Interview: Ash Lauryn

The Detroit-raised DJ and founder of the Underground and Black blog reflects on how the dual influences of Detroit and Atlanta have informed her sound

Modou Jallow

Even though she has been based out of Atlanta for more than a decade, the rising DJ Ash Lauryn is still more than capable of waxing lyrical about the legacy of Detroit electronic music. It was this move in her early 20s that helped her gain perspective on her beloved hometown Detroit, showing her the impact and reach of its legacy and the need to preserve it for future generations. Over the last couple of years on the DJ circuit, and through her blog, Underground and Black, she has done just that, while also advocating for inclusivity in dance music.

In this edited excerpt from her Headphone Highlights interview with Christine Kakaire on Red Bull Radio, Lauryn discusses the intentions behind her blog, how experiences in Atlanta led her to re-dedicate her life to house music and her pride in coming from Detroit.

Underground And Black

Underground and Black is my blog that I started to document my experiences as a black woman being involved in dance music, and also just a new DJ dealing with all these amazing things that have happened.

I don’t think my journey is the typical DJ journey. Things have picked up tremendously, so it’s cool to talk about those experiences and the good or the bad, the ugly. Most of it’s good, but it is just kind of interesting, even now, coming over to Berlin and doing shows and having a booking agency backing me. It’s all really exciting and I just try to keep it real, you know what I mean? And it’s great because I get a lot of feedback off people that are like, “Oh, I read your blog and I thought it was so cool, it was so interesting.” Or, “I could totally relate with that one part where you talked about this.” And I think me starting the blog also really helped the DJing take off, being that I don’t produce music and I don’t have this super long résumé. But I think when you do have other things behind you when you’re involved in music – whether it’s a record or a collective or a party you throw – I think it definitely helps to have those other avenues to try to just gain the attention or a following.

Everywhere I go I’m always subconsciously like, “OK, make a mental note of this moment so you can talk about it in the blog.” And I’m really looking forward to it and I just want to just share my journey with people and hope that they like it.

Underground and Black a platform for us to celebrate ourselves, to celebrate our culture, to educate people.

To me, it’s important just to represent black people in dance music. I mentioned before, you are seeing less and less of us, or maybe if there are black people involved in dance music, perhaps they’re just not getting the attention or the shine of some of their counterparts. So for me I just wanted to put that message, like, “Yeah, we’re here, we’re cool,” that we started this, we’re not going anywhere. Me claiming to be underground and black isn’t to take away from anybody else, but it is for me, or a platform for us, to celebrate ourselves, to celebrate our culture, to educate people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met people and I tell them, “You know I’m a techno DJ” or “I like techno.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s white people music.” And I’m like, “Alright, sit down, let me educate you really quick.”

I know that there is a lot of talk, and a lot of people are like, “Oh, I wish music was just about music again, and not about who made it or what color or if it was a woman or a man.” And I understand that, but I also think there’s a room for these smaller groups to just let it be known that we’re here. It’s important because the last few years it just seems like you’re not really seeing as many of us. So for me, even just by doing the whole Underground and Black [blog], I’ve connected with so many people that are like, “I love what you’re doing. I love that you are dedicated to preserving the roots of dance music.” And I know I’m just one person, I can’t do it alone. But I think just starting the movement itself has already just connected me with other people who are on the same ride.

And this is black and white people. Anybody can be underground... You don’t have to be black to support Underground and Black. You know what I mean? It just means you’re supporting the culture, you recognize who started this and where it came from and I think it’s important that we remain.

Starting to DJ

I’ve always been into the music. I actually had a boyfriend and was kind of working in the hospitality industry. Wasn’t really my passion, but it was paying the bills, it was something I happened to be good at... But I didn’t love it. And I really just wanted something more. I always saw myself as someone being involved in the arts or a creative industry. Growing up I was into theater, radio, broadcasting. So I basically just lucked up on some turntables. The guy I was dating at the time was really, really pushing me, like, “Ashley, everything you want is on the other side of your fears. Just do it. Take it more seriously.” So I had decks at home and it honestly was just a hobby for about three years before I actually got the gig.

And sometimes I’d DJ every day of the week and sometimes I would not touch my gear for a couple of weeks, and I would just beat myself up, like, “You need to be learning, you need to be getting better so you can start getting gigs.” So finally, slowly but surely I got better. I would record mixes all the time and none of them were that great, so finally when I got that one mix where I finally didn’t screw anything up, that was maybe 55 minutes, I was like, “I think I can post this one.” So from there, just honestly from me posting the first mix and linking up with my neighbor Vicki Powell, who was very, very respected on the queer community in Atlanta – she has been DJing for at least 15, 20 years, and just happened to be my neighbor – happened to hear my mix and was like, “Ashley, we need to get you out of your living room. I want to give you a chance to come DJ at one of my parties.”

We didn’t promote it, I wasn’t on the flyer or anything. I just showed up and I showed up before her – she got stuck in traffic. And I was just so excited, I put my USB in and I was mixing and it was working and they came in and they were like, “Oh my God. This is great.” So from there, Deep South is the collective that Vicki started along with another gentleman name Robert Ansley, and they invited me to be a resident DJ with them.

From Atlanta to Detroit

I moved to Atlanta when I was 21, and I had went away to school right after high school when I was 18. I went to school in Baltimore for a year. And it got really expensive, I didn’t really like the school that much, so I ended up moving back to Detroit for my sophomore year. I did the sophomore year at Wayne State and I was just at that age where I wanted to leave home. At that time, I think it was 2005 or 2006, somewhere in that range, Detroit really wasn’t popping. It really wasn’t, and I was still... I knew about dance music and I was involved in the scene, but I was still very young at that point. So my first adult introductions would maybe be going to Agave in Detroit, which was kind of like a historic staple, like a beer garden now. It was actually like a Mexican restaurant, and on Sunday they would do house music, so the restaurant would slowly but surely turn into a club type vibe. I was going to Agave, hanging out every Sunday. I was completely underage, but my older sister would go with me a lot of times, and I remember sometimes she couldn’t go, and I found myself going by myself, and that really is something that helped me learn about myself, too, being involved in house music.

It was an environment where you didn’t have to be insecure. It was somewhere where you could go by yourself and meet people and connect, so I was doing the Agave thing, and as I mentioned, I just started to get kind of bored with Detroit, so around 21 I moved to Atlanta with my roommate from Baltimore, ’cause she moved back home, too.

Like, super hip-hop: Ludacris, T.I., Young Jeezy... That is the move, the vibe for Atlanta. Don’t get me wrong, I love hip-hop. I was kind of forced to being on the scene when I first moved there ’cause everyone I knew, that’s what they were doing.

House In The Park is the one thing that got me truly back into house music.

Google wasn’t really what it is now back then, so I would Google every now and then trying to find house music in Atlanta, ’cause sometimes I’d be like, “I need that release. I wanna let go.” Couldn’t find anything for literally at least the first two years I was there. Finally, I had a friend from D.C. that invited me out to lunch, and his friend from Detroit was there. Somehow we got on the topic of house music, and he was like, “I know you go to House In The Park, right?” I was like, “What?” And he was like, “Yeah, House In The Park, it’s like a big house music festival that they do in Atlanta Labor Day weekend every year.” This was probably in March, so it was still months and months away.

My sister came down to Atlanta by this point, and we were living together, and we literally were just waiting, counting down like, “House In The Park, House In The Park.” House In The Park is the one thing that got me truly back into house music. After that experience I dove in really, really deep. By this time technology had evolved a little bit, so I was able to go on Youtube and start looking at some of these songs that I had heard before.

I got a few mix CDs. I met people. House In The Park is honestly the one thing, the pivotal point that got me back into the scene and made me realize that this is the one thing in my life that I am passionate about, that I love. I’m happy when I’m here. Nothing else matters. As the years went on I built more relationships, met more people, continued to go to House In The Park, started flying back to Detroit every year for the festival in 2011. So I’d say from 2011 until now dance music has been the number one driving force of my existence. I don’t know if that sounds crazy or not, but I mean, it was just the one thing if I’m at home and listening to music. I started just digging ... You know, we don’t have record stores in Atlanta. We do, but they’re not great, so I would just start digging deeper and deeper on Youtube and finding more tracks, and reading stories, going to websites, so it’s really cool to see how things have evolved just from that situation of going to House In The Park.

To take it back even farther, it all just stems from me being educated about this music as a child, but not formally educated. Just educated from hearing it, you know what I mean? If you’re from Detroit, you’re kinda born into music. We’re known for that. You have family members that are musicians. There’s always great music on the radio. It’s just kind of like a thing that defines our city, so I feel like I owe a lot of my great taste or my ability to select just from my roots, or my coming from Detroit.

Sometimes I feel like people love to take the Detroit thing and run with it, especially when you’re involved in dance music, and I may even do that as well, but I never deny the fact that I’ve been based in Atlanta for ten years. And Atlanta plays a very large role in my involvement with this music, but just how people revere Detroit in terms of music, I will forever do that as well. I just owe the city so much praise for exposing me to this, for getting me to where I am, and it’s so amazing to me, because I was born in the city of Detroit. My parents were born there, my grandparents were born there. They all went to Wayne State University. My mom was a teacher in Detroit for many, many years. My dad worked at the General Motors headquarters right downtown, so my family history and roots that I am most aware of and know about in America are going to be right out of Detroit. So for me I always, although I’ve been in Atlanta for ten years, Detroit will always be the best of the best for me.

In terms of living, I think living for me is easy in the South. I’m not really a big fan of the cold weather anymore and whatnot, but sometimes I do wonder. I’m like, “Oh, if I were to move back to Detroit would that bring on even more inspiration?” ’Cause I can’t say, you know, when I’m walking round Detroit and I have my headphones and I’m just observing the architecture, and there are still areas in Detroit that are very desolate, and kind of depressing to look at. And I think being in that environment sometimes can spark so much inspiration within.

Atlanta is the complete opposite. Everything is gorgeous, glass and steel, brand new, flowers are all in place and they’re blooming and I like the beauty of that. But I definitely see both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes it is good for me to go back home and just get that Detroit inspiration again, just even being around my family there. Going to my grandma’s house in Seven Mile, I’m always just like, “This is so cool, I’m really from here. I’m really from this place that people think is so cool.” And the whole time I was growing up living there I’m like, “OK, it’s just Detroit.” It took me a while to grow up and mature, to really learn how great it is, and the city is doing really well now. Slowly but surely they're restoring buildings, young people are moving back into the city, so I think Detroit is on the rise and there will never be a point in my life where I’m not there pretty frequently.

By Christine Kakaire on May 23, 2018

On a different note