Joshua Michaels is better known to most as simply Joshua, Iz or half of the DJ and production duo of Iz & Diz. Iz is a jack of all trades and has dabbled in many aspects of the music industry throughout the years. In addition to being a jet-setting DJ, a staple producer in the playlists of fellow DJs worldwide and being the head honcho behind the legendary Bionic parties in San Francisco, Joshua has also had a touring band that opened up for No Doubt, organized a community outreach program and is about to drop his new album on his label Vizual Records.
Why did you relocate back to Chicago from San Francisco a couple of years ago?
The main reasons were to buy a place here and to work with Diz. Over the past few years it was getting harder and harder for me and Diz to work together so it made sense for us to be closer. I grew up in Oak Park and lived here again in the mid-1990s so I had some roots.
So far it has been great – I love my place and have been able to work with Diz as well as on my own stuff. I was also able to get my label Vizual Records off the ground and really focus on that over the past couple years. Musically, Chicago has always been really inspiring for me and it continues to be so. Just having a place that’s my own has given me the freedom and the space to devote to the label and music in general. I’m really happy and don’t think this would have been possible in San Francisco.
How do you compare and contrast the two cities and their House scenes?
The two cities are very different. Chicago is much more urban, industrial, and pragmatic while San Francisco has a history of being a more transient frontier town, and along with that there are lots of new people and new ideas flowing through. These differences are definitely reflected in the music.
There’s no better or worse place – I like them both. Chicago is much more tied to it’s musically history and thus there is more “pure” House here. Over the last few years, San Francisco has seen less and less House and more techno. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but a lot of what made the House scene great in San Francisco is not around anymore. That said, the scene is still quite active in SF and a lot of my favorite events are there: the Sunset outdoor and boat parties and my Bionic Sunday nights are still going strong there after 12 years.
Chicago has so much talent that we are lucky here – you can see really amazing DJs every week.
Some of your first work was recorded at KMS studios in Detroit. What was it like working there and did Detroit have an impact on your music?
It sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was. We were invited up there by Chez Damier who was basically living at the studio in 1995. So me and Diz drove up to Detroit with the back of my van filled with studio gear. When we arrived, Chez was nowhere to be found (surprise surprise) although we ended up running into him at a show that night. That show was actually one of the last times Ken Collier, a Detroit pioneer, DJ’d. When we got back to the studio the next day, the water had been turned off and there was no equipment set up. We spent three days waiting to get the basic amp and board set up and then only had about 20 hours to finish a track which was “Patterins” on Balance. While we were recording it we could feel all the ghosts of sessions past in the room so we called it the “Ghosts In Detroit Wake Up Dub”. All in all it was a great experience, although I remember Chez initially not liking the track. He still put it out and it is one of my favorite tracks we have ever done.
What are a couple of your fondest memories from those days when you were spinning at Red Dog and Shelter?
That was just a great time in Chicago musically. Cajual was at it’s peak; Chez and Ron [Trent] were active and Derrick [Carter] and Mark [Farina] were playing every week and there was a healthy underground scene. The best memory I have at that time was going to see Derrick every Tuesday night – I can’t even remember the name of the venue now – but there were like 15-20 of us there and Derrick would put everything he had into it. It was as if he was using that night to try out all his new tracks before the weekend.
You landed a job at Cajual doing design work in the early days as well.
I had known Cajmere through everyone here and would go to the label to get promos, but I think Derrick put in a good word for me. That ended up being a great way to see the inner workings of a successful label. Things were different back then – vinyl was the only game in town and the Billboard charts were what everyone was looking at. Aside from making good music, you had to “work” the Billboard chart reporters to get a hit and I sat right next to Rob & Ivan (who went on to start Guidance) and got to see them work their magic on the phones.
Tell us about the band you used to play in with Doc Martin?!
We were first called The Legsmen and then Skankhead and we played a mixture of ska, funk, reggae and punk. Doc played trumpet (badly) for us but we played a lot of mod/scooter/ska shows in and around San Francisco. I guess at the time what we were doing was a little bit different but we just mixed up what all of our influences were at the time. Eventually, we got to do a little California tour and we ended up opening up for No Doubt in San Diego. Once most of us went off to college, the band was over.
What do you feel is different about releasing on your own label opposed to someone else’s?
The main thing with Vizual is that I have been able to control the whole process, from conception to recording to mastering to design and promotions. It’s pretty much a one-man show. I don’t even think that was possible even three years ago so it is a bit of an experiment in a way. Now, I’m working with different sales and distribution models just trying to see what works and what doesn’t. A lot of the old rules don’t apply anymore and it’s not enough just to make great music.
With each release I’m able to take what I’ve learned and use that for the next release. I’m just trying to build it organically and create a solid catalog. Mainly, though, having my own label means I have the freedom to put out what I want, when I want and how I want and I like that.
Can you talk about the non-profit community outreach program you did in San Francisco?
I started teaching a DJ class for The DJ Project which was part of a larger non-profit center in San Francisco that offered community outreach programs, mostly for low income kids but they were open to all. It was a great experience and made me really think about the mechanics of DJing and how to filter all those steps down into small bits that could be taught. They gave me a lot of freedom and so I was able to come up with the entire lesson plan and class schedule. All in all, I ended up teaching two full sessions and there are a couple of students that are still DJing today.
It would be great if there was something similar in Chicago – I would love to be a part of it.
What’s the future looking like?
My album It Iz What It Iz is coming out January 25, 2011 and that has been the culmination of two years of work. The album tour is jumping off in January and I will be going all over the US and then international. From there I have two more singles off the album and then it is on to some new material by me, some new Iz & Diz stuff and I have a couple projects in the works by some other artists.
It’s shaping up to be a great 2011 for me and for Vizual Records – I’m just ready to get started!