• A conversation with the legendary multi-genre DJ and producer.
Interview by Thomas Lundberg.
Freddy Fresh is a long-time SOMA friend and has contributed a ton of videos of our gear in a style only he can do. We asked Freddy a lot of the same questions we asked Anthony Rother, in order to get a different perspective from someone in the same generation, but involved in quite different music on another continent. Representing both NY hip-hop/rap from the 1980s and 90s, and the Midwest techno and D&B scene in the 90s and beyond, we are happy to be able to bring you Fred’s point of view on a number of relevant topics for today’s music producer.
On September 29th, 2023 Freddy Fresh’s new album 35 years of music has been released via EPM.
How important is it for young producers and DJs to study the history of electronic music, to know the originators in different genres and to know the main influential labels in those genres?
I feel it is not important to study anyone. I do feel that it will be a natural occurrence, however, as the more deeply one becomes ingrained in any art form, the more one may develop a curiosity towards other like-minded individuals. For me, in my case, I began as a DJ so naturally I was engaged in the music end of things. I was always on that search for special sounds and artists that were doing things that captured my attention. As a DJ having to play for other people, I often had to play music that I did not like also. For me it was a natural progression to go from DJing to producing music.

What are the best ways for young producers and DJs to educate themselves in today’s digital world?
To take full advantage of the many programs, promo pools, Youtube videos etc.. Today there are unlimited resources widely available. In my time there were a few cool radio shows like WRKS KISS FM or WBLS in New York with DJ Mix programs with DJs playing underground rap like Chuck Chillout, Red Alert, Marley Marl etc, Or if you were into Chicago House music there was WGCI Mickey Mixing Oliver, Farley Jackmaster Funk etc. Today there is the internet.

Do you remember when you felt that spark the first time? When you knew, or felt, ‘I want or I need to learn how to do this’.
Shay Stadium Queens 1985 listening to Original Big Apple Mastermix being played on KISS FM on my walkman with the most incredible master mix I’d ever heard. I knew right then I was on the right path as a budding DJ.

Did you first feel drawn to DJing or music production? How old were you?
I bought my first pair of mismatched turntables in 1983 and my very first paid DJ gig was in 1984 for $35 per night approx. I DJ’d for 4 or 5 years before I attempted remixing etc. and my first actual productions were completed in 1991.

Was there a particular artist, label, collective or scene that first inspired you to start producing/DJing?
The New York Rap scene was a massive influence with labels like Zakia, Pop Art (Philly) , Tommy Boy, Cutting, Sleeping Bag, Fresh, B-Boy, PMP, Idlers, really so many, and having records that few people in Minnesota had was a great thrill as I was getting booked in local clubs and parties as I was known for having all the latest New York records and even test pressings and early promos. B Boy Records was my very first remix with my photo on the record in 1988 although I had been thanked on several New York Rap albums like Public Enemy, Audio Two, Boogie Down Productions etc.

Who were early sources of inspiration for you musically?
Maybe it's better if I name a few by genre here are a few examples
Rock: Yes, Pink Floyd, The Cure
Freestyle: C-Bank, Stevie B, Pretty Tony, Cynthia, Sweet Sensation, Corina
Electro: John Robie, Arthur Baker, Gino Soccio, Koto, Kraftwerk, Mann Parrish, Raul Rodriguez, any underground one off like Craig Bevan, High Fidelity Three
Rap: Anything produced by Marley Marl, way too many others to mention as I lived and breathed Hip Hop and have 2 books published about this already.
Multi edits: Carlos Berrios, Joe “Chef” Nunez, Omar Santana, Latin Rascals, Juan Kato, Bladerunners, Dino Blade.

When did you first discover a local music scene (in Minnesota, the US Midwest)?
The local scene was cool with electronic bands like INSOC and Dada Legion, but our Minnesota radio stations are a joke. In 1982 Fresh Air radio played some cool underground music on the college level. [American] mainstream radio is awful, back then and also today. At one time we had a break dance contest in 1985 sponsored by a mainstream radio station KDWB and we all were so excited getting ready to compete in our crews in Downtown St. Paul (I was into Pop Locking). I thought finally these guys are gonna play some serious breakdancing tunes!! (In my mind I imagined the Boogie Boys “Shake N Break” or any real underground New York rap) Nope, not to be. They started the set with Herbie Hancock's “Rockit” and we all got excited but then “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cindy Lauper was next and it went downhill from there. We didn’t even have Urban Radio in Minnesota until the 1990s. And now, now it's all thug rap and it's just the most non-creative music you can imagine in your worst nightmares. Independent radio is our only hope here. Minnesota has always had a vibrant musical scene but again radio rarely supports this. There are a few stations that are a bit more open minded.

What was the first music scene you felt you were a part of?
First Avenue [in Minnesota] was a nightclub that played electronic music and eventually I did get a night performing there after I had basically played all the other Black-owned night clubs and roller rinks. Locally there was one electronic producer that did as much as he could to hold me back and make sure I never got many bookings, he ran several electronic nights and his efforts to exclude me actually forced me to go it alone. I had basically no support from the electronic scene in Minnesota except for my Hip Hop parties with KMOJ and Travitron, he supported me a lot. I was blacklisted from many parties early on in my career and it was not until I made a name for myself overseas that I was fully embraced here locally.

In your own words, could you help position Wisconsin and Minnesota cities in the Midwest scene during your early years as producer and DJ?
Wisconsin had the Techno parties run by Drop Bass Network and I was never embraced by that organization until only recently. They were responsible for some of the most amazing parties on the planet. Minnesota has well-known producers, many of whom had little support while they were in Minnesota: Dustin Zahn, DVS1, Mike McClure of Autokinetic, Tonewrecker, Heckadecimal, DJ Encounter etc.

How did your local scene start? How did you meet like-minded people back then?
I was one of the first artists in Minnesota producing Techno music in 1992 I contacted Paul Mix in 1991 who showed me how to use MIDI and we joined efforts to begin Analog Records in 1992 and a year later I contacted producers Mike McClure and John Golden to form Electric Music Foundation. I networked with a few other artists and mainly had to contact people like Jeff Mills, Moby and Richie Hawtin to troubleshoot studio and midi problems as we had no real internet back then. There were so few like-minded people that it was a method of doing almost everything alone.

What is the origin story of your Analog label?
As I had been releasing music on New York labels Adrenalin, Nu Groove, Massive Sounds, and Experimental records I was unknowingly getting some attention from New York techno distributors like Watts Music, Eden, Syntax, and a few others. I thought that it would be a cool experiment to attempt to make my own record label and run it from my house in St. Paul, Minnesota. I called Jeff McDonald who was a purchaser at Watts Music and asked him what he thought about this. Jeff told me that he’d buy anything that I made and would start with an order of 700 copies, he even wrote me a purchase order for the records. I was unable to get my local bank to loan me the $1,500 needed to make these records at Dixie Records [pressing plant] in Nashville so I took a loan from my Pizza boss for $300. The balance of the money came from Paul Mix who had his own label called Digidl which graced the back of the first two analog releases. So Analog 01 and 02 were split label releases. In 1993 I formed Electric Music Foundation with Mike McClure and John Golden of Autokinetic.

How did you early on become so involved in such different music scenes? Fast, hard, acid techno in the Midwest, rap beats on the east coast- a rare combination.
I grew up as a fan of The Cure, Yes and Pink Floyd and over time graduated to Electro Music. I met my girlfriend in 1983 and she took me to her hometown of the Bronx, New York. It was there that my work opened up to Hip Hop and Breakdancing. I was in a dance crew and progressed to DJing from there. Techno was a progression from House Music and electro. Hard acid just came naturally to me late night in the studio, as I made most of my music between 2am and 5 am and was filled with tense aggression due to my insane life at that time filled with general drama and being broke most of the time.

The label Drop Bass Network had a somewhat mythological status in 1990s Detroit due to some of its intense live events. The higher BPM and dark themes were not common in Michigan, other than in the Kalamazoo techno labels such as Mechanisms Industries, Sonic Mind and Black Nation Records. How did Minnesota and Wisconsin scenes develop such a high BPM and aggressive (acid) techno sound?
Good question. We just liked things very hard I guess, maybe it was something in the water, or chemtrails.

How did you connect with Alec Empire?
I think Alec contacted me via Ingmar or the guys at Labworks.

Alec Empire’s arguably best techno tracks he ever produced, released originally on Fred’s Analog label.
Have we moved beyond regional and genre-specific music scenes in the age of social media and instant and constant global presence?
Things have a tendency to come full circle and we are witnessing this now in realtime.

In terms of underground artists and the impact of social media, are we in a transitional phase? Traditional underground scenes tended to be staunchly anti-commercial, anti-capitalistic and anti-consumerist. How can today's underground artist reconcile that spirit with the modern need for a social media presence and digital releases?
Honestly the kids of today are doing what they do and it is their right to not compare nor contrast nor follow any rule whatsoever. They are children of the modern social media age and this reflects in their choice of sounds etc. The one thing I do think is a bit interesting is how when one of the modern producers samples something people totally freak out when an old DJ like myself says ‘oh btw here is the original work that this upcoming young artist sampled from.’ This usually makes people think that the upcoming new artists had his music “stolen” when actually it is the other way around. At the end of the day if something rocks a dance floor it should be applauded, unfortunately many young artists have a habit of attaching visual imagery with relevant music. This explains why Daft Punk wear Robot helmets.

You grew up as a musician and DJ in the ‘before time’, before the internet and social media became mainstream and widely available, and are still very active today. What would be your advice to yourself, if you were starting off today as a young producer?
My advice would be to let your passion guide you and do not fall into the trap of “more views means better” or “More DJ offers means better”. You must remember I got into this “scene” not realizing that there even was a “scene”. Today everyone knows that there is a scene and perhaps what is driving a large percentage of today's producers and DJs are dreams of fame, and that is their fuel. My fuel was a passion to make cool sounds.

Let me explain it this way. [Hypothetically speaking], at this moment there are two producers making cool music. One is driven by passion and so she plays her music in her basement for a few friends but the music is good and passion fuels this. She doesn’t care who likes her music because she lives and breathes this music and so plays and plays sometimes for no one and sometimes for 20 people and one day for 500 people.

Now there also is a young producer who is making music and watching videos and trying to “fit” into a scene that he feels he can be a part of. He plays his music for 20 people and then gets lucky and has a friend who has some record label business contacts. Even though this young man is not as talented he goes farther in his career (based on likes, views etc.). The young male producer has money and fame driving his search for stardom. He makes it up to a point after a few years and then slowly his career fades. He is offered to play a small club for 50 people and turns it down as he was just playing festivals for a thousand people and now feels these 50 people are beneath him.

As passion was never fueling this man he no longer makes music and drops out of the scene. The female producer never makes it to playing for a thousand people but 10 years later she is still making music and playing for crowds of a few hundred and is very respected. Now I ask you this question. Who of these two are more “successful”? Exactly what is success? If success is being paid millions of dollars and losing a loving family in the process due to constant touring etc.. then I would say the successful producer is the one that keeps his or her family and also makes a bit of money or better yet can support themself with just music. This is a loaded question.

Gear talk. What gear have you owned?
Early gear Roland 101/202/303/606/707/727 Sequential Drum Trax, Moog Modulars, System 100, System 100M, Arp 2600,  VCS3 (Putney), Memory Moog, MPC 2000, Alesis MMT8, so many more I could go on and on.

Did you learn to play an acoustic instrument when you were young?
I played piano by ear and used to play in the lobby of office buildings in Minneapolis.

Were you a gearhead or were synths and drum machines just tools for you?
I lived and breathed and slept with my instruments. They were and still are part of me to this day, to this day I have the recurring nightmare that my instruments have been stolen or I go into my basement studio and they are all gone. And over the past 20 years the nightmare has evolved to the point that I actually catch the thieves in progress stealing my stuff. This is a real truth. I am not making this dream up, it happens a few times every three or four months. In this same dream I also have some rare modular stuff that I do not actually own. Crazy how the mind works.

Did you have your favorite electronic instruments which you stuck with for many years?
Roland System 100M, TR 606, Jupiter 8, Arp 2600, System 100 (Bass cabinet) are the main ones that I still kept over time.

What was your first setup?
Very first real set up was Juno 106, Jupiter 8, TR 808, TR 606, TR 909, 2 303’s SH 101, Arp 2600, VCS3 Drum Trax, Memory Moog but before this main set up for a brief time I just had Korg DSS1 and Boss 660.

You have a sizable selection of classic synths and drum machines in your studio, would you care to share a list of your favorite non-SOMA gear?
See above and add the Syncussion and Korg ER1 and BASTL Softpops and Norand Mono and Sonic potions XLR Drums.

What sets apart PULSAR-23 compared to the classics, Roland TR-808 and TR-909?
Not very much and I rarely say this but the SOMA gear is actually on par, as good or better than the stuff I’m used to having. So you guys picked a good artist to A/B your gear against as I used to buy and sell vintage synths. The Pulsar is a Swiss army knife (Russian army knife) of analog capabilities and the kick drum is probably the best and most versatile of anything I've come across.

What has PULSAR-23 added to your workflow and productions?
Lets just say I still kept it and I only keep stuff I use on every song, so amazingly this machine stays in my kit.

What are your thoughts about SOMA and SOMA gear?
I feel honored somebody recognized that it may be mutually beneficial for me to have the gear to try out, as I’m an old player and not some hot new guy on everyone's radar, but I’d wager that long after some of the new hot new producers are gone and forgotten, I’ll still be blasting out beats in my basement (probably will still have the Pulsar too). This year (2023) marks 39 years of DJing and 35 years of producing electronic music.

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