It’s safe to say Aaron-Carl is a rare breed of dance music producer. A Detroit native with a wall-shaking set of vocal pipes, a wide aesthetic range that spans soulful house, bumping techno and grimy ghettotech, and an incredibly accessible artistic personality, AC and his music are easy to fall in love with regardless of what you’re after — as long as it’s real. Not content with the opportunities afforded by his Soul City beginnings, Aaron-Carl launched his own imprint, Wallshaker Music, in 1998 and soon found himself atop the Billboard dance charts. Unfazed by the limelight’s brevity, AC persevered and spread his love for deeply personal dance music and his hometown around the world and founded the W.A.R.M.T.H. collective to keep those positive, Motor City-flavored vibes flowing. And if our interview below is any indication, there’s so much more to come. We’re also proud to present our 48th exclusive podcast from Aaron-Carl himself, a light but thoroughly gripping mix of unexpected house cuts and some of his own savored selections. This is also our first podcast offered at 320 kbps, something we look forward to continuing in the future.
LWE Podcast 48: Aaron-Carl (62:26)
01. Jurgen Cecconi & Marco Carona, “L’Icône Glamour” (Joy Kitikonti Mix)
02. Hamza, “Tribal Sensitivity” [Wind Horse Records]
03. Santiago Salazar, “Your Club Went Hollywood” (Aaron-Carl Remix) [Wallshaker Music]
04. Alvaro Ernesto, “Inside My Soul” (Pezzner Remix) [Chillin Music]
05. Omar, “Lay It Down” (Andre Lodemann Remix) [Peppermint Jam]
06. UES, “Where Is That Song?” [expreZoo*]
07. Wattie Green, “Sea Lion Woman” [Flapjack Records]
08. Myles Sergé, “Jo’Mar’s Dance” [SIXONESIX]
09. Scan 7 ft. Aaron-Carl, “4 Types of People” [Wallshaker Music]
10. Nemecek & Tomic, “Lost 8” [consistent]
11. Octave One, “The Greater Good” (Mix 1) [MS10]
12. DJ Phil Agosta, “Mission Possible” [white*]
13. UES, “Where Is That Song?” (Joos Moog Remix) [expreZoo*]
14. Aaron-Carl, “I Refuse” (AC’s Stompin’ Mix) [Wallshaker Music]
15. Aki Bergen, “Bigger Than Life” [Urbantorque Recordings]
* denotes tracks which, at the time of publishing, are unreleased
What first attracted you to dance music?
Aaron-Carl: Do I have to start there? That’s a long time ago, oh my goodness. The thing that got me hooked on house music was going to Club Heaven, and the two songs that did it for me was Jay Dee’s “Plastic Dreams” and Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman.”
And what was the turning point at which you went from a fan to a producer?
I’ve always been one, so to speak. I started out by writing poetry and doing songs as a diary type of thing, as opposed to being a part of bad elements, doing drugs or whatever. It’s funny because I just did it; it was something that was natural and I didn’t know I was a producer until Mike Banks introduced me as one.
So were you working with drum machines and synthesizers before then?
Nope. I had a keyboard that was a hundred dollars, a sampler and a four track recorder — that was it. I didn’t know how to sync, I didn’t know what sampling did, I had no idea. I just knew what I wanted to hear and I made it happen.
What came first for you: hip-hop or house music?
House music, actually.
Interesting. Did you get into hip-hop because it was also part of the club scene?
Well, we listen to everything here in Detroit. So you could go from hip-hop to ghettotech to Prince to B52s to whatever, and as long as it worked it was cool.
Outside perceptions have it that Detroit is the techno city and Chicago is the house city. Who in Detroit fostered your house side, either personally or through their music?
I would have to say Marc Kinchen, MK. Ooh! I didn’t know what the hell it was, but whatever he did it was magic. He was one of the biggest influences for me.
I know his style of cut-up vocals inspired a number of producers as well; was that something you tried to emulate in your own music?
Of course. I do it all the time. [laughs]
You mentioned Mike Banks a little bit ago, and I understand you have something of a complicated relationship. I know he was fundamental to your moving into the realm of making records and stuff like that. Would you tell me a little bit about your relationship with him and where that’s gone since your starting point?
Sure. When I met him I had no idea who he was. And we quickly bonded; it became like a father/son relationship. He taught me a lot about– I don’t know, he gave me that competitiveness. I think the love is still there. As a matter of fact, I shouldn’t say I think, I know the love is still there. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but there’s a mutual respect, and I always credit him with launching my career, teaching me what I know. Just recently though, he came up to me and he told me he was very proud of me and the things I had done. And to hear that kind of compliment coming from him was like your father patting you on the back. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve waited my whole life for this moment!’ [laughs]
You got your start on Soul City, a sub-label of his, of UR. What spurred you to start Wallshaker Music?
Can you tell me a bit more?
Well, see, I was saving this for a book I was writing, but I’ll tell you anyway. I wrote a song called “Wallshaker” and that was one of the last records I had done on Soul City. I had realized that my contract was bad, and just me and my attitude, I thought, ‘I’m leaving!’ I went to confront Mike and tell him that, and I expected a fight because of the reputation — the whole, ‘Nobody leaves Submerge and makes it alive.’ But I don’t play that shit. Anyway, I went up to him expecting a fight and I said, ‘Mike, I’m leaving.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ And I kind of went, ‘Huh? Just OK?’ He encouraged me to go out and get my feet wet, learn about the business on my own. I think what he wanted me to do was go out, get beat up and learn that way. And that’s what happened.
If I understand correctly, you also had a sub-label called Anatomik Sounds that put out at least one record. Is that still in existence?
No. It was actually an experiement. Starting a label is a lot of work and I started Anatomik Sounds where Wallshaker was really starting to take off, in my opinion. It had been successful for a while, but I had been so busy for a while that I didn’t stop to realize it. It had to do a lot with artist I was dealing with, too. You know, I’m a firm believer in — I don’t want to say helping out the little guy, but you know what I mean? There’s hidden talent everywhere, and the one thing I never wanted to do was get stuck in what was popular. So I would find people who I thought were talented and give them that outlet, which is what I did. Unfortunately it came back to bite me. I had to learn. You meet a kid and they want to be a star, and they don’t know how much work it entails. And one day it just wasn’t worth it. It’s unfortunate.
On that same note, I know having your own label can free you to make the sort of artistic decisions you want, but I’m sure it also shifts a lot of the burdens — funding, promotion, distribution, etc. — onto the owner as well. What has the experience of being Wallshaker’s owner and manager been like for you?
To sum it up in one word/phrase, I would have to say it’s a bittersoulfulsweet experience. It’s so rewarding because I do get to do what I do. From the beginning I refused to be boxed into one type, one genre, so certain labels didn’t know how to handle me. ‘Oh, we’ll take your vocal stuff but not the techno stuff. We’ll take the techno stuff but not those nasty records.’ [laughs] I guess I’m just a firm believer that it takes all types — that’s how I was raised and I can’t change, won’t change.
Some artists create a different pseudonym for each part of their musical personality and then they’ll shop those different names out to different labels. You, on the other hand, are just Aaron-Carl. Why go one way instead of dispersing your personality across different names.
Because basically I’m just keeping it real. Like any real person I have good days, I have bad days, I have soulful moments, I have X-rated moments, and I wanted to show people I could do all of this.
Tell me a little bit about W.A.R.M.T.H.
W.A.R.M.T.H., baby! You have no idea what’s about to happen with W.A.R.M.T.H., oh my goodness. As you probably know, W.A.R.M.T.H. is an acronym that stands for We Are Revolutionizing the Movement of Techno and House. I started W.A.R.M.T.H. to satisfy a need, really. As an internationally traveling DJ you see everybody else loving what we do here in Detroit. But then I live here, and I’m sure you know it’s the complete opposite. As a matter of fact, a lot of us get depressed when we come home, because we get all the accolades overseas, but when you come home other people in Detroit are like, ‘Oh, it’s you, whatever.’ They don’t view entertainment as a real job, I’ve had that problem for years. When I bought my first house I didn’t realize I was actually making enough money to do it because according to my family and friends, ‘He doesn’t have a real job.’ [laughs] It doesn’t matter that I’m traveling, touring, I didn’t have a real job because I wasn’t punching a time clock at a car factory.
And how does that translate into what W.A.R.M.T.H. does?
W.A.R.M.T.H., it’s multi-faceted. I have a problem with people who are not either in Detroit or from Detroit taking a few sounds and saying, ‘We have the Detroit sound.’ No you don’t! Because you’re not here. Now don’t get me wrong, people like Jeff Mills who left Detroit, much respect for him, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kid from some off the wall country who’s only heard the urban legends about Detroit taking a few computer sounds and saying, ‘That’s the sound. Now we’re Detroit.’ No yer not. That was part of my fight, I guess, to reclaim the sound that I feel is being taking away from us.
How is W.A.R.M.T.H. doing that?
Ironically, it started out as W.A.R.M.T.H.313 and it was all about Detroit: I wanted to honor Detroit’s history, I wanted to insure the future for Detroit electronic music, but then it kind of grew. And I realized that some of the biggest producers in the world are from Detroit, in Detroit, or heavily influenced by Detroit, and there’s talent and soul everywhere. So my goal was to, instead of being exclusive to Detroit, I wanted it to be inclusive and bring that soul from everywhere. And it’s worked.
I know you’ve done at least a couple really big events. And I believe there’s a W.A.R.M.T.H. UK division as well?
Tell me a bit about W.A.R.M.T.H.’s events and its international presence.
The events W.A.R.M.T.H. are throwing are called Preservation. It’s preserving the integrity of electronic music. The first event was just magical. I spun, Quentin Harris spun, DJ Bone spun, but the crowd was incredible. Mike Banks, Eddie Fowlkes were there, Juan Atkins was there, Scan-7. People who don’t even go out to parties showed their support, and that meant more to me than any other thing that night. That let me know W.A.R.M.T.H. was on the right track. Internationally, it’s growing like wildfire. The audience I get for the radio show I do called W.A.R.M.T.H. sessions, people come from everywhere: Japan, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Australia, and we all have that thing in common — we all want to spread this love. They all have this love for the music. It’s so funny, you have to go to the chatroom — you must. I want to let you in on a little something: W.A.R.M.T.H. International is expanding. The station is going to be 24/7. Right now we have four DJs from different corners of the world doing shows throughout the week. There’s myself, there’s DJ1SRAEL from Dallas, TX, there’s Larry Cavelle from the UK, and Murat from Sweden. We all spin different, we all do different things, but we all have that common bond. And the crowds love it.
That’s gotta be a lot of work.
It is, but it’s worth it.
How much of this is evenly split between all of you and how much of this is an Aaron-Carl thing that other people are a part of?
It’s both. I say that because I’ve assembled a wonderful team of people, and this is where the satellite office in the UK comes in, there’s one in France. Everyone is just really supportive, but I do find myself working from sun up to sun down because that’s just how passionate I am about it.
As part of a scene that often places great store in being secretive, you are an incredibly open artist with a very personal blog, a very personal Twitter account. I was curious why it was important to you to be so open and what some of the upsides and downside have been from being such a public person.
I feel like my life can teach somebody. For the kid who wants to get out there in the industry, they need to know the ups and downs from that. It’s not what you see on TV or read in the magazines all the time. You have lonely days where you feel invisible because you’re not the flavor of the month. These artists really need to know that. I’ll tell you what the upsides are: when people genuinely feel what I’m saying. That is the biggest joy for me. And a lot of times it hits me when I’m not even realizing it. I’ll get an email or I’ll see someone after a show, or even seeing people singing along to my songs with such conviction, I’m like ‘Damn!’ These people are really touched and that really does touch me. I like the fact that I don’t have this giant push behind me, because that kind of turns people away I think — it keeps people at a certain distance and that’s not what kind of person I am. The downside to it is that sometimes it’s a lonely existence. Because I am so open, and really all of my songs are about some point in my life. And sometimes it hurts me really, really bad, but that’s the only way I know how to express myself. It kind of pisses me off sometimes, you know when I write a song when I’m completely depressed, completely confused, and someone says, ‘Oh, that’s fabulous!’ like they enjoy it. No, bitch, you supposed to cry! [laughs] Don’t dance, cry! [laughs]
I imagine it must be rather strange for you to hear some of those very personal songs being played out.
But people feel that. This is keeping it real. There’s too many other people out here making songs, ‘Get out on the dance floor,’ ‘shake it,’ blah blah blah. OK, you hear it all day every day. I think people are hungry for reality, you know what I mean? And not in the sense of reality TV, something real. For example, “Crucified,” and I don’t know if you know this, but it was actually a suicide note. My boyfriend broke up with me, I was losing my house, I was going through all kinds of stuff. And I literally — not that I’m proud of it — I wrote that song and that was the time I tried to commit suicide.
Well I’m so glad that you failed on that task and we still have you around. I don’t know how I can express that in stronger terms.
I appreciate that. I’m sitting here about to cry my damn self, because it’s just something a lot of people don’t know.
It’s definitely amazing that you put yourself so wholly into your music. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable doing that at all, and to put yourself out there is a brave move.
If you have to know, though, I’m not doing it for marketing purposes. I am so not doing this for the money or the fame, this is just me.
You’ve written before about how you wanted to highlight influential Detroit artists who “go beyond the usual few.” I wondered who you had in mind as far as who gets overlooked?
Pirahnahead is an amazing artist, period. I think he is very underrated because of the type of music he makes. He’s one of the people I alway used to say wouldn’t be appreciated until long after he was gone, and then people would go, ‘Oh, he’s such a genius!’ There’s a label from Grand Rapids called SIXONESIX, the people affiliated with them, Brian Miller — they call him Phrek — Myles Sergé, they do really amazing music. And because they’re not the flashy, out there in your face kind of people they get overlooked as well.
Have you worked with any of these artists or tried to give them more exposure through Wallshaker?
As a matter of fact that’s what I’m doing right now. As far as Pirahnahead goes, we’ve collaborated on a song or two before. They’ve never been released and that’s just because Pirahnahead is weird. [laughs] He is weird! I love him, but that man is weird. He’ll work on a track, and he works so diligently, it’ll take him years before that song is finished. Or sometimes he’ll do it and it’s so personal to him he doesn’t want to let it go. “Sky,” one of my biggest records, he did a remix– as a matter of fact, he sang background vocals on one — and it’s never been released. He will not let it go.
It must be hard for him to get the exposure he deserves if that’s the case.
That’s just a part of it. Most of it’s politics, too. If you’re not the obvious few you’re going to have a hard time. And it’s unfortunate because some of the people who have made it huge, a lot of them have turned their backs.
Is it ever tough living in the shadow of those big names of Detroit?
It’s an uphill battle. Even for someone like me, my first record– from my first record on it just catapulted me. Even for me, psh, yeah! But it’s only difficult to a degree. I think people are really starting to look deeper, because I am so far out there just being who I am. It’s so funny, I met Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and he had never heard of me before. When he discovered my music he gave me all kinds of accolades — he called my house to give me these compliments. And you know me, I’m about to cry, ‘Oh my God, it’s Farley calling me!’ Long story short, he says, ‘You know, it’s a shame I’ve never heard of you and I live in Chicago.’ And I thought that was crazy because I have fans everywhere, but like wow, Farley hasn’t heard of me?
Who are a few more contemporary artists from Detroit or elsewhere who you admire?
You know who I admire a lot? Daniel Kyo from Spain, he lives in Valencia. I quickly snatched him up and made him a Wallshaker man, because his sound is… [inhales deeply] ooh, it’s soulful, it has all that. I am such a fan of his and I know he is fairly new to the scene. I get inspired by everyone, really. I hope that doesn’t sound cliche.
Maybe just a little bit [laughs].
I really do! You should see my record collection, I have everything from rap to Reba, I do not play. [laughs]
Have you met Kyle Hall?
You know, I’ve been hearing a lot about him and it’s a shame we both live here and we don’t interact. I’m actually going to change that, to reach out to him, which leads me to my next project.
Tell me about it.
W.A.R.M.T.H. International is embarking on a new division. We are going to do a digital shop. First I want to showcase the Detroit labels, and then I want to reach out to the Detroit influenced labels. There are labels in Japan that just love that sound, and they have that sound. There’s labels in Germany, Amsterdam. And I’m bringing them all together. You’ll love the name: MP313.com.
Very cool. When is this launching?
Well this just came about in the last few days. It started based on conversations I had in the chat room, they were saying how difficult it was to get Detroit music elsewhere. And I’ve always heard that. But I guess I just realized, I have the ability to make it happen, so let me do it.
Not many underground producers can say they’ve had Billboard chart success, which you can. What have been the advantages and drawbacks of having success on that scale?
The advantages obviously are the recognition. Having Billboard chart success was fabulous, but the downfall was it was short-lived. And, at the end of the day, it didn’t do much for me as a person. The charts came and went, I still had my day-to-day life.
These days you can probably count the number of male house divas on one hand, yourself included, yet in the last couple years vocals have become really popular again. Do you think there’s room for a comeback of the male diva? And what do you think it would take to make it happen?
Yes, I do. It would take bravery. It would also take a willingness to go against the grain. You think divas in house music you think big power vocalists like my best friend Michelle [Weeks] or Jocelyn Brown or Martha Wash. You don’t think about male vocalists doing that, and when they do they’re rare. Byron Stingily [of Ten City] comes to mind actually. Jeremy Ellis — have you heard of Jeremy Ellis?
I can’t say I have.
Ooh, ooh, ooh, you really need to research Jeremy Ellis, honey. There’s a song he did called “Feed Your Mind,” I’m gonna slap him for singing so good when I meet him. [laughs] It is a fabulous song.
And lastly, what advice would you give young producers, vocalists, people who want to get into dance music, given your wealth of experience?
I would say, be open and be willing to learn. Take the good with the bad. Ooh, I hate to sound like Miss America. You know, ‘Keep your chin up!’ No, no. It’s not pretty, it’s not easy, and make sure you’re doing it for the right reason — alright, here comes another bumper sticker for you [laughs]. If you’re doing it for the money, don’t do it. If you’re doing it for the fame, don’t do it. Do it for you. For the love. That’s really all I’ve done. The success and stuff came as a result of that.
Download: LWE Podcast 48: Aaron-Carl (62:26)