Women in Music 2016

Larry Heard on Kanye West Sampling Him For 'Fade' & Mr. Fingers' Rebirth

Marc Sethi
Larry Heard

Since Kanye West released The Life Of Pablo in February, he's unveiled three official singles from the record. "Famous" spawned a public showdown with Taylor Swift, while "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1" sparked a meme, but the most successful single to date on the R&B/Hip-Hop Chart is "Fade," which rides the bassline from an old house tune, Mr. Fingers' "Mystery Of Love." "Fade" adds to the growing heap of hip-hop singles constructed around house music samples in recent years — it's provided Drake and DJ Mustard with multiple hits, and Kendrick Lamar showed up on a house remix last September — and exposes Mr. Fingers to a mainstream audience for the first time in more than two decades.

Mr. Fingers is a moniker of the DJ/producer Larry Heard, whose work under his own name and various Fingers-related titles led to a series of essential Chicago dance records, including "Mystery Of Love," a remarkable tune that achieves a lot with a little: a tidy bassline, sanguine but not exuberant, is the unchanging engine of the song, while a rotating series of percussive effects, whooshes, and rumbles periodically shift the song's energy. "It's like a cat," Heard says of the track, speaking over Skype from his current home in Memphis. "You think it's gone, and here it comes walking through the doggy door again."

Heard originally found his way to electronic music after an unsatisfying period as a drummer in various cover bands, and though "Mystery Of Love" was one of the very first Mr. Fingers tracks, he has little recollection of making it. He suggests the song was mostly a happy accident, a product of youthful excitement — he was working with a new synth and drum machine — and lessons gleaned from listening to his parents play piano. "I got lucky," he says. "I was clueless.

There are multiple iterations of "Mystery Of Love." "The initial version [1985] was much slower, about 110 b.p.m." Heard recalls. "When we did a recording for DJ International [1986], then we included Robert's voice on it." (Robert is Robert Owens, who teamed up with Heard as the influential house group Fingers Inc.; the Fingers Inc. debut album, Another Side (1988), also featured "A Love Of My Own," which resembles "Mystery Of Love.") The Fingers Inc. version peaked at No. 25 on Dance Club Songs chart in 1986; Heard recalls hearing it in regular rotation on the radio as he drove around Chicago at the time.

The circumstances around the reemergence of "Mystery Of Love" in pop's mainstream are full of pleasing coincidences. Kanye West originally debuted a version of "Fade" during a fashion show for his Yeezy line in 2015; at the same time, by chance, Heard happened to be working on what would become the first new Mr. Fingers tracks since 2005. Heard also notes that "Fade" first appeared thirty years after the release of the song it sampled — "quite an interesting anniversary present" — and that both producers are from Chicago. 

Heard chose to return to Mr. Fingers only after the memory of the last two albums under the name had fallen away. "The first Mr. Fingers EPs were instrumental things," he explains. "By the time I got to 'What About This Love?', it had my voice on it for the first time, and it turned out to be a big seller for us, and it sparked the labels approaching me about it because it ended up on the charts. Most of the stuff on the Introduction album [1992] ended up being vocal stuff. Then the next Mr. Fingers album had a whole lot of vocal songs. It just so happened that I had a lot of vocal ideas at that time."

He didn't want Mr. Fingers to be limited to one sound. "I just left that space in there to let things cool down," he says. "People are maybe expecting one kind of a thing and it turns out to be a different kind of a thing and they're disappointed. I finally decided adequate time had passed now, we can kind of start it fresh." The rebirth of Mr. Fingers occurred this spring with the release of Outer Acid, a four track deep house EP that eschews vocal hooks. Heard describes it as, "going back to my roots, getting back to the instrumental [sound]. Some of it is so out of this world, you can't come up with any other title except something that's off the planet."

In an ideal world, the radio spins of "Fade" — and the 34+ million YouTube views of the video, which debuted at the VMAs — will introduce new listeners to Heard. "Every little thing that helps people who maybe don't hear any dance music, maybe just hear what's available via radio, maybe that opens something for them to Google search the name and look at the Discogs page and check out some things there," he says.

But he's wary of being associated only with the dancefloor friendly vibe of "Mystery Of Love." In the '90s, "there was some interest from Sade's camp in some kind of a creative interaction," Heard remembers. "The stereotyping comes in: the officials at the label, Sony Music, were like, 'doesn't he just do house music?' That's how I was ruled out. Similar situations happened with Jody Watley, Chaka Khan, and Gwen Guthrie when she was still alive. "

"It would have been a great fit for me," he continues. "The lack of vision as far some of the people making decisions at the label is disappointing."

Heard wants to follow Outer Acid with a new Mr. Fingers full-length, and he's toying with the idea of making it a double album. "Maybe there's some hope for my own hip-hop tracks that I've done over the years," he adds. He says he has some radio-friendly R&B tracks in his vaults too. "Like Brandy — remember 'I Wanna Be Down?'" he asks. "I have stuff like that. They're just sitting there collecting dust, when someone else can be utilizing them. That's what I'm hoping for."