Screamin’ Rachael: Trax Records could have signed R Kelly… but didn’t
As President of Trax Records, Rachael ‘Screamin’ Rachael’ Cain has seen it all. The label was set up in 1983 Chicago, and is widely regarded as one of the cornerstones of electronic music, not to mention club culture. It gave the world music by Marshall Jefferson, Mr. Lee and Frankie Knuckles, and soundtracked the birth of rave on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Along with label partner Larry Sherman, Rachael oversaw the release of scores of records that brought the sound of the Chicago underground to the eager ears of people keen to ride the crest of this new exciting sound that was reverberating through the warehouses along the Chicago River.
“I think of house music as being the beat of our generation. There are many types of it, but really it’s about the beat. I guess back in the days it would be rock n’ roll that was alternative and there were all these styles, but now house is the beat,” she says.
Amazingly, Rachael reveals that Trax had the opportunity to sign R. Kelly when he was trying to make the leap from Chicago busker to serious artist. “We didn’t sign R Kelly. At the time, R Kelly was in to rap and he wasn’t a very good rapper but didn’t really see where that was all going to go.” She muses that Kels’ sound isn’t quite Trax, but says she is still a fan of his more “quality” offerings. “We always use the same studio and got to know each other pretty well,” she adds.
They of course have a shared connection, Vince Lawrence, who was responsible for the remix of R Kelly’s Ignition that lit up the charts across the world when it was released in 2002, and also one of the founding members of Trax. He and Jesse Saunders called upon Rachael to add vocals to their 1985 release, Fantasy. “I remember when it first exploded in Chicago, which it did, and the joy of hearing the track on the radio for the first time.”
People were enthralled by this new sound and many questioned its potential longeivity, Rachael explains. “I remember being in an elevator with (Keith) Farley, and there was a journalist in there with us and they asked ‘do you see this music as one day really being famous?’ and basically I said, ‘I don’t give a damn if it ever is, I do what I want, I don’t care what the charts say, this is the music I believe in, and this is the music I make.’”
Speaking from New Orleans, where she now splits her time with Chicago she reflects on those early days. “I remember hanging out with Ron Hardy at the Music Box. I think about the innocence of house; when I think about Fantasy, I remember that song and not really realising that the lyrics were about not being able to live without our dreams. We were really telling a story and I don’t think I realised it at the time. And I don’t think I realised that the striving that Fantasy talks about was exactly what we were doing.”
Of course house music DID last, and some of Trax’s best loved releases show no sign of losing popularity. From the pumping bleeps of Frankie Knuckles’ Baby Wants To Ride or the timeless Your Love featuring vocals from Jamie Principle, to the jacking sounds of Mr. Lee’s Pump Up London, Trax’s presence over modern day producers and DJs still looms great.
It is impossible to talk to Rachael and not give her some amount of kudos for firstly surviving so long in such a male dominated environment, and secondly, for getting there in the first place.
“I am really proud, and I have to say that as a woman, in the industry it’s very rare to be in charge of a label in that way and have that kind of an honour. Actually, my mentor was Sylvia Robinson from Sugar Hill, I’m happy to have known another woman in the business. You don’t get to find a lot.
“For one thing when it first came down to house music, there really weren’t many females in it to begin with, it was a really testosterous thing. Then there was a lot of people not thinking that I could handle the business, or be able to be in charge of a label like that or make the right decisions. So it was hard to be a woman in the industry, but then again, I’ve conquered them.”
Irrelevant of gender, as a label boss Rachael has had to become pretty ruthless in matters of business. “I’ve had a lot of people come to the label but they don’t last for a week. They say they want to work with the label, but they don’t have a clue. It’s about so many things, your taste, your love, your feelings… a lot of people just want to be like ‘Rachael what should I do next?’ And that is not what I am here to do. I only want to work with people who can stand on their own feet so we can work together. I wouldn’t want anyone to work for the label who doesn’t love it.”
However, she seems to have made an exception for Jorge Cruz, the performance artist entrusted with curating her new antology, Screamin’ Rachael: Queen of House. He admits that he didn’t have the first clue about Trax when he started working there. Of course he soon did develop a fondess for the label and years down the line can happily gush about its relevance. “It’s a piece of black history, it’s a piece of Chicago history, it’s a big chunk of historical Americana. To a lot of people they don’t talk about it like that, it’s just dance or whatever, but it really talks about struggles in the 80s, political things that happened in the city… House ultimately defined a lot of what we listened to in the 90s, like Ace of Base, and these things do change the world.”
Rachael is equally philosophical about house music’s importance. “I think every moment that we live, the change in people’s minds through house music, the ways that songs are for the good and are not negative. House is about loving and acceptance, gay, straight, black, white, everybody. That’s what I think is really important about it. Everybody’s accepted in our house.”
Trax’s huge backcatalogue is unchartered territory, with the closest thing to an itemised run down of all its releases being unofficial ones published online by fans. “There is so much in the archive that we don’t even know what’s in the catalogue. It would be impossible for me to sit down and do, just like with my own catalogue.”
Jorge interjects that the music is stored on computers, CDs and vinyls, to which Rachael adds, “It’s a huge body of music and a lot of it hasn’t seen the light of day yet, but I hope that much of it does. People are always discovering new gems from Trax and I like that.”
Excitingly there seems to be even more gems to be found, but it seems that actually unearthing them would be an enormous task. “All these commercial companies who have tried to buy the label, or get in the way of the label and who I want to have nothing to do with the label, to them it always comes down to ‘give us a list of the catalogue’, and when I tell them that there is no such catalogue they look at me in scorn, as if to say, ‘what the hell is wrong with you?’
“There is a list on the internet that somebody else did ages ago, but it’s certainly not complete by any stretch of the imagination. It’s weird because other people try to put our catalogue together, and some people even know the releases by number. I’ve seen people with Trax tattoos. People just love it.”
One person who is a keen fan is Sir Stephan, who Rachael is working with on a forthcoming live show, and new material. “The first time I ever met Sir Stephan, I went to his apartment and he had all these Trax records and he was asking all these questions and he had so much knowledge about it. It’s really interesting that there are all these people from around the world have this interest in it, I think it’s a wonderful thing, I’m really happy that the whole legacy continues.
Rachael’s career started before Trax Records when she was running Chicago’s famed punk venue The Space Place. “During those days, I really didn’t leave there very much. It became my home and just an amazing place for creativity. There were fourteen meat lockers that people rehearsed in, it was great there were a lot of like minded people there.”
It is unclear whether Factory Records boss Tony Wilson makes it on to her ‘like minded people list’. “When he came to New York he was on a panel of the CMJ New Music Seminar. He got on stage with me, Marshall Jefferson and Derrick May and said, ‘We have these people to thank! These Lori Andersons mean nothing, these people create the music!’ so that was pretty cool, even though he then got out his ecstasy expert [actor Keith Allen]. Derrick May really had it out with Tony Wilson, he called him a ‘flat ass motherfucker’. Then one of the guys from The Stone Roses went, ‘what is a flat a** motherf***er?’ It was pretty interesting. They say that of all these conferences in New York that will be the most remembered panel ever and I’m sure that it will.”
Fiercely independent, Rachel retains the distrust she has always held for the majors. “I’ve never wanted a major label to take over my career or the label. Some people have said ‘you could have been like Madonna if you did this…’ but that’s not ever what I have been interested in. I have only ever been interested in making quality music,” she says. “I think I’ve lived about ten lives, and I plan to have an even more interesting time in the future.”
Screamin’ Rachel: Queen of House is released on August 20th on Trax Records. The album is available to pre-order now
Photos courtesy of Rachael Cain, and Jorge CruzTagged in: Chicago, Jesse Saunders, Jorge Cruz, Keith Farley, R. Kelly, Rachael Cain, Screamin' Rachael, Sir Stephan, Sugar Hill, Sylvia Robinson, The Space Place, The Warehouse, Trax, Trax Records, Vince Lawrence
Recent Posts on Arts
- Friday Book Design Blog: The Ariel Poems, and other seasonal pamphlets
- Children’s book blog – Ask the illustrator: Rebecca Cobb
- Piggott's post: Jacobson, Heller and reflections on "real life"
- Ric Blackshaw tells us Scrawl about his street art enterprise
- Children’s books for November: The Something, The Imaginary and Eren
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter