“The Originator” of House Music Reveals the Truth About DJing

By Jesse Saunders


As a young DJ in Chicago in the early 1980s, I was never satisfied with the status quo. I was always looking to innovate new styles of mixing and turntable instrumentation to enhance the listener/dancer’s experience. Eventually I added drum machines and a synthesizer to the live mix, which led to producing the world’s first house music record — “On & On,” released on my label Jes Say Records in January of 1984.

This record marked the beginning of the movement known as house music, the foundation of electronic dance music. Thirty years later, we celebrate the success of what began with a passion for beats, curiosity about technology and the motivation to make people move.

Z-Factor band circa 1983. My first song ever written, “Fantasy,” was released with this group!

I began my career as a teenager and worked my way up, forming a DJ crew with my brother Wayne Williams, who is now senior VP at RCA Records. Along the way we recruited turntable brothers and named ourselves the Chosen Few DJs. As we progressed, I built our speakers and coffins [equipment cases] in my mother’s living room, much to her chagrin. This enabled our crew to remain above the curve occupied by other DJs — we didn’t have to rent equipment and we were the best mixing DJs in Chicago. Other DJs in the city saw what we were doing and tried to emulate the concept.

In the decades since, I’ve lived a lot, learned a lot, traveled the world and spread the rhythm and love of house music. Along the way I invested in bringing a real performance into my DJ sets. Here are some of my favorite stories.


The Art of the DJ

My early days as a DJ back in the 1980s were some of my favorite times in my career, because I got to play all styles of music from Italo disco to house and from new wave to reggae. I tied them all together with my trusty Roland 808 drum machine. This was the beginning of electronic dance music as we know it today. But I had one big problem — I was super shy. I couldn’t even look at the crowd! All I did was look at the turntables and the mixer.

A young Jesse Saunders as resident DJ at Chicago’s premier club The Playground circa 1983

I recall when I was the resident DJ at The Playground in Chicago — where I played for 1,500 kids every Friday and Saturday — reaching a point where I had the most amazing revelation. As I was going through all the technical aspects of DJing, I had no idea that a lot of girls would just stand in front of the DJ booth and stare at me. When I finally looked up, I realized that I had absolutely nothing to be shy about. Girls love DJs. From that moment on I stood tall in my skills and embraced the attention that a DJ commands.

I remember playing MayDay in Berlin, Germany for the first time back in 2000. I closed it out following Jeff Mills, Carl Cox, Marusha and WestBam. Talk about being scared. Not because each one my peers is an amazing, legendary DJ, but because they all played fast, hard techno! Now I play a very diverse cross section of styles of electronic dance music, but never hard techno. As a matter of fact, WestBam — one of the founders of Mayday — was very adamant that he wanted me to play whatever I felt.

ART of the DJ live in Arcata, California in May, 2014

Well, going from 145 BPM to 125 BPM is a huge jump for any style, but I was up for the challenge. As I played my first track and watched the ecstasy-induced crowd go from a frenzy to a cool groove, my spirit relaxed. The process took about five minutes, but as I looked at WestBam and saw him nod “I told you so,” it was the most amazing feeling. Further proof that all styles of music are universal. It was definitely one of my most memorable sets of all time.

In 2010 I started incorporating live visual elements into my sets to enhance the experience. I remember the first time I utilized the Roland Visual Sampler system and ran my documentary “The Real Story” at King King in Los Angeles. The crowd was fascinated because I was DJing, but the visuals were telling my story at the same time. They didn’t know whether to dance or to watch. Having that kind of control over a crowd is stimulating, to say the least.

The 2014 Chosen Few DJs event — the largest 100% pure house music celebration in the world, boasting over 50,000 in attendance — was my favorite by far. My performance utilized my own edits of house favorites and new tracks blended together. I even had a hype (wo)man in my homie, the incomparable, beautiful, talented and sexy LisaRaye!

LisaRaye and me at the Chosen Few event 2014

I’m not a big fan of using rotary mixers, so I had the sound man put in a Pioneer DJM-900 so I could do my secret mix tricks. Also the CDJ 2000s were placed high up on a specially-constructed DJ booth, and I had to uncomfortably reach to the top to find tracks and mix them. Thank God I’m tall enough to reach and I’m adaptable enough to make it work. During the set, no one knew all that but me. I blasted 50,000+ people on that closing set and left them wanting more — truly memorable!

I stopped playing records in 2003 when Final Scratch was introduced. Being a techie and always on the edge of innovation, I immediately signed on for them to sponsor my 2004 tour. Not having to carry records anymore was a blessing. However, being the first generation guinea pig led to inherent problems of its own. None of my opening DJs were using the technology and calibration was always an issue. Just when I’d get it working right at sound check, the opening DJs would knock the calibration off in their sets using regular records. So by the time I got on, I would be lucky to have one turntable working properly. This led me to back everything up on CD so I’d always be prepared.

The last straw was a particular gig at Seattle’s EMC (Experience Music Project), built and innovated by none other than Microsoft founder Paul Allen. When the Final Scratch software crashed, I ended up unplugging the computer totally and DJing my first set on CDJs. In the years since, I’ve graduated to USB drives which makes the business or performances even more versatile and efficient. I’ll never look backwards — always progressing forwards.


The Business of the DJ

In this digital, social media-driven world that we inhabit, it’s a little harder to build the kind of success that top DJs have achieved. Having said that, it’s also easier to reach the people who can make you a success because of social media.

The new and improved me in 2015

Innovation and a mastery of technology are the foundations that any aspiring DJ should build upon. I never worried about things because I had a feeling in my spirit that everything would work out the way I wanted it to. I just saw things differently than others did. Where most would say “I don’t know what I want to be,” I wrote in my high school yearbook that I would “never have a 9 to 5” and would be “the world’s greatest DJ!”

The business of it all was finessed from a point of view that it would happen “by any means necessary.” There was no way I was taking no for an answer. When I came across some who would stand in my way, I either went around them… or through them! I come from a family of entrepreneurs and I was taught this at an early age.

Having more of a creative gene than a business one early on, I was a bit more passive, but I quickly learned that luck means: preparation and timing leading to success. As the doors once closed started to open, I became more shrewd and calculated about my path to success. I always did thorough due-diligence and research before I proceeded towards my goals.

I’ve used agents through the years, but I find my best bookings have come directly to me. You see, unfortunately, there are many agents out there who have their own agenda and are not vested in helping you build your career. Not all agents are like this, but there are many.

Jesse’s Gang circa 1985. My touring band had the #1 hit “Real Love” which topped the charts!

If you do use agents, please be sure to thoroughly go over the contracts that they are sending to promoters on your behalf. Be sure to have your contracts tight and be sure your rider includes everything that you need to perform — and that it gets signed along with the agreement. This includes type of equipment, airlines and hotels that you prefer, food that you eat or don’t eat, airport pickup info and transfers, etc. This is important because when you get off the plane, the last thing you want have to deal with is what is going to happen — it should already be secured.

The best approach is to treat everyone with respect no matter who they are. As the saying goes “you see the same people when you’re going up as you are coming down.” Every journalist, promoter or fan has said the same thing to me: “I thought you were gonna be an asshole!” Why? “Because all the other celebrity DJs usually are.” They think bad behavior goes with the territory.


Lesson 1: Don’t burn any bridges

Just because you are the hottest up-and-coming DJ doesn’t mean you can treat people as if your shit doesn’t stink! Always remember that music is universal and its main ingredient is the ability to touch the listener’s soul. At the end of the day, it’s really not about you. It’s all about the music.

Don’t get caught up in planning a set or pre-programming a set. This may get you noticed, but once you get to a certain level you will be looked down upon. Hone your skills and be a real DJ who can manipulate a crowd by understanding how to read them and give them what they want.

Lesson 2: Don’t let technology be your crutch

If you’re using [software/hardware controllers] Serato or Traktor, stop looking at the screen and using the waveform and/or automix perform for you. People pay to see you actually perform! That said, there’s nothing wrong with using the modern tools available to us. Personally I am way more comfortable with technology than I am with the “old school” techniques of DJing.

Lesson 3 : Stay relevant, keep your brand current

My favorite picture from my 30 years of House Music tour

Remember, social media is king these days. You can control your destiny if you control your followers and keep it personal with them, so they stay interested. Keep new releases and productions coming out every few months. Start your own label if you have to. If you’re lucky enough to perform consistently over a five to ten year period, you must learn to reinvent yourself. There is a new generation turning 18 or 21 and they probably won’t be familiar with you. Foresee the trends and make your own way so that you cannot be duplicated.


I hope these thoughts on the art and business of DJing has touched your soul. I’ve lived this and I continue to implement these principles towards new goals, and so can you. I’ve been around for a while, but I look forward to taking the art of the DJ to new heights for many years to come. Thank you for coming along on my journey that never ends…


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Follow Jesse Saunders on Twitter @JesseSndrs
JesseSaunders.com | soundcloud.com/JesseSaunders | facebook.com/TheRealJesseSaunders

Purchase my book “House Music…The Real Story”
New book coming soon
“In Their Own Words” (Preview)

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