Ask anyone that calls house music “techno” what they think of the average house DJ, and the odds are good that the person will lodge a complaint about “everything sounding the same.” It is hard to avoid such characterizations by the uninitiated to the world of house music. DJs strive to make transitions seamless. House songs use small, repeated samples from other music. And the pulsating, constant beat that makes many move also is a tough sell for those not impressed by what DJs do.
In a style of music where repetition, structure and order are crucial, Soul System smoothly breaks the mold, winning respect from the house fans and converting the doubters into dancers.
Hailing from the Fox Valley area of Wisconsin, Soul System is a four-piece live house act that, in the short amount of time they have been together, has gained recognition and admiration all over the Midwest.
The Soul System recipe starts with DJ Michael John playing deep house music on a pair of turntables. From there, live drums and percussion are added to the mix courtesy of Chris Scheer. Mark Martin’s keys and Steve Cooper’s sax work complete the quartet.
Oddly enough, taking John’s original drummer out of the mix is what led to the current incarnation of Soul System.
John started out DJing 10 years ago, referring to his initial time behind the decks as “the standard, not too serious, rave-influenced hobby.” As he became more serious about house music and DJing, John decided to add to his performances. While working on original tracks, John decided not to fall back on the standard process of running samples through computer programs. He brought in Cooper to play saxophone, and after creating several tracks with Cooper and Martin, the trio decided to perform live.
At a Halloween show in 2004, the trio was going to play accompanied by one of John’s studio collaborators on the bongos and congas. “Well, he got drunk and passed out halfway through the show in the DJ booth,” John said. “Chris [Scheer] happened to be there and asked if he could sit in. We said yes and we’ve been gigging as a four-piece ever since.”
Those gigs have been extremely well received wherever Soul System plays. Even other DJs have great amounts of admiration for the performance. “They fill the widely-untapped gap of live dance music,” said John Mork, half of the Chicago house DJ duo The Sound Republic. “People just connect more with a horn in their face than they do to a horn on wax.”
For DJ John, it comes down to something else.
“The energy,” John said. “The guys I play with communicate well in real time and some of the things that come out of them live are amazing. It has refreshed my view on music and made me love it for what it is again and what we can do with it.”
In fact, what Soul System is doing with music has even had some negative effects on other performances.
“We made the mistake of having Soul System ‘open’ for us once and learned that DJs following a live act means being universally hated and bemoaned for sucking so bad,” Mork said, only half-jokingly.
Champaign DJ duo J-Philip and Mertz will open the show on Friday. Mertz is eagerly anticipating the chance, despite the possibility of “being universally hated” in comparison to Soul System.
“For me, the most important thing is that the Champaign music scene learns that house music can be stretched in so many directions,” Mertz said. “I think people who aren’t necessarily impressed by DJs will be dancing on Friday night, and the people who already love house music will go crazy when they hear Soul System.”
For John, playing with Soul System has reinvigorated him as a DJ.
“I came to a point were I started getting tired of DJs moving to the corner of the clubs. House music rarely has a place on the stage in today’s age,” John said. “DJs are seldom looked at as artists. I guess I just got tired of seeing the art of being a DJ becoming an accessory rather than a feature.”
“Mark, Chris and Coop are amazing musicians to work with. I find myself with a big smile on my face just listening to them during our sets,” John said.
Soul System is currently working on more original material, and has a release coming out on Housetown Records that includes a remix by one of John’s original house heroes, Johnny Fiasco. John is also planning on losing the turntables during Soul System shows and instead using production software and hardware samplers to create beats in real time.
It is that constant pushing of their sound that not only makes each Soul System performance unique, but also pushes the genre of house as well.
“I started doing this because I wanted people to pay attention to house music again,” John said. “It is working for us now and when it fails, we will come up with something new. I think the four of us love this music and this culture enough to reinvent ourselves as we go.”
But just where will that reinvention take Soul System?
“I’m not really sure how far it’ll go,” John said. “I do know that if I’m 40 and playing house music in clubs down the street or across the globe, I will be happy.”
Soul System performs Friday night at Cowboy Monkey. J-Philip & Mertz open. Cover is $3 and the performance starts at 10 p.m.