After his set at The Ministry of Sound in London earlier in the year, Trina John-Charles asked a few people how they would describe MK. The word ‘Legend’ (often with the F word as a prefix) came up time and time again. And quite rightly so, there are not many producers who can hop from genre to genre and be as equally proficient in each. However during his 25 year career, Marc ‘MK’ Kinchen has done exactly that.
Starting out producing techno, MK honed his skill as a music producer under the watchful eye of mentor and friend Kevin Saunderson. He later moved into the NY house scene – the part of his career that he speaks most passionately about – as the innovator of the dub house mix. It was here MK formulated his signature style; the unmissable ‘MK bass line’ and the chopped vocal melodies that you can still hear being re-produced to this day in the work of Southport favourites Julio Bashmore and Joy Orbison.
MK then took a departure from house to carve out a lucrative career as a hip hop/R&B/pop producer, working with the likes of Willow and Jayden Smith, Pitbull, Jay-Z and E40. With someone whose career spans over two decades and whose influence to dance music is clearly evident, Marc is a lot different to what you would expect. The more you talk to him, the more you realise that there is never really an absolute plan, or a complete strategy. Everything is done on a feeling or out of necessity. In fact, most of Marc’s success goes completely unnoticed by him until way after the event. There is no ego. There is no boasting, no wild claims or accusations, just a really cool and organic guy, who loves making music.
So I am not sure if MK realises that he is a legend (prefix F word), but his return to the genre that he first fell in love with is certainly a welcomed one. In this earnest and frank interview, we discuss the departure, the return, the Nightcrawlers and ‘Khouse’.
You’ve started to DJ a lot more recently. What has the feedback been like?
Yeah, I had the Defected party a couple of nights ago. It was so much fun and the feedback has been great! I really don’t DJ that much… that was probably like, the tenth show I’ve ever done. And of course, we are here at Defected tonight. I came on at midnight, so I literally opened the room up. When I played my first record, there was like, ten people in there, but then the last half hour was amazing! I brought Alana with me and for the last song she sang ‘Burning’ live, it was really good. With DJing, there comes a time when you know what to do and what not to do. Scottie Deep [my brother] has always DJed. So he is in that ‘box’. I’m not. I don’t know what to do and what not to do yet. I just play what I want to play. Before I came over, I spoke with Chez Damier and he just told me not to worry about being technical, or being a good DJ. Just make sure the crowd have fun. So I just played records that the crowd wanted to hear, almost like a radio DJ… And they had fun.
It all began in Detroit when you were about 16 and your productions were more of a techno sound. How did that develop, were all your friends into techno at the time?
Oh, no. I was the only person – along with maybe three other people – in High School, that was into alternative music. Depeche Mode, Skinny Puppy… anything alternative, I loved. I wanted to produce that kind of music. So I just taught myself how to produce in general. Just ‘producing’ that’s it. There was no specific style. Then I met some people who were making house music and I was like, ‘really? That’s it? That’s easy’. After that, I made a record called ‘First Base’ with Terrence Parker and Lou Robinson. Kevin Saunderson liked the record and he ended up signing it. Chez Damier was Kevin’s A&R and they both called me in… I was like 17 or 16, I didn’t know what was going on… at that age, you don’t care about money like that. Anyway, Chez Damier would tell me about house music and DJing. I learned the most from him. I learned a lot from Kevin too, I loved Kevin’s sound, but Chez really taught me the ropes so to speak. In fact, the mix I did of ‘Can You Feel It?’ was like a thank you to him. After he taught me everything, I wanted to give him that mix. That was one of the best mixes I have ever done as well.
During that period, you spent a lot of time around both Kevin and Chez. What was your relationship like with each of them, was it father/son, teacher/student?
Kevin was certainly more like father/son. We wouldn’t really talk that much, but when we worked, he made sure he told me what I needed to know. Chez and I were more like brothers. Chez was just raw and would always tell me straight. He would be like, ‘Yo bro… You can’t do that. That’s whack…’ (Laughs). I took it all on board though and eventually, I made ‘Burning’.
‘Burning’ was the song that really certified you as a producer. Did you know it was going to be such a big record?
Actually, nobody in Detroit liked ‘Burning’. That’s why I put it out myself. They were all techno fans and into the more techno, synthy stuff. I played it for everyone and they just didn’t get it. I was more into deeper house, more like a New York sound. Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson… I like the deep shit, you know? So I moved to New York and ‘Burning’ really took off, but I still didn’t realise how big it was until maybe four years later.
How do you miss the fact your record was one of the biggest of its time?
(Laughs) Because I didn’t DJ! In those days there was no internet, so I really had no idea, or any way to gauge what the feedback was.
Producer and DJ often go hand in hand. Do you think the fact that you didn’t DJ was a positive or negative in terms of your career?
I’d say… the fact that I’m here right now, could only mean it was a positive. I mean, all the records I put out back then, I had no idea how well they were doing, so I was always just a starving producer. In a way, that’s another reason why I moved into R&B. I thought I wasn’t successful as a house producer. That’s what I thought. Most of the records I put out myself, I didn’t really love. I was just like, ‘f*** it. I’ll just put it out’. ‘Burning’ wasn’t one of those records though. I remember I liked ‘Burning’ a lot. When I first made ‘Burning’, I probably listened to it for an hour in my room, just like, ‘Yeeeeah, this song is good!’ (Laughs).
Which ones did you hate?
I hated ‘Given’.
I just thought it wasn’t good. It was a throw away song. ‘For You’ also, that was an, ‘I’ll just put it out’. I had a couple of remixes that I hated. The only other record apart from ‘Burning’, which I knew was a monster, was the Nightcrawlers.
I read you made that in ½ hour…
Yes, it was made in ½ hour. I had to finish the mix really quick, because I had to go out of town and they had rejected the first one I sent in. So I was rushing, trying to send in another one before I had to leave. I was working off of one monitor, my equipment was everywhere. It was a total mess. Anyway, I went out of town for two weeks and when I came back, I listened to it properly and I was just like, ‘Yeah, this is it…’
People are always curious about the rejected mix. Do you still have it?
Nope. I wouldn’t even know what it sounds like.
That’s a shame. That was a piece of history…
I didn’t know! (Laughs)
That record went to number three here in the UK, do you remember what it did worldwide?
I wouldn’t know… I mean, it sold a couple million. But it was a remix, so I got paid for a remix.
How lucrative is a remix cheque of that scale?
How much did I get basically? (Laughs). In total I got $15k.
Yep. The Nightcrawlers retired off that song, they were set for life from that record. All the royalties belong to them. Even the Pitbull remix – which had a sample on it – The Nightcrawlers got all the money.
Why did you do that, make them rich for a second time?
I called them up and I was like, ‘heeeey… can I have some of the publishing?’ and they were like, ‘no’. They stopped working from that record. Every time you hear that song, they get the money. I don’t. After Pitbull did the record, John Reid [lead singer from The Nighcrawlers] called me and was like, ‘hey, lets do another record…’ I thought… ‘You wouldn’t even give me publishing from Pitbull?’ I was just like like, ‘John, come on man…’
In your signature style, the vocals are chopped up on that record. What exactly do the re-arranged vocals say?
He’s saying, ‘Uh, in the night again. Uh, in the night, to pull us. Uh.’ I think the original hook, or first verse, has, ‘to pull us through’… It’s all in the original song anyway. If you listen to the original you’ll find all the vocals in there.
Some of the more recent producers seem to be drawing from that style and your sound in general. For example, Maya Jane Coles is always mentioned when people talk about you. Have you heard her music, what do you think of it?
I just met Maya actually, at the Defected party. I like her stuff. As far as producers and DJs, I don’t critique them like that. I think you should go by what you like and if she’s doing what she likes… cool.
What did you make of her remix of ‘For You’?
Yeah, it was cool. I didn’t know of her before she did that mix, so yeah it’s cool… If people like it, I’m cool with it.
Another thing you are well known for is the MK dub. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
I was doing so many remixes and a lot of them, I didn’t really like. I was just getting paid really. Whenever you see an ‘MK mix’ the mix is what they wanted, but the dub would be what I wanted. Now when you look back, you will see that the dubs are a lot more successful. Even now when I do a mix, I’ll use the vocals and keep it kind of safe, but I’ll do what I want. It was kind of designed to stop the whole rejection process. Back then, if I gave someone a dub, they wouldn’t like it. It was different back then. People weren’t used to hearing a dub with vocals chopped up and all dirty, dark and raw like that.
When you started out, you were using a keyboard, a drum machine and a sequencer. What do you use nowadays, are you hardware of software based?
I’m software based, just because I write so many songs. I use Logic; I use audio plug-ins… I do everything on my laptop. If it gets used, I’ll go back and use analogue equipment. If I’m making ten songs a week… you have to use keywords and it just makes too much work and then if none of that stuff gets used… It’s just easier to use my laptop. Younger kids use more vintage gear. It’s because they’re younger, they don’t get it (laughs). I’m like, ‘why the hell are you using that? Use a plug-in.’ (Laughs).
Earlier you talked about the fact that you moved away from house/dance music and moved into producing R&B. Why the departure?
I wanted to produce more rather than doing remixes. After Nightcrawlers, I was just like, ‘I did a remix and got $15k? It sold 4 million copies… and I got $15k? I should stop remixing.’ It’s not smart. Remixing is a new business. It’s only been around for like 15yrs, when I started. Back then, there were no 50 year old remixers as a blueprint. I just realised that that line of work was very limited. I thought it best to stop remixing and start producing, whereby I can have royalties, where I can sit down and watch TV and have money coming in. I stopped remixing for that reason. Remixing is just up-front money. If you are 22 and someone gives you $50k, you’re not thinking about saving for your retirement. You’re thinking, ‘I’m going to buy the fastest car… I’m going to make it rain at the strip club…’ You don’t really think long term.
Aside from your commercial work with Pitbull and Willow Smith, I heard that you are also working with Jamie Jones and Lee Foss. How important is it to keep underground connections alive?
Very. It’s just a lot more organic. It’s all about what feels good and what sounds good. I’ve always been heavily into underground. Jamie and Lee make music where people have a good time. Some of it is even out of key, but I love that about it. I don’t want to make songs that are all music theory. Over the years, a lot of people in house music have wanted to work with me, but I’ve always said no. It just didn’t feel right. But when Jamie and Lee started doing it, I thought, ‘Yep, there it is. This is perfect’. That’s how I was when I first started and it fits in. We are working on a lot of stuff together at the moment.
Why the return?
Pitbull’s DJ, Buddha, kept saying, ‘Yo, you should come back, house music is about to be big’ and it was right around the time when Dutch was huge. He was like, ‘Dutch is huge right now, but 90’s house will be back in about two years’ [he told me this two years ago]. All of a sudden, people started calling me. Simon from Defected called me. He wanted to put out a bunch of my old catalogue. Then I started getting requests to DJ. When I’d play my records people would loose their minds… so I thought, ‘oh… ok, cool. Now is the time’.
Finally, what is ‘Khouse’?
(Laughs) That’s just a joke between me and DJ Gina Turner. I don’t go out a lot, so I’m not used to seeing people on drugs. There’s been a few times where I’ve played here, in the UK and people are like zombies in the club. So I was talking to Gina about it and she was like, ‘Yeah, they take ‘K’’ and I was like, ‘What’s ‘K’?’ And she told me about ‘K’. So the joke just started from there. We were like, ‘let’s make some K-House’ and then it turned into ‘Khouse’. Khouse is just like, drugged up people’s music and I don’t want to do that. So no, there is no Khouse, it was just a joke.