K’Alexi is certainly proper house music’s most prolific exponent at the moment, with no qualms about declaring himself the Acid King on his latest 12-inch of the same name. For the first time, he is in complete control of his destiny, after starting his K Klassik imprint to cope with the prolific torrent of top-notch house music ejaculating from his creative loins.
Once again it’s time to jack but also about time this master of smouldering beat sizzle and acid catharsis steps up to claim his rightful place astride house music’s bulging pantheon.
However, speaking from his Berlin apartment one early April afternoon, Shelby’s mood is coloured by the tragic, unexpected death of his friend and mentor Frankie Knuckles, who he had known from his childhood.
“My friend just died,” he sighs as we start our chat. “It’s a really sad thing to know that he’s just gone like that; taken away with no warning. Sometimes I’m okay but it’s hard. The odd thing is that made me put everything all into perspective. That was just a crazy eye-opener. Smell the roses while you’re still living.
“Me and Frankie were talking last Christmas and I said, ‘I hope you’re proud of me doing what I’ve been doing’. He sent me back a long message saying ‘I’ve always been proud of you, and seen what you’ve been doing in the world’. I was so touched by that.”
Frankie’s passing leaves house music without its two founding father DJs, Music Box maverick Ron Hardy having passed away in 1992. Both were highly influential on the young K’Alexi growing up in Chicago, obsessed with Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and Prince. By the age of 12 he was a regular at Knuckles’ Warehouse and Hardy’s Music Box, witnessing the former homaging uplifting disco-descended spirituality while the latter pushed the outer limits and embraced the marauding squelch of the Roland 303.
Shelby befriended both DJs, playing them his first primitive tracks recorded on cassette, recalling, “I was doing music way before records, recording on to cassette. That was good enough. Back then it was all cassette. Records? Who even dared to think that! I gave cassettes to Ronnie. His thing wasn’t so technical as Frankie. Both of 'em are looped in my head and I’m thankful that I was able to be alive for those magical moments.”
Producer Mr Lee (of ‘Pump Up London’ fame here) gave Shelby his first up-close studio experience, “watching everything he was doing in his little studio”. The first 12-inch to bear the K’Alexi name (which has been blessed with countless spelling and punctuation variations over the years) was Risque III’s ‘Essence of a Dream’ in 1987, an early outing for his trademark sensual vocal style derived from Prince, set over a dark tribal house swirl. Still at high school, Shelby had found his vocation writing highly original variations on the standard love lyric, which were already in-demand among fellow pupils as bespoke love letters.
“I recognised I had a gift to say what I was thinking,” he remembers. “I would study Prince and Marvin Gaye, figure out what they meant and put my spin on it. The power of the word. My voice didn’t get deeper till later. I was writing love notes for all my boys in high school and making a killing. I would know what to say and what they should do. I wasn’t so keen on making records which were just a bunch of noise, so put a different spin on it with the vocals.”
His vocals nearly didn’t appear at all, as the session drew to a close with the track (mixed by his first mentor Mr Lee) still an instrumental. “The session was coming to an end and I said I wanted to put the vocals on there. They said there was no time but I said, ‘I wrote all this song!’ They said, ‘We got no time unless you can get your vocals right in one take’.
I said, ‘Let it rip’ and went into the vocal booth. When they heard what was coming out of my month they just stood there with their mouths open. The look on their faces was priceless.
“That song was about how I wanted a girl at high school to be my girlfriend at the time. It was an open love letter. I got it off my chest and felt good about it, but it really embarrassed her. She would be walking down the street and people would be pointing at her.
Everybody was talking about it and it was gigantic on the radio. Couples were saying ‘We made love to that record’. Girls would come out of the woodwork and be like, ‘say the words’ when we’d be having sex. It was unbelievable. Marshall Jefferson then came out with ‘Take My Love’. He kind of ripped me off!”
Ball now rolling, a Risque III follow-up swiftly followed, ‘Don’t You Know’ toying with the hook from Ron Hardy’s only single under his own name ‘Sensation’, but it was 1989’s ‘All For Lee-Sah’ for his friend Derrick May’s Transmat label which thrust Shelby to the forefront of the now-virulent house and techno market with its muted acid, disembodied orgasms and K’Alexi’s matured sexual malevolence. Lee-sah herself “was my girlfriend and she hated the song.
She was into hip-hop. All my records are about real women and real situations. That came from Prince... .”
Shelby also stepped forward as a master 303 manipulator on the flip’s ‘Vertigo’, recalling the record’s tortuous creation after airport scanners scrambled his master-tape on the way to finish the track in Detroit with May. “It messed up the sync tone so it got jumbled all up.
Me and Derrick had to put the song back together. I remember sitting on the floor at Transmat asking when we were going to the party and Derrick saying ‘We got to finish the track’.”
Although the record became a much-raved over anthem in Chicago’s clubs and also captivated New York’s underground, Shelby was devastated when May told him he still had a warehouse full of unsold copies. Still encouraged by Mr Lee and grabbing technical tips off Larry Heard, he continued recording for DJ International’s Underground offshoot, hitting again with 1990’s ‘Don’t Cha Want It’, an intoxicating blend of piano house and Nu Groove deepness which he says bore little resemblance to the original. Shelby recalls playing the track (produced with flatmate Mike Dunn) at a big fraternity party at Chicago’s Southern college.
Incredible to hear in this age of the autopilot easy mix, he slaughtered the peak crowd by hammering a cassette. “They kept calling for it be played again and didn’t mind how sloppily it was done. The whole place waited while the tape was wound back to the start, then it’d play, and it’d be ‘Play that shit again!’ It got played five times in a row that night, back-to-back.”
The success of the track hoisted Shelby into the '90s, which saw Chicago’s house pioneers embraced by European crowds. While releasing rumpo-missives such as ‘Ho’s in the House’ for Rhythm Beat and snarling acid on Felix Da Housecat’s Radikal Fear, he roughed up his sex style even further for Holland’s mighty Djax-Up, including 1993’s graphic pantathon ‘SEX-N-R-001’.
The run continued, including five albums through that decade (“I’ve done records for a lot of people”) then sporadic singles into the 21st century on various labels, as Shelby DJed as far afield as Australia and Asia while conducting a residency at Ibiza’s El Divino. After a party in Berlin last October, he ended up staying in the city and starting a record label. “My music had been here forever,” he says. “I had such a good time I could either go home or stay a little while longer.”
The move has catalysed Shelby’s current renaissance, his new labels accompanied by an ever-swelling trove of soul and disco re-edits on SoundCloud and a hectic schedule of DJ strikes, which have seen his reputation for demolishing the party going viral. But the labels are his main concern. K Klassik was launched last year by timeless floor-burner ‘The Dancer’, the package including remixes by Ron Trent, Glenn Underground, Ian Pooley and Norman Chung, available on vinyl.
“I hadn’t heard a song done in that perspective of the dancer,” says Shelby. “It’s always about the DJ. The track came together quite quick, but then I shelved it for a year-and-a-half because I was about to start a label. This is the first time where it’s just me running things. It’s hard to do all of this yourself — to produce, run the label and have a personal life. It’s very difficult, it’s hard work but I love it. I love it! I get to help my friends too. Many of them got robbed over the years and didn’t get a chance. It’s a family. It’s a platform to get people out there. Also, once I get so excited I make more music.”
The Tec Soul Deep imprint has released two volumes of Shelby’s 'Acid Revolution' compilations, boasting familiar names such as Tyree Cooper and Roy Davis Jr alongside newer producers including Ellery Cowles, Unphixt and Shawnn Lai. The just-appeared second set leads with the pure techno soul of the boss’s sublime ‘My Hand To Thee’, the Detroit-style deepness maintained on tracks like Shawnn Lai’s ‘Systematic’. Shelby’s generation-spanning mix of likeminded talents is already shaping the sound of a fresh new stable.
“It bridges the gap between young and old,” he explains. “If it was just new people, some might not give it the time of day, so it’s a bit of a mixture.” K’Alexi is also starting another new label called Black 13, as trailered by the last track on the new compilation, dedicated to “serious hardcore acid rhythms, tastefully done. I’m very excited about it”.
Remixed by Terry Farley, Maurice, Joe Smooth, Stretch Sylvester and Joshua Imperiale, the ‘Acid King’ single is K’Alexi’s declaration of intent and call to arms. “It had come to a point where there were too many people who were claiming the throne as regards being the master of the 303. I make that sucker talk, sing even. Why wouldn’t I be the king?”
On your feet, or on your knees...