DL Jones isn't the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of Detroit hip hop. Hell, it's not even the second or third. But with his new album, Wasted Talent, Jones has a shot at something more than just being another Detroit also-ran.
The album is his first — but it's a pretty perfect document of Detroit life, especially the life of one trying to launch a music career. It's a little sad, a little mad but as soulful as it is hard, and as hopeful as it is as scared. It's still willing and able to get the cash to go out and have fun on a Saturday night, even though it's got enough heaviness on it to ponder on Sunday afternoon. It is, quite simply, the What's Goin' On of Detroit hip hop, 2007. That is, it is if anyone hears it.
Musically, Wasted Talent is more diverse than even the most indie of hip-hop albums, even though it's on a small independent label (Chicago's Still Music), which is likely to find it a European audience and hopefully an underground one in the United States.
Jones (born Patrick Ward) isn't a new jack. "I've been doing music for 20 years!" the 34-year-old exclaims. "That's why I called it Wasted Talent." Jones and his cousin, DJ Brian Gillespie, grew up in Sterling Heights as record-collecting kids watching The Box and Yo! MTV Raps.
His career actually began with a promise he made his mother on her deathbed. "I was like 10 and she asked me what I was going to be when I grew up," he explains. "My dad had worked in a bakery all his life, so I said, 'I'm gonna work in the bakery.' And she sat right up in bed and was like, 'No you're not! You're gonna make people happy! You're gonna be an entertainer!' After that, that was it."
He dabbled in acting and emceeing for a while but eventually settled into production, becoming the kid who hung around record stores and DJ supply stores, begging the older guys who worked there to teach him about records and spinning.
He launched the Blue Collar label with Gillespie in the '90s, releasing bootleg New Edition remixes and showcasing their vast vinyl library of obscure but quality 12-inches. (Jones estimates Gillespie's collection to be about 40,000 records).
Since then he's become a family man, with a day job producing the sound for Detroit sports broadcasts. He earlier spent some time in Atlanta, but home is now right back in his native Sterling Heights.
As a producer, Jones has become something of a Zelig of Detroit music, popping up in various key musical moments. There he was at the Disc on 9 Mile, as an audio engineering student, recording local sax legend David McMurray and P-Funk's horn section for Scott Grooves' late '90s house classic, "Mothership Re-Connection." There he was at P-Funk keyboardist Amp Fiddler's home studio on 7 Mile (the same one J Dilla and Slum Village's DJ Dez learned their craft in), creating beats with Amp. And there he was in the early '90s, driving from his Pontiac studio to Conant Gardens to pick up MCs Baatin and T-3 to begin recording what would eventually become Slum Village's Look of Love album (at a time when J Dilla, then going by JayDee, was busy working with A Tribe Called Quest).
And there he was with Binary Star, the late, great Detroit hip-hop duo that spawned Pontiac's One Be Lo, arguably the biggest underground MC in America right now (especially following a summer spent on the Warped tour and an album on L.A.'s influential Fat Beats label), producing the tracks that would eventually become the landmark 1998 Waterworld LP.
But all along, Jones has been quietly refining his own sound into the lusher, more soulful hybrid of hip hop, classic funk and jazzy R&B that gives Wasted Talent both its broad range and its melancholy depth. Compared to the more experimental Dilla sound, with its deep nods to techno and its trademark lazy snares, Jones' sound is more like Kanye West, crafting tangible soul by mixing live instruments and cleverly constructed beats. The quirky twos and fours are there for the hip-hop heads, while the P-Funk horns and Motown strings are there for their parents.
As a result, Jones doesn't make the most hard-hitting or radio-friendly beats; in fact the whole album is shot through with a kind of autumnal glow. As rappers MCM (MidCoastMost) express on a track titled "As Good As It Gets": "And when the leaves turn colors, it's heaven on earth." Even the aforementioned One Be Lo, whom Jones calls "the Rakim of Detroit," takes a pensive turn on the album's "Gray."
"People who don't even know or like One Be Lo hear that one and are just like 'Whoa!'" says Jones, adding that just quoting a couplet from a song "that complete," as he puts it, wouldn't do it justice.
And the album has plenty of star power: Amp Fiddler, an accomplished funk soul brother in his own right, appears on a track called "Lonely." Amp's wailing croon breaks into a breezy, horn-driven double-time beat propelled by David McMurray's winding sax stabs. Meanwhile, Five Ele, the late MC Proof's former group, rhymes on "Majestic." And bass MC Omega and Cadillac Dale, the latter the voice of the late '90s local R&B hit, "Soulful Mornin'," appear on a track, together.
Like past records by Detroiters Ta'Raach and even Phat Kat, Wasted Talent displays a jones (sorry!) for soul and R&B in its straight-up hip hop. As L.A. hip-hop DJ Matthew Rubino puts it: "I like it because it's like this [hardcore rapper's] MOP record on one track, and then it's onto some soul or R&B tip for the next."
"I grew up on New Edition and Ready for the World," says Jones of the album's R&B moments. "You couldn't grow up in Detroit not loving that stuff.
"People want to classify it as 'downtempo,' but to me it's just hip-hop. I can't follow an outline and do a crunk track, and then something boom-bap. I find something I'm feelin' and then I follow it."
As thrilling as it may be for music lovers, this methodology does make marketing the album a nightmare. (Jones currently has international distribution via GrooveAttack, known more for handling dance records.)
Nevertheless, Amp Fiddler, for one, is hopeful that Wasted Talent will find its audience.
"You love hip hop. You love soul. It's all the same thing," Amp says. "I think it's a dope concept. But it's a producer record, which is something people over here aren't that used to. People are like, 'What am I supposed to do with this?' He's got something special, but he's gonna need the backbone of artists like me to be down for him to get the push he needs to get this out there."
Producer records, of course, aren't anything new. Fatboy Slim records are all "produced-by" albums, while the more recent success of DJ Mark Ronson's Version album, which was basically high-profile cover songs held together by Ronson's production savvy, has been a runaway international hit.
And Jones' sound, in that age-old "prophets-are-seldom-recognized-at-home" Detroit sorta way (see: techno), is very much in line with European tastes. "Lonely," in fact, is already on the playlists of some DJs in west London, the massively influential Gilles Peterson among them.
"I know there's a place for his music," Fiddler, says.
Hopefully, it'll be in the same city that inspired it.Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer about music. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org