It's a common path in the world of dance music: You start out DJing, then slowly learn to write and produce your own tracks. For a certain generation of DJs, who came up before the EDM explosion, it's practically a rite of passage. But for Detroit native Marc Kinchen, who produces and DJs under his initials MK, the process happened in reverse.
“I’ve only been DJing maybe five or six years," says the veteran producer and remixer, sitting in the VIP area a couple hours before his main stage set at the HARD Summer festival in San Bernardino last month. He's wearing a black T-shirt and backward Yankees baseball cap and somehow managing not to sweat in the stifling midday heat. With a hand that has his "MK" logo tattooed on the back, he scratches his beard, its gray flecks the only hint that he's in his 40s.
Back in the ’90s, when his career started, "I’d DJ with my friends at the house, just messing around," he says. "But I never did a gig. I did like one gig in ’96 but that wasn’t my thing."
Instead, Kinchen's entree into the dance music world came in the studio. He began making tracks in his teens; when he was 16, one caught the ear of techno godfather Kevin Saunderson, which jump-started his career. "Kevin heard it and was like, ‘Hey, do you wanna work with me?’ And I was like, ‘All right.’"
Within months, while still in 10th grade, Kinchen found himself working with all the giants of Detroit techno: Saunderson, Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin. He was grateful for the apprenticeships but not overawed. “At that age, you’re too young to freak out," he explains. "You don’t even know what’s out there. I hadn’t been 50 miles past my house my whole life."
Still in his teens, he moved to New York and quickly established himself as a remix ace, producing jacking house reworks for everyone from Bobby Brown to Pet Shop Boys to Masters at Work. His breakthrough hit came via a deep house track called "Push the Feeling On" by Nightcrawlers, a Scottish dance music act. His remixes of the track, particularly a propulsive version called "The Dub of Doom," blew up internationally between 1993 and ’95, making MK one of the most in-demand remixers in the business.
Young and flush with success, Kinchen should have been on top of the world. Instead, he found himself quickly souring on his new career path. "Everyone I got remix requests from wanted it to sound like Nightcrawlers," he says. At the time, he reasoned, "I’m only 22. If I keep doing this, I’m gonna be burnt out by 27."
So in what has been a running theme in Kinchen’s career, he decided to switch lanes. He learned to produce hip-hop and R&B and within a few years was working with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Jay Z and Janet Jackson. After a pragmatic move to Los Angeles ("I was flying out here all the time anyway"), he landed perhaps his strangest job: in-house producer for Will Smith, then at the height of his box office clout. Kinchen worked on music for several of Smith's films, including Bad Boys II; I, Robot; and Shark Tale — but as is common in the film industry, most of his efforts never saw the light of day.
"When you’re working on movies, you’re dealing with the executives," he says. "They’re like, ‘Nope, can’t do that. Change that, change that.’" The most extreme example of this came when he was asked to write and produce the theme song for All of Us, a sitcom Smith executive produced that aired for four seasons in the mid-2000s. "I did 36 versions of that song. It’s a 30-second clip. It took me like six months. I’m like, dude — six months to do a 30-second clip? Not cool.”
His return to dance music came from an unlikely source: Pitbull. The Miami rapper had sampled Kinchen's "Push the Feeling On" remix on his 2009 hit "Hotel Room Service." At the time, Kinchen had parted ways with Smith and was "kind of struggling, in between careers." Then his brother heard the Pitbull song and suggested that Kinchen hit him up and offer to remix it. "I was like, ‘That’s a good idea!’"
Soon, Kinchen found himself back in a familiar role, serving as an in-house producer for Pitbull. But this time, the arrangement made sense. Pitbull was producing albums and singles, not films, and he understood the value of incorporating the increasingly popular sounds of house and EDM into his music. For the first time, Kinchen found he could draw on all his skills — producing and remixing tracks in house, hip-hop and R&B styles as needed. "So at that point, I was happy."
But he still wasn't DJing, until he got a call from Jamie Jones, the London/L.A. DJ and producer whose recent Paradise in the Park party in MacArthur Park was part of a growing, welcome movement to bring underground house music out of the clubs and into L.A.'s many great outdoor spaces. Jones and his partner, Lee Foss, convinced Kinchen to DJ one of their Hot Creations events, and his DJ career has been running hot ever since.
“Now? I do like 20 shows a month, bro," he says, chuckling. "Yeah, a lot. So much that I’m telling my managers to stop booking them. I’m like, yo, chill out."
Mostly, he wants to spend time with his kids, ages 6 and 9. But he's also trying to finish up his first artist album since returning to the dance music scene, which is difficult when you're on the road two-thirds of every month. "I have 10 days to either see my kids or make an album. Kids are gonna win.”
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Still, he's making progress — and on Friday, Sept. 1, he's releasing his fourth single from the project, "17," an old-school, Chicago-flavored house anthem that's already a highlight of his DJ sets. "It’s my favorite, hands down, of all my singles so far," he says. "Every time I play it, my DMs are like, ‘What is that? What is that?’ So that’s a good sign."
A big part of what makes "17" feel like such an instant classic is its exuberant vocal, from a newcomer named Carla Monroe. “I don’t care about big names. I’m over that," says Kinchen, who still does production work and remixes for the likes of Ariana Grande and Rihanna (his remix of the latter's "Sex With Me" is even sultrier than the original). "But I do know when something sounds good. It can be a young person who’s never been in the studio before — that happens a lot. But yeah, I just listen [for] what sounds fresh.”
He's still sometimes a victim of his own success — just as everyone in the ’90s wanted their MK remix to sound like "The Dub of Doom," now he fields endless requests to transform pop hits into something analogous to his epic vocal remix of Storm Queen's "Look Right Through," which topped the U.K. dance charts in 2013. But mostly, he's happy to be back doing what got him into music in the first place — making dance-floor fillers that straddle the line between commercial and underground, "producing without some guy in a suit telling me how to change the hi-hats."
MK's "17" is available now.