Waajeed on His Hip-Hop Past and Detroit Techno's Future | Sonic Futures

Photo by Nicole Shackelford. Used with permission of the artist.

This is the third interview in our Sonic Futures series, where we talk to musicians about Black artists that have inspired their musical journey, and how they pull those influences into the future through their own work. Find previous interviews with Suzi Analogue, Justus West, and Skatune Network's Jer.

There aren't many tales of Detroit's music scene without a reference to Waajeed.

Waajeed at his studio
Waajeed at his studio. Photo by Nicole Shackelford. Used with permission.

Waajeed grew up on the city’s East side, in a neighborhood called Conant Gardens. That's where he became childhood friends with the late rapper Baatin, launching a creative partnership that eventually grew to include T3, the late, great J Dilla, and the early years of Slum Village.

Waajeed was the DJ for Slum on stage, but offstage he was much more to the group. He designed the album covers for Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol 1) and Fantastic (Vol 2), distributed the records, and handled executive production tasks, all of which would become standard practice in his long career.

After years of working with Slum Village, Waajeed started another group called the Platinum Pied Pipers. Their debut album, Triple P, released in 2005, served as a catalyst for him to explore sonically beyond hip-hop. Since those years, he's shifted focus to making techno and house music.

Waajeed has recorded and released albums under various names and as collaborations with other Detroit musicians, and he has DJ'd at nightclubs and dance music festivals worldwide. His music reflects the numerous musical genres he was exposed to as a youngster. Yet, with just a few synths and drum machines, he compresses his diverse experiences into soulful tracks that echo those of 1970s-era disco ensembles.

Aside from continuing to push for the preservation of past legacies, Waajeed has kept a forward gaze. In collaboration with Mad Mike Banks, he has set up the Underground Music Academy, an electronic music education center dedicated to teaching production and DJ skills, along with the history and theory of what is now commonly referred to as that Detroit Sound.

For this Sonic Futures piece, we got to speak with Waajeed about how his prior efforts have become part of Detroit lore and how such experiences influence every aspect of what he is doing now.

When did you first discover your passion for DJing and making music?

I started off as a DJ first. It goes back to probably hearing my dad play records inside of our house. We grew up on the East side of Detroit, and my dad had this huge record collection of all types of shit in there. It was pop, it was Funkadelic. He played a lot of Funkadelic. He played a lot of jazz. He smoked a lot of weed in there and I'm getting in contact, you know what I mean?

I just remember hearing Parliament. It was everything, man. It was Gino [Soccio]. He played almost every genre except for classical. Gospel. I guess my dad's passion for his records naturally transitioned to me because when hip-hop started to become part of the atmosphere, not just in my neighborhood, but with my crew, with Dilla and Baatin.

Baatin was actually my first partner. We had a group together called H20 and I was the DJ for the group. That's when I actually started to really fall in love with the idea of not just sounds, but being a person that could be the sound controller, the person that was actually putting these ideas together.

You were working with Baatin pre-Slum Village days? This is what? Teenage years?

Yeah. Baatin was my oldest friend. I met Baatin at a dance-off at somebody's wedding. Back in the days. I met Baatin in the third grade. So yeah, we're talking about, before he passed, well over 25 years of friendship. I met Baatin first and then we eventually met Dilla and T3 as a result of just being in our neighborhood and going to the same high school.

To my understanding, you did the first two covers for the Slum Village albums, Fantastic volume one and two?

Slum did a couple bootlegs in Japan, so the very first Fantastic record, I basically put that out on my label. It was Donut Boy Records. So yeah, Fan-Tas-Tic (Volume 1), I did the very first cover for and put it out on my label. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, man, on either side [laughs].

From an album cover design perspective or from an executive producer's perspective?

All of it. All of it. All of it. I had no idea. It was more to do with just the fact that my homies was hurting. I had won a scholarship to go to art school here in Detroit to learn how to design cars. So that art scholarship put me in a position where I had student loans, I had some money to be able to just live. I guess once Baatin and I started H20, Hard 2 Oppose, together, Baatin and I eventually teamed up with T3, and T3, and the three of us ended up connecting with Dilla. That's basically how it all came together, how we kind of formed Slum Village.

Once Slum kind of got going and got moving, I was at the point where I had got the scholarship to go to school. And my parents were like, "You're not going to be running around with those little boys. You're going to take your ass to school." [Laughs] So I went and started taking my college classes, but at the same time, when I started to take my classes at school, Dilla had got on, pretty much. He was basically recording and flying to LA to work for Pharcyde. He was on. He was winning. And Baatin and T3 weren't winning so much, man. They were just trying to figure it out.

Instead of seeing my friends hurt, my thought was like, "OK, why don't we compile all these songs together and put something out?" And they was like, "Cool." So that's really how I jumped in. I jumped in trying to help my brothers stay afloat.

Waajeed Boiler Room DJ Set at Polaris Festival

When was the first time that you realized that Dilla was of a special breed?

Oh, I knew that from day one, honestly. You know what I mean? People always say that— "Yeah, I knew it from day one"—because they know how it lands, but honestly, yeah, he was very special from jump.

He was super quiet, but very intense, kind of serious. I was the jokester of the crew, very much like I am right now. I'm making fun of everybody, fucking with everybody, pulling everybody's chain, and he was so sensitive. You couldn't make fun of him. He'd be mad at you for a week. He wouldn't talk to you for a week. So I learned that early on that you couldn't clown him.

When we were in high school about the same time, just before Slum Village formed together, Amp Fiddler used to live in our neighborhood, my OG. And we used to, after school or during school sometimes, whenever Amp was in town from touring with Parliament, which I didn't even know until as an adult, he used to teach us how to program drums in his basement. He's basically the person who taught us all how to program on the MPC.

My time with Amp didn't just result in my career and not going to prison, which I feel like I was heading to—we had a prison right down the street from my school. Amp, in my opinion, not just me, but my teammates and my crew, kind of directed us from prison, and really directed us into a career of music and being creative and being different and embellishing that difference.

You're mentioned a lot in the new book Dilla Time, by Dan Charnas.

Am I? I didn't know. [Laughs] Well, I was very instrumental in helping Dan with the book. The biggest part that I feel like we're lacking as Black people is documenting this music thing and our places inside of it. And whether you Black or white, Dan actually did the work. Dan, I might have been one of the first people that he spoke to, because I actually know Dan from my ex-wife.

My ex-wife, her uncle teaches at NYU with Dan. So I had a really early encounter with Dan when he used to do his Dilla classes many, many years ago, talking about pretty much what the book is about. And then the idea of the book came about. And man, I must have sat and talked with Dan for like five hours in my dusty ass house (I was doing construction).

I could really tell that Dan, he wasn't just a fan—which, I don't feel like fans should write books—but he was really into the science of what made Dilla special. And for me, it was just like, "I know the man is special." But I couldn't articulate, in academic terms, what made him different and what made him unique. From my understanding, just before the book came out, Dan gave me a reading of the book in particular sections and yeah, he was able to articulate what made Dilla so special, in some ways.

James Brown - "Funky Drummer"

He employs a vivid metaphor, connecting Detroit's non-linear neighborhood grids to the non-linear rhythms Dilla crafted on and off the grid of the MPC. It's a real deep metaphor, and I contend that that metaphor goes a lot deeper than Dilla, that it goes to other Detroit artists like yourself, Moodymann, Marcellus Pittman, Theo Parrish, Carl Craig... All of you all sort of have that disjointed off-grid rhythm and you're applying it to dance music. Can you talk about just how natural that is for you? Is it intentional?

Yeah, that's fully intentional, absolutely. I remember the conversation in Dilla's basement about us. There was one particular night—and it's important that we document this—there was one particular night where we sat down and listened to [James Brown's] "Funky Drummer" for like three hours straight. This is when we were learning how to program in Amp Fiddler's basement, so this is the very beginning. And I remember these conversations.

We had no fucking clue about the aesthetics of it, like there were two drummers and all of these things, but we just knew that there was something that we could relate to in terms of our lives. Just the fact that our lives and our parents were employed by General Motors or the Big Three and all of that. But there was always this tension that was in our homes. The fact that crack cocaine had just hit the street…

So there was a dissonance in the beauty. There was a beauty inside of this disjointed drum. There was a beauty inside of this pattern. It was a pattern, but it wasn't quite a perfect pattern. But it always came back on the one. You know what I mean? And I think there's a similarity with even just our parents' work, them making cars and just manufacturing part after part, after part, after part. There's a beauty in the pattern. And our feel was to disjoint the pattern just a little. And then it all come back on the one.

"There were two things that we kind of swore to, to one another. One is that we would never use the same drums twice. And then two: Everything comes back on the one."

Particularly, there were two things that we kind of swore to, to one another. One is that we would never use the same drums twice. And then two: Everything comes back on the one. So you could get funky and do your crazy patterns, but everything will come back on the one.

And then there was the third principle that you always programmed in two-bar drum patterns. That way, it gives you the ability to make these really, really significant micro-changes, but to the average listener, nobody would even hear it. The only person who heard it and brought it up to me was Mad Mike Banks. He said to me, "Listen, man, this micro-patterning that y'all doing in the work stands out."

So I will say that, yeah, "Funky Drummer" was a direct reflection of my experience and applying it not just to hip-hop, but to my quote-unquote dance music as well. Just to make yourself different from, in my opinion, the folks who actually emulate our Detroit and Chicago sound.

Let's go back a little bit. Before you started focusing on dance, your group the Platinum Pied Pipers—that's how I originally discovered you. Can you shine a little light on how the Platinum Pied Pipers started?

I guess technically, I executive-produced the very first Fantastic record and then eventually Slum got a deal from that record. I went back to school. I was just like, "Man, let me try to focus on the school shit before my parents kill me." And then Dwele eventually became a part of the crew via Baatin. I think Baatin met him someplace and they clicked.

And so when Dwele kind of came into the crew, he was like, "Look, man, I would love for you to do the same thing for me that you did for Slum Village." Executive producer shit, right? So a photoshoot turned into a friendship and then a friendship eventually turned into, "Man, let's make some tunes together."

So one of the first tunes that we made together was a track called "Try Me" that I'm actually re-releasing on Bling 47. Label Launch! [Laughs] Amongst our friends, everybody was playing the shit. I remember I was waiting for Dilla at his house and he pulls up playing the song in his Lex truck. That was a moment in history where it's just like, "OK, dude, we're doing something cool. This shit is fresh."

There was one trip that I made with Dilla to Philly and I'm pretty sure it was to record the cuts that Jazzy Jeff had done on [Slum Village's] "I Don't Know." I can't remember the record store—hopefully the people reading this will know the record store—but there was a record store in Philly and they had these really great drum records. And I remember: I bought a couple records there, I came back home—there were none of those records in Detroit. And there was a number on the record.

I called the number and basically was like, "Man, what the fuck is this shit? We in Detroit, motherfucker. We the center of the planet." I think I've said something crazy like that. Like, "You need to have some fucking drum records in Detroit." You know what I'm saying? Like, "We the home of the..." So I'm going off on this answer machine about how upset I am. Like, "Look, I got records in Philly, but you ain't got no records in the D. This don't make sense."

Somebody calls me back and was like, "Listen, we didn't mean to offend you." And, "Who are you? You got a lot of fucking attitude to be calling us like this." And I'm like, "Well, I'm doing this and I'm doing that." By that time, I had done like one or two ghost productions. They was like, "Well, what are you working on?" So I sent them "Try Me" and maybe another tune. And that's when they were like, "OK, well, we would love to have you over here at Ubiquity Records." So that's kind of how PPP started. It was kind of a result of some level of record justice, I guess [laughs].

I've got to say this, "Act Like You Know" [from Triple P] is actually one of my favorite tracks of Dilla as a rapper. Could you talk about working with Dilla with him as the rapper and you being the producer?

Well, that was actually the second time, or even third time that I worked with Dilla, producing for him. One of the first things that I kind of produced for him was... I think it was under... when he signed to MCA Records, or I forget what they call it now. I think they just re-released it. I did a track called "Up in the Club." And so, yeah, that was my first time really kind of producing for him, I think. There were a couple times. I worked on some tracks for Welcome to Detroit as well. I did some programming there.

I didn't know that.

Yeah, nobody knows that [laughs]. Well, there's a lot people don't know. I'll say that. So working with him on "Act Like You Know" was probably the toughest time, because he was sick at that point. Just when we had put out the last Dilla instrumental album on Bling 47 [The Official Jay Dee Instrumental Series Vol. 2: Vintage] I called him to do a photoshoot and he basically hit me back like, "Look, man, I'm not going to be able to do this photoshoot because I'm not feeling well." And he started explaining what was going on with him. He was just like, "Look, man, just don't tell nobody that I'm not feeling well." So we didn't do the photoshoot. I actually ended up taking photos of his drum machine.

And then just after that, we were meant to connect and work on some stuff. And then it was just like, "Look, man, this thing is not going my way." And I asked him, "All right. Well, look, I just need you to do a verse on this track." And it took quite a while. It was almost to the point where the album had needed to be turned in. I almost missed a due date. And yeah, last minute, he sent me these verses and I actually, I was just so grateful that he was able to actually finish the track.

What drove your creative focus away from hip-hop to making techno and house music?

Roy Davis Jr. Roy Davis Jr., man.


Roy fucking Davis Jr. We went to a club called The Shelter and I guess it was the 90s where [DJ] House Shoes was DJing on one floor. They had something going on in the basement, and then on the top floor was dance music, house stuff. And I'm pretty much from the era where people just, they don't cross-pollinate their genres. If you're into hip-hop, you do hip-hop. That's what you do. But I was always into what was happening on the top floor with dance music. And again, it's like the part of what I was saying to you at the beginning of our conversation: It's really about legacy, man. Techno and dance music is just as natural to me. Probably more natural to me than hip-hop.

We had to go out and get hip-hop. We had to go find hip-hop. You know what I mean? We had to watch Yo! MTV Raps every Saturday in order to get a dose of hip-hop. But techno and dance music was something that we got every day via the new dance show or just being. Whether it was Mojo [Ed: Detroit radio host The Electrifying Mojo] or whatever. Whatever it may be, whatever our source was, it was like it's just natural. It's in our bloodline. So it was always there, but it really took Roy Davis Jr. to ignite it.

When I signed to Ubiquity, PPP was really successful. I got a call from the label manager and he basically told me, "Well, there's this guy, Roy Davis, Jr., that wants to work with you, and Roy's a legend." And I remember him, he kept saying, "Legend, legend, legend." And eventually, I think I looked him up or asked somebody about him and they was like, "Yeah, that motherfucker is a legend, man. He's the reason why this shit is still sticking."

So I connected with Roy and I came to Chicago. I think there was something going on where I couldn't get a flight. So Roy sends a fucking limousine to come pick me up. I'm in the limousine solo. It drove all the way to Chicago if I recall correctly. And I connected with Roy and we made a song in like 10 minutes. Really quick. Really quick.

"It's almost like brain surgery. I never saw anybody work a crowd like that when I saw Roy do it."

Roy reached out back to me when [the record] was done. He was like, "Listen, man, I'm going down to Winter Music Conference and I'd love you to come." So I was like, "Hell yeah!" A trip to Winter Music Conference. I'm not thinking about how this was going to change my life.

Roy bought me a ticket. We flew down there and that very first night when we jumped off the plane, I think Roy played like three clubs that night and it changed my life. I never saw what dance music had done to people from that perspective. I had always seen it from the dance floor perspective, but to see how Roy, in the same way I talked about how Dilla and I would take these micro, little programming parts, like, "This hi-hat only happens over here once"—it's almost like brain surgery. I never saw anybody work a crowd like that when I saw Roy do it.

So after Winter Music Conference, I told Roy, I was like, "Man, I want to make dance music." He's like, "Man, get the fuck out of here." You know what I'm saying? [Laughs] He's like, "Cool. Send me some shit." And then I sent him some shit and he said it was horrible.

But I'm sure that's what drove you, right? To just keep pushing?

Don't tell me "no," motherfucker. I'm going to see you. I'm going to come get you [laughs]. So yeah, after that, I basically worked on tracks from PPP time, which is 2005, until my first Dirt Tech release, which was more than 10 years later. I was always making it quietly. But it was Roy Davis Jr.. He was the catalyst to make it all happen.

So what do you have in the studio these days? What type of gear are you working with?

I'm working on this soundtrack for a film that's being made by another Detroiter called Son of Detroit. And I actually bought this new Modal, the Argon 8.

You’re a fan of Roland too, am I correct?

Yeah. I got a great relationship with Matt over there at Roland. I tend to try to fuck with companies that are equitable. Really understand the value that not just Detroiters, but Black people are bringing into the space. So I try to get down with those that understand our value. And Roland, or at least the folks that I'm dealing with over at Roland, they get it.

If anything, I'm actually more of a fan of things that are more low-tech. I've got boards over here, thousands and thousands of dollars, but they just collect dust. I don't fuck with none of that shit. I believe that it's really a testament. It's a testament to your creativity when you have less and it makes you funkier, because you’re thinking. You’re making choices that you wouldn't normally make if you just had access to a ton of memory or all of those things. So yeah. I'm a big fan of the low-tech shit.

That's what's up. Can you just share just a few low-tech devices in your collection?

Yeah. One of the main ones is the Korg Volca Sample. That's one of the main ones. And that's actually something that we going really teach in-depth at the school. It's not the gear, its your ears. You know what I mean? It's really about what you put into the machines. The machine is not going to do shit. The machine don't have a voice until you touch it. So, yeah, I'm a big advocate for things that you can put in your pocket, leave and go and move around.

Too often a lot of people that I know don't make music because they make it so religious. Like, "You can only be in church on Sunday." And it's like, that's not what this is at all. This is just an expression of your day, how you feel today. And you can't go wrong. You can't mess up at this. There's very few things in life that are based on how you feel.

Let's shift to the Underground Music Academy. What's your main mission there? What are you doing with the school?

Well, the Underground Music Academy came about several years ago between myself and Mad Mike Banks from Underground Resistance. I've been very lucky in my life and in my career to be protected by people, whether it was my crew with Slum Village or learning a lot from Roy, learning tons of stuff from Amp, learning stuff from Carl Craig, even Mike. I've always been in a space where I will listen, and put my pride aside and listen. I've been lucky enough to be schooled and led by Gs. People that are really not just important in the musical landscape, but just important as human beings.

So the idea of Underground Music Academy is to be able to share some of that game. It's an academic version of the barbershop. It's the academic version of the game that's shared at the water cooler at work. It's our version of a rhythmic church. It's our version of that. So it's a place that's, largely, that will be built on social justice values. And really just putting the people that have been pushed to the margins to the center.

There was a time, and I want to say this because it's really important, there was a time in my career where this off-beat drum shit was a joke. Now it's part of the fabric and it's natural... it's a truth now. This thing that Dan is writing about in his book is just a truth now. It's academic. You know what I'm saying? That's how people look at it, but when we first started, man, I remember sending remixes to particular artists and they laughed at the shit. They actually said, "Something's wrong. I think when you sent it over, the files got mixed up." So if we didn't have our crew and our team to actually know, "OK, this is the thing that we should be doing," if we didn't have our community, we probably would've stopped.

So it's very important to have a brick-and-mortar space, especially in the city like the D, where people who are marginalized or different or think different or hear music differently, actually have a place to go, to be able to converge, have church, and then go out to the world and be able to share their music or their ideas with a certain level of ownership. And that's what Underground Music Academy is, not just for the city, but for the remainder of the world, because we will be teaching online.

Waajeed - "Shango"

What type of courses will you be offering?

Well, it's based on two pillars, which is primarily DJing and production, but inside of those courses… I could teach you how to use a drum machine, but if you don't use that drum machine ethically, meaning that the music that you make or who you produce for is under the context of thinking properly. There's so much more than music, right? So when I went to art school, I said, "Art school can teach you how to draw, but they can't necessarily teach you how to apply that art with a level of wisdom." That's what Underground Music Academy is going to do.

We're not going to just teach you how to use the drum machine, but we’re going to give you the foresight of where these ideas came from, where they can go, and then, ultimately, we hope to give people or offer some solutions of where it can go. Internships or opportunities to mix with renowned producers and things like that.

That's what's up. The Underground Music Academy is definitely something that is very rooted in the aesthetic of Afrofuturism.


For sure. Even Charnas touched on this in his book, but Detroit is a city that not only defines Afrofuturism but it's also a place where the past, present, and future are all happening simultaneously.

Oh, it's pretty much exactly what you just said. It's the past, it's the present, and it's the future. Without those three notions, you really don't know where you stand. You can't have a future without knowing where you're standing at, presently, and what happened before that. I do believe that Afrofuturism is the premise of why we are even here at this space in music as a whole. I hate to imagine where we would be in terms of techno without Juan Atkins. I hate to imagine where we would be in terms of experimental hip-hop without Dilla. Motherfuckers would be clanking on cans and shit. You know what I'm saying? Who knows where we would be?

Aside from your re-release of Try Me what else do you have coming up?

Quite a bit. I'll start with UMA. We have several events that are planned to continue fundraising. UMA is in a position where we have three phases and the second phase is construction. We're actually building the space out and starting to build our curriculum. And in order for us to do that, we still need to continue to raise funds. So we have several events planned this year. One of the very first ones is celebrating Earth Day. And then the second event in the latter part of April will be, we actually revisit roots that are very important to me, an event that we're doing called Camp Amp, where we actually hook up with Amp Fiddler. Amp Fiddler will be teaching a course on drums, but not just a course on drums, but a course on his life and his legacy. We want to celebrate my OG [and] give him his flowers while he's still present with us.

And then in terms of me, I signed a deal with Tresor. So I got a release coming out in the summer where I celebrate my history in terms of my understanding of a genre that was created by Mad Mike Banks called High Tech Jazz. So the name of the record is Memoirs of High Tech Jazz. And then in terms of Bling 47, there was a beat tape that I did in 2005 where I guess at the time, it was before I even knew what a podcast was, where I basically tell the story of Patty Hearst, and it's called The Patty Hearst Beat Tape. So that'll be our first release. That'll be out in March, mid-March.

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