Ricky Dillard is a legend in his own right, creating his own lane fusing his classic Chicago house roots with feel-good gospel for the world. Having created meaningful, impactful records for three decades now, the Chi-Town native loves nothing more than sharing his gifts and talents across all genres for generations to come.
Ever wonder who inspired the likes of Kirk Franklin and Kanye West? You guessed it: Ricky. With his influence on the latter’s Sunday Service Choir, the singer, songwriter, and producer received the nickname Choirmaster for his passion for choir and gospel music — creates vibes for Sunday mornings specifically. What sets his music apart is his house elements, which he most recently flips into his newest EP: Choirmaster: The Chicago House Remixes. If you’re new to the dance music world, this might just steal your heart.
Having shared the stage with the likes of Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, and Diddy, Dillard continues to love and have a heart for music. With an unwavering passion for building and empowering other musicians and singers who are living out their musical dreams, Dillard states, “I love the Lord, love people, love so many things about the art. I’m grateful to be included in a great genre of music that’s allowed me to grow and express what God’s given me.”
Being from Chicago, what was the household like growing up? I know house music had a great influence on you.
As a teenager, I was between the church and the club. Coming out of church first, then meeting friends from church who were reaching out of the 4 walls of the church to live a balanced life. I began to go party and dancing, also wanting a career in gospel. However, that wasn’t coming the way I wanted it to come. I heard on the radio this DJ crew called the Hot Mix 5, they played house music on the weekends. Different DJs had 15 to 20 minutes of time on-air to play a mix.
Some music was coming out of this label in downtown Chicago called DJ International Records, I popped in there one day to see what they’re about, ended up meeting people like Frankie Knuckles. They call him the Godfather of House, especially Chicago house. Farley “Jackmaster” Funk was a Hot Mix 5 guy, he’s playing clubs in Chicago through to New York. They heard me singing and crooning, invited me to the studio. I went to sit in, Farley asked me to step into the booth and sing a line of a song. That weekend, I ended up hearing the song on the Hot Mix 5 on the radio. That motivated me. I started my house music career by rubbing elbows with the most powerful of house music, Rocky Jones, the CEO and founder of DJ International and his whole entire crew.
What made you dedicate your music to Christ?
I was always there, from the beginning as a child. Raised in a very blessed, spiritual home with godly principles and teachings. My mother was an usher, a choir member, a Sunday school teacher, and a church mother. She died as the church mother of her church. I was raised around that message of Jesus, it was always in me. It grew with me throughout my teenage and now adult years. I’ve always had a love for it because my mother played gospel in the house all the time. She bought me James Cleveland and Aretha Franklin’s album Amazing Grace, which came out in 1971. One of the first records my mother bought me of Aretha and the king of gospel, James Cleveland. Many more records came through our house. The music grew in me, I became passionate. I began to dream, and now the dreams are fulfilled.
How was it creating Choirmaster: The Chicago House Remixes? I know it celebrates your roots and where it came from, was the process nostalgic?
It was a very awesome collaboration coming together with Maxwell. I’d spoken to Motown’s Monica Coates about approaches I was planning to do with Choirmaster. I was going to collaborate again with Steve Silk Hurley to do only one house track on the Choirmaster album. I had so many songs to choose from on Choirmaster, I never got to get with Steve on collaborating on a fresh song we’d write together. We never got there, we said “maybe we’ll do it on the next record.”
Releasing the live version of Choirmaster, Monica called me and asked me what I thought about pulling some tracks off of Choirmaster Live and making them house? I loved it. She got me on the phone with this young blood with a great ear and was studying house music, just in tune. He wanted to put some mixes together and let me check them out. Choirmaster: The Chicago House Remixes is what he did. I was overwhelmed, excited, motivated, a lot of things. Hearing us turn the live version into house tracks was extremely brilliant, I’m glad we did it. It brought back so many good memories, brought alive so many house heads during the pandemic. They’re working out to the live. Once we put that house mix together, this is what we need! A lot of people workout to the house remixes.
What’s your approach to line writing & arranging? Particularly on songs like “HE TURNED IT.”
“HE TURNED IT” was an original composition I wrote, I was trying to do something totally different. At that time approaching that Keep Living album, praise and worship were taking over fast. My style was a different sound of gospel that’s contemporary, not even the Kirk Franklin contemporary but this new wave of Christian music. The radios were going crazy. We were losing the foundation of what gospel was, but I guess it was an add-on of gospel.
When I wrote that particular tune, I was trying to be edgier. Write a message of something that happened in my life, that God turned around for me. I put that particular musical composition along with the lyrics and message of: what you go through, God turns those things around. There’s a coming out. There’s an exodus of anything that’s not comfortable, bad, or gone wrong in your life. Trouble doesn’t always last always, there’s a turning point.
3 decades in, what is your take on the music industry?
I like the fact that the youngsters are bringing gospel to a place where they feel, from their approach. My era was my era, their era is their era and I want to respect that. I don’t agree with all of it but when I first got here, people weren’t down for all I was doing. I don’t want to be what my former leaders were, I want to be more embracing to the youngsters. It’s your day, do it your way. I want to be here as a musical father to help guide, structure, and cover those who are in the run now, who are the face of present-day gospel. I’m down for it. Some I agree, some I don’t agree, but I have my own lane. When you get in your lane, you stay in your lane, and can’t nobody move you out of your lane. [laughs] I embrace the new sounds of gospel. It’s a genre, the sounds aren’t all the same.
How do you maintain a classic and consistent choir sound amongst every other gospel artist striving to “modernize”?
I’ve been here for 32 years. I’ve been doing what I’m doing, I’m comfortable by reaching out to expand what I do. I try to stay true to what I was, true to what I’ve started while expanding it to reach different artists and different people. Take on some of the approaches of the new sound of gospel, infuse it, and bring it together with what I’ve already started. Expand it to where music’s going creatively from other sounds of gospel, or music period. Whatever’s hot up there, you try to tap in and fuse it into what you’re doing, it might bring forth something fresh and different. That’s what we try to do.
When are you doing your Verzuz with Hezekiah Walker?
I don’t think me and Hez will be doing a Verzuz, he already did a Verzuz with John P. Kee. Many people are trying to get me to do a Verzuz, it becomes a little competitive. A lot of people have been doing a spin on it where it’s become more celebratory, but some make it competitive. I don’t want any artist to feel any kind of way where people feel they’re better than the other, I’m better than them, or make me feel lesser. If it’s an encouragement of all or both parties’ music, then we could do that. “He’s better than you,” that becomes a not nice to have to deal with and face your brother or sister in the industry. I don’t like that.
Goals for yourself at this point of your career?
I want to continue to do the music. God continues to lead and guide, give instruction. All these years, the Lord has given instructions on every album I’ve done. Moving forward, He‘ll continue to give instructions on what the message is, how we’re going to administer it, the songs, the writing. I’d love to find other streams of income, businesses and starting possibly a restaurant. I’m also interested in fashion. I love fashion, I’d love a Ricky Dillard clothing line.
What can we expect from the clothing line?
Suits, shoes, jeans, even some hip hop gear. Different things. Top hats for brothers, shirts, ties, different things brothers like to wear when they see me wear something. I’m a bright brother. There are some brothers in the world who aren’t afraid of color or different fashion. I’d like to make a way to make brothers comfortable with fashion, not feeling like they need to compromise their masculinity for a look. It’s so much that you can do to be fashionable.