That squelchy, almost wet, tone. That rising, insistent, jagged pitch. There are few more instantly recognizable sounds in dance music than acid. Few more pervasive, either—house, techno, trance, ambient and dubstep have all felt acid's touch, and there's many an acid line that can be traced all the way back to its source. For example, Skrillex famously said he discovered Aphex Twin and Squarepusher's acid-laced '90s IDM tracks when he was 12. Those artists, in turn, were influenced by the influx of acid house tunes that shaped the UK's summer of love in the late '80s—the first of which came over from Chicago's house scene. A record called "Acid Tracks" started it all. Made in 1985 by a local group called Phuture, incredibly, acid might not have happened at all if Phuture's DJ Pierre hadn't messed around with a second-hand Roland bass synthesizer called the 303.
"Phuture to me are one of the most important act's in dance music history," says L-Vis 1990 of Night Slugs, who, along with LA label Fade to Mind, is hosting Phuture's first ever New York live set this Thursday. "The landscape of dance music would be totally different today had it not been for Phuture. Back in May, Bok Bok and I were lucky enough to play at the Sydney Opera house alongside them. I was literally blown away by their set! It's not often that an act gets me on the dancefloor after my set but these guys held me there til the bitter end. It was transformative. Their music transcends time and space."
Almost three decades on from inventing the acid sound, DJ Pierre spoke to me over the phone from Chicago about how he invented acid, where the 303 sound got its name, and why he thinks EDM fans need to learn their music history.
Where did the acid sound come from? [Phuture] did the first tweaking of acid. We had gotten this box called the 303, only because I’d seen this guy named Jasper with it. He had just a regular baseline playing, I thought “aw, that’s nice.” I said, “What’s making that sound?” He said, “This 303” and he then showed me the machine. I said, “Wow, we’ve really been looking for a keyboard module or something that could give us a good bass sound.” Spanky bought it used because you couldn’t get it new anymore, and he had it hooked up, running with the drum machine, but it wasn’t [working]. If you get one of those 303s it’s not going to have any baseline sounds in it, so you got to squeak and squack it till it makes some noise. He said he didn’t know what was wrong with it, how to program it right, so he said, “Could you figure it out?” So when I came over by it, I started twisting the knobs, seeing what they do, because that’s what I do: twist knobs. So I was doing that and we fell in love with the sounds it was making. We fell in love with how I was twisting the knobs with the beat. And then I started twisting them a certain way, and putting emotion and feeling behind it, and Spanky was like, “Yo Pierre, keep doing that, I like that.” I was like, “Yeah, this is something!” We were like, “Yo, that’s style.” We said forget trying to make a baseline, let’s program it like this and just twist the knobs. And so that’s what we did, you know.
How did you get the acid sound out there? I can’t give enough credit to Ron Hardy because once we finished it we were trying to figure out who would play this. We thought about all the DJs in Chicago that might be open to it and we could only come up with one, and that was Ron Hardy. He was the guy we listened to; we knew he played a lot of different sounds. Like, Frankie Knuckles—amazing DJ but he was strictly house, strictly piano, strings. So we took it to Ron, and Ron said he liked it and then, as the story goes, he dropped it four times. The first two times, people were like “What the heck is this?” The third time people were like, “Okay, this sounds alright, I guess.” Then the fourth time, people went crazy. So he literally broke the record. He could have played it twice and been like, forget it, these people don’t get it. But he got it, and he had the vision that it was something. So really, he’s very important. Almost as important as we are in the creation of acid and acid house, because he broke it and he made it a sound that the whole city of Chicago was singing.
The people named it: “Ron Hardy has this acid track." Everyone would be buzzing, asking what it was, including ourselves because it wasn’t called “Acid Tracks” when we gave it to him. So we were like clamoring to find out what was this new track. One day my friend said “I got a copy, I got a copy of Ron Hardy’s acid track!” And I said, “Let me hear it!” and when I heard it, I said, “That’s not Ron Hardy’s track! That’s our track! We made that track!” And he was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me! You didn’t make this track, this is Ron Hardy’s track.” I pulled out my cassette tape, I said, “I’ll prove it to you!” I always had my cassette tape with me, and I put it in, and then we played it and he heard the track from the beginning and he realized that we made it. I said, since everybody knows that’s the acid track, we’re just going to change the title to just “Acid Tracks”. And so that’s how that came about. And that was in ’85, but it didn’t come out until like ’86 or something. It was buzzing in the clubs for a while, but we didn’t know how to make a record, how to put it out at that time; we didn’t know anything about those things. Marshall Jefferson was performing “Move Your Body” at the Power House [in Chicago] and I wrote a note on a piece of paper—we were in the front of the stage—and I reached my hand up and I’m yelling for Marshall. He didn’t hear me, but [house producer] Curtis McClain was near the stage and he came over and grabbed the paper from me. It said: My name is DJ Pierre, I’m with the group called Phuture, and we made track called “Acid Tracks.” Can you help us get a record deal? [Laughs] I wrote my phone number on there. I kid you not, the very next day Marshall called me. There was a note on the fridge saying Marshall Jefferson called—my mom would put notes on the fridge—and I was thinking, who’s kidding around with me? But when I called, of course it was Marshall Jefferson and the rest is history in that regard.
How did the acid name come about? The reason I thought it was called acid was because I’d heard of acid jazz before and I'd heard of acid rock. I tend to have a very innocent way of looking at things, like sometimes things will go right over my head. I was like, acid makes a gritty sound. Like you know, you have battery acid, you’d always see the sign “acid” and then they show somebody pouring something out of a tube onto metal and be melting it. And I thought, okay, this thing is gritty. It’s like acidic! It’s a tough sound! So that’s what I thought. I was never exposed to drugs, I don’t drink, I don’t do any of that stuff, you know. So, I didn’t think of it as a drug. I didn’t even know there was a drug called acid. So, when I heard why it was really called that, I immediately wrote a track called “Your Only Friend,” to put on that same record, to kind of dispel the fact that Phuture is in support of the drug culture like that. I know you’ve heard that song, it went, I can make you cry for me, I can make you fight for me, I’ll make you steal for me, I can make you kill for me, and in the end I can be your only friend. Basically I was saying, listen, you’re doing this stuff and eventually your life will be torn down and all you’ll have is yourself and that drug. At the end of that song, I go, Take a whiff of me you’ll feel high, take a sniff of me, you’ll feel fine, a shot of me, I’ll make you fly, too much of me, I’ll make you die. I was just trying to explain something. But it didn’t even get across like that, people literally, in Chicago, would go get their drugs when that song came on. And I was thinking, Oh crap, you guys, I’m trying to tell you something.
Acid cuts through a lot of other sounds—it’s very visceral, so bodily. Why do you think that sound is so enduring? I think it’s so unique—you know how something just stands out? It tickles your ears, you know, it’s something. It just grabs you in a way no other sound does. Even dubstep, as crazy as that stuff sounds, has sounds that are connected to a previous instrument—it’s still copying something in some kind of way. With the 303, which was supposed to be copying a bass guitar, [the way we used it] doesn’t sound like any previous sound you’ve ever heard before. And you can only describe it as being acid. You can’t connect it to anything else. And I think that in itself is unique. I keep arguing the point that because of what we’ve done with the 303, the 303 should be considered an official new instrument—it needs to be classified like that.
I think since people have made all these clones of the 303, to me that’s just like other manufacturers making bass guitars or lead guitars, or pianos. They all have their own different sound, but its all mimicking a certain thing. So that’s my goal: to make acid an official new instrument such as like a guitar, and the 303 is probably going to be identified as the first one. Since it wasn’t geared to be that, I believe that our names need to be alongside it, in actually making it an official new thing, becaue Roland, which we had communication with, tried to take credit for it. But they can’t take credit for it, unless they made it to sound that way. So really, Phuture gets the credit and the 303 is just the tool we used to create acid on.
Phuture, left to right: Spanky, DJ Pierre and Rio.
How has acid shaped the electronic music landscape? I think it definitely shaped techno and trance, you know, especially techno. All the rougher sounds didn’t start coming about until after acid house blew up. It brought a different way of thinking into the house music scene. So, I think it influenced those things, and out of those things, I think dubstep came and trance. You’ve got the whole tougher, so-called EDM side—I think you could say the origins of that sound start from acid house and, you know, acid house stemmed from house music. It all stems from Chicago, to be honest. That’s why I don’t agree with people acting as though this whole EDM thing started a few years ago. EDM culture is not separate from house music. It’s fine if people want to call it EDM, but I do believe if people take on championing the whole EDM cause, they need to know their history so we’re not killing the origins of where this music started. People are starting to think it didn’t start in Chicago, that it started somewhere else. It started here!
One of the things that is often discussed in relation to music is whether it’s cultural conditions or technology that pushes musical evolution and genres along. What do you think with acid? Without trying to sound arrogant in any kind of way, it’s just a simple fact of me and my mental makeup. What I want to say is, as a kid, I always had a certain way of tinkering with things, a certain curiosity to always test the boundaries. At the age of eight I was fixing watches. My father had a drawer of all watches and I would go in there and tinker with things, unscrew things, and put them back together and try to fix them. It’s not like I had some training, but I just knew innately that it made sense to me. And you know, I think it could possibly have to do with, a certain… my family has a history of mental illness, So, I’m very close to that plight and I see how the brain can work differently. I do know I process things differently. Maybe it’s why I tend to look at things differently, and why I took the approach that I took with the 303. It’s not to say that at some point in time someone else wouldn’t have done that, but that machine was around for a while, and tons of thousands of people had it. No one thought to do that with it. I’m not saying that I’m a super genius but I do believe, just going out through music history, a lot of creative people who had a major impact on the music world were wired differently. Because of my family history, I think a little bit different. And fusing that with my love and curiosity for doing music is why I think [acid] happened. Now we gotta add Spanky in there. No one can program a drum beat like Spank. Together we both had a lot to do with the formation of this sound.
Looking at something from a different angle and finding new possibilities. When I think back about it, there’s no reason to think that [acid] would sound good. At that age, I didn’t see that. But now, having been in the business over thirty years and knowing what I know about music, I’m now thinking, “Ha, why in the world did I think that was music, or sounded good?” It’s like, you know when you first start to do something, you’re always thinking outside of the box. But the more knowledge you get, the more you don’t realize that you’re climbing in the box. The next thing you know, you’re in the box. And you’re like “Aw, how did I get in the box?”