Fieldwork, Interview

Magic Juan Atkins

04.06.11 | 4 Comments

I don’t normally put up entire transcripts of interviews that I conduct. The interviews are often oral histories and are ethnographic in nature. When I ask someone to sit down with me for an interview, I’m asking them to participate in my doctoral ethnographic research for my dissertation, and later, book about Detroit electronic music. It’s never been for the purposes of posting online. I’m an academic. Print still holds more power and significance over digital. Although, that is changing in a lot of ways. Since many of my research consultants are people whose musical careers have not been documented to such an extent, and my primary intention is to document electronic music in Detroit in both historical and contemporary ways, my interviews typically have an oral history focus. I also really enjoy sitting back and listening while my interviewee talks and talks. If you’ve been so gracious as to sit down and do an interview with me and now you’re so gracious as to be reading this, maybe you’ve noticed that I sometimes don’t fill moments of silence during interviews with commentary or new questions. That’s purposeful. I’m not trying to make us uncomfortable, shut up. I quickly learned that pauses in conversation do not always mean it’s time for me to interject. Often, a pause means there’s more coming, you just need time to think or collect ideas. This has worked so damn awesome for me so many times, I can’t even say. People really like to talk about themselves, and thank goodness, because what would I have otherwise? I’m glad you all like to talk about yourselves. It’s important. Also, I might already know the general answer to a question, but I’ll ask anyway for the sake of documentation and hearing it from the source.

In preparation for my interview with Juan Atkins this January, I was gently encouraged to avoid some of the typical interview questions that Juan has been asked repeatedly, and explore issues that are more contemporary. The preparation for this interview was pretty fun. It was a lot more focused and intense than what I normally do. I put something up on facebook at some point before the interview about prepping and Kuri Kondrak responded with some great questions that he would love to ask Juan Atkins. Much of what he listed, I already had on my list (swipe my hand across my brow and say schew), but one question I hadn’t thought of. Thanks to Kuri, there’s some great stuff below about R&S Records and Juan’s work with them over the years and again very recently.

I decided after conducting the interview that it would be great to be able to share this interview in a timely way online. I asked Juan for his permission to do this and he agreed. I will never just slap anyone’s entire interview transcript up online without permission, that’s for sure.

So here’s our interview.

Denise: In an interview you did with Todd Roberts recently for the Scion A/V video interview, you said you’ve always been interested in sound and getting away from standard acoustical sounds as much as possible.

Juan: Well yeah, because the nature of my music, the nature of what I do is all about the future, it’s all about alternative reality. It’s all about just performing or supplying something different than the norm. And I feel like forecasting or looking into the future is the best catalyst for presenting an alternative reality. So, that explains my interest into all things, especially music because I’m a musician, but all things futuristic, because you know, I think that that’s the only, you know, you talk about things of the past, it’s always something that’s already been done. And acoustic sounds, acoustic instruments, are, for lack of a better way to explain it, things of the past, or of the moment. So I’d rather explore things of the future because, one, they haven’t been done yet, and the possibilities are limitless.

D: Yeah. So does that impact the sounds that you look for and equipment that you use?

J: For sure, yeah. That’s the thing, and I think that if anybody that knows my music or listens to my music, you probably hear a lot of different sounds, a lot of new sounds that aren’t used or haven’t been used, and that’s, I really pride myself on using sounds, or developing sounds, new sounds that have never been heard or never been used. That’s the difference between using instruments now as opposed to using synthesizers and keyboards ten or fifteen years ago. The first keyboards, the first synthesizers, you really couldn’t store the memory. So the sound was different every time you turned the machine on and off. It didn’t have preset sounds. So you just more or less had to just, you know, work with whatever you had that came up when you turned the machine on. But now they have machines, when machines became more memory capable, they also became capable of storing preset sounds, sounds that were made up. For a while, they came with a lot of keyboards where you couldn’t really get past the presets. They tried to make them more user-friendly, customer-friendly, where like the old organs where you just hit a button and it gives you a certain sound. Well, you know, I like to go in and program my own sounds, even if a lot of keyboards had presets, ten, fifteen years ago. I wouldn’t use presets. I’d go in and get past the presets and program my own sounds.

D: So having an interest in futurism, is that about an escape, or trying to look outward or forward?

J: A combination. Definitely. I think if you listen to some of the lyrics of “Cosmic Cars,” which is kind of like an escape thing. “No UFO’s” was the same kind of thing, you know. It adheres to the same theory of an alternative reality. Just something, a change, or something different, not just change, but change for progression or for something that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been proven already that makes it even more interesting.

D: Well another thing you mentioned in that interview that I thought was interesting is that you’re a fan of dubstep and jungle and drum and bass, and your collaboration with 4Hero. Can you talk about that a little bit?

J: I was introduced to 4Hero when I was in Switzerland, I believe in Geneva. And I was playing with this organization called Weetamix, and the guy who runs it, it was two, a guy and a girl, Gabriel and Dimitri. So they brought me in to play at one of their parties, and so I was sitting in their apartment and we were just going through all of these different records and stuff and they put this 4Hero thing on, and I’m like, wow. And at that point, the whole album is great. All of the tracks on that whole album, the Parallel Universe album. To me, the drum and bass sound is sort of like an extension of jungle and then hip house. A lot of people probably don’t even go back that far. But house music is like Chicago. What happened was a lot of house music producers started putting hip hop samples on top of the house tracks, and they called it hip house. And what happened was when it went overseas to London, a lot of the rave promoters used this music as like the soundtrack for these big raves and it eventually evolved into jungle and then drum and bass. So it’s an extreme progression of hip hop. But at this point, it was totally evolved. And so I just fell in love with this album and eventually I met them through certain acquaintances. They of course had heard of my music. They told me a couple of times I had met them before, but I didn’t remember where I met them before. I think Kevin Saunderson did a party right down here at the Majestic, actually, and brought them in. I forgot the name of this party. You know, Kevin always has these theme names for his parties. And he actually brought them in, and I didn’t even know that they did this particular record, I think that before they were even 4Hero, they were somebody else. But anyway, so when we met we just automatically said hey man we got to hook up and just do something, or just hook up and hang out, or whatever, you know. So the first time, I lived in London for about three or four months. And I caught the tube to their studio. And it was funny because their studio was right on top of one of the tube stations. I mean you didn’t even have to, you could get off the train and you go up a couple of flights of stairs and the studio was right there. And so we got together and we collaborated on Jacob’s Optical Stairway and also, we did two tracks. One I did, the idea was they keep one for their project and I keep one for one of my projects. There wasn’t any payments. It was nothing complicated. It was just, “Hey, hey, you keep one and I keep one.” And that’s how we did it. But yeah, even still, til now, drum and bass to me, dubstep, sort of a little offshoot of drum and bass, a little bit more minimal. But even, it was funny because I just heard the new Snoop Dogg track. And it’s a dubstep track. Yeah. But I mean it’s got him and he’s got this vocoder thing happening on top of it. But it’s just like they’re playing it. It’s like brand new right now. So, that’s an interesting progression. I knew it was just a matter of time before hip hop and rap and this jungle music, and Snoop is bringing it together. It’s surprising but he’s on top of it.

D: Do you have a background with church music and gospel music? You’ve mentioned your grandmother and her organ being influential to you.

J: Wow, what interview did you read?

D: I think the Dan Bean one.

J: Oh okay, you read a few of them hunh?

D: Yeah, I’ve been reading for a while.

J: Yeah. My grandmother, she’s passed now. But she was very spiritual, into the church. My grandmother more or less brought me up. Because, my mom had me when she was fifteen years old, so she was still a baby herself. And she had me and my brother, and it was a little bit much. So she let my grandmother raise us more or less. So it’s funny because I call my mother by her name, but I call my grandma “Ma.” That was my mom. So she had this Hammond B3 organ, right, with the two tiers of keys, and the bass thing, and preset things. And it was funny because I never really knew my grandmother could play, but one day she got on there, doing the boogie woogie. And I’m like, “Wow!” She didn’t actually sit me down and teach me what she knew or whatever. She just, the organ was there and I would hear her play from time to time. She always encouraged, she never, we would get on there and I’d just bang on the keys just to make sounds. She never said “Stop.” She never said, “No, I’m tired of that noise.” That was one of the things that really, now that I think about it, captured my interest to make music, was being able to mess around on this organ. I think I was seven, eight years old. Six, seven, eight years old at the time. I’d go into, I’d be hours on this thing. My imagination would just run wild. And that probably is one of the things that kept, because she used to go to a place called Grinnell’s, which of course is not in existence anymore, but Grinnell’s was a piano, organ store. But they had a small room, a section in the back where they sold synthesizers when synthesizers first came out. So when she went to Grinnell’s to pick up her music books, or do whatever, talk to the people in the front, I would sneak into the back room and they had a Korg MS-10 back there, and a Mini Moog. These small synthesizers just started coming out for regular consumers. So I would go back there and mess around and make spaceship landing sounds on the keyboard. Oh yeah, I loved this machine. And eventually I was able to talk my grandmother into buying me a Korg MS-10. This was, I was in high school by this time. That was my first foray into electronic music.

D: So what kind of music were you listening to around that time?

J: Oh, when I was in high school, it was funk, P-Funk was like an idol, like an icon to me. George Clinton, aw man, he’s the guy for me. I think that everybody, you grow up, and even still to this day, George Clinton is an idol for me, my icon. He’s the number one guy for me because ever since I started listening to music, he was one of the main components of my focus. And so when I started making music, it was heavily P-Funk inspired. All of it, Funkadelic, Parliament, yeah.

D: So let’s talk about Model 500. I love the most recent releases. I think they’re great.

J: Oh, thank you, thank you.

D: So you’re performing live now, you’re working with Mike Banks, and your whole group. Can you talk about how that has evolved over time?

J: Well, Mike, I met Mike when we did the first Sound of Techno album on Virgin records. And Mike and Jeff Mills were UR at first. But they did another track not as UR, this is before UR, for this album with this singer, I forgot this girl’s name. Members of the House.

D: Oh right, yeah, Yolanda something [Reynolds].

J: Yolanda, yeah. Well, Members of the House was actually Mike Banks and Jeff Mills on the tracks, and I think they used different vocalists. I think they used some male singers at one time, and they used this girl for this record. “Let me share this house with you. Let me share this house” was on this album. So when we got together for a photo shoot, I met, that’s when I met Mike. And he was a big fan of my music because my music was huge. The Cybotron stuff was like a Detroit smash hit. So you know, he would compliment me. So eventually, I ran into him on different occasions, and eventually, they moved into this building on Grand River. And there was space in the building so I moved into the building as well. And so we just became good friends because of that. And eventually we would always talk about collaborating. We did a couple of collaborations. And then well eventually, he said, “Well, look man, I’ve been getting a lot of calls on Model 500 live. We should get together and do an event.” We talked about it for like two years before we actually said okay, let’s do it. So eventually we did it. We did it actually at the Metroplex Tenth Anniversary party. That was our first live show. We did a live show at a gallery called the Cement Space. It was an art gallery. For this particular night, they conformed it into a – for our live show, basically. So it was a good show. It was a good show. Based on that, it was probably another year or two went past before we actually did another show. And so we eventually pulled it together and we rehearsed. We got some bookings and we’ve been around the world doing Model 500 live. So as we were traveling on one of the shows, we had a connection in Skippo airport. Now with the way the technology has evolved, we had this laptop and we had a program in there, I think it was Garage Band or something. And we just passed the laptop around and put parts on the track. And that became the “OFI,” the record that’s the new record, was actually started with us passing this laptop around. We had a keyboard interface, plugged it in. And we’re sitting at the airport making this track. So that’s how, that’s where that track came from.

D: I’m glad that you’re doing vocals still on your tracks. I did an interview for this project with Brendan Gillen of Ectomorph. He was talking about you and the classic nature of Cybotron tracks and how you have an excellent voice.

J: How they were inspired by my stuff? Yeah, I’ve heard a few of his things. Yeah, cool. Yeah, I’m still, the new stuff that I’m working on will be vocal laden as well. I still believe in making songs. To make an instrumental track, to me, it’s got to be just that. Instruments. I mean if you want to showcase just music, then it should be quality. The technology is good because it’s enabled people that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make music, able to make music. So, a lot of sounds, a lot of different ideas have come forth because of the technology. But at the same token, there’s a lot of bad records. A lot of stuff that just doesn’t to me qualify as being even a release. You’ve got these kids out here and they’ve got money and they get their parents to go out and buy this stuff and they don’t have a clue as to what they’re doing, and they’re putting these records out and it’s just shit. So that’s the down side. So the thing about it is that a lot of these artists are putting out these tracks and they’re just tracks. I’ve heard tracks, even on the hip hop side, you know, you hear a track it’s just a drum, like somebody just hit start on the drum pattern. And the difference between a techno track like that on the rap side is just a guy rapping over the beat. But on the techno side, you’ve just got the beat. I’m like, “Well, I mean if you’re going to give me an instrumental, give me an instrumental.” Meaning that, go out and hire somebody that can actually play a scale. Unless it’s something really phenomenal where you might not have to know classically trained music. But music, that whole word, music, means music. Not sounds, music. So give me some music.

Photo by Krijn Van Noordwijk

D: With your, all your projects, Model 500, Cybotron, Infiniti – is more techno, is that how you would categorize it?

J: Uh, yeah. Yeah.

D: So do you have kind of subgenre categorizations for your projects, or styles?

J: I’ve never been a big fan of categorizing. I let other people do that. I never come out with a record and say, this is a ‘this kind of record.’ “This is a techno record. This is a house record.” I do what I feel and I put it out there and I let the audience, or let the journalists, or what have you, place it where they think it should be placed. And what makes it really, what makes me, where I really have fun at is when I do something that you can’t categorize. And there are a couple of few tracks that I’ve done like that where you’re like, “Well, where does this really fit?” Well don’t ask me, you fit it. I just made it. You know?

D: That’s one thing that’s interesting about the history of electronic music in Detroit and Chicago. That people try to say that house is one thing and techno is one thing and they’re separate, but there’s so much overlap.

J: Yeah. That’s, you know, because I’m a DJ as well of course, and a lot of my sets, I get so tired of going to certain places and it’s like, you fly to a club somewhere around the world. It’s like Friday is the techno night, Saturday is the house night. So what I like to do is I like to go play on the techno night and play house music. And then play on the house night and play techno music. It’s funny because some people can’t come to grips with that. But what I try to demonstrate by doing that is that if you love music, and you’re true to being a true music lover, then you should be able to go across lines. There shouldn’t even be lines. It’s something that you like, it’s something that you like, period. Of course, you’ve got to have some lines for the sake of argument. You can’t, jazz and country western are two totally different things. So for that purpose, yes, of course, you’ve got to have some kind of categorization. But outside of that, at the same token, there’s jazz songs I love. There’s even a couple of country western songs that I like. There’s a couple of rock n’ roll records, heavy metal, I like all styles. So, you know. But sometimes, it’s like, I understand that there has to be styles, but as I was saying before, if you love music, you should love different musics. There’s good and bad in every style. I don’t think that a pure music lover is a discriminatory person. You’ve got people out there at some gigs I play, and you will have these techno heads, and they’ll be like, “Harder! Harder!” They don’t want to hear it. You put a nice melodic, groovy, funky house track on. They can’t handle it. And I’m like, “Look man, I know I love this record. So I know, if you love music, you can love this record, too.” Don’t get caught into just “I just, I just want hardcore techno.” And they don’t want to hear nothing. They don’t want to hear a smooth sound. They don’t want to hear a piano. They don’t want to hear it. It’s sad, but, so I try to break that down as much as I can. Because if you book me, book me to play, I’m not going to stay on a straight line the whole night. That’s one thing that you’ve got to know. And I don’t care if you feel like that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I peak and valley. I don’t stay on the same, I’m a non-linear DJ, or non-linear music lover.

D: So how about your most recent work on R&S, how’d you get back with them?

J: Ha! You know what, the guy that owns, the guy that runs R&S, Renaat, he’s a music lover. Okay? And I mean he’s a dedicated music lover. And anybody that runs a label that’s a music lover first, I can admire them, because the choices that he makes and the artists that he chooses to deal with, he has a genuine love and genuine taste. He doesn’t care if it’s going to sell a million copies or if it’s going to sell a couple of copies. If he loves it, he’s going to go with it. He’s going to support it. There’s not too many people in the world, especially music business-types, or execs, that have a genuine understanding about music, about good music. I managed to be fortunate to meet this guy and come across. He had the label, and he had some of the biggest dance records out at one time. And so we did a deal. We’re negotiating, he’s a businessman as well. So you’ve got to expect that, you’ve got to respect that as well. We’ve been through a lot in terms of that. But at the same token, he’s the only label that has really gotten behind me 100%. I have my own label and everything, but I couldn’t get the support and resources to really promote and market my records the way that they should be marketed, promoted and exposed. When you come across somebody like that that has your same vision and that has the resources and pockets to make music videos, and things like that that have to be done, then you have to kind of like, you stick with them, you keep them around. And vice versa. It was unfortunate that he folded the label, I guess, eight years ago, in the middle of the album production. I was doing an album for R&S, I was on the west coast. In all honesty, I haven’t had a major release since then. And it’s funny, when I heard that they were coming back, well, it wasn’t a big deal. Then he contacted me and said hey, we’re coming back. Well, actually, what happened was my record was being shopped. Cornelius was shopping the record. And it happened that R&S was coming back in business. So they expressed interest to put out the new record. So we had to make sure, okay yeah, all of the stuff that happened in the past, that’s the past. This is the future. So once we got that straight, then we said okay, and we let them put it out.

D: Do you have plans to keep working with them?

J: Well, I tend to be a person that kind of does things on the fly. I’m a real improvisation person. There’s a lot of things that are involved. I have to be business minded as well. I’m a creative person, but I still have to keep a business head. They have to keep a business head. If we can stay together on the business level, then we can probably do more business together. But I think that there’s definitely an asset to have someone like that that wants to support. So chances are we probably will do more business. The album probably, they’ll probably get a chance to shop the album.

D: You mentioned your label, Metroplex. I wanted to ask you where the name came from.

J: Metroplex is short for Metro Complex, which is another synonymous term for metropolis. Which, if you know anything about future studies, there’s an author called Alvin Toffler who did Future Shock and The Third Wave. What these books talk about is the impact of the technological revolution on society and he forecast about different terms and different concepts that will come to pass, will come in the future. And how we should react and how we should relate to these developments. In Future Shock, he talked about either the metroplex, the metropolis, which is two cities that become so large that they eventually merge into each other and become one city, which becomes a metroplex. He forecasted that Chicago and Detroit would become so big at some point in the future that they would merge and become one city. Like Dallas-Fort Worth has already. And they even call it the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. They call that the Metroplex. As a matter of fact, I think the stadium is called the Metroplex. If you go to Dallas, you’ll see all kinds of things that say metroplex, metroplex, because that’s what they actually call their city now. It’s the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. That’s where the word came from. It’s a future word. It’s not so much future now. Twenty-five years ago, I was thinking about that.

D: Yeah, I was out of town for the twenty-fifth anniversary party. I heard good things about it though.

J: Aw, yeah, you missed a great party. It was good. It was out of control, but it was good. Which, what party is not good if it’s not out of control? But I mean it was cool. There was no violence. Everything went good. Nobody got ill, nobody fell out. There was none of that. So that’s that. It worked out good.

D: How’d you like having it in that space? They have a new sound system.

J: I loved it because it was new. It wasn’t purpose built, the bottom floor. It’s an old club. That’s why I had the main room, even though it was smaller. Just the intimacy of the room and the vibe of the room, because it was already a club before. So that’s why I had all the main guys on the basement floor. I love that space. We did. We banged the club. Big sound system in there. It was crazy.

D: Well, you’ve talked about this a little bit, but I wanted to ask you what you think about the music industry now, in terms of formats, digital releases and things.

J: The music industry now has kind of evolved to, and I saw this when they came out with the CD, the writing was kind of on the wall with what the major companies were doing. And that was, to have more control over the market, they had to squeeze out the independents. And a lot of the independents, especially in dance music, were releasing on vinyl. What happened was these vinyl releases from these independent record companies were kind of making the market kind of a joker’s wild because certain music, certain sounds, certain new things would come and change the whole landscape of the music industry. Prime example of what I’m talking about is years ago, they were trying to push Prince as this platinum artist. They have different tiers of promotion and marketing in these major record companies. They have gold promotion, platinum promotion. That determines how much money or how much resources they use on a particular artist. Prince had platinum promotion behind him. Which means that they spent off the rip, they spent a million dollars in promotion and marketing, posters, ads, radio ads, payola, whatever, to push these artists up the charts. So the funny thing was, this was our first record, “Alley’s of Your Mind.”

We came out right at the same time as “Little Red Corvette” came out, Prince. And charts came out. Different cities had charts, each radio station had their own chart. I don’t know if it still runs the same way now, because you’ve got satellite radio, you’ve got all these different formats now, but at the time, the big radio stations like WJLB, WCHB. In the WCHB chart was the chart for Detroit. So when the record companies come in, they want to make sure that they pay the different record stores to report these records as being the top sellers so they would be in the chart. So, the chart came out this one week. “Alleys of Your Mind” was number one. “Little Red Corvette” was number two, on the chart. And the record companies went crazy because they couldn’t figure out how this little, teeny little artist was number one on the chart and the artist who’s got a million dollars of promotion is sitting on the chart behind this no name, this nobody group. Things like that happened in different cities in different markets where eventually they had to squeeze out the little guy. When you listen to a track like “Alleys of Your Mind,” and you listen to “Little Red Corvette,” two totally different sounds. Prince and the Minneapolis sound was big in Detroit. But that was all guitars, that was all conventional. “Alleys of Your Mind” was a totally electronic dance record. Me doing this little monotone vocal, robotics type sound, and it was like after you heard that record, you didn’t want to hear “Little Red Corvette,” you know. The record companies were having really a hard time controlling the marketplace from these independent groups and independent artists like myself. But we were able to survive because we’d go to the pressing plant and just press up a couple of thousand records and go to the record store. With the CD format, I mean yeah, now you can press CDs, but at first, CDs were only being pressed by major companies. You couldn’t afford to press a CD. They forced this CD thing out there. They stopped a lot of the chain record stores, like Peaches, like Harmonie House, they stopped selling vinyl altogether. Even to this day. Funny thing is that Best Buy just started selling vinyl again. Best Buy wasn’t even in existence then. When they came in, they were selling music, only CDs. When that was done, that was done to squeeze out the independent. So, to get back to your question, I know I kind of went off onto a tangent, but …

D: No, that’s great! That’s great.

J: To get back to your question, what happened was that, even further, now that the mp3 is even a step further than the CD because now you cut out the whole distribution network with the mp3. Now, okay, I have a daughter. My daughter just turned twenty. If it wasn’t for me being a DJ playing vinyl, she would never even know what a vinyl record is. I go through the airport, and the TSA, if you’ve got a young TSA person, they always stop me and pull me off to the side. “What is this?” Because they’ve never seen a vinyl record. “Oh, okay, it’s albums.” They don’t know what it looks like because they never saw it. My daughter, she never bought a vinyl record. She’s downloading. She used to always ask me for my credit card number because she wanted to download music from iTunes. So she never had the experience of actually going to a store and buying, I think she bought some CDs before. But she never bought a vinyl record. She never had a record player. She had the iPod. She had the first version of iPod when it first came out. And she’s bought the new upgrade every time it came out. I had to giver her a couple a hundred dollars to buy the new upgrade. She had no need to go and buy a vinyl record, which is why a lot of the major record/vinyl outlets stopped selling vinyl. I think the record industry kind of shot itself in the foot when they killed vinyl because what happened was you had people like Napster come and things like that. They couldn’t keep up with that technology quick enough. They’ve kind of put a clamp on it now, but there are still sites like that where you can download. Major artists come out with an album. Yeah, the company, they’re going to still get their certain amount of sales, but half of it is going to get downloaded for free. They’re never going to sell as many records as they could have or would have sold had it not been for the mp3. Not to say that I want to get rid of that technology because I think it’s just, the way the music industry is now, you’ve just got to approach it in a whole different way. I think major artists now are going to find that the bulk of their income is going to come from live performances. And that’s another reason why I developed and progressed this Model 500 live thing because my first record on Metroplex, my first two or three records, I was selling at least ten thousand copies of each. My biggest seller, I sold like fifty/sixty thousand copies, of one record. The last five to ten years, you’re lucky if you sell a thousand copies. And so therefore you can’t depend on the bulk of your income coming from record sales. Now it’s like I make more money doing live shows than I ever will selling records, especially being a small independent, or a custom sound, or a custom label. Because if you don’t have a major record company, only major artists are, and I don’t even think that they’re selling as much. The record industry went through a real down point until they realized that they had to change, they had to clamp down on those downloads. And they’re doing all right now, but I think they have to supplement the income. They have to get involved with the actual overall career of their artists in terms of live shows. They have to be involved with all of that stuff now to see any money. And that’s my observation on the state of the music industry now. It’s hard now to break a new artist on an independent level. It’s almost impossible, but on the conventional way of doing things, it’s almost impossible. But what the internet did was it allowed artists to be able to directly interface with their audience. That’s proliferated with myspace, where you can hear the tracks on there, with soundcloud, and these things where you can plug directly into the audience. It’s a new way of marketing now. You might not sell as many records, but if you’re selling direct to your customer, and you’re selling direct downloads, then you’re getting the bulk of your profits. The distributor doesn’t have to get money, the record label doesn’t have to get money. All of these people get cut out. It kind of works out. And so it’s good. It’s good to a certain degree. Still, though, there’s a whole slew of stuff that you have to go through. Me as a DJ, I spend a lot more time sifting through records that a good 60-70% is trash, but at the same token, the 10-15% of good stuff that you do come across is really good, new, fresh material. You take the bitter with the sweet.

D: So what new artists are you into right now?

J: That’s another thing because there’s so many different artists, it’s kind of hard to keep up with one particular thing. And I mean the artists, people are releasing things under different pseudonyms. Just to be able to keep coming. Because you have to put more stuff out now. You can’t, like I said, when I was selling fifty thousand records on one release, hey that was good enough, I could ride on that for the whole year. I didn’t have to put out another record. But now, since I’m only selling a thousand on one release, then in order to make fifty thousand, I’ve got to put fifty releases out. The thing has changed. It’s so easy now to make tracks and to make music. It’s not as involved as it used to be. You have to, there’s a lot more things that you have to go through. So I can’t really answer the question who is, on any given day, it could be somebody that like stands out.

D: How about production? You use computers now, do you still use analog equipment?

J: Not so much. Right now as we speak, I’m using totally software based programs. There was a time that I was one of those, “Naw, I’m going to stick to the hardware. I’m sticking to the analog.” Because the reason why is because I was a person that was using the technology when it was first being developed. I would use some of the first software programs. I was using, if you can remember the Commodore 64 computer, well I was using the first software program on the Commodore 64, and aw man it was tedious. It really didn’t work. If you were lucky, you were able to get it to do a whole track. You had to keep saving it. It was using these floppy discs, you know the big floppy discs. And it didn’t automatically save. You had to remember to save what you were working on. And if you didn’t save every ten or fifteen minutes, the computer would lock up. There were a couple of times where I was working on something. And when you first start working with this, you’re not thinking about saving, you never had to save. So I would work up a whole new track, and I probably wouldn’t save until I was done with it. But a couple of times before I got finished, I’d be 75% of the way through the thing and the computer would lock up. And the only way that you could get it to unlock is that you’d have to reboot. And if you reboot, you lost everything that you’d been working on. Man, I wanted to throw that thing out the window. That kind of put me back into using hardware, analog hardware for a while until they got it spot on. Now it’s spot on. The computer, the software stuff just became so overwhelming, not overwhelming, but it got to a point where you couldn’t ignore the technology, for me. There’s so much that you can do now with such a small space. And the way time is being crunched now, now I can do a track, I can be on the airplane, with my laptop. I can have a virtual studio. I can have all of the sound, virtual sounds, virtual synths that I probably would have, if I had to buy all of this stuff hardware, I’d probably wind up spending thousands of dollars. Where I can spend a couple of thousand on programs and have all of the stuff right there. It took a while for it to get to that point, but now it’s there. It’s just a matter of the main, the drawback to doing it that way is that if you’re a musician then you’ve got to have some kind of interface. Because now they’ve got it, now you can turn your keyboard, your computer keyboard into a – to play the sounds, but it’s not the same as actually playing a chord. That’s one of the main things now. As long as you’ve got a good interface, a good keyboard to plug in. That’s the thing that keeps it from being so compact. But now they’ve got these small keyboards with only twenty-five keys. But you want to play a whole thing, you can’t really do it, if you’re playing both bass and chords. You can’t really do it. You can’t take a seventy-eight key thing with you, compact-wise. Outside of that, they’ve got it down pat.

D: One thing about Detroit that has always been significant to me is that electronic music in Detroit, techno music has an African American history, but it’s not the typical story of working class, lower class, ghetto kind of. It doesn’t have that background. It’s got more of a middle class background, college educated people making music. Do you want to talk about that? [This does not apply to all electronic music produced by Detroiters. There is certainly a wide range of economic backgrounds among producers of Detroit electronic music. However, techno’s early history in Detroit is absolutely rooted in the middle class.]

J: That’s the one thing about Detroit, Detroit was, and I guess it still is to a certain degree, was the pinnacle of the industrial way. So, Detroit was a city that represented all things new in terms of the industrial revolution, which the unions, and all of this stuff, all of this stuff came out of Detroit. So there was a new middle class, so to speak, that sprang up out of the workers, the factory workers. This was the first time in American history where African Americans were making money on par with white Americans. That was a new thing and I think that that has impacted Detroit, even from Motown. And this middle class kind of came out where it was existing in no other city outside of Detroit. Maybe a little bit, certain industrial type cities. But this was the place. I think that there’s kind of been an attitude where the kids in the middle class of Detroit wanted to separate themselves from the lower class kids or the more urban kids. And it was funny because we used to do parties, we used to play these parties, and they would play a different style of music because if you played like a regular funk track that was being played on the radio, the party could explode into gun fire. Fights would break out because people get rowdy when a certain track, certain record came on. The crowd would just blow up. So a lot of kids were trying to, especially the middle class kids, were doing something different to kind of separate from that rowdy element. I’ve seen that only in Detroit. I went to other cities and I’m like, “Where’s the preppy crowd at? Where’s the house music, where’s the disco party at?” And there were none outside of Detroit. That was one thing that was really unique.

D: Not only have you lived in Detroit, but you’ve spent time in Belleville, Ann Arbor, you lived in Ypsi[lanti], also right?

J: Um, yeah, but Ypsi, Belleville, Ann Arbor, it’s all the same difference to me. Belleville might be a bit more rural, but it’s all the same difference.

D: Can you talk about that being a part of your background, or how those areas have influenced you?

J: Well I went to Belleville high school. I would have gone to Detroit public schools, but by the time I got into high school, I was considered a bad kid. I was delving into a lot of things that would have kept me from graduating on time. I was getting kicked out of school. I was just what you call a bad kid, sort of. I was a product of my environment. Sadly, it’s easy for a high school kid in Detroit to take the wrong path. What happened was we moved to Belleville in a way to steer me back on the right track because when I moved to Belleville, the yellow bus would pull up in front of our, we lived on a dirt road and the yellow bus would come down. There was no way that we could not get to school because we had to get on this yellow bus and go to school. Whereas, when I was living in Detroit, either I walked or I caught the Detroit public transportation. Once you walked out the front door, there was no way your parents knew, there was no way of knowing what you were doing, until some kind of way the school got in contact with them and said, “Hey, we ain’t seen your kid in about three weeks!” I’d wake up everyday like I was going to school, but whether I got there or not was a different story. So, yeah, I was kind of rowdy. And to get me to straighten up and fly right, we moved to Belleville, which was kind of in the country. I didn’t have my bad influence friend right down the street, or one of my boys that had dropped out of school already right around the corner. I didn’t have none of that, so it gave me time to sit back and realize, to start thinking about my life and my future. It made me say, “Hey wait a minute. Let me go ahead and shape up and get my diploma.” And that’s what Belleville did for me. It actually worked. It actually worked. So that was my experience there in the country. And then because I’ve met a lot of people, so when I graduated, of course I was still living with my parents. There were certain situations that arose that forced me to live back in Detroit. I came back and forth to Ann Arbor. I had a girlfriend who lived in Ann Arbor that I went to high school with, then lived in Ypsi, so I moved back with her for a while. You know, things like that.

D: I have one last question for you, it’s about Submerge and Cornelius Harris. I’m just always impressed with Submerge as an institution, being here in Detroit. Maybe you can talk about how you came to work with Cornelius and Submerge.

J: Well, Submerge is Mike Bank’s distribution company. Submerge was actually formed when we were together at 2030 Grand River. So Mike got the idea, after things started becoming really popular overseas with all of the guys, Derrick, Kevin, we thought, why don’t we build a little more unity. So he formed this company called Submerge to distribute everybody’s label and it would give us a more unified front and it would give everybody a little bit more power in terms of distribution and pressing, get better pressing bill. Everybody could press records at the same company under one order, different labels, so they would give you a better price. If you had two labels coming out with different releases at the same time, if you ordered them both at the same time, you’d get a better price on your records. Things like that. That’s how Submerge came together. But of course, as Detroiters being how they are, everybody didn’t want to buy into that concept. But Mike continued on as best he could and I kind of stuck with him. Then he bought this building, and I kind let them still distribute my label. I think Cornelius came on board as someone that was working with Mike. That’s how I met Cornelius, through Mike. He suggested when we started doing these live shows, of course we needed somebody to handle the bookings, and kind of manage the details of booking the shows and getting the records done and out. Cornelius kind of served that purpose.



have your say

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. Subscribe to these comments.