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95 North


Doug Smith and Richard Payton weren't disco kids feeding off of older siblings' and cousins' flirtations with disco. There were no Paradise Garages, no Lofts, no Chicago Warehouses or Boxes in their respective hometowns of Long Branch, N.J. and Petersburg, VA. Yet this duo, who comprise the Washington, DC-based team of 95 North Productions, has captured the essence of uptempo R & B dance music, internalizing it and delivering intense, rough house grooves, experimental dance tracks, and enchanting, melodic dance songs that have garnered them fans from around the globe. The obvious question then becomes, how did two straight-laced, college bound suburban kids even "get" house music with such limited exposure?

"I was strictly hip-hop, even though I grew up in New Jersey and was exposed to a lot of early dance music on the radio through WKTU and WBLS" says Doug. "One night at Club 88 in East Orange, New Jersey back in 1986 changed all of that". Richard says he was exposed to early dance music during summer internships in New Jersey. "That's when I got exposed to groups like Change and a lot of stuff on Prelude Records, mostly from the radio as well. Sadly for me, I passed up my one opportunity to go to the Paradise Garage before it closed. I'm still kicking myself for it."

By the time the two hooked up in the 1989 through a mutual friend, they were full-blown househeads. However, their musical partnership began in a DC-based hip-hop collective known as Trigon. "We weren't all that" Doug says point blank. "It just took us a few years to realize it." Arising in the summer of 1991 from the ashes of Trigon, Doug and Richard began indulging their love for house music by writing songs and working on tracks in the cramped basement of Richard's DC home. "All we had was one sampling keyboard and a bunch of ideas," says Richard. But amazingly, despite their limited production capabilities at the time, the duo managed to land a single deal with venerable New York dance music label Strictly Rhythm Records less than six months from the time they started. "We were shocked and amazed," says Doug. "To be a fan of that label for so long and then, all of the sudden, you're an artist on the label. It was an exciting time for us". That was only the beginning.

With early champions of their sound such as Tony Humphries, the late John Robinson, DJ Disciple, DJ Dove, Roger S., Little "Louie" Vega, Sam "The Man" Burns, DJ Mandrill, Oji & Pope, etc., 95 North's music began to slowly rise to prominence in the NYC house scene and abroad. While their early singles on Strictly Rhythm served as the foundation for their success, it wasn't until the release of "Hold On" by Sabrynaah Pope on King Street Sounds that they finally came into their own. "That was a huge record for us" says Richard. "Louie Vega ran it at the Sound Factory Bar for months before it came out. When it was finally released, it just exploded." Indeed it did, rising to the number one position on the DJ Magazine Hype Chart soon after its release in 1994. And as if that song weren't enough, they followed it up with their now classic rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire's "See The Light" on defunct NYC label Choice Records, as well as "The Journey" on Shelter Records (which has the distinction of being the first record ever remixed by Body & Soul resident Joe Claussell).

It wasn't long after these successes that Europe began calling. They eventually found themselves touring all over Europe, playing everywhere from the Ministry of Sound in London to Angels of Love in Italy. The combination of Richard playing on keyboards while Doug spun on the decks proved to be a hit everywhere they played. Their DJing skills eventually landed them two residencies in DC, one at Red (where they've been residents for 5 years), the other at The Sanctuary at Vicki's. Remixing offers began pouring in as well, and soon they were remixing everyone from Jody Watley to George Duke to Crystal Waters to Kathy Sledge to Dru Hill. They were even commissioned to write and produce songs for Crystal Waters' self-titled album on Mercury Records.

Not content to rest on accolades, the duo continued to blaze the dance music world with an array of stylistically varied dance tracks, ranging from the full on gospel brilliance of "Alright" by Mijan, to the loopy underground classic vibe of "Who's Hoo?" on Henry St., to the off-kilter "Odyssey" on Groove On Records, to the way-ahead-of-its-time "Elevation" on Large Records. In fact, they may be responsible for producing some of the most criminally ignored gems ever created. Take for instance their jazz funk classic "Bassline" on Emotive Records (championed by Ron Trent and Louie Vega), which, quite possibly, could be the first modern day house record done in three-bar cycles instead of the tradition four-bar cycle of most songs. While many would understandably give credit for this house music innovation to Masters at Work for doing it on their remix of Towa tei's "Luv Connection" and their release "Odyssey", fans of 95 North's work know otherwise. Or "Forever Underground" which made use of vocal samples from Gang Starr's "Moment of Truth" LP. Most people in the dance music world associate those samples with the commercial dance hit "Roaches" by The Trancesetters, even though 95 North did "Forever Underground" one-year prior. However, rather than dwell on slights by the dance music world, they continue to push forward.

Ten years of hard work finally paid off for them last year with the release of "Sunday Shoutin'" on 4th Floor/Defected Records, done under their "Johnny Corporate" moniker. Supported by everyone from Pete Tong to Louie Vega to Tony Humphries to David Morales to Roger S. and beyond, "Sunday Shoutin'" remained a dance floor staple for the better part of a year and went on to sell over 30,000 copies. It even made it to the number 45 position on the pop charts in the UK and spawned a video that played regularly on MTV Europe. "When it sold 3000 copies in the first weekend, we knew it was something special," says Doug. "The funny thing is that many people didn't even know it was us! It didn't surprise me though. People tend to make the mistake of pigeonholing us or labeling us as "garage" producers, not realizing the diversity of the body of our work. 'Sunday Shoutin'' opened a lot of eyes". It did indeed open a lot of eyes, especially in their hometown of DC where nearly all the attention regarding dance music is focused on Deep Dish. "People here knew of us in general, but mostly through our residency at Red" says Richard, "But it took 'Sunday Shoutin'' and the support of DJs like Sam Burns, Mandrill and Oji & Pope for them to really realize we've been here doing music all along."

It's been a long, sometimes frustrating road for 95 North, but ultimately fulfilling. "I wouldn't trade the experience for anything," says Richard. "Music has been a blessing for us and we are eternally gratefully to our fans, families and God for all of the love and support we get. We may not be household names or superstars, but we love what we do and will continue to do it for as long as we are blessed with the talents God gave us."

You can catch Doug of 95 North every other Saturday night a Red in Washington, DC, and the third Friday of each month at The Sanctuary at Vicki's in Washington, DC. --http://www.95north.net/biography.htm [Apr 2005]


House music is a music genre which is constantly on the move. Like no other music, the successful sounds change all the time, and esp. the recent history of house music is full of examples, e.g. the introduction of the filtered French house sounds by Daft Punk two years ago or the wildpitched disco sounds of today. I don't want to judge if this is good or bad, but if you love a certain sound you can be in trouble finding it. Nevertheless, there are a couple of artists who stayed true to their music during the past, and 95 North aka Doug Smith and Richard Payton are one of them.

However, like in the case of all creative artists, it is difficult to describe the sound of 95 North. For me personally, it is the soul and jazz which kept me listening to their records. Whatever release you take, you will be captured in soulful house sounds, sometimes jazzed-up, sometimes deep, sometimes garage-ish, but always true to their musical roots. Imagine a big rock in the surf, which withstands the turmoil and rough music changes throughout the time ...


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