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About two years ago, Jason Tyler lost everything in a Chicago house fire that was started accidentally by a superstar DJ and good friend. Then he spent a couple of semihomeless weeks in New York writing and recording an entire album with nothing more than a laptop that he carried in a backpack. Finally, he landed in a swanky South Beach pad, where he's managed to write yet another album's worth of material.
On a recent sunny afternoon, sitting in a swivel chair next to the home studio he keeps in his immaculate, Spartan bedroom, the DJ/producer seems pretty chilled out while contemplating it all. In fact Tyler's affable, low-key vibe seems to rub off — hanging with him is a little like being in the presence of some electro Buddha. Well, a Buddha that's actually trim and a snappy dresser, rocking a fierce pair of thick-framed white D&G glasses.
"Man, when you have a house fire, you see what's important and who's really down for you," he says after a sip of canned Heineken. "Like now, I don't try to fill my life with a lot of clutter. I think a lot better when things are more minimal."
Besides "simplify," Tyler's other main mantra has been: "Follow your dreams, no matter what." It's the theme of his debut studio CD, Model Tested, Rockstar Approved, a 14-track loose concept album of scorching, bugged-out electro-house bangers with nary a sample among them. It's driven by the steady work ethic that's carried him since the fateful day he returned to his Chicago apartment from a weekend of gigging in Detroit to find it practically nonexistent.
"[DJ] Keoki was leaving New York and wanted to stay with me," Tyler recalls. "So I let him... for three or four months. We were doing a ten- or 15-city tour, and we went to Detroit for the weekend. And when we came back, the house was being boarded up and there were firemen everywhere... You know how we have these cinder blocks here?" He motions to a stack of them neatly propping up his computer desk. "Well, he had even higher ones for turntables. You know how Mac laptops have those little tiny thin cords? He accidentally had one under one of the cinder blocks, and that actually sparked the fire."
Tyler had no renter's insurance, so he took Keoki's accidentally burning down his house as an opportunity for a tabula rasa. "I was like, 'Skip it; I'll just move to New York.' "
It was a major move. Tyler had been born outside of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to an American mother and a Honduran father. (Tyler is his middle name; Torres is actually his last.) It was following the rural raves of the '90s, in the triangle of Fort Wayne, Detroit, and Chicago, that he had found himself sucked into the search for the perfect beat.
"The first time I ever heard [house], I loved it," Tyler says. "It was just so opposite from, like, the classical or jazz worlds I was studying, 100 percent. And I actually met [Chicago house legend] Paul Johnson at a party in Ohio, maybe Cleveland, and he was like, 'Oh, you play trumpet! You should come to Chicago and work on some music.' At the time, I was trying to do some little parties in Indiana. So if I was going to Chicago, I thought, well, I could throw parties there too."
His first warehouse party promotion, after he split from the university, was attended by more than 3,000 people, and his new musical career was off and running. "Everything kind of happened simultaneously," he says. "I did the parties, and then I'd also play; I'd close all my own events." He started teaching himself production on drum machines, an MPC-2000 sampler, and keyboards. He released singles on France's G-Swing Records and, domestically, on Dust Tracks, the onetime home of electro-rock pioneer Tommie Sunshine.
And always, there was the trumpet. Tyler played it live over his sets, improvising as the mood struck him. Soon, other DJs were asking him to do the same at their gigs — Mark Farina, Timo Maas, Cajmere/Green Velvet, Fast Eddie, Miguel Migs. He recorded for not only Paul Johnson but also Derrick Carter, Gene Farris, and Glenn Underground, among others.
By the time of the fire, Tyler was a deeply established artist in the Chicago house scene. But he was never totally down with its insularity — the way it's fiercely protective of its storied traditions and averse to deviations.
"Even when I was making house, it was unconventional house back then," he explains. "I think it didn't really fit into the deep house category [or] disco house... [but] you know, when I'm working on stuff, I don't like to label it."
So with the escape to New York came an opportunity for something of a musical 180. This is when Tyler decided to start working on what would become Model Tested, Rockstar Approved.
"It was definitely not easy when I was making that album," he says. "But it put things in perspective for me."