Claude VonStroke has been flying high since founding the San Francisco-based and Detroit-loving record label Dirtybird in 2005. He has hosted the Dirtybird Campout Festival and Dirtybird BBQ Parties across the country, was voted America's DJ in 2016, played both weekends at Electric Forest in 2017, and on Saturday, May 26, he closes out the Movement stage for Movement 2018. Metro Times talked with him about being exposed to techno in Detroit, honing his craft out West, and performing under his real name for the first time in years.
Metro Times: Can you take us back to the pre-Movement days of warehouse raves in the '90s when you were living in Detroit?
Claude VonStroke: When I was 16 and making music on a four-track in Grosse Pointe, I would bike to a gas station across the Detroit border because they were the only place around that sold rap tapes. Then I saw in the Yellow Pages there was a recording studio another half-mile down the rode, and it was Metroplex. So I made a rap demo and biked down there and tried to convince them I should be their recording engineer. They thought it was funny, but they weren't mean to me, they were cool. But it's really funny looking back, because I probably met Juan Atkins and everybody in there.
Then I went to college, and moved to L.A., and moved back to Detroit to work on a movie called Polish Wedding. A guy I worked with and my best friend in Detroit, Anthony, hooked me up with the Poor Boy guys. I was already in my mid-20s. This was the end of the '90s.
I was obsessed with jungle and drum 'n' bass because Mike Haener gave me a mixtape. I had never heard that before and I freaked out, so I started making drum 'n' bass. I was the only guy making drum 'n' bass [in Detroit], and I played it for the guy who ran Poor Boy, and he was like, "Whatever, it's cool," and he put me in, like, Room 5 at the Poor Boy warehouse, and that was my first show. A full drum 'n' bass rig to probably 10 people.
MT: Why did you decide to make the documentary Intellect: Techno House Progressive?
VonStroke: The documentary was made because I had this really intense drum 'n' bass music, and then I realized I had absolutely zero knowledge of how to do anything past making the tunes. After the movie job ended, I stayed in Detroit for two years. It was easy to get assistant producer jobs on car commercials, and they paid so much and my rent was so cheap I could do music four days a week and only had to work two or three days a week. Then I started dating this Canadian girl, and she wanted to move to San Francisco, so I got all hyped up on S.F., and then her visa didn't come through and we broke up, but I moved there anyway.
I moved to Oakland, and started working at a post-production house, and started this documentary. I connected with all the Detroit DJs cause the guys I knew in Detroit were linking me up with Theo Parrish and Derrick May and Juan Atkins and all those guys. And once I got those guys in my movie, I was able to get everyone else really easily. So the documentary was me asking all these people how they got started, how distribution works, how starting a record label works, how to get gigs, like all the actual questions people want to know, instead of their favorite color or where they grew up. I actually asked them how they did it.
MT: So you were getting the best industry advice possible.
VonStroke: Yeah, that was my grad school. I interviewed 50 DJs, everyone who was popular in 2001, and then I completely ran out of money and couldn't license any music. So I made the music to go under the interviews, sounding exactly like that artist. So at the end of this movie, I knew how to make house music. I had also learned all the other stuff, plus I knew how to make house music, so I started Dirtybird.
MT: Out of all the people you interviewed, who gave you the best advice?
VonStroke: Theo Parrish and Derrick Carter, they were really honest, good interviews, and they weren't trying to overblow who they were. They just told me the truth. Basically if you're not willing to do security, be the bartender, work the door, make the fliers, and bring your records to every single party and wait for your shot, you're never going to get in. You have to work five times harder than everyone else, and once you make it, work 10 times harder.
Theo said something like, "You could just go buy like $250,000 of synthesizers but you still won't be any good at making music. You have to be good with the biggest piece-of-shit sampler. It's not about the equipment, it's about how you make the tracks." Those are the two things I've kept with me the most, as well as some very technical distribution stuff.
MT: When you were making the documentary, did you know you were going to make a label, or was it after when you realized you have all the knowledge one needs to start a label?
VonStroke: No, I still thought I was going to be a DJ.
MT: So why did you decide to start a label as opposed to trying to just focus on making it big?
VonStroke: There were a bunch of factors. Justin Martin was making bootleg vinyls that were doing super well in San Francisco, and we hand-delivered one to Ben Watt, who called a month later and said he wanted to sign a track. But Justin didn't know anything at all about this stuff, so I took over as a manager and negotiated a deal so it wasn't a total disaster. I thought I was just going to be Justin's manager, but this whole time I'm making music, and my wife was getting behind it but gave me an ultimatum that I had one year to make it or I had to stop forever.
Then I remixed the first Justin Martin and Sammy D record, which became Dirtybird #1. Little known fact, on the slab's B-side, it's under Barclay Crenshaw, not Claude VonStroke. I remixed Dirtybird #2 as well, and Dirtybird #3 is basically my first original house record, "Deep Throat." That's the record that let Dirtybird stay in business, because it went and sold like 20,000 vinyl [units]. We went from not knowing if we were going to get paid by the distributor to being their priority. And, by the way, the only person that would distribute us was a super weird distributor in Frankfurt, Germany. No one would distribute us in America.
MT: It's interesting that your first Dirtybird release was under your own name and not Claude VonStroke, given that you more recently have been playing under your own name again.
VonStroke: Yeah, when I moved to Detroit, I was super into hip-hop, and after I got to a certain point with Dirty Bird and Claude VonStroke, I really wanted to go back to that and make whatever music I want. It's just going to be a little creative side project.
MT: Because now you're in a position where you can do what you've always wanted to do all along?
VonStroke: Yeah. I mean, it's crazy how I got into house, I almost didn't even know that I wanted to do it, but it just sucked me in. I realized I actually know how to make house, and make it creatively, in a fun way, and people will pay me money to do it. Then after a while I was like, "Remember that other thing you really like? You should take a look at that again."
MT: Who are you looking forward to seeing at Movement this year?
VonStroke: I'm definitely going to DJ Hype and Hazard, and Ed Rush & Optical. Ed and Optical were on that first mixtape that Mike gave me back when I was first doing music. It's crazy that they're booking drum 'n' bass in Detroit 'cause I can't even tell you how hard it was to get anyone to even look at me. When I was doing jungle, Detroit was like, "No."
I don't know if there's a phrase for this, but, you know how it's almost impossible to get shine in the town where you start? It's like every other place has to say, "These guys are killing it" for your hometown to be like, "Oh, yeah, they are killing it!" [laughs] That's a very Detroit thing.
I'd like to see Helena Hauff, Gene Farris, Kink, Shigeto, Nastia, DJ Premier, Marshall Applewhite, Charlotte de Witte, Mike Huckabee, Radio Slave, it's all awesome. That's the best part about Movement.
Claude VonStroke will headline Movement Music Festival at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26 on the main stage; 1 Hart Plaza, Detroit; movement.us; General admission for one day is $85; General admission tickets for the weekend are $195; VIP weekend tickets are $320.
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