Mike Huckaby was a man of many talents and interests, but his defining attribute was that he was always a devoted student of music.
Flowing from his experience as a DJ and dance record buyer at Record Time, he was able to synthesize his knowledge into a distinctive style that was present in all of his music, even as the technology he used changed and his skills increased. Mike never substituted quantity for quality, with each track containing only the essential elements throughout his tight but focused discography.
Photos by Marie Staggat.
Mike’s earliest releases could be found on Harmonie Park, a classic underground label run by his close friend Rick Wade. Deep Transportation Vol 1 came out in 1995 with Vol 2 coming the next year, and both were clearly indebted to Chez Damier and Ron Trent’s great Prescription Records while also fitting in with Detroit’s emerging house sound of producers like Moodymann and Rick Wade. Flipping disco and funk samples from sources like Canadian label PBI and Undisputed Truth and slapping some rugged swinging house drums under them, these may not have been musically groundbreaking records but they’ve been deep crate classics for DJs ever since their initial release.
A short time later though, a new streak started to emerge in Huckaby’s releases. It first appeared on his remix of Precession’s “Sandcastle” on Ferox, which he turned into a precise and funky piece of house minimalism that also heavily embraced the empty space of dub music. Twisted synth sounds and subby bass made this just as easy to drop in a set of minimal techno, a crossover that would define his wide appeal to underground DJs moving forward.
His contribution to Record Time’s M3 label in 1997 came under the alias Roland King, but it provides the next iteration of that sound. The two A side cuts, “Container 49” and “The Rowdy Swing” seemed to almost split the difference between the two styles he had done up to that point, with rolling garage drums and soulful samples but a starkness that feels very Detroit. Flipping the record over would reveal perhaps his best track. “Flashbacks from the M1 (The Ferox Treatment)” directly references his remix from the previous year in the title, while the track itself appears to use some of the same basic material as that remix, but cranks up the energy level. For a track with so few elements and a DJ tool structure to crackle with such vigor shows Huckaby’s mastery of the form was well underway.
Around that time in the late 1990s is when Mike purchased the instrument that he would come to identified with, the Waldorf Wave. He stated in later interviews that the unintuitive nature of the Wave took time to break through for him, which didn’t happen until around 2001 or 2002. In the interim he also began taking piano lessons. This coincided with a period where he released no music until he launched his own label Deep Transportation around 2004. Harmonie Park Classics, the first record on the label, featured two re-released tracks from his early EPs but also the new deep house jam “Radiance” which shows off some of the more sophisticated harmonies Mike had been working on.
New tracks were still rare in this period, with “Melodies from the Jazz Republic” on the classic Still Music compilation In the Dark being the sole other. Keeping with the played electric piano style keys of “Radiance,” the reduction in sampled or looped parts continued while his older sample-based tracks were being reissued by the label Funky Chocolate out of France. His remix of Norm Talley’s “Change” on Third Ear Records from that time is another high point in Huckaby’s catalog, creating an emotional feel unmatched by most so-called deep house producers. In addition, 2005 saw Mike’s initial foray into creating parts for others to sample, with some drum rhythms and synth parts on the CD accompanying the first edition of Detroit Electronic Quarterly magazine.
It was also in 2005 that Huckaby launched the SYNTH sublabel of Deep Transportation, doing so with instant classic remixes of DeepChord that showed off a tougher dubby edge that is an evolution of the more minimal techy sound he had been dabbling in. There were three remixes of “Electromagnetic Dowsing” across two 12″s, and while “Step One” and “Step Two” maintain a balance between swirling echo, tuff beats, and organic percussion, it was “The Final Step” that went on to be the most played. Frequently known as “that resistor record” thanks to the electronic component drilled through the label of the early pressings, the quick shifts between different delays and reverbs made this track stand out in a sea of lifeless so-called “dub techno”.
It was on the 2007 concept record My Life With The Wave, a record made entirely from synth sounds from his Waldorf, that saw Mike really pull the disparate parts of his production work together into a cohesive and powerful whole. Using his favored mediums of house and techno, he touches on deep vibes that might remind of artists like Larry Heard or Basic Channel, but puts his own twist on them, showing just how powerful the Wave can be in the hands of a man well-versed in all its nuances. Also accompanying some copies of the 12″ were sample CDs which would go on to influence producers to this day, with long lists appearing online of dozens releases using the samples on releases ranging from DIY to high profile.
The success of My Life With The Wave then kicked off the most prolific period in Huckaby’s career. Highlights of his remix oeuvre include his reconstruction of Rick Wilhite’s “Playcism,” the recent remix of Cazz Ear featuring Ursula Rucker’s “Been Waiting,” Mike’s take on Model 500’s classic “Starlight,” and Jazzanova’s “I Human” with fellow Detroiter Paul Randolph on vocals. 2011 saw Mike’s edits of Sun Ra released on two EPs, tying into special sets of only Sun Ra music that he was playing at certain parties, furthering the interaction with jazz that runs through much of his catalog. Deep Transportation also reissued another 12″ of Harmonie Park Classics as well as a double LP compilation of older material in 2017 properly entitled Too Many Classics.
His original productions from this time include tracks like “Mathematics from the Jazz Republic” on Downbeat, a collaboration with German techno legend Pacou, and an EP on Tresor Records. A track for Kai Alcé’s NDATL Special Edition the year Huck played Kai’s Deep Detroit DEMF weekend party is a grimy house killer as well.
But it seemed as if Huckaby saved his very best for his own labels. Baseline 88-89 on SYNTH took a concept he first explored on the cut “Baseline 87” on Sushitech and expanded upon it, creating two DJ tool tracks that consisted of not much else aside from an old school style synth bassline and banging drums. These tracks, especially “Baseline 89” were ubiquitous in the sets of both house and techno DJs for years. A second volume of My Life With The Wave appeared in 2016 with four new jams as well as another sample CD which is sure to continue Mike’s influence long beyond his time here on this planet. His final release of new material was in 2017 through Discogs’ label Crate Diggers, a limited 7″ continuing the Waldorf explorations titled My Life With The Wave 2.73.
Mike Huckaby was a beyond excellent DJ and perhaps an even better person, as anybody who ever interacted with him will be quick to tell you. He was always very giving with his time and energy in a way that earned him quite a bit of love and admiration. His music tends to reside within the domain of the kind of DJs who are willing to dig deeper to find those underground gems that, despite being made from roughly similar elements as other tracks, gleam with feeling and an energy that makes them stand out within a set. Now that he is gone, listening to his music and playing them in sets is how his spirit can be kept alive and with us. Surely that is what he always wanted.