Carter gets busy

Disc JockeysDanceEntertainmentChicago TribuneRiver North

Derrick Carter, the renowned dance deejay who is set to begin a Chicago residency at the new River North club Sound Bar, is telling one of his dirty secrets.

"I like the Mamas and the Papas," he says with a chuckle. "I was a latch-key kid because both my parents worked, and I had a lot of time to create things in my mind. That's when my Mamas and Papas phase started."

Inspired by his parents' record collection, Carter became a star in the privacy of his bedroom. Now even as he deejays for thousands around the world who consider him something of a pied piper, a part of him is still back in that childhood sanctuary.

"I find a real comfort hiding in the deejay booth, this dark closet with rays of light shooting out to people outside," Carter says over a mid-afternoon beer, on what is for him a rare day of kicking back in Chicago. Just glancing at his travel schedule is enough to give anyone a vicarious case of jet lag.

He has just returned from deejaying a party in Montreal. The next day he leaves for the Far East, where he will spin in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. On a recent New Year's Eve, he made $50,000 in a few hours, deejaying a party in Los Angeles, then hopping in a private plane to San Francisco where he rocked the dance floor till dawn.

"It is glamorous and jet set and kind of awesome," says Carter, who turns 33 Monday. "In my mind since I was little I always wanted to be a star, so it was cool when it started to take off. But I found out after a while how emotionally taxing this could be. I started to scale back a few years ago, and then began reading in England about how I was burned out and in rehab. People jumped to conclusions, made up stories, and it freaked me out. I got a little bitter."

The plot line would make a perfect "Behind the Music." Carter laughs. "The initial boom, the undertow, and now I'm in a place where I'm a little more in control of what goes on. I'm working again, but on my terms." Carter co-owns the U.K. label Classic, and is preparing to open a Chicago branch in his Ukrainian Village neighborhood, with his own recording studio. He's also just released his first studio album in seven years, "Squaredancing in a Round House" (Classic).

It kicks off with "Boompty Boomp Theme," already something of an underground funk classic with Carter intoning in a Barry White-like baritone.

The album's title track is a vocal tour-de-force, with Carter multitracking his voice into a scatting choir, and "Where You At" builds to a furious finish with the mild-mannered deejay screaming, "Is this all there is? Is this it?"

Carter made his reputation as an avatar of spaced-out house music in the late '80s, his dance tracks imbued with a utopian hippie vibe.

"Squaredancing" is more personal, a merger of beats and soul that doesn't need to be pumped through a huge public-address system to connect. Hearing it on headphones will work just as effectively. The album's omnivorous approach is a reflection of Carter the deejay; his sets are legendary for the way they can wander far afield musically yet still keep the party rolling.

"Dance music is a singles medium, but I come from an era of album artists," he says. "The problem with a lot of these new cats is that they like to cut up one style. But growing up in Chicago, I went through all the phases: new wave, industrial, jazz, salsa, R&B, rock. It enabled me to be kind of playful, mischievous, a bit devious. A kind of let's-see-what-I-can-get-away-with vibe. I can do something freaky like play Kid Creole and the Coconuts or an early Wax Trax industrial track because I have that reputation."

In that sense, Carter is neck deep in the Chicago tradition, where legendary deejays like Ron Hardy drew the connection between the grimy groove of early house and Chicago postpunk. Like the late Hardy, Carter is both a crowd pleaser and a contrarian. He and his crate of records are the life of every party, but it's a role he doesn't want to play all the time.

"I generally don't feel comfortable anywhere but home," he says, where he's surrounded by keyboards, samplers and drum machines that he taught himself how to manipulate, program and play. "Self-taught? That sounds mystical," he says. "What I do on keyboards is apply gristle and elbow grease. You get in there, and you get to work. It's the old artist and blank canvas approach. I'll hear stuff in the city, and distill it in my own weird way. It starts with me sitting in my studio, staring. No distractions. Just me and my machines."

Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.

Originally published Oct. 17, 2002.

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