We don’t hand out awards for this kind of thing but as I looked back on the last year there was no question in my mind that Upstairs Asylum was the best deep house label in the world in 2021.

More impressive? Just over a year ago, it didn’t even exist.

Born out of the tedium of lockdown but with a lifetime of experience behind it, Upstairs Asylum launched like a rocket a year ago when founder Norm Talley lit the wick on the Det-313-EP. The record featured the talents of Omar S, Norm Talley, Moodymann, D’Julz and Charlotte O.C. on a pair of classic “secret weapons” — tracks and alternative mixes that Talley had always wanted to have pressed on quality vinyl.

DJs immediately took notice, and the fireworks never stopped. Norm Talley took out mom’s china and the good silverware to serve Tracks From The Asylum Vol 1 and Vol 2 and Deep Essentials Vol 1 from his own stash of tracks. Upstairs Asylum followed these up with three of the best V/As of the year and probably the last decade: Unity Vol 1 and Unity Vol 2 and Parabellum Detroit, the later compiled by Rick Wilhite and Delano Smith.

“Just what the hell is this guy up to?” you may have asked, because I did when I flipped through the liner notes. Unity brought together three generations of Detroit producers, including Eddie Fowlkes, Santonio Echols, Kai Alcé, Mike Clark, Rick Wade, Gari Romalis, Delano Smith, Ataxia, Dorian Gig, Brian Kage, Jon Dixon, Darren Abrams and Kyle Hall. Talley didn’t just leverage a lifetime of connections to score tracks from some of the best Detroit producers in the world, but he also got some of their best work for Upstairs Asylum. It’s like the best track from 12 different albums compressed onto a pair of 12 inches — the best house and techno in the world from the places where they originated.

In the short time between when Norm and I talked and when this was published, several of the forthcoming records we discussed have dropped or been announced in Norm and the label’s unassuming, unpretentious manner. Hed Kandi Vol 1 is another white hot release from Delano Smith, Patrice Scott and Brian Neal; dropping in November, it really cemented the aesthetic of the label and the absolutely insane standard set for UA’s releases. Nearly every track on every record has been a “must-have” for DJs and the releases “impossible-to-keep” for record stores, right out of the gate.

Photos by Marie Staggat.



This was originally published in #Praise: 5 Mag Issue #194 with Norm Talley and Upstairs Asylum, Lea Lisa, Cratan/Decoder and more. Support 5 Mag by becoming a member for as little as $1 per issue.



BEFORE IT WAS A RECORD LABEL Upstairs Asylum was a room — a room in two different locations where Norm Talley banged out some of the best deep house music of the last 30 years.

“The Upstairs Asylum is my original studio in the ’90s at my parents house. It was a real place,” Norm told me when we spoke in October. “That was where I did all of the tracks up until about the year 2000. Some of the last tracks I made there would have been on The Mystic EP on Track Mode. I did The Journey at my parent’s house. The Nu Tonik EP I did at my parent’s house. All of the ’90s stuff that I did was made at Upstairs Asylum at my parent’s house.”

When he moved, Norm kept the name, as well as releasing tracks under the name “Upstairs Asylum Productions.” “Around 2000 I transferred my studio from ‘Upstairs Asylum West’ to ‘Upstairs Asylum East.’ My parents lived on the west side of Detroit and I bought a house on the east. So I had a room upstairs at my parents’ house back in the day and now I have a room upstairs in my own house.

“It’s actually the same studio too. It’s the same equipment. I still use the same studio today. I only bought one piece. Just one. And that is a Native Instruments Maschine that I bought from Mike Huckaby.”

The more I talked to him, the more I realized Norm Talley pays probably less attention to fads and trends than anyone I’ve ever spoken to. Rather than acquiring the best or most expensive gear, he’s found the equipment that works — the gear that enables him create what he hears in his head — and has used it ever since.

Likewise, we live in an era of saturated personal branding, when artists are prodded to start a label early in their career to define the market they hope to fit into. Do it well and you can dream of festival stages and showcases at club nights on tour crisscrossing the world. In the depths of Traxsource and Beatport hell you can find people who run 10 labels with 5 sublabels for each of them.

Though a seasoned veteran in the industry before Beatport even began, Upstairs Asylum is actually Norm’s first label ever, in his three decade career. There’s something to be said for doing it when it’s time, and coming out of the gate perfectly.

Why now, if never before? “It was a year of not touring at all, you know,” Norm says. “There were no gigs at all. So I had a ton of time and I just started compiling things.

“Obviously I’m familiar with the business — I had put out more than 100 records before this. That wasn’t the hard part. It was just making the relationships with the cutter and the presser, and that was pretty easy too because they were familiar with my music already and had seen my name come through the pressing plant probably a hundred times.”

Even though they were on other people’s label, Norm has been essentially “selling” records from the jump. “I’ve been touring internationally since the ’90s. I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve met a lot of people in a lot of record stores more than once and more than twice. I’ve been to Berlin record stores, Paris, London. I did a lot of in-stores if I had a new release, met the buyers, signed a few records if they asked. And now I just flipped it back: instead of selling my records on other people’s labels, I’m just selling my own.”

The response from the first release — Det-313-EP — was strong, and putting it out was “kind of a no-brainer,” he says. “Both of the tracks on UAR-001 I played out digitally for years. I always thought in my mind that if I decided to press records for myself, I would release some rare tracks that did well at the club. Also a lot of times there are unreleased mixes and edits and dub versions of tracks that just don’t make the first run of a release but are so great, so I like to release things like that.

“If it’s good and I think can play it at the club, I would love to have it on a record and get it pressed up. I do gravitate towards things that are just not the norm. Whether a record is unreleased or a mix of a record that may even be pop — there are always outtakes in the studio. It may be a great mix, but maybe the record called for just one version. So let’s play it on CD and see if the crowd enjoys it and go from there. But music should have a vinyl release, at least in my opinion.”

The next three UA releases were Norm’s own music on the two Tracks from The Asylum EPs and Deep Essentials Vol 1. “Most of the stuff that I’m going to do is going to be on Upstairs Asylum,” he says, “but I do have some projects with some other people as well. I don’t want to make it exclusively about me.

“So I did UAR-002, 003 and 004, and said, you know, let’s give it a break from Norm for a minute and let’s do a compilation. That just fell into my lap. People began to offer me tracks after the first few records. At first I had four tracks, then I had more than five and then more than eight. Now I’m thinking I’ll have to make it a double pack since at that point I had this surplus of tracks.

“The thing is, I enjoyed them and I thought they were all pretty good. They caught my ear but the tracks that caught my ear kept coming! By this point we were up to a volume two. And that was how Unity came about. The concept behind it is in the name ‘Unity.’ It’s people working together to make a project bigger than them all.”

There’s a family vibe to these records, which isn’t unique to Upstairs Asylum but is a product of it. “That’s what I think makes Detroit special compared to other cities worldwide,” Norm says. “A lot of the artists here in Detroit are related so it is somewhat of a family affair.

“I’ve known Gari Romalis for 30 years, for example. A lot of these guys I’ve known for 30 years. I’d released records with their labels before, so now you’re gonna release on my label, even though it’s 15 or 20 years later.”

And that’s really what sets Upstairs Asylum apart from the rest. Relationships bind together beats and samples and synth chords just as much as they do people. Money can’t buy it. A label from Amsterdam could roll through Detroit writing big checks to the same people and the product wouldn’t be worth the sum of its parts. Artists sent their best work for Unity not just to “get on the roster” but to measure up to the exacting standards of the label’s owner — and also because he’s a friend.

Upstairs Asylum is a specific record label, owned and operated by a specific person, but at its foundation the label is built on relationships, some decades old, that are themselves built on respect, built on love, built on — as you read on the label — unity.

“This is what the underground actually is. It’s more hands-on. It’s got that feel. And it’s not something that ever stops.”

IT’S NOT SURPRISING THEN that the marketing for Upstairs Asylum is so unassuming as to be almost invisible. There were no trumpets sounding, there were no re-published press releases or breathless news reports. The first Upstairs Asylum record announced itself. The first word that most DJs had about Upstairs Asylum records is that the record was out — and was already almost SOLD out.

Strictly as an outside observer, the approach reminded me of how Mike Huckaby seemed to effortlessly and almost silently shift thousands of copies of the records he released on his S Y N T H label. Huckaby — a lifelong friend from back in their days at Cooley High together — would bring tracks to be pressed up at Archer in Detroit and shipped them out without fanfare. Word spread through the chain of DJs in the scene like a match sparking a prairie fire.

“Maybe that impression is coming across because my label and myself — well, we’re a little ‘underground,'” Norm says. “There’s not a big social media push. But there is a push on the underground level as far as the networks of people that I know. I know that Huck was doing the same type of deal: traveling for years and DJing in different countries and different cities, you get a network of people that gravitate toward the same type of music you like and I guess they like it too.

“And this is what the underground actually is. It’s more hands-on. It’s got that feel. And it’s not something that ever stops. People contact me directly and I’ll ship them the record directly. We never met before, but I end up building a relationship with them and I may go out and play with them if they’re a resident at a club or whatever. This is what I would say is our ‘home base.'”

It may break with this tradition, but we were privileged to preview a few records from the next wave of Upstairs Asylum recordings. There will be no let up as the label moves back from compilations to artist EPs and albums, from re-issues and unreleased heat to reboots and new recordings.

“You can really put out quite a few releases if you have it all lined up from the start, which I did,” Norm says. “But I kind of held back on some of them because you don’t want to flood the market. You want to give each individual EP or project its time to shine. If you start putting out three, four or five records at one time, you know, people get lost in the sauce.”

After the three compilations, a more compact V/A EP was released in November featuring two A side tracks from Delano Smith and Patrice Scott’s “Better Days” and Deepset’s “Soltek” on the flip. Up next: having presaged his appearance on the label with the inclusion of his furious “Raw Underground” on Unity Vol 2, Tyree Cooper is bringing some Chicago flavor to Upstairs Asylum on the first of a new series called Classic Rewind. In keeping with the spirit of the label, Classic Rewind Vol 1 features four of the best known tracks from Tyree’s career with alternative mixes from Tony Humphries, Mike Dunn and Frankie Bones.

“Tyree actually offered me enough to release an album,” Norm says. “But I narrowed it down. I want this EP to be straight killer.” Among the tracks here are classic Tyree joints including “Hardcore Hip House” (mixed by Tony Humphries), “Acid Over” (mixed by Mike Dunn), “I Fear The Night” and “Video Crash.”

“I chose these four tracks because, you know, it’s again a no brainer,” Norm says. “If you know Tyree Cooper, these are all classic tracks. If you if you dig his music and you dig his style — well, you will want that EP.

“Most of the people who did mixes kept it original, which is good. But you’re gonna get a little different swing on it. Just to make an example, the Tony Humphries mix was originally, I think, three or four minutes long. Not that I couldn’t play a record in four minutes, but I think it’s more playable, it’s kind of stretched out and you can let it ride. He kept some integrity as well — the original parts he really didn’t change too much. But it’s not so ’90ish. It’s kind of like an updated instrumental, you could say.”

Norm’s tracks will return to the label on Classic Rewind Vol 2. “That’s going to be The Nu Tonik EP,” he says. “I’m going to redo it from 1998. There’s a pretty big demand out here for that one. That was where ‘Cosmic Waves’ was originally released. I don’t want to do too many [Classic Rewind editions] but it’s probably going to be about five or six. I’m going to give them some space in between.” And in the space in between: a new Norm Talley album.

When you think about the labels launched in the last few years, how many of them are actually “buy on sight”? I mean it’s easy to say that when you’re listening on Spotify or through promos slipped in your inbox for free. But how many labels would you buy from without hearing a note? It’s actually rare, much more rare than we sometimes claim. It requires a lifetime of putting in the work and an unrelenting emphasis on consistency and quality. And it requires music. Really good house music. That’s what the people want and that’s what Talley and Upstairs Asylum gave them this year. Here’s to 30 more just like it.