The hyper-prolific Detroit producer explains why, in an industry that churns out hits and leeches off talent, he'd rather split himself into multiple projects than be deified.
As 2012 moved into 2013, the volume of comebacks in the music world reached near-critical mass. Whilst each unfolded in its own way (be it Justin Timberlake’s cheesy PR gauntlet or My Bloody Valentine’s will-they-won’t-they baiting exercise) all begged one question more than any other – was it worth the wait? One return that’s proving to be so is that of Waajeed. As a former creative partner of Slum Village, close friend of J Dilla and the main creative force in soul band Platinum Pied Pipers, this Detroit native spent almost a decade amassing a serious arsenal of indie projects and ghost-writing for major labels before taking a two year break to focus on solo work, the results of which were showcased on a special edition of Benji B’s BBC Radio 1 show back in October marking the launch of the hip hop producer’s Dirt Tech Reck label. When Benji B said we weren’t ready for what was to come, well, he wasn’t far off.
Waajeed brought four new projects to the studio with him. There’s the Jodeci re-work project/homage Jeedeci, the three-piece band Tiny Hearts, the collaborations with Mad Mike Banks, DJ Skurge, Theo Parrish and DJ Dez Andres as Electric Street Orchestra and Jeedo, the alias most closely linked to his label and YouTube video series Bling47, which he films and edits himself. Every Sunday. Waajeed must sleep upside down suspended from the rafters, so inhuman is his work ethic. Striking as his output may be however – and as the Benji B special showed us, rich and varied too – the most interesting thing about Waajeed is Waajeed.
In conversation he’s infectious and recalls long-past moments with pressing fervour, yet at points is so blunt that I nearly squint trying to detect the sarcasm. There is none, though. Waajeed is remarkably forthright about everything. From the future of Detroit to the genius of Hudson Mohawke to the legacy of J Dilla (it being Dilla month, after all) no subject was left half-considered, which made our conversation one of the warmest and most interesting I’ve had with a producer in a long time.
When you were a guest on Benji B’s show, you spoke of how you took a two and a half year break to focus on your solo production. What inspired the break?
The break was inspired by the move back to my hometown of Detroit. I’d been living in New York for about ten years and I’d spent the majority of it hustling for major deals. I was looking for that validation that comes with the industry at large. I was shaking hands, kissing babies, sniffing around in an industry full of assholes, and eventually I had to stop. I had to rethink myself, my vision, my work ethic, so that two year gap was really a time for me to focus and get my shit together. I was really hoping to reconstruct myself.
It’s interesting that you use the word ‘reconstruct’. Stories of Detroit as a cityscape have been largely centred around urban decay and renewal, and the post-industrial reality of the inner city that bred such intense creativity. What was it about the move back that inspired you?
New York is a major metropolis. It’s a place where people go to show off what they’ve got. Detroit is one of those places that doesn’t really have the resources, so it’s more of a cocoon. You can grow here. I mean, this city was built for two and a half million people and it now inhabits about seven hundred and fifty thousand. There’s a lot of space, there’s a lot of loneliness, but there’s also a lot of room to rebuild. I call that kind of stillness “the beautiful ugly”.
“The beautiful ugly”… It’s fitting than you use an oxymoron like that; constant shifts in perspective, darkness and light, old and new. That loneliness and expanse must really get to you after a while. What is it about that bleakness that touches you? How can it be uplifting for an artist, if at all?
When a person is at their worst, you can really see their character. When a person is up, y’know, it’s all win, everybody loves a winner, but when you’re considered down and out – or crossed out, not even recognised – that’s when you find out who they truly are. Then, if they can be resilient, at their lowest point, what the fuck are they gonna be like when they come through and win? They’re gonna just kill everybody. That is the spirit of Detroit. The city that’s been lost. Forgotten. It’s my story too. Where I’m from you’re not expected to see twenty-five years old. There’s a lack of school system here and sometimes the fucking street lights don’t come on. You call the cops, they might show up an hour, hour and a half later. I’m from the East side of Detroit and you have a high school, the projects, a prison and a cemetery within six to ten blocks of each other – and that’s it. Those are your options, man.
“Where I’m from you’re not expected to see twenty-five years old. There’s a lack of school system here and sometimes the fucking street lights don’t come on.” – Waajeed
Such experiences seem to have bred a real darkness in your work. I feel your music has definitely become darker over the years, and more obviously indebted to techno than your work in the early to mid 2000s. Do you think your music has become darker?
People often ask me what my music is about and they see it as dark or bleak and yes, I do think it’s dark, but it’s also hopeful and optimistic. I make dark music to be a better person. I make dark music so I don’t go out in a temper and take a son from a mother. You have to camouflage yourself. You have to lay in the cut…. My music is dark because it’s a reflection of the times too. These are serious times we live in so even at its brightest moments there’s a taint to my work. What’s going on with all the gunplay – this is not a time for happy sing-along shit.
The events in Chicago in particular this past year have been horrific. Much of the international awareness of the violence has also come at an almost exact parallel with the rise of the localised drill rap scene, and specifically Chief Keef. How do you feel about everything that’s happening in Chicago, and what do you think of the response from the rap community? I think it’s particularly telling when you look at it all in tandem with how much Chief Keef has divided popular opinion this year.
“Chief Keef is a mirror for his environment. Trap is an ugly mirror of our society.” – Waajeed
Chicago needs help. The US needs help. What have you done for Chicago? Where’s the value for life? For children man, it’s children out there dying. With the Chief Keefs of the world, I feel that he’s a product of his environment. No doubt. How old is he anyway? He’s mad young, right?
I’m sure he’s around seventeen or eighteen.
If you held me responsible for the shit that I was doing at eighteen, you’re going after the wrong person. You should hold my community accountable for what I do. Chief Keef is a mirror for his environment. Trap is an ugly mirror of our society. We live in a world where it’s cool for motherfuckers to be drug dealers, and they’re the fucking scum of the planet. They abuse their own people so they can do what, buy shit they don’t need? It disgusts me.
Yeah, there is truth in that, but surely for all the criticism you can level at trap music in that sense – and the way in which young people reflect their culture – surely that reflection is necessary in order for a wider discussion to take place? The Chief Keef’s of the world may be dismissed by many but their music and presence are a huge part of the discussion. As ugly as the reflection may be, it points to deeper trauma than needs addressed.
That’s exactly what it is. It’s a cry for help. It’s a matter of someone saying they need help when they don’t even realise they need it. I don’t know… it’s the self preservation element that really gets me. They’ve lost faith in their government, their communities, their church, so now every man is out for himself. When I listen to cats like Meek Mill I understand the desperation, the “If I don’t do this I wont eat” shit, but it’s still an ugly reflection the carelessness we have for one another. They don’t give a fuck about you because no one gives a fuck about them. I’m glad it exists though. We need that mirror. We need fucked up niggas like Danny Brown coming through looking all crazy because it’s honest, and I’ll taken honesty over a pretty picture any day.
Danny Brown is a lot of things, but he’s definitely not a pretty picture.
He’s fucked up man! He says the most crazy shit, but I know Danny and I know where Danny is from. Don’t judge the messenger, judge the place they come from.
On the subject of place and roots, I know that your next release ‘Natives’ is themed around the continuing gentrification and regeneration of Detroit. When there’s a resistance to gentrification I always wonder; how do the locals assert themselves and do you feel that as a native of Detroit, you’ve reflected on what Detroit means to you?
I look at Detroit like that ex girlfriend that you didn’t appreciate while she was around but as soon as she hooked up with another dude and kept it moving, you regret not adorning her with the respect that she deserved. There’s a new set of people coming in with a new set of ideas and as entitled as a lot of them are, it is the right thing to do. It is right to try and fix these fucked up communities. It is a great idea to plant gardens and raise chickens and shit, but sometimes I wanna just chop motherfuckers heads off for the stunts they pull on us, man. ‘Natives’ was inspired by one particular incident…
I was approached after a show by this real sweet woman who wanted a remix from me, so I invite her and her husband over to my spot (I was staying in the Underground Resistance HQ at the time) and they were well intentioned folks. Artists, like myself. So we got to talking and it turned out that they’d just moved to Detroit, bought and refurbished a house, so we decide to drive the couple miles out to check it and suddenly we’re in the hood. Now, I knew this area from back in the day. This hood was fucked up. As a young black dude, in this hood? I’d come with tools, straight up…. but we got to their street and it was all smooth. Their house was dope, I met their neighbours… Look, they were people that wouldn’t normally live in this community, but I thought it was a great idea.
Then the tone changed pretty quick for me. We went to a house that had a chicken coop outside,and the chickens were right next to another dudes driveway, with a truck with rims on it parked out front. This put me in a funny place so I asked them, “How did this all work out with your neighbours?” – because you know the dude with the truck was born and raised here, and saw y’all coming like you did – and they said “Well, we kinda protect each other around here, keep an eye on people and all that.” I thought, “What type of shit is that? You’re the visitor here!” My mother is from the South and she taught me that when you walk into another man’s room, you introduce yourself properly because you just walked into his room.
So there’s an underlying etiquette to the whole experience of gentrification for you, even on a really personal level?
Definitely. In terms of community etiquette, what I feel is going on with a lot of well-intentioned people is that they don’t address the natives prior to showing up at all. You can’t just move here and live in this self-stylised micro community where you don’t reach out. What they know and what they bring should benefit everybody, not just themselves.
It can be quite easy to criticise gentrification without a constructive eye forward. What would you like to see happen to Detroit, now and into the future?
I feel that everybody who is talking about Detroit is not a Detroiter. I’m always watching people who talk about the city and have intentions for it and none of them motherfuckers was born here. None of them. I wanna see these build build on – not on top of – what already existed because it’s by combining forces that we’ll get to where we want to go. Every point of view is important but you can’t build on nothing. Respect our history, man. We need a marriage of ideas, a new collective consciousness. That’s what I’m working towards.
You can really feel that in your new material, particularly under the Electric Street Orchestra alias. You have five projects at the moment, correct? Waajeed, Jeedo, Electric Street Orchestra, Jeedeci and Tiny Hearts?
Yeah, that’s it for now!
It’s a lot of work! What I love about them all is that each has its own tone. It reminds me of Arthur Russell’s disco work as Loose Joints and Dinosaur. Are you searching for a sense of escapism and anonymity in having several projects at the same time?
Absolutely. I get bored really quickly. I like to get into something, master it, then move on. All these personas I have right now with these projects, they help me to be faceless. In this musical landscape we’re living in right now I feel it’s just a bunch of one trick ponies, so it’s important for me to do me. If people run left, I’ll walk right. I don’t want be locked in a box. Look what happened to Dilla. He’s one of the illest beat-makers ever but he was also a great musician – he just never got a chance to open that box.
He was an incredible talent – peerless even. You and Dilla were friends and collaborators for a long time. It must be really interesting to see the legacy of Dilla develop over the years from your own viewpoint.
Yeah man, we were tight. What I really want to get across is that James was just a regular dude with a crazy, crazy talent. I want people to remember him in a proper way, a way that fits what he was all about.
“[Dilla] needs to be de-mystified. When you build someone into this quasi-holy figure you separate them from yourself and that’s not what I want to do. I want people to be inspired.” – Waajeed
His passing bred a very intense, legacy-building culture around his work. Do you feel that there is a necessity for him to be memorialised in the way he has been? Is there not merit in the idea that not absolutely everything about him need be examined and de-mystified? I think an element of mystery can be a good thing.
Nah, I definitely don’t think it’s okay. He needs to be de-mystified. When you build someone into this quasi-holy figure you separate them from yourself and that’s not what I want to do. I want people to be inspired. We came from nothing to having more passports stamps than the law allows, so I want that kid in Chicago who’s listening to all that gunfire outside to think “I can do better. I can do more, and I can do it through this music and get the fuck out of here.” I want to make it not such a mysterious thing because Dilla was not that far away from y’all – he’s from the hood, I’m from the hood. He lived it. You can do it.
Is that why you started to do your Dilla Breaks video series through Bling47, to memorialise him in a way that you saw fit?
Yeah. He was a human being, a good guy who sometimes did stupid things like everybody else, but he’s a legend now. Its like, Christ. AD: After Dilla. Even he wouldn’t wanna be in this position. He’d be out there telling people to keep things moving. None of this records sound alike and there’s a reason for that – the desire to press forward. Nobody wants to be legendary.
Bling47 Breaks Dilla Edition: Waajeed – Higher
You have no interest in the idea of being a legend?
Nah, not at all.
Has that stemmed from seeing the Dilla legacy grow the way it has?
Yeah, yeah definitely. I’m just going to do me.
Speaking of doing you, the Dilla Breaks series has been great. As much as it seeks to memorialise Dilla and his production work it’s also sentimental about crate digging and sample culture. How do you feel this culture has developed, particularly with the comparative ease and cost of sourcing samples through the internet?
The whole crate digger culture is like a secret society. If you’ve got a great snare on a record you generally don’t go out in the street and tell people that you found that great snare, or this is what I sampled for that. But y’know, Dilla and I were never like that. We never hoarded records or made it a big mystery where you got samples from. I think that idea is some lame shit. The point is to tell people where you got the record from so they can do something new with it. Let’s teach and share, see what y’all come up with.
Keeping with the subject of Dilla – I take it you’ve been keeping up with the ongoing story of his personal record collection, and how it’s now being sold off to the public online?
Yeah, yeah I heard about that. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with all that.
What do you think should happen to the collection?
Those records should be archived. This is history. It’s like chipping off a piece of the Berlin Wall and selling it to a tourist for $15. Repeat that over and over and you’ve got thousands of pieces of the Berlin Wall scattered all over the world but, it’s not a wall anymore. It’s just pieces. Nobody benefits. I mean, I don’t know what they do over at the Dilla Foundation – and I wish Ma Dukes and everybody over there the very best – but for me it’s different. I own things of Dilla’s and I’d rather just give it to a person to pass on the knowledge. Saying that, it’s real out here. I’m not in a position to judge people for what they’ve gotta do to put food on the table. Regardless though, you need to acknowledge it, document it and keep it safe, but then keep it moving too. That was the whole point of this year, archiving my past and working towards the future.
The future is looking super busy for you. You’re now part of a band called Tiny Hearts. This is the first group project you’ve done since Platinum Pied Pipers split in the mid 2000s. I’ve heard you have a pretty intense and isolated way of working, spending weeks at a time alone in the studio. How did you fare going back into a group setting and interacting on that level?
Well, the creative process with Platinum Pied Pipers was like pulling my fucking teeth out because I was the only person that was working. I did every damn thing; I found a deal, went out and worked the product, drank all night with DJs to get them to play the records, produced the records… I even did all the press for the most part. No disrespect, but nobody else did shit, and ultimately that’s why I closed the door on the last record. Not to say I’d never do it again but if I did, I’d be shaving off the dead weight. I was very hesitant to be part of a new group situation because of my experience with that. Tiny Hearts though, Tiny Hearts has been the easiest collaboration I’ve ever been a part of.
Platinum Pied Pipers – Ridin’ High
What differentiates the two experiences?
Well, a band is a team. Everybody has a role and they have to play it right. If somebody needs help then that’s cool, you pull together to make things happen, but you gotta do you first.
And what do you see your individual role as?
I’m the leader in terms of the creative identity. I’m the person who makes the beats. I’ll make a track, bring it to Tim and Dee and they’ll say “Yeah, we love it.” There’s never been a situation where I’ve brought them something and they’ve said “We don’t fuck with that.” So now, now I can make all kinds of fucked up tracks!
Like the Tiny Hearts track ‘Monster’. That used a recording of a haunted room, right?
Yes! This is a crazy story. Tim and Dee had just bought a house in the California hills that we recorded in, and the first night I sleep in my room in that house I have a nightmare. I was being run down by a horse on a beach and the rider didn’t have a face or nothing… just a long cloak on.
That’s so dark.
Fucked up right? So I think to myself “What does this mean to me?”, and I realised that the monster was doubt. Like… an oppression, a hopelessness. It was so real. When I think about that moment, right when this thing is about to cut my fucking head off, right when this doubt is about to consume me, I hear this drum roll in my head. So I lay this beat down in like fifteen minutes and I play it back to Tim. He’s like “Ooh, shit! That shit is crazy!” This was all on the last day of my trip though, so Tim and Dee had to get to writing the lyrics real quick. Once they finished up we sat in my room and – oh, man, there’s just too much to this!
Jeedo – Let It All Hang Out
Okay cool. So, earlier that day we’d told the neighbours about my dream and they’d said to us “Yo, you know that house is haunted, right?” She told us that the old owner had once run out of the house butt ass naked, screaming, in the middle of damn the night, saying that he felt a cold hand touch his shoulder! Tim and Dee weren’t fuckin’ with no ghost stories but I was like, “Yo, energy is real, don’t play with that”, but when we got back to the room it got so intense. Whilst Tim’s recording the rough track of the vocals in there, he takes off his headphones and starts looking around. Me, Dee and the dogs are just sitting there confused, but then Tim put his headphones down, hits the button that makes the sound come out of the speakers, and all we hear is this crazy feedback.
From nowhere? Nothing else in the room?
Nothing. We just sat there in silence. We recorded six minutes of it straight. The noise was so physical. It was moving around the room. Grunts and everything. The dogs were freaking out too. Finally Tim stops the recording and stomps out the room, and I turn to Dee and say “Do you believe in ghosts now motherfucker?!” Shit was real.
That’s the craziest “found sound” story I’ve heard in a long time.
We didn’t find those sounds, the sounds found us!
“Hudson Mohawke is a sonic revolutionary – original thought, manifest – so of course these dudes are gonna chase him. They’re rich and bored. They’ve seen the world, fucked all the women… They have no spirit left, no struggle” – Waajeed
Definitely! Moving from your transition back into a band setting though, I’m curious to know about your major label work. I know you once signed a deal with Universal and have often ghost-written for Top 40 acts. Do you see a dichotomy in working within these commercial spheres in order to fund your personal projects? I’d argue that, in a sense, you are willingly exploiting yourself in a system that you are aware that your heart is at odds with. Do you see it as an inverted thing to do at all?
It definitely is inverted, but I see myself as a Robin Hood producer. I channel big opportunities to put out my own weird shit. What I really took from that time I spent in New York, particularly when I was working on ‘Last Train To Paris’ with Diddy, was that those major label dudes know more about the underground than anybody. That’s why Kanye West is sniffin’ Hudson Mohawke’s ass right now. Hudson Mohawke is a sonic revolutionary – original thought, manifest – so of course these dudes are gonna chase him. They’re rich and bored. They’ve seen the world, fucked all the women… They have no spirit left, no struggle, so they go to people like Hudson Mohawke so they can continue to be lavish pigs. If I’m going to do that – if I’m going to be your bitch – you’re gonna pay me and in the end, the people benefit because I get to put out dope music. I just did a remix for Wale and French Montana and if I’m being honest, I’m less excited about the remix and more focused on how many records I can put out with the money, y’know?
_P. Diddy – Last Train To Paris (feat. Rick Ross)
So you feel that mainstream rap continuously leeches off the underground?
That’s exactly what it is.
Leeching is perhaps too negative a term. I think it’s an inevitability for reinvention and moving forward. Do you feel like once you get to a certain stage, you have no choice but to do that though?
Definitely. Kanye needs Hudson Mohawke, Hudson Mohawke doesn’t need Kanye. Everybody has that moment when they are at their creative peak. It stems from struggle, not being acknowledged, not being noticed. I see it like this. Pressure does two things – it bursts pipes, or makes diamonds.
Oh, good analogy.
You better copyright that! Really though, don’t get it twisted, Kanye is a genius I feel. He’s the shit.
Definitely. He’s the ultimate 21st century pop star to me.
Exactly! So him pulling from Hudson Mohawke isn’t even meant like disrespect, it’s just part of the process.
And do you consider yourself part of that process too?
Yeah, definitely. We all are.