DETROIT – born and raised and residing in – that’s the first and the second and the last thing you need to know about Rick Wilhite. The music says the rest, decades of accumulated knowledge unwinding from DJ sets that tell the tale of a city, a man, an artistic culture.
We caught up with Rick a few weeks after Movement. I’d just recently pulled the self-titled 3 Chairs record – Rick’s ongoing collaboration with Moodymann, Theo Parrish and Marcellus Pittman – out of storage; it was hard to believe my eyes that the label dated this devastating record back to 1997 …
3 Chairs – yourself, Theo Parrish, Moodymann and Marcellus Pittman – held one of your parties in Detroit just before Movement. I was getting ready for this interview and I had to double-take when I realized that 3 Chairs has been working together for more than 15 years. The project still seems so fresh and new. How long has it been now?
I have to think about that. Obviously we worked together – not collectively but one-by-one-by-one – for years before that too. I’d have to say it’s been about 18 years now.
Have you ever considered taking 3 Chairs on the road for an extended tour? I mean that’d be amazing – you guys have a bunch in common but distinctive sounds as individuals…
We did a tour of Japan… I want to say back around 2002. But outside of that, we really haven’t had a proper tour. Like anything else, it’s hard when you have four guys with different schedules and bookings made so far in advance. It’s hard to get everyone together that way. We can attempt to squeeze out a few dates together, but we’d have to plan it really far in advance.
I keep reading lately about the “Chosen Ones” DJ crew that you’re a part of, too. You play with Chicago’s Chosen Few a lot, but how did the Chosen Ones form?
The Chosen Ones is a group put together by Stacey Hale and Wayne Williams. They got together and Wayne asked, “Who are some of your baddest DJs in Detroit?” They wanted DJs who can rep Detroit as brothers to Chicago’s Chosen Few. It’s a way for Detroit to be supportive of Chicago and vice versa. We’ve had two events in Detroit with the Chosen Few, and we’ll have two in Chicago coming up – one is the Friday before the Picnic this year, and the other is Labor Day Sunday.
Every time I look, I see yourself and Boo Williams and Glenn Underground – guys who really know and live the roots of this music – getting booked in Japan. What is it about your particular style that gets such a good reception in that country?
Japan is an entity all its own. Part of it is that they really dig Chicago and Detroit DJs. They’re very knowledgeable about the music – out of almost everyone, I have to say that Japan is the most dedicated to learning about the Detroit and Chicago sounds. And a lot of us going over there still play vinyl. Japan has a real fondness for vinyl DJs. They have tons of record stores in every city and they appreciate vinyl DJs versus someone that’s just picked it up.
Can you qualitatively tell the difference yourself?
As far as the quality of DJ? Of course. With vinyl DJs, you have a certain selection of records to go through. You’re limited by your bag (or bags). You don’t have a USB stick or a hard drive that carries everything, or the ability to just find a track called A, B or C by just looking up the letter.
DJing is a war. We all know it is. As a vinyl DJ, that bag that you carry is your ammunition. To succeed as a vinyl DJ, you had to carry the right ammunition and know how to use it. You had to select what’s in your bag and then know what you had in your bag and how to get the most out of it. That’s the difference between just picking a track and having it be something that you just throw on.
But there’s more to it. Back in the day – though it wasn’t really that long ago to say “back in the day” about this – the only way you’d get new music when you were on the road is when you went to record stores in the cities you played in. And DJs did that: they went to visit record stores in every city they went to, talking to the people there and contributing both to the local scene and to the local scene’s economy. You were participating. You’re not participating with a download. With a download, you’re never interacting with the scene. You can’t do that while you’re sitting at home. If you go through this process, you’ll understand, and you’ll enjoy what you’re doing more than the guy that just wants to play, get paid and leave.
That’s an interesting distinction to make. When you were a kid, did you think, Man, I’m going to be a DJ and people are going to pay me to go around the world? Because I think someone who wants to “be a DJ” in 2013 – that’s part of the dream.
This is something that goes back to my youth. I mostly taught myself. In the process of teaching myself how to DJ, everything I did was experimental. And to tell you the truth, from the age of 11 or 12 years old, I knew I’d be messing around with records for the rest of my life. I just knew it.
Around ’87 or so, I knew this music would change the world. And it did. I met people on my path who were on their own paths, too. So many of my friends are DJs or run labels now that it’s hard to think what this would be without the music.
As far as playing festivals and everything… I’d say no. I never saw the digital DJ thing coming, either. I saw a lot coming, but not that. In the mid-’80s, you have to understand, DJs weren’t worth much of anything. When you asked kids what they wanted to do when they grew up, nobody stood up and said, “I wanna be a DJ!” Your parents would look at you like you were crazy. But now you look at it – I mean, in Japan you can go to school to be a DJ. They actually have a degree in DJing.
I always ask this of people and it might sound like I’m trying to get you guys out of here. But there’s money in this industry and a lot of it is overseas. Could you see yourself moving abroad?
No, there’s too much in Detroit for me. I mean I’ve been playing it here for a minute now! If it was a situation of going overseas for a month or whatever, I could do that, but I have to come home. I gotta come home and keep the groove going.
In Detroit, we’re keeping it going. I know I’ve put my own time, effort and money into doing something and doing it consistently. I’m not talking about setting up one speaker in a room and charging $20 for people to dance around it. You can do that anywhere. We’re talking about good sound, good music, and something worth your time.
If we do things properly, it’s not that hard to keep shit going and get parties that really jump off. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were so many parties. There was one, Soul Night on a Tuesday once a month, that got between 2,000 and 3,000 people. You just have to look to the people that give a fuck. You always hear people moaning that nothing’s happening, but it’s usually DJs saying nothing’s happening because they’re not being called. I mean, really – look at who’s doing the complaining all the time about how nothing’s going on. Chances are it’ll be a DJ who hasn’t been called on to play for awhile.
You’ve got a new compilation, Connecting the Compass, that came out in March. I really wish we had a different name to separate the kind of comps that you do vs. the cheap comps that Defected and the like put out. There’s more to it than a label licensing some tracks they want to re-sell.
Yeah I’ve done a few of them now. There was In the Dark on Still Music, Vibes on Rush Hour, and this one on Roundabout Sounds. With the compilations I do, they’re either all new music or, if they’re older tracks, they don’t feel old. That’s the thing about House Music – something can be 20 years old and it can still sound like it’s brand new.
Rick currently has a remix out for Kirk Degiorgio’s “Babilonia” (Far Out Recordings); the Connecting the Compass compilation on Roundabout Sounds; and Rick Wilhite’s Freedom School DJ Series Vol 1 from Freedom School.