Chicago roots and NY style chords with JT Donaldson

JT Donaldson has been a consistent force in House music in the USA for the past twenty years. Hailing from Dallas, he’s a veteran and a contemporary at the same time and has made significant contributions to the genre through his music, productions and DJing. He’s lived and worked  between Chicago, New York, San Francisco and LA, cutting his teeth in the cities and the scenes through which House music developed through the early and mid-nineties.

Learning his trade amongst the legends of Chicago, he moved from DJing to production with his first record coming via Green Velvet/Cajmere’s Cajual records. In New York he “hustled” through the ranks while in San Francisco and LA he fell in with the West Coast crowd, who were busy cultivating a distinct House scene on the pacific coast.

Tip-Toeing his way through the four corners of the USA through the late 90’s and the early 2000’s, he established lasting friendships with some of House music’s elite and recorded records for the likes of LowDown Music, OM Records and Nightshift Recordings, releases that merely speckle his extensive biography.

Today JT Donaldson embodies the legacy of House music, funnelling elements of Soul, Funk and Jazz through his productions in a deeper interpretation of the genre. He’s remained a steadfast DJ and regularly plays all over the states and on occasion makes a furore into Europe, spreading the gospel of House music wherever he goes.

He’s recently moved back to Dallas where he’s established a new label in the form of New Math, a “passion project” through which Donaldson releases music and artists that show “some varied influences and musical inspirations outside of the house music sound I’ve been known to release personally”, he told the Dallas Observer.

Between credits like producer, label owner and DJ, he’s also an adept remixer and in recent years he’s contributed in that regard to Oslo’s Bogota records. Built on the friendship with label boss, Ivaylo JT Donaldson is an adopted son of Bogota Records today. He will be playing alongside Ivaylo in the upcoming Bogota Records showcase this week, and leading up to the event we reached out to the Texan for a Q&A session and he obliged with more than just some answers.

An exclusive promo-mix, recorded at Mark Farina’s no-less, followed a Q&A which we are very excited to share here today.

Hello James, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. What was it like, musically growing up in Dallas?

Dallas was an interesting city to grow up in musically. When I was only a child we had an iconic 80s nightclub called Starck, named after it’s famous designer Phillipé Starck. Grace Jones performed there, ecstasy wasn’t yet illegal and you could imagine the groundwork it created for the Dallas nightlife and club culture. A decade or so later I had a job at the largest record store in the southwest United States “Bill’s Records” at the age of 17, where I learned about house music, its producers, labels, distributors, sales people and label owners. I jumped in head first.

Were there places in the city you could listen to that kind of music when you were getting into DJing?

We had a crew of people called the Hazy Daze collectif and they through illegal and permitted parties, bring in DJs from Chicago, UK and beyond. Everyone from Roy Davis Jr, Spencer Kincy, Derrick Carter, Pal Joey, Sandy Rivera, Diz, Heather, Paul Johnson… etc etc. Some of these guys first gig outside of their hometown was in Dallas. I also played a few years at Club One in Deep Ellum, opening up Saturday nights for DJ Red Eye and played various raves in and around Dallas, Houston and Shreveport, Louisiana which is only a short drive.

What was your first contact with a set of decks and what was that moment of epiphany like for you, the moment when you realised you wanted to do this for living?

I had put together a DJ set-up from my dad’s turntable which we had in the living room and hardly ever used since CDs were the wave back then, and a pawn shop belt drive turntable that had pitch control. They were not the easiest things to learn on by any means. I messed around with those for about a year and when Christmas rolled around my mom gifted me a brand new set of 1200s. Thats was life changing. I was probably 15/16 years old. She gave me a gift and inside she had printed out a homemade “coupon” from J&R music world in NYC. I don’t think at that point she was confident in spending that kind of money when kids interests changes like the wind. But she left it up to me to decide if that was indeed what I wanted…. and without question. I still remember that smell when opening those boxes.

You’ve lived in Chicago, San Francisco and New York and now you’re back in Dallas. How did your musical experiences differ throughout those cities and what brought you back to Dallas?

Family brought me back to Dallas. My mom, my brother and my little nieces. I had spent about 13 years away from home and it just felt right to come back and be close to them. Each one of my experiences and time spent living in those cities were unique in their own way. I learned and was mentored in Chicago, I partied in San Francisco and Los Angeles and I broadened my networked and hustled in New York.  

How has Dallas’ musical landscape changed since?

As far as house music, it’s nothing like what it was in my opinion. Night and day. Completely new, but still amazing. We have some of the best Jazz musicians and players you’ll ever hear, we still have an underground scene that is bubbling and there are various producers and labels that are making waves out here currently. Dolfin Records, Blixaboy, Convextion, Gavin Guthrie and T.R.U. Recordings, New Math Records, Demarkus Lewis, the list goes on and on…

You’ve been making, playing and spreading the gospel of House music since the 90’s. How have you experienced the genre’s evolution?

To me it’s always kinda been the same. I’m hearing more tracks sample old house records now though, which is kinda new. Seems everything’s up for grabs and nothing’s off limits anymore.

You’ve been very consistent in the sound of your records over the years. Did you have to evolve at all with the genre, and how do you manage to craft such a timeless sound?

Thanks, although some stuff sounds very dated… lol But I’ve always just stuck to what I feel, Chicago roots and NY style chords and all that. I’m constantly being exposed and turned on to new and old music alike, all different genres… so my sound and taste do evolve over time I suppose.

Were you able to achieve the same as a DJ, or do you feel you have to buck more with the trends in that respect?

As a DJ I’ve tried to expand my sets and audience over the years. When I moved to Brooklyn I started a night with DJ Amir, Waajeed and Ge-Ology. Playing alongside those guys, we did everything. Jazz, Funk, Disco, House, Hip Hop, African, Latin…. like all of it. I still do straight forward house sets, but my range was definitely widend during that time. I also do an all 7′ vinyl party in Dallas with DJ Spinderella called Fresh 45s. We’ve hosted DJs like Rich Medina, Supreme, Ge-Ology, Derrick Carter, DJ Scratch, DJ Spinna, Maseo, Eli Goldstein and many others.

It’s interesting that you mention 7 inches. I’ve found there are always traces of Soul, Funk and Jazz in your music, while also retaining the functionality of House. What singular aspect between all these genres informs the underlying sound of your music?

Grooves. It’s all groove based for me. Basslines and keys and how they relate with the drums. I’ve always been drawn to Soul, Jazz, Disco and Funk. Sometimes I’ll sample a loop and replay all the instruments with synths and at the end of the day erase the loop altogether leaving only my interpretation. Doing that I find myself playing keys and scales I wouldn’t normally go to.

How much does DJing influence your songwriting craft?

A tremendous amount. I typically have written songs for DJs to play leaving room to drop acapellas, mix in and out and generally structuring a track for club play.

What are some of the early influences that continue to make an impression on your music today?

Artists like MK, Chez & Ron, and the Detroit and Chicago sound was one of the earliest and long lasting influences of mine.

Tell me a bit about your relationship with Bogota records.

It’s a great house music label that I’ve had an opportunity to do remixes for recently and in the past. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of the family.

You also run New Math records and you’ve worked closely with many labels over the years. From your experience, and considering the landscape today with so many labels out there, what should a record label do to stand out from the crowd?

Make your artist happy and be good stewards of the music. Try new and interesting things, take risks and just be yourself. That’s the easiest way to stand out in my opinion.

I believe you’ve put a mix together for this showcase. Can you tell us a bit about it?

I’ve pulled from some of my favorite classic house tunes, ones that have influenced me as a DJ as well as some new music that’s been coming out this year. Artist like Stefan Ringer, Ben Hixon and a few unreleased tunes from myself as well.

How does it reflect what might go down at the Bogota Showcase?

It won’t be the same track-list by any means but there may be a few tunes you’ll hear from the mix at Jeager.

Is there anything you’d like to add before we hear you in our booth in August.

Just that I can’t wait to be back and I hope to see everyone out on the dance floor!