A true artist in every sense, Detroit native Waajeed has always made it his mission to spread the Gospel of his city. Since deciding to leave art school and instead head on the road with Slum Village, Waajeed has explored a number of creative avenues – acting as executive producer to acts like Dwele and releasing music as one half of r&b duo Platinum Pied Pipers before launching his Dirt Tech Reck platform in 2012.
An outlet for all of his curiosities, Dirt Tech Reck’s discography counts Waajeed’s work as Electric Street Orchestra and Tiny Hearts, collaborations with local heroes Theo Parrish, Amp Fiddler and Mad Mike Banks, and a continuous evolvement of his genre-defying sound.
More recently drawing to the world of dance music, Waajeed’s latest EP, Mother, sees him join the Planet E family headed up be techno innovator Carl Craig. In celebration of the record, we caught up with him to talk about how the project came about, the blessings and curses that come with an obsession, and of course all-things-Detroit.
Taking it from the top, you’re a photographer, DJ, producer, film maker… where did the creative journey begin?
My first outlet creatively was art. I remember back to the 7th grade when I was drawing a lot I’d listen to music at the same time. We had a DJ called Electrifying Mojo here, I used to listen to him frequently whilst drawing. At the same time I’d be hearing the sound of gunshots in the background, so it was a great way for me to be creative and stay safe inside of my home.
Was Detroit particularly rough when you were growing up?
Well you know… violence is relative, I guess in my mind it was really bad but the world was bigger to me back then. In real life its probably not as big as things happening today. Look at what’s happening here in the United States, shit is fuckin’ crazy.
You grew up alongside friends like Slum Village, why did music become all of your focuses in life?
We saw what the opposite brought us. It’s pretty standard hood shit, but there’s only a handful of ways to pull yourself out of the neighbourhood. What kept us together was more of a pact mentality like, “lets try this thing, cos this other shit ain’t working for people that we see”.
It’s known that you locked yourself away for a year to master a broken MPC J Dilla had given you, what was the daily routine and process like during that time?
After I got the MPC I cut off the world and all exterior for a year. I literally came out to get some shitty fast food and then I’d bury myself back in my apartment. It was another level of commitment man, I can’t remember anything outside of that year other than digging for records and making that machine speak my language.
I had one particular seat that I bought brand new and by the end of that year the cushion was shredded to bits and the drum machine had scuffs all over it too. It was actually one of the most revealing years of my life.
And in more recent years you found yourself living in Mad mike’s studio? Was that another chance to go wild and create?
Absolutely. When I left New York to move back home Mike offered me a space inside of the UR (Underground Resistance) building and I was pretty much looking to do the same thing. It was in a different space of my life but I wanted to rekindle with my voice.
Mike had promised me a room which became unavailable, so when the time came I just used his old studio to sleep in. I was on a shitty cot, laying in the middle of all these drum machines that have been used to make so much music of definitive genres over the years.
Has that hunger and drive stayed with you throughout your career or do you sometimes need those sorts of moments and opportunities to source inspiration?
I was thinking about that this morning – hunger, it’s something that I’ve always had. Sometimes it’s my best friend in terms of being a creative person and having a unique voice amongst everybody making records or being artistic. But it’s that same hunger and drive that makes me a terrible son because I don’t call my mum back when I’m supposed to pick her up for a doctor’s appointment, or it’s that same drive that makes me a terrible friend when I don’t remember a birthday. It’s a blessing and a curse.
I suppose it’s trying to balance an obsession with a normal life…
yeah, and I don’t know if I’m that fucking great at it to be honest.
Your role as an artist has varied throughout your work. From executive producer to label manager to band member to solo artist, is there an avenue you prefer or do they all creatively feed into one?
I’m a producer at the end of the day. Everything else is great, I love to DJ, I love to play records and bring a vibe. What I’m doing when I’m an executive producer, label manager, whatever… I love the job, but at the end of the day I’ll always revolve back to sitting in front of those speakers and designing sound. I’ve found that the rest of those duties help me get back to that space more comfortably.
A lot of your music has come via your own imprint Dirt Tech Reck, is it important for you to have creative control over the entirety of your projects?
Yeah. It wasn’t always like that but now it’s definitely a thing where I need to be in front of and behind all decisions that are made creatively. Ultimately because you eat it whether its good or bad. I’ve seen buddies of mine make creative decisions and the shit not go in the direction that they’ve imagined, and they gotta’ eat it anyway. It’s easier to be in front of it, for better or worse… the great ideas come from the same place that the shitty ones do.
I know you don’t like your music to be boxed in a category, but you’ve often explored new identities and areas over your career, talking on hunger again is this a need to constantly challenge yourself and experiment?
I’ve always wanted to have a career, not a moment. I admire the dudes that I be sampling from; Miles, Philip Glass, Quincy, all of these composers who’s collections I’ve bought – dozens of music over dozens of years, and for me it’s always been important not to be a bright light, but more like a consistently burning candle.
Your more recent output certainly draws more to the worlds of dance music and house. Has this been a conscious shift?
Where I am at right now was an ultimate goal. As much as I love hip hop, it’s not my legacy. As a native son of Detroit, dance music is my legacy. Me and my friends weren’t raised in situations where we’d go and hear music at the park surrounded by tenement buildings and people breakdancing and shit… that became a part of our life, but its not our story in this city.
The more time I’ve spent in other places, the more it’s made me a greater Detroiter. We were raised in situations where we’d go to abandoned buildings to hear our music. Techno is our birth right, and when I say techno I mean it in the general sense, dance music, it’s a Detroit creation and original idea. Because I’m so deeply connected to my own identity and my city’s identity, what I’m doing now has always been the end game. Once I’m done fucking around with everything else, I need to be clear about who I am and what I should be doing.
Has the move into the dance world affected your career as a DJ? Especially with the house revival going on right now, certainly here in the UK.
I can’t say I’ve noticed a change. It’s always been my mission to spread the Gospel of Detroit, to educate people about my city and the cultures that we’re responsible for.
How do you balance being on the road with creating music, do you have to be more precise in the studio these days?
At this point I just buy smaller drum machines. I work pretty obsessively and there’s damn near a drum machine in every room of the house. Whether I’m on the road or whether I’m in the comforts of my bed, I’m always getting out ideas. I guess its in the same way to all the masters who I was with at art college, they’d always be sketching.
Everything’s not meant to come out, everything’s not meant to develop, but it’s usually the starter course for some genre or some idea.
You’re premiering a live show at Detroit’s Movement festival in May? How will the set up work and what inspired the project?
What I’m doing on stage is a representative of what I do in the studio, where it’s just like a jam. Most of the good ideas and the ones that stick are the ideas that are generated quickly. What I’m doing on stage is basically like a photograph of that, me and my drum machines.
Your new record, Mother, is on Planet E, how did you get hooked up with Carl Craig?
My story with Carl goes back to the early ‘90s or 2000’s. I was working really closely with an artist called Ta’Raach, he was on Jay Dee’s Welcome 2 Detroit album, and during that time he was signed to Carl’s hip hop label. The headquarters was next to the same apartment that I had when I locked myself in for a year or two, and when I had a break I’d fish around for inspiration and go to see Ta’Raach at Carl’s place. Carl would come in occasionally. It was the first time I really understood what he’d done for music and what Planet E represented for the world.
I didn’t end up connecting with him till like ten years past that, when he, Mad Mike and myself were talking about another project together. They invited me to come out and start playing the Detroit Love parties, and I guess our relationship escalated from that point.
It’s always been a dream to be on Planet E as an artist, some of my favourite records have come out through there, like Recloose’s stuff way back in the day.
I guess it goes back to you saying that where you are now is your ultimate goal…
Absolutely. I mean what more validation can I have as a person who’s not typically a dance music producer than to be signed to Planet E. The validation isn’t the end goal but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have someone like Carl as excited about my music and this release as much as I am.
Are they any avenues you’d still like to explore, or new aliases we don’t know about yet?
Always, I feel like inside of the sketchbook and thousands of beats I have there’s a new genre in there somewhere. Generally I commit myself to a moment and not what this moment may bring me, like let me get this thing off my chest as it is. It’s usually stepping back and seeing a collection of the ideas that have similarities is where I connect them and make a project from. Mother was that really, over the course of about a year I continuously sent Carl tracks and he picked demos of certain ideas that I went in and created a concept around it.
What I said before about my dedication for music making me abandon lots of my responsibilities, one of those I feel is not being a coherent son. This EP was an opportunity to recognise and acknowledge my mother and why she’s still on the planet. Each song is about a different position that I remember her in throughout my life, and how I’ve seen her grow and how her growth has affected my own.
Lastly, who or what from your home city is exciting you right now?
Me! Again this comes back to me having my head tucked down into my own shit, and as far as a level of urgency and really just doing some unconventional shit, I don’t know who else is working as hard as I am to be honest….(laughs) that’s terrible to say man but fuck it, it’s true, I’m working hard!
Mother is out now via Planet E.
Words: Callum Wright
Featured Images: Nicole Shackleford