One of the most important producers for the early popularity of Chicago house, Steve “Silk” Hurley precipitated the founding of a major early house label (DJ International), recorded house music’s first number one single, and was the first to branch out to encompass pop and hip-hop within the house framework. Born on the south side of Chicago, Hurley began listening to contemporary R&B/funk of bands like Parliament/Funkadelic, the Gap Band, and the Ohio Players. Influenced to become a DJ by the disco hot mixes he heard on local radio, Hurley manufactured his own mixing set-up out of spare parts after a trip to Radio Shack. He studied engineering at the University of Illinois (and later at junior college), but dropped out by 1981 to concentrate on music full-time.
As a crucial early DJ, Hurley’s name was made in 1983 at a club called the Candy Store. With his friend and roommate Farley Keith, he promoted house music parties and also mixed on local Chicago radio station WBMX-FM. After Jamie Principle’s rough bedroom demos became huge crowd favorites wherever he DJ’ed, Hurley began buying synthesizer and recording gear; he emerged with several rough beat tracks, then recruited Keith Nunnally to add vocals and named the project JM Silk. His single “Shadows of Your Love” was the first release on DJ International (the label had been financed by Hurley and owner Rocky Jones). The B-side, “Music Is the Key,” quickly made the single a double-sided Chicago hit and set the Hurley sound blueprint: a cavalcade of stuttering beats balancing an insistent melodic quality which mirrored Nunnally’s soulful vocals. The addition of a rap — the first on a house record — only added to the epic quality of the single.
In 1986, Farley Keith had stunned the Chicago community when he hit the British Top Ten with “Love Can’t Turn Around,” recorded as Farley Jackmaster Funk. Hurley, however, claimed the track was a blatant theft of one of his own productions — the two stopped speaking to each other — and got his revenge by trumping Farley’s success with his next production, “Jack Your Body.” Borrowing the bassline from the club classic “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice, and adding the sampled stutter technique from “Music Is the Key” (though here on the vocals instead of percussion), the single hit number one in Britain in early 1987 and proved the most successful of the dozens of tie-in singles which swept Chicago house during the jacking craze of 1987.
Like Frankie Knuckles, Marshall Jefferson, and several other Chicago producers, Hurley spent more of the late ’80s and early ’90s working on production and remixing than actual recording; he provided club treatments for the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Janet Jackson, CeCe Peniston, Inner City, New Order, Black Box, and En Vogue, winning Remixer of the Year honors at the 1991 British Dance Awards. After forming his own Silk Productions company, Hurley gradually branched into hip-hop and R&B production as well.