Theo Parrish was born in Washington DC, grew up in Chicago and went to school in Kansas, but it was in Detroit where he made his musical mark, a city he has lived in for the past 17 years: “all of it being pretty average. I went to school; and a lot of people tend to make a big deal about that because I’m a black dude.
There’s a fucked up perception that if you’re doing something creative, you have to behave a certain way. Like blues artists are supposed to be drunk on porches with bottles and destitute and techno guys are supposed to be nerdy dudes and hip-hop dudes are supposed to be reformed thugs and drug selling gangsters and shit like that, and that’s the back story. But what you find is that’s all bullshit. The way I came up is mad mad average. There’s really not that much difference between me and anybody else.”
A Detroit native, Parrish is one of electronic music’s most revered producers. He is also one of its most passionate, grounded and brutally-honest longstanding servants. In the hour and a half Bonafide spends with the maverick musician, he debunks numerous myths, sets the record straight and displays a humbling love of music that clearly hasn’t dwindled one bit, even after twenty odd years in the game. “All music influences me, there are no divisions for it in terms of genres.”
A lifelong dedication to vinyl and an obsession with sound all help to make up his modern persona. “I record conversations all the time, from anywhere. I’ll use all types of crazy things for sound.” He is also blessed with outstanding DJ skills, his genre- transcending sets often see house records blend into reggae, soul, disco and techno, with Parrish working the mixer like a man possessed. “I’m always looking for something good to play, be it hip-hop, rnb, fuck the genres, I’m still trying to find a good country and western record that I can play in my set, seriously.” The house and techno tag, although true, is misleading. His organic sounding productions are impossible to pigeonhole, yet are often blessed with touches of soul and jazz, making for some truly deep, machine music. “My intention never changed, I make songs for people to get down to but over time you get more melodic, it starts to become beyond just a track, these tracks become songs”.
I know you don’t like talking about genres but to me, the early stuff was more stripped down, now it sounds more soulful. You have the machine sound and also melody. Did Chicago’s house records teach you more about the melody and Detroit’s techno records more the machine sound?
“I happened to get introduced to music there, rather than playing basketball, chasing girls, messing around with gangs and doing dumb shit. I was a kid from the south side of Chicago, house music took off and I just emulated what I was hearing. Every weekend I’d learn how to mix records, going down to Import Records to find as many songs as I’d recognise. The amount of information that you got from everybody in terms of music was very very rich. To be fair, i’m a pretty good DJ, yet there are so many other people out of Chicago that you’ll never know the names of that are much better than me. It was rampant man, everybody was playing this music and being a part of it. When you talk about the machine sound, it wasn’t conscious. You have what you have, you make what you make.”
“Fuck the genres, I’m still trying to find a good country and western record that I can play in my set, seriously.”
So if Chicago sowed the seeds of house music, why has Detroit been afforded such a mythical status amongst house and techno purists? The now bankrupt motor city, ravaged by greed, corruption and racial inequality, spawned modern techno music as we know it and is a trainspotters’ wet dream.
“The obsession with Detroit has been going on for a long time. Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motors) was one of the most racist motherfuckers on the planet yet he employed more black people than just about any other major corporation. There are all these dichotomies and ironies in the American story when you talk about Detroit. There was this huge amount of activity and it was reduced deliberately. This was not an accident. When I graduated from high school, my parents moved to Detroit and I would visit. It was like I’d stepped off onto the moon, I didn’t know what this place was, it was crazy. Getting in fights, getting in all types of crazy shit. But what was killer was there was this dope record store called Buy-Rite. Over the course of my years at school I would go back, grab records.”
Parrish is an avid vinyl collector, regularly digging for records in the local stores of the cities he visits. So how does he view the current role of a medium that has suffered so much in recent years? “Vinyl never left. It just got less attention. What happened is that people’s focus became digital. People don’t live in the real world now; they live in this virtual world. Once you’re into records, it’s not a fad; it’s a lifestyle, part of your life. I’m sorry but all the digital DJs are going to be mad at me but I don’t care, from what I understand and know a DJ to be is this. You ain’t shit in five years, you’re barely good at ten years and you’re actually starting to get to something by fifteen, maybe. And don’t even get into production and songwriting; the ratio that people put things out now is strange. It’s a lot more difficult and a lot more taxing with vinyl because you are more of a selector, you have a limited amount of records to play.
I am probably the most mercurial and inconsistent person playing records that I know, simply because I get bored very easily so I’m always trying to see what will fit, I’m trying to see how far I can go. How can I go from the energy of this hi-tempo record and drop it to half of its BPM and still have the same energy? These things mean stuff to me and these are things that you just don’t get in your first five or ten years of playing. And these are things that I heard from guys like Frankie Knuckles, rest in peace and a million other guys that never got those kind of props, like Mike Williams and Leon Wilson. These guys play from the heart and play what’s natural to them. It’s those kind of DJs that really impress me. But who has really impressed him of late? “The list is pretty short. Sadar Bahar from Chicago is one, he is sick, sick, sick. The other is NYC house DJ, Lady Cosmo” He may have only seen her twice but “both times, she bust my head”.
He has been described as a collector’s worst nightmare, due to the astronomical prices some of his limited edits and releases can fetch on third party websites. So how does he view the situation? “It’s bullshit, play these motherfucking records and if you’re not, give them to someone who will. Because the music is supposed to get to people that need it. The youth need to hear it, they keep it alive. But if it’s locked in a hermetically sealed thing or priced way out the market, it makes it elitist. Like the Sketches EP, they were supposed to be limited. The price was $10, by the time I saw them online, they were going for $80 dollars online, people thought I was pocketing that.”
“Vinyl never left. It just got less attention. What happened is that people’s focus became digital. People don’t live in the real world now; they live in this virtual world. Once you’re into records, it’s not a fad; it’s a lifestyle, part of your life.”
When the subject of music technology is broached, Parrish is very much one for the back to basics approach. “The idea is to use as much of what I know how to use but be as sparing with this technology as possible. That usually involves keyboards, drums, and the MPC most times, because i have yet to master that machine, so until I do I’m going to be stuck on that. I’m not into creating things based on Apple, I don’t really like the sequencing, and it’s not for me.” Yet when talk turns to modern technology and the ease with which people can now make tracks, he has concerns for the integrity of music that is being churned out at such a frenetic pace. “Now you have the technology to allow you to emulate any sound that anyone ever created. I watch whole labels pop up that live off the whole Chicago house sound. I lived through the ‘88 shit, no, you’re not doing that shit, you know why? Because you’re not dealing with the conditions and the reasons and the intentions why they made that music. You weren’t dealing with the idea that it’s a cultural movement; not just music. You weren’t dealing with the idea that there weren’t any white people listening to this; it was black music.”
On the subject of modern PR within music and the almighty power that is social media, he is even more perturbed. “Marketing right now is starting to change the way we look at music and who we see as actually relevant. There’s a strange thing going on where you can have the equivalent of $50,000 marketing campaign just by having a Facebook page and God forbid you get an agent and that turns into a $200,000 thing and your talent level is maybe five years in the game. Some people are cool with that, they like the idea of being edited and they get to present the perfect of themselves all the time. You’re not supposed to do that with your friends, it’s (social media) making a performance out of our whole lives; it’s making us all mini superstars. We all want our followers. What are we, gods? That’s what’s getting perverted these days, there’s a cult of personality happening. It’s a weird thing”. Parrish is not anti-technology, how could he be? He uses it for his living and feels it has “amazing uses. . especially when you talk about it in the context of people, descent and governance, like in the Ukraine, Brazil, the Arab spring.” He is just cautious, “The people themselves is where it’s powerful, not the tool, we’ve got to watch that tool.”
“It’s (social media) making a performance out of our whole lives; it’s making us all mini superstars. We all want our followers. What are we, gods? That’s what’s getting perverted these days, there’s a cult of personality happening. It’s a weird thing”.
Hip-hop had a major effect on him in the early years. Yet it was a specific article headline last year, resulting from a conversation he had with a music journalist, in which he discussed the impact Notorious B.I.G.’S legendary Ready to Die album had on African-Americans-that pricked ears. The headline was: THEO PARRISH ON HOW THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.’S READY TO DIE USHERED IN ‘THE DESTRUCTION OF THE AMERICAN BLACK MALE’. “Another headline said ‘Theo blames Biggie for the demise of the black man’ and that was wack. It paraphrased a very particular thing, what I was talking about is the marking of the moment in musical history when hip-hop, which, at the time, was being listened to as the voice of the black community in America, started to lose the plot and started to cash in. The media companies started cashing in on the materialistic consumption and the supposed beef between the two icons (Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.). After that it went crazy. I never said Biggie was responsible for that.”
Whilst on the subject of current hip-hop, Parrish observes, what to him, is a baffling and worrying trend. “It’s a very strange thing to watch hipsters at Notting Hill Carnival going crazy and mouth the words to Rick Ross and have absolutely no idea what it’s like to be around some of these kids that are in these traps (slang for crack houses) he’s rapping about, they don’t even know what a trap is. In their privileged little area they can champion this stuff and it’s becoming like a festishisation of the ghetto, of burnt-out buildings and things, ‘ruin porn’ and all this bullshit, that stuff has got to stop. Because what it does is it takes, it divides the place from the people that are living there today.”
“It’s disrespectful. A lot of people want to relive their lives but that’s a very very selfish thing, you might as well masturbate in public. Why don’t you just jack off in front of everybody instead and then at least we’re being honest. You’re trying to share it with somebody that ain’t there. If they aint there, they aint there. That rooms for dancing and for human interaction.”
A well documented sound perfectionist, Parrish requests sound checks before shows and carries his own mixing desk with him. In London, he is a regular at the compact Plastic People in Shoreditch, a dark basement room with a reputation for having one of the finest soundsystems in clubland. He plays all night and it’s clear Parrish has had a few moments there. “Technically, its one of the dopest sound systems around. I started to keep playing there based on the system, I continue to play there based on the people. It’s really become a wonderful thing in terms of the people that show the respect for the music. I can go as far as I like with them in terms of trying out sounds and they’ll stay with me and be honest with me, even sometimes if they’re not feeling it. They let me know how it is. Nowhere else in the world can I point people out that have their cell phone out and tell them that I will stop the music unless they cut their cell phone off or take it outside. Now the crowd self-polices; now if somebody’s got their cell phone on, I point them out, somebody goes over to them and tells them what’s what. Take your selfie somewhere else!”
The near pandemic that is members of the public filming in clubs has struck a raw nerve with Parrish, as it has with others in the dance music community of late. “It’s disrespectful. A lot of people want to relive their lives but that’s a very very selfish thing, you might as well masturbate in public. Why don’t you just jack off in front of everybody instead and then at least we’re being honest. You’re trying to share it with somebody that ain’t there. If they aint there, they aint there. That room’s for dancing and for human interaction.”
Words: Joel Harris
Photos: Violette Hoogakker
Theo’s new album, American Intelligence, is out on November 17th through Sound Signature.
This interview originally appeared in issue 09 of Bonafide, pick up a copy here.