House Legend Robert Owens Discusses New Sample Pack,
The Voice of House Music
House Legend Robert Owens Discusses New Sample Pack,
February 24, 2022
The Voice of House Music
Perhaps the most innovative and recognisable of the vocalists that rose out of Chicago’s developing house scene in the mid-’80s is Robert Owens. Born in Ohio but raised between Chicago, New York and L.A., Owens was a self-described “club kid” with a rare talent for singing, who started out DJing basement parties in his local neighbourhood. After graduating to the city’s club circuit, Robert met the pioneering Chicago producer Larry Heard – aka Mr. Fingers – and the two formed Fingers Inc. along with Ron Wilson. Aided by the gospel-influenced singer’s emotive and tender vocals, the group released house classics like “Mysteries of Love” and “Can You Feel It” before splitting to forge solo careers.
Robert Owens continued to expand his songwriting and production skills in the ensuing years, and experienced further success with singles like “Tears” and a worldwide number one in “I’ll Be Your Friend.” But it was always in the underground clubs that the house music icon’s heart lay, and the proof is in his latest sample pack with Loopmasters; The Voice of House Music. Inside the vocal pack you’ll find full song ideas, acapella loops and spoken phrases, all with the inimitable tone of one of house music’s most legendary vocalists.
We caught up with Robert to discuss his musical origins, the early production techniques behind one of dance music’s most enduring genres, and his vision for how The Voice of House Music can be used by today’s producers.
What’s your earliest musical memory?
Gosh, that would probably be my aunt putting me up on the table to dance for her friends and saying “Look at him move, that boy is going to be something one day!” From a young age I’ve always been inspired by music. I used to listen to the Motown artists that were big at the time on the radio and wish that I could do what they were doing. When I was growing up I would always try to form bands with people, and I remember one of my first thoughts when meeting somebody else would always be “I wonder if they do anything musical?”
Were you always a natural performer?
Actually, originally I was more interested in being at the back! My mother’s side of the family had a strong church background, and I would often visit family members and go to church with them. At church, I didn’t really have the confidence to sing lead parts in the choir, but lots of people always pushed me towards it. I remember I was in a choir in California, and the musical director convinced me to do my first solo track. I think I sang the first verse and then broke down – I was so overwhelmed!
In more private scenarios I was totally comfortable with singing though. It always seemed that people wanted me to sing for them, whether it was my family, colleagues at work or even gang members that I knew when I was young. All that encouragement around me really helped, and it was the same when I started DJing later on. I’ve always had a push from the public, and I wrote the track “Ordinary People” about what it means to get to the root of what real people feel.
How did you start DJing?
In Chicago, I would go around asking people if we could use their spaces for parties. For one of the first parties I ever DJed at, we just cleaned out someone’s basement, and I set up one light and one turntable down there. We made flyers and passed them out around the neighbourhood, and the party ended up being packed. I’d take one record off and there would be a pause, and then I’d stick another one on and the crowd would light up again.
Even when I was younger family members would ask me to choose the music at a party, so I think I was always good at that. I remember hearing Frankie Knuckles say in an interview that DJing isn’t always about your mixing, it’s about how you orchestrate the overall program of the evening. That means how you combine tracks, how they flow together, and how that contributes to creating a mood and an environment for people to enjoy themselves.
After playing some of his tracks at a club night, you met Larry Heard and started making music together. What was that process like?
Yeah, I played some of Larry’s early stuff – “Mysteries of Love.” “Can You Feel It’, “Washing Machine” – at a show one time, and it was as if the crowd was in a hypnotic trance. I think I played “Mysteries of Love” about three times that night. A few days later I met up with Larry at his house, and brought some of my lyrics over with me. He played me some of the material he’d been working on, and I started matching my words to the tracks almost instantly.
That was our flow, it was instant chemistry. He was the mastermind behind the music and I was all about the vocals. At that time the Juno 106 was big, along with all the Roland drum machines, so Larry was using them in the tracks, but I didn’t really get into production myself until later on in my career. I would make splice edits here and there, and I used to have a pitch control Pioneer tape deck that I would use for pitch edits and overlapping dubs. Instead of buying equipment and drum machines I would hook up about four different cassette decks and come up with these mad edits by overdubbing.
What was the process of putting together the sample pack like?
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to put so much material into this pack. Earlier in my career, I worked with artists and producers who would be in control over the entire process, and as a result a lot of the tracks that I worked on were changed beyond recognition or never actually came out.
With the sample pack I could actually control how things were put together by recording vocals myself, and having the final masters. I’ve still got a flood of stuff sitting there, and I could do another three or four packs if needed! My natural instinct when working with an instrumental is to first come up with a song idea, and that’s what I did with the pack. I would also create hooks, different versions of a lead vocal, and backing sections, because I was conscious of people making different genres of music like techno that might need to use vocals in different ways.
Some of the vocals in the sample packs are from tracks that record companies wanted to change, and that I refused to do over because I believed in them. Everything that I’ve been involved in that’s been successful, like “Tears” or “I’ll Be Your Friend” for example, had people wanting to change them initially. They tried to change them, but the versions that were successful were the ones that I first did.
Are you very particular about how your voice is recorded?
Where I came up, it was all about just getting a good sound system, packing the house and having a good party. Later on in my career though I got into Neumann mics, which are my favourite to record on. At the same time though, I can record on a simple Shure SM58 or something like that no problem. I’ve played gigs where they didn’t even have mics, and I plugged out my headphones, stuck them into the mic jack and sang into them. It’s wonderful if you’ve got the top of the line equipment to work with, but at the same time if you don’t, you’ve still got to make something happen.
It all goes back to house music being about feeling — you use what you get, until you get what you want. Similarly, with this sample pack, it’s a journey of life experiences and emotions. I tried to cover a wide range of things by channelling the people I’ve met and their characteristics and circumstances. When I play sets abroad, I try to go and hear other people play before me, and then talk to people afterwards to get a sense of their culture and feelings. I put everything I learn from that back into my music and writing, and that was the case with this sample pack as well.
Do you have any tips for producers on how to get the best out of the sample pack?
How you use the pack will differ depending on what kind of music you’re producing. I altered this pack quite a lot from the first sample pack that I did, and I think it has a lot more variety and versatility. There’s some slower, ballad tempos in there, and I think that will make it appeal to a wider audience. There’s also some caricature-type vocals, which could even be used in a film context – it’s up to you. I just really hope people get some inspiration from the pack.
Let’s finish up with two questions: If you could pick one classic pack, one current pack and one wildcard pack from the Loopmasters library, what would they be? And, what are your three favourite tracks on Beatport right now?
Lots of the packs on Loopmasters are great, it’s hard to choose. I’ll start by picking two house packs – my classic pack pick is Essential Melodic House Vol 1, and for the current pack I’ll go with Love House from Producer Loops. In terms of a wildcard pack, as a vocalist I think I’d have to pick Ultimate Vocals 3.
As for the Beatport tracks, I’m going to pick three tracks that I feature on! First up is Chris Staropoli’s remix of “Tonight“, a Joe Ventura track that I provided vocals for.
Next, is “Reflect On The Days” (Original Mix), a classic house jam I did with BizioCool.
Finally, I’ll choose “Two Steps Ahead” (Original Mix), which I did with CJ Jeff.