4 min

After the flash & thunder

Superstar producer returns to the DJ underground

Credit: Blake Little

When someone says “Barry Harris,” the first thing that comes to mind is Thunderpuss and Lil’ Kim crooning, “Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh,” over pulse-pounding sound, surrounded by blitzed out, half-naked muscle boys.

But talking with the music superstar over the phone from his home in LA, the first sound I get is a hissing, quick intake of breath. I make the mistake of comparing his sound to circuit music.

“I don’t really do the circuit parties,” Harris points out, clearly agitated by the label. “I’m more the afterparties. I don’t play circuit music. I’m not a circuit DJ. I don’t want to be a circuit DJ.”

Such is the stigma of success, where one layer of the long-lived career of a very talented and experienced man overshadows all the others. Thunderpuss was the LA-based production duo of Harris and Chris Cox which produced more than 34 charting hits, including 17 that hit number one. Thunderpuss created the majority of the songs you humped to on the dancefloor at Unity.

But last summer Harris left Thuderpuss to pursue other ventures, stirring a nest of controversy with commentators wanting to pin a negative twist to the entire affair. “Thunderpuss had a good run,” he says. “If it overshadowed everything else, it’s okay – be happy you had success, any sort of success.” From a long history, spanning more than 20 years in the music scene, Harris has been on a constant roller-coaster ride in terms of his career, from trendy gay nights and the birth of house music, to black straight nights. Both on the decks and behind the curtain, he’s done it all.

“Everything for me is chapters,” says Harris. “With Thunderpuss, I was done, I wanted to do something more. Sure, with the commercial stuff you get paid, but you start to lose your integrity. So I do things on purpose – I make a commercial success and then I shoot myself in the foot.”

Harris wants to revitalize his spirit by focussing on DJing. When he’s stirred again by the muse, he’ll return to the studio to produce. “I haven’t been focussing on the remix thing,” says Harris with the husky voice of someone who’s matured in the club world. “I’m taking a breath, focussing on spinning and reconnecting with the underground – back where I came from.

“When I’m ready, I’ll see it,” says Harris. “Whether musically or artistically or creatively, you need to be inspired. I’ll know what to do when it comes. I just have to be ready. A 24/7 job isn’t healthy – creatively you need to be ready to go, whether at 2am or whenever.” He takes a second to laugh. “I think I’m crazy.”

Harris considers a question on his contribution to gay culture as “loaded.”

“If you want to call where I’ve been ‘gay culture,’ then yeah, I’ve been gay since I was 15. So gay culture-wise I’m sure I’ve been a part of something.” He counts produced tracks “I Got My Pride,” a huge Pride anthem, and “Dive In The Pool,” the unofficial theme to Queer As Folk, as two tracks he is most proud of. “‘Dive In The Pool’ definitely has a certain something,” he says. “I’m more proud of it than remixing Madonna.”

Harris started out small in the baby years of Toronto’s gay and club scene; he had a front seat when things took off. In 1988 Harris made his first debut as a producer/ songwriter/artist with the hit single “I Beg Your Pardon” with Kon Kan; it won a Juno in 1989 for best dance recording and was a top five hit internationally. Kon Kan lasted till 1993, releasing three LPs before Harris moved on.

He then collaborated with veteran DJ Terry Kelly to create Top Kat, best known for the Moonshine Records’ release of “Feel Cool.” In 1996, Harris hooked up with Rachid Wehbi (now of the production team WideLife) to form Outta Control. They had a few hits in the US, most notably for their dance cover version of “(What If God Was) One Of Us.” Wehbi and Harris also collaborated with vocalist Simone Denny on the Canadian top 10 hit in early 1998 “I Can’t Take The Heartbreak” under the name Killer Bunnies (Harris just reunited with his old friend Wehbi and WideLife for the remix of the Queer Eye theme “All Things”). Prior to heading south, Harris had a longstanding and popular Wednesday night party at the Barn.

The Barrie native is a tell-it-like-it-is, no bullshit type of guy; being straightforward is something he considers a Canadian personality trait.

In 1998 Harris moved to LA to form Thunderpuss with producer Chris Cox, and a year later signed with Madtizzy Productions who were handling the rising names of a rapidly growing circuit community. Both decisions would propel Harris from his underground connections into the limelight of an increasingly mainstream gay party culture. “Gay people may not like it,” says Harris, “but the boom in circuit dance music obviously targeted an audience and became a success. It’s a cultural phenomenon; you’ll never know what’ll take off. It’s like this guy billed as the new Barry Manilow who’s blowing up – who knew?”

Thunderpuss created huge, internationally recognized remixes that were pure commercial, but slickly produced pieces of rump shaking excess. “I was a musical whore,” says Harris, “’cause you want to pay the rent.”

Harris always knew there would be an end and a time to move on. “I didn’t want to be a whore anymore.

“We’re done,” he says. “I have to go back to my roots, start all over again, in a new way to the underground. I don’t like being considered a pop DJ. I’m not of pop music, and was forcing myself to play to pop sounds.”

To Harris, creating new material is his primary goal. “Everything is you, the whole thing, the whole concept – it’s not Cher’s history, no other songwriter’s story.”

But for the time being, he’ll be spinning for packed crowds across the world, in Toronto on Sat, Feb 21 at Fly performing for boys who were still in diapers when Harris began his monumental career.

Blending a sexual orgy of sounds, Harris say he likes a combo. “Rough and fun and trippy – even though that’s such a tricky word, but I guess the trippy is for people who use poppers in sex. I prefer it rough to progressive.”

Prepare yourself for a bangin’.

* In a piece of breaking news, it was just announced that for the first time ever Pride Toronto has organized its own large scale dance event (with all proceeds to benefit Pride). The Jun 26 Pride Ball at the CNE will feature Barry Harris as the headline DJ.


$10 before midnight;

$15 before 2am;$20 after.

Sat, Feb 21.

Fly. 8 Gloucester St.

(416) 410-5426.