If someone asked me to describe Lee Foss, I’d tell them he’s the lovechild of Chicago and Ibiza.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lee in Miami, digging into his history as an artist and learning about his evolution in producing and DJing. Lee has his roots in Chicago, growing up in Dekalb and working in education before he started opening at one of Chicago’s best house clubs, Smart Bar. What really changed life for Lee, making him one of the pioneering American musicians, was his experience in Ibiza back when it was basically undiscovered compared to the Ibiza of today. There he met the ineffable Jamie Jones, creating a union of Chicago and UK house that would result in the creation of Hot Creations and their founding of Hot Natured.
Hanging out at The Miami Beach Edition after Lee’s set at Basement, we discussed Lee’s introduction to production, his first synthesizers and, most poignantly, what it means to be a musician. Lee is an incredibly passionate and well-spoken artist. Know that there’s a lot of fire behind what he has to say.
What is the best production advice you’ve ever received?
One thing Jamie Jones told me is don’t send anyone a song until you’re excited about it, and you want to play it, and it’s one of your favorite songs. If you’re not excited about it, chances are no one else will be. If you’re just using it as a tool to get something, it’s basically masturbation.
I remember Seth Troxler told me always play your claps, don’t draw them in and quantize them. Play them live. Clapping is a live thing. An 808 or a 909 clap sounds cool, but even still, clapping is something that can be loose. There are certain hits that, depending on the groove, should be pretty close on quantize, but typically a clap can be extremely loose because it sounds good even when large groups are clapping. That was useful for me in the studio.
Are you self-taught?
I’m one hundred percent self-taught, but I’ve gleaned a lot from when Jamie and I started working together. You always get little bits and pieces, and people get bits and pieces from working with you. After several years teaching myself, Jamie and I starting to work together was the biggest step, if nothing else, in workflow, which allowed me to get better faster at creating ideas. I’ve picked up a lot of things, but the basic way I sit down in Ableton and sketch out and start working hasn’t changed a lot since then.
When did you make the jump to producing?
A bought a PC in 2004 and got a crack of Reason; I don’t know if I would consider that a foray into production, but within a year of that I had started to get real gigs in Chicago, opening up at Smart Bar. Jamie was releasing music, he was close to his Amazon EP and he was making all this great music, and I saw everyone on this path to success. You can go to school for music, or you can spend the money to get yourself a bunch of production stuff. And that’s what I did. I spent some money on studio stuff and got a Mac Pro, Logic, studio monitors, and some keyboards and taught myself.
Did you start out with analog gear?
In the very beginning I had Reason, but then I got Logic and used some of the native plugins. I bought a Juno 106, then a Korg MS20, but I never used it because it didn’t have presets and I was too lazy to understand subtracted synthesis. Eventually I sold that then I got a Minimoog Voyager rack mount.
Did you have any music theory background?
I took piano lessons at a young age, but I pretended to learn to read music and I would just memorize—that’s probably another reason why I have the method I do—I can hear things and feel them out, but I would pretend I was reading music and just memorize whatever I was supposed to do. I probably only kept going to piano lessons because I got a piece of candy at the end.
It’s something I may revisit. Jamie, for example, after he’d been making music for a few years and had a lot of success, went back and took some music theory and that really expanded his horizon. For me, once you’re already coming from another angle and you’re not too attached to the rules of music theory, I think going back and understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing is great. A lot of my friends who started out in a music theory background sometimes have trouble thinking outside of the box, and they’ll say they can’t figure out some of the stuff other artists do. But ultimately you’re just doing what you hear sounds right. Music is math and it is science, but at the frequency range we choose. It’s at 440 hertz. But it could be shifted down, there are other ways to come at it. There are other ways to play things than just the classical way that everyone’s been taught. I think it’s good to know why you’re doing things, but it’s also been very helpful for me not to come from a regimented music theory background.
Do you see yourself as a certain percent DJ and certain percent producer?
When someone asks me that doesn’t know me, I like to say that I’m a musician. When people think of DJs they might not necessarily think of what someone like me does. They’re thinking of the clowns that they see. I know I’m an artist. I create things with lasting value. I’m not saying there’s no place for entertainment, I think there’s a place for anyone to be entertained in a way that doesn’t hurt other people or creative negative or addictive things, but saying I’m a DJ makes people think of these EDM hacks. I mean, most of my income is from DJing. I’ve toured extensively live in Hot Natured, I play instruments, I’m a musician. But most of the work I get is because I’m a musician.
Especially here in America. Say you’re a DJ, as the conversation goes you can say most of your work is done in DJing, most of the traveling I do is for DJing. But I’m at a good balance right now. I’ve gotten really focused lately on my DJing and on my production. It pisses my girlfriend off, working so hard. I’ve also had the luxury for the first time of not being scattered. We’re not working on Hat Natured at the moment, we’re waiting until next year. Not working on Pleasure State at the moment, MK’s gotta finish an album. I’ve decided to set some time aside and really do a ton to get my studio right. Given myself extra time, worked on collaborations. Me and Jamie have sat down and had some sessions recently, but the need to work towards the other projects hasn’t been there, so it’s great—I’m getting a ton of music done.
It’s funny, with me and my friends there was a point where we were looking at it like, “ok, people like seeing us as these personalities,” and I think we were acting a little too much like the 60s rock stars. You have to always be contributing to your DJing, to your production, for it to be contributing back to you. I’ve worked hard to get rid of any resentment I’ve had for my job. I’ve been doing it for a long time, doing a lot of traveling, and I’ve worked hard to enjoy the places I go, and keep creating music. I’ve started another new label by myself called Repopulate Mars. There’s a ton of great new music. Me and Jamie have our new label, Emerald City. We’ve been super focused and communicating. It’s electrified me. I couldn’t always tell you at any point my DJing the best it’s ever been—I feel like I was great when I was a local DJ. There’ve been times when I’ve been so focused on production and I was playing too much of my own stuff, and there’ve been other times where I’ve been focused on just DJing. There hasn’t been any solo output from me in a long time, but now I’ve struck a great balance. I really prepared for my disco set at Basement in Miami—I’ve got a ton of disco—but I over prepared and I felt rewarded for it. It’s not like I planned my set out, I was playing back to back with Jamie, but it felt like I was a step ahead at every turn. It allowed me to just enjoy it.
Did you have a more traditional start to your career path?
I was 24. I was just coming back from Ibiza. I got a substitute certificate from the state of Illinois because I couldn’t find a job, it was right after September 11th. My family new the head of the special ed department where I’m from, and she had a teacher going on maternity leave so I had over a semester teaching behavior disorder students. I proctored tests for NAEP, the thing that tests inner city schools in Chicago. It’s kind of like season four of The Wire; I’ve been in most of the inner city schools in Chicago. I worked at an educational publishing company. All the jobs were nepotism. My mom’s in educational publishing.
What brought you to Ibiza for the first time?
I was probably one of the first Americans that I knew of that was out there all the time. When I first got there I could barely mix. I would buy Mixmag and DJ Mag and I would understand what it was. I made friends through going out, but my friends were into hip-hop and not into the house music stuff. To see what was going on there, especially as a young horny guy, I was like, “I got to see this place.” All the music I wanted to see, all these beautiful women, these cool people. I got there and it was ten times better than I expected. So I just made it my life. Made friends with Jamie and some of my other friends who are still friends to this day. A lot of them have a lot of success in a lot of industries. It’s cool to see them become important in this industry and the industries around us. It became my life for a few years. By the end of that first season, I loved being there, but I knew I could be a better DJ than most of the people playing there. I knew what my taste was. I knew that what they were doing wasn’t enough for what that place was.