We've got a little bit of a massive industry insider today for our amazing readers. We sat down with Rachael Cain, aka Screamin’ Rachael, who's the President and Co-founder of legendary Chicago house label, Trax Records. Trax is the premeire original house label, established first in 1984 and the place where some of today's biggest legends started releasing their work, including Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard, Jamie Principle, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Robert Owens, DJ Pierre, Sterling Void and many others. In fact, the label is so influential that i-D magazine once claimed there would be no genre definitions like "‘Jack’, ‘Acid’ and ‘House’" without the esteemed label.
We sat down with the incredible legend to learn more about being surviving the music business through the years!
How did you start your career in the electronic music business?
I started out as a punk rocker who just happened to do illegal all ages parties at the Space Place in Chicago with my band Screamin’ Rachael and Remote. We were down the street from Frankie Knuckles “Warehouse” and very near to Ron Hardy’s "Music Box”. Even though we were in close proximity to them at the time, the city was quite segregated but these underground all ages shows brought kids from all different backgrounds and neighborhoods together. I was a disco sucks person and as a kid historically “The Disco Demolition” really put that sound to death in my city and I was glad because I regarded it as over produced crap! Interestingly enough kids from Frankie and Ron’s party made it to Space Place where I met Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence. They convinced me to sing this song “Fantasy", though it wasn’t my style. “Fantasy" was actually the first recorded house record played on Radio. “On and On” was the first on wax though…When I heard Farley Jackmaster Funk of the Hot Mix Five play “Fantasy" on the air it was a revelation, and then when Frankie played it at the club I was hooked by the power the music had over the people… My life was changed forever. And besides House wasn’t disco, in fact it had a lot in common with the stripped down raw punk I loved, so I became a House Head for life!
What is the best part of the business?
The best part of the business is how it comes together as a community and changes people’s lives around the world with music. House music is much more than business to me because it erases the differences between people on the dancefloor. There is a power to unify that I experience every time I DJ. Like for instance when I played on the Trax Tour at Fauna Primavera in Chile. There are no language or cultural barriers and the feeling is so incredible! The amount of love and respect that I experience is something money can’t buy! Also through the years the friends I’ve made around the world in the industry have totally supported my dreams and vision. We are just releasing the album “I Love NYC” which my friend Tyler Stone curated and all my long time New York Friends, Michael Musto, Johnny Dynell, Carmelo Carone, and lots of others donated tracks for, to benefit Youth Communication, an organization in Chicago, now going into its 40th year, dedicated to giving urban youth a voice. Trax started in Chicago when we were all kids so I feel a tremendous responsibility to give back and everybody on the album is there with me 100%. In fact, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” which is on the album, I did with Co-Still and Sinbad Wicked, Chicago Hip Hop royalty and ex-gang members, both who wanted to be a part of it. It’s their first House project and they still mentor Chicago teens in gang territory. I can’t explain in words how much I’ve gained from living this life through the sense of helping and inspiring others, with like-minded friends who mean everything to me…
What are the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges in the industry is the industry itself, especially in view of how rapidly everything is changing, including new laws every day! My company was one of the first to go digital and signed with a small company called CDuctive which was later bought by Universal and became eMusic. At the time we could still sell CD’s and were selling large quantities of vinyl independently of them. Thank God I saw the writing on the wall! Many companies went bankrupt soon after because it took years to catch up and actually be able to support a business that way. Another really great challenge is getting together a great team. You need a great distributer, great publishers, a great booking agency. And then there are people who only look for the glamour. YOU NEED PEOPLE WITH VISION WHO BELIEVE IN YOUR MISSION. Start small - when I was reorganizing I only had 2 people, Jorge and Big Mark. Avoid people who are full of themselves and have no idea how much work it takes and how patient you must be to succeed. These days streaming is taking over and many artists know how difficult it is to live on the small amount of pennies made that way… Keep evolving and looking for what is coming up next. I’m working with a company on a very new concept, so as soon as that happens there may be another exciting form of revenue for the music industry. There is also such a large glut of music out there so many people don’t know where to start. I am so grateful to have built a brand people trust and love enough to let us expand with great new ideas and sounds like the Hip House cut “Some Other Time” and the experimental “Athon”. Its challenging but never rest on your laurels. Keep evolving.
What career advice would you recommend to someone else wanting to get into the industry?
The career advice I would give someone starting off is do it for the right reasons. If you are going into this to be a superstar DJ or for the fame and riches, things are not like back in the day where big advance checks were cut. Do this because you love music and could not see yourself doing anything else. Be prepared to work long and hard, sometimes for little or no money. Get an internship somewhere that you believe in and work your ass off to prove yourself. No one will hire you without experience so break in however you can. Back in the day DJ’s would carry crates and assist other DJ’s to learn. This is not a business for the meek sometimes you have to push your way in but do it politely and with respect. Do not think one week you’re an intern and next you’re a music mogul. Be prepared to pay serious dues. Also learn as much about every phase of the industry you can. From performing, to cataloging, social media, setting up dates, recording, anything you can do to help. Nothing should be too large or small to at least give your best shot. I’ve swept floors, but I’ve also performed for hundreds of thousands. I did not get here easily and neither will you… Sure there are those one in the million stories but most of them don’t have staying power because when all is said and done to be really successful you must learn to wear many hats.
As the electronic music industry continues to grow, what do you think the secrets to longevity in this business will be?
The secret to longevity is to be yourself, do what you believe and don’t let others discourage you. You must believe with your whole heart in everything you do. People used to tell me all the music from Trax sucked. In fact many bigwigs said we would never make it and they laughed at us. To this day I have my detractors because as I keep expanding what I’m working on and evolving I still hear never, no how and no way. That’s total bullshit, the ability to believe, change and learn are our strongest assets. When they say forget it, I say Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now! So step up to the dance floor or step out of the way. Maybe some people would advise you to go corporate, but me NEVER!
Did you start off as a fan of electronic music and then became involved on the business side, or did business bring you into the electronic music world? Describe that process.
My involvement in the electronic music business was an evolutionary progress. I was always very creative for as long as I can remember singing, acting, painting, writing, dancing, and basically anything involving the freedom that creativity affords you. I believe all of it has served me very well in my journey into the business. I don’t think you can be a success at anything unless you understand it and enjoy it. Once I felt the power of House music in Chicago and began working with DJ’s and producers in studios, I found my home. When I moved to New York for my contract with Streetwise Records it was there that I meet Russell Simmons, Gene McFadden, Rick Rubin, Nile Rogers and others who intrigued me. I saw that there was a much bigger picture and I wanted to be a part of that. Everything really changed however when I met Sylvia Robinson at Sugarhill Records. Sylvia did it all, from performing and writing to being the first person to bring Hip Hop to the world. I learned from her and told myself that one day I would do the same for House music. She made me realize that I didn’t have to give up DJing, writing, singing and my creative side to take House music to the world and run a label.
What does electronic music mean to you?
I feel that my generation, the House music generation was the first to be computer and machine driven. Though we sometimes used live instruments machines like the Roland 303, and the 909 kick drum, and even the way we used synthesizers and keyboards to create sounds was a new approach. I remember when I created my track “Ecstasy". I send everyone away and just embraced the equipment myself It was a breakthrough for me. It was not punk or live. I recently visited East West Studio in LA where Sinatra and many had recorded. The manager reminded me that today’s music was all numbers 0’s and 1’s but still there is such warmth and magic in it! House music is my life! Though some may disagree with me I believe it is the mother of the entire movement…
What cities/regions do you think electronic dance music is best thriving?
As far as regions and cities where the music is thriving, that’s a tough question. It all depends on what you consider to be important. I see the largest shows and most appreciative crowds in Europe. Cities like Paris, Berlin, Ibiza, Amsterdam of course… But I believe it is thriving in New York, Chicago, small town America, and even villages everywhere. It’s the youth culture of today! Kids are making their own music everywhere, and they are thriving.
If you weren’t in the music biz, what would you be doing?
If I was not in the music business I would still be working in a creative field. I love movies and television. Whatever I do it will be something that brings joy to people. Making people smile, and giving them a time to forget their problems, and unite them together. I would also love to work with teens. They seem to be the most at risk group, so giving them hope through creativity and mentorship means a lot to me.
Where do you see the most opportunity in the EDM industry (i.e. Music, experience, nightclubs, behind the scenes, etc) and why?
Where I see the most opportunity in the industry is a very tough question. If you advise a performer that he will do better behind the scenes it won’t work because he’ll be miserable. I work with many interns from colleges who are in the process of finding themselves. I advise learning as much about every phase as possible to see what it is that interests you. One place that I do see a need for is online promotion and SEO. Every label is looking for people who can help with that. The reason it’s needed is that it is still a relatively new frontier. Ultimately though you must be great at what you do to succeed. Therefore, you must love it, live it and breathe it. I’ve seen people stuck on one part of the industry but by getting the chance to try different things sometimes they change their course completely. I’ll just use the old adage here; “Opportunity is what you make it”.
I LOVE NYC compilation album is out now on Trax Records via Bandcamp.