Mark Farina released the first volume of his Mushroom Jazz compilations – which contain a leisurely, melodic mix of jazz, soul, and hip-hop – on tape in 1991. Music has changed in countless ways since then, but the series has endured, moving to CD in 1996 and spawning a number of sequels. The 8th installment arrives today, 25 years after Farina started.
Speaking on the phone with Billboard last month, the DJ suggested that the series serves as “a good bridge for more rock-based people to find their way into electronic music.”
“You have that brother, sister, uncle, aunt, that doesn’t know electronic music,” he explained. “People will turn them onto it through Mushroom Jazz.” The compilations have served other purposes as well: Farina recalls fans informing him that their children were conceived while listening to Mushroom Jazz.
The DJ talked about the origins of the project and the key to its longevity. Read excerpts from the conversation below.
Since it’s the 25th anniversary of the Mushroom Jazz, can we go back to the origin of the series?
I was living in Chicago in ’89ish. That early east coast hip-hop was coming out, of course I had the whole house thing going on – it was Chicago. I was also discovering what sampling was, seeking out the originals. There was also that U.K. acid jazz stuff coming out. So I combined all those elements.
It also spawned from working at a club called Shelter. I would do a main room set, which was house. They opened a B-room in the club and they called it the Paramount room. It was a chill kind of room, with sofas and chairs and a tall ceiling – no dance floor. Back then DJs played all night in the club. It wasn’t two-hour sets: you got Thursday, you played nine p.m. to four in the morning. I did two nights in this new room, and I was like, I’m not gonna just play the same house. The sound system in the main room was a very cool, old school New York sound system by Richard Long & Associates. It’s big and chunky. I’m like, I can’t compete with that room. So I just started playing all this other stuff I was into at the time.
From there it turned into a mixtape. We all worked at this record store in Chicago called Gramophone. All the DJs would sell the house tapes at a shelf over the counter. That was how we all made our little extra cash to buy records. They had a good system – if you put ten tapes up there, they’d give you ten credits for vinyl. Even back then, records weren’t all that cheap.
Being in Chicago, there were tons of house mixtapes – the great Chicago [DJs] all had tapes for sale up there. So I decided to do this Mushroom Jazz tape, and this was before ambient rooms and downtempo and any of those terms existed. I made one volume, a 100 minute tape – everyone did 90 minute tapes, I’m like, I’m gonna do a 100 minute tape. You get 10 extra minutes for free! It was a big selling point for me. The Mushroom Jazz tape up there started to get a lot of popularity because it was the one tape that wasn’t house for sale.
Do you put the albums together the same way you used to?
Over time, I’ve also got to know more artists direct. The early ones had to go through the normal channels of licensing and going through labels. Whereas now I just go to artists and say “send the track over.” And me being known a bit more, I can get tracks easier than being a Joe Schmo. So I hit up producers direct like, “what unreleased tunes do you have? I’m getting things together for Mushroom Jazz 8, send me your latest.” I always like to get the newest goods that aren’t out.
How have changes in technology impacted the process?
The first three volumes were mainly vinyl-oriented tracks. Around Mushroom Jazz 4, things started to shift to a fully digital realm of music. When you have stuff all on vinyl, you have limitations. In the digital world, I can get promos anywhere – download at the airport, check stuff out. Technology has helped with that aspect.
When you DJ, you also do house-oriented sets – is it easy for you to move between styles?
I find it is. The themes of the music, regardless of the tempo, are very similar. It’s all about a funk bass, a pleasant vocal, nice keys and nice melodies with a bit of oomph to it – just the tempo is different.
Traditionally the Mushroom style is around 100 b.p.m. Over time I’ve discovered more music to bridge the gap between 100 and 120 [a house tempo]. And I didn’t know it at the time, but playing two styles can work out kind of nice – by playing different tempos, it opened up different set times for me. A Sunday day party that started at noon; people wouldn’t want to hear straight house. Playing different b.p.m. and styles opened up doors to do different things.
Do you feel pressure to change your sound to adapt to different trends in hip-hop or dance music?
The opposite: it’s a calling to keep true to the style, since things are so different. Mushroom Jazz 8 I wanted to be purely New York: old-school hip-hop beats with jazz. Making up a genre, I can really change it however I want. But I make a concerted effort to keep the theme the same. Keep evolving within these parameters that I’ve set, but don’t get too abstract.
Why do you think the series has remained resonant?
A good hip-hop beat with some jazz is pretty timeless – two American classics. I’m so surprised that it hasn’t taken off more. Even when I hear other DJs interpretations of Mushroom Jazz, it’s never quite the same as my interpretation. It seems like it’s held a good niche in the music-scape.