It's not just anywhere that one can start the work day hanging out in the vinyl-cluttered home studio of techno trailblazer Anthony "Shake" Shakir, bump into an electro theorist-practitioner (that would be Brendan M Gillen of Ectomorph, who unexpectedly dropped by), and then end it dancing to rich and variegated house music being spun by Marcellus Pittman, one of the top underground producer-DJs in the world.
Yes, electronic music lovers! Detroit still possesses rare and wondrous moments that are hard (read: nearly impossible) to replicate. All of you among the city's hardcore already know that, of course, as do heads in Bratislava, Skopje and Warsaw (read: almost everywhere) whose lives were changed forever by the sonic revolutions per minute made and played here for the last three decades.
And the real story is that it's not just a colorful footnote in pop culture history — such as the Beatles being from Liverpool (bless you, Scousers) — but that it is happening right now, finding new ways to mutate, regenerate and sustain, occasionally right before our eyes but largely cloaked in invisibility.
Those thoughts raced as I sat at a corner table at downtown's sorta swanky Pulse Lounge, where David Armin-Parcells and Todd Weston hold down the weekly Hot Pot, a Thursday night series featuring homegrown house music and electronic soul talent for an admission price one can't afford to refuse: Free! I'm talking to Aaron Siegel, who runs FIT Distribution and the FIT label out of a building in Corktown. Across the table sits Kyle Hall, an 18-year-old west-sider with great talent, a huge global buzz, and even huger expectations. Over at the bar leans Rick Wilhite, one of Hall's mentors and Pittman's comrade in the black power trio plus one known as Three Chairs (Kenny Dixon Jr. and Theo Parrish are the others). It's a small, smart crowd made up of insiders and true believers.
The conversation over here comes in waves, like counterflow to the rhythms in the music coming from the club speakers. Hall, who graduated last year from the Detroit School of Arts, talks about upcoming new releases on London's Hyperdub, Nonplus and Warp labels; Detroit's Planet E; his breakout tracks on Detroiter Omar S's FXHE imprint as well as Mike Grant's Moods & Grooves, his own Wild Oats label and an upcoming Motor City soul party at the upcoming Winter Music Conference in Miami.
"I'm so looking forward to it," says Hall, articulate, poised, with serious darting eyes, of the confab. "That is the best Detroit party lineup ever."
Maybe so. No argument here, youngsta. The fab event will celebrate 25 years of Detroit techno soul and inspiration, featuring Carl Craig, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Kenny Larkin, Stacey Pullen, Monty Luke, Dixon Jr., Parrish and Hall. Frequent flyers, mark your calendars for March 25, at the Sky Bar, Shore Club Hotel, in sunny Florida.
Hall recently played at two of the world's top venues — Fabric in London and Panorama Bar at Berghain in Berlin — and is all over the blogosphere, getting interviewed and reviewed by Urb, Resident Advisor and XLR8R. He's very quotable, delivering the message that he is "a black kid from Detroit" who's all about the music (he says his musical family introduced him to records when he was 5 years old and he began DJing at 11) and wants to swing clear of the pitfalls of the party treadmill ("smoking, drinking, drugs, bitches").
"I'm not into darkness," he shouts over the din. "I just never got into it. I like happy music. I want people to have fun." It shows. Off he bounces, closer to the tiny dancefloor, where Pittman is already soaring and bodies bumping.
But Siegel likes it both light and dark; funky and smooth; raw and polished. He says all are part of the Detroit sound experience. "Marcellus is a good example. Those are some fucked-up, funky tracks. ... They offer a glimpse into the mind of this man just through his music: he doesn't have to say a word, because that shit is real." For his label's first release (FIT 001), Siegel issued the Erase the Pain three-tracker by Pittman, whose music previously has been put out by Sound Signature, Third Ear, FXHE, Three Chairs and others. Siegel calls Pittman's EP "a mutated acid banger, with twisted bass lines and a fierce jacking beat." Whoa, yeah! And so it is — a perfect companion to new-ish deep/deeper/deepest cuts by Parrish, Omar S and Moodymann (aka Dixon Jr.), whose Anotha Black Sunday was one of 2009's freakiest jazz-funk long players.
Siegel's distribution company handles dozens of labels — local and global — and he says he's working with a Detroit group that "sounds like Throbbing Gristle and Joy Division." His point is "to push new sounds, getting DJs out of their comfort area, introducing new sounds to the crowds. There is so much talent in Detroit. We just need more shit to be happening." We like the sounds of that. Stay fit, FIT. We're all on the same team.
In the beginning there was rhythm ...
And at the beginning of this column there was Shakir, who began his career in the 1980s, and ruled the 1990s before he was diagnosed with MS in 2000. He's managed quite well over the past decade, traveling the world playing his favorite records — many of them his own limited release or white label productions on the homespun Frictional label. Shake's story was marvelously told by Metro Times' music writer Robert Gorell in a piece penned in 2002; and, more recently, in words and pictures by photographer Doug Coombe in his Motor City Cribs and Rides column.
I caught Shakir at a busy moment: He was selecting records — he still plays vinyl exclusively, increasingly rare in the modern digital world — to take with him on a flight to New York, where he was to perform in the Unsound Festival. Brenden Gillen, who's been involved with Shakir's career on a musical and design level since the early 1990s, was helping him pack up some solid gold but still obscure gems for the trip. "Shake was the first Detroit guy to break protocol, using samples and broken beats," Gillen says. "He went his own way, carved his own path. [He's] an iconoclast then and now."
"Oh, man. I just love records more than I love people, man," Shakir says. "It was records that took me all over the world."
A massive compilation of those rare tracks made by Shakir, yet another west side kid who fell in love with future beats (remarkably, Robert Hood, Mike Huckaby and Kelli Hand are all from the same mixed industrial-residential neighborhood hear Cooley High — and Hall lives about a mile away), is out now on Holland's Rush Hour label. It contains about three hours worth of music on three CDs, and is also issued in vinyl (natch) and digital formats. The collection — Frictionalism 1994-2009 — is indispensable for any fan of Detroit dance music, past, present or future. There's much to recommend but pay special attention to "Fact of the Matter," "Here, There & Nowhere," "Mr. Gone is Back Again" and "Frenchie." All are enduring classics and part of an encyclopedic journey to the center of a uniquely gifted artist's mind, containing influences as varied as Heaven 17, Daft Punk, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Prince, first generation hip hop, revolutionary space jazz and what he calls two sides of the same coin: House and techno.
"They're the same to me," he says, a big, broad man leaning on his cane. "There's no difference in my mind. Some call it this; others call it that. It's just all about giving the world what it wants — a heartbeat."Walter Wasacz writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org