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Josell Ramos

”It was just a matter of ‘are you hungry enough?’” says Josell Ramos about his efforts to reach a wide audience with “Maestro,” his documentary about the history of house music. “And we were hungry enough.”

”In documentaries, people either give you a scripted interview or a heartfelt one,” says Ramos. “We were after the true heartfelt one.” Getting those heartfelt interviews was easier than Ramos had anticipated. His enthusiasm for the music and some slick technology allowed him to delve deep into the minds of early house DJs. “The technology gave us the opportunity to go in there and not have everything in their face. The cameras were small and everything was miniature — the interviewees weren’t intimidated.”

The interviews may have been easy, but documentaries aren’t documentaries until they’re edited. “That’s where the documentary is being created, really,” says Ramos. “It’s during the production, it’s during the editing.” Ramos had little experience with editing or video equipment, but the photographer had cropped and color corrected countless photos on Macs with Adobe Photoshop. So when he had to choose a platform for production and editing, he went with Final Cut Pro. “I just read some of the manuals and started playing with it, making cuts and doing fades,” he says. “Final Cut made me more comfortable with editing. I didn’t need a huge technical support group like I would have with other programs.”

Final Cut Pro also let Ramos take his work on the road. “I could sit at home and work on a sequence for three nights straight, but it was also portable,” he says. “I could take my work on a laptop and change my environment. Sometimes you burn out because you’re looking at the same walls. You have to go outside, then come back and it’s fresh again. When you’re fresh in the mind you have fresh ideas.”

“I just read some of the manuals and started playing with it, making cuts and doing fades. Final Cut made me more comfortable with editing. I didn’t need a huge technical support group like I would have with other programs.”

Video editing wasn’t the only thing Ramos had to master to make “Maestro.” “When you’re making a low-budget documentary or film, you have to be involved with every aspect of making the film,” he says. “You have to know about Final Cut Pro. You have to know about your Sony camera. You have to know about the light you’re going to use. You have to know about every single thing to keep your costs down. Otherwise, the movie won’t get made. I forced myself to learn the foundations of everything, the basics of everything.”

”Maestro” took nearly four years to produce and was officially released in March 2004. The film was an instant success. “It opened worldwide independently with no distributors,” says Ramos. “Not many films even make it to a cinema. It was just a matter of ‘are you hungry enough?’ And we were hungry enough.” Ramos’s film was a hit at the independent box office, but it also inspired one of the most important figures in Chicago house music to tell his own story.

Unusual Suspects

Chip Eberhart, a.k.a. “Chip E.,” was one of the first music producers in Chicago to understand that on the dance floor, no one’s paying attention to the lyrics. A catchy, repetitive hook — simply “Time to Jack” — anchored the DJ’s first song, “Time to Jack.” “We were making minimalist music, so the hook could be geared toward the crowd,” he says. “It was the first time dance music was made for the dance floor, instead of for the radio and then played in the club.”

Other producers followed in Eberhart’s tracks and Chicago house began to evolve, growing more electronic, rhythmic and funky. Eberhart became a popular club and radio DJ and produced music for other DJs and musicians. In 1985, “Street Mix” magazine declared Eberhart the godfather of house music.

He eventually stepped away from his turntables to pursue a career in the burgeoning computer industry. By 2001, he had built his own Mac postproduction boutique and DVD authoring studio called High Level Productions.

The same year, Eberhart saw the trailer for “Maestro” at a house music reunion party at the House of Blues in Chicago. He met Ramos there and within minutes, Eberhart offered to make the “Maestro” DVD. Eberhart was also eager to talk about his own documentary about Chicago house music.

”The Unusual Suspects” tells the story of the key underground figures in Chicago house. Eberhart wanted to capture the scene as he knew it. “With my being in the scene, I was able to talk to people and have more intimate conversations with them,” he says. “It was from the inside out. And it’s not only part of history, but it’s part of my personal history. I wanted to make sure that it was documented accurately.” The movie features DJs, producers and musicians Jesse Saunders, Robert Owens, Joe Smooth, Frankie Knuckles, Julius “The Mad Thinker,” Victor Simonelli and others.

Next Page: “The Unusual Suspects” Comes Together

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