Motor City hero Mike Huckaby has long been celebrated for his impeccable taste and technique on the decks, working in various capacities as DJ, producer, educator, tastemaker and sound designer. He’s been similarly impressive on the production front during the past decade, issuing thoughtful pieces of house and techno for Tresor, Rick Wade’s Harmonie Park and several other labels, including his own Deep Transportation and S Y N T H imprints. When it comes to remixes, Huckaby has been even busier, as his services have been enlisted by Pole, Model 500, DeepChord, Vladislav Delay and others too numerous to list.
That said, what Huckaby has done for electronic music in Detroit goes well beyond the records he’s released and his countless hours in the DJ booth. For many years, he was a staple at Record Time, the legendary store which also employed Magda, Claude Young and Dan Bell over the years. These days, however, his encyclopedic knowledge of music and educational impulse is most directly being put to use at YouthVille Detroit, where he teaches young people the ins and outs of music production. Detroit is full of legendary figures, but Huckaby is one of the few whose passion for music is matched by a genuine drive to better his community.
In this excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview with Aaron Gonsher, Huckaby holds forth on a variety of topics.
Tresor and the Detroit-Berlin Connection
The first time I played at Tresor was in 1997 for Love Parade. The club was in the old location, and it was the first time I’d ever really played in Berlin. I used to play in Stuttgart at the M1 club on a regular basis. The guys from the club were having a party in Berlin at Love Parade, and I actually played on KISS FM in Berlin and then got a date at Tresor. I was tripping out because the streets in Berlin were so wide. Strangely enough, I have some photos of that night, and I’m still playing some of the same records I did the night I played there.
House music was emerging in Berlin because everywhere you went techno was being played. It was really risky for a lot of German promoters early on to jump on house because everywhere you went in Germany it was just all hard techno, everywhere. You had a lot of different promoters that lost money on house events, but they wanted to continue to push the music and the crowd in that direction.
This Detroit-Berlin connection sounds like it’s just a conceptual thing, but it actually is a real connection.
From the time that the club established itself in the new location things became quite challenging and difficult for Tresor due to differences in the music. Minimal house and techno from Berlin emerged and left the sound of Tresor behind. However, they continued to push their sound. They stuck to their guns. They didn’t change anything just because minimal techno was really strong in Berlin, and I can actually say it now that they survived that punch.
I think I met Dimitri [Hegemann] on the first trip to Berlin when I played at Tresor. However, we were introduced to Tresor at Record Time from day one. The first record that came out on Tresor, we ordered it. It was a strong connection - everybody was getting dates at Tresor, like Alan Oldham, Blake Baxter.
People talk about this Detroit-Berlin connection, and it sounds like it’s just a conceptual thing, but it actually is a real connection – just not what everybody thinks. The Detroit-Berlin connection is really based around a couple of things, like Mike Banks and his relationship and friendship with Hard Wax guys. Hard Wax, Tresor and the connection Mike Banks had with the Basic Channel guys and Hard Wax. That is the Detroit-Berlin connection, in a nutshell.
Songs vs. Tracks
It took me a while to realize how Detroit fit it into this Midwest / East Coast connection between Detroit, Chicago, and New York. New York always gave you the experience of a song. Detroit and Chicago always gave you the experience of a track. The reason I say that is because a lot of the influences in New York came from disco. Disco had highly trained musicians playing on a lot of those recordings, percussionists or a horn section that you wouldn’t even hear until five minutes into the track. You can tell that from the New York style of DJing, where a record plays long because it’s anticipating hearing that contribution to the production.
One example would be “Black Ivory” by Mainline. It’s not until much later there’s an emphasis on his vocals, around the break, then there’s a little string section. Ripple’s “The Beat Goes On & On,” Dinosaur L “Go Bang,” “Hit and Run” by Loleatta Holloway are all good examples of records where, if you’re a New York DJ, you couldn’t play less than nearly all of it or until a particular part of that record was played, because you would not be allowing the crowd to connect with the part of the track that is a great part of the song.
Repetitive doesn’t have to be considered or associated with being boring.
You were waiting for the horn section to come in, or the vocal breakdown, or the percussion parts to shine, and that’s when that track had a particular effect on the audience. If you were to stop the record before that, you would be not allowing the production to have its chance to be heard. They basically built their DJ style around that.
Now, Detroit gave you the experience of the track. Our music was not based around creating songs. Our music was based around creating tracks from drum machines, from sequences, from synthesizers. That all is based around parts that loop, and the Midwest does that better than anyone. Chicago and Detroit as well.
Working at a record store in Detroit, you got the best records to play out. If you were doing any production and sampling, you made sure that you always researched what was coming in and tried to work and build a library based on that. Things were really fresh and exciting in that regard in terms of producing music.
I was the manager of the shop and I did a lot of the ordering, so we knew what worked and what didn’t work. That went into my production ethics from day one. Here I was being elected as the person that’s doing the ordering, and there’s a bit of responsibility and pressure on you to make sure that you are selecting tracks that will sell, but that people will be into.
You want to give the person a meaningful record in their hands, more than a record that just sells. I would say that working in a record store definitely did have its advantages, and even working at Buy-Rite Music had its advantages.
A lot of people don’t realize, but Buy-Rite Music was the founding record store in Detroit, through the beginning of Detroit electronic music and then much before that. That was the place where every DJ shopped and where all the labels supplied their music to. Everyone owes a lot to Buy-Rite Music because that’s just where it started, and that’s where you came up as a DJ.
Mastering in Detroit is a strange conversation because people didn’t master records. People pressed their final mix, and it took me years to understand that because when everybody was talking about “mastering a record,” people were using that term as interchangeable with cutting a record. You can cut a record without having it mastered. Ron Murphy was mastering records. However, sometimes he would only cut the record instead of mastering it. That was really tricky and confusing and it didn’t resonate that that’s what you were hiring this person to do. A lot of times he told you he didn’t master your record, he just cut your record.
Cutting and mastering were used interchangeably in Detroit. People would always say, “Who did you get to master your record?” You would say, “Ron Murphy.” Well, Ron Murphy cut your record and cutting is a part of the mastering process, but he didn’t actually master anything. My God, that was so tricky.
I always felt that my records were good in nature, but they didn’t sound as competitive as the rest of the imports I was buying or playing. One day I heard a record that the Advent had sent to Ron Murphy, and it was really louder than everything. You’re wondering: “Was he holding out? What politics did you have to play to get your record sounding like that?” You even armed yourself with a bit of resentment towards him because of it, and strangely enough, what you didn’t understand was they sent him a record that had been mastered and that they just had him cut it. It was never clarified, it was an interchangeable term.
My Life with the Wave was probably one of the last five records he ever cut. That was one hell of an experience right there. That was the last record where I did everything wrong, and everything after My Life with the Wave was on point. Right around that time I was working with some European labels and they were saying they had to get the track mastered before it’s cut. It’s like, “What is this everybody’s talking about?” This conversation doesn’t even take place in Detroit. Mistake number one, the record was just cut. My final mix was transferred from the source material and then cut to the plate. That’s a million mistakes in one right there.
We had some problems with certain frequencies in the tracks so that when the white labels came back he had to cut them over. During the second time he had to cut the record, he dropped the plate. It was just a nightmare. I thought the record was cursed. I sat down with him, and he willingly shared a lot of stories and his experiences with mastering. He shared with me what it took to get a record to sound right. He schooled me.
I picked up this book by Jean-Philippe Rameau called Treatise on Harmony. He broke down music theory in mathematical and algebraic terms. This was when I was first getting into Reaktor, and I got really interested because I thought it would be interesting to see how music could be expressed as a mathematical equation. I actually hired a mathematician from Wayne State to break down what he was talking about. So I met with an engineering student and he broke down some chapters in the book.
I think I was on the right path. I was inquisitive enough to do something like that, but I think it was just really non-useful. The guy had a lot of time on his hands. It may have worked for him, but I think it was one thing that caught my attention that didn’t need to catch my attention. Since it did, I ran with it and I explored it. It matched being into Reaktor at that time but was really a philosophical pursuit. I’m like that a lot of times. I’ve got to shift my attention so that curiosity is satisfied.
I was in the DJ booth playing with Patrice Scott and he had Legowelt’s album with him, which on the back of has this book called The Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy. I had seen this album before and was like, “What is that book? If that book is on his album cover, what is that book all about?” He was there and I remembered that book was on that. I was like, “Okay, let’s pull that up again. Let’s see what that’s all about.”
I study things that I don’t even like. I listen to a lot of music that I don’t like. I listen to a lot of producers I don’t like. I read a lot of articles from producers that I don’t like. That’s where you actually learn something. I’m actually studying a lot of drum and bass production methods right now. Really interesting in how they do it. I can even study trance production methods. If Ferry Corsten is doing something in his track that catches my attention, I’ll try to equate that in deep house terms and how that production method could work in a house track or something.
With the Sun Ra projects I’ve been involved in, I decided to do nothing different to those edits other than to emphasis particular passages of chords that could sound interesting in a natural jazz fashion, and not in a deep house electronic fashion. First of all, these are not my tracks. I’m not in the Arkestra. I can’t play nearly as good as any artist in Arkestra. I had to make sure that I wasn’t tampering with this man’s music. Purists can say that if you did an edit, you were. But I can easily defend what I have done based on the source material that I got. Most of those edits were more of a restoration effort than it was an editing opportunity. Some of the tapes were really damaged. There was a “Space is the Place” a capella, highly distorted. I’m not ashamed to say it: I rescued a version of that song that would have easily been discarded.
It’s really important to separate yourself from hype and opportunity. I knew that there are devout Sun Ra fans out there, and if you’re tampering with his music, you will face this criticism. Certain songs that I edited just sounded more pleasing for the emerging electronic following that he does have in a nightclub setting. Certain sections of the horn playing may have been too loud, or certain particular parts that were very strong and drew a very high emotional response just needed to be repeated or extended to give you a better feeling and connection towards that track. Some of the edits only deviated from the original by 20 seconds.
You need to know what hat you wear and when to wear those hats and all in a particular order because if you don’t know what hats you wear and when you need to wear them. For example, I am a DJ, a producer, a sound designer, and educator all in that order. That is what I am. It’s important for me to know when I’m wearing either one of those hats because some other individual may decide that it’s best for them to determine when I’m wearing that hat, and it may not be appropriate for me.
S Y N T H
Rod Modell had these tracks and I mentioned that I was starting a label, so we met up at Fuddruckers. He said, “Check these tracks out. Let me know what you think.” We finished eating and then I popped them in the truck and I heard them. I literally looked out the back of my window to try to catch him to tell him that I definitely wanted them, but he had already took off. Man, I couldn’t wait to get home to send him an email. I took the tracks and did remixes of both of them. It all blew up from that staple moment of when “Electromagnetic Dowsing” remixes came out.
It’s definitely still possible to create a label and have a specific sound associated with that label. However, if you going to do that you better make sure that you’re satisfied with what you’re doing because you never know how history may interpret it later. I think people like Detroit electronic music because people can hear the struggle in the music. It’s a struggle in every aspect from A to Z. Putting the record out. Gathering the funds for putting the record out. Breaking up with a girlfriend because you’re spending too much time producing the music or being in the studio. Now that’s delayed the project for sometime. Getting a flat tire or getting the boot put on your car a week later. Getting evicted or getting kicked out or your roommate is leaving you and that money was going to be the money you were going to allocate towards the label. A lot of labels were created from people’s hard-earned money.
My story is based on me being a one man army. There were a lot of groups in Detroit that I would have died to be in, a lot of social clubs that were really popular in Detroit, and I was never in any of them. You never know when some form of adversity or something not coming your way is actually a blessing. I would have given my right arm to be in a lot of social groups in Detroit, and now looking back, that was probably the best thing that ever could have happened to me.