It's been 30 years since a handful of singles from the Southside of Chicago — handed out to and played by Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, two local DJs then helping define the sound that came to be known as "house" — transformed dance music all around the world. The tracks came from Larry Heard, a twenty-something musician who worked at the Social Security Administration by day, and drummed in cover bands (art-rock, reggae, jazz fusion) by night; but it was only when Heard decided to invest in a synthesizer and drum machine that he unwittingly changed the nature of club music forever. In 1986, Heard began a remarkable run, releasing the epochal tracks "Washing Machine," "Can You Feel It" and "Beyond the Clouds" under the name of Mr. Fingers, before teaming up with vocalists Robert Owens and Ron Wilson (as Fingers, Inc.) to spawn another set of paradigm-shifting, anthemic club singles: "It's Over," "A Path" and "Bring Down the Walls." That calendar year alone would have cemented Heard's legacy, but he has continued to release music that has inspired DJs, producers and dance-floors around the world, be they house and techno, R&B, urban pop or hip-hop — and done so far away from the spotlight.
"One thing I love about Larry is he's never revised history, or pretended he intended to make songs that would seed entirely new genres of music," says veteran disco and house DJ/producer/archivist Morgan Geist (Metro Area, Storm Queen). "His humility is worlds away from what we're witnessing among today's so-called 'superstar' DJs."
And like a comet on an elliptical path across the cosmos, over the past year Larry Heard has returned into view. Last November saw a much-needed reissue of Fingers Inc.'s Another Side, considered among vocal house music's greatest full-length albums; and in January, Heard dropped Outer Acid, the first new EP of music under his Mr. Fingers alias in over a decade. Since then, he's also released remixes for modern funk purveyor Dâm-Funk but also for the notoriously noisy underground label, L.I.E.S. And that's his iconic "Mystery of Love" bass line powering "Fade," the closing track on Kanye West's The Life of Pablo. Last month, Heard even returned to the live circuit, performing at Dimensions Festival in Croatia; and in September, he is scheduled to do a series of shows in Australia as part of the Red Bull Music Academy. In a field where trends and technologies change every year and careers barely last a few singles, much less decades, what is it about the Larry Heard and touch that keeps his music evergreen and resonant for listeners new and old?
"I was surprised," Larry Heard said via telephone from his home in Memphis, about learning that one of rap's most notorious talents had sampled him. "Kanye debuted it at some New York fashion show last year and I got some texts right from the show. That's how quick I found out." While Heard is synonymous with Chicago, he's called Memphis home since 1997, moving away from his hometown so as to have more peace and quiet in his life.
"I grew up on the Southside, Roseland area," Heard said. "It's notorious, it's downright dangerous. We saw people get killed, to put it bluntly. It wasn't the most-friendly environment." Heard has roots in Mississippi on both sides, though his father, Jerrel Lloyd, was born in Chicago, and the family of his mother, Jo Ann Heard, relocated as part of the Great Migration. To say Larry grew up in a musical household would be an understatement. "My parents had a piano in the house and they actively played, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles, they all played piano," Heard said. "I came up thinking that every adult could play. Music was a centralized thing that the family hovered around. My whole tie to music springs out of 'family.'" When his father would leave for work (as a postal service worker, then as a Chicago policeman), Heard would delve into the family's vast record collection. "There's a weird magical thing attached to Sha Na Na for me, it crossed all boundaries," he recalls. "But the thing that really got my attention when my father brought home that first Funkadelic album. That was a big surprise for me and my brothers. We started to hear the bass lines rumbling through the wood of the house."
Whereas his brothers were all learning guitar, Larry, the second of five, transitioned to the drums, playing along to records by the likes of Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, and most of all, Rush's Neil Peart. Still, he went to work immediately after high school to help support his mother, ultimately winding up as a records analysis clerk and then a benefit authorizer for SSA. It was steady work that allowed him to save up for musical gear while giving him nights to play in local clubs and bars. By the early 80s though, Heard was anxious to get out from behind the drum kit and work on his own material, enabled by some newfangled gear. "The day I brought the Roland Jupiter 6 [synthesizer] and the Roland TR-707 drum machine home, I made 'Mystery of Love' and 'Washing Machine' that same day," he says.
Only, he wasn't quite sure what to do with the songs. "There were plenty of labels around: Mercury, Elektra, Warner Brothers, all these companies had satellite offices," he says. "As residents of Chicago, we got the pleasure of hearing everybody else's music, but we weren't participating. We had something we want to express, too." Initially, Heard wound up pressing up "Mystery of Love" himself.
Even while it was still being circulated on tape, the song began to get played at two of Chicago's most important clubs, Ron Hardy's Music Box and Frankie Knuckle's Warehouse. Though the latter was just a few blocks from Heard's day job, and he would walk past it every night, Larry never set foot in the original Warehouse.
"All I would see is the crowd of people outside at midnight," Heard said of the venue that gave house music its name. "[But] you're by yourself and this is Chicago. Cabrini-Green, the housing projects from the opening of Good Times, that's the area. Back in those days, that was skid row: lots of homeless, prostitution and pimping going on. It wasn't the friendliest area. My first thought was 'this could be a street gang.'"
It was only via his friend Tony Harris that Heard finally began to learn more about the new music powering Chicago's gay, Latino and African-American club scene. "Tony invited me to some party and as I came in, Robert Owens was playing the vinyl of 'Mystery of Love,' so I thanked him and we started chatting from there." Soon, he and Owens were getting together whenever possible to hash out musical ideas. "We both worked, Robert at a hospital, me at Social Security," Heard said. "Having no reference for songwriting, you just adlib. I had plenty of experience doing that in my jazz-fusion bands, so improvisation wasn't a scary thing to me. Even now, every time I go into the studio, I have no clue what's going to happen."
These adlibs began to coalesce into songs that formed the cornerstones of Finger Inc.'s Another Side, a collaboration between Heard, Owens and Ron Wilson. Anthems on the underground scene, they also began to receive airplay on urban radio. As house and acid and techno climbed the charts in the UK and the US, major labels became interested. A second Fingers Inc. album never came to fruition, in part because Owens relocated to New York City; though Larry says that, "for every song you heard from me and Robert, there's another 5-10 more that didn't get released" (as well as a track from Ron Wilson that predates "Bring Down the Walls" called "Chains"). Heard said he hopes to start releasing this tantalizing archival material through his own Alleviated label.
On the strength of the 1989 Mr. Fingers track, "What About This Love," featuring Heard's own vocals, Larry was signed to MCA; and when the label re-released the single in 1992, it climbed up to #2 on the U.S. Dance charts. Being on a major legitimized the sound, announcing the arrival of Chicago house on the pop spectrum, but the label didn't quite know what to do with Heard or his music. His early productions left an instant imprint on '90s dance music — with artists such as Blaze to Todd Terry adopting his smoother sounds — yet Heard hoped to broaden his horizons beyond house music. It was rumored that in the early '90s, Larry was slated to work with Sade, a project which sadly never came to fruition; yet albums like the two volumes of Sceneries Not Songs (in 1994 and '95) and Alien (1996) show him dabbling in 'quiet storm' R&B, Balearic downtempo, imaginary soundtracks, sleek fusion and extraterrestrial ambient. The range in styles was broad, though Heard's music remains as singular as a fingerprint.
Whether releasing music as Mr. Fingers, in conjunction with Owens and Wilson, or under an array of aliases, Larry's deft, poignant, warm touch on both synthesizer and drum machine was unlike most of his peers. "Be it a 10-minute sci-fi synth exploration from the late 90s, a jacking acid banger from the mid 80s, or a straight-up pop song with vocals, Heard ties together his love of modal jazz, R&B, pop experimentalism, new wave, techno and of course house, it's always wonderfully minimalistic," testifies Jordan Czamanski, a jazz-trained pianist and member of the techno outfits Juju & Jordash and Magic Mountain High. "Larry Heard is one of the few singular voices in the history of house/techno."
While techno producers envisioned dystopian futures and the "acid" sound of the Roland TB-303 synth emphasized cold, post-human aesthetics, Heard's productions were lyrical, gentle, full of soul. Label it soulful house or deep house, Heard's music is tactile, instantly identifiable, and indelibly human, regardless of the machines that helped render it. He's as likely to ponder the deepest reaches of the cosmos — on tracks like "Distant Planet," "25 Years From Alpha," or this year's "Qwazars" — as he is matters much closer to the heart. Take this Valentine's Day playlist, from deep house gatekeepers Dope Jams, who prescribe Larry Heard productions for every facet of love, from ecstasy to heartbreak.
"It's just one of those human subjects, relatable for any person in any place," Heard says of his penchant for penning love songs. "We as humans all know a little something about relationships and interacting with others." He says he takes his songwriting cues from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Rodney Franklin, but when I ask about his own love life, Heard grows demur. He's never been married and tells of different loves that never quite worked out in the end for various reasons. "Maybe it was my therapy on the back-end of these experiences to convey something about the subject matter," he said.
In recent years, he's found admirers in mainstream music, having remixed "Help Me Lose My Mind" by Disclosure, who are vocal fans, and Lana del Rey's "Video Games." But for the most part, Heard doesn't keep up with modern dance or pop trends. He admits that he doesn't listen to too much music at home ("I got music overload. The last thing I want to hear is more music. I get my daily dose as it is.). Even though he's most loved and praised for his dance music productions, Heard keeps his ears and heart open. "House isn't the only kind of music I'm interested in," he said. "I played R&B, rock, fusion, so why would I only be interested in house music?" His path means seeking something deeper than the genres into which such sounds get needlessly subdivided. As he added: "Music is music, no matter the style."