The Incomparable DJ Bone

The Detroit techno cult figure discusses technical mastery, staying independent and giving back to his hometown

DJ Bone Marie Staggat

Born and raised in Detroit, DJ Bone is one of Midwest techno’s most revered artists. As a teenager he would sneak into the Music Institute to see hometown heroes like the Belleville Three perform, and he’d listen to the Electrifying Mojo on local radio — that’s as fine an education as you could hope to get in the roots of techno. His triple-deck set-up translates to a tactile style of house and techno DJing, a polyrhythmic sound bolstered by highly technical mixer antics. DIY to the core, DJ Bone has independently run his own label, Subject Detroit, since the beginning, and has released original music largely under the aliases DJ Bone and Differ-Ent. Among dozens of EPs and singles, he’s released three solo albums: 2007’s Out of Knowhere and 2018’s A Piece of Beyond on Subject Detroit, and 2017’s It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent on UK techno label Don’t Be Afraid.

In conversation with Lauren Martin on Red Bull Radio, DJ Bone breaks down his unwavering committment to the values that have shaped his career to date.

When was the moment you thought you might want to be a DJ?

It all started basically with the influence of the Music Institute from Detroit, as well as Detroit radio with the Wizard and Electrifying Mojo. Old soul records from my parents… It was just a musical thing for me in general, and it blossomed into an electronic thing once I heard Derrick May at the Music Institute and Blake Baxter at Majestic Theater. It just kinda knocked my socks off and I was trying to figure out what kind of music it was. It was so new. I was in high school. I had to sneak in to actually get into the clubs, and I tracked it down and found out that a lot of the stuff was from Detroit.

You know, I’d been hearing it all my teenage years on the radio and now I’m hearing it in the clubs and it was something I had never ever heard before. I had to figure out the best way to immerse myself into this new music. So I did, and from that point on it’s just been techno, techno, techno for me.

As far as me becoming a DJ, I think I had the feeling when I was really young. I mean, in grade-school young, I would do mixes or re-edits using a dual cassette deck. What happened was I would watch this dance show in Detroit called The Scene, and they would play the best music, so I’d always try and record it off of the television. And at that time, tape recorders were really cheap and you couldn’t really plug into the television. So, I would just hold it up to the speaker on the television and record the song, and then my parents decided one day to buy this home stereo set-up and I was so excited.

The Scene (1985)

It was cheap, but it was nice to me, because it had two cassette decks. So, I’m sitting there looking at it and I’m like, “Oh man, this is dope.” So, what I did is I would play one cassette and record it. You could actually dub from one cassette to the other. I would start dubbing and then I would pause the recording and then go back and maybe rewind the original cassette and then start it over and I would have to unpause right at the right moment so I could get the mix to loop or to stutter to do doubles or what have you.

That was my first foray into, I guess, mixing, but it was a cheap Sears turntable/radio/dual cassette all-in-one unit and I was on it all the time. At the time, I didn’t know it was a re-edit or a remix, but I’d do it of Gladys Knight or Isaac Hayes, Gil Scott-Heron, Stevie Wonder. I just liked the fact that I didn’t have to keep getting up to change the record and I could actually extend it. Most of the records back then were three, three-and-a-half minutes for radio edit. So to have extended versions that I made myself, you know, I’d play them for the neighborhood and people would go, “Oh, where’d you get that version?”

Stevie Wonder was the original storyteller for me...he could tell you about the ghetto. He could tell you about drugs. He could tell you about anything.

That was probably my first inkling that I would be into mixing or remixing. It was very nerdy. At the time, for me, it was technical, because I was extremely hard on myself. I would listen back and if I didn’t unpause it at the right time and the beat wasn’t synced properly, if I thought it was a little too far behind or too far ahead, then I would just re-do the whole thing. I think my quality control came at an early age and that, I guess, was probably the spark that I didn’t even realize until that moment I stepped into the Music Institute, and then it all kinda rushed into me.

Did that sensibility influence your DJing and your production at all? Did you have that mindset when you were working away – just amping up the technical ability?

I think that doing the re-works and the re-edits with the cassette tapes was probably ground zero for me to expand and expound on not being normal. I wanted to be different. I wanted an accent on the work so people would say, “Ooo, I never heard that before.”

When I started selling mixtapes, I looked at it almost like a sport. I would train. I would seriously mix like six hours a day – any free time I had. And at one point I was living in a loft and my cousin lived in the loft downstairs. He would come upstairs and hand me random records that I had bought that week and I had to mix them. I had to mix them no matter what. Go from techno to house, from house to hip-hop, just had to have some kind of tangible and relevant segue.

He would also bump the table, the turntable, so the needle would skip. So, this way I learned that everything can go wrong in one split second, but how long is it gonna take you to recover? To fix it? Before all the computers, everyone was human on the tables, so if the record skipped, you had to figure out a way to recover, you know? To regain the beat.

I got the chance to visit Detroit for the first time last year. We got the tour of the techno museum and one of the things that really struck me was how it was as much about black American music culture through the ages and the political landscape of Detroit as the records. If you had your tapestry of the cause and effect of techno, the people that made it that you might not expect, the kind of imagery you might not expect, the politics behind it, how would you paint your tapestry?

For my Detroit techno, the roots of it, if I were to have a tapestry that was a road map almost, that shows my origins, it’s massive but it’s very simple, and I can tell you who’s in it: Bruce Lee is in it. Muhammad Ali. Rosa Parks. Thelonius Monk. Malcolm X. There are a lot of people who are in there. Jimi Hendrix is in there. And it varies, and they’re not all musicians. There’s some odd characters that I’d have to say. You know, comedians as well, that just broke certain barriers. Like Eddie Murphy, they just broke down certain barriers and I admired that.

I admired the fact that they could go into an all-white arena and dominate as as a minority. I have a lot of heroes that make up my tapestry, but the simplicity of it for me is they all went above and beyond as well as stayed true to who they were. When Jimi Hendrix had the guitar, everyone basically claimed that there’s nothing new you could do with the guitar, and he started to use feedback and he started to use the wah-wah like no one else and it was phenomenal. One of my favorite songs of all time is his rendition of the national anthem. I used to play in Detroit at the Shelter. At the end of the night I would play it, because it’s so emotional to me and it spoke to me unlike the original and you could feel the passion that he had in it. So people like him and Stevie Wonder, they just did some phenomenal things.

Stevie Wonder was the original storyteller for me. I have a project with my homie Deetron we call “Storytellers,” and we both admire certain people who told stories with their music. Stevie Wonder could tell you about the ghetto. He could tell you about drugs. He could tell you about anything. I learned about drugs through my parents, but also they would sit me down and play songs for me. My dad played me “Angel Dust” by Gil Scott-Heron to teach me the pitfalls of drugs.

Signing with a label might have been a good shortcut for me or for most people, but my longevity is key.

I can pull something from each one of those people on my tapestry and I can apply it to techno at any given moment. Even in the middle of my sets. I can sit there, I could take Rosa Parks and just think about her and something, some aspect of her can evolve in my set at that moment. The same with Kraftwerk, the same with Parliament-Funkadelic. It can happen. Same with Bruce Lee. One-inch punch. It’s phenomenal. Not just people, but I also have physics as part of my tapestry, because I’m a nut about physics. I really, really am into physics, but you know, just as far as me and what made me, between that and of course, the Electrifying Mojo, who I think subliminally helped me enhance my tapestry because I had never heard a lot of these genres of music.

I didn’t know what J. Geils Band was. I didn’t know about Eurythmics, Depeche Mode. He’s the first one I heard play Jimi Hendrix’s national anthem. He also introduced a lot of Detroit to some black classical musicians. I’m a huge fan of listening to certain Rachmaninoff or even Kandinsky, when it comes to art. It varies, and it’s a huge thing to have that level of inspiration flooding into your brain and you haven’t even left the city of Detroit yet. It was coming. It was flowing in, whether it was from school or from my aunts and uncles, my parents and grandparents. My parents, the one thing, as broke as we were, the one thing they made sure we had in the house, they spent a ton of money to get a full set of encyclopedias for me and my sister. We would read those encyclopedias every day and I learned as much as I could from those things. So, that’s what makes up the tapestry.

You’re known for being fiercely independent with your label Subject Detroit. I want to know how you actually maintain that level of independence. I’m curious to know, for example, what kind of relationships do you have with pressing plants, distributors, record stores that makes that independence sustainable?

The business of distribution was putting a really bad taste in my mouth and I got lucky, because [when I first started selling records ] I got a fax through from this guy, this lonely guy… Not lonely, but basically a single guy, young man in London who was starting up this company called Juno. He hits me up and he says, “Hey, I wanna order” – it was so funny, I think it was like, “250 or 400 copies of your vinyl.” I’m like, “OK, that’s doable.”

He orders these copies and I start to pull the order. He contacts me again, I finally talk to him on the phone and he’s telling me that he’s gonna start selling these online. I thought he was crazy. I was like, “Who’s gonna buy vinyl online?” That was the first time I ever heard anyone say they were gonna sell vinyl online. It was all physical shops at the time.

It had to be 1996. So, here he is ordering these records and he ended up paying me a dollar more per record because he wasn’t going through a distributor and he only felt it fair that we cut out the middle man, then I get the price of selling it direct. So, I sold these and then a couple weeks later, I get another order in for more records from this guy. He was just selling them left and right.

He was paying me almost immediately. So that relationship has forged into now and we still have direct shipping to Juno even though they’re like mega huge now, but I’ve known them since the beginning. I’ve know Juno since day one, almost, and they’ve been really, really good to me. Really fair, and it showed me that I could go around distributors.

My wife encouraged me to start the label back up after the first release. I had made a bunch of music so, we went from zero to brave, to super brave because we came back with three releases at once. As far as pressing and everything, we had streamlined that as well, because we would do almost five to eight releases at once. So, this made it a priority for the pressing plant, because it was a big order and they knew we paid, we never were ones to owe.

So, now, it’s really streamlined, to the point where everything is handled properly, everything is promoted properly. I’m not one for release dates, because to me when it’s out, it’s out, when you find it, you find it. I think that’s the beauty of music for one, is to just stumble upon it or to have someone recommend it to you, not necessarily a magazine or an article. It’s to have someone you trust say that this is good and you need to hear this.

All these labels would just break an artist. That’s why I made the song, “Tipping Point,” that I released, was because I had to struggle with whether or not I wanted to go that route and it became easier and easier the more I refused or turned down offers to do that, it became easier for me, because I’d wake up the next day and still feel good. That was important, so I didn’t really have to go that route. It might have been a good shortcut for me or for most people, but you know, my longevity is key.

DJ Bone – Tipping Point

With what you do through initiatives and charities, how in a practical sense does the Detroit techno community actively feed back into Detroit as a city?

We have an organization that my wife started and I help her with. It’s called Homeless Homies and it’s for the homeless people in Detroit. It started really simple. It was just us riding around after we eat or something and we’d make sure that we’d find some homeless people to give our leftovers to.

Even before that, before I met my wife, when I was living in downtown Detroit, I had almost like a crew of homeless people who would help me out every single weekend. I met them just by going up and talking to them or when they’d ask me for money, I wouldn’t give them money, I would ask them what do you need the money for and I would go and buy that for them. Whether it was shoes or clothing or a razor to shave to feel human. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t drugs and alcohol.

These people would hook me up to the point where, I remember, I had to go and DJ at the shelter and they would hand out flyers for me or they would guard my car in the parking lot or on the street to make sure nobody’s gonna break in the window, carrying my records, etc...

I took care of everybody I could. I would just help out wherever I could, because the city itself – even though it’s on the upswing, the upswing to me is in the wrong area. It’s not in the neighborhoods. As much as I love the fact that they developed what I still call “Cass Corridor,” which is one of the worst areas in Detroit, because I went to school at Cass Tech down the street and I would see that every day.

Now it’s the most popular place in the whole entire city, called Midtown. There’s nothing wrong with Midtown, but there’s something wrong with ignoring the rest of the city. How can you have a midtown, when 911, when the emergency services either take forever to come or they don’t come? How can you have midtown when the street lights are out on every street, when there’s abandoned houses every other house or even occupied once every third house? Then there’s tall grass and there’s broken glasses and needles everywhere. How can you neglect the inner city like that and then be proud of Midtown?

So, when my wife started the Homeless Homies, we decided that it would go beyond leftovers and whatever. It became food in general, it became small little packets of toiletries. I collect them from the hotels I stay at when I go around and do gigs, and we just distribute that. It also became sleeping bags, warm coats, hats, gloves, wipes. Some basic things.

Every single penny we make from digital downloads goes to Homeless Homies. Every single dime. I think that there are a bunch of people who are doing for the inner city and creating for the inner city like Mike Banks, where he’s building these museums, the Detroit Techno Museums, which are beyond important.

So, people can move there. People can pop up and – even if you’re there ten years, twelve years, you say, “Oh, I’m a Detroiter.” That’s cool. I been there from almost my entire life. I’d say 30-something years of living in Detroit, growing up in Detroit, going to Detroit public schools, catching Detroit bus, the public transportation. So, you know, I’m a true Detroiter, but the state of Detroit now I think, honestly, it can get better only if they go into the inner cities and help the people.

By Lauren Martin on May 25, 2018

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