Nathaniel Pierre Jones was forever tinkering around with electronic devices and mending watches when he was a kid growing up in Chicago.
“I just naturally had a curious mind, you know?” he tells DJ Mag. “I wanted to find out what made the watch tick. So I would take broken watches apart, fix them and put them back together. Got very good at it, too. So much so that I was repairing watches at like eight or nine-years-old. Crazy thinking about it now.”
Pierre thinks it's that sort of curiosity that shows up in his productions. “Just wanting to do something in a way that no-one else was doing,” he says. “Trying to be innovative, always wondering where I could go with what I was working on. That was always the question.”
When he was old enough, Pierre started going to Music Box in Chicago — the legendary proto-house night helmed by DJ Ron Hardy in the early '80s. “This was the first time I heard disco/'70s R&B records mixed together with house tracks,” he recalls.
“This experience was the first time I saw what the full culture of house music was. I discovered that it was more than just basslines, pianos, beats and vocals. It was a living, breathing culture of mixed-background individuals who came together to form a certain unique look. It was the way people danced, how they dressed and the hairstyles they had.”
This other-worldly experience led the young Pierre and pal Spanky to form an electronic band. “I was happy just DJing, but Spanky kept after me saying, 'We can make our own music, man! We can form a group and do this and that'.”
Pierre was round at his friend Jasper G's house one day, listening to a track he'd made, and heard a unique sound coming out of the speakers. “I asked what he used to create that sound, and he said the Roland 303,” Pierre remembers. “He was using it to function as Roland intended, but immediately that light went off for me and I thought, 'If we got that machine, we can do some damage'. This is just from hearing it, I didn't even know what it looked like at the time.”
Pierre told Spanky he was in, he wanted to make music (“Yo! Lets do this!”), and Spanky bought a 303 from a second-hand shop for 40 dollars. “Spanky got it and started messing around the same day,” says Pierre. “At one particular session at his house, Spank had a beat going and I just got on the knobs and started twisting them. We kept going, man. We had a jam session for over an hour. We knew there was nothing out there like what we were coming up with, and we knew what it did for us on the inside. We knew that there was something there that spoke.”
Spanky, Pierre and other Phuture pal Herb J started getting alien voodoo out of the machines, jamming, with Pierre being the one twiddling the Roland TB-303. “Spank programmed a beat, and we just went with it,” Pierre recalls. “I got on the knobs and Spanky kept saying, 'Yeah, that's it! Keep doing that'. We all knew, man. It was natural and pure.
“How long did 'Acid Tracks' take to make from start to finish? At creation, we were there for over an hour just playing around. Once we came up with 'Acid Tracks', we let the machine run and kept twisting knobs. I can't remember how long but we were there for a few. Just rocking with it.”
From its initial beat, cowbell groove and whistle sounds, the acidic squelchiness from the 303-messin' comes in around the one-minute-twenty mark and never really leaves the arena. Undulating, twisting and writhing like a nest of synthetic vipers, it was like nothing else that had ever been made in musical history up until that point in the mid-'80s.
The guys immediately gave the cut to Ron Hardy, and he played it four times that night at Music Box. “It cleared the floor the first time and second time,” Pierre remembers. “The third time people acted as though he didn't play it a first or second. They acted as though they were hearing this track for the first time, and they were like 'This is hot!' It was as if the music infiltrated every single mind in the Music Box that night because by the fourth time, people were going bananas. Literally — it was surreal.”
Ron Hardy began hammering 'In Your Mind' (the name Phuture had given the track) every set, and club-goers in Chicago began referring to it as 'Ron Hardy's Acid Track'. “Ron was so respected that people would naturally associate tracks with him,” says Pierre. “So it was the streets that labelled it 'Ron Hardy's Acid Tracks'. We were smart enough to flow with it. Just respectfully removed Ron Hardy and kept 'Acid Tracks'.
The Phuture guys knew that their record became popular in Chicago when it was released on Trax Records in 1987, but had no idea that it had helped kick off the acid house revolution in the UK and beyond. “We thought it was just popular in Chicago, I thought we were just on a par with the other guys we looked up to,” Pierre says. “We had no idea it started a cultural movement outside of the US.”
They got a $1500 payment from Trax, and that was all the money they ever got from Larry Sherman's imprint — who kept them in the dark about sales every step of the way. “That's all I got, yes,” says Pierre. “But in the end it kick-started our careers, so I never look back and complain. I state the fact that Trax is the most crooked label on the planet. But good came of it. Phuture was born, and DJ Pierre was here to stay. Keep it moving is the motto.”
'Acid Tracks' was famed for dancers on hallucinogens completely having their minds blown, but Pierre and his mates weren't into drugs at all. To counter the thought that they “may have been pushing a drug culture with 'Acid Tracks'”, Phuture made 'Your Only Friend'... about cocaine. “It was to highlight the reality of the lifestyle some people get caught up in,” Pierre explains. “Some can handle it, but most can't. So in the END it will be their only friend if you pursue that lifestyle.”
Pierre says there's a case for saying that acid house started that night in Music Box when Ron Hardy played 'Acid Tracks' four times, and that he's happy that assorted DJs like Skrillex and Steve Aoki give him the props for creating the very first acid house record. “The newer school and capitalistic ventures tend to try and bypass that fact,” he says.
As the dance scene kicked off internationally, Pierre moved to New York and developed the Wild Pitch house sound of slowly layering up tracks. Phuture became Phuture 303, and have recently got the original line-up back together for a tour and an EP.
Roland, meanwhile, have been talking to Pierre about making him some sort of ambassador for their company, and as a touring DJ he's busier than ever. Experimentation in the studio is still important to him, though — the same experimentation that he utilised when messin' with the 303 nearly 30 years ago. “I aim for that unforced state of mind when I'm in the studio now — that place where things just happen,” he says. “It's not a heady space. It's a very spiritual and creative space.”