Cars are zooming past a gray, stucco apartment building tucked away on a residential street in Los Angeles' Koreatown neighborhood. Up two flights of stairs, posted inside of a one-bedroom unit, a former Detroiter and a current Angeleno, House Shoes, is sitting on the floor doing what he loves to do most in this world — playing with his 3-year-old son, James. Sporting an oversized T-shirt, dark jeans and a well-traveled pair of size 10 Adidas, House Shoes relinquishes his cool factor and does whatever silly thing it takes until a baby-toothed smile emerges on his offspring's face.
Not surprisingly the tools of his craft are at hand. A pair of Technic 1200 turntables is set up against the wall; a mixer and an MPC 2000 XL drum machine sit on a table ready to be turned on any second. Shelves upon shelves of records, many of them limited edition, line the small room's opposite wall. Among those prominently displayed are a Detroit classic (Lyman Woodard's Saturday Night Special) and a kiddie classic (Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends). Invincible and Waajeed's "Detroit Summer" 7-inch is here as well, but the most telling and important of the display items may be Welcome to Detroit by his long-time close friend, the late producer-rapper James "J-Dilla" Yancey.
Some of the most important associations of his life have been with Dilla and the group Slum Village, with which Dilla originally rose to fame as chief producer. Dilla's stature among serious hip-hop heads is rather hard to convey to the uninitiated, but think of the reverence for Phil Spector or Brian Eno or Willie Mitchell in other corners of the music world and you get an idea.
You certainly appreciate House Shoes' deep allegiance in corners of the crowded apartment that look like a Dilla museum. Exhibit A is a picture of Dilla and Slum Village bandmate T3 sitting on a bed, working on their samplers and the like, with the air of two 15-year-olds about to conquer the world. Exhibits B through Z and beyond include paintings and fliers for decades-ago shows at the Shelter in Detroit. There are boxes of DVDs of shaky handheld videos in which Shoes captures the Slum Village crew and key contemporaries from some of those Shelter shows and in places like Dearborn's Studio A. It verges on the hoardings of an obsessive superfan — this writer isn't the first to say that. And even Shoes is at the point where he knows that he needs to let it go to an extent and get on with his own life. And art. And career.
After a long father-son romp on the floor, Shoes' partner and James' mother, Leonor Hernandez, takes charge of the lad while Shoes takes to the balcony and his cigarettes. He chain-smokes Newports as if the word "carcinogen"" hasn't been coined. He can finish a cig, flick it over the railing and have the next lit and in his mouth before the first hits the ground. His side of conversations, typically the dominant side, has the same nervously compulsive pacing — even if he's talking about his smoking problem. One night in February, he took a deep breath and nothing would come in or go out. He fell to the floor, and was gasping for air and getting nothing. Everything slowed down and, sure it was all going to totally halt, he says he began crying, thinking that he was going to die directly in front of his son. Hernandez tore their apartment up and found an old inhaler that belonged to her daughter. That got him breathing enough to make the trip to the ER. All that drama — and a $6,000 bill — to live to smoke another day, right? House Shoes for you.
He heads back inside when the smoke break is over. Hernandez, an attractive Brazilian-Ecuadoran Los Angeles native is readying James for a trip to the park. But father and son aren't ready to part just yet. The look in House Shoes' eyes suggests that the boyish man that his Detroit friends knew has finally grown up himself.
"Coming home to him is the highlight of my day ... this is what chills me out," House Shoes confides later that afternoon.
And there's more chill on the way. An ultrasound of Shoes' and Hernandez's soon-to-be-born daughter is on the refrigerator.
But to get back to the prickly, at times defiantly rude and brisk reputation House Shoes has developed over the years ... both in person and via his online personality, he's strongly opinionated and couldn't care less about those who dislike him for it. This is the same House Shoes who's hilariously loose with his tongue and can, when he's drinking heavily, cuss worse than a sailor with Tourette's syndrome. The same House Shoes who will scream in 140 characters to anybody who tries to diss him on Twitter. The same abrasive House Shoes who even had a falling out for some months with the aforementioned Dilla. And the same House Shoes who helped ruin rapper Charles Hamilton's minute-made career for listing Dilla as the executive producer of his horrible 2008 debut album, The Pink Lavalamp — despite the facts that the two never worked together and that Dilla had already been dead for two years.
Who knows why Hamilton made the claim? Cheap publicity? Mental health issues? Beyond-the-grave visitation? Take your pick. But by the time House Shoes was finished eviscerating Hamilton's reputation using every online portal available, Dilla's name was removed from the album's artwork, and the much-anticipated release was relegated to free, download-only promo status. Hamilton was dropped by Interscope Records not long afterward.
"At the end of the day, I'm one of the nicest people you'll ever meet," Shoes deadpans. "But if you cross that line or do some ho' shit, I have a platform ... and I can use that shit to help you or I can use that shit to fucking stop you. I'll shut yo ma'fucking ass down. I enjoy it."
For the past two decades, House Shoes (born Michael Buchanan) has worked tirelessly — as a DJ first and foremost — championing nearly all of the major hip-hop talent that emerged from Detroit before those artists went global. From his days broadcasting as a student on Southfield High School's WSHJ to his time working at various record stores in Detroit, Southfield and Ypsilanti, Shoes has been passionate about exposing music he believes in to the masses. His mother, Ellen McElmeel, remembers her son being fascinated with music from a very young age. During an interview she also offers an interesting fact about the day Michael came into the world. "He actually was born on Good Friday during a terrible ice storm," she says, which possibly accounts for the sanctity of his character and his iciness when someone tries to cross him.
A musical purist at his core, for years he was known for shoving early Eminem, Big Proof, Slum Village, Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Elzhi, Royce Da 5'9", Danny Brown and most notably J Dilla's music down the throats of anyone who would listen — before they had record contracts. Had he been wise enough (or temperamentally qualified) to work in A&R for a major record label in the mid-'90s rather than manning turntables, he'd probably be a millionaire. Unfortunately, being one of the most respected and trusted DJs in Detroit doesn't come close financially.
From 1994, when he got his big break holding down Friday nights at St. Andrew's Hall, to his brief but vital residency at the Buddha Lounge on Eight Mile Road and on to his years presiding over Tuesday nights at Northern Lights before decamping for Los Angeles in 2006, there were few reaches of the hip-hop stratosphere where his presence wasn't felt. His ear was and still is one of the best in the industry, and his propensity to consistently help deserving local artists get proper national exposure will always make him a hero of the Detroit music world — even if he lives 2,500 miles away.
"I had a platform, and I used it to expose the greatest that we had to offer," Shoes says, deflecting credit. "From Dilla to Black Milk to Guilty to Danny to Quelle to all that shit. Their music is amazing, and I want the world to hear it, it's just that simple."
His stamp of approval goes far. Take it from the skyrocketing rapper Danny Brown.
"House Shoes is the tastemaker here," Brown said in 2010, just months before he inked a record contract with New York's Fool's Gold Records. "You don't go nowhere without a House Shoes co-sign. ... To get out of Detroit, you need a House Shoes co-sign."
Despite all of that pull, whenever it came to pushing his own musical undertakings and original material as a producer, Shoes rarely invested the necessary time, hustle, focus and drive to get any real traction. "I always did my best to use my connections and get jobs for everyone else," Shoes says. "On the real, it was frustrating, 'cause I could never plan that equation out for my own shit."
In 2012, however, much of that is changing.
This week, House Shoes is releasing his highly touted debut album, Let It Go, on Los Angeles' Tres Records. At the age of 37, he says he's finally finished with neglecting his own music priorities. From a sonic standpoint, fans of purist rap and heart-heavy frenetic beats should recognize the wait ended up being worth it. Let It Go is a sledgehammer of an album if there ever was one.
Shoes produced the record in its entirety and then meticulously selected a virtual who's who of emcee talent to rhyme and sing atop his production. Ace Detroit rappers Guilty Simpson, Danny Brown, Black Milk, Big Tone, Marv Won and Moe Dirdee take the lead, rapping over old- and new-school beats that feel tailor-made for each artist involved, even though some of those beats are nearly a decade old. L.A.-based talent such as the Alchemist, MED, Oh No, Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, Fat Albert Einstein and Jimetta Rose are here as well. The reality is Shoes is a man rooted in two cities now, and that deserves to come across on wax.
The reviews and pre-release coverage of Let It Go have been overwhelmingly positive. It's a highly personal album, and its greatest accomplishment might be the way Shoes gets emcees to express exactly how he's feeling, song by song, without ever saying a word on the record himself.
Let It Go is more than just a labor of love, it's a double helix of Shoes' DNA spiraling at 33 rotations per minute. It's all here: the roots in early '90s East Coast sounds (like Pete Rock and DJ Premier), lessons from studying Dilla's handed-down beat tapes in the mid-'90s and early '00s, the evolution of Shoes' sound since moving to the West Coast. You'll hear comedic interludes, gritty drum loops, and well-chopped samples on some tracks and spacious, sun-drenched production on others. It's important to note that, despite Shoes' obvious closeness to Dilla, he never lets his beats come off as Dilla imitations.
"I started making beats in '94, on a four-track," Shoes says. "I started on the MPC [drum machine] in '96. I'm basically looking at, like, 15 years of music to choose from. I'm not the kind of guy that wakes up and makes music every day. On average, I'd say I make beats three to four weeks out of the year ... when the urge hits. It's real personal for me. It's not a monetary thing. I don't want placement on people's albums. This is my shit. So when I started the record, I just went through all my old beats and had plenty to choose."
By his estimate, the oldest piece of production on Let It Go was created in 1999 while he was living on the east side of Detroit on Courville Street. It's featured on the song, "Goodfellas to Badboy," which Detroit rapper Moe Dirdee lyrically devours.
"When he e-mailed me the beat, the file said 'Goodfellas,' and I didn't even have to listen to it to know that he wanted me to think of some mob shit," Moe Dirdee says via phone. "What he did was marry a lot of beats with different personalities. So the first half of the song is a play on the mob. But then people always look at me like I'm a bad boy 'cause I used to be in and out of jail a lot. So it ended up being a double entendre on the Bad Boys of the Pistons. I sent Shoes a rough version of the song, and he sent it back saying he didn't like it. To be honest, I was pissed off, 'cause that's the first time somebody sent me something back like this. And I normally wouldn't accept it, but he gave me constructive criticism."
Dirdee is also featured on the track "Trouble" with the painfully underappreciated emcee Marv Won. But when asked which of the two songs he's most proud of, he pauses and says "Goodfellas to Badboys" without question.
"That song was more of an accomplishment, and the behind-the-scenes turmoil that I've never really spoken about publicly is the reason why. When he rejected the verse I sent him, I took it personal at first. Nobody does that to me. But his professionalism is high, and the song turned out better because of it."
House Shoes is honest enough to recognize that he wasn't focused enough on business as he should have been. Blame youth, heavy drinking and a party lifestyle.
A few of his beats have made it out to the world previously, including the cathedral-like beat for Big Proof's song "Broken" featuring Mu and Journalist 103. He also did the Out of Focus EP with Elzhi in 1998, and was fortunate enough to sell Dilla two beats for the still-shelved MCA album (which may never see daylight).
He was supposed to get $5,000 apiece from Dilla for two beats, he says, half of it after the album was released. "All I got was the $2,500 up-front," he recalls. "I came over to his crib back in 2001, 'cause he said he wanted to hear some shit. I brought over a 60-minute Maxell cassette, and the very last beat on the tape ended up being the beat to the intro for his album. I was geeked. He had Universal Records send me a check via Fed Ex by the end of the week."
At 21, he also put out Jay Dee's much-sought-after Unreleased EP in 1996, then Phat Kat's Dedication to the Suckers in '98 (produced entirely by Dilla) on his own House Shoes Recordings. But the business side of things slipped through his fingers. Detroit electronic DJ Mike Huckaby remembers hiring House Shoes back in the '90s and was his boss at Record Time on Gratiot. "I was observing him for quite some time before I hired him," Huckaby says, remembering what House Shoes used to be like during his early 20s.
"He was full of energy. I used to give him hip-hop promos whenever he would come in the shop. The look on his face said everything. I knew from the days of handing him white labels and promos that he wasn't your average kid, so I pulled him in."
When asked if there's one thing he'll remember House Shoes for in those days, he responds, "He was always late, and that was eventually his demise at the shop! But more importantly, he kept it real in his attitude and demeanor the entire time. He would never push a record he was not into. He knew the hip-hop game like no other."
Rolling around Los Angeles with House Shoes and his good friend Jeremy Mennel for two days is guaranteed to be comedic no matter what. Just as in Detroit, he's got jokes and jabs galore for all things real and imagined, and nobody is spared.
On rapper Talib Kweli: "He's so wack." On L.A. funkateer and producer Dâm-FunK: "He's got, like, 60 variations of the same three songs." On Tyga's mind-numbing 2011 song, "Rack City": "I lose all faith in humanity whenever I hear anybody singing that shit." With regard to any overplayed pop song that comes on the radio: "Did you hear that bullll-shit?" he'll ask no one in particular. "That's the worst song I've heard in my fucking life."
This is the comedic side of House Shoes at its best. He knows he's an asshole and talks shit with the best of 'em. If nice guys finish last, Shoes won't be with them.
At a lounge in a Silver Lake neighborhood called the Virgil, Shoes is on hand to see singer Jimetta Rose perform for her birthday. The talented songstress is featured on what is easily Let It Go's most captivating track, "Castles (tHE SKY IS OURS)," which was created in memory of Shoes' good friend, Master Blazter drummer-producer Jovan "J-1" Coleman. Shoes and Coleman were quite close at the time of his passing last year while on tour at the age of 32, and his death marks the third close music friend that Shoes has lost in recent years, along with Dilla and Proof of the group D12. As irony would have it, while standing outside the bar, the previously dissed DâM-FunK actually walks up with a Lisa Bonet-esque date on his arm and immediately yells out, "What up, Shoes!"
Shoes' circle of hip-hop friends in Los Angeles isn't nearly as robust as it was in Detroit, but the folks in it give him plenty of love just the same. Stones Throw Records label head Peanut Butter Wolf, for instance, was instrumental in Dilla's career, and it was House Shoes who introduced them. He remembers when Shoes first landed in L.A. permanently back in 2006. "L.A. adopted him right away," Wolf says. "He has skills as a DJ and a good ear. He knows how to bring people together too."
A day later, we're riding down Santa Monica Boulevard in afternoon rush hour traffic. The sun is baking, and we might as well be stuck on a side street in hell. Shoes, who doesn't drive but always wants to make sure good music is played, has plugged his phone into the console and is now DJing with his Blackberry — out of habit.
At one point, while at the intersection of Santa Monica and Ridgeway, we pass a poster for fellow Detroiter Jack White and it reads: "Jack White — Blunderbuss — Debut Album."
Given how prolific the man has been, it's weird to think of Jack White with a debut release at 36. And though their careers have been very different, for Detroit hip-hop fans to see House Shoes at 37 releasing a debut anything is a bit eyebrow-raising as well. But that's the case.
"Everything is happening on time," he says, anticipating a question that wasn't fully asked. "I couldn't have created this record if my life had gone any other way. This album would not exist if not for my eyes being open to the true nature of a lot of people that I've helped support over the last — God knows how long — turning their backs on me."
Much of the stress he's alluding to is related to his semi-public falling out with J Dilla's mother, Maureen Yancey, a woman with a smile and demeanor sweeter than pie.
Since the death of her son from complications related to lupus, she's come to be viewed by many as the mother figure of Detroit hip hop. And as numerous Dilla tribute shows are staged every year, mostly in February, the month of Dilla's birth in 1974 and his death in 2006, the two people who have taken these benefit-fundraisers to heart the most may be Yancey and House Shoes. They're now officially at odds.
It was Shoes who consistently used to lean on promoters around the world who claimed they were throwing benefit concerts to raise money for the J Dilla Foundation for music education and insisted they fork the money over. Yancey never had the time or energy to track down party organizers online herself. Shoes always made sure people played her honest.
But this year, Yancey told Shoes his help is no longer welcome.
At a concert this past February at the Fillmore Detroit honoring Dilla, Shoes was noticeably absent, a rather telling sign. In the background, there've been rumors — from sources unknown — that House Shoes was sitting on loads of unreleased J Dilla beats that he wouldn't surrender to Dilla's heirs, and, more egregiously, that Shoes was secretly selling Dilla beats in Europe and lining his own pockets.
Shoes vehemently denied both rumors during an expletive-laced phone interview. Public spats on Twitter about the situation didn't help either.
"I deleted her number and everything from my phone," Shoes says, getting heated.
Rapper Guilty Simpson, who feels caught in the middle, empathizes with both sides.
"Him and Ms. Yancey not being close anymore killed him," Simpson offers, trying to contextualize how hard it is. "People can say that Shoes sort of built his legacy from spinning Dilla records, but Shoes was the first DJ in Detroit that would spin Dilla's material. He has always championed Dilla's music. No knock to Maureen Yancey. Has Shoes kept his own name out there off Dilla's music? Yes, but in good taste. You can't be mad 15 years later."
(Efforts to reach Yancey for this story were not successful.)
This summer is crunch time for House Shoes. His daughter is due Aug. 28, and he plans to push Let It Go, touring behind it until he's got to show up at the hospital. A zigzagging national tour kicked off with the raucous show at the Shelter three weeks ago. He's got plans to hit South Korea, Japan, Australia and anywhere else that will book him. "There's so much pressure with this record," Shoes says. "If this record was released 10 years ago, it could sell 200,000 copies. In the late '90s, hip hop was still doing 200,000 to 300,000 copies. I'm trying to go platinum independent. I'd be happy with 30,000 copies sold. I'd be content with half of that."
It's too early to tell what the figures from Let It Go will be, but the buzz behind it is strong, and taste-making magazines and blogs (FADER, The Source,, Wax Poetics, the website Pitchfork, etc.) have been enthusiastic. Regardless of sales, it appears Shoes has done what he finally set out to do.
"I wanted to have an album that I've created, something that nobody can take away from me. My legacy is more than just boosting up other people. It's time for me to really boost myself."
Jonathan Cunningham writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.