In 1997, St. Paul-based techno whiz Freddie Fresh played in 28 countries and made enough money to make Mark Dayton cringe. In any given six-month span, he'll travel regularly between Minnesota, Japan, London, Germany, and his wife Sandy's childhood home, Puerto Rico. He is easily as influential as Paul Westerberg, and the crowds he plays for make the biggest Jonny Lang turnout look like kid stuff. And while clichés about the ignominy most dance artistes are forced to endure are applicable, Fresh is unique in that his profile is tiny even among the current generation of record spinners and knob-wonks he's influenced.
Yet even if your knowledge of the dance diaspora is limited to the occasional night at the Gay 90's, you've probably been under his spell: 35-year-old Fred Schmid has worked with everybody. Take Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim), the current king of Bristol's burgeoning big beat scene and author of the huge MTV hit, "The Rockafeller Skank." Fresh headlined Cook's Big Beat Boutique two weeks ago--less than three months after opening for Cook at England's Glastonbury festival, where he played for 100,000 people. And Cook is currently helping Fresh work out a track for Freddie's upcoming album, repaying the Minnesotan for his contribution to Fatboy's likely blockbuster You've Come a Long Way, Baby.
This is business as usual for a star whose list of credits includes remixes for influential trancers Hardfloor, industrial heavies Meat Beat Manifesto, hard-hop forefather Omar Santana, German breakbeat terrorist Alec Empire; and collaborations with Air Liquide and Kelli Dayton of the trip-poppin' Sneaker Pimps. In a post-rave underground that pays vague lip-service to hip hop, Fresh has gotten the nod to remix such b-boy luminaries as "Planet Rock" co-producer Arthur Baker, Grandmaster Flash, and Boogie Down Productions. He was recently given the chance to compile Volume 26 of Lenny Roberts's historic DJ-specialty series Ultimate Breaks & Beats, but Roberts's death quietly ended the project before it could get off the ground.
But despite international renown, Fresh remains almost unknown on his home turf. "I'd be happy to play here, but I never get asked," Fresh says, while coolly sipping a shake at a Nicollet Avenue McDonald's.
Freddie deserves blame for this as much as anybody. Unlike a lot of his high-rolling contemporaries, Fresh spends his in-town downtime relaxing with Sandy and his three teenage kids. This time is usually short; the day after our interview, he'll return to London to further his collaboration with Cook.
And it's hard to blame a guy for keeping a low profile in a country where his fame barely registers outside a rigidly circumscribed cadre of fans and scenesters. "See that guy on the corner waiting for the bus? He's probably 48 years old," says Fresh. "Go up and ask him what techno music is. He'll have no idea. Or that woman with her kids. She won't know either. But in Germany, if you ask a 65-year-old grandmother, she'll know."
That said, Fresh's absence on the Twin Cities' tight-knit underground scene is conspicuous. "I'd almost say he's misunderstood, except how can he be misunderstood if no one knows who he is," says Ground Zero regular and longtime Fresh friend DJ JT. "He got [techno pioneer] Woody [McBride] started in the studio; the scene wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. But the only people who acknowledge him are a few older underground people. He's been doing his own thing for years, and it's just weird that he doesn't get any respect here."
McBride echoes these sentiments. "Freddie's on top, but he's underrecognized here. He's had a really big impact on the producers of this town--helping with gear, encouraging people to make unique sounds. We all use a lot of synths, and it all sounds familiar--but Freddie is one person worldwide who comes up with sounds that have been likened only to the Aphex Twin."
"Let's just say I'm a pioneer who not many people know about," Fresh says.
Aside from a T-shirt featuring a cartoon b-boy spraying graffiti, there's little about this slight, balding, mustachioed man in jeans and ballcap to clue you into his occupation. During an era where international DJs are treated like rock stars--when top jocks from Grooverider to Carl Cox celebrate their large incomes by "Euro-ing out" and dressing to the teeth--Fresh is, as the locals would have it, good people. He looks and talks like your average 35-year-old Midwestern American with a wife, three children, and a steady income.
This lack of affectation runs through his best music. Today's up-and-comers have been immersed in electronic music since they were kids; their approach is as consciously cerebral as the pretentious studio-rock that followed the Beatles' late -'60s experiments.
Fresh cut his DJ teeth playing roller rinks--a rite of passage for many local DJs who got their start before clubland made inroads in Middle America. And his populist commitment is to unpretentiously rock any party that invites him. Thus, his fun-at-all-costs compu-funk roots ground even his most abstract techno excursions, and on repeated listens, his most defiantly underground gestures gain presence.
Those early-'80s days spinning roller-skating music were hugely important in his education. Fresh's most galvanizing musical experience was a 1981 trip to New York that introduced him to DJ culture. For the 18-year-old University of Minnesota freshman, discovering the music of legendary labels West End and Enjoy was life-altering. It was also on this visit that he was introduced to Sandy.
They married soon after, splitting their time between Minnesota and New York, where Freddie took up residence at the legendary Club Xanadu. He began producing his own tracks in 1989 under the pseudonym Modulator, and soon he was wealthy enough to take his growing brood on trips to visit Sandy's family in Puerto Rico.
Around 1990, Fresh began picking up on the nascent techno sound, one of the first Twin Cities DJs to do so. His forays into the style forsook digital sampling for experimentation with his trusty '80s gear. And, as his sales and stature grew, other area producers, like McBride, started seeking out his instruction. By 1994 the "Midwest techno sound" he'd midwifed became respected worldwide.
As of today, Fresh has made more than 150 records in nearly every post-Kraftwerk electronic style. A sampling of fairly recent work is instructive. The unlabeled, uncredited Fear of Music 2 is four sides of gripping minimalist techno, which upends its dense, droning figures with shifts in timbre that refocus your attention. The one-sided, red-vinyl "Invisible Man" 12-inch single, on Fresh's Butterbeats label, funkily triggers an Atari 2600 boogie with an exhortation to "do it from the front, do it from the back." The Feelin' Mighty Fresh EP on McBride's Sensuist imprint features body-rocking 4/4 workouts in the spirit of pre-house New York classics such as Taana Gardner's "Heartbeat" and D-Train's "You're the One for Me."
Recently, Fresh's sets have gotten funkier: "electro, disco, roller-skating music," he calls the sound, which has some Fat Boy big beat thrown in the mix as well. And we'll get to hear some of it in December, when he's booked for a large local party. Don't hold your breath waiting for another local date. "It's more important to me to do something worldwide than just stay in one place," he says.
Which is too bad, because with every ex-guitar-slinger in town discovering the joys of beats 'n' bleeps, there's seldom been a better time for an old master to teach the new-schoolers, and remind the old ones, where they come from.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.