If you were asked to give a potted history of Detroit’s electronic music, it’s granted that familiar names would pop up: the Belleville three, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Rob Hood, the Electrifyin’ Mojo, Ken Collier, Eddie Fowlkes, and Mike Banks among others. But without Delano Smith it can be fairly said that many of the founders of Detroit’s house and techno scene may not have been inspired to follow their respective paths and write their own part of history. An early protégée of Ken Collier, Smith first began DJing in the late 70s while still in his teens. After years of playing the city’s best clubs and putting on parties, he became disillusioned with the scene and took an extended hiatus. Reigniting his passion for music and DJing in the early 90s, he forged close ties with Norm Talley and Mike Clark, and the three friends became known as the Beatdown Brothers. Smith went on to found his own label with his friend and fellow Detroit mainstay Tony Foster, Mixmode Recordings as well as recording for the likes of Third Ear and Sushitech, and more recently turning out a steady stream of remixes. In anticipation of his gig at Fabric on Satruday, May 19th, Little White Earbuds got on the phone to Delano and discussed his relationship with music, how he started out in the early days, being inspired by his peers and what went into the making of his début album An Odyssey. He also put together our 121st exclusive podcast, an on-the-fly excursion through some of his past and present favorites that will leave you in no doubt as to the prowess of one of Detroit’s founding fathers.
LWE Podcast 121: Delano Smith (74:15)
01. K.C.Y.C., “Stompin’ Grounds” (Stompin Ground Mix) [Strictly Rhythm]
02. Blue & K-White, “Now That I Have You” [Skalla Records]
03. Andrade, “I Need It” [Dessous Recordings]
04. I:Cube, “Deep End” [Versatile Records]
05. Moodymanc, “Glasgow” [Centric Music]
06. Mr. G, “Lex (Flip Floppin’)” [Phoenix G]
07. Matias Valdmont, “Ogun” (Kasper Remix) [Esperanza]
08. Makam, “Self-Awarness” [Sushitech]
09. Jimpster, “Treat Me Right” [Freerange Records]
10. Lucas Mari, “AM” (12″ Mix) [Savor Music]
11. David Harness & Chris Lum, “Soul Bump” [Harlum Musiq]
12. Unknown artist, “110th St.” [white]
13. Oscar P. & C. Scott, “The Message” (NYC Philly Tribute Mix)
[Open Bar Music]
14. Giano, “Looks Like Love” [Tequila Trax]
So you were away this weekend, weren’t you, touring?
Delano Smith: Yeah, I was in Japan.
Yeah, I played at Eleven, man, it was awesome.
Excellent. How often do you spend touring?
I go out probably about, you know, once month. I usually have between three and four a month now. Yeah, I try to make it so that, you know, I’m only gone for a week, maybe 10 days at the most at a time. I don’t like being away that long.
Yeah, yeah. I guess any more time than that and you don’t feel very settled, huh?
No, not at all.
OK, can you tell us about the recording of An Odyssey?
Sure. Actually, we were — Yossi [Amoyal] — actually the label owner [of Sushitech], we’d been working on that for probably close to two years, picking out tracks here and there. We didn’t really get serious about it until probably the eighth month but we’d been selecting tracks for, you know, roughly two years before that. It wasn’t until, let’s see, the album came out in February. It wasn’t until probably the summer of 2011, is when we really got serious. And I just worked on it day and night. You know, no social life, no relationship with my wife, it was just all music. [laughs]
So when you get into that sort of mode where you have to shut everything else down, how long does that generally take, when you’re trying to finish something up?
Well, it depends, right? With an album, it’s like you’re trying to put your best foot forward, but generally when I’m doing remixes or when I’m just doing EPs, probably about a month, something like that. But it’s not so intense like it is with an album, you know?
OK. Let’s talk about some of the tracks on the album. I know you sampled Al Green (“Simply Beautiful”) on the track “What I Do.”
Oh, you got that, huh?
Yeah well, you know, it kind of sounded familiar to me, and then I was listening to this compilation the other day, and the Al Green track came on, and I was like, “Oh, that’s where it’s from.”
Right, yeah. [laughs] That was one little snippet out of it, though, so…
Yeah, yeah, it was very subtle. But I was just wondering have you used other samples at all on the album that are perhaps not even recognizable?
You know what? That is the only sample that we used, I think. I think that’s the only one I use. Let me think of the tracks. Oh, no, no, then on another track, I think it’s on one of the ambient tracks, what’s the name of it?
There’s the movie passage on the track “Thoughts.”
Exactly, that’s from the movie “The Mack.”
Yeah, I sampled that. And I think that’s about it. Everything else was pretty much played.
How important did you feel making the album was in terms of shaping yourself as an artist?
I think that when you can express yourself in a body of work like an album, people will probably get you better. You know what I mean? It’s like, “Oh, that’s where he’s coming from with this.” Because I do a lot of different styles of house and techno, and I just kind of wanted to do a little bit of everything on the album, but I didn’t want it to be, like, so much night and day. I kind of wanted them all to fit together, but I didn’t want every track to sound the same.
I guess you’re probably more known for your house output but on the album there’s a couple of tracks in there that are a little bit harder, perhaps, than what people would normally hear from you.
Right. Generally when I DJ, I’m starting to play a lot bigger rooms now so a lot of times with my DJ sets I go kind of techie. I really like that sound, so I thought I’d explore some of that sound on this album as well so I can probably include some of my tracks in those techier sets I play. But I have have tons of those just laying around on my computer too, you know what I mean?
Yeah. Now going back to when you first got into music, it’s fairly well documented that Ken Collier was basically the reason you got into DJing. How did you originally meet him and how old were you at the time?
During the late 70s and early 80s at different high schools, with buddies in high school, we formed these social organizations, or these “clubs” as we called them, and we would just rent spaces and give parties. And we would hire — since none of us knew how to DJ back then — we’d hire other DJs. And I had heard Ken Collier probably when I was 15, something like that. I went to a place on the University of Detroit’s campus, and there’s a little bar there called The Rathskeller. That’s when I first heard disco live, you know what I mean? I mean with a DJ playing it. I didn’t really officially meet him then until we booked him for one of our events. The high school organization that I belonged to, we booked him for one of our events and that’s how I actually met him.
I remember early in the night he was playing, you know, during this time, there was all this disco music out, and he played from nine o’clock in the evening until two in the morning. But when he first got there and first started he was playing all this George Clinton and everything, and we wanted to jump up and down and go hard, and he’s playing this stuff. And I remember going up to him and saying, “Hey, yeah, I don’t mean to be rude, but can you play more disco?” [And he said,] “Young man, I’m getting to that.” I’m like, “OK, OK, I’m sorry.” He had this booming, deep voice, man, and after that we started booking him for all of our gigs, and then we just used to go to a lot of parties he played at. He not only played at our gigs, he played at a lot of different social-club night parties and he played at a club called L’Uomo, which I was a resident at when it first got going. We’d sit around and just listen to Ken and he’d let us sit behind the booth, and that’s how we actually got to know him, just from watching him, you know?
I did a Wednesday night at L’Uomo during my last year of high school, it was from nine ’til two. I did a Wednesday and a Saturday, but the Saturday he would do, like, a gay thing after two o’clock. But he’d always come earlier to listen to the last end of my set so, you know, he’d critique me on some things. After I finished, you know, the gay crowd– the straight crowd would leave, the gay crowd would come in after two o’clock, and we would stay, actually until four, five, six in the morning just to hear him and watch and everything. And that’s how we actually got to really know him. You know, we’d be out back, drinking and doing whatever, just watching him all night. And doing this, like, every week for two summers straight, so we just became friends.
Wow. So I understand, like, some of the earlier parties were largely a gay crowd. Was the music policy slightly different? Was it a more underground vibe for the gay crowds?
Yeah, he would definitely play, really more obscure, more underground disco-y stuff while we would, you know, in prime time, we’d have to play the Prince, the Rick James, you know what I mean? We had to go there, but Ken would rarely play those type of tracks at the gay gigs. He’d be really kind of, really Larry Levan, you know what I mean? Really deep disco. And it was great.
Excellent. So you were organizing your own parties when you were in your late teens. Were your parents supportive of you doing this? Did they understand what you were doing?
They had no idea what I was doing. My mother knew I was trying to be a DJ, but she just didn’t understand what I was doing and by the time I was 17, 18, my dad didn’t live with us, and my mom didn’t have too much control. She really didn’t have control over me, you know, I was kind of going out when I wanted to and coming home when I wanted to right after high school. And that’s when I started really playing a lot was really my first year out of high school. I started playing Studio 54. I started opening for Ken at Studio 54 and at both L’Uomo’s; it had two locations, and I opened for him in both locations, and I opened for him at this place called The Downstairs Pub. So yeah, that was a good three or four year run back then.
Did you have any greater aspirations at that stage, with your DJing? I mean, I’m sure there can’t have been, at that stage, really too many people who were doing it.
Back then I didn’t see how far I could take it, you know what I mean? Because back then I didn’t make much money DJing at all. I still had to have a part-time job, you know, and I DJed at night. We didn’t really have the tools to make our own records back then. I really didn’t have any aspirations even to make a track back in ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82. We were just buying records and playing records, and just happy with the popularity we had and the little money we made. It wasn’t until probably I met Derrick May at the Seven Mile L’Uomo location. I think it was there. It may have been the YWCA, one of them. But I met Derrick just out as a kid, you know, when you meet other kids, and I can’t remember how we actually befriended each other and got cool. But he had a buddy, Mike Slade, they had went in on the Roland 909 and the 808, I believe, and they had begun tinkering with some tracks, but I was just… I was so far from that part of it. I was like, “I don’t understand what you guys are doing. I’ve got a gig. Peace, I’ll see you later.” [laughs] You know, until the days of the Music Institute, when they was going on — I remember someone asking me… I think it was Jeff Mills in Tokyo, and he asked me, “Why did you stop?” because I had stopped for so long. I was like, “Dude, I just don’t know. I just don’t know.” He said, “Dude, you shouldn’t have stopped when you stopped.” I’m like, “I know.” [laughs] I was like, “If I had kept going and did some tracks back then, dude, I’d be freakin’ Tiësto by now.” [laughs]
So it wasn’t really anything in particular that lead you to kind of throwing it in for a while?
Well, it was the money aspect of it, you know, and it was like by the mid 80s, everybody was a freakin’ DJ. Guys were doing it for free, I wasn’t making any money. I’d go out, and… you know, just the money, it just wasn’t worth it anymore. It was like I was spending more money on records than I was getting paid. I just didn’t see any real future in it for me at that time. That’s why I chose to go further my education, got a full-time job. I wanted to move out of my mom’s house, I wanted my own apartment, wanted a car, things like that. And working a part-time job and DJ’ing, I just wasn’t going to get it.
Did you still follow the new stuff that was coming out?
Right when house hit, when it really got going was when I really got out, and I didn’t follow anything for the longest time, man. For probably from ’85, ’86 all the way till ’91, ’92, maybe. ’93. I was completely off the scene, off the grid, completely.
So I understand that you kind of got back into it just by going to a friend’s house, and they had some turntables.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what happened.
When you then decided, “I’m getting back into this,” was it sort of a case for you of wanting to make up for lost time?
No, I think I… it wasn’t about making up for lost time, it’s just I think I rediscovered a lost passion I had for it, you know what I mean? It was just something that was… you know, because when I wasn’t playing music, when I was just working and I had a girlfriend or whatever, I did nothing else. I just went to work, came home, and watched TV, maybe went to a comedy club. [Getting back into,] it filled a void that was missing in my life. And then when I got back into it the second time, that’s when I jumped in with both feet, both hands, everything. I was totally addicted then, and I’ve been here ever since.
So how long did it take you before you wanted to start producing, then?
Probably took about two years. Because when I first got back into it is when I started buying records again and started running up to the store. That’s where I met Mike Huckaby. I did a gig with Norm Talley, I first met him there. No, I met Norm first at the party we did together. I didn’t know who Norm was. I’d heard of him, and I heard some of his cassette tapes, but I never met him in person. We finally did this party together, and I was completely horrible, and listening to Norm and listening to Mike and all these other DJs, I was like, you know, even when I got back into it, I really didn’t have a fine-tuned ear to what was really going on. There were DJs playing some of the stuff I played back in the 80s, but Norm and Huck and a couple other guys, they were banging these deeper, deeper, hotter, hotter, vibes, man. And I knew I wanted to be attached to that music more than anything else.
So I started following those guys, and I went to all their gigs and everything. And then, you know, Norm was putting out tracks on Track Mode, and Huck was… did Huck have the Deep Transportation out then? That series? Yeah, they just started putting out these deep tracks, and I’m like, “Dude, this is something I want to aspire to do.” You know, express my own self musically. So I think that’s what ultimately inspired me to make a track, is seeing them do it, and after I’d befriended Norm, I’d go to his studio from time to time, and I just wanted more out of it. I just wanted more out of the DJ thing than just playing records. I just wanted more out of it. So that’s why I started producing.
Had you ever had musical lessons before, or had you been in studios before and had any idea of what to do?
Never. The closest I’d been to a studio was when I was at Mike Slade’s, a friend and he was a good friend of mine, and a friend of Derrick May’s too. I think they both started Transmat together. But Mike Slade had a really nice studio in his apartment, and I used to go by there and tinker with him before I even started producing. That’s probably one of the only studios that I was in prior to producing my own tracks, that first Transmat studio. And just watching Mike, we used to drink and smoke and he just used to just lay patterns on a 909, and he had the Juno and the 808 and a couple other synths, and I would just watch him until…. Yeah, that was still when I was in my hiatus, that’s when I used to go to Mike Slade’s house. I wasn’t DJing, but I was still just going to Mike Slade’s house just because he and I were friends. We used to play Sega Genesis and he had this studio in the back room. [laughs] And that was the closest I came to even being in the studio. It didn’t make me want to make a track or anything, but just being there, I got to see it and everything. And it’s like I said, it’s like my heart wasn’t in it so I guess I didn’t… when I should have, I didn’t. I still kick myself in the ass about that, man, I really do.
Yeah, but I think sometimes some of the most important parts that we go through in life are just that incubation process of forming ideas and that sort of thing.
Very true, very true.
So when you then decided to start producing, what were some of the first pieces of kit that you bought?
Actually, I didn’t buy anything. My friend TJ Dumas, actually, who helped me launch MixMode, he had this Yamaha RM1x, and I said, “Well, man, since it’s here collecting dust, you’re not doing anything with it, let me hold it.” He said, “Sure.” So I started and when I had that little beat machine or whatever it is, it’s like a groovebox, actually. And so it’s the Yamaha RM1x, and I did my first track, my first two tracks on that. I did one on Psychostasia, and I did “Metropolis” on the Detroit Beatdown LP. On the very first one, I did it with that Yamaha RM1x.
Wow, that was all on there?
Yep, that was all on there. That little machine was amazing, and I gave it back to TJ because I started buying other stuff and I thought I’d outgrown it, but I still wish I had that thing now, man. As a matter of fact, you know, I think I’m going to go on eBay and buy that. That or the Roland groovebox, either one. But those groovebox machines, they’re really, really cool. You know, they have a good, really solid, round sound in them and everything.
Definitely, that was one of the first things I ever got too, was a groovebox.
Yeah, yeah, so I love those things. But anyway, then Tony [Foster] and I had bought the MPC, and I had bought a larger workstation. I bought the Yamaha Motif. It’s like the Triton in the Korg, and I started doing all my tracks on those. And during all this time, too, Mike Slade had brought me the 909, the 808, and the Juno, and I had the Fostex mixer and the Fostex reel-to-reel. I had the all-analog studio when I did the first MixMode, the Feel This. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. That’s probably why the tracks sound so crummy now. I go back and I listen to those, and I’m like, “Oh my god.” But when you’re doing stuff analog, you only get one take, you know?
So when did you meet Mike for the first time? Had you known them for quite a long time?
Well actually, I had known Mike before Norm. I had known Mike through his older brother Gilbert. His older brother was, like, back in high school, we had all the social clubs we went to at high-school parties. That’s how I knew Gilbert, Mike Clark’s older brother. And every now and then, Gilbert used to bring Mike to the parties with him. And that’s how I got to know Mike. You know, he was Gilbert’s younger brother and, you know, he used to be breakdancing and doing the electric boogaloo on the floor. “New Kung Fu,” you know, he always wore karate uniforms and kung fu shoes all the time. He was a character, dude. But I actually knew him way before Norm. And yeah, Mike started DJing too, but back then when I was DJing and we were DJing, we really didn’t connect, our friendship wasn’t about that. Our friendship was about just bullshitting and doing karate. That was all. I’d moved away to Kalamazoo during my hiatus, I was away at school, and then when I came back when I first got back into DJing, that’s one of the people I kind of connected with because he was the only friend I knew who had a residency. He was playing at The Motor Lounge, and I used to go and hear him from time to time, but, you know, Mike played a lot of stuff that I was already familiar with back in the 80s, and I thought that Norm and Mike Huckaby were… that sound was something I was more interested in, more so than what Mike was doing over at Motor.
So what led to the formation of you guys being The Beatdown Brothers?
Well just because when Norm and Mike were putting the album together for Third Ear, when they were compiling the tracks, I was just down at Mike’s all the time because Mike and I were really cool. And, you know, Norm would come by, and that’s how Norm and I got to be friends also. But I’d always gone on to Mike’s to just bullshit with Mike because he and I were really good friends, you know? He used to cut my hair, and we just used to talk and just bullshit. And then when the album project came along, Mike brought me into that… well, they both kind of brought me into that. I gave them a track, and that whole Beatdown Brothers and Detroit Beatdown, that’s completely Mike Clark’s kind of invention there. And I can’t remember how he, Norm, and I just came together as Detroit Beatdown, but somehow we did. But I know it was Mike Clark who actually started it and actually probably selected me and Norm to do it and you know… I can’t… that’s a question for Mike Clark, though, that’s for sure. I’ve got to ask him that.
Do you guys still regularly play together as Beatdown Brothers?
No, we did a long stint at a club, at this restaurant, actually, in Detroit called Agave. We did it from, I think it was 2000 till 2006, maybe. Yeah, we did that as Detroit Beatdown, we did it on Sunday nights. It was a free party too. Dude, it just got to be phenomenal, you know, and I think during when I was playing there, I was still… you know, I was finally getting acclimated to the music of today and getting my style defined. This is still pre-computer-DJ era, you know. And I was still defining my style and everything. I think during the days of Agave, during between, I’ll say, ’98, ’99 and maybe 2005, 2006, was when I really kind of cut my teeth into where music is today.
So with that in mind, do you play vinyl, or digital, or a mix of the two?
I play a mix of the two. I went digital for a second there because the record stores in Detroit, there was only, after Record Time closed — where Mike Huckaby worked — there was only one other store and Rick Wilhite’s store. Rick, he’d get some good records, but, I guess because he didn’t have that much business, he couldn’t get them consistently. And then the digital sites started sprouting up like Beatport, Traxsource. So I kind of migrated to that era for a minute. I started buying digital stuff and playing stuff off CD, and then I’d play a lot of the old vinyl that I got from Record Time and Rick. But it’s funny how things kind of turned full circle because now I’m back to vinyl. Because I totally went digital, then I was kind of mixing the two, and now I find myself more — probably 70 or 60 percent vinyl.
Cool. I recently watched the video that has been released with the In The Dark compilation that’s on the Still Music label. Now have you seen the video?
No, I haven’t.
OK, because you’ve got tracks on the compilation. It’s a fairly gritty sort of video showing the parties you guys do in Detroit, and it really looks like the parties — I mean at the time, I think this was in, like, 2005, 2006 — everything was very raw and kind of like stripped-back warehouse parties and that sort of thing. Is there another side to club culture there that buys into the big club and commercial sort of thing you find in most other cities, or is the club scene very much underground?
Of course. Yeah, there are a lot of mainstream clubs here, but a lot of us, we generally don’t play at those you know. There’s still the promoters here that book, like, the Mark Farina and the Tiësto, the stuff like that. But I really don’t frequent those clubs and that part of the scene too much. There’s definitely that going on here and it’s really big here, too. I can’t speak for anywhere else, but here, those kind of parties, it’s not so much about the music. It’s about the club and the drinking and most of the people who go to those parties probably don’t even know who the freakin’ DJ is, unless it’s Tiësto or somebody like that. But for the most part, it’s not about the music. It’s about just going out and just getting drunk and whatever.
And how do you find the crowds for the parties that you play? I’ve sort of noticed over the years that going to parties myself, that the crowds are… there’s a huge range, now, of age. You’ll still get some young cats, but then there’s people up into their 50s, even.
Exactly, yeah. I don’t know, I try to make myself understand that I came up when this thing was was invented. I’ve seen it when there was no disco, when there was no house, when there was just R&B and soul music. I saw disco come from nothing. I saw house music just come from nothing. You know what I mean? And then a lot of those crowds, we came up in this together. A lot of the crowd I came up playing for and partying with, they’re my age. They’ve got kids and grandkids, man. They don’t go out to clubs at all, you know what I’m saying? And the ones who do now, you know….
I came up in the primarily black culture of house music, and the black kids and the black culture, they still want to hear the same shit they heard back then. They still want to hear something to that effect. That’s why now I prefer playing to more multi-cultural crowds because my musical tastes have evolved. They’ve evolved to appreciate all forms of electronic music, whereas people that I came up with, that I performed with and performed for, they’re kind of stuck in the 80s or stuck in the early 90s. They want to hear the same stuff. That’s why a lot of, like even in Detroit now, I don’t play a lot of black parties, and I refuse to play a lot of black parties because I can’t play like I do in Europe. If I did, I’d get banana peels and orange peels thrown at me, probably, and rotten eggs.
[laughs] OK, one of your recent releases was a collaboration of sorts with Gavin Herlihy. How did that come about?
The guy at… Giuseppe [D’Alessandro] from Apparel Music bugged me for, like, two years to do a track for his label. And I finally gave in to the guy because he was relentless, and he was very generous with the advance and everything so I said, “What the hell, man, OK.” But as I got to working on the project I started to like it, you know what I mean? He sent me the parts for Gavin’s track “Krypton Factor,” and I just liked one part of it, I think it was a stab. I just completely added all new samples and everything to it. But the “Lost In Detroit” track was actually something I was going to put out on MixMode, but after talking with Giuseppe, he seemed to be a very nice guy and everything, and I thought the track was really good, I thought it was very raw and very indicative of Detroit. And I think that’s what he wanted so I went on ahead and gave it to him.
Oh cool, OK. Was that the first time you, like, sort of collaborated with somebody making stuff together? Do you ever get into the studio with any of your friends and do it?
Yeah, that was actually the first time I did something like that. Norm and I, we worked on many, many tracks together, but we just haven’t really put out anything serous. I did one of his releases on MixMode, but it didn’t do so well. But we have tracks now that are just amazing, and it’s just… right now it’s just about timing. I worked with Mike Clark when we did the Beatdown Brothers remixes on Third Ear, but Mike Clark pretty much did that whole project. Just recently, Norm and I, we’ve been working, but because of timing, we haven’t been able to put anything out. But I think at the end of this year, we’ll be able to get something.
Cool, nice. What can you tell us about the mix that you put together for us?
Well, when I’m at home, I have to actually get in the mood to play, you know what I’m saying? When you don’t have an audience and you’re just here mixing, it can get a little bit boring, so I hate to go by a program or whatever so what I did was I didn’t plan anything. I just used one turntable and two CDJs, and I just went off the hip. So I hope you guys like it. [laughs] Oh, actually, and these are some of my favorite tracks that I like now, and I kind of wanted to do a little bit of now and then kind of do a little bit of disco from yesteryear, you know what I’m saying? Probably bring some nostalgia into the mix. But these are all the tracks that I’m really feeling right now, so it’s called “Then and Now.”
And lastly, I was just wondering what have you got coming up over the next year, or what sort of things are you going to be working on?
I was up all night working on my live show. I’m trying to put together a really proper, proper live show, and the keyboardist who actually did a lot of parts with me on my album, trying to get him to tour with me so we can really add a more analog feel to our live show, versus just playing with Ableton and calling it “live,” you know what I mean? I’d just much rather do a real proper, analog-infused live show. We’re working on that, and then there’s going to be a whole bunch of remixes of the album coming out too. So that’s all for the next little while.