10 Detroit producers keeping the sound of the Motor City alive
With Detroit’s annual Movement Festival set to take place at the end of May, we thought it an apt time to shine a spotlight on some of the city’s lesser known — but no less exceptional — techno talents. Forget Carl Craig, Moodymann or Jeff Mills for just a moment — here's our list of 10 alternative Detroit producers you need to know about...
Although Detroit can legitimately lay claim to being the birthplace of techno, the city maintains an uneasy relationship with the music it helped spawn. On the one hand, the scene in the city is virtually non-existent (fascinatingly documented in Laurent Garnier’s ‘Electrochoc’), yet on the other it continues to churn out incredibly talented producers in impressively peerless fashion.
Yet for every Carl Craig, Moodymann, Patrice Scott, Kyle Hall, Delano Smith, Mike Huckaby, Norm Talley, Omar S, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, Jeff Mills and Derrick May, there’s a host of incredibly talented musicians operating in the background who, for whatever reason, maybe haven’t quite enjoyed the same adoration as their aforementioned peers. Book these guys for your party and we can state with some assurance that they’ll absolutely rock the joint — Detroit style!
The fact that Alton Miller was born in Chicago but raised in Detroit is likely not lost on anyone who’s sampled his eclectic sets. Just as likely to call on techno tropes as he is polished house grooves, his is a diverse sound that was honed by years listening to the likes of Stevie Wonder, Santana and Parliament Funkadelic. In 1988 he helped open legendary nightspot The Music Institute, in the process ensuring his legacy is one that far transcends the city of Detroit. A producer of some repute, Miller’s works have brought him to some of the scene’s foremost labels, not least Peacefrog, Planet E and most recently, Kai Alce’s NDATL.
Although he’s been spinning tunes in his native city since house and techno’s infancy, Big Strick didn’t arrive in the production game until relatively late in his music career. Inspired by his cousin, Alex ‘Omar S’ Smith, Strick’s debut EP landed on Omar’s much-renowned FXHE label back in 2009. These days Strick helms the 7 Days Ent imprint, while he also recently appeared on British label Don’t Be Afraid courtesy of an impressive remix for Ikonika. For Strick, music is very much a family affair: Omar aside, Strick’s son, Tre (aka Generation Next) is beginning to make moves recently thanks to his own work on 7 Days Ent.
Brian Kage is an up-and-coming DJ/producer who’s been busy making a name for himself recently thanks to a string of oft-excellent releases, most notably on FXHE, where his collab with vocalist James Garcia, ‘Shut Your Eyes’, was one of 2015’s best house tracks. Together with Luke Hess, Kage is part of a duo known as Reference, while on a solo tip his music has graced the likes of Carl Craig’s Planet E and Luke Hess’ Deeplabs. The owner of the Insterstellar studios in Detroit, Kage is a name you’re sure to be hearing much more from very soon.
Derrick Thompson aka Drivetrain is another who’s been active in the scene for some time without perhaps getting the dues his talent warrants. Staunchly dedicated to his craft, Thompson is a dab hand at all things A&R and has been running the Soiree label with distinction since the early ‘90s. Often the medium for his own productions, the label has also housed works from similarly inclined cats a la Rennie Foster, Andy Vaz, Orlando Voorn and Scott Grooves.
Alongside the likes of K-Hand, DJ Minx (real name Jennifer Witcher) is arguably Detroit’s greatest female DJ/producer when it comes to discerning electronic music. Another who was heavily inspired by The Music Institute, the so-called “first lady of wax” is best known for helming the ‘Deep Space Radio’ show on Detroit’s WGPR, where she shared radio time with local luminaries such as Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Jeff Mills.
Minx is also the founder of Women of Wax, a collective of female DJs from the Metro Detroit area. Although she has released a number of EPs via the Women on Wax imprint (and one via Richie Hawtin’s M_nus), she is best renowned for her incredible prowess behind the decks. In a world where DJs and producers are suddenly expected to be one and the same, isn’t that something worth revelling in?
Javonntte is the alias of Brian Garrett, a producer who’s embarked on an impressive purple patch of late. That said, although his is a wonderfully accomplished sound, up until recently he hasn’t exactly been known for his consistency.
Having first emerged in 1998 courtesy of an EP on Blake Baxter’s Mix Records, Javonntte then went quiet for a decade, before re-emerging in 2008 courtesy of his debut LP. As if to confuse us all even further, he then repeated the trick, keeping us all second-guessing until 2016 when he enjoyed his busiest year of releases to date. Thankfully, the quality of the records (released via esteemed outlets such as Kai Alce’s NDATL, Patrice Scott’s Sistrum and below, via British label Hardmatter) have most definitely been worth the wait.
At barely 25 years old, John FM (alongside the likes of Brian Kage and Generation Next), is part of a new wave of Detroit DJs and producers who look set to make their mark on a global level. As well as being a DJ and producer, FM is also a vocalist and a protege of Omar S, and even contributed his vocal nous to Omar’s last LP, ‘The Best’. FXHE aside, he also perked up recently on Will Bankhead’s much-celebrated The Trilogy Tapes.
When it comes to deep house, few of those in the contemporary game do it quite like Keith Worthy. Another who sharpened his DJ skills for some time before eventually concentrating on production, it’s safe to say that Worthy’s quality-strewn productions bely his relatively brief stint in the production game. The man behind Aesthetic Audio, the label has acted as a platform for a host of astutely chosen Detroit and non Detroit-based artists over the years, with Tony Lionni, Juju & Jordash, Steven Tang and Patrice Scott among those who’ve repped the imprint with distinction.
When Omar S & OB Ignitt emerged in 2012 courtesy of the brilliant ‘Wayne County Cops’, house heads around the world were left wondering who exactly this OB Ignitt character was. And for good reason too: even when we take Omar’s prolific discography into account, the track is right up there with the FXHE owner’s best. Thankfully, a string of OB Ignitt releases soon followed, leaving us in no doubt as to his identity or studio nous. Ignitt (real name Omar Harper) also fronts the Obonit label, a crafty source of top grade house and techno that’s seen him collaborate alongside the likes of Luke Hess.
Reggie Dokes is the man behind the Psychostasia label and has also repped a host of respected European labels such as Clone, Philpot, We Play House and Trus’Me’s Prime Numbers. Much like the aforementioned Aesthetic Audio, Dokes’ Psychostasia houses works from locals and non-locals alike, with Dubbyman and Juju & Jordash among those who’ve cropped up on the label. As comfortable producing house and techno as he is hip-hop (Dokes actually spent time in Atlanta where he previously pursued a career as a hip-hop beatmaker), Dokes is arguably in the form of his career right now - just as anyone who’s sampled Psychostasia’s latest wares are sure to attest to.
‘Restless’ Ron Cook
Ron Cook first emerged in the early '90s on Juan Atkins’ Metroplex courtesy of ‘Here’s Your Trance (Now Dance)’, a track title that the fervent Detroit techno heads among you will no doubt recognise. Although his is a discography that’s somewhat thin on the ground (his Discogs page would suggest he puts out a record every decade or so), when this man does put his name to music the results are always impressive. Revered among Detroit’s underground heads as a DJ of considerable repute, Cook’s last foray into production was courtesy of the exceptional ‘Night Moves’, released via Big Strick’s 7 Days Ent. A record that deserved to be much, much bigger, it’s an underground gem of the type that any Detroit producer would be proud to have in their locker.
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.