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Compilation of the Month: Theo Parrish ‘DJ-Kicks: Detroit Forward’

Motor City Magic

Theo Parrish makes his own rules. That’s why he is the first artist ever to serve up all-exclusive music to the ‘DJ- Kicks’ series a decade after they first started chasing him. It’s a move similar to that of Ricardo Villalobos, who in 2007 used his entry into the fabric series as a showcase of his own entirely new productions.

Except Theo isn’t representing himself here, he’s representing his roots. He’s investing in the legacy of Detroit. He’s taking care of the future of a scene that he has helped to define with his own music for so many years. But now he’s using his platform to raise up the multifarious talent he is surrounded by in the Motor City. “The reason we survive is because everybody has that DIY ethic,” he has said before, and here he proves it.

This approach makes for a suitably idiosyncratic mix. It is not a 90-minute dip into his influences past and present, nor a snapshot of his DJ style with a neat narrative arc (and anyone who has seen the famously protean Parrish play knows that would be impossible anyway). Instead, we get a stream of musical consciousness that is happy to digress.

And it’s that way from the off. After less than a minute of gorgeously bittersweet finger-picked guitar notes, there’s a momentary pause before drums drop in and have you checking you haven’t accidentally skipped a track. It’s almost a move that tells you right there and then that this mix will not be what you expect, whatever that may be.

Way before his life in music began, Parrish studied sculpture at Kansas City Art Institute. Those years learning about three-dimensional artwork might explain his rejection of decorative stylisation in favour of a more improvised approach: Parrish assembles sounds, and sets, and mixes, unlike anyone else. Nothing is rigidly on-grid, nothing feels pre-programmed, nothing is ever in a hurry to get anywhere, it’s all about being right here, right now. Plenty of the tracks in this mix share that philosophy. 

Donald Ronald II’s ‘Simba’s Theme’ has loose drums that sound as if they were tapped out in the spur of a moment on an MPC, while the squelchy bass of Meftah’s ‘When The Sun Falls’ unfolds with a freeform mind of its own. From there, Parrish & Duminie DePorres’ ‘The Real Deal’, Specter’s elaborately entangled beatdown and the polyrhythmic synth wonkiness of Deon Jamar make for a heady passage. Tracks by John C & Meftah, Monica Blaire and De’Sean Jones jumble jazz, funk, hip-hop and myriad Black music forms with a distinct Detroit perspective. The mixing throughout ranges from seemingly non-existent, as some tracks play out naturally, to intricately entwined via smooth and subtle blends.

What fans will recognise as the sort of lo-fi, soul-drenched, Rhodes-riddled house music that Theo deals in defines the next third of the mix, before a head-wrecking industrial dub cut makes another sharp left turn. The final third unfolds with one foot on the dancefloor, before Sterling Toles’ weary beat workout layers claps, synth drones and dusty drums. It’s a track that somehow sounds as much cutting edge and futuristic as it does steeped in ancient ritual. And with that, there is no better way to sum up the magnificently mystifying sounds of Detroit.