Ta'Raach McMathis never meant to leave Detroit.It was 2004, and the emcee-producer was booked for a DJ gig in Los Angeles. And, remembering it now, he still can't quite believe it. "It was my first time out there," Ta'Raach says, "and off of that one gig I got, like, this whole mini-DJ tour."
The extra gigs led to a commission along with such DJ notables as King Britt to remix cuts from L.A. hip-hop mover Madlib's Keepin' Time project, a live recording of area hip-hop DJs performing with legendary jazz drummers.
"When scenarios like that open up in a 60-day period," Ta'Raach says, speaking from Pasadena, where he's lived since 2005, "it's what's needed for an artist in a small scene to feel like your music's being embraced outside your community."
On that same trip out west, Ta'Raach hooked up with fellow Detroiter J Dilla, the late great James Yancey, who was then sharing a condo with Chicago emcee Common.
The visit would change Ta'Raach's life. But before that, he changed his name. Like everyone else.
In 2000, Ta'Raach, then known as Lackadaisycal, lived near Recloose (Matt Chicoine, whose alias at the time was Bubblicious). Chicoine introduced him to techno kingpin Carl Craig, who was starting a hip-hop label. "I didn't know who Carl Craig was," Ta'Raach says. "He had to give me his résumé when I first him and I didn't even have a résumé!"
By that summer, Ta'Raach was touring Europe with Craig's genre-fusing Innerzone Orchestra.
"Messin' with Carl helped me to develop," Ta'Raach says. "I'm having mimosas in the Swiss Alps, sitting next to Gilles Peterson and having no clue who he is. It inspires you to make different music."
Besides sharing exotic drinks with legendary UK radio hosts, he also saw how Craig was infusing techno with jazz and hip-hop, to great effect. "He could DJ a techno set, and play Missy Elliot."
Once back in the United States, going out Friday nights at St. Andrew's Hall's Three Floors of Fun turned into all-night conversations at Greektown's Mediterranean Café, where Ta'Raach hooked up with Platinum Pied Pipers' Wajeed and Slum Village's Elzhi (before either were in those groups) along with soul-hop prodigy Dwele and Big Tone. Those meetings inspired the Breakfast Club, which, as Ta'Raach terms it, "was more like a support group than a recording group." But the camaraderie and talent caught the attention of producer J Dilla (then known as Jay Dee), who immortalized that moment in Detroit hip hop with his solo debut in 2001. That year's Welcome To Detroit featured Lacks (Ta'Raach) and Big Tone on one track.
With a name and some street cred, Lacks took a cue from Craig's techno world and put out an underground soul white label single in Europe to great response.
"We hand-numbered every one, so people could tell some thought and care went into getting it to them," Ta'Raach says. "Magazines were reviewing it, DJs played it all totally unsolicited." He also collaborated in Nathaniel, an R&B hip-hop project with the Stones Throw label's Aloe Black.
Thus fortified by his ability to bring hip hop to techno and house and soul to hip hop, Ta'Raach brought Detroit to Los Angeles.
Can't forget the Motor City
Cut to that fateful afternoon in Dilla's L.A. condo.
"He broke it down for me," Ta'Raach says. "He was like, 'I never thought I'd move out here, either, but the work kept comin'.' I had just bought an MPC, and didn't even know how to use it. Jay Dee gave me a handful of $40 records to sample and said, 'Get started.'
"See, Detroit's like a cult scene," Ta'Raach continues. "But once you get outside of that, like Jay Dee did, he saw that you got your Pharells and your Nellys needing beats."
"He was like, 'If you don't have a reason to go back, don't.'"
And so Ta'Raach didn't. And he's spent the last two years crafting The Fevers, his debut album. He's also been the Zelig of underground hip hop, appearing on 28 releases so far, including Dabrye's excellent 2006 album Two/Three.
But now with Fevers, Ta'Raach's even more of a shape-shifter or at least not just another rapper. He produced the whole album, enlisting L.A. players like DJ Black Munk on stand-up bass and keyboards, "But even then I chopped it up and re-did it on the MPC."
He credits the album to "Ta'Raach and the Loveolution," both to acknowledge his collaborators but also to make a statement. "I was thinking how 'love' backwards is 'evolve,'" Ta'Raach says. "The only way to turn it around is to put love in everything we do to evolve." To that end, the Loveolution message melds mediums: Ta'Raach says his forthcoming Loveolution Web site will have "Different art, different literature rooted in all cultures."
The Fevers is likewise multi-rooted. The album is stunning in its meshing of thick, drawling abstract hip hop with hard-knock rhyming ("I'm from the city called All Or Not," Ta'Raach intones in "Big Bang Theory"). There're head-wagging beats against tenderly honest R&B and soul like "Catch My Breath (World)." On that, chanteuse J. Mitchell delivers confessional lyrics ("Maybe I should say 'fuck this world'") that aren't afraid to make a point these are songs meant to inspire heads as much as get them bobbing. The album has found a home on L.A.'s Sound In Color label, most notable for working with other soul-hop innovators like Sa-Ra and Steve Spacek.
"I see this as spoon-feeding hip hop to these other genres," Ta'Raach says of The Fevers. "People listen to M.O.P. and India.Arie, but not at the same time. You can spoon-feed those same sounds to make people come together, but you have to work to merge those sounds. Jay Dee was really good at that."
And so is Ta'Raach. His album's depth is in its juxtaposition of hip hop and soul tracks, like the sleazy, snap-to-it "What What" followed by "Catch My Breath (World)," or the breathless, 16th-note snare of "Service" lined up against the tender "Hold On."
And yet it's "Hey," a 2004 song recorded in Germany that gives Fevers its poignancy.
"It's a 'Trading Places' song written from the perspective of record execs talking about how all this street violence is good for record sales," Ta'Raach says softly, aware now of its ironic relevance barely a year after the passing of MC Proof to just that kind of violence.
"Proof cultivated the cult of Detroit hip hop," Ta'Raach says. "He pretty much coached Eminem's whole process, he worked with Jay Dee back when he was in Five Elements. And to hear how he died, like he's just at a club one day and pistol-whips a guy and that's it it just doesn't seem like the media gave the whole story. I mean, these are sensible people we're talking about. The way the story came out, it taints the perspective people have of Detroit hip hop."
Talking about Proof and Dilla makes Ta'Raach homesick. "I miss the mentality of the [Detroit] people, the hustle, the whole underdog thing. It's the lack of exposure," he says. "Detroit breeds champions."
Even if they have to leave town for a while to prove that they are.
Tuesday, Jan. 30, at Northern Lights, 660 W. Baltimore St., Detroit; 313-873-1739.
Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org