Cover Story: DJ Rush is a True Original, and an Entertainer of the Highest Calibre

DJ Rush is an entertainer like few other in techno. But his story extends beyond the sound he so often plays at clubs and festivals across Europe, all the way back to early Chicago house. Marcus Barnes hears his story, told like never before.

23 min
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Jun 16, 2020
Marcus Barnes

DJ Rush is an original. That’s not a reference to his unique character — though it’s abundantly clear he is a very distinct human being. Instead, it’s the definition of someone who comes from a particular era.

Rush is from the generation that witnessed the birth of house; the post-disco set who came up in eighties Chicago. Originals have an approach to DJing and the music business that can be quite different from contemporary artists. They tend to be humble, grounded, grateful, open-minded, hard-working and averse to limiting genre categorisation. They embody a bygone era when the world was less homogenised and DJing wasn’t a viable career option. It can be hard to imagine if you weren’t there, but crucial to consider when talking about someone like DJ Rush because his attitude to the craft — and life itself — is firmly rooted in this time.

When I speak to Rush, real name Isaiah Major, there are over 1,000 miles between us as we chat over the phone, but we may as well have been in the same room. It’s calm and conversational. Like the rest of us, he’s been locked down for a couple of months, which means no gigs, but plenty of time to catch up on his sleep, watch movies and enjoy a good chunk of time off. He’s at home in the Algarve, Portugal, where he’s been living for the last four years. In the background, I can hear birdsong and I immediately have an image of him sitting outside in the sunshine, shades on, smiling, and surrounded by Portugal’s natural beauty. It’s a stark contrast to the bleak cold and rain that he’s endured for most of his time in Europe — 24 years to be precise.

Rush celebrated his 50th birthday this January, but he’s still touring relentlessly (or was at least, before COVID). Fortunately, life in Portugal provides ample opportunity to kick back when he needs to. “I’ve been everywhere and I’ve put up with so much, I just wanted to be comfortable, relaxed and easy,” he says. With his mother’s blessing Rush left Chicago in 1996, moving to Berlin where he lived for almost two decades, with a stint in Amsterdam along the way. He started to play in Portugal in the late nineties. After a few years of flying in and out for gigs, he decided to investigate further and embarked on short holidays there whenever time permitted. The aim: to work out if it really was somewhere he could put some roots down. Soon enough he realised Portugal would be home for the rest of his life. “I said, ‘This is it, this is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life. I’m gonna retire here.’ I made up my mind,” he reveals.

Any hint of retirement is a long way off though. Rush loves the party — I mean he really and truly loves the party. It’s a deep love that you can see and feel when he plays because he wants everyone on the dance floor to party with him. There’s no way he’ll be retiring anytime soon. Even back in the late eighties when he was spinning in Chicago, running his Gaucho parties and playing early house and disco joints, Rush played harder and faster. The high-octane approach is part of his appeal for many fans, and he pumps up the BPMs and leaves the dance floor buzzing with energy during most of his performances; although he’s also partial to slowing it down, getting deep and groovy or slipping in some jazz from time to time. Where does this party attitude come from?

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Rush has been an out-and-out dance floor disciple since day one himself. He describes himself as an entertainer, and the responsibility that comes with that title is to simply en-ter-tain. “I don’t wanna be that person that’s like, ‘Oh yeah, let me just pick my records, go and DJ and then go home’. No, I wanna party!” he laughs. He’s all about having a good time and cultivating an environment where fun, good energy and catharsis intersect to create dynamite moments. Occasionally he might even request a mic so he can hype up the crowd. It’s spontaneous and seductive, visceral and affecting — encouraging you to get out of your skin, let loose and forget all your troubles. Sometimes he’ll even play a longer record so he can go out and join the people on the dance floor. “I don’t do it for attention, it comes natural to me. I started off as a party person and I feel that I still am.”

Party boy Rush grew up on Chicago’s south side, which has a very tough reputation. His connection to music and DJing came via his parents, his mum recognising his talent very early on and encouraging him to play records at family events. So he’s been DJing in one way or another for the best part of 40 years. Jazz, soul, funk, disco, early house, all of these styles were present in his formative years. In that era, you could forge your own identity, dare to be different, and be accepted for whatever it was you decided to be.

Rush and his friends would go all out when they partied, dressing up in all manner of outrageous outfits so they wouldn’t fade away into the crowd. “We just decided to express ourselves and be different, wearing different clothes when we went to parties. Then other people started doing the same thing,” he explains. To appreciate the context of this, try to transport yourself back to a time when the Internet didn’t exist. You couldn’t just log on to Google and search out unusual clothing, or find inspiration from Pinterest or Instagram. There were very few cultural templates, which meant people really let their creativity run wild and free. When you analyse Rush and what he’s about, this is the most definitive period of his life, and it informs so much of what he does today. Case in point — he still occasionally rocks up to the club in his beloved platform boots, some of which have huge chunky soles that are more than 20 inches high.

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At six feet, six inches tall, it’s easy to imagine how much of a spectacle Rush creates (check the video for “Get On Up” to see what I mean). A user on Discogs named schranzgrrrl recalls a couple of encounters with Rush and his fun-loving swagger. “The first time I saw him he was doing a live set and came out into the crowd wearing a sailor suit, 12-inch platforms (he’s incredibly tall normally), make-up, and an odd hairstyle with little squares on his head. Towering over the crowd he walked to the stage and proceeded to pound us into submission,” she writes. “One of the times I went to see him spin, his record case had been lost by the airlines so he couldn’t spin, but rather than not even showing up like a lot of other DJs would, he sat at the bar and talked to and partied with all the kids there.” Like I said, Rush loves the party.

“Back in the late eighties you were able to just be yourself; raw, rebellious and that’s how I am now, I still have that embedded in me,” he says. “That’s how I grew up. Even the music, it was raw and dirty with so much energy and that’s what I represent now.” Grace Jones and Missy Elliott are two icons that Rush has mentioned in interviews as being inspirational. Their fiercely unique personas and sense of personal style rubbed off on him, especially Jones’ abundant self-confidence, “Grace didn’t portray herself as this amazing vocalist, you can hear the flaws in what she did but she didn’t care, she just enjoyed what she was doing and she just had this energy,” he says. “I have this expression that I got from her, ‘Take me for what I am, or don’t take me at all’. All I can do is be myself, and if you like me that’s a bonus.”

Being himself and looking different in Chicago’s south side wasn’t a problem for Rush. He DJed in the neighbourhood, in the projects, and at high school parties, so he was well known. “When I dressed up, it wasn’t like, ‘Look at this clown’, they knew me as this ‘house person’. I never had a problem,” he explains. The house community itself was also very accepting, as you might expect. For all of us who weren’t around to experience the genesis of house music, we imagine that it was diverse and inclusive, and Rush’s recollections confirm that. It was only later on, in the early nineties he says, when hip hop followers started attending house events that he noticed a change in the atmosphere. “They’d pick fights saying, ‘You’re gay because you dress like this, or dress like that. We’re hip hop, we’re harder.’”

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Over the years he’s had very few race-related issues, citing an occasion when somebody told him they liked his music — but not his skin colour — as one particularly memorable incident. The week after our chat, George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis sparked a huge outpouring of anger and pain, seemingly triggering a global shift in attitudes to the black community. Diversity has been a hot topic over the last few years. And the electronic music industry has grappled with reasserting the ideals that lie at the roots of our culture. With his background, Rush is a big advocate of diversity and inclusion.

“It’s long overdue, we need more diversity back in the music scene,” he says. “It’s not only about saying, ‘Ok this is where it started from’. It’s getting people to realise we can all party together, sing together, dance together and enjoy life together. We need to get away from all this separation, we need to go forward and get away from all of that because we all bleed the same. Once we get past all that and enjoy life, the world will be much better. Music brings people together but nine times out of 10, when the music stops they go back to their normal ways of thinking. But the fight is not over, it’s up to us to keep fighting…”

When Rush moved to Berlin in 1996 he received a warm welcome, finding that his nationality was met with positivity by the people he met (“It’s not like that now!” he laughs). He parachuted into a city where the scene was wide open for anyone who wanted to get involved. It had only been seven years since the Berlin Wall came down, and the German capital was teeming with creativity. A progressive and incredibly permissive techno scene had exploded out of venues like Planet, UFO, E-Werk, and Tresor. His fast-paced energy resonated with the city’s techno lovers and he was picking up bookings in a matter of weeks. “I was one of the DJs that was also playing in East Germany where a lot of people were afraid to play,” he reveals. East Germany still had a reputation for nazism, or so people thought, but Rush didn’t care. “I just wanted to play music and enjoy life, so that’s what I did.” His fearlessness won him widespread acceptance and he was fully adopted by Germany, especially those in the east, where he led the charge and enjoyed almost unparalleled popularity.

During my research for this piece I was surprised at the lack of recent press Rush has had. A few interviews on YouTube, one small playlist feature from January 2020, and a few older pieces, but nowhere near as much as I expected for someone with such a long, multi-faceted history. “I think I’m kinda under the radar. What I stand for and represent is different to what the magazines want to portray,” he states. “It always seems like they don’t know how to define me. They’re like, ‘Oh you come from Chicago but are you house? Are you techno?” A glut of interviews in the earlier stages of his career failed to deliver his story in the correct way, so he started to decline interview requests, and eventually, people stopped asking. “I’m ok with it because even if I’m not in the spotlight, I’m still gonna do me,” he tells me.

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As a writer with 10 years experience in electronic music and club culture, it’s rare for me to come across someone who is so unfazed by their lack of press, especially an artist who’s been around for so long. Typically, a lack of media coverage can make DJs feel irrelevant or in need of a change of tack. Not so for Rush. “It’s partially because of my background. When I started DJing and producing music, I didn’t do it for fame, or to travel the world. I did it because I loved the music and I grew up with this music at home,” he says. “When I first came to Europe to play, I couldn’t believe it! I was shocked that so many people were into what I was doing.” Funnily enough, when he returned home from that first eye-opening trip to Europe, he continued working his job in a shoe store, still uncertain that DJing could actually be a viable career.

Even when he first moved to Germany he would travel by train everywhere, accepting low paying gigs because he just wanted to play. Though he cites this as a lesson in humility, I get the feeling that this was a lesson Rush had already learned a long time ago. “If you’re meant to be famous and make money, then it will come to you. But never forget where you came from. Right now, I’m not in the spotlight, but that’s not why I got into this.” It might be hard to believe because of the world we live in today, but there really are people who don’t crave the highest levels of what’s deemed to be success.

His career has given him perhaps one of the greatest gifts of all — the ability to financially support his family. Who needs magazine covers when you can put your niece through school? Every October he flies home for his niece’s birthday, every June he goes back for his mum’s birthday. His relationship with her has been the bedrock of his career, and his life. Her early support and encouragement helped build the foundations of his DJ career, and she continues to stand by him. At one point he moved back to Chicago to take a break from music for a while, but his mother saw that he wasn’t himself and practically demanded that he get back to it. He was back in Berlin within two months of moving home. Mother knows best.

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What’s also apparent is that Rush has never really received any credit for his involvement in the early Chicago scene, something he’s been quite vocal about over the years. “It’s really sad because there’s so much division amongst black communities and the DJs who are in the house scene,” he says. “Everybody wants to be famous there, everybody wants to have credit, but they don’t want to give credit to certain artists. It seems like no one ever wants to give me credit. I started a whole new movement in Chicago.”

Rush mentions the names we all associate with the roots of house — Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles, Lil Louis — then explains that Louis moved out of Chicago and Ron Hardy was starting to fade out when he came in and initiated a new phase. “Even the DJs were coming to the parties and asking me what songs I was playing, asking if they could play. So I gave a lot of DJs the chance to play at my parties and they never give me any credit,” he explains.

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Rush ran a party called Gaucho, which started in 1989 in a friend’s garage and grew into one of the city’s most popular house parties. It started out with dance crews who would have friendly dance battles with each other at house parties across the city. Gaucho was the name of Rush’s group and their related events. “It became pretty big and everyone wanted to have their own little clique. They were even organising parties called ‘Battle of the dance crews.’” He’d let DJs come to his house and select records from his collection to play at the parties and put a lot of people on without asking for anything in return. It’s clear he feels disappointed at being consistently overlooked in respect of Chicago’s history, having played such an instrumental part in the years after Hardy and the Music Box started to peter out.

The way he sees it, some of Chicago’s old school heads would rather attach themselves to the mythical Ron Hardy than Rush, even though some of them were too young to have even been to any of Hardy’s performances. He mentions that he’d love to make a documentary to set the record straight and we discuss the fact that so much of our culture’s history is dominated by a few names or voices, giving a very one-dimensional representation of what really occurred. Video footage of the Gaucho dancers is bound to surface one day. “A lot of people tell the story to make themselves look good, rather than to tell it how it really was,” he says. It’s the only time in our hour-long chat that there’s an air of frustration; it’s clearly a sore point, and rightly so. Not only does it skew our view of house music history, but it also taints our current view of Rush, who is often pigeonholed as purely a techno-orientated selector. He’s been influential in both genres, but because humans are so preoccupied with categorising everything and everyone, ever since he arrived in Europe he’s been placed in the ‘techno guy from Chicago’ box.

Just like his hero Grace Jones, Rush is impossible to classify. But if you really need a word to describe what he does and who he is, forget techno or house, Chicago or Berlin, DJ or producer and use his own term — entertainer. Take him for what he is, or don’t take him at all.

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