We caught up with the legend to learn about some records that tell the tale of Motor City machine music.
All photos by Tom Keelan.
Detroit's buildings tell the city's musical history tale well. Motown's quaint and bright "Hitsville" headquarters sits quietly off the city's West Grand Boulevard as a reminder of the label's vibrant contributions to pop and soul music. Walking around downtown, the site of Movement Festival, you can get a sense of the city's industrial lineage from Hart Plaza's towering GM building. In the neighboring city of Hamtramck, the sprawling abandoned Packard Automotive Plant played home to some of the Detroit area's earliest techno warehouse parties, when trespassing, wide-eyed ravers filed in to dance to the likes of Richie Hawtin and Gary Chandler.
Then, off East Grand Boulevard—directly across the street from Moodymann's infamous shrine to Prince—is Submerge. The three-story house isn't as immediately striking as the retired factories and modernist skyscrapers that populate downtown, but its simple, understated facade conceals just as much history as the rest.
Originally located on 2030 Grand River Boulevard in the city, the complex has long been an celebrated home for Detroit techno, and more specifically, the politically charged group Underground Resistance. The complex houses a studio, rehearsal room, distribution and record-cutting rooms, and a record store, as well as a sleepy old hound and a few bedrooms where artists and affiliates of the collective live. Prized analog machines line and walls, used by the likes of Jeff Mills, Robert Hood and Kevin Saunderson to craft timeless techno anthems. The building and understated record shop has long been associated with various members of UR, but like most of Detroit's house and techno scene, it's also been about nurturing artists from all walks of life.
One such figure is Robert O'Bryant, otherwise known as Waajeed, Jeedo, as well as a lengthy list of other aliases. He hit the scene in the late 90s, first as a photographer and visual artist, eventually linking up with the city's famed hip-hop group Slum Village as a teenager to design the cover for their first album, and later producing beats for the group alongside the late J Dilla.
O'Bryant began DJing on some of their early tours, but he eventually left the group in 2002 to pursue his own solo efforts. The first Waajeed tracks were low-slung instrumental hip-hop at its most blunt-soaked, while Electric Street Orchestra, a more recent project alongside "Mad" Mike Banks, fuses acidic techno with syrupy spoken word. In 2015, he unleashed a new alias, Church Boy Lou, for a gospel-house influenced record entitled Weep, as well as a new mobile visual art installation. He's long been a constant figure on the global nightlife circuit too, often linking up with the world-roaming Detroit Love party alongside contemporaries like Moodymann and Carl Craig.
For this installment of Crate Expectations, O'Bryant takes us through some records from the shop that are most important to his life—including records from others who helped nurture his career, and those he's helped mentor in his own right.
Waajeed: There was a guy that was living inside that room three years ago. Mike came up with the idea [to start the pop up shop] and asked if I wanted to do it. I said sure, [Mike] kicked the guy out, and basically repurposed all of the guy's furniture to make furniture for the shop. I think of the space a lot like Detroit. Whatever's necessary to do, you just get that shit done, and you use what you got to get what you want. Basically what I do is collect different collections throughout the world. If I'm out in Germany I'll see who has records that you can buy wholesale and then I'll ship them back, and then we basically collect and curate records for the entire year.
How important is legacy in Detroit?
There's a huge sense of legacy here in Detroit. Guys like Mad Mike [Banks] gave me endless opportunity and classic grade-A game just on how to make it and maneuver inside of the industry and ultimately stay boldly independent. From the game he's given me, ultimately I give that game to the younger cats. It's almost like in black communities how people share information through the barbershops or inside of churches. For musicians we share that information inside the studio.
Let's get into some of these records. One thing I wanted to touch on is experimentation—records that reinvented or broke the mold in a way.
That's a perfect lead in to [ Back 2 Here ] by Todd Osborn, who's one of my fuckin' heroes. This guy is the definition of genreless, and just innovation—he's a real key cornerstone person. [Todd] is what Dilla would have been if Dilla hadn't died, the person that everybody goes to, and the person that everybody respects ultimately but never really speaks on it. [Todd] does jungle shit, he does everything, and he does it well. He's not trying at it.
I'd love to hear a little bit about your progression as an artist. You've done a lot of different things, obviously.
This is my first record that I put out on [my label] Dirt Tech when I moved back from New York, which was a very complicated experience for me. But my New York experience made me a better Detroiter. It gave me the opportunity to connect to things that I forgot that I knew and to connect to the person that I forgot that I was.
Before I moved to New York, I came [to Submerge] to meet Mike [Banks] and [hip-hop artist] Invincible, to talk about doing a festival in France where Detroit techno and Detroit hip-hop were meant to share a stage. I knew Mike before because him and his sister used to distribute our records, but I never really knew who he was. He was notoriously wearing a mask at that time. I came here for the meeting and there was a guy picking up trash in front of the building and I thought he was a homeless dude.
I walk up to the building and knocked on the door and somebody comes to let me in. I look up and here comes the homeless dude inside of the building. So I'm like, "Do I say something to this dude?" Everybody else shows up for the meeting and the "homeless dude" comes and sits down next to us, and was like "Hey, I'm Mike, I'm Mad Mike Banks." So I'm just like, "fuck." I'm a dickhead for having this idea of what I imagine a homeless person is. When I met him that day I told him about New York, and that I was thinking about moving. And he was like "Man look, you should get a spot here [at Submerge]." And he kept his word. So I decided to stay in Detroit for three months, just to see how I felt. When I arrived it turns out that Mike gave my room away. But he let me stay inside of his studio. That's when I created this record.
[Weep] is one of my more recent records under one of my aliases, Church Boy Lou. I had a dream where wanted to go see my girlfriend in LA and there was a child sitting in a pew inside of a church dressed up with a bowtie. I walked up to the kid and I asked him his name, and he said his name was Church Boy Lou. So I woke up and knew I needed to make this record. I immediately went to the record store and bought every gospel record that we could find. Because previously I didn't really care for gospel music. I connected to it and understood it and knew what it meant and means to my community. But I never really connected to it as a person who liked church music.
Are you a religious person?
No, I would say I'm more spiritual than religious. I don't proclaim the Christian faith at all, so to make a gospel album is a little strange. But through the process of making this album I found my roots again. It was about 2014 when I started making this record and it was a revival to my spirit in some ways, to reconnect to gospel music and what it means for black people in America. How gospel music was their way of revolting against their captors while they were in bondage. They would sing certain hymns, and it would have an underlying message of like, "We're gonna run the fuck out of here tomorrow." Connecting to that spirit and maintaining it and pushing it forward was an honor.
How present do you think gospel and spirituality is in Detroit house?
I think it's a big part of it, to be frank. I know most of the guys that make any type of music grew up playing in churches. The church was always a place that you could go and get your feel in, and learn how to play, and connect to yourself at the same time, and walk out with a check.
[ Who Wrote The Rules of Love] is a fantastic record. Anything Omar S does. I've been chasing him around for the last three fucking weeks to make sure that he had records inside of our store. He means so much to the culture of Detroit and his music and attitude is a perfect example of what I feel like Detroit is. It's very much a city of less talk and more action. Omar is not the type of guy that's gonna talk your fuckin ear off, not unless you know him. But he's deeply passionate and he's deeply, deeply independent.
Omar being a prime example, I feel like there's a lot of mystery behind so many Detroit artists. Why do you think that is, and how is it significant now in 2017?
I can tell you what it is from my point of view. I just don't trust media. In general, anything that I say or anything that I do automatically gets tied into Dilla. It's a card people use to get clickbait. So I generally don't fuck with the media and I know that sentiment is held for all my friends, including Omar and Mike [Banks] and Theo [Parrish]. The only person that really does a lot of media is Carl [Craig], but he's a lot more eloquent than us and he does shit in a flyer way. Furthermore, we don't really fuckin need [media]. We been making enough noise inside of the culture that. I sell enough records independently without needing media attention to pay bills and buy property and go to Home Depot and buy drywall to fix my places.
The media is connected to a system that has continually failed [Detroit]. The whole bankruptcy thing was basically a big For Sale sign for the world to come in here and do a fuckin big land grab, which directly affects us. It affects us as Detroiters, it affects us as a people. My house is back here, and none of my neighbors look like me now because of this whole thing.
Alicia Myers ' Alicia was a big record for me, my favorite track on this album was produced by Kevin McCord. He's one of the lead producers and writers for a band called One Way, who made the first record I ever bought to sample. It started off as a bet. When Dilla had this MPC 2000 in his basement, we used to go record shopping every weekend. The MPC was later broken by Questlove and I took it home as a bet. [Dilla] was just like, "Ahh man, you can't make no beats." And I was like "Man, fuck you, I'm gonna make some beats." So I took the records that we had bought that weekend back to my house, and I used the MPC, and one of those records was a Kevin McCord record. I had no idea I would meet him later and find out that we shared the exact same birth date, which is crazy. I met him for the first time in our pop-up store last year. He actually reminded me a lot of my Pop.
Your dad's record collection was pretty inspirational for you right?
Ah man, big time. My pop used to smoke weed and listen to records, like jazz records and Funkadelic records. I guess I was getting a contact high but didn't know it as a kid, but those fuckin' Parliament records used to scare the fuck out of me with those weird voices and shit. I was high and paranoid, but I didn't really know. I had to be about seven or eight.
Hanging out with [Theo Parrish] and making music is like the easiest shit ever. He's got an approach in how he works that's completely different than mine. There's basically machines on all the time—keyboards and drum machines. When cats come over you just sit down on an instrument and you just play until everybody's bored or tired. Eventually Theo will go back and re-edit the tracks and make them something playable, and [ Gentrified Love Part 2] was the one that flipped my fuckin lid.
I remember this day we were talking about shit that you shouldn't do or say. So guess that's why he called it Warrior Code. There are certain times where you cannot make independent decisions. Yeah, you can go out there and you can tour the world. But if you still gotta come back to Detroit, you still gotta look at us face to face, and you still gotta be a warrior.
Another one of my young g's that I mentor and support is Shigeto. I told him many, many, many years ago—and no disrespect to Ghostly—you need to be doing your own shit. In the same way that cats told me that. This business is based off exploitation, and who can better exploit you than you.
[ Portage Garage Sounds] is Shigeto's first effort of actually following my advice, and I'm so proud of him. Not only is he putting out his own records, but he's starting his own movement. His brother and him bought this garage in Hamtramck where they're turning it into a space where they can make art and have a retail store, similar to some degree to Submerge. When I see guys like him and Kyle [Hall] and Jay [Daniel] it just really puts a warm feeling in my heart. They're winning. I feel like they're my phoenix, they give our shit new life.