Lights burn out; hype fades away & becomes subject to ridicule; bottle rockets roar and then pop.
But if you’re looking for a guide to charting your way through the underground, Mike Huckaby wrote the blueprint. Thirteen years after Deep Transportation Volume One debuted on Harmonie Park, Detroit’s acclaimed Deep House maestro hasn’t changed his credo, which could be defined as Quality in everything you do, from the opening beat to the run-out.
After seven years, we’re as pleased as you can imagine to get inside the head of an underground legend for February 2013’s 5 Magazine interview.
You just got back from a huge stretch of gigs overseas. How long were you on tour throughout the world?
I was on tour for 90 days. I toured all over the world – I was all over the place. I usually tour in the Fall and in the Spring, but this tour broke all personal records in terms of dates.
I’m curious how much you rely on gigs. If you couldn’t tour for some reason, would you still be able to make this industry machine run?
I’m just going with the flow. If there’s an opportunity that arises, as this one did, you have to take it and not worry about being unable to fulfill it out of fear. I don’t give any energy to that because it will suck your energy away. If you stay away from anxiety-driven aspects of the business, you’ll be fine. If you spend all day asking when something will end, that sort of thinking will crush you.
There are a lot of labels that are basically subsidized, as a business, by the owner’s touring schedule.
You have to prepare yourself to run a label successfully. It’s that simple. It’s not about having “dreams”. It’s about turning dreams into reality. If it’s just a dream it’s not going to manifest itself. Equip yourself with skills – a knowledge of synthesis, and knowledge of music theory, and eliminate the anxiety that surrounds this business, and you’ll survive. Only the strong survive, it’s as true in this business as it is in any other.
This occurred to me when I was interviewing Rick Wade almost exactly a year ago. Any time you appear on a label, the chances are fairly good that you have more name recognition than most labels out there. How do you decide what you keep and release yourself?
The main thing is that a track has to satisfy me. That’s first of all. It has to move me. I guarantee that if it moves me, it will move someone else.
It’s a strategic decision, but I don’t predicate the decision on making “new fans”, as ironic as that may sound. It’s not about new “fans”. It’s about finding more “like-minded people”. Even with Rick back in the day, that’s all we were doing. From Day 1: we were trying to find more like-minded people. Who else can we find that might be into this Deep House sound? We didn’t try to “expand the market” or worry about that.
And I didn’t let greed foreshadow any decisions. I didn’t raise prices thinking, “Fuck it, they’ll buy it anyway.” It’s not about pressing X number of copies, limiting them and selling them for a super-high price, and having everyone conclude that it’s a classic and therefore must have value. That will backfire on an artist and a label at some point. Some may disagree but I truly believe that.
The first thing is quality control: I keep my quality super high. Then it’s a plus-and-minus game. When will the record be released? How far into the future do I want to work on this?
When I’m remixing, I’m either trying to complement the original track or make a radical departure. Who is the artist? What makes him sound good? I have to make him sound good. If it hits big for them – if the remix is slammin’, it’s good for him and it’s good for me too. It’s just about keeping a healthy perspective and attitude.
Did the overwhelming response to your records Baseline 87 and Baseline 88-89 surprise you? They were all over “most charted tracks of 2012” lists.
Surprise me? It surprised me quite a lot. How many copies do you think those sold?
I’m not sure. Baseline 87 had a limited release when Sushitech put it out, right? I was talking to Jamie 3:26 in an interview in December and we discussed 1,000 as “House Music platinum”. So I’ll say 1,000?
S Y N T H 002 and S Y N T H 003 (Baseline 88-89) sold 3,000 copies each. I was at the pressing plant doing a re-order, actually, and Mike at Archer made a radical statement. He said, “Ten years ago, other people were selling 3,000 copies and you weren’t. Now you are and they’re not.”
Here’s where it didn’t surprise me. When I was making those records, I insisted on a very high level of quality control. That means those records were set up from the start to have everything that a DJ would need to play them. That’s mastering, the intro, the break – every element had to pass a rigorous test. If it didn’t pass or I wasn’t sure about it, then I needed to go back and try again.
What was the significance of the numbers – 88, 88, 89 – I assumed they were years?
Yeah, it refers back to the classic Detroit sound and the basslines I heard back in that era.
I was talking with someone when the first one came out. Everyone has been copping and cloning a sound from back in the day, and then Mike Huckaby came along and just blew it away and made everyone’s efforts look shoddy. I love that sound, but I couldn’t make those records – I’ve had too many secondhand influences along the way.
See, the way I look at it is this: everyone is coming from a space or is trying to define a space to come from. That space is your influences. You have varying influences that represent you, and you’re going to come from a place that is true and authentic to you. That’s it. Everyone is coming from their own space and all I can do is know and understand mine.
It’s amusing because so many people have jumped on the Deep House bandwagon. You have a lot of people coming at it from a Techno background, some in Minimal, and some who have jumped back from the more commercial side all of a sudden.
Yeah there’s a lot of that – kind of last minute switching-up in people’s careers. It depends on what level the artist is at. We’re here on an underground level, and in the underground you stay true. If you’re at another level – a chart-topping artist – you can discard your personal history, integrity, even altruism and jump on the bandwagon. I say that if you’re the type to do that, you were always that type to begin with. There just wasn’t an opportunity before.
The underground, it’s a small space and some people simply become too popular to stay in it forever. The underground can become a crowded place. Look at Armand Van Helden – talk to people in the underground and they’ll say he fell off. But I heard from someone that he made $5 million last year.
What?! Is he getting some kind of insane royalty rate?
That’s exactly my point. You don’t hear about it because he doesn’t appeal to you. Everyone gets into a position where they’re forced to decide what’s next for them, and what they will and will not do.
Do you think the digital marketplace – whether it’s mp3s, wavs or something new altogether – could ever sustain you artistically as well as financially? Do you think it’ll ever get there?
[laughs] I defied that medium! How are you going to sell 3,000 downloads? Case closed. That’s all I have to say. Are you going to sell 3,000 downloads of something? It won’t happen.
I suppose I should elaborate on that answer, but to me it’s just a no-brainer.
An interesting question is why so many Detroit artists kept up their presence on vinyl – and are reaping the benefits at present – and so many others abandoned it at the first opportunity and are stuck looking at 50 or a 100 sales for each record via mp3.
I’m blessed as a Detroit artist, and [vinyl] is a signature aspect of the Detroit sound. It’s in our blood. It’s the legacy that was left behind by labels like KMS, Transmat and Metroplex. The Detroit movement carried this sound to the world and took it to the next level. You can’t just pretend that didn’t happen or turn your back on it. Of course this also means you have to be careful of that legacy. You have to prove yourself every time.
You know, I was bombarded by publicists for Richie Hawtin about his tour of colleges this fall. You do this constantly through your music production workshops. When did you start doing that, and do you hear that you’re “giving away secrets” when you’re out there trying to inspire people to make music?
I think in 2007. Record stores were on the way out (and Record Time was in particular), and I was becoming interested in software synthesizers. I discovered Reaktor in 2003. It was perfect timing so that when Record Time closed, I was ready to do demonstrations at YouthVille. From there came the connections with Native Instruments and Ableton, and the rest is history.
Some people might feel like I’m giving away secrets, but I’m far more dangerous with my mouth shut than with it open. I can stop at any time and record the harmonics of banging one rock against another at the Pyramids or capture the harmonics from a typewriter, you know? What I give away at the workshops, it’s equivalent to giving a parking ticket to Bill Gates. I’ve never let critics define me or determine what they think should be relevant. I was reading an interview with Sun Ra, who said that his kingdom was of darkness. Mine is not. My kingdom is the kingdom of knowledge, enlightenment, and expansion. People say “But don’t you follow Sun Ra?” I don’t follow Sun Ra. I listen to Sun Ra. I guess that means I’ll never be a follower.
How important is it to you to sort of “plant the flag” in the States? What I mean by that is, as an artist, how important is it to try to grow the scene in the US, which is where you and most of the artists still live?
It’s the liberalness that exists in Europe, and we can’t duplicate their lifestyle, their laws or their policies. Electronic music is embedded and validated in every institution there. It’s in their art, their schools, even their libraries. Here it’s viewed as something weird by the people that make decisions. I guess it is what it is.
So do you look at building it up here as something that’s more the provenance of people who are 20 years old?
Oh no, not at all. I would like to do more, but the reality is that I can’t even do even a tenth of the workshops in the United States that I can do in Europe. There has to be pressure on the establishment and institutions, and slowly but surely we’ll make some progress. But educational institutions and colleges here are far behind compared to Europe. Like I said, it is what it is.