When you’re listening to an artist, they say, you’re listening to their soul. I’m here to tell you that there is no one in this scene who pours more of themselves, more of their soul and their consciousness into electronic music than Monty Luke. There’s no lying in him, or in the music he makes. Though we exist in an industry that champions flash over fire and marketing over authenticity, it’s artists like this that we need — people who speak their mind and share their truth without seeking to hog the spotlight. they’re always in short supply.
Though the Black Catalogue founder recently moved from Detroit to Berlin, the issues that are at the forefront of his mind are still national, global and local. In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about matters of race and justice, the Black roots of this music and the appropriation of Black identity, and how climate change is — or should be — changing the way we do business in the underground.
We were hoping to catch up when you were back in Detroit recently, but the holidays intervened. How long were you here?
I was back for five weeks. Five harrowing, exciting, heartwarming weeks.
So tell us about them.
I went back for a few different reasons. Now that I’ve found a permanent place to live here in Berlin, I needed to focus on dealing with my studio gear and some other belongings of mine that are in storage in Detroit. Part of that involves paring it down and selling some gear and records, consolidating and then logistically trying to figure out the shipping for the rest. That was number one.
Number two, when I was planning, I saw that the election was coming up and I really wanted to be there for it. I have a couple of friends who worked for the city clerk as a poll workers. I signed up for it and wanted to be there early because they have training before Election Day. A lot of times the poll workers are super old, right? With COVID and everything like that, there was going to be a real challenge finding poll workers. Or so they thought. Unfortunately I didn’t get to participate in that. It turned out there were so many people who signed up to be poll workers that it didn’t work out for me.
But I was able to participate on Election Day as part of a pop-up DJ program that was put on by the Michigan Dems. Someone had constructed this mobile DJ set-up and two other DJs and myself went to three or four different polling places and played some music for people. That way as voters are bored in line waiting or it’s cold or whatever, they would have some music to listen to.
DJs at the polling station — that’s an “Only In Detroit” thing. Though it’s a “Maybe In Chicago Too…”
As far as I know, it was only in Detroit!
So you weren’t here in the summer when the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests were happening?
I was not. I moved to Berlin and have been here since June 2018. The last time I was in the States before this was in March 2019.
How was it watching that so far from home?
It was really deep. To be honest with you, dude, I’ve been glued to the news since January 20, 2017 or whenever that was. Because of what’s been going on with the administration, I’ve really been keeping up with current events and keeping in touch with what’s happening anyway.
And to be fair, Berlin had one of if not the biggest Black Lives Matter protests in all of Europe during that same period of time. I was able to attend that and that was really deep.
Did it make you feel powerless being that far away? I imagine I would feel that way being far from home and seeing such dramatic events taking place.
I didn’t feel helpless and I’ll tell you why. My label Black Catalogue did a release with King Britt called Back 2 Black and we aligned ourselves with the movement by making sure that the proceeds from that would go to the Louisville Community Bail Fund in honor of Breonna Taylor. We were rolling out the release and it was going to be a big record for the label anyway, so King and I got together and said, why don’t we try to make this more special and more relevant to the moment? We really wanted to tie it in with the movement that was happening. So we figured out a way to make that happen. In that sense it felt good to be out here and still contributing in a small way.
From the issues that the BLM protests addressed, do you think they touched at all on the electronic music scene?
The movement really permeated every facet of society. I definitely think that there was an effect upon dance music and electronic music in particular as a result of the movement. The level of awareness was SO heightened last summer.
It was in July that you authored the petition that called upon Marea Stamper to change her DJ name from “The Black Madonna.” I want to let you talk about it, but to summarize what I think was the key point, you wrote, This name, ‘The Black Madonna,’ holds significance for Catholics around the world, but especially so for Black Catholics in the US, Caribbean and Latin America. In addition, Detroit’s Shrine of the Black Madonna has been an important cultural figure to many interested in the idea of Black feminism and self-determination for the past 50 years. Religious connotations aside though, it should be abundantly clear that in 2020, a white woman calling herself ‘black’ is highly problematic.” You wrote that you’d emailed her twice, explaining these things in private with some suggestions how the “nickname/alias transition could take place,” but never heard back.
Were the Black Lives Matter protests the impetus for the petition?
Absolutely not. They really weren’t. Some of my friends in the industry and some of my really good friends in Chicago know that this was something that was on my mind for a few years. Back when I was in Detroit, obviously we pay attention to what’s going on in Chicago and Chicago pays attention what’s going on in Detroit. We’re like the two islands of dopeness in the Midwest. We pay attention to what’s going on in the other place.
So about two or three years ago, I asked some friends of mine — good friends of mine, people that you know too — “What’s the deal with this?” So no, the uprisings of the last year had very little to do with what happened.
‘What we are talking about is acknowledgment. It’s acknowledgment that this music that has been given to the world has Black roots, and that there are Black people who are involved in this music in 2020. We are here. We’re not going anywhere. It’s important that people remember that.’
The reason these things are on my radar is that I majored in Black Studies with an emphasis on Media Studies and obviously I’m a student of music too. When you look at the history of music, you see that this is a recurring theme.
I will say though that when I heard of the Dixie Chicks changing their name, the football team in Washington DC changing their name — when I saw these things happening, naturally I asked, “How would these things apply to my world? Where can we effect change like this in my world?” Because these issues do exist in my world. So though it happened at the same time, and those incidents were a factor, I would not say that it happened because of the protests. It’s something that has been on my mind for awhile now.
And Terry, I want to stop for a moment and say that I really don’t want to emphasize myself in this. As you know, this particular issue is something that many people had asked about and many people had made inquiries about over the last few years. And I’ll leave it at that.
What we are talking about with this particular subject is acknowledgment. It’s acknowledgment that this music that has been given to the world has Black roots, and that there are Black people who are involved in this music in 2020. We are here. We’re not going anywhere. It’s important that people remember that. Why is it important? Well I’ll give you an example: rock’n’roll was all Black at one point. A similar thing happened. Instead of radio stations playing Little Richard and Chuck Berry, they went and got Pat Boone and Elvis Presley to record the same records. You know what I’m saying? That’s what happened. Years later now when a Black person is in a rock band, it’s like, “Oh. Really? Why?” That’s not so much the case anymore but it wasn’t so long ago that it was the case.
Oh absolutely. Within like a single generation you could make a very small genre out of “Black rock bands.” Living Colour, Fishbone, and that was about it. And every reporter was a white guy who would ask how these Black guys “got into rock.”
Exactly. One thousand percent right.
But I have to say that with Dave Lee — I was so impressed with the way he handled the whole situation about the “Joey Negro” name. His statement was so eloquent and so heart-felt and so sensitive to the issue at hand. I just had massive, massive respect for him for the way he handled that.
In our part of the music industry, we did see name changes follow with Dave Lee/Joey Negro, with Dam/Detroit Swindle most recently, with Project Pablo. Do you think the petition got the ball rolling?
With Project Pablo at least it was something that was on his mind for awhile and he’d been talking to people about it since January, from what I understand. If I’m going to be honest with you, the petition probably had some effect on what happened afterwards. But to counter that, my impetus was seeing what was happening in the larger industry with bands like the Dixie Chicks changing their name. So in our corner of the world — maybe. But it was happening elsewhere.
‘I find myself asking why the industry chooses who it does to be the “representatives” for this community. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the answer to this question is the very crux of the issue right now in our dance music community with regard to inclusion, acknowledgment and disparity in exposure.’
You know, one other thing I want to mention is that Chicago has such a strong tradition and culture of amazing female DJs. The Midwest in general is thick with incredible DJs that also produce amazing music. Of course Superjane was the best early example of that. More recent peeps like Rae Chardonnay and a whole host of newer school women are not only visible but actively helping their respective communities. And of course over in Detroit, there’s DJ Minx, Beige, Stacey Hale, Terri Whodat…. doing it all from behind the decks and also in the studio.
With all that in mind, I find myself asking why the industry chooses who it does to be the “representatives” for this community. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the answer to this question is the very crux of the issue right now in our dance music community with regard to inclusion, acknowledgment and disparity in exposure.
You’ve been in Berlin for over two years now. Why did you move there?
I get this question a lot. I spent 10 years in Detroit but people are usually surprised when I tell them that my hometown is actually LA.
After 10 years I felt like I needed a challenge. I wasn’t happy. My mother had just passed away and I had taken care of her for the last year and a half, flying back and forth to LA. I just finished a stint at the Museum of Contemporary Art as their public programs curator and I was looking to step things up in terms of my music career. But mostly I needed a change, man. I made the decision to move to Berlin because I feel like there’s a lot I can learn here. I’m constantly, constantly trying to learn new things and to move forward.
There’s also an element of, well, if you’re a stock broker, you go to Wall Street. At the moment, if you’re doing electronic music, you need to be somewhere in Europe. Actually I take that back — you don’t need to be, but for someone like myself that’s a one man band without management or a big machine behind me, it’s advantageous to be in a place like this, especially at this moment.
Were you still working at Planet E until you moved there?
No. I moved to Detroit to work for Carl [Craig] and I worked for him for six years. My last four years in Detroit I was doing Black Catalogue and the last two of those years I was also working at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
You had a job description at Planet E that a lot of people used to have but almost nobody has anymore: you worked for someone else’s record label. Almost every record label these days has one employee — the owner. What did you take away from the experience at Planet E?
The job went way beyond just label management. It entailed A&R, creative direction, some legal aspects like entertainment law. The biggest takeaway for me was just that it is possible to start and be successful running your own record label. Planet E really showed me that it was possible. I was a massive fan of the label well before I stepped foot in Detroit for the first time. To get an inside look at how it happens and how it works and to work with Carl and his family — because Planet E is a family business — it was really interesting and fascinating and it was an education for me. It deepened my knowledge of the dance music industry in terms of some of the “darker arts” that nobody knows about until they have to do it, like distribution. Overall the biggest takeaway was that it is possible even in this day and age to run an independent label and to be successful at it.
Let’s talk about Black Catalogue.
Black Catalogue. Next year will be the tenth anniversary of the label. I can’t even believe it. You know I originally started the label as an avenue for “sleepers,” basically. I play a lot of fantasy baseball. Do you play or are you familiar with the concept of the “sleeper”?
I play fantasy basketball. I know my sleepers.
You get it. So the concept behind Black Catalogue was to present sleepers. I’m going to present you these artists that you’ve never heard of that are dope as fuck. That was the general idea. But overall Black Catalogue is a chronicle of Black electronic music. I don’t want to say it’s THE chronicle, okay? Maybe one day it will be THE chronicle of Black electronic music. But right now it is A chronicle of Black electronic music. The idea is to expand that. You don’t have to be Black to be on Black Catalogue of course. I have plenty of artists who aren’t. But that is the focus. It’s a showcase for underground electronic music from all over the place with a focus on Black artists.
You released your first album on Black Catalogue, Hard Work Not Hype. It’s a great one and I said that at the time. But as you’ve said you are a one man band. How hard is it to handle the media and the promotions and the licensing and the distribution and everything else when you’re the artist too?
At this point I can do it my sleep. It’s been a slow progression, though. Back in the day as an up-and-coming DJ you’re always promoting yourself. I was throwing raves on the West Coast and to do that you have to be out-and-about, promoting and putting flyers in people’s hands. There’s definitely a lot of work, a relentless and almost never-ending list of tasks you have to take care of, especially if you want to do it correctly and do it thoroughly. It sounds cliché as fuck but it’s a total labor of love.
Even with COVID, the label has been going this whole time, though I’ve not been pressing vinyl. I actually made the decision to not press vinyl any longer for environmental and climate change concerns.
Really? My next question was going to be why your second album was digital only. I thought it was going to be related to COVID. But it’s not?
It’s not. I’ve been struggling with this for the last couple of years. I’ve been talking about it with people like Kai Alcé and others for the last year or two, though I might have just been trying to convince myself that it’s the right thing to do. It’s a crazy decision to make because this label, Black Catalogue, has really benefited from being a Detroit vinyl record label. For the first ten releases especially, that was an integral part of what Black Catalogue was all about. It’s about the art of it. The love of wax. It’s about the art of putting a record out from top to bottom. From designing the labels to the text on the label to the text in the inner groove and all these little details. That was a really important part in the label getting the exposure that it had.
But honestly, dude, in 2020, with climate change in mind… I couldn’t justify it. I finally couldn’t justify it anymore. Vinyl production is toxic to the environment. The plating process is toxic to humans. My relationship with vinyl is super-complicated. I still buy records, you know? Like I was telling you earlier, I still have a shitload of vinyl to ship out here to Berlin. I still consider myself a “vinyl DJ.” But as a business owner I cannot participate in the production of vinyl anymore for these reasons.
But with vinyl you also have to look at what’s going on in some of these record stores. A 12″ record here is selling for €12 to €14 for a single, bro. This is like a luxury item, you know what I’m saying? This is not something the masses are really able to consume on a regular basis when it comes to dance music. I’m sure the major labels are doing great business repressing their old catalog and all that stuff for Record Store Day. But with this dance music thing right now, this is a luxury item. The truth of the matter is that most people or most labels are selling between 300 to 500 — and maybe if they’re really lucky — 1,000 copies of the record at this point. That’s on the whole planet! Three hundred to one thousand people are listening to your record. That excludes everybody else if you’re doing just vinyl.
And how many of those are in a basement somewhere wrapped in plastic that never get heard because they were bought for speculative purposes?
Right. Or how many are bought by people who aren’t DJs and they get played once in awhile when they have people over? We’re different than the wider music industry because when we press vinyl, we do it with the assumption that people — the DJs — are going to play it for other people. But with the pandemic, people are buying these records and taking them home and putting them on the shelf.
One of the upsides to labels that are still pressing vinyl — if you’re doing it Detroit-style, you’re selling it directly to your distributor and you’re getting paid right away and your margins are way better and you’re making way more money than you would be if you just had your music up on Spotify. From a business standpoint it makes a lot of sense to continue pressing and selling vinyl if you can actually sell what you have. If you can’t, then you’re sitting on this product and as time goes by it’s likely less and less in demand and less valuable and you’re stuck with it. It’s almost like six in one hand and half a dozen in another.
How are you releasing them now? Since the pandemic began, a lot of people who were very much a part of vinyl culture, like Jamal Moss aka Hieroglyphic Being, have been using Bandcamp in really interesting ways that fits with their aesthetic.
Yeah, I use Bandcamp quite a lot. It’s been really great but I also work with a digital distributor to get the music pretty much everywhere else that it needs to be.
What have you been releasing there?
Black Catalogue’s next release [at the time —Ed.] is out now from eLBee BaD and the title is so long I’m going to have to look it up for you really quick. He’s a brother who lives here in Berlin. He’s originally from the East Coast and put out things on Nu Groove back in the day. The guy’s a genius, okay? But believe it or not he’s been in Berlin almost since the beginning of the rave scene, off and on. He’s a legend. So I approached him about doing a release, and that’s called “Feels Lovely On Venus Since U Been Away.”
Has everything that happened in 2020 changed your music? Do you get lost in it? Do you have trouble making it? Do you get lost in COVID time?
It’s interesting you ask this question as this year I’ve struggled quite a bit with music. I was in Berlin this whole year until September, but I didn’t have a permanent place to live. I started the year with what was supposed to be a three month “temporary” lease. Then the pandemic hit. They let me stay two or three months extra but I had to move out in June. I spent the summer couchsurfing or doing an AirBnB while trying to find my own place. There’s a housing crisis in Berlin and it’s almost impossible to find an apartment. I mean it’s really hard. And that was before the pandemic. There are various issues involved I don’t want to go into but one of them is simple supply & demand. Lots of people want to live here and there’s not enough available apartments.
So I spent most of the year in this holding pattern. Working on music has been really, really difficult even though most of what I do is on my laptop (though I do have a few hardware synths and bits of hardware here and there). The one thing I’ve learned about myself and my creativity is that I need my own space. When I don’t have that, it’s really hard for me to create. It’s really tough for me to focus when there are all these external things that need to fall into place and it’s in the back of my mind and I’m not able to focus on it.
So because of that I decided to focus mostly on Black Catalogue rather than my own productions. There have been a couple of things I’ve done — I just finished something for Permanent Vacation, there’s a remix that I did for 2MR, Mike Simonetti’s label. But I was holding steady for the end of this really weird time and staying positive. Now that I have my own apartment and my own space and my gear set up, now is the time to really get started.