From raunchy ghettotech to haunting house, the artist known as Aaron-Carl was instrumental in Detroit electronic music of the 1990s and 2000s. Marke B. explores his legacy as an outspoken gay man making music in a scene not known for its candor.
In the clip, Aaron-Carl Ragland stalks a large mirror-backed stage, leather jacket slung low off his shoulders, hair lacquered back and hands gesturing with the precision of a conversational voguer. “Oh no, what is this? Something down here smell like fish,” he mugs over a jiggling beat. “When’s the last time you used the sink? Ew, your booty stink. Oh Miss Thing you smell so funny, won’t you wash the coochie, honey!” He leads the ecstatic crowd in a call and response, “Girl, you got to wash it!”
It would all be a pretty characteristic, if highly charismatic, exercise in naughty booty music humor, laced with a stereotypical horror at female bodies and topped off with “Oh no, he didn’t!” raunch – except that, at a climactic moment, Aaron-Carl spins around, revealing a bright white thong blazing through glittery, see-through mesh chaps. Rubbing his nearly naked ass with pleasure and name-checking Ivory soap, he cheekily flips the usual script, explicitly making “Wash It” about fucking another man. Him, to be exact.
His booty is squeaky clean and ready, honey, and “wash it” becomes more a word of advice than admonishment.
With every record I release, I don’t want to leave anything to the imagination.
“Wash It,” and its flipside, “Down” (“I want to drive your body crazy, I want to make you scream like a lady – even though we can’t have babies, we can still have fun”) were two hugely influential 1996 hits on the emerging Detroit ghettotech/booty music scene, injecting a queer sensibility into the playfully explicit genre’s DNA.
“‘Down’ was constantly on the Detroit ghettotech radio shows, back then,” Tom Linder of DJ-promotion collective Detroit Techno Militia recalls. Tom and his wife, DTM co-founder Angie Linder, counted themselves among Aaron-Carl’s best friends in a city where everyone seemed to know him. “They would speed it up a few times, chipmunk the vocals like they did back then, so it sounded like a woman singing it.” Did Aaron-Carl feel like that erased his identity? “Oh no, it tickled him to no end, he really relished it,” says Angie. “He loved that he was getting away with these lyrics – really shocking for the radio at that time – and he would just have a good laugh that he was turning all these unsuspecting people on. But if you knew it was him singing, it was even better when you heard it played that way. It was like you were in on the joke. Aaron-Carl was like that. The more you knew him, the more you felt a part of something bigger than what you thought at first. He was breaking a lot of boundaries. So much of the scene rippled out from the things he did.”
Singer, songwriter, DJ, producer, label head and mentor, Aaron-Carl died suddenly of complications due to lymphoma in 2010, at the age of 37, just as he was about to embark on a European tour. He left behind his partner and two children, and a formidable legacy of pioneering electronic dance releases and outspoken gay content, first as a member of “Mad” Mike Banks’ Submerge crew and later on his own Wallshaker label. “With every record I release, I don’t want to leave anything to the imagination. You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about,” he told an Austrian video crew in 2006 after an appearance at Vienna’s Fluc Mensa club. That rare dedication to candor continues to inspire a new generation of music-makers, queer and otherwise.
“Down” was a personal declaration by a young black gay man that he was in control of his sexuality, sharing his desire in every lusty detail.
“‘Wash It/Down’ was unlike anything else that came before it in the double-barreled local house and techno scenes,” wrote Detroit journalist and close friend Walter Wasacz shortly after Aaron-Carl died. “It brought in new influences, like Miami bass, Baltimore club and hip-hop poetry, reaffirming the role of Prince as an inspiration for all of the above, and re-making him as unambiguously gay. It divided the purists. At the same time, fans of the hybrid style called ghettotech began to multiply. ‘Down,’ especially, was a track shot out of a cannon. It was a personal declaration by a young black gay man that he was in control of his sexuality, sharing his desire in every lusty detail.
“A-C’s strong, transparent identity — he made his life an open book and communicated its ups and downs using a microphone in the club, in phone conversations and later via social networking sites — was a cross he would bear the rest of his life,” Wasacz wrote.
In fact, it was another release that same year, haunting house touchstone “Crucified” on the Soul City label, that would bare Aaron-Carl’s deeply emotional side and reveal his personal burdens. “It was actually a suicide note,” he told writer/DJ Steve Mizek of “Crucified,” in an interview for Mizek’s site Little White Earbuds a few months before he died. “My boyfriend broke up with me, I was losing my house, I was going through all kinds of stuff. And I literally — not that I’m proud of it — I wrote that song and that was the time I tried to commit suicide.” Musically indebted to the 1989 classic “Tears” by Frankie Knuckles, Satoshi Tomiie and Robert Owens, “Crucified” foregrounds the pleas of a gay man “drowning in despair, looking for a love that isn’t there, watching the tears flow like a river as you stole me from behind. Might as well be crucified.”
Aaron-Carl would toggle between his lusty booty and confessional house/techno sides for the rest of his career, often combining them to bring novel gay personalities into the technosphere: the vengeful queen, the jilted poet, the jewel-flashing diva, the conflicted monogamist, the sexual beast, the self-conscious bar-hopper, the overcompensating braggart, the hopeful activist, the dude who just struggles to pay his bills. “He was outspoken about everything, from his wildest fantasies to the reality of living in Detroit and having a family to feed,” Wasacz recalls. “When he needed money, he wrote a song that said, ‘I need money.’ And then out of that might come another song about what he would do for the money.” (“I take my baths in cold water because they shut off the damn gas,” Aaron-Carl sang over the sound of a uselessly flicking Bic lighter in “Brokedown Blues.”)
“Crucified” and “Wash It/Down” were both released on labels related to the Submerge distribution network and its head, Mike Banks, who discovered Aaron-Carl making home tapes using a cheap keyboard, a sampler and a four-track recorder. As he often related in interviews, Aaron-Carl didn’t even know who Banks was or exactly what kind of music he himself was making. He grew up in Taylor, Michigan, a mostly white, working class city south of Detroit. “I started out by writing poetry and doing songs as a diary type of thing, as opposed to being a part of bad elements, doing drugs or whatever. It’s funny because I just did it,” he told Mizek. “Coming Out Story (B.I.T.C.H.),” a chugging rap off 2002’s Uncloseted album, relates the story of growing up a young gay man nicknamed Boogie “in Taylor-Town, when my mama asked, ‘How do you get down?’”:
I was so scared didn’t know what to say
What would she do if she knew I was that way?
I faced my fears and swallowed my pride
When I confirmed her rumor she almost died
She said, “Hey boy, what you gonna do?
What you gonna do with the whole world against you?
It’s tough being a gay boy.
What you gonna do when the whole world rejects you?”
My emotions went up in flames, that was the day that I became a B.I.T.C.H.
Boogie’s in total control of himself.
Went to school the next morning with an attitude
Had a chip on my shoulder, I refused to move
Wasn’t just their world, it was my world, too.
And if you thought any different, I had no problem saying “Fuck you.”
No one, especially in Detroit techno and hip-hop, had directly addressed the empowering catharsis of coming out like this, at a time when mainstream gay culture was becoming more diverse in its make-up and representation.
Mutual friends encouraged him to bring his early tracks to Banks, who quickly took Aaron-Carl under his wing and became a father figure to him, personally and professionally. Besides the music, Banks was impressed by Aaron-Carl’s naked ambition. “He said, ‘I want to release a single right away,’” Aaron-Carl told interviewers. “And I was like, ‘Oh no, I want to release a whole album.’ So he said, ‘Go ahead.’” The resulting CD, Storm, contained nine diverse tracks produced, arranged, written and performed by Aaron-Carl; one version of its cover featured a pink triangle, a symbol of gay resistance.
I used to call Aaron the Jolly Gay Giant, he was out and unapologetic about it – it was beautiful.
As a fledgling producer, Aaron-Carl credited Banks with teaching him “not just how to make good songs, but how to make good records.” He also had the freedom, in the mostly straight-appearing world of techno, to be an out gay man making good records about his experience. That freedom stemmed partly from the existence of Heaven, an all-night gay club on Detroit’s west side, catering to a mostly local black clientele but peppered with international faces and famous DJs who came to hear the sounds of “Detroit’s own Larry Levan,” DJ Ken Collier. From the late ’80s through 1995, Collier not only kept his dancefloor children vogue-battling and doing the hustle with a high-octane combination of harder house, classic disco and soul a cappellas, he also broke influential techno records, providing a creative space for Detroit’s often-overlapping gay underground and electronic dance communities.
“In the DJ realm here in Detroit, if you were really planning on studying the art of DJing, you went to Heaven,” says Maurice “Pirahnahead” Herd, a close friend and musical associate. “You would see everyone there, they would all be together, gay, straight whatever. I used to call Aaron the Jolly Gay Giant, he was out and unapologetic about it – it was beautiful. And he knew his way around this scene, like he knew his way around all kinds of scenes. He was a songwriter, he was a DJ, he was a producer. And people really respected him for that. So you would have people coming to Heaven for the music, who were not necessarily from that scene, and they would see Aaron-Carl and have someone there that they knew from their professional and music circles.”
Despite a steady stream of productions, Aaron-Carl soon grew disenchanted with his Soul City deal under Banks, singing and writing about feeling betrayed when he found out he didn’t own the rights to his work. Although the two would maintain a complex relationship, and Aaron-Carl later thanked him for letting him go without a fuss, it was time for Aaron-Carl to strike out on his own in 1998 with his Wallshaker label, named after his last release with Banks.
“This was a scary proposition, his own label,” Wasacz says. “There was no real professional music infrastructure in Detroit, corporate or otherwise, to support individual musicians and labels when it came to the complexities of the business. There may have been some help with certain things, but most people had to reinvent the wheel every time, in terms of distribution, production, accounting... Submerge was one of the biggest distributors and without them, how would you get your records in stores or on the new digital platforms? So this was a big deal for him, to find success in the business without any compromise.”
Aaron-Carl persisted, and Wallshaker soon had an international and Billboard Dance charting hit when the Ovum label picked up Wallshaker’s first release, “My House,” for re-release and distribution. “That track was huge here in Detroit,” says Tom Linder of Detroit Techno Militia. “We still get screams when we play the a cappella. It’s one of the unofficial anthems of Detroit.” Meanwhile, Metroplex re-released “Down,” which helped bring his ghettotech side to a broader audience as well. In the mid-2000s, his explicit “Homoerotic” became a signature track of the emerging international queer techno underground. Things were moving fast.
“He always had something in the pipeline,” Angie Linder recalls, “and was calling up to ask how we felt about this or that, all the while with that warm but direct tone. He would have an idea and then he would execute on it, which really impressed me. He was getting a lot of recognition overseas, too, but people still didn’t really know him here. That’s been the case for a lot of techno musicians since the beginning, but I think it really affected him. He wanted to crossover to pop, but he wasn’t going to sacrifice anything. That’s why he started W.A.R.M.T.H.”
We Are Revolutionizing the Movement of Techno and House, or W.A.R.M.T.H., was launched in 2010 as an organization to help Detroit artists reach a broader stateside audience through parties, tours and promotion campaigns. “A lot of us get depressed when we come home,” Aaron-Carl told Steve Mizek, “because we get all the accolades overseas, but when you come home other people in Detroit are like, ‘Oh, it’s you, whatever.’ They don’t view entertainment as a real job. When I bought my first house I didn’t realize I was actually making enough money to do it because according to my family and friends, ‘He doesn’t have a real job.’”
With W.A.R.M.T.H. and Wallshaker taking off, and a European tour planned, Aaron-Carl seemed poised for the next level. “There was this sudden burst of productivity,” says K-HAND, the longtime Detroit DJ who remixed Aaron-Carl’s deliciously spiteful “Hateful.” “There were parties, t-shirts, albums, all these projects. He had progressed over the years and gotten very good. He was very professional whenever I worked with him. But toward the end of his life there was so much creativity – I don’t want to say this for sure, but it’s almost as if something were telling him to get as much done as possible.”
On the eve of his European tour, in September 2010, Aaron-Carl suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with lymphoma. He had been exercising and losing weight in the months previous, and blamed his health problems and cancer on previous weight gain and depression. As detailed extensively in his blog, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube posts, he was heartbroken to cancel the tour, and he was terrified of what was happening. He had already confronted the thought of his death on a lilting track from his Bittersoulfulsweet album, “If There’s Heaven” (“If there is a heaven, I guess I’ll find out sooner or later, but I don’t want to go anywhere right now”). Documentation of everything that was happening became a comfort to him. On September 30, he went in for lymph node removal surgery after a bone marrow transplant, but suffered a heart attack and passed away. His last posts were hopeful and determined.
After he passed, Detroit Techno Militia put out a double-album collection of his music and established World Aaron-Carl Day to keep his name alive. Since then, however, both the Wallshaker and W.A.R.M.T.H. websites have expired and the provenance of the Wallshaker catalogue is unclear. Mel, Aaron-Carl’s partner, has been busy raising their children, and despite rumors of catalogue re-releases, someone has yet to take on the task of reviving the Wallshaker label. “The Aaron-Carl legacy hasn’t been fully respected, and that’s a fact,” Herd says.
But the Jolly Gay Giant’s legacy has lived on in other ways, especially among queer people of color making electronic music, who lack a full history of figures like themselves to look back upon and learn from. Beside working with other queer black producers like Quentin Harris and Lady Blacktonika, he touched others in more ineffable ways. “I think it’s very important that he was there,” says Detroit DJ Adriel Thornton. “I was at his funeral, and you realized there what a tight-knit community we are in Detroit. But Aaron-Carl was really special because he really was able to do his own thing, despite all the fear that might hold someone else back. Aaron-Carl got to make music that spoke his mind, and that’s a really valuable things to have, to be able to document a musical and cultural moment like that.”
“I’ll never forget how I felt when he got in touch with me out of the blue one day on MySpace,” says Marvin Jones, a Los Angeles electronic musician who performs as Marvina 7. “It was just some page I had where I posted whatever I was working on, and one day in 2008 he commented on one of my tracks: ‘This is my favorite track from you... FIERCENESS!’ Of course, I knew who he was and freaked out that he would post that. I had no idea he was following me at all. I felt such a connection then, like someone was listening who understood what I was doing, who had searched me out. It definitely gave me the inspiration to continue making music in a way that reflected who I am.”