is history.

Adamski went on to be a “Pop Star” of sorts – and according to the tabloids seemed to completely lose the plot. Is this when you hooked up with Soul II Soul? How did you meet Jazzie B and the Funki Dreds? Did you go to their warehouse parties, or events at Covent Garden`s Africa Centre? 

Adam didn’t lose the plot. He moved on. His spirit took him somewhere else. I guess he’s better for it now.

I would go to see the Funki Dreds at the African Centre. It was a great moment, and they had some of the best dancers I`ve ever seen. At that point I`d already released Better Days and was doing keyboard session work for Robert Owens. Then Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper called me to do the keys on Get A Life. Jazzie and Nellee told me they were starting a record label, and asked me if I would sign to it. Another turning point in my life and my career.

You also worked with John Tye, who`s now in a group called the Seahawks. How did you meet John? Are you still in contact now?

John is a very musical man. I was the singer on some of the first House music he produced. We`re still in touch. From time to time he checks in on me.

One of the records you produced together, Funtopia`s Do You Wanna Know?, was huge in London. Particularly in its Derrick May-remixed form. Did you get to meet and work with Derrick? Can you tell me anything about the other members of Funtopia?

I know Derrick May from way back. A great man from Detroit. Truly an innovator. The last time I saw Derrick was at Ministry Of Sound. It was packed. He had the crowd going crazy.

The late Martin Sheller of Funtopia was a very insightful man. We played some great live gigs at a large number of Illegal warehouse raves. It was all very cool.

What did you do after Funtopia?

Various session work as a keyboard player for people such as Mark Rogers of Bang The Party, and Robert Owens.

You`re currently based in Zagreb. How, why, when did you arrive there?

I’ve been here a few years now. My daughter was born here. I decided to stay and make it my home.

How did you hook up with Ilija and Imogen Records?

We had a nice talk. I liked what he was saying about music. We had a lot of things in common regarding production, so we decided to do some music together.

Imogen are releasing the The Moods E.P., which contains some recordings from back when you were working with Soul II Soul. Do you plan to release any more archival material? Is there any new James Perri music coming on Imogen, or anywhere else?

Brother Beware is that track, with Lamya on backing vocals. Later this year there`ll be some more releases, of very special music. Not heard before. Anywhere.

Why “Polo”?

It used to be “Polo Shirts” back in the day. Truth be told.

James Perri`s The Moods E.P. is out now on Imogen Records. 

James Perri Cover


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