Rocky Jones and Benji Espinoza started the Chicago record label, DJ International, in 1985. Benji had been working in a westside music store, called Baby O`s, where as a buyer he dealt with a steady stream of local DJs turned producers. Folks famous in the clubs, and on radio stations such as WGCI and WBMX. Becoming frustrated by not being able to order enough copies of their 12s to meet a growing demand, he set up the distribution company Quantum – shipping their music out – initially – to other US states. At around the same time Benji met both Rocky and Steve “Silk” Hurley. It was hearing Hurley`s Tascam 4-track demos that made the pair decide to launch the now legendary imprint. As JM Silk, Hurley`s track Music Is The Key, with the help of Quantum, shifted not the usual neighbourhood 100 copies, but 100, 000 worldwide.
News of the success, of course, attracted others to the label, its roster coming to consist largely of a rotating assembly of names. People like Peter Black, “Fast” Eddie Smith, Joseph Lorezno Jr. “Joe Smooth” Welborn, and Hurley`s feudin` former flatmate, Farley “Jackmaster Funk” Keith Williams (1), are peppered throughout DJ International’s catalogue – often collaborating on songs, and frequently sharing each others kit. Tyree Cooper for example actually had no gear of his own, and would be totally dependent on his friends resources to get his ideas down (2). The vocalists involved – Paris Brightledge, Keith Nunnally, Robert Owens, Anthony Thomas – have gone on to become icons – defining in no small part the `80s house sound.
Due budget / tech limitations, and youthful inexperience – all of these artists were in their late teens or early 20s – the music brought to Rocky and Benji was raw. Some of it, like Endless Pokers` The Poke or Chip E`s Time To Jack remained raw – made with shaking Ron Hardy`s Music Box in mind – but to the two`s eternal credit they saw the musical potential in house. Rocky taking these DJs into the 24-track studio at Chicago Trax and turning their rough ideas into “radio-friendly” joints. Earning himself a co-production royalty while remixing many of the releases into significant smashes. Their sophistication – especially given the constraints they were created in – allowing them to “crossover”.
The music could often be not much more than drum machines put through hypnotic, repetitive, motions, wrapped up in warm womb-like bass. Some songs were expressions of heartbreak and unbridled lust, but many struck out for individualism – calls for acceptance, gospel-influenced prayers for unity and peace. The work of, say, Duane “Sterling Void” Pelt was pure pop really. Proper songs with riffs, hooks, sing-along lyrics, constructed on a shoestring, whose true symphonic nature would be later revealed when covered by mainstream stars, The Pet Shop Boys. Contemporary competitor Trax might have been the underground, acid, name to drop (3), but it was DJ International – and Quantum – who got house out of Chicago, over the water, into the charts and onto Top Of The Pops.
JM Silk`s Music Is The Key was the first house record to reach Europe. Its follow up, Shadows Of Your Love was the first house “staple” played in Ibiza`s opulent open-air pleasure palaces (4). A neon-sequined Darryl Pandy blew a whole generation`s collective bonce when he – barely keeping it in his pants – screamed and diva`d his way through Love Can’t Turn Around on national British tea-time TV.
As early as 1986, Steve Hurley`s Jack Your Body gave house its first UK #1 (5). The monies made allowing Benji to organize press junkets – bringing foreign journalists over to Chicago – to visit the clubs, record shops, meet the artists, experience the scene. Majors, like BCM, London, and ZYX licensed DJ International sides. Sterling Void`s tunes became anthems (6), and then there was Joe Smooth`s The Promised Land…It could easily be argued that DJ International, as much as the drug Ecstasy, sparked The Second Summer Of Love. The chart hits, television appearances, and resulting relatively inexpensive – compared to scarce import 12s – compilations gifting house to the masses – the “Teds”, the “Lilac Camels” – when before it had been the precious secret of a devoted but tiny enlightened inner circle.
Benji Espinoza sadly passed away late October 2020.
1. Farley Keith Williams shared an apartment with Steve Hurley. The former allegedly stealing both the name “Jackmaster” and the track Love Can’t Turn Around from the former.
2. Tyree Cooper’s Acid Over was produced on a TB303 and 909 borrowed from Lidell Townsell. When asked if he had any acid tracks ready to go, Tyree bluffed, and got on the phone to Lidell.
3. Larry Sherman of Trax was infamous for his “shady” business deals. Many artists, such as Larry “Mr Fingers” Heard and Michael “Adonis” Smith moved to DJ International after Larry ripped them off. Sherman again sadly passed away this year – but given this history his legacy was a difficult / complicated thing to commemorate and pay tribute to.
4. The first house record that Ibiza institution Alfredo Fiorito fell in love with, and span at Amnesia, was Donnie by The It – I think bought from a store in Milan.
5. Jack Your Body was the first house record I can remember hearing in a club. In `86 I was living in Leeds, and one night I`d made a mid-week visit to a venue called Wakefield Rooftop Gardens. While the main room catered to “townies” knocking back two-for-the-price-of-one doubles, intent on fisticuffs or fornication, there was a small back room playing house. Jack Your Body was the only tune I recognized.
I know I’ve said this before but I grew up in 70s South London and it was an extremely violent and racist place. When I was part of the truly mixed crowd dancing to Sterling Void`s It`s Alright at Nicky Holloway`s Trip in the summer of `88 – that was the moment, for me, that house clicked.
There’s a mix of my favourite DJ International tunes here….
Fingers Inc – A Path
JM Silk – Shadows Of Your Love (Fierce Mix)
Farley Jackmaster Funk – Love Can’t Turn Around
Joe Smooth – One Moment In Love
Sterling Void – Runaway Girl (radio)
The Children – Freedom
Endless Pokers – The Poke
Chip E – Like This (dub)
The It – Donnie (dub)
Steve Silk Hurley – Jack Your Body
Kenny Jammin Jason – Can U Dance
Fingers Inc – Mystery Of Love (dub)
JM Silk – Music Is The Key (Basement Key)
Sterling Void – It`s Alright
Rocky Jones – Choice Of A New Generation
Fast Eddie – Acid Thunder
Tyree – Acid Over (Piano Matey Mix)
Paris Brightledge – Learn To Love
Peter Black – How Far I Go
Joe Smooth – The Promised Land