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Ash Lauryn: the Detroit-born DJ preserving house and techno's Black roots

Detroit-born, Atlanta-based Ash Lauryn is a digger in the truest sense, repping a soulful, classic house sound in her sets and helping preserve and bring back to the fore the Black roots of electronic music through her Underground & Black project. She speaks to Ria Hylton about discovering her passion and making the most of opportunities

On 1st July, Ash Lauryn performed an all-night-long set at East London’s NT’s Loft. Her mix, dripping in the soulful, cavernous grooves of an old-skool era, locked in a crowd packed tens of rows deep on the dancefloor. The Detroit native studied the mostly Gen-Z audience, which spilled out onto the club’s rooftop terrace, then dropped Jitwam’s ‘Brooklyn Ballers (musclecars ‘The Stuy Needs Me’ Mix)’, plunging us deeper into her sonic realm. “That was one of my favourite gigs of the whole tour to be honest — I loved it,” she tells DJ Mag in early October. “It started, I think, at maybe like 8 or 9[pm] and people were dancing already. It was probably one of my, if not my most, favourite sets of the summer.”

With long stints in London and Berlin this summer, Lauryn’s been able to build on her following beyond the US, playing superclubs and festivals right across Europe. When we catch up over a phone call, however, she sounds glad for the autumnal reprieve. “I got the whole hardcore touring experience,” she tells DJ Mag, slightly weary. “Although it’s great and I love it compared to my past jobs, there are some downsides. Touring isn’t always a vacation — most people are posting the highlights, not the times when you’re lonely and feeling isolated.”

A cursory glance at the DJ’s Insta feed would suggest she’s living what you might call her best life — not strictly so. But if anything, she’s feeling more philosophical about the season just gone. “You just kind of have to learn to take the good with the bad, and I’ll definitely be taking the experiences I’ve learned this summer to tailor my career the way I want it to be moving forward.” And what does that look like? “Initially I was saying I’m not going to stay gone longer than a month,” she replies. “I think I was away for six weeks and that honestly was tough for me, so I was thinking next year perhaps I won’t be gone that long.” She pauses for a beat. “But I’ve also been thinking like, ‘Man, you need to make your money while you can!’”

BRAYLEN DION & EMILY WANG

“A lot of our heroes are in their fifties and sixties now, so it’s kind of up to us to continue this legacy. It’s up to us as Black people to get involved and make sure that we’re visible, we’re out here.”

On 24th September 2016, Ash Lauryn played her first gig. We know this because days before our call she quietly celebrated its anniversary at Brooklyn’s Bogart House alongside Analog Soul and sister, The AM. In that six year period, she penned opinion pieces in most major electronic music publications, played alongside her musical heroes, held down the decks at legendary club venues across the US and Europe and, in 2021, released her debut EP, ‘Truth’. Throughout all of this, Underground & Black, a blog, NTS radio show and sometime party, has been the bedrock of all her work, leaving little room for misinterpretation.

Launched in May 2017, U&B lays out a vision dedicated to the preservation of the Black roots of house and techno music history. And in that vision there’s a confrontation of sorts, a reckoning with narratives of erasure. As Lauryn said in a 2019 interview with RA: “About 90% of the music I play is Black American music, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” The U&B blog has lain dormant of late, but from our conversation, we get the sense that Lauryn’s vision is very much the same. “A lot of our heroes are in their fifties and sixties now, so it’s kind of up to us to continue this legacy. It’s up to us as Black people to get involved and make sure that we’re visible, we’re out here.”

Lauryn was a dancer nigh on a decade before she thought about DJing. It was her older sister, a late-‘90s raver, who turned a young Ash on to the sound, taking her underage sibling out to house events across the city. By high school’s end, Lauryn was fully immersed in the scene and, without realising, training her ear. “We were straight-up ravers before this shit was cool, before people were talking about it, before Instagram, the internet,” she says with light laughter. “I grew up listening to Underground Resistance and Jeff Mills — but I didn’t realise the significance of it.”

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This period also involved long listening sessions at home, Lauryn and big sis sneaking a joint outside and then laying in bed listening to CD mixes. “My mum would come in and she would be like ‘Yeah, you guys are weird as hell’.” Lauryn moved out of Detroit for university, but dropped out around the same time as her roommate, who was from Atlanta. They stayed in touch and on Lauryn’s first visit to “the Black mecca of America”, she was sold. “The city of Atlanta is like the promised land,” she explains. “I actually came down here to visit [my ex-roommate] and I completely fell in love with it. It was like a whole new world.”

Lauryn was — and still is — living in the Deep South when, in 2011, she journeyed back home for Movement Festival and realised she needed to do something beyond the dancefloor. “It wasn’t until then that I was like, ‘I’m so passionate about this music and it seems like there’s a need for something, there’s a lack’. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, there’s not a lot of women doing this, especially women from Detroit’. This was even before people were discussing identity politics. So that was when I decided, ‘yeah, maybe I should start looking into DJing’.”

Raised on a diet of Ron Trent, Kai Alcé, Patrice Scott, what she jokingly calls “the usual suspects”, Lauryn’s is a classic house sound. How does she dig? “If I’m digging late at night and I’m drinking and smoking while I’m digging in, then I’ll wait and I’ll wake up and I’ll go through it. Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘What the fuck was I thinking?’” she screeches with laughter. But there are, she promises, other, more productive methods. “Since I like an older, nostalgic sound, sometimes I’ll go all the way back [in an artist’s archive] to 1989 or 1981, and I’ll work my way forward to the newer stuff. It’s mind blowing the gems you can find.” And perhaps that’s Lauryn’s calling card — her ear for the lost treasures of a classic house era.

Ash Lauryn

“We all know a moment doesn’t necessarily last forever, so I’m just trying to do my thing while I’m here and while people are paying attention.”

And so a whirlwind of a summer is followed by a long stay in the Georgia state capital. She’s lived in Atlanta for over a decade now, does it still feel like home? “I’m at a point now where I love Atlanta for a lot of reasons, but I do feel constrained culturally, not in terms of the Black culture, but I think...” Another pause. “I always feel bougie saying this, but when you start travelling the world and you go to all these places and you’re around all these different people, it’s like Atlanta still is the South. I don’t know if you have any ideas about the American South, but yeah... I often wonder, what would it be like to live in London or New York City, cities where I have my most magical experiences?”

Next month, Lauryn will release her ‘Soul People’ experience, an AI project supported by generative music platform AIMI. “The AI is basically taking my stems and creating new music,” she explains. “It’s a deep dive into the different shades of house — I thought it would be interesting to be a part of, and I saw the experiences of other DJs that I look up to.”

Lauryn’s done more than her fair share in recent years, challenging the cultural tide of the underground, carrying the torch for Black Detroit artistry, enthusing a new generation with a vintage sound. But she’s wary of resting too much on current successes, anxious that offers could stop rolling in any moment. Maybe she’ll be behind the decks more than we think this autumn? “I’m kind of having a moment in my career, so it’s good for me to take up these opportunities,” she replies. “We all know a moment doesn’t necessarily last forever, so I’m just trying to do my thing while I’m here and while people are paying attention.”

Want more? Read about the spiritual and sacred language of Ron Trent's house music here

Ria Hylton is DJ Mag's album reviews editor, follow them on Twitter here

Photo credits: Braylen Dion & Emily Wang