"Was I born to do this or just learned? I’m sure it was both."
There are few people you can truly endow with the title legend - Chez Damier, although we’re sure his humility would have him disagree, falls into that bracket.
During the 1980’s a sheer passion for music paired with a whole-hearted initiative to share that love with others led to Chez, along with a couple of friends, opening Detroit club the Music Institute at a mere 21 years old. But this was but one small achievement he would chart throughout his fruitful career.
He played an important role in Kevin Saunderson’s iconic KMS Records and shaped a musical legacy alongside Chicago producer Ron Trent, including the conception of Prescription, one of the most respected house music labels ever. After Trent and Chez parted ways, Trent took control of Prescription while Chez looked after sub-label, Balance, before taking some time away from the music industry.
2009 marked his triumphant return, and over the last seven years, Chez has once again enriched the lives of dance music fans with a string of projects, dates and festival appearances.
We felt it fitting to catch up with the man himself to talk about his rich career and the experiences that got him to where he is today.
You, Alton Miller and George Baker were just 21 when the Music Institute opened, that is a very ambitious move at that age. Can you tell us about the early days? Did you have a clear concept in before you opened it?
This was an amazing time for us because George had just come home from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Alton had landed a great job at The Ford Motor cooperation, and I was just arriving from Lansing Michigan, by way of Chicago, from being a retail clothing merchandiser, and we were all excited about dance music. Our concept was very clear based on the memories and the dance floor experiences. With not wanting to sound full of pride, we were the underground elite of Detroit.
So were any of you particularly business minded or did the desire to open the Music Institute stem purely from your combined love of music?
Our desire to open a club was not based on business, but more so a passion and service to people like ourselves who simply love music and dancing. It was made of what each of us had seen from Chicago, New York, to Detroit.
What was your musical background like? Did you have any form of musical training?
I started taking music writing in the 6th grade. I was raised by my grandparents in a very musical household and come from a line of artist talents in my family. Was I born to do this or just learned? I’m sure it was both. I am not an amazing musician, but with my writing and recording engineering background, I learned to be creative.
You played an important role in Kevin Saunderson’s label, KMS. How did you first become involved with it?
During the time of the Music Institute, Fridays were our New Generation night in which we had Derrick May, Juan Atkins, D-Wynn and Kevin Saunderson as our rotating DJs. When Kevin was working on the first Inner City album, I had taken a track of Kevin’s that Derrick May brought to our DJ booth, added my twist on it and played it at the club. Kevin heard it and wanted to use the idea for a song on the "Big Fun" album, which later became “Set Your Body Free”. After the Music Institute Kevin invited me to do some A&R for KMS.
Your musical partnership with Ron Trent seemed very special, something that couldn’t be replicated. When and how did you first meet? And what made you realise that you could work together?
The man who A&R this relationship was house music legend Carl Bias of Master C&J. Carl and I were friends and I would call him up when I came to visit back home in Chicago. Carl kept on insisting that I meet a friend of his, so on a visit back home Carl took me to Ron’s house and from there I invited Ron to Detroit and New York. The rest is history.
Did you find that there were big crossovers in yours and Ron's influences and vision? Or did you both bring something different to the table?
Ron and I both brought something to the table. By the time we had met we both had big underground tracks, his being “Altered States” and mine being “Can You Feel It”. We both just had some different life experiences. He was working at Club House records as a protectionist and producer, I was working at KMS as studio manager and producer, so it just made sense that there was something special to gain from our meeting and working together.
Your joint ventures gave way to Prescription Records, considered by many as one of the greatest house labels of all time. What was the original incentive behind the imprint? Did you have a vision, especially in terms of the artists you wanted to involve and the sound you wanted to represent?
When we created Prescription the idea was to have an alliance with other artists whom we felt would be good to work with. There were not that many at the time, but going to visit a friend of mine, the late Romanthony, I needed someone who would have the passion we did but not necessarily the sound we had. This is why the first record was not myself and Ron, but Romanthony, then we would release our own music. However shortly after this, we decided that there was a whole other level of artists that I did not personally want to miss out on and wanted to invest in, thus was the birth of “Balance Recordings”. Unfortunately shortly after, Ron and I would go our separate ways, each leaving with a part of what we had created - Ron with Prescription and me with Balance. The children are all grown up now LOL.
Do you think that you were at an advantage as producers because you'd spent time in Chicago, New York and Detroit? Did it allow you to marry a variety of different influences?
Yes, it was, but I did not understand until recent years when I had to come to realize that none of the cities would claim me as a home team player. But thank God for the home town of “International” which is the city as a DJ/Artist I am truly from.
Do you think historically many people ennoble music from Detroit and Chicago? And that it could, in turn, impact a listener’s consumption of dance music?
I think music is powerful from any style, and the fact that it will outlive all of us still amazes me. Yes I do think it will impact consumption until the end of time.
The artwork for Prescription's releases are all very different, you wouldn't know they were from the same label even. What, if any, was the reason behind that?
Well the reason behind that was as a young person working in the record shop at age 11, I would always remember a record by its cover and artwork and I guess that stayed with me. Even today with the Balance family of music (Balance Music, Balance Alliance, Courtesy of Balance and Inner Balance) we wanted to make every release feel special.
You went off the radar towards the end of the 90's for several years and you weren't DJ’ing during that time. What reignited that spark? And did you feel apprehensive re-entering a world where, predominantly technology, has very much changed the approach to DJ’ing?
It was an invite to Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) that gave me the spark, and it was Paris that started the fire. No I was not afraid because I had no intention of ever returning back to the industry on the level, but seeing that what I had started was not completed I feel like I am at an amazing time in my life. I love sharing inspiration but now I get to do it in person and by appointments only - that is amazing for me. The second time around is truly so much better than the first time.
Finally, you have some festival appearances this summer and a book about the history of dance music in the pipeline, but anything else on the horizon we should know about?
I have been working on a book and an album project with my friend Ben Vedren under the name “Heart 2 Heart”, and if Gods will, I just want to always be able to reach, teach and inspire people. I feel like I have to continue to share the joy of life and of music as my master Frankie Knuckles had started in me when I was 16 years old. I am on a very thankful and humbled journey.
Chez Damier plays Kehakuma at Studio338 this weekend alongside Jeremy Underground, Italojohnson and more. Tickets are still available. He will also be in Malta at Groovefest 29th April – 1st May. Visit the website for more details