But for all of his far-flung projects and aliases, the one thing tying them together is a clear root to his hometown of Detroit. Like so many other artists from Madonna to the stars of Motown, it’s difficult to imagine where his career would be without this upbringing.
Waajeed had much to say about his home city when we caught up ahead of his appearance at Detroit Love this weekend. Linking up via Skype towards the end of January, the controversy of the previous weekend’s presidential inauguration was still hanging in the air as we spoke. “I think there’s two different moods in general; the prevailing attitude is people being deeply hurt and upset about the whole Trump administration.” He explains. “Then the other attitude around my circle, which is more of a native Detroiters attitude. This system has failed us for decades, so Trump being elected is not so heartbreaking – yes, it bothers and affects us, but not so much as other folks who are looking for a system to save them.”
Among Waajeed and his peers, for some years the natural response to any feelings of unease has been through making music and community work. “Music is the best by-product of any level of struggle.” He says. “Pressure creates diamonds. So I believe that something good will come out of the next 4 years, or what’s been happening the previous 400 years here in America. It’s just a matter of being deeply infuriated and turning it into something creative. That’s what makes coming to fabric even sweeter for me, to be able to play new tunes and play a collection of ideas that express the urgency we have here.”
“Pressure creates diamonds.”
Music has consistently been a part of Detroit’s well-documented history. When new technology left thousands of people jobless during the rise of the automobile industry, the Belleville Three were the first group to use drum machines to embrace the sound of the future. In the years that followed, the difficult socio-political climate of the Reagan era also laid the foundations for much of Underground Resistance’s work.
And just as it has in Berlin or London, for the last 30 years electronic music in particular has been ingrained into the city’s cultural landscape. “For me it’s a lot like prayer or meditation, or being an electronic monk,” Waajeed says. “I believe the modern church is the club. In terms of being a place that people come to for transcendental experiences. It’s a place where people come to relieve their woes, to escape and to submit to the sermon that’s being shared by the DJ. So yeah, it’s music above all else.”
Waajeed was first inspired by his home city as he started making music as a founding member of the Slum Village collective. Alongside T3, Baatin and J Dilla, Waajeed was a founding member of the group in the early 90s, and would eventually drop out of art school to go on a European tour. J Dilla then famously pursued a solo career in 2001, meaning the group was left all but disbanded. As they separated to begin following different musical paths, Waajeed linked with the instrumentalist Saadiq he’d first met through Baatin. Where Slum Village had purely been a hip-hop group, under the name Platinum Pied Pipers or PPP, he led a new style that saw them mixing hip hop styled beats with R&B.
By the mid-2000s, Waajeed had moved to New York. He settled there for almost a decade, until the deep love for his birthplace drew him back to Detroit. “I love winters in Detroit – for me and other creatives, it’s pretty important.” He explains. “We get the opportunity to shape our ideas, we get the opportunity to say what we want, super creative forward-thinking shit all winter, then we emerge in spring to share these ideas. And the low prices means you gotta do less tap dancing in Detroit – you can say and do what the fuck you want.”
“I believe the modern church is the club.”
This bold attitude is something that’s pervaded all of Waajeed’s work. In the years since moving back home, there’s little he’s left uncovered, from merging soul and gospel with electronic soundscapes to mixing broken beat with jazz. Recently though, the themes underlying his music have changed. His Church Boy Lou alias saw him using gospel to decry the effects of gentrification, while he went one step further on the soul-drenched house music he wrote in collaboration with Theo Parrish in naming the EP ‘Gentrified Love’. “Church Boy Lou, that was really just a declaration of feeling powerless in your own community,” he admits. “In terms of native Detroiters like myself and the small community I’m part of, I don’t know if I see all this growth we’re seeing as a forward thing or not… someone’s forwards can be someone else’s backwards.”
Nowadays, the city’s growth is plain to see. You can easily find any number of artisan coffee houses in the city centre, meanwhile a bowl of ramen will cost you the same is it might do in LA or New York. There’s also the $350 million renovation of the former Packard Plant, which will see a new live and work space with a nightclub constructed with the help of Tresor’s Dimitri Hegemann. For someone so hesitant of the effects of the city changing, Waajeed is positive about this: “The idea of a major dance club, that’s the missing part of Detroit culture.” he says. “It’s the one thing we didn’t do: having that one club that’s dedicated to techno and dance music on a large scale. I think everything else is adequately done, but that’s the missing link.”
He’s not alone in his feelings on the issue – his tight-knit community have also been active outside of music. “We’ve been counteracting what’s happening with buying property and putting drywall up. So when I’m not making and playing music, I’m putting up fuckin’ drywall and doing plumbing. To try to counteract this fuckery that’s happening.” He pauses, before correcting himself abruptly. “Not fuckery, growth.”
Where this leaves artists in Detroit isn’t yet clear: “Let’s see in 10-20 years.” He says dryly. Where a new club could inspire a whole new generation of musicians, like in London they could be forced out of the city well before this happens.
“Some days your instrument of war will be a drum machine, and some days it’s a hammer. And actually building something and contributing to your hood. We don’t want everything sold around us – we want to own ourselves and own our community. So with that, do you pick up a drum machine or do you pick up a hammer in a time of war?”
Time will tell.