K-Alexi is the go to man if you want the very best in pioneering house music.
K-Alexi Shelby is one of house music’s great unsung godfathers and reveals how a chance run in with Seth Troxler at Panorama Bar lead to a return to the limelight.
Finding a whole new audience is one of the never ending challenges of being a lifer in house music. For K-Alexi, a series of releases and remixes for Seth Troxler and the Martinez Brothers’ Tuskegee label and Troxler’s ‘Play It Say It’ is currently helping do just that.
If you’re a millennial and haven’t necessarily dug your way through late 80s and 90s Chicago house, it’s fair to say you might not have a clue who K-Alexi is. To those who have however, Keith Alexander Shelby is one of the key architects of the genre. A producer who discovered house music at the age of 12 when a gangster friend talked him into seminal clubs, the Warehouse and the Music Box in Chicago, where the blueprint of the sound was being laid down each week by the legendary Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. And one who went onto to write over 60 EPs and six albums in a career that can be best described as an onslaught of production. A career that was only really once interrupted in the late 90s after his then girlfriend, known to fans as Leesah in the title and spoken word from his 1989 classic ‘All For Lee-sah,’ intervened after a spate of hard partying and instigated a hiatus from dance music.
Since then however he has been as dedicated to the cause as ever and has continued to release new music to the present. He has lived in Berlin, the south of France, Paris, California and London as well as his native Chicago. Unlike some of dance music’s biggest stars however, his unrelenting dedication to the studio has often been at the expense of the business side of his career. He is the kind of producer who spends more time worrying about getting a bassline right, than fretting about social media or press strategies. And one that hasn’t always received the recognition, that his work has merited. Another spell in the sun, it seems, is long overdue.
Ibiza Voice: How did your recent releases for ‘Tuskegee and Play It, Say It’ come about?
K-Alexi: Seth and I had a talk in of all places, Panorama Bar, Berlin on his birthday, he told me he’d like to hook up and get things done and even though I got him smashed, he remembered and later reached out bringing us, and this, full circle. Asking me to collaborate on a project got my attention BUT doing what he said he would gets him my respect and admiration.
Tell us about your friendship with Seth? What do you have in common? You were both involved in the scene at a very high level from a very early age for one thing.
Seth came to me from a place of not just wanting to understand my work but I’d say, knowing me as a person. I feel he sees me, after all this time, giving my all for the culture and music. I feel we are friends as so many people these days talk the talk, but he actually walked the walk. So for that he’ll forever have my respect.
Admission: have you made so many records we can't really keep up with them all and they are quite hard to research online. Are the new originals for Seth brand new tracks or re-releases?
I could have easily reached into the vault and given them something [old] but because I get so excited about the prospect of new ventures, I started fresh as I usually do and as the relationship is new so should the music be. Plus I love how he didn’t take the easy way by asking me for my known classics. Seth can tell you that I compose and produce all the time and am not one of those artists just hanging out talking about what I did way back then. With four labels of my own I STAY quite active.
Are you still living in Berlin? How has life in the city changed you if so and why?
Berlin was great for the time I was there and it seemed four and a half years just flew by, but I wasn’t coming home enough and I’m very close to my family. I was missing them and they were missing me so I’m back home now in Chicago and loving it.
What lead you to move to Berlin at a much later point in your career than most artists who move there? For someone so synonymous with Chicago it must have been quite a change?
Those that really know me know I’ve always gotten what we call ‘happy feet,’ a sort of restlessness and I’d often pick a base away from home. Through the years I’ve lived in London, Paris, actually the south of France, Oakland California and a few others. Berlin is a major European city that didn’t cost a lot to live and plus it’s a city and country rich in culture and has a proud people that showed me more love than not.
How has your approach and methodology in the studio changed in recent years? Are you still using the same kinds of tools and work practices as your most prolific periods?
I’m from the age of hardware and being in the studio with a keyboard and drum machines and guitarist and everything else, but the more I began touring yet still having that need to create, I had to streamline the way I approached everything without disrupting my imagination.
Once I got into the digital side of things, I could have a full studio right in my hands and no one would even know it, plus I found myself staying in my room after the shows getting music done instead of running wild over foreign cities with all types of women. Don’t get me wrong, as you can still tell from my music I very much so do still love and respect the ladies I’m just more laid back now with my approach to life.
You've made an insane amount of records! It must be a career in itself looking after the business side of things with such a discography. Have you had to do a lot of thinking about how to manage your legacy or are you more bothered about your future work?
I’m so not that guy that ever enjoyed the business side of Muzic and sadly many have taken advantage of that fact, so [when] thinking about getting my affairs in order concerning my musical legacy, I can totally understand how Prince was the way he was.
My creativity has been damaged by some I called friends, letting them close to me only to find them NOT me getting the accolades and praise [for our work] and them NOT me going off touring and stealing my style, But I try and remain optimistic about those I collaborate with because even now I’ve done music and some remixes on a handshake and verbal agreement. I’d prefer not getting in the younger me off into some gangster shit.
Dance music careers are full of ups and downs. Can you tell us about your biggest career and life highlights?
My ups come from the personal moments of getting mail from fans telling me that something I’ve done changed there life in a way for the better and I cherish those moments. When the moments are low I have real connections with fans and family of my style and music that keep me going.
Even when peers that I lookup to acknowledge my work I’m over the moon. Off the top of my head, top moments include having big bro Frankie Knuckles telling me he’s always been proud of me, Roy Davis Jr. calling or texting just to see how I’m doing, Louie Vega telling me I didn’t have to introduce myself as he knew who I was, Glenn Underground caught me off guard by wanting to put a song that I sent him by accident and I didn’t think he’d like at all. Mike Dunn and Joe Smooth taking time off in their day to catch up, spending a Christmas with Dave Angel & his family, Larry Heard, Robert Owens and Tyree Cooper letting me call them family, Hector Romero telling me him and Dave Morales are playing the new EP and the remix for Sean Miller [on Play It, Say It’ so I could go on and on.
K-Alexi with his hero and mentor Frankie Knuckles.
And the lows: what happened and what did you learn?
I’m just a deep feeling individual that is open to the world and everything you letting doesn’t deserve to be let in. So I try not to be tainted by a few bad experiences. Songs done in happy times about the women in my life, it gets hard seeing them with others, or the what should have been great music collaborations that just turned into me being stolen from because I paid more attention to the music than the business side of it. The feeling of betrayal comes right back when you hear that song or a fan asks me to autograph the record. Sadly there are many people in this business who did not do what their [press releases] say they did.
You've been a pretty relentless producer at times in your career. What kind of extremes have you gone to in the studio?
You know that classic B Boy song by Soul sonic Force ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’? That’s me. To standout in a sea of others and be remembered, [you have to be] someone who took the extra steps and let me say, I’ve had some great teachers in life that set me on that path of respect and righteousness.
Is it true you were going to the Warehouse at the age of 12? Describe what it was like to be in that club at that age if so?
Clubbing as a kid was so real and to be clear I didn’t just wander in, I was brought in and protected as much as possible by work. It can only be described as a big brother type neighborhood drug dealer who I could only guess got a kick outta someone my age being so deeply into the music and the sound.
Seeing Ron Hardy be the pure showman that he was and control the room as he did with ease was beyond impressive and there was no going back as I had become one with the culture.
There must be many moments in your career that you didn't see coming. For example house music becoming a global phenomenon maybe wasn't so easy to predict in the mid-late 80s. Vinyl making a comeback after everyone announcing its death in the mid 2000s and some of your records selling now for crazy amounts on Discogs. Are you surprised by any of these things?
My records being sold for crazy amounts? For me that is a double edge sword because had people bought the record when I told them, then they wouldn’t have had to pay crazy amounts for something as a true fan they should have had anyway. Now for new people just finding out about me, now that pleases me a great deal because that shows that there are people out there still looking for the real [deal] and that count me among them.
I’m always surprised when people say to me: “you’ll never guess what my favourite record is of yours”? I almost always guess wrong as they come up with something I didn’t even think got played like that but the songs are my babies so I love seeing them grow out in the world inspiring and making people happy.
What did Prince meant to you as an influence and a person?
Just as a lyricist, the mind blowing things he’d say with style and raw power taught me I could and should be thought provoking and expected at the same time. There will never be another but you can always recognise one of his disciples, Jamie Principle who I also still look up to as a creative innovator and acolyte of Prince.
What do you wish for in the future of music?
That people come back into it for the right reasons and the motivator not be money. That soul and creativity finds its way back into all genres of music and it not be about the corporation and the machine telling us what we should like. That drugs not influence the music so much. That people understand it’s ok NOT to be the DJ and that the dancers are still just as important and we are nothing without them helping us do our thang. I am forever a fan of this thing of ours.
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