Photo by Michael Kuentz
In the twenty-five years or so since his fateful encounter with Alexander Robotnick’s “Problèmes d’Amour,” Mike Huckaby has become one of the most respected figures in house and techno music – in his Detroit hometown and beyond. His love for the music is clear, and he engages that love from every conceivable angle. A legendary DJ, Huckaby stands at some remove from partisan stylistic divisions, winning over crowds with his encyclopedic knowledge of dance music history (the benefit, perhaps, of a lengthy tenure at the Record Time music shop) and an unusually sensitive ear for exceptional, ageless tracks. As a producer, he combines a taste for vintage sounds with a keen interest in emerging technologies, and has devoted untold hours to understanding and mastering a myriad of music-making tools.
That passion and commitment comes in handy when he’s teaching courses on Reaktor and Ableton Live at Detroit’s Youthville community center. It’s also resulted in some classic records, and his productions for his Deep Transportation and S Y N T H labels are basically the gold standards in twilit deep house and brooding techno. Even if we could ignore all those considerable undertakings and accomplishments, Huckaby would still be an LWE favorite for his refreshingly level-headed and thoughtful perspectives on the electronic music industry. We tried to coax a few of those out of him in the Q&A that follows, and we’re honored and thrilled to present, as LWE’s 50th podcast, an exclusive 78-minute mix from one of the crucial artists of our time.
LWE Podcast 50: Mike Huckaby (78:22)
01. Liaisons Dangereuses, “Avant-Après Mars” [Roadrunner Records]
02. Udek, “Unknown” [white]
03. Lil Louis, “Frequency” [Dance Mania]
04. Virgo, “Free Yourself” [Trax Records]
05. Fingers Inc., “Distant Planet” (Club Mix) [Jack Trax]
06. Chuggles, “I Remember Dance” [Prescription]
07. House To House ft. Kym Mazelle, “Taste My Love” [Clone Classic Cuts]
08. Norma Jean Bell, “Do You Want To Party?” (Kenny Dixon Jr. Mix) [Pandemonium]
09. City People, “It’s All In the Groove” [Rainy City Music]
10. Moodymann, “The Third Track” [KDJ]
11. Jungle Wonz, “The Jungle” (Jungle Mix) [Trax Records]
12. Glenn Underground, “Black Mental Resurrection” (Mental Piano Dub)
13. Blaze, “Klubtrance” [Slip ‘n’ Slide]
14. Soofle, “How Do You Plead?” [Fragile Records]
15. Mr. Fingers, “Slam Dance” [Alleviated Music]
16. DeepChord, “Electromagnetic Dowsing” (Mike Huckaby S Y N T H Remix)
[S Y N T H]
Please tell us a little bit about your podcast for LWE. When/where it was made, and if there was any theme?
Mike Huckaby: These are just a few house classics from the vaults of Mike Huckaby. The mix was recorded in Detroit. I don’t do digital DJing, I only play vinyl. The theme was to simply play classic Mike Huckaby tracks, tracks that I will never get tired of playing. I can’t do DJ mixes with records that are relevant for 2-4 weeks. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
Your name routinely appears in the origin stories of today’s most exciting producers, from Detroit and beyond. So I’m wondering, who or what was it that sparked your interest in making house and techno music?
Well, as I’ve said before, Ken Collier was a major influence for nearly every Detroit DJ. Making music was a natural evolution for many Detroit DJs, and this was definitely the case for me. In the beginning, I would listen to every DJ. I would listen to the ones that I liked, as well as to the ones that I didn’t like. And then one day, a bright idea went off in my head that realized everyone was a bit different that anyone else — that every DJ had his or her own style and were developing that. So I took a shot at it as a DJ, and later on as a producer. I was always a self-motivated person.
I’ll never forget back in the day when Detroit techno hit hard for the first time in the U.K. Derrick May was going to England like crazy. He came back from a recent trip, and I asked him, ‘So, how was England?’ He replied shortly, and in a rather jet-lagged tone of voice, ‘Good as usual, what else would you expect?’ He wasn’t being an asshole about it, but right there I knew that it would be in my best interest to pick up my shit and just go over there to see it for myself. And that’s just what I did. Anthony Shakir and I would share information and techniques heavily with each other. I will never forget the one day in class he said to me, “I want to make a record.” I thought he was out of his mind because that type of thing was not available to individual recording artists yet. You had to be Quincey Jones or some shit, or an artist with a rather large recording budget.
I was lucky enough to be in the loop. And if you were in the loop by any stretch of the imagination, you saw what was going on, and what gear was being used to make this type of music at Transmat, KMS, or Metroplex studios. If you were in the loop, you thought nothing of it, but it would prove to be a very privileged experience when you spoke to those who weren’t in the loop. It was priceless to see the MIDI setups that triggered “Nude Photo,” “Strings of Life,” and so many other Transmat songs, all at the tap of a button. These songs existed right in front of you, right on the floor. So that along with a personal style to develop as a DJ were the influences that started it all for me. Basically, I just had to get out of the one-EP-every-ten-years club. I couldn’t do that shit anymore. (Ask Rick Wade about Mike Huckaby working on his hi-hat patterns for six months). So if a lot of producers and DJs are feeling me, it’s because of my work ethic, my progression over the years, and the amount of dedication I have put into the art of making better music.
Did you have any musical mentors, or people who helped you figure out the process of making music?
Just because you were privileged enough to see the gear that was being used in a classic Detroit techno studio setup doesn’t mean anyone shared information with you as to how to used the gear. Furthermore, the techniques used for creating sounds was also a mystery. There were no Ableton or Reaktor classes, workshops, or Youtube tutorials back then, you had to figure it out all for yourself. That was one of the requirements for being privileged enough to be in the loop. Everyone was influenced by Juan [Atkins], Kevin [Saunderson], and Derrick, there was just no way around it early on. So you would listen to their records a lot, and try to emulate things. That would often lead to originality within the process. Later on, I hooked up with Chris Simmonds from Cross Section records. He held my hand and walked me through everything. He even showed me how to loop a sample correctly.
What kind of equipment did you first begin working with?
All the classic Roland gear, period. I still have many of my original pieces of equipment to this day. We would often use very inexpensive synthesizers or gear that appeared in pawn shops. Otherwise, it was just too expensive to buy new gear. Studio setups were being put together slowly over time.
Since then, you’ve advanced to the point that you’re an instructor on programs like Ableton Live and Reaktor. What do you use to make your own music today?
I get asked this question all the time. People get it twisted in thinking that I only use Ableton Live or Reaktor because I teach these programs. That doesn’t mean those are the only tools I use to create music with. I use a strong combination of analog and digital software. Yes, I use Reaktor and Ableton a lot, but it’s the reciprocal relationship that exists between hardware and software that’s really important. Each influences each other. I often learn something on hardware that I didn’t know about a synthesizer in a software program, and vice versa. That’s very important. I have no problem telling you what I use to make my music. I use the Waldorf Wave, Reaktor, and Ableton Live a lot. I can tell you all day that I use Reaktor, because you will never use it. You think it’s too hard. That’s great because you leave me with so many possibilities all to myself. I have trained so many individuals with private Reaktor lessons. After discussing the possibility of a followup session, everyone always tells me, ‘Hey man, don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ I tend to stay away from anything that too many people use or do. I would have been out of this business by now if I hadn’t done any of this.
My number one motto is this: Always do what your peers cannot do and will not do. And from my experience, that’s been learning Reaktor, music theory, and how to play the piano, all of which I have spent a lot of time doing. You have to reinvent yourself in electronic music quite often. And the only way to do that is to learn new skills, or to branch off into other areas within this business that are of interest to you.
You’ve said that Detroit’s DJs and producers draw on “the ability to work with little or nothing.” Given the expertise you’ve amassed, how would you say that this ethos applies to you?
My project, My Life With The Wave proves that point easily. That project was all done with just one synthesizer, the Waldof Wave. Often I will limit myself to use one synthesizer just to see if I could create an entire track using one piece of gear. Earlier on, you had to do this if you were from Detroit due to financial reasons. Strangely enough, I still adhere to this work ethic, but now out of a personal choice. I’m a strong believer after all of the training I have had from some Reaktor black belts and synthesizer gurus that one synthesizer is enough, in terms of the different frequency ranges, to complete an entire track.
A lot of artists would be scared to release a sample CD because it could make it easier to copy their sound, if not their styling. Was there any hesitation to make the My Life With the Wave samples available, and if so what helped you overcome it? What do you get out of hearing the tracks people have made with your samples, such as Dimi Angélis & Jeroen Search’s Our Life With the Wave?
Exactly! Scared is the word. I have skills, man, skills that took me a long time to acquire. A lot of my closest friends told me I was crazy for thinking about releasing a sample CD. I was a bit hesitant about it at times, too. I didn’t know if it was going to flop or become a disaster. But it has become highly successful and my programming skills have increase tremendously as a result of it. My sample CD is considered a cult classic in the deep house world of music production now. You gotta take risks, man. A lot of professional companies have contacted me to do presets for instruments, programs and sound libraries too. It all became a win win situation.
I can’t stand the presets that come with synthesizers. They’re often whack, not suited for deep house or techno, or they are too trance related. So I was driven enough to do something about that, and I was successful at doing so. If my initial thought is clearly defined that I should pursue something, I usually try to stick with it. It has often turned out to be true. Motto number 2: “At first they talk shit about you, then they ask you how you did it.” I think another reason I have developed a strong following or have gained the respect of so many is due to the amount of information I am willing share. I’m not worried about that either, I just have a sense of compassion to help others not to be stuck regarding the music making process like I was in the past. If anything, what you better be scared about is the samples that I left off of the sample CD. I created a few that were just too good to release, so I kept them for myself. Sometimes I will give Rick Wade a few, just to see what he thinks about them.
I see you’re also offering the sample CD on reel-to-reel, which is unprecedented in my memory. Is tape reel a medium you use often outside this project? With all the tools at your disposal, what about the reel-to-reel still speaks to you?
Yeah man, tape is WARM! I cannot believe the warmth that is coming from this machine. It really warms up your sounds, individual parts, and even entire tracks. I plan on using it heavily. The direction not often pursued is the direction I have to go in. That’s where you find a lot of inspiration and answers you’re looking for.
Are you able to put as much of your music to wax as you’d like?
Not really. And this is what I have to work on in terms of being consistent. This is one of the factors that pertains to working with little or nothing: cash flow! Whenever I would talk shop with Kenny Dixon Jr., he would often tell me that. “Consistency baby, that’s the key.” Kenny always has a white label with him everywhere he goes in the D. If you ever run into him in the D, you can always rest assured he will go in the trunk and have something for you.
These days we hear most of your new work as remixes of other artists. Is there a particular appeal for you to the remix? Or is it just that you get a lot of requests?
After I started S Y N T H, and did the Electromagnetic Dowsing remixes for DeepChord, remix offers came in like crazy — they came after me. Vladislav Delay, Pole, Loco Dice, Pacou, Losoul, Juan Atkins, and a ton of other tracks. I’ve probably remixed the entire country of Germany right now. I’d look at the DEMF line up and say, ‘Damn, I damn near did a remix for the entire festival.’ That was the beginning of the end in terms of being in the one-EP-every-ten-years club. I placed a high bet on myself early on in studying Reaktor that this was going to lead up to all of this, and it did. But keep in mind, the remixes you hear that I have done are simply remixes and not necessarily my own tracks. Often they wind up being my own tracks, but there is also a fine line with providing a remix which takes in consideration the original artist profile, sound, and direction that you think would be best suitable for them. I kind of think of the person I’m remixing as my client. How do I deliver for him? If I deliver well for him, I’m automatically included.
You’ve often remarked that you don’t see a real division between techno and house. Your own productions have ranged from fathomless techno to jazzy house, and you’ve created two rather distinct record labels for your music. Do you see these as different strains in your work?
Man, the British press is to blame for so many different labels and divisions regarding music. Detroit DJs didn’t see the difference between house and techno as blatantly as it is described today. If you liked a record you played it, and you would or could often follow up with playing a techno record after a house record. There were so many journalists from England dying to go to Derrick May’s studio just to see what color his tea pots were. This is where all of this shit came from. “Slam Dance” by Mr. Fingers proves this point. The other three tracks on this EP are entirely deep house, but this track is a bit more aggressive than the others. And from day one, Detroiters always referred to techno as something that is just a bit more aggressive than house music.
As your recent piece for WhatPeoplePlay suggests, seasoned record store clerks such as yourself are teachers for generations to dance music fans. Fewer decide to teach outside record stores’ walls. Have you always had the desire to share your knowledge to others? Do you believe a worthy dance music education can be had through less social means than frequenting record stores?
It all pertains to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. Again, I don’t have a problem with sharing certain things. Skill replaces luck and even fear. Have you ever notice that the person who is the most afraid to share information and techniques is often the very person that can’t describe the method or process in the first place? That’s why it can’t be shared, because the individual doesn’t know much about it in the first place — they simply can’t expand on the information. As far as record stores go, the Internet will never replace human interaction. That’s what’s missing in the digital age of purchasing music. Purchasing music from a human being who is skillful enough to evaluate the music is everything. I was just in Black Market records in the U.K. yesterday, and people thought I worked there because I overheard someone asking for Liz Torrez, “I Can’t Get Enough.” The track was playing in the background, and the person didn’t know what it was or how to find it. You can find out about music you don’t know about through the Internet or computer, but can you ask the computer a question about a song that comes to mind? No.
Although we should never overlook or forget the wealth of knowledge that’s often the soul of our favorite record shops, the 21st century is so much about access to all niches and cultures, often consumed from an information fire hose and nowhere near a local expert. In your opinion, who make the best gatekeepers for our times? What role does the Internet play in that for you?
The Internet does serve a great purpose indeed, But it simply cannot replace the history and story told about music, and the memories people have about music. It can only facilitate the process. So the best gatekeepers regarding the music are the “fallen heroes” of dance shops and the heavy hitters who are working in record stores today.
You’ve also been running music production courses at YouthVille. How long has that been going on?
Since 2006. I took a tour through the facility and asked when could I start immediately. Native Instruments and Ableton lent me their support, and I thank them gratefully for that. My entire role at Youthville has been to be the person who brings in more resources to Detroit, resources that could change a kid’s life. I try to give them hope that someone could tap you on the shoulder and ask you to participate in something that could change your life. This is extremely important because it’s the very one thing the students, and even the general population within Detroit, often thinks will never happen. So I am providing the structure and possibility for that to take place.
What courses are you teaching these days?
Ableton Live, and Reaktor. Man, where was Ableton 10-15 years ago when Rick Wade was literally speeding up a sample he was recording into the sampler with his hand to keep the sample on beat with the rest of the track? That’s one reason I feel Ableton is the best choice for production right now.
Do the courses go into things like music theory, songwriting, or the business end of making records?
Yes, often speakers and lectures may happen where these things are discussed. This is important because it teaches the students the importance of protecting their music early on.
Have you been able to keep up with what your past students are up to? Have many of them continued to make music?
Well, when the students reach the age of 19 they are no longer a member of Youthville. But we have some very talented kids and I see some of them on a regular basis.
You’ve talked about how helping kids realize their goals with Ableton can show them how to use perseverance as a tool for success in other areas of their life (school, etc.). Do you have a feel for how successful that’s been?
I think this is realized from the first day each student is enrolled in one of my classes. I emphasize this from day one. From there it’s up to the student what he or she will do with it. I try to clarify things that are difficult for them, and hold their hand through the music making process each step of the way. Otherwise, it may be just too difficult for them.
Have you heard of any programs like Youthville launching in other cities?
No, I’m not aware of any other program like Youthville in any other city. Youthville is one of a kind. It’s the most significant thing that has occurred in Detroit since the DEMF.
Through Youthville, you probably have a better idea than any one of what Detroit’s next generation will sound like. What developments and trends do you foresee in the coming years?
There are some really talented kids at Youthville and all they need is someone to lead the way — to light the torch and help them extend themselves. I like to be on the “losing team” or on the team that “Dateline America” describes as underachievers or economically disadvantaged. We can’t rely on the press to create opportunities for us, or to tell us how hard life in Detroit is.
Mad shouts out to :
Rick Wade, Theo, Kenny, Rick Wilhite, Patrice Scott, Omar-S, Keith Worthy, Malik Pittman, Kyle Hall, Scott Ferguson, Scott Grooves, Ron Trent, Glenn Underground, Tama Sumo, Pacou, Craig Gonzalez, Patrick Russell, Ray Bone, Downbeat, 3rd Ear, Kai Alce, the Bunker Crew, DJ Qu, Anthony Parasole, and You.