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INTERVIEW: TRAX Records’ Creative Director Jorge Cruz

Chicago House Label Releases Compilation

Established in 1983, Trax Records is one of the essential outlets for house music in Chicago, having released such classic house and club tracks as “No Way Back” by Adonis, “Your Love” by Jamie Principle & Frankie Knuckles, and the first house anthem, “Move Your Body” by Marshall Jefferson.

“Screaming” Rachel Cain, co-founder & CEO of Trax Records, has continued to be a driving force for the label, expanding its reaches far beyond just “The Windy City.” She has been called the “Queen of House Music” by Billboard Magazine, as one of the first house DJs ever to sign a major label deal, and has worked with such artists as Colonel Abrams, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, and many others resulting in a string of hits that have made her club royalty.

Salute Magazine recently caught up with Jorge Cruz, the label manager / creative director of Trax Records, to talk about plans for their upcoming compilation album, Now That’s What I Call Trax, and the future of house music.

SALUTE: Tell me more about Trax Records and what you’re working on with this compilation album?

JORGE: I think the real thing that has emerged with the completion of the album is that spark. That’s the realization that I am feeling. I can’t believe it has been 10 years. I started at the label when I was 19 and now I am 28, turning 29 in May, and the album is in many ways myself, an ode to the past 10 years and who I have signed and produced for the label.

But the record itself is also just an astonishing piece that really symbolizes “look at how far we have come,” from having a ton of pieces written about us in the early millennium about how things were struggling, and how they weren’t sure which way the label was going to go, after the new millennium especially with all the technology changes that occurred within four-or-five years, from 2003-to-2008. I feel like it’s a testament not only by the work that I put into the label but it’s a testament to the audience with their interest in our music in our taste and our style. It’s an honor to have worked with so many people.

I’m so lucky to have been able to have had even enough material to put an album like this together, which sounds funny because it’s the kind of thing like “of course you would have had it” but it didn’t always feel that way. Every year didn’t feel that way.

In many ways, it’s a big piece of gratitude. I’m really grateful that everything has been turning out the way it has been turning out, and that this album can show people that we’ve been fine. We’re better than fine. We’ve been amazing.

The label was founded in 1983-84, so it’s been 35 years. How has house music evolved specifically from the Trax label?

JORGE: In reality, the music never really evolved, I think the audience has evolved. Not only did the audience evolve but so did like society, because in many ways a lot of the music that’s coming out even today would’ve still been something that would’ve come out even in the ‘80s or even the ‘90s, but what I think is the most radical shift is that it has become the anthem to what everyone’s nightlife. That’s the thing you dance to. At the turn of the century, it was jazz or flapper music. In the ‘50s it was rock n’ roll. But now when people think of “dance” they automatically assume “house,” or things that came from house, which is so many genres, techno, EDM. There’s just a plethora.

I think the biggest change has been the adoption of the style and I think from speaking to people like [Screaming] Rachel, they’ll always say something like “we really would never have thought to be at this moment in time” because when they were coming up people would literally call the music garbage or trash. They didn’t think of it as art in the beginning, but then eventually everybody started saying “no, this means something.” It happened really fast obviously, but the evolution has been an economic evolution. It has been a culture. It has been something a lot larger than anybody who originally started thought could have ever happened, which explains so much of the business practices in the beginning. And I think that’s what happens to a lot of people when you make something new, you don’t know where it’s going to go. And this one really went all the way and it’s still growing and growing and growing.

Where do you see house music going in the future?

JORGE: I see it in two real ways. One of them is a positive and one of them is negative. The positive being that people like ourselves, we get pushed into the crossover side. I also see the label becoming something like a Ministry of Sound, something that is all-encompassing. I think it would become larger than itself, but I think that to do that is to more or less keep control of the style and the culture.

And on the other hand, the other light that I see it going through, and one that isn’t very optimistic, is that everybody from the original days kind of gives up and doesn’t try to preserve the originality. Or everyone loses sight of preserving or even recording what they went through and then I see larger companies taking “the house,” the style and everything and just turning into a Time Warner piece. Something that’s just like a “hippy movement” or like dumb corporate stuff. I don’t think that is necessarily going to happen in this case, but I do think there is more so now than ever a giant call to everyone, in the beginning, to come out and tell their stories and tell as much as they can. Because a lot of them are getting older a lot of them are getting sick, a lot of them are going into the other side. That’s how I feel about it. It’s not one or the other, but I do think it’s going to be one or the other if people aren’t practiced now that everyone’s still here with us.

House was influential in hip-hop and more recent electronic music. It’s worth mentioning how some of the artists on your label have been doing this for a very long time. I wanted to know who are the five artists from TRAX you would recommend to a first-time listener?

JORGE: I’m going to take myself out of the question and see it as a scholar. I guess [one of] the main people to really know about dance or house, or the one you should know about when you’re first getting into it is Screaming Rachel.

Screaming Rachel is the plug. She, whether she likes it or not, is the plug. She is connected and has been the bridge and plug to so many artists, genres, spaces and because of her tenacity and because of her undying commitment to Chicago overall. She is one of the main people to know.

I know a lot of people don’t know why she’s important, and that’s why, because she connected people into spaces that normally and traditionally weren’t inclusive of themselves. You have to know Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Joe Smooth, Daryl Candy, and Larry Sherman.

Larry Sherman’s important even though he’s somebody who we don’t really talk about in a positive light, but I think that within that we have to understand why he was making the decisions he was making. Even if they were not answers we want to hear, but I think it’s important to understand why in that moment in time someone like him could get access to the type of things he could get access to and it’s important to really understand his side of the story because his story wasn’t necessarily exclusive to only himself. In that moment in time in the music industry, the practices were pretty standard, but he also has this ear, which if you knew Larry or knew of him, you wonder “where is this person’s head?” Because ultimately he saw something in it and invested in it. Whether or not it was just business acumen, but there is something there that I don’t think anybody asked the “why” and I’m still curious myself. I’ve never spoken to him myself but I think he’s important. Even if he’s “the villain” to a lot of people, to know why he’s “the villain” or what makes him the villain. He’s an important part of history, even if it’s not a positive side of the history.

What made you come up with the title “Now That’s What I Call Trax?”

JORGE: It’s really this vision I have. I keep telling Rachel about this growth that I feel within my body that is happening to not only myself but happening to the label, that is going to crossover that is larger than us. In a way that is going to eclipse her, me, even the artists at some point and Trax is really in a place right now where it could be a large entity. Here I have 10 years of music. Here I have an entire portfolio of things that I’ve put together, that the label has come out with and I thought about it as a movement. I thought about it an entity.

I love to poke and prod and parody things. So to me, it was kind of natural to make the greatest hits. Instead of calling it “The Greatest Hits,” I thought of it was a Now That’s What I Call Music sort of thing, because it tends to be the best or the biggest hits from the year, so for me it was a display of the biggest songs that we’ve had in the past 10 years. It’s an homage to my age obviously.

I kind of wanted to know if it was also in homage in some ways to the club kids of the ‘90s and how they would parody things for their parties?

JORGE: I grew up with that mentality whether I like it not. The ‘90s and even the early ‘00s was a lot about parody. It was a lot about satirizing things that were larger than yourself of entities or corporations. We grew up in the generation of corporations. Small businesses pretty much were not around when I was growing up. Exclusive to our generation. I like to use things for parody. I don’t know why that is, but it’s like in my DNA. It’s not the first time I was coming out with a vinyl compilation in 2012-2013 and one of them was inspired by a Happy Meal box. It was sort of like a starter set to the label. But I think so, I think you’re right.

When are you planning on releasing Now That’s What I Call Trax? Who are some of the artists featured on the compilation? Will it also be available on vinyl?  

JORGE: It’s going to come out digitally on Feb. 16th. It will be out on every digital marketplace. We’re preparing to release a sampler on record store day on vinyl.

We have a residency here in L.A. at the Ace Hotel every Sunday, every month, for the next year and this month we’ll be having a release party. I’ll be spinning. Rachel will be having a live set. We’ll have DJ Potira, Leo Nunan, Terrance Golden, and Abraham [Poderoso], all supporting too.

The release will hopefully tour at the end of the year. Were working on touring with our current company MN2S, and we did a couple spots last year, but this year, we’re trying to get something a little more reoccurring.

It’s just packed with song after song after song after song. And each song is a thing in and of itself. I’m allowing it to have room to breathe because I know that this album is so big. It’s something that’s huge. There are sounds on there that aren’t even on the radio yet. Some of the songs on there are five-years-old, six-years-old, seven-years-old. And I’m excited for everyone to get these songs as a package.

Because at a package, it’s just like, “Wow. What did I just get? What am I listening to? This is huge?” That’s what I am bracing for. For everyone to hear it. That’s the reason I put it together, the way I put it together.

Is this music that anyone in New York, Los Angeles, London, might have heard before? Is it completely new, you never heard this? Is it a best of or the best of the last 10 years?

JORGE: It’s a little bit of both. On one end songs like “Chicago” the one that opens the album, has been played numerous amount of times on Beatport lists, Best of House, and some other songs that weren’t necessarily heard by too many people, not because it’s not good or anything it’s just that maybe at the time we released it we didn’t have enough money to promote it as well as we could have or vice versa. It’s a grab bag of both.

I haven’t really pointed out to anybody what song is what because I want everybody to go into this without knowing what they’re getting. I don’t want anyone to go into it with any preconceived ideas. If you don’t know anything about the song, but if you do that’s good too. It’s a little bit of a social experiment. I’m a little f***d up and twisted but things like that.

I think this is a genre where you can do that, where you need to do that even. Sort of push people into thinking more about just the song as opposed to the performer.

JORGE: I think in general we live in permissions based sort of times. People like things based on whether or not they’re permitted to like things. I think now more than ever is this idea that “oh, I only listen to things because I read it on a blog that I follow” or “because I heard it on the radio.” You know this because you’re American, our radio is not the neutral platform for an artist.

That’s what excites me about working with Trax. It’s a big label but I am able to do whatever I want and I bring things to the table that I used to bring. I used to be a music journalist for URB [Magazine]. If I don’t have to be the one to tell you “why you should like something” then that’s even better for me. My overall goal in life is to have people like the things they like just because they like it, not because they know that the other million people like it too.

Be sure to check out Now That’s What I Call Trax, available on Feb. 16th, 2018, and be sure to check out their website for artists and more at traxrecords.net. 

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