Publication: Thousand Words

Article: Mark Grant

Author: Chris Darnielle

Reference: Issue 15 / Page 24-25


Artists are always late.  It’s a rule that transcends similarities of race, creed, or sexual orientation; it’s an unspoken bond among them, some sort of genetic predisposition which dictates that these motherfuckers wouldn’t show up to their own funeral on time.  So needless to say that when Mark Grant showed up two hours late for our meeting, I wasn’t too surprised.


“What time did you ask him to be here?” the spritely woman at Grant’s label, Cajual, asks me.


“One o’clock.”


“Oh, then you should have told him noon,” she says, shaking her head.  “Always tell him the meeting’s an hour or an hour-and-a-half before it actually is.”


I glance at Cajual’s A&R man, who shrugs innocently.  No help there, it seems.  It’s funny—you offer the guy the cover of a magazine, he shows up late.  When would he show up if offered, say, a winning lottery ticket?


Fortunately when Grant finally did show up, my misgivings evaporated immediately.  He was far from self-absorbed, a trait I’ve come to expect in musicians with chronic truancy problems; in fact he was was genuinely apologetic.  And his soft-spoken demeanor, although a bit unsettling at first (God, I hope those lips aren’t sewn shut was the first thought that entered my mind), removed any doubt I had about his sincerity.


His eyes were the first thin I noticed about him—powerful eyes, those, literally sparkling with color.  To top that off, the guy had eyelashes most women would kill for.  His slacks and leather jacket screamed “swank”—this Grant is a lobster-and-white-wine rather than a hamburger-and-fries kind of guy.  All of this together, combined with his reserved air, projected a serene sense of of confidence.  This is the kind of man you wouldn’t mind dating your daughter or babysitting your children. 


We intended to go to Third Coast, a posh (“It’s ok by day, but beware the art fags by night,” I was warned by one friend-who-wished-to-remain-anonymous) little coffee joint just outside Chicago’s Loop.  It wasn’t as bad as I was led to believe—they didn’t check credit histories at the door or anything—but then again, it wasn’t exactly Chuck E. Cheese’s, either.  Two dollar coffee is, pardon the soapbox, a moral outrage.  Try that kind of crap in the Pacific NW and they’ll string your ass up on a fir tree and poke holes in you with their umbrellas.  But then again, you’re paying for atmosphere, right?—in other words, those martini glasses suspended above the bar aren’t just for show, mister…Eeech.


But I digress.  We sat, and true to form, I picked the table with the stunted leg.  And also true to form, my tape recorder refused to work.  Neither fresh batteries nor a stern lecture could persuade it otherwise.  Lesson one: Technology never works when you really need it.


Then Grant’s cell phone rang.  He cupped it under his chin, and after a few minutes of hushed conversation, excuses himself and heads, phone still cradled to the lavatory.  Seeing the call as some sort of divine intervention, I hurriedly tried to repair the recorder, but to no avail.  Lesson two: Sometimes technology will pretend to rescue you from other technology, only to make a bigger fool of you in the end.


Grant returned a healthy 20 minutes later, slightly sheepish.  This interview was turning into an all-day affair, and sensing this, we began talking—or rather, he began talking while I scribbled furiously.  Grant, now 27 began spinning at 13.  “I made my mom buy me turntables for Christmas,” he said, smiling wolfishly.  “Actually, she bought me a mixer for my birthday and turntables for Christmas.”  At the time Grant’s older brother was dabbling with turntables, while Grant busied himself listening to the Hotmix 5 on the radio.  “Yeah, my mom’ d let me stay up,” he said, heading off y question before I asked it.


Then he saw a pair of 1200’s, every aspiring dj’s wet dream, for sale in a shop window.  “The turntables were $700 or $800.  I put down a five dollar deposit on them. Now, looking back, I can’t believe they let me do that.  My mom couldn’t believe it, either—she went down to the shop and got my five bucks back.”


In the 14 years since, he’s fashioned himself a remarkable career.  After earning his B.A. in marketing, he shrugged off a potential business career and threw himself into the music industry.


As every producer knows, though, making electronic music requires more than just talent—it requires money, security, stability.  It’s hard to assemble a studio when you’re unemployed.  “It wasn’t until ’94 or ’95 that I acquired the resources to make it possible.”  Grant admits.


His resume reads like a who’s who of Chicago house music.  He’s written and remixed for Lil’ Louis, Ralphie Rosario, Glenn Cajmere, and he’s also released a mixed CD on Cajual, A Taste of Cajual, which earned him props from just about every domestic dance music magazine.  And although his dj residencies at the Buddha Lounge and Red Dog are partially behind his recent rise to stardom, there’s no question that his production skills are responsible for his national, and now international acclaim.


“I really liked ‘House Music Will Never Die,’” Grant said, indicating that his remix for the Glenn Underground and Cei-Bei song was in many ways his springboard to success.  “It was that mellower, deeper side.  I don’t feel it was boring musically.”  Not only that, it captured the essence of Chicago house: jazzy, vocally, gentle and uplifting without being insubstantial.  Nothing could have prepared him for success of “Dancin,” though, his collaboration with Chicago icon Cajmere.  Djs across the world ate it up, hell, are still eating it up.  It’s creeping keyboard melodies; clever, teasing breakdowns; and thick, funky Daft Punk-meets-Cajual percussion put Grant on—and all over—the global dance music map, including gigs in Mexico and France.  It’s the song you imagine reverberating through the rafters of Red Dog or Shelter long after the lights come up.  It is, in a word (and an abused one, at that), anthemic.  Grant said he didn’t realize just how big it was until he heard Tony Humphries play at the Winter Music Conference last year.  “I couldn’t believe it,” he said, and by the tone of his voice, he means it.  “’Dancin’ was very time consuming,” he said.  “I was sitting at the keyboard for hours.  I always liked the Stephanie Mills song, so I sampled it.  I finished two hours later, put it on tape.  I played it that night and it got a good response—people came up and asked about it, which is unusual, in Chicago.”  The response he’s received in Chicago, his birthplace, and outside of Chicago, has been been inconsistent, he claims.  “The energy level, the excitement level is terribly different.  Out of town, people actually listen to the music.  Sure people are the same to a certain extent, but the people [out of town] are more in tune with what you’re doing.  There’s more empathy in the crowd.”


This said, he blushes when Cajual’s A&R guy politely reminds him of the 10-minute standing ovation he received after his set at Stompy in San Francisco—and of the bra that one zealous, er, trainspotter threw at him at the same party.


Maybe I imagined it, but I swear his dimpled cheeks flushed a little bit as he gave his bashful response.  “I was thinking, ‘Did this really happen? Did I really spin that well?’—‘cause you know, I’d had a few drinks beforehand…”


The house scene in Chicago is in a strange state of flux, and Grant’s place within it is somewhat undefined.  Although not among the elder statesmen—the Derek Carters, the Cajmeres—he ironically spun with Steve “Silk” Hurley at a high school party nearly 11 years ago.  Perhaps he’s at the at the forefront of Chicago’s new contributors to the house scene.  Let’s hope so—his stuff is considerably more vibrant and lively than the majority of the underground garbage out there today. 


He stressed that integrity, a concept that isn’t always a priority when large sums of money are at stake—is the most important quality Chicago house must retain to weather the test of time.  It doesn’t matter, he says, whether an artist is creating original tracks or sampling disco wholesale.  “If it’s popular and people like it, we can’t ever knock it.  Not if it’s successful.  Regardless of whether we sample it, or we use live instruments, we have to take that extra step.  That’s what I try to do—I try to make that extra step to make the music over the top.  I think it’s important that house music is commercially successful,” Grant said, “but with the same integrity.  I want the underground to be above ground.  The more people the better.”  The key to this, he feels, is winning over the typical club kid to the merits of house.  “In Chicago, club people are into whatever they think is popular—usually hip hop and R&B.  The people we need to capture are the house/hip hop people, the people in the middle who are clueless. But it seems that hip hop and R&B has taken more of a bite out of those people.”


“Of course,” he said with a shrug, “if I heard that [hip hop and R&B] on the radio every day, and I was clueless, I’d think it was the shit, too.”