Chicago's Global House Music Pioneer Terry Hunter Is Still Making Waves

From his underground hit ‘Madness’ in 1990 to remixing legends like Michael Jackson and Chaka Khan, the Grammy nominee reflects on Chicago's music legacy, the birth of house music, and his latest venture into the world of documentary with

Terry Hunter has been one of the seminal purveyors of house music across the globe. A native of Chicago and a three-time Grammy nominee, he came to prominence with his underground hit “Madness” in 1990. 

After years of making classic remixes and original songs and becoming a mainstay of the house music scene, in 2004, Hunter launched his label, T's Box Records, and became the first new member of Chicago's Chosen Few DJs in nearly 30 years in 2006, and was named "Producer of the Year" by 5 Magazine in 2009.

He’s remixed songs for Michael Jackson and Chaka Khan, producing songs for Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, with whom he earned his first Grammy nomination for Song of the Year in 2015. Hunter remixed Beyoncé's classic dance track "Break My Soul" earning him a nomination for Best Remixed Recording in 2023.

Since he arrived on the house music landscape, Hunter has been keeping the dance floors packed and continues to spread his love of the genre spoke with Hunter about why Chicago is one of the best music cities, the evolution of house music, and how the genre is influencing music worldwide. Historically, Chicago is one of the best music cities in the country. What do you think makes the city such a fertile place for Black music?

Terry Hunter: That’s a good question. I think Chicago is unique because we sit in the Midwest. We get the best from our city, which has so many talented producers, artists, arrangers, and musicians. I think we don't get enough credit. If you look at the likes of Chaka Khan and Quincy Jones and if you look next door, the Jackson Five from Gary, Indiana, was influenced by Chicago. We birthed this beautiful genre called House Music, which combines everything from disco, funk, soul, and the Philly Sound. What is your definition of House Music?

Terry Hunter:  House Music, to me, is one of those things that if you know, you know. It's crazy because I've been asked this question many times, and it sounds corny and cliche, but it's a feeling. It's obviously uptempo, anywhere between 115 BPM to 126 BPM, sometimes even faster, but it's a dance beat. There's something about that kick that makes you want to dance when you feel it in your, in your chest and your lower chakras. That's what house music is.  It comes from the disco sound and I was just telling DJ Jazzy Jeff that people don’t talk enough about Philadelphia playing a major part of house music sound. With Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes featuring Teddy Pendergrass, MFSB, The Tramps, First Choice, and I could keep naming them. You can play those records today, and the crowd will react like it's a brand-new record. Frank Knuckles is one of the names that’s synonymous with house music. Tell us about the impact of Frankie Knuckles on the genre.

Terry Hunter: Frankie Knuckles was an incredible human. He was a gentle giant. What I mean by that is that he made everybody feel welcome. Sometimes, you never want to meet your heroes because it might turn out bad? That wasn't the case for me. Growing up, Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy were the inspirations for what I do. I love all kinds of music. I'm a hip-hop head. But being in Chicago, having Frankie around as a mentor and a person to learn from. as a young kid, it was incredible. I always wanted to become a DJ after I saw him. I watched his career and mimicked what that brother was doing. and it paved the way for me. Throughout the history of house music, why have remixes been so important to the genre?

Terry Hunter: I think there are a lot of producers, or writers that hear something in that record that hasn't reached its fullest potential. If you look at all the top remixes in the world, most of them in the house genre, I would say 95 are DJs. So who's better to do a remix for you or to produce a record for you than a person who is an active DJ who controls and sees what happens when they react on a dance floor? So we know what works and what does not, and we can also use that as our testing ground. I would like to see more of the artists go to these DJs to have them produce your record because the world is seeing how big it is and what it can do. And we'll get more longevity that way.

BET.Com: How did you get involved with Kevin Liles and Xfinity for In Our DNA: Hip House?

Terry Hunter:  I got to give a big shout-out to my partner, DJ Emmaculate. He told me that he had this idea. and also DJ Kelly G already had something in mind. It went from having a bunch of phone calls with us three about doing a documentary on house music. After we got the trailers and teasers done, Kelly brought it to 300 Entertainment because he worked for 300 Studios. Kevin Liles, being from Baltimore, took it to the team at XFINITY, who showed interest, and here we are. But instead of us going full-on with the house music documentary last year, they thought it would be dope to come off the heels of the 50th anniversary of hip hop to do a Hip-House documentary. We got to shine the light on Fast Eddie, who is the creator of that genre, and Tyree Cooper. I appreciate Kevin for taking a chance on it and also XFINITY for wanting to get behind a project like this. It turned out super dope. What do you hope viewers will take away from the docuseries?

Terry Hunter: I want them to learn about Chicago and the history of what we put forth that so many people today, like Drake, Beyoncé, Lil Uzi Vert, and the list goes on with the rapping over the dance beats. Even if you look at what's coming out of Africa, they're doing it in their own way. But it was all influenced by Chicago and house music. House music is a billion-dollar industry and seems to give more love and more acceptance worldwide but not always in the United States. Don't get me wrong, we have New York, Chicago, LA, and Philly. I think that we have to put a change to that right now.

BET: For those who are new to the genre, what are some essential house songs that must be on their playlists?

Terry Hunter: Wow. I'm gonna go all the way to the beginning. I'm going to touch on Philadelphia Sound because, without it, we would not have house music. As I said, listen to anything from First Choice, Harold  Melvin and the Bluenote's “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” “Bad Luck,” Then, you have to listen to Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body”,  Lil Louis tracks, and Ten City was a humongous group for house music. In the present time, I would say listen to every single record that Terry Hunter has done [Laughs]. 

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