Writing an iconic track when you’re a teenager is one thing. Ron Trent did that with the ecstatic deep house of “Altered States” in the early ‘90s. But that wasn’t the beginning of his career. He actually started DJing much earlier—when he was just 9 years old.
“My first party [that I DJ’ed] was for someone I knew in school,” explains Trent. “I did her birthday. I also wound up doing our graduation, then I got involved in the Chicago DJ circuit because there were a lot of high school sock hops and stuff.”
While he’s best known for instant classics like “The Choice” and “Don’t Try It”—songs that were co-signed by Detroit legend Kevin Saunderson—and his role in Prescription Records alongside former production foil Chez Damier, Trent’s never relied on nostalgia trips to keep his creativity flowing. He’s been far more inspired by the places he’s lived (Berlin, Chicago, Brookyn, Detroit) and the bodies he’s moved over the past 40 years.
“It’s all about storytelling,” he says, “all about reproducing the mood of a song for a room full of people. Having everybody on the same wavelength creates this psychic vibe. When I’m speaking to you through these songs—these pieces of sonic material—you’re feeling it, you’re receiving it, and you’re getting healed.
He continues, “It’s the whole thing, man; it really is.”
In the following extensive interview, Trent discusses how the peaks and valleys of his past lead him straight towards the tightly edited tracks of What do the stars say to you, the first sign of life from his long-planned side project WARM.
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I was just checking out some recent mixes you’d done and stumbled upon a Boiler Room set where you just played records for an hour. It felt like hanging out in your living room, and it set the scene for this new record nicely. Everything really clicked while I was listening, like, ‘Oh, that’s the sound he’s going for.’
Absolutely. The records I collect—that’s where I’m at, man…The idea for this album came to me back in the ‘90s, though. I just didn’t have all the components together to do what I really wanted to do. Time gave me the ability to hone my craft, especially with the guitar. It really opened things up in terms of being able to express myself and get the colors I wanted to apply to this project.
I thought I was cool going to Berlin in, like, 2003, but you were there in the early ’90s. What was Berlin like right after the Wall came down? And how long did you stay there?
I was over there for a very long time. I used Berlin as a base to go and play other gigs at the time. Mark Ernestus was nice enough to host me and Chez Damier for a period of time. Then I stayed and did other gigs in surrounding areas. I thought it didn’t make sense to fly all the way back to the States to do a gig, so I stayed and got more gigs. Berlin back in the ‘90s was what I envisioned Russia to be like at that time—very Cold War. It felt like some things had gone on there for sure. It was not this pumping, vibrant place. It was like, ‘Oh, okay.’
How did you hook up with Mark in the first place?
I think I had come over to play Tresor in ’92 or ‘93. The Wall came down in ’89, so it was definitely new territory. Cats like “Mad” Mike and the whole [Underground Resistance] crew had already been there and put their stamp on it—their flag—so there was a Detroit presence there. And I was kind of an auxiliary Detroit guy because I had moved there when I was recording with Chez at KMS Studios. It was just an interesting time. It made sense to soak up the culture, move around, and do my business.
You spent some time in New York before it was cool too, right?
When was your New York stint?
I moved to New York in ’96, ’97, when things started winding down here in Chicago and it was time to move on. I wanted a source of inspiration, and New York was giving it to me, so I went there and learned a lot in a new market. It wasn’t like it was easy; I had to have a certain level of business acumen and an iron gut, but it all paid off. Within about two or three years, I had arrived, if you will.
Where did you feel the most inspired back then?
They had rooms of sound, you know? I think Twilo might have been open at the time. And there was another place, a Midtown kind of thing. In other words, progressive things were going on; new music was coming out. Body & Soul was happening; Shelter was happening. They were playing the best of the best. Then I came along and became the Giant Step DJ. I, too, created a very edgy forum, if you will, where I introduced a lot of music; there was a lot of mixing and culture going on. It was a happening scene—until the Towers came down, bro.
Were you there when that happened?
Absolutely. I’ll never forget it because I thought my girlfriend was gone. I thought she was dead.
She was working in one of the Towers?
She worked in the Wall Street area. We actually have a 19-year-old daughter [now]; [September 11] is one of the things that brought us together…But yeah, I had just left her house. And she had gone on to work. I didn’t even know what had happened. I was driving down her street in New Jersey and couldn’t get into the tunnel. That’s when I turned back around and went into a gas station. I was like, ‘Hey, man, you know what’s going on?’ This dude was like, ‘Oh, you don’t know?’ Then he gave me a really out-there version of what really happened; he said all of Lower Manhattan was blown up, and they blew up the White House. I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ But yeah, for the majority of the day, I didn’t know where my lady was. It was nail-biting to say the least.
Did you end up wanting to leave?
No, I stayed on. I didn’t feel like I needed to leave, or that it was gonna be any better anywhere else. It eventually got that way because I couldn’t make any money. My gig at Giant Step had ciphered off because we lost our sponsorship. They wanted to transition things into a different way. And we had just had our child. I needed more support for my family and my friends, so I moved back to Chicago and built up again.
Did it feel good to be back in Chicago, or did it take some adjustment?
Definitely. I like the idea of trying new things and building new things when I’m ready for it. Obviously, there was the challenge of going back and taking all these things that I’d learned and putting them into this place where I’d grown up. So I started a new thing with my business partner Sonia Hassan—the first Afrobeat party here in Chicago. It was called Africa Hi-Fi, and it used Africa as a motif to talk about how it pertains to all the music in the world. It was like what I do now, but a lot of jazz, a lot of Afrobeat, a lot of world music. We turned it into a big thing; you couldn’t even get into the place by the end of it. This is where [fashion designer] Virgil Abloh comes in. He was my intern.
If you go on my Instagram, you’ll see him talking about it. That’s where he cut his teeth.
Is that where he realized he wanted to become a DJ too?
Exactly. He talks about it—about where he got inspired. When he came to us, he was an art student. I think he might have been studying architecture and design at the time, so he was really attracted to the aesthetic. He was our intern for two or three years.
Did he just reach out to you cold?
He reached out to Sonia. She was like, ‘I’ve got this guy; he wants to be our intern…’ And I was like, ‘Sure.’
So you weren’t even looking for an intern, but then this guy shows up who ends up being one of the most influential designers of all time.
Exactly—facts. I was really proud of him, man. [His death] really took the wind out of my sails because I had just seen him a couple of months before at Public Records…I had no idea that was the last time I’d see him.
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You mentioned Virgil wanting to be an architect…Isn’t that what you wanted to do originally, too?
Absolutely. I was very serious about it; I took mechanical drawing at school, which is the first thing you take before you do more complex designs. It’s also to train your hand—talking about measurements and scale. At the same time, I was really into my music thing. And to be honest with you, the music took over. I realized that what I’ve been doing is a combination of [it all]; I’ve always incorporated art in everything I do. Music is another dialect of visual art to me. And visual art is another dialect of music—working with colors, mediumship, all those things. I call what I do sonic architecture, you know—structures that inspire, you know?
Your dad was a DJ as well, right?
He was a record pool director in the late ‘70s, so I was around a lot of the new 12-inches and other stuff that was coming out at the time. I didn’t really know anything about DJing. I had an older cousin that got a mixer around ’79. I was like, ‘What’s a mixer? Something you use to make a cake?’ Once again, the rest is history, man. It kind of all collided; it was this confluence of things that happened and influenced me. And here I am.
You mentioned record pools. Can you explain what they were?
Discos and clubs were the thing back in the day. That’s where a lot of people made their money in terms of records getting broken. Record pools were like clubs. And each club would have a list of DJs they would service X amount of records. The DJs would have to report what they liked and didn’t like, so it was a system of checks and balances, of what’s good and what’s not. Then they’d get that feedback to the label—Columbia Records, say, or a new independent. The first record pool was developed from The Loft with David Mancuso. And it kind of carried on from there. What we do today is all from David Mancuso.
Did you spend a lot of time in The Loft?
Yeah, me and David were cool. He was a mentor, somebody I held in high regards. And I’m real cool with the guy who was his intern, Douglas Sherman. I’m connected to those worlds, you know? This album is actually within the realm of a Loft-style record.
I could see that.
Yeah man, we owe that brother a tip of the hat at least.
For those who don’t know the history behind The Loft, what was special about David’s approach to music?
He was an innovator. He created a situation where people would get together and be one with the music. The idea for David was to create a sound system for music appreciation—for everything to be presented in the purest way. Using music as a transcendental mechanism for travel. A journey. One of my business partners and clients is Mr. Robert Williams, the guy who opened Warehouse, which is where house music gets its name. He is an old Loft head. He describes it as being a tribal thing in the beginning. People would bring instruments, and the place wasn’t that big. He said, ‘If you passed out, you would never hit the ground.’ It was that packed. The idea is continuous storytelling—energy that’s created in a room through the DJ’s charisma and the sound system. It’s all designed to be ensconced in this sonic constellation. There’s a certain level of intelligence and feeling, that’s there. When it’s done correctly and deliberately, you can’t beat it.
Do you feel like it’s harder to find that kind of connection now at a club?
It depends on where you go and who’s doing it. There’s a certain level of skill and power that DJs have. When the sonics are correct and you know what you’re doing, everything lines up and it’s moving. But can I say that I find it all the time? Absolutely not. Do I think everybody knows what they’re doing? Absolutely not.
What were those early clubs like when house music was first coming together? It must have felt so underground at the time, like you had to know somebody to even get your foot in the door.
Exactly. It was an edgy, high art experience. You could feel it in the air. There was a pulse that was happening. That’s why I reference a lot of things from the ’80s—because there were a lot of innovative things happening on the underground tip that were the core of what was happening in the rest of the world. We have a lot of the things that we have today because of that—art and new music you’ve never heard before…All these things help to feed a greater imagination in people. That’s kind of what’s missing [today], I believe.
Are you talking about how the future was romanticized in the ‘80s?
When people speak of the ’80s on a commercial level, they think, ‘Oh, yeah! Futuristic and da, da, da, da.’ It was more about being an innovative individual—being yourself. Who are you? How do you express yourself? What discipline do you practice? Are you into art? Are you into fashion? Miami Vice was a major influence on this album, because that was the first time a TV show featured the top [trends] in music and fashion. Every episode was filmed like a movie, through the colors and film they used…Everything was pushing those boundaries and breaking the ceiling. You know what I mean? It was also a synergy of what was going on in the streets and the underground, but commercial. That’s the other thing [about the ‘80s]: There was a connection between the commercial and the underground, which is where innovation comes in. To me, there’s a disconnect now. You either have the underground or the commercial; you don’t have the two things going on together.
Are you talking about how you’d have a band like Depeche Mode or Talking Heads—someone who’s popular, but still has elements of the underground in their sound?
Exactly. There was a connection there—an edginess that’s accepted in the world. That’s a powerful thing.
What’s one time where you had a synergistic experience with your audience as a DJ? How about a time where you felt that as a clubgoer?
I’ve had many nights as a dancer, listening to the likes of Timmy Regisford or Body & Soul—various cats that were very deliberate in what they were doing. House dancing is a big thing now, but a lot of that was developed on New York dancefloors. The way we dance is different from everybody else in the world. Dancing is how people knew me in New York at first.
Yeah. I wasn’t like, ‘Hey man, I’m Ron Trent!’ I was Ron Trent amongst people in the industry, but on the dancefloor, I was just a regular guy.
Were you in a dance crew?
No, dance crews were [more common] back in the day. I’m talking about baby powder kids—doing acrobatics and all kinds of stuff on the dancefloor you’d never seen before. You feel like you’re a part of a bigger spirit, you know? I’ve also been in command of that spirit myself on occasion, from playing in a room full of people at Ministry of Sound to playing Public Records from time to time. I had a residency there before the pandemic that really got people to vibrate with what I’m playing.
Who owns Public Records again?
It’s a group of guys, including Francis [Harris].
What kind of music do you play there?
I play everything and anything that I feel, pretty much. Everybody prides themselves on being super eclectic now because it’s cool, but to me, it’s not so much about what’s in your record collection. It’s about how you present it to the people, and set up that third ear sound in the room that everybody can connect to.
Like a third eye?
Somewhat. It’s a spiritual and scientific practice; if you understand acoustics [and] transferring your energy, you can do a lot of things. It’s about being one with your instrument. If your instrument is records, a mixer, and a sound system, you need to know what it does, how it works, and what you need to do to insert yourself in it so you can create a zeitgeist in the room that people can connect to. At that point, you’re the sun. You know what I mean?
How has how your approach to DJing evolved over the years? I mean, if you started at nine, you’ve seen all the changes in technology, and there’s so many different things at your disposal now. Are you still using the same essential tools you always did?
Absolutely not. When I started, I was using a slide mixer fader—scratching and doing tricks. Then I decided that I really enjoyed the blend more than anything else. A lot of my concentration was on how the music sounded, how I came off when I when I presented the music and getting it to the people in the best way. That’s why I design sound systems now.
Yeah, I act as a sound consultant. I just did a space here in Chicago. It’s more like an audiophile room.
What are some clubs you’ve worked on over the years?
There’s a place in D.C. that closed down; I did the whole system in there. And I consulted on a few other places that I won’t mention around the world, where I got asked, ‘Hey, man, what you think about this? Check this out.’ The most recent thing is this place [in Chicago] called Bronzeville Winery. My business partner opened it up; I helped design it and did the system in the space. It’s a restaurant/audiophile room—something that I will be continuing to do along with other projects I can’t speak on.
I hope more and more of those places open here—kind of like the listening bars that are popular in Japan. With DJ culture now, mixes are so ubiquitous that they’re not special anymore. That genuine thrill of discovery has been lost a bit.
It gets lost because people are into a microwave style of dealing with things, versus what this album is about. Sit down, listen to this album, and really look at it…Let the imagination that was put into this album take you somewhere.
I want to go live inside the cover.
Is that the point of the cover? Is that supposed to be us sitting in some modern art chair, listening to the record?
Absolutely. That’s what it’s about. The room with the view, where you would listen to this music and just look at nature or the city.
You must be so excited to release this and remind people that you have a background as a musician, because you’re so associated with house music. I mean, we haven’t even talked about Prescription yet. It’s so important to your past, but I feel like you probably want to talk more about what you’re doing now.
Yeah, I want to talk more about the album, man. I don’t really want to talk about house music.
Well, we’ve been talking for about an hour, and I’ve barely used that word.
[Laughs] House music and its eclectic nature is definitely one of the disciplines I studied. I’ve learned a lot, but as a musician and producer, there’s so many things that I’m connected to. And this is the kind of album that showcases that. It should be taken in its own light because of what it is. I worked with collaborators [on this album] that were inspirational to me, and great mechanisms for creating the spirit of each song—whatever the case may be. These tunes started in my studio, then I would send them off and get feedback. All of them happened pretty quickly; when it was done, it was done.
So you didn’t give people any direction? It was more like handing over a canvas that has some paint on it, and you’re just like, ‘What are you going to add to it?’
Pretty much. I didn’t have to do too much because they got where I was going immediately. Khruangbin got it immediately. Jean-Luc Ponty got it immediately. Ivan Conti and Alex Malheiros from Azymuth got it. Gigi Masin is the only one where he sent me a sketch I layered over. Everything else was on the same wavelength because I created each track around them. All they had to do was sit in the seat.
You had certain people in mind with each of these tracks?
Absolutely. Like with the Jean-Luc Ponty track, it was like, ‘This is Jean-Luc Ponty.’ [Laughs] ‘I gotta get in contact with him.’ One of the people that couldn’t be on the album is Wally Badarou. I created a track around him, too. He loved it and wanted to be a part of it, but then he had some bad things happen to him. Hopefully we’ll be able to continue one day.
How did you get a hold of someone like Jean-Luc Ponty—a violinist who’s almost 80 years old?
It was divine [intervention]. I say that because somebody from his camp asked me to do a remix. And at the same time, I had a discussion with my manager Alessia [Avallone] last year. I already had a connection, and boom; we put it together. He sent me an email where he was like, ‘You must have been really tapped in because I love this track.’ And you can hear it; this older gentleman is playing like he is 20 or 30 years old again. That’s what it’s about.
I noticed you have a few other projects on Bandcamp—things like Gemini Jazz. Do you have other records that are close to being released?
Probably in the next couple years. Right now, my main concentration is getting this baby launched properly. I’ve been, like, really focused on all the things that go along with WARM—the presentation, the DJ set…It’s more like a movement than anything else.
Is this meant to be viewed as a one-time project?
Absolutely not. It’s my band.
But the band is all you right?
Well, the band starts with me, but there will be an assembly of others.
Are you going to tour eventually?
Absolutely. We’re developing the live show now.
What are you going to play in the band?
I’m still figuring it out. I’m most comfortable playing percussion and keys.
And you there’s no sampling on this record?
No, no sampling. This is a live electronic album—a magician-based album. That’s the best way to put it.
Putting that Prescription compilation out a few years ago must have felt like shutting the door on the house music era to some degree.
Yeah; it was cool. That sound still lives on. I’m still playing things like “The Choice” and “Morning Factory.” Those are timeless records, and they have their place, but this organism of house music is so vast. People don’t understand that; they put it in a box and don’t understand how sophisticated it really is. So we’ll keep teaching, you know?