Green Velvet has one manic infectious laugh, a slapstick high-pitched thigh-slapper. He’s cracking up at my croaky attempts to chant lines from his classic track Preacher Man, helping out with the track’s evangelical punchlines, mortified for me.
He’s recalling the first time he heard the sermon by Baptist preacher Reverend CL Franklin that he sampled for his infamous 12-inch: “The minute I heard it, I just wanted to record something with it, that powerful vocal. I was so happy — he even kept roaring the word ‘house’! I couldn’t believe it, I was screaming, aaaaaaagh!”
It looks like we’ve caught Green Velvet bang on form. He’s just off stage on the last night of Solar Weekend in Holland and he’s happy to stroll around a muddy lakeside while keeping a careful eye on his shoes — actual green loafers to match his trademark Mohawk, for the record. He’s just dropped another set of twisted metallic techno and tough house grooves — his calling card that gets him invited to every major dance festival and techno tent in the summer.
Since the early 90s, Green Velvet, aka Chicago DJ/producer Curtis Jones (47), has been one of underground techno’s chief innovators and true originals. After paving a way with jackin’ Chicago house as Cajmere on tracks like Percolator and Brighter Days, his Mr Hyde-style transformation to the green-haired cyber punk took full effect in the middle of the decade, mixing industrial minimalism with abstract monologues about “naughty kids” on laughing gas, alien abduction and being reincarnated as a water molecule.
He says the Velvet character is part of a split persona, not just in the coarser sound, but his oblique observational tone, based on fleeting thoughts on the street, in the studio or in the DJ box, jolting him into freestyle rants over the mic.
“When I’m doing Cajmere it’s coming from the house roots, and that’s all based in disco and gospel… it’s more inspirational and uplifting. When I do Green Velvet I’m coming from an industrial lane, there’s more chatter,” he says. “I’ll just talk about stuff, like Flash was a song I did totally off the top of my head, one take in the studio, recorded it straight to DAT, it just came…”
Even though 90s tracks like Flash, Answering Machine, The Stalker or Land of the Lost were slyly ironic or nihilistic, Green Velvet’s second album Whatever in 2001 tackled some ‘issues’ sideways, with dark meditations on collective apathy, daily drudgery and druggy dead ends – notably on the perpetually misread La La Land and its “somethin’ ’bout those little pills” hook.
To cut a long drug casualty story short, Jones became one of his own La La Land scare stories, getting spiked with GHB a decade ago then becoming a Christian, saying God spared him. He’s wary about the ‘born again’ tag, saying the residual belief was always there. He says: “To be a black guy from Chicago, most of us had gospel in us, it’s the culture. We had a billion songs with preachers in them, tonnes.”
He says techno and house isn’t a total square peg into his beliefs, saying: “I think rave culture in the 90s was really a soul-searching type thing. It was a little bit more oppressed, a little bit mystic. It was really trying to be something a little bit deeper, instead of just getting wasted.”
As a handy triangulation of what Green Velvet is about in 2014, he displays only three ‘likes’ on his Facebook page – Martin Luther King, Kraftwerk and Parliament/Funkadelic, in that order. His most recent cult dancefloor hit was last year’s Bigger Than Prince, scuffed analogue funk with his detached vocals back on track.
And even if he’s not being overly preachy about the Lord these days, Curtis Jones is fairly evangelical about his regular sermons — his weekly Electric Playground mix and his Relief record label that’s still releasing 12-inches by DJ Sneak and Gene Farris, years after he helped break them.
This stream of mixes and social media glare means he has to keep digging for tunes, where maybe he had more mileage in the past with a bag full of vinyl no one had heard. Society’s running out of patience, but he’s not sinking in nostalgia.
He recalls: “I remember if I missed the record one week at the record store, having to wait like a month before they got the record back in. These kids now, they’re like, ‘Man have you heard this record? ‘Of course man I downloaded it for free yesterday!’ It’s quick, man.
“Even longer three-hour DJ sets don’t happen much. Of course I’d love if kids had the patience but that’s not a reality. Society has made them that way so you can’t expect them to be any other way. Like come on, I’m coming from the age where we didn’t have a remote control for the TV!”
He maintains that it’s a blessing if fans are still coming to his shows dancing, simply saying: “I know there’s a lot of other types of music, so I’m not the one to talk bad about anything. If I know there are some young kids who are curious about it then at least I’m doing enough work.
“I’m trying to find those new people out there to keep the tradition going… we’re getting there, for sure.”
- Originally appeared in Irish Daily Star.