The posters outside the O2 Academy in Sheffield on this mild Monday evening don’t really do justice to the home town of Warp Records and The Human League. Future attractions include Pearl Jem (“Europe’s best Pearl Jam tribute band”), Definitely Mightbe, one of the countless Oasis tribute acts stomping around mid-range UK theatres, and The Smyths – “Celebrating the 30th anniversary of ‘Hatful Of Hollow’”. Fortunately, tonight’s headliner is a welcome contrast. A teenage prodigy during the flowering of techno in late 80s Detroit, standard-bearer of house and remix culture in the mid 90s, and the biggest solo star of the great house music revival of right now, they don’t come much more authentic than Marc ‘MK’ Kinchen.
Come midnight, the venue is packed with house-hungry student freshers. The majority aren’t here because of MK’s biography. They’re here because of the mammoth success of tunes like his opener ‘My Head Is A Jungle’, the Wankelmut & Emma Louise remix he made after hearing Kerri Chandler play a similar-sized piano anthem at Circo Loco last year. They’re here because of last year’s chart-smashing remix of Storm Queen’s ‘Look Right Through’. They’re here because of his very last track, his distinctive remix of ‘Reverse Skydiving’, a track that – judging by the mass singalong taking place – the crowd already knows inside out. They’re here because, thanks to some incredibly accurate comeback timing, a string of insanely popular remixes and the revival of his 90s tracks like ‘Burning’ and ‘Always’ on dancefloors across the globe, MK has now become a generation’s entry point into house music.
“It’s important to reach young kids,” reasons MK. “It builds longevity rather than speaking to older fans who will have a family in two years or who can’t go out because they have a baby. My audience is a little younger than three years ago,” he says. Thanks to that never-ending slew of anthems, an open, positive personality and a face that lights up frequently with a megawatt smile, Marc Kinchen is now a bona-fide pop star. Every show is teeming with girls and a smattering of 20-something boys following their lead. And at every show, those fans are waiting for him at the exit, hoping for a moment (or a selfie) with their house hero. And Marc, ever the gent, likes to oblige. Musically, too: “Because I’m a producer and a producer before a DJ, while some DJs won’t play their own songs, I’m fine with that. Trust me, I’ve heard ‘My Head Is A Jungle’ way more times than anyone else has! But I still play it because people want to hear it. I put my ego to one side. Of course, I want to play all new stuff – but that defeats the purpose of a person wanting to hear you play your songs live – unless I’m doing a special clinic or a Mixmag DJ Lab where you’re showing off what you’re into. But at these shows, they want to hear the songs you made.”
From Sheffield, we jump in a people-carrier to Leeds, where the crowd is almost twice the size of the one at the previous party. Leeds is where the third coming of Marc Kinchen began, the first place in the UK that MK made his home when he finally made the jump from producer to DJ. There are almost 3,000 fans waiting for him to arrive at the O2, and when he steps onto the stage, the screams seem to suggest that both Elvis and Michael Jackson are alive and miraculously back in the building. Again, Marc opens with ‘My Head Is A Jungle’, and again the place goes Bruce Wayne bat-shit. But the best thing as an observer on this unique house music phenomenon is seeing how he’s loving every single moment of this, from fiddling with the EQs to the way he musically and physically interacts with the crowd front to back.
Marc tells us that being on the cover of Mixmag is a dream he’s waited two decades for. Tall, cheerful and athletic, he’s changed so little that it’s hard to believe that it’s 25 years since his first photoshoot, back when he was a teenage producer in the primordial techno soup of late-80s Detroit. In those days, Marc was recording alongside the inventors of techno. “I met Derrick [May] when I was thirteen,” says Marc. “And then Juan [Atkins]. Derrick was very temperamental – I used to see him have tantrums when a cord would get unplugged onstage or something, I thought he was crazy! Juan took me on for a short period of time, and then a couple of years later I met Kevin. By that time he had ‘Good Life’ and ‘Big Fun’ out in Detroit. Kevin was a superstar.”
“I think I met him through Anthony Pearson [aka Chez Damier],” Kevin told Beatport.com in 2012. “We were all working on music and on projects, we just had a great vibe going on there at the KMS labs. Marc was just a young kid who was just inspired and very talented. The spaces weren’t soundproofed and I used to sleep in my studio – I remember many nights where he’d be working next door and I would get up and say, “That’s hot! I like that!” and it was just banging, right next to me. He went on to be an outstanding producer and person.”
“Working with Kevin was like a kid working with an idol,” he continues. “I remember in the beginning, he wanted me to make a track for KMS. I made a track called ‘The Rains’ and Kevin added drums and hi-hat and I was thinking, “this is incredible!” Then I made a record called ‘Burning’ that no-one approved of or cared for. I used the vibe sound on the Kurzwell synthesiser. Back then, people took sounds and tweaked them to make them more techno, but I just played the chords, which is why I put the record out myself on Area 10.”
‘Burning’ might not have fitted the Detroit template, but it became a classic of the kind of 90s house that is resonating stronger than ever today. In the UK, Activ picked up the track for re-release in 1995 and it came back round again in 2011 for a new generation courtesy of the canny team over at Defected. By 2012, it was a bona fide club smash all over again. But just as important was the flip side of the Area 10 original release, the smooth, flute-fuelled ‘Mkapella’, which not only helped inspire early UK garage producers but is also nine and a half minutes of real deep house. In 2014, there’s not a DJ of note who wouldn’t give props to key MK releases like ‘Burning’, ‘Love Changes’ and ‘Always.’
Back in the mid-90s, its success also led to Marc becoming an in-demand remixer. And it was a remix of 1993’s ‘Push The Feeling On’ by The Nightcrawlers that gave him a global smash and led to MK lining up alongside the likes of Masters At Work, Roger Sanchez and David Morales as one of the most in-demand house remixers in the game, paving the way for several years of major label remix madness. If we included them all we’d be here ’til Christmas, but an edited selection – many of which still sound fresh and contemporary today thanks to a revival of the classic MK organ sound, would include Jodeci ‘Freek’n You’, Celine Dion ‘Misled’, Pet Shop Boys ‘Can You Forgive Her’ and a remix of Masters At Work ‘Can’t Get No Sleep’ that started a relationship with US house imprint Strictly Rhythm that continues to this day.
But soon the remix circuit started to lose its attraction. When a record was a hit in the 90s, labels just wanted a repeat of the same record for the follow-up – and then the follow-up to the follow-up. “That’s kind of why I stopped,” says Marc. “I hate to be told how to produce a record. I’m an artist, I’m being creative – don’t tell me how to paint a picture.” House music was also starting to lose its cachet as the millennium approached: “In the 90s, r’n’b and hip hop – Puffy, Biggie, Mary J Blige – was huge. I wanted to be a successful producer, and I thought I couldn’t produce that in house music, so it felt like a good time to do something else. Artists like SWV would ask me for a song. But in the 90s, r’n’b and hip hop didn’t respect house. If I met someone and said I’d produced Nightcrawlers, they’d be like, “that’s shit” – so instead I’d say, “hi, my name is Marc.”
One of Marc’s more intriguing career diversions was his hook-up with The Fresh Prince. “Will Smith wanted an in-house producer and my friend Omar is his music guy so he asked me. And I would make tracks for films or TV shows. This went on for quite some time… I would still work, but eventually nothing was really coming out. As a producer, you have to have stuff out. I wasn’t being fulfilled, so I started working with Dianne Warren instead, producing for her and doing songs for her. I’ve always been an edgy producer but she didn’t understand my angle on it so I wasted another two years there.”
In fact, it was the most unlikely of modern pop stars who helped Marc get his mojo back. “I met Pitbull and he took me under his wing,” he says. “He gets a bad rep but he’s one of the nicest guys in the industry, and he got me back in there and it all started to add up. He made sure my name was out there, so when people said, ‘I want Red 1 or Kanye West,’ he said, ‘What about Marc Kinchen?’ Pitbull helped me cut through.”
Soon, though, the politics of pop music started to raise their head again. “There were people on his team with their own agenda. With the songs I did, there were definitely a few more people who got publishing on the record than actually worked on the record. And that happened quite a bit – a lot – when I was making r’n’b and hip hop. And that’s not fun, because everyone has their hands out.” As well as making the Men In Black 3 theme tune for Pitbull, in 2009 the odd pairing brought back ‘Push The Feeling On’ for a whole new generation with Pitbull’s global chart hit ‘Hotel Room Service’, which at last glance had passed 93 million views on YouTube. It was a reminder of Marc’s skills as a house music figure, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. “Five years ago I was trying to figure out my life, I was in trouble. Then Pitbull sampled Nightcrawlers. And then Jamie Jones and Lee Foss invited me to play at a Hot Natured party,” he recalls.
It was that call from Jamie Jones that prompted Marc to reunite with his original management team of Marci Weber and Mark Davenport and kick-start phase three of MK’s career. He just had one small hurdle to overcome first: “I really didn’t know how to DJ! My brother Scott was a DJ, so we did it like a duo – like Art Department.” After the key gig with Hot Natured in Leeds came a showcase with Defected at ADE three years ago, before he caught the wave of the great UK house revival. “After Leeds it was The Warehouse Project, London [where he announced his renaissance with a storming Mixmag DJ Lab] and Southend, where the two promoters, Omar and Stevie, were so excited to have me. The organisers knew who I was – and that’s when my sound started coming back. It always starts in the UK.”
While at first he was in the booth with Scott “playing a drum machine just so I’d be doing something,” the always hands-on Marc was soon teaching himself how to DJ on Traktor with an S4 controller. “I knew I needed to DJ to get back in the house world properly,” he says. He was flying solo just in time for the defining track of his comeback, the chart-topping MK Dub III remix of Storm Queen. On November 10 2013, Marc’s remix of Morgan Geist’s 2010 tune went straight in at No 1 in the singles chart, rekindling a relationship with the UK that he’s nurtured ever since. Marc’s hot house streak also includes ‘Just An Illusion’ by Amirali (included on the CD with this magazine), Ocean Beach anthems like Lana del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’ and ‘Summertime Sadness’. This summer, MK hit the Top 5 once again with his remix of Wankelmut, which had been carefully building for the best part of a year at clubs like Ministry Of Sound and at Pacha Ibiza, where he played regularly on Friday nights. And as Mixmag went to press, he was fresh from making a track with Mary J Blige and Rodney Jerkins, and had just signed an album deal with Columbia, working with the same team as Calvin Harris and some of the A&R names he’d originally worked with back in the 90s, including Mike Pickering, who commissioned him to remix ‘Moving On Up’ back in 1994. Right now, it’s fair to say that MK is currently the biggest pop star in house.
And of course, back in demand for remixes, with the difference that now hip hop looks to house for inspiration, rather than the other way around. “The r’n’b and pop acts didn’t respect house music, but now they want it... in the nineties, it didn’t matter [if I liked the song]. Just to be asked was an honour. Now, I get asked to remix so many records that I can be more choosy. I try to pick better songs and the right kind of artists. I try to stay away from pop artists a little bit – they just want your name, and the kids have no choice but to turn away from you. Finally, I can be who I want to be and the producer I want to be. I am in the ideal place.”
After a rare day off, the freshers’ tour picks up again in Reading, Bournemouth and Portsmouth. From Ibiza to Sheffield and Leeds to ADE for his Area 10 party, the response is always the same. Marc and his team could take a residency pretty much anywhere in the world, but they’re still biding their time. Marc could call up pretty much any pop star in Hollywood for a collaboration, but he’s still waiting for the right parts of the puzzle to click. Amid it all though, he remains easy-going and cheerful, as someone who’s seen the sound he makes effortlessly return to the top of the music game has every right to be. And just as with his remixes, he’s keeping it simple. “House music was always my first love, and house music is what I can do in my sleep,” he says. You just need a 909 bassline and you’ve got it!”