The Man of Many Crafts, The Person
Behind The Myth of Stringz
PART III: Haleem Stringz- The Jitter, the Historian, and The World Traveler
by Catherine Diggs
Photos #1-6 by Alexandre Da Veiga. Photos #6 and 7 by Paul Lee
Near the end of our interview process, I asked Haleem why he has come to be deemed the torch carrier of the Jit culture in Detroit and abroad. This is what he answered: “The reason I received this title is because I have had the foresight and willingness to do some of the dirty work no else wanted to do when the Jit was under-recognized. And if my work pays off through the survival of the dance and the creation of more opportunities for Jit dancers, I will have fulfilled my duty”.
For this last part, let us focus on the major role Jit has played in Haleem’s life throughout his experiences as a young man and as CEO of Hardcore Detroit. According to a definition from “The Jit Story”, an article which Haleem wrote and which is soon-to-be published in Switzerland, “The Jit is a dance originating from the City of Detroit. It is characterized by a combustion of standing intricate, high energy footwork precision, kicks, wiggles, shuffles, and arm syncopations that can be taken to the floor in order to create an even more dynamic aesthetic.” Being Detroit’s original dance form, Haleem had always seen it around as a kid and as a teenager. But it was only in 1999, that he met started to learn more about the Jit community, that is, by meeting a dancer named Clu. Clu was interested in learning how to break and reached out to Hardcore Detroit. Haleem was interested in expanding on his knowledge of the Jit. The exchange therefore began.
This meeting eventually led him to meet Devonaire in 2002. He became the largest influence in his early jit career. They instantly bonded. Many mistook them for blood brother. But it did not take them long to realize that they had both graduated from the same high school.
Parallel to this key meeting, Haleem was acquiring more and more knowledge about breakin’, which resulted in his feeling compelled to start putting the pieces of the Jit story together. The Jit had indeed emerged in similar historical conditions to breakin’. To quote his article, “Both are creative expressions that spawned from the funk era and landed in the inner city streets of the U.S.A. While breakin’ emerged in park jams in the Bronx, the Jit was birthed by Detroiters at night, under the street lights, and at basement parties”.
Futhermore, Haleem had the ability to give Jit exposure through his travels as a dancer. In his words, “I was able to bring practical ideas and blueprints to Detroit on what it takes to preserve a culture”. He started by commissioning a writer named Deanna Dunham to publish an article on the Jit. It was titled “Jit on!” and was released in 2005. To read it, click here: http://www.hardcoredetroit.biz/jit/jit.html. At that time, he was the first and only individual to attempt to develop a narrative surrounding that genre of dance. In other words, to historicize it.
And in 2006, his growing passion to excel in dance led him to apply for the 2006 Red Bull Beat Riders week of workshops with innovators and legends in the Urban Dance industry: 30 individuals were selected out of 7 countries and Haleem was one of them. During that week, he learned extensively about different styles of dance, how to organize workshops, and about what it is to be a professional in the field of Urban Dance. That is when he met major figures like Ken Swift (influential b-boy figure from NYC), Kool Herc (Jamaican-American DJ and founder of hip hop in the Bronx in the early 70s), and Brian “Footwork” Green (major figure of the House dance scene in NYC and the world), amongst many others. To check out the highlights of the 2006 edition, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EhcpGPkrZA.
And later on that year, Stringz organized a Jit v. Juke event in Detroit to showcase the differences between Chicago footwork and Detroit Jit. Watch a preview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8Flp28PldQ. This foundational event was followed in 2009, by the House Dance Conference, which he and Brian Green organized collaboratively, and more recently, by the 2017 Jit v. House event. The goals behind these events was to, in his words, “give the Jit more exposure by sharing and exchanging with the already world renowned dance form of House. And at the same time, educating Detroit jitters in a hands-on way on what is going on internationally in the street dance world.” Haleem was and still is a major figure to make big moves for the Jit and was a major reference for the outside world, should people want to know more about that subculture.
That is why, in 2007, a Swedish woman named Maria Decida, studying that very Jit culture, reached out to Haleem and asked him if he would want to teach a workshop in Sweden. This trip marked the beginning of his international travels. Since then, he has travelled everywhere from Canada, to Europe, to Africa, to Asia and South-East Asia, to the Middle- East. Throughout his travels, he has taken part in trainings, workshops, interviews, judging, battles, networking, collaborations, cultural exchanges, and more. A notable experience, which he wished to share was that during his second trip to China, he collaborated with the Hinterlands, a renowned contemporary theatre company based out of Detroit, in a month-long residency in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province. Watch the highlights here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2d1I-7Zc4H0.
Moreover, it was thanks to Haleem’s international travels and to his arduous efforts to track down the key players of the Jit’s early beginnings, that in 2008, the pioneers of the Jit reached out to him. They were 3 brothers, Tracey, Johnny, and James McGhee, and they had originated the style in Detroit in the late 70s. Haleem explained that the reason why they called him was because they had realized that Haleem was taking the Jit into the international forum. What started with a 3-hour interview turned into a 6-year long documentary project, which resulted in the film “The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit”, released in 2014. In Haleem’s words, “I felt it was necessary to start from the beginning of the Jit’s story in order to establish a strong foundation for this genre of dance”. The film made the Official Selection at the San Diego Black Film Festival in 2014 and at the Detroit Freep Film Festival in 2015. You can stream his documentary on Amazon Prime by clicking on this link: https://www.amazon.com/Jitterbugs-Pioneers-Jit-Tracey-McGhee/dp/B00XVMND1M.
Most recently, after establishing himself as a Jit historian, Haleem decided to apply to the Hip Hop Diplomacy Program, which was founded in 2005 by the U.S State Department as a means to use hip hop culture as a bridge for foreign cultural diplomacy. He applied as a jitter and got in. It was a 2-week program that took place in Indonesia in December of 2016 and which made him eligible to become cultural ambassador of the U.S and to be placed in their official database. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1DK8kiiUlc.
Stay tuned for Haleem’s upcoming event: Jit vs. House pt. 2, which will take place on October 14th of 2017. Like the first event, it will be broken down into two parts. The first part will be exhibition battles with legends from the House and the Jit dance worlds. The second part will revolve around tournament-style competitions between Jit dancers on the one hand, and house dancers, on the other. The exhibition performers will be the judges of those battles and will select winners.
And as Haleem explained to me with humor, “These events have now pushed me to develop my skills as an MC/host, since I will not be dancing in those battles. All this is to say, I always throw myself in with the lions and take risks. It’s another obstacle I must overcome, I guess …
Follow Haleem on his social media:
Hardcore Detroit website: HardcoreDetroit.com
Hardcore Detroit Facebook: Hardcore Detroit
To follow the event in October, #JitvsHouse2
YouTube channel: stringz313
Film website: detroitjitterbugs.com
A few more links to his international travels:
- Zimbabwe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lafe_KW5akw
- Middle East: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-TNaixbL_k
PART II: Haleem Stringz- The Business Savvy Artist and Innovator
by Catherine Diggs
Photographs #1, 2, 3 by Paul Lee. Photographs #4, 5, 6, 7, 8 by Alexandre Da Veiga.
Over the years, Haleem has come to establish himself as a leader, an educator and a role model for youth. To quote him, “My role is to lead by example, to inspire and plant the seeds of opportunity. People are watching me and observing how I move […] So, I feel compelled to move through life with dignity and with virtues.”
For this week’s piece, we will be exploring the major events and turning points which have led Haleem to play two of the major roles he has become known for: the Dancer and the Designer.
To start where we left off, Haleem entered Western in 1995 as an Art Major. He took classes that spiked his interest, one of which was a printing class, which had a screen printing component to it. He explained that he aced it because in his words, “I had a knack for printing”. So then, unsurprisingly, in 1997, after working a series of odd summer jobs, he was contracted at a Detroit Screen Printing T-shirt shop. “I started off as a shirt catcher”, he said laughing. “By the time I left, 10 years later, I was running the whole shop. I could do everything from inventory, to customer service, to accounts, to printing. I became a master printer in the process. I also understood how to run a business first hand and knew that I wanted to make my own company. It had always been a big dream for me to own a fashion line”.
Furthermore, in 1998, thanks to the artistic skateboarding community he had come to be apart of, he applied to the graphic design program at Western with his graffiti black book, which he had been curating for years. He was one of the rare 20, who got selected that year and the skills he acquired in that program proved to be invaluable to his career as a designer and artist.
Parallel to his experiences as a graphic designer and aspiring fashion designer, Haleem was also active in developing himself as a dancer. During the school year, he would practice the skills he had developed personally through self-teaching and watching dance and hip hop films like Flashdance (1983), Beat Street (1984), and Wild Style (1983). And on his return to Detroit, he would practically apply those skills on the dance floors of St. Andrews.
It was around that time in 1995, that he made a game-changing encounter with U-Turn, well known b-boy in the Detroit area, who invited him in the summer of 1997 to go to Rock Steady Anniversary, a world class New-York-based 3-day Hip Hop event. Through this event, Haleem acquired his early exposure to the full-fledged Hip Hop culture NYC had to offer, from battles, fashion displays, panel discussions with hip hop pioneers, merchandizing, videos, concerts, and event production. He was then able to take this knowledge and apply it to his community in Detroit. In his words, “I thought breakin’ was dead and that we were bringing it back in Detroit. But U-Turn showed me the outside by bringing me to NYC […] He must have seen something in me because only two of us from the community would get invited to go with him every year”. Watch footage of U-Turn and Stringz dancing in a cypher at a Rock Steady Anniversary after-party in 1998: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNgDiQtUgVs.
It was also during his experience battling at Rock Steady that he officially acquired the dance alias “Stringz”, which emerged out of the childhood nickname “String Beans” his brother baptized him with. In his own joking words, “It was because of my peanut shaped head and my long body”. But Haleem explained the following: “Even though people have identified me as Stringz for so long, I would rather people know me by my character traits and my religion over my dance accolades. In other words, my goal has never been to brand my identity as an artist”.
Therefore, with all the experiences Haleem accumulated in the graphic design, dance, rap, skateboarding, and rave worlds throughout his 6 years in college, he graduated, finally, in 2001 and founded the infamous Hardcore Detroit. A bit of back story: Stringz had been long wanting his crew’s name to include the word “Detroit” in it, knowing that he already had a fashion line called Hardcore Designs. The game changer was when, during a conversation, DJ Sicari Ware suggested, “Why don’t you combine your fashion line and dance crew into one entity?”. And so, out of a sudden epiphany, the brand “Hardcore Detroit” emerged.
To quote Haleem, “the “motto “hardcore” represents success after struggle and overcoming hardships to achieve victory. It is how you deal with your obstacles and how you overcome them, that makes you hardcore […] I believe that if you are patient, you come out with so much more than if you seek something with too much aggression. Part of being patient is being able to sacrifice something to get somewhere. I have always made sure not to place more importance on my art than my religion. I knew that balancing them both would bring me more blessings”. I then inquired about what his feelings were about his company and how he saw it as being representative of Detroit and here is what he answered: “Why is it representative? Because it has the word Detroit in it. It speaks to my commitment and to my desire to stand strong, especially at a time when Detroiters were fleeing the city because of economic hardship. I want to show Detroit in a good light and promote the greatness that has come out of the city”.
On the one hand, Hardcore Detroit may have very well been the first significant urban street brand in the city with name of Detroit in it. Stringz’ clothing line, which he started running as of the late 90s, mostly serviced the dance community throughout the Midwest. “I was filling a void in the market,” Haleem explained. It started with head spin hats and T-shirts with designs of breakin’ poses on them, and quickly expanded to other things. Indeed, Haleem partook in a several fashion shows with his brand throughout the years, one of the most memorable ones being at Cobo Hall in 2003: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZ_8eOh0r6g. From then on, the brand took off. Haleem started to explore “vintage” and to put “twists on things” by printing designs on neck ties, dobb hats, fadoras, by sewing his own clothing, and by going beyond the craft of screen printing only.
As time went on however, Haleem was being faced with more and more competition on the market. As Detroit brands started emerging profusely, the movement of urban street wear gradually felt saturated for him. When I asked him why he has become less focused on the brand today than he was back then, he told me that, fundamentally, he did not want to change the image of his brand by doing more ’risqué’ clothing. “I did not want to adapt to the market in a conventional way,” he explained. “I could have gone ‘hardcore’ but I didn’t. I had the foresight to incorporate Detroit with the urban theme in it before other people did it. But by that point, I had been in the T-shirt game for so long, I knew I wanted to leave it. I still do things today but more on the basis of demand”.
In regards to the dance crew, Hardcore Detroit is composed of over two dozen active and inactive members from all over the U.S. and now the world, including his long-term wife Mary from Cambodia, whom, alongside her husband, coordinates the effort of the crew by managing its promotion work and the like. This hybrid urban dance collective performs all styles from breakin’, poppin’, lockin’, jit, house, hip hop, contemporary, and the list goes on. A performance example here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPJyR2ICcec. And beyond their initial education initiatives, free performances, battles, and collaborations, Hardcore Detroit eventually became known for its paid bookings.
It all started with a non-paid fundraiser show that led to a a paid performance opportunity at the Detroit Institute of Art in 2004 inside the museum itself in the Diego Rivera Court: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JaYf95BTQKA. Haleem explained that they have performed countless events at the DIA ever since. This was an eye-opening experience for Haleem because, in his words, “Booking street dancers for events was an untapped market at the time. Performing and getting paid is about recognizing your worth in a monetary system as a business professional […] Hardcore Detroit is about a mentality. It’s about breaking stereotypes. What is hardcore is that dope dancers can also make money in that field without selling out”.
Therefore, in line with his newfound mentality that street dance can be a lucrative pursuit, Haleemin applied, in 2010, for a 25,000 Kresge Artist Fellowship grant devoted to emerging and established Detroit and metro Detroit artists. That year, there were 18 fellows selected, 2 of which were dancers, Haleem being one of them. This grant represented a financial break for Haleem to further focus on developing his goals as a dancer. That same year, Hardcore Detroit was also voted best dance company in the 2010 Real Detroit Reader’s Poll. Just another sign that Haleem needed to devote more and more of his time to his dance business.
Stay tuned for the final Part 3 of the series, which will be released on Thursday the 29th. It will detail Haleem’s relationship to the Jit, Detroit’s original dance form, and his subsequent travels throughout the world.
PART I: Haleem Rasul’s Contemplations of his Early Beginnings as an Artist
by Catherine Diggs
Photographs #1,2,3 by Paul Lee. Photographs # 4, 5, 6, 7 by Alexandre Da Veiga.
Haleem sat quietly and contemplatively with his elegant black track suit, snapback and thin shades when he stated in response to a question I asked him about his artistic decision-making strategies, “I am the kinda person who goes right when everyone else is going left”.
Haleem ‘Stringz’ Rasul, renowned b-boy, jitter, and fashion designer; Director of the feature documentary: “The Jitterbugs: Pioneers of the Jit” (2014), and American Cultural Ambassador, is a multifaceted individual whom I have had the honor of interviewing over the span of a month. While on the one hand, he defines himself as a religious, discrete, and in many ways, reserved individual, he is simultaneously a dancer, choreographer, businessman, graphic designer, curator, and educator. He is most known for his work as the founder of Hardcore Detroit (street fashion brand and acclaimed Detroit-based dance crew) and is the winner of several prestigious prizes, such as, the 2006 Red Bull Beat Riders workshop week, a 25,000 dollar grant from the 2010 Kresge Art fellowship, and a grant from the 2013 Knight Art challenge, both of which “fund the best ideas for engaging and enriching communities through the arts”. It is needless to say therefore, that Haleem has built a name for himself in the Detroit community and throughout the world. For this three-piece series, I will hone my focus in on the major turning points, experiences, and influences that have made him into the person he is today. Let us begin with his early life and his forging years as a young adult.
Haleem was born July 11th 1977 at Mount Sinai hospital and grew up on the West side of Detroit. He is the product of divergent family influences, as his parents got separated when he was still very young. While his mother, who came from a very humble background, raised him under the Christian faith, his father, who was successfully working for the auto industry at the time, and whom he would see mainly on the weekends, was the major Islamic influence in his life. This would explain the origins of his name and that of Harun Ar-Rasheed the Second, his older brother.
When I asked him what his earliest musical influences were, he answered that on his mother’s side it was all about the “smooth jazz” with artists like Kenny G, renowned American saxophonist, whereas on his father’s side, it was about the outdoor BBQs listening soul artists like Franky Beverly and Maze (link to Before I Let Go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5WTjqZuL_c).
Furthermore, as a young teenager he would regularly go to out-of-state choir conventions with members from his mother’s church community. This is to say that as of an early age, Haleem was exposed to a nomadic lifestyle and to a mentality of movement and traveling, which he would apply for the rest of his life.
On a more personal level, Haleem had always demonstrated talent in the arts, especially drawing, which he says comes from his Dad. His mother encouraged his artistic side by putting him into art programs from the moment he was a child. He told me that developing his sense of discipline and his love for visual art at a young age helped him stay out of trouble. In other words, not to fall victim of peer pressure.
Moreover, thanks to his older brother Harun, who was developing his talents as an Emcee, Haleem got immersed, at an early age, into Hip Hop culture. He remembers that in elementary school, he and his brother would rap the rhymes of “Paid in full” by Eric B. & Rakim, late 80s hip hop duo from Long Island, New York: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7t8eoA_1jQ. People had come to baptize them as the “Ara-Sheeki-Deeki-BOYZ”. Haleem even conceived the official artwork for his brother’s hip hop group, Third Kind, produced by Dr. Seus, a J Dilla mentee:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibIorTT6pB0&feature=youtu.be. He confessed that the fact that his brother had a good street reputation as a rapper gave him the sense of feeling protected throughout his youth. In his own words, “I came off as a low key person. So did my brother. We were talented people but were not arrogant about it”.
Adding to his love for drawing and Emceeing, he had also developed a passion for comic books and Asian culture through video games and Kung Fu flics, which he and his brother would avidly watch on their father’s cable TV. But most importantly, Haleem asserted that no matter what his interests were, he had always had an urge to dance. His opportunities to dance started when he and his brother would prepare choreographies for their Christmas family functions on their mother’s side, or when they would watch Michael Jackson music videos with their father. More specifically though, he remembers that when he was around 6, he started seeing his cousin Hakeem perform Breakin’ and Poppin’ at the Mt. Clemens family reunions his father would bring he and his brother to. It was his first intimate experience of that style of dance. He would take what he had learned and observed from his cousin and practice it at home. In a tragic event in the late 80s however, his cousin passed away, which caused Haleem to fall into a hiatus phase as regards his path as a b-boy. This harsh loss did not stop him from continuing his quest to develop himself as an artist. Instead, in honor of his cousin, who was a major inspiration to him, he pushed arduously ahead. Here is a link to rare footage of Hakeem “Gadget” Ar-Rasheed (1969-1988) getting down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLKXgoCjkOA.
Thus, throughout the years leading up to his graduating year of 1995, Haleem was intensely developing not only as a dancer and visual artist, but also, as a skateboarder and graffiti artist. In 1995, he had also begun to grow dreads. Haleem explained that he had arrived creatively as a person by that year. To quote him, “1995 represented the creative revelation of my life […] I had reached an understanding. I had become comfortable enough in my skin to embrace my creativity. Skateboarding for a black person was very unconventional at the time. And while figures like DJ Dez, had been pioneers in rocking the fro, I was among the few who decided to grow dreads. There was a micro community of us in the hip hop scene doing that. Like with the fro, members of the African American community, who grew dreads at that time, were perceived as outcasts. Wearing dreads also brought me closer to my Jamaican heritage, which I found out about around that time in my life too”. Also, at the age of 17, thanks to his brother, he was able to get into St. Andrews, institutional Detroit Hip Hop night club, and start his immersive education as a b-boy. “My brother would rap. And I would dance”. Accompanied by St. Andrews, was his experiences with the Hip Hop Shop, through which he would visualize rare b-boy video footage that DJ Sicari Ware, founder of 5e Gallery and b-boy at the time, would curate. He would also witness the presence and performances of artists like Slum Village, DJ Dez, House Shoes, DJ Head, Big Proof, and Eminem.
Adding to that, he had finally finished reading through the Quran and took his Shahada, through which he officially converted himself to Islam. Haleem regards this event as a major step forward in his life since to him, it represented a ‘protection’ and laid the foundation for why he has managed to come so far in his life.
With all this in mind, many of us, who have met Haleem or even gotten to know him over time, may wonder how he has come to be the versatile person he is today, that is, founder of Hardcore Detroit? World traveller? Documentary filmmaker?
In his own words: “I was just the type of person who did not limit myself to one thing. Everything was creatively of interest to me […] At the end of day, the process through which I accomplished what I did, was organic. A lot of it had to do with my religion, which allowed me to let myself be guided by the natural signs that presented themselves to me. It was also a lot about having discipline. Guidance is the prerequisite to making the next move. For example, I never would have gone to university straight out of high school if it weren’t for the freshman art scholarship I received in 1995, which was a “sign” that I needed to take my education a step further. That’s why, in 1995, I went to Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, which had a reputation for being a party university (like many) and a majority white university. My religion kept me grounded. I had never been influenceable. I never smoked weed and virtually never drank alcohol. Plus, what happened to my uncle, who was a model, multi-instrumentalist and talented artist, played a huge role in my life. It influenced me into not messing with those things. While a freshman at a prestigious university, he got his drink spiked and he never came back the same. I have never been in a state of inebriation. I think that’s why I’m so laid back”.
In short, Haleem has always had his head screwed on tight and his eye on the ball. It was in this context that he shared a memory with me, which gives us much insight into how he approached his life from the moment he entered college. Here is his memory as he recounts it: “One day, I was going up the stairs on a hill on the college campus, and I made a silent earnest supplication to the ‘Most High’: ‘Please bless me and give me the ability to surpass the ordinary'”.
All of us who know Haleem are aware that he has done exactly that. On that note, stay tuned for a closer look into Haleem’s professional and artistic trials, tribulations, and successes from his college years up until today. Next week.
Sheefy McFly’s “Neon Love Affair” Solo
Exhibition: A Subliminally Emotional
Last Friday in the midst of a storm, I walked into Tashif Turner’s aka Sheefy McFly’s snow covered home in Hamtramck. He greeted me with a frank hand-shake and, with a proud but relaxed demeanor, he strolled back barefooted to his 4 by 4 canvas. He was working on what appeared to be a vibrant and luscious painting that would be apart of his solo exhibit, which is taking place today, March 24th, at Two James Distillery in Corktown from 7pm to 1am. It is called “Neon Love Affair” and in his words, “the thesis behind the show is Love, the Tribulations of Love, and Springtime”.
Sheefy McFly, born July 20th 1989, is a Detroit-based multi-disciplinary artist and entrepreneur, who has made a name for himself through his talent as a visual artist, Emcee, DJ, and producer. He has been making art since he can last remember and expanded his horizons into music in his teen years. Through his hard-work and determination, he has, over the years been commissioned to do murals all over the city and more recently, in 2016, he has painted a mural for Detroit’s prestigious Murals in the Market Festival. For his artist profile, click here: http://www.muralsinthemarket.com/sheefy/. He has also participated in the Red Bull House of the Arts Cycle 10 exhibition: https://vimeo.com/130506480. Last but not least, in 2016, under the alias Edward Elecktro, he has released a new album on Mahogani Music, record label of Detroit’s legendary Moodymann. Check it out on bandcamp: https://mahoganimusic.bandcamp.com/album/edward-elecktro-m-m-37. And stay tuned for his performance at Movement Festival this year on the Red Bull Music Stage.
For this week’s exhibit, which will be up for the next 3 months until June, Sheefy will be presenting ten 4×4 acrylic paintings inspired by iconic pop and surrealist artists such as, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dali, but with his own signature style. The Pop Art influences in his works transpire through his use of bright colors and through the appearance of symmetrical, anonymous and atemporal shapes and faces. A simultaneously bright and melancholic atmosphere pervades the dream-like scapes of his works.
He explained that through the process of creating his pieces, he was striving to strengthen his ability to be a “free-hand artist”, similar to when Jack Kerouac was experimenting with free writing in his masterpiece, “On The Road”. And while surrealists like Dali used their dreams as a basis for their creations, Sheefy’s creations stem from his “day dreams”. In his words, “I create while I’m awake. It’s not like I wake up in the morning and I’m like, wow! I know what I’m going to do. It’s subconscious work”. And though Sheefy has been traditionally trained, just like Dali, he also knows how to dream. In his words, “every artist succumbs to Love”.
But ultimately, to quote him “I am aiming to invent with this exhibit. I’m not trying to succumb to any sort of artistic genre. I am just getting stuff off my chest by using my favorite artistic styles, but not by copying them. I am giving them my own twist so they can be original”. And although his pieces seem colorful and bright, and at times very “mathematically sound” like his Lichtenstein-esque painting of two lovers kissing for the last time, his work is “subliminally emotional”. This can also be felt in the single “Neon Love Affair” he has co-produced with Gabe Gonzalez, and which he has specifically released for the purpose of this vernissage. Check out coverage of it in the Metro Times – http://www.metrotimes.com/city-slang/archives/2017/03/17/happy-friday-new-sheefy-mcfly-track-is-unrelentingly-futuristic-and-funky – and in Audiofemme – http://www.audiofemme.com/playing-detroit-new-track-sheefy-mcfly-neon-love-affair/.
Thus, for the Neon Love Affair art opening, the audience will partake in a funky, colorful and voyeuristic voyage into the heart of a talented artist, who, like all of us, has experienced the highs and lows that Love has to offer.
DJ sets by Sheefy McFly himself, aka, Edward Elecktro, and talented local Djs, Crate Digga, and Bale Defoe. For more info, check out the Facebook event, “Sheefy ‘Neon Love Affair’ Solo Exhibition”.
Find Sheefly McFly on his website: https://www.sheefymcfly.com/.
PART III- JMAC’s thoughts on Hip Hop,
Detroit and his Role as an Artist
Like with Mel in part 3 of her series, I decided to ask JMAC, also, to share his reflections on Music, Detroit, and what he thinks his role is, in all of that. Here is the gist of his answers.
How would you say that your dual identity as a soccer coach by day and as a DJ by night tie into each other?
[Smiles] “They certainly complement each other in terms of the times of day. They fit in. Soccer was the first major thing I was passionate about. Music came later. I was good at both […] Some of the biggest influences in my life were the coaches I had, whether they were good or bad. Without those influences, I wouldn’t be who I am today. They made me a better soccer player and coach […] As a coach, you have to constantly assess how to accompany a whole team. How do you make everyone happy? My approach it to want to help my players get to the answer but not give them those answer. I don’t coach absolutes.
It’s the same thing with Djing. How do you make the audience happy and retain the essence of who you are? It’s also the same thing with beat making. It’s like J Dilla said, ‘How do you allow another artist to influence you without ending up sounding just like them?’ […] To me, as a DJ and as a coach, it is essential to step outside your comfort zone. For me, I need to be able to blend “Ass N Titties” – famous ghetto tech track by DJ Assault- together with Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” in the same set and make it work. If you only do things you are comfortable with, you are not growing. I always tell my players, “Don’t practice the things you are good at. Practice the things that you are terrible at.
What does Hip Hop represent to you as a person and an artist in terms of its ideas of eclecticism, diversity and inclusiveness?
Hip hop is freedom; it has no boundaries. I consider myself a hip hop DJ/producer because hip hop embodies all the other genres. Hip hop itself started as electro music with Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force. Its early influences were Kraftwerk and Art of Noise, so it is techno, house, drum and bass, and dubstep. Of course, it has major roots in funk and soul music but it also is heavily influenced by rock music. To be a true hip hop fan, you have to be a fan of all music because it stems from all music. I am a fan of all music and my favorite times Djing are when I get to cross all genres, I don’t think this happens enough in the DJ world. I want to take people on a journey that weaves in and out of genres, known and unknown. Hip hop is the exact definition of diversity because it comes from diversity.
So then, what do you think your contribution as a producer/DJ is as a minority in an almost all-black music scene?
This is a very interesting question because while hip hop certainly started in the Black community, it has evolved to be very diverse much like its own musical roots. I think the Detroit community is very diverse and it’s no surprise considering the musical history behind Detroit. From Motown to Techno to Hip Hop to Punk to Rock to Pop, it’s all here and a lot of it started here. While these genres in the Detroit area often started in the Black communities, they are certainly being carried on by diversity that is now growing in Detroit and its areas. I never focused on whether or not I fit into what was the ideal hip hop person but more on the idea that I enjoyed it and knew I could bring something to the table. I think it’s important that we all recognize we are carrying the torch of not only hip hop but music as whole in the city. I really enjoy the diversity of music, Djs, producers and artists in Detroit. I am constantly learning from those around me and again I am grateful for all those who have influenced me and allowed me to influence others.
What does Detroit city and even metro Detroit represent to you as an artist? I always ask this question to my subjects so that they get a chance to break away from the stereotypes – good or bad- that have been affiliated to the city.
Detroit is a hot bed for expression. I really believe that we have the most talented artists in the country, this crosses all of the arts. This has always been the case and what sucks is that not enough people in and around Detroit are aware of this but more and more are realizing it. Detroit has certainly changed from when I was going down as a kid until now but it still has that same wow factor it always had for me. I remember being so excited to go to festivals downtown before it was the cool and hip thing to do lol. I think that there is still a negative stigma surrounding Detroit from within Michigan and outside but it’s our city and we know different and we don’t care. I’m not from Detroit but it has a huge impact on me and I really enjoy what it’s all about.
What do you feel you contribute to the music community and want to contribute in the future?
On a personal level, I like to think that I bring a range of music to the community through my Djing and influences producing. I enjoy showing people music they didn’t know existed and reminding them of music they forgot about. I am currently working on a project with Josef Coney called “AMUZ” (A Monster Under Zug), my own instrumental project, “Jmac presents: Dig Dastardly” and Beyond Physics’ first full album “Pauley’s House”. Hopefully I find the time to get them completed sooner than later.
Finally, what is the role, in your opinion, that music can play as a rallying force of resistance in this political climate of fear and discrimination? I ask this question because I think it is impossible not to anchor our realities in what is going on politically around us.
Music is a huge force to unify people and I think with all of the crazy politics we have going on right now, we are in it for a treat from the music world. If History teaches us anything, it’s that music responds to times of turmoil and chaos. It brings us together and allows us to express our voices. It takes us away from the craziness if only for a few moments. Creativity thrives in times of oppression. I’m excited for what is to come over the next years from the musical work even though I’m not too excited with where we are politically.
Stay tuned for a short video on JMAC in his studio, which will be released next week and which local MC and videographer Josef Petrous will have edited. Hope you enjoyed the series!
PART II- From Outsider to Insider: JMAC’s
Journey into the Detroit Music Scene
by Catherine Diggs
-Photographs by Paul Lee
“Around the time that I moved out of my Dad’s place”, Jmac said, “I remember that Seamus convinced me to get a “dual CD deck” even though I did not know what the f**** I was doing. All I knew is that he and I had a lot of good music to share with people”.
Jmac’s statement relates directly back to last week’s article, which explored his early beginnings as a soccer athlete and a lover of music. It reminds us that Jmac had never really aimed to become a Detroit DJ or producer. It was, instead, his passion for music, that fueled his desire to train himself in these crafts, which he revealed himself to be remarkably talented at.
As of 2008-2009, Jmac started to take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself to him, to practice his Djing skills. It began in October 2008 until about 2014 with gigs at the Russell Industrial Complex, a century-old manufacturing facility, which has been, in the words of its website, gradually “revitalized as a canvas for countless artists” since 2003. It was in this exciting new Detroit context that his friend Andrew David, a College of Creative Studies graduate, invited him to perform at the interdisciplinary events that he would organize in his gallery studio, such as, art shows, skateboarding performances, and record release parties.
Parallel to that, he and his best friend Seamus played music at their friends’ parties. These initiatives quickly turned into an event series at the Corktown Tavern called the “Beat Down”, which Jmac described a a “huge house party taken to a venue”. The series started in April 2009 and went on until about 2012-2013. It, in effect, gave he and Seamus a chance to share the music knowledge they had developed over the years and to have bboys like the members from Hardcore Detroit perform.
But it was not until Jmac got invited to perform every Friday night in October of 2009 at the former Double Olive, a famous bar in Dearborn, that music became an endeavor that required of him to be more technically trained. On Jmac’s third show at the bar, the Saturday night resident DJ came down to see him perform and noticed that he did not actually know how to blend his tracks. This resident decided to spend 15-20 minutes showing him how to mix and blend with Serato, a computer program which allows a DJ to mix with MP3 the way one would with records, a mixer, and turntables. In Jmac’s words, “this changed everything”. He started practicing for hours every day in the basement of his house to learn how to DJ.
The gigs and by extension, his ability to practice, began to multiply significantly from there. In Febuary of 2010 until August of 2015, he would DJ at Randy’s Bar in Dearborn for their “Sunday Funday” event. The event allowed him to get in contact with people from the DJ community, who recognized what he was doing and gave him more and more of an “in” on what was going on in the Detroit nightlife. Intertwined with that gig, in May of 2010 until May of 2013, he would perform on Tuesday and Friday nights at the Post Bar in Dearborn.
It wasn’t however, until he met with close friend and collaborator Mihajlo Peric, more commonly known as Valid, in August of 2010, that everything truly changed for him. Valid is a Detroit-based Serbian American Emcee, who has made a name for himself over the years through his hard work and determination as a solo artist and eventually, through his collaborations with Jmac. Check out his website for more info on his biography: http://valid313.com/about/.
One Sunday afternoon, after going to a wedding, Valid wandered into Randy’s bar looking for a place to have a drink. As he walked in, he saw Jmac for the first time and heard that in Jmac’s words, he was playing “real Hip Hop stuff” like Talib Kweli and Gang Starr, something that Valid had never experienced in Dearborn Heights, his home town. He went up to Jmac and asked him if he had any J Dilla beats. In a confident tone, Jmac responded that he could play any J Dilla he wanted. The friendship begun at that moment.
It was then that Jmac truly started being apart of the Detroit music scene. Valid brought him to the Old Miami, a veteran bar and venue in the Cass Corridor of Detroit, on a Tuesday night during their former monthly beat battle events called “Michigan Raw Beat Battles”. To quote Jmac, “Everything I was trying to find out about Hip Hop was there: Dj breaks, dancers, Emcees.” Seeing producers bring their beats and compete with one another was Jmac’s first introduction to making beats.
He partook in his first Beat Battle in November 2010 only a few months after meeting Valid. He had about 100 records but he could not use them for sampling purposes so he made beats from his MP3 and from a Native Instruments beat-making machine he had purchased. He had 3 weeks only to prepare and when he showed up at Old Miami to compete, he made it through the first round to he, and everyone else’s surprise. “Thankfully”, Jmac laughingly admitted, “I didn’t make it through to the second round because I had not prepared enough beats”.
From that moment on, he started producing beats on a consistent basis and would participate in every other monthly beat battle throughout 2011. In 2012, he had managed to produce a total of 40 or 50 beats, which he shared with Valid, who was deeply impressed because in Jmac’s words, “I had become very ok at making bangers in the space of only months, not because the beats themselves were complex, but because the samples I would use were dope”.
In March of 2012, only a year and a half after starting to beat-make, he partook in the Michigan March Madness Beat Battle. Thirty-two producers, including himself, partook in it that year and he won. As Valid’s website explains, “The first-place snag earned JMAC instant notoriety as a go-to man for top-echelon beats”. To quote Jmac, “My goal was not necessarily to be apart of this. I just wanted to do it. It is great to have a platform. It is also cool to see people react by thinking “How is this person doing this? Who is he?”
The Stereo Boyz, as Jmac put it, “were the first guys who enjoyed what I brought to the table”. They are a respected Detroit and Chicago-based hip hop duo, who has been active since 1999. Their Facebook Biography states that they have “claimed a reputation of being one of Detroit’s most hardcore underground rap groups” due to their unique and eclectic approach to the art form. “Their combination of Detroit Motown and Chicago’s House & Electro Pop sound has created a midwest masterpiece”. Check out their bandcamp: https://thestereoboyz.bandcamp.com/album/taxi.
Some of Jmac’s beats were also featured in one of Supa Emcee’s mixtapes about 5 years ago. Supa has been an MC since the 90s and eventually became a member of the Almighty Dreadnaughtz, the Highland Park-based Hip Hop group, central to the Golden era of 90s Detroit Hip Hop. Supa, in his 2015 interview with the Detroit Metro Times, “Supa Emcee, keeps moving forward after 20 years in the game”, explains the following: “To become an Almighty Dreadnaught, you just didn’t get in because you could rap. You had to be really able to rap, and go through a battle gauntlet of emcees to be accepted. The experience changed the way I freestyled, wrote, performed, and constructed my songs.” Check out his rap battle in 8 Mile, the famous movie on B Rabbit’s (played by Eminem) struggle to succeed as an Emcee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_o_Ov5J4Co.
Amongst these collaborations, Jmac was also encouraged by people to take part in beat battles in Lansing, Grand Rapids, and other cities in Michigan. But more importantly even, was that his beat making eventually led he and Valid to form a collective called Beyond Physics and release their first self-titled EP in 2013 called “Valid & Jmac are Beyond Physics”, on which they feature local artists DJ Sicari, SupaEmcee, Josef Coney Island, Mic Phelps, Ron D, Konphlict, Mic Todd, Mr. Cliffnote, Jypsy, and Fatt Father.
To quote Valid in he and Jmac’s interview with Kahn Santori Davison from the Detroit Metro Times, in his article, “Dearborn Heights’ Duo Beyond Physics keeps raw hip hop alive: The return of the Boom Bap”, “Beyond Physics came from the idea we believe music in itself is a supernatural/metaphysical thing that comes through an artist just as much or if not more than coming from an artist”.
Moreover, Santori explains in his article that, “No matter what the music topic, the discussion always returns to boom-bap beats and lyrics. Valid’s lyrics come across as a Detroit version of Action Bronson” (New York-based rapper) “and there’s a definite East Coast influence in JMAC’s beats.” In Jmac’s words, the EP “embraced the era of 90s New York boom bap and was very raw”. Check out the their track “75 & Clay”, which features local Emcee Josef Coney Island, who also produced the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWVKIt4xVso. The track, which features the sample of a Serbian woman singing, is a tribute to Valid’s origins. For the whole EP go to: https://beyondphysics.bandcamp.com/album/valid-jmac-are-beyond-physics-2.
Parallel to developing his own project with Valid and sharing his beats with important hip hop groups or emcees, Jmac also started collaborating with pioneer musical figures from the Detroit Hip Hop scene. He worked side by side with DJ Sicari Ware, expert turntablist and founder of 5e Gallery as of November 2010 through to 2014. Sicari, who had known Valid through the Hip Hop scene, was eventually introduced to Jmac, whom he helped refine his digging and Djing skills. He and Jmac collaborated on a weekly vinyl spinning event called Soul Sessions, which featured local artists and producers. They started calling the event, “the Realness”, once they moved it to the late Mars Bar in Hamtramck and then to the Temptations Lounge on Joseph Campau Street. To this day, Sicari invites Jmac to perform at some gigs. Check out Sicari on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/djsicari.
Jmac was also invited to participate in a podcast show that DJ Dez, veteran Detroit Hip Hop and House producer and DJ, was organizing at the time. This was right after Jmac won the beat battle in 2012. In Jmac’s words, “It was really unique. You had to bring records to sample and the beats you had produced, and share them on the show.” It was live streamed from midnight to 6am at the former 5e gallery. Jmac remembers playing a 1974 track from Volume 1 of the Dusty Fingers compilation called “Lady Love” by Ferrente and Teicher: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9Fc_mbRVsk&list=PLBpRiZJYrzv76SEbtZVLl3DdqE8D3I4qi&index=2. He owned the original soundtrack record that this track from the Compilation was taken from. “Nobody thought to check it out”, Jmac said, and “Dez was blown away”. For Jmac, performing on this podcast was a true honor because Dez, to him, is one of the most talented turntablist and record scratchers there is. In Jmac’s words, “Dez is simply the best at what he does. The most versatile. He has the lightest hands when he scratches records. Dez is the man”.
All this is to say, that Jmac was gaining significant recognition in all fields of hip hop scene thanks to his originality, versatility, and eclectic music taste. He was being selected to do various events, one of the major ones being the Head Nod Suite, which has been taking place every third Saturday of the month at Division Street Gallery in the Eastern Market for the past almost 5 years. It showcases local MCs, musicians, DJs, and producers from Detroit. It is run by Andrew Potvin, record digger, event curator since 2003/2004, and owner of the 37th Shield Library, a music and bookstore also based out of the Eastern Market. To Jmac, this monthly event preserves the essence of the old school Detroit Hip Hop scene. It is the “new Hip Hop Shop” in his eyes.
Jmac said that performing these gigs had gone a long way in giving him exposure, along with his connections to DJs and producers like Mel Wonder (https://soundcloud.com/mel-wonder) whom I featured in my previous series, and Dante Lasalle, other veteran Detroit-based Hip Hop DJ and producer: https://dantelasalle.bandcamp.com/.
Also, since September of 2014, Jmac has been able to share his eclectic music taste with people by playing every Thursday night at Exodos, Detroit’s premier rooftop bar since 1988. Although sometimes he must cater to his audience’s needs by playing more commercial music, as a now two-year resident DJ, Jmac feels free to play music, which is meaningful to him. Go check him out!
On another important level, Jmac started to dig more and more seriously for records both in and outside Detroit. He explained that DJ Pig Pen (https://pigpen.bandcamp.com/album/summer-state-remastered), a producer from Downriver Michigan, inspired him to dig strictly for samples and to produce for the sake of making solid instrumental beats. From New York to San Francisco, and from Jamaica to Amsterdam and Berlin, Jmac explains, “Anytime I go on vacation or to a tournament for coaching out of state, I always go digging at some point that weekend.” Jmac has managed to accumulate 4000 12-inch records and 1600 45 records in the space of only 7 years of digging specifically for vinyl.
In the midst however, of his rise in the Detroit music scene, on March 2nd 2015, a major loss struck his life. His best friend Seamus passed away from a sudden heart attack after finishing to coach a game. To quote Jmac, who was smiling and tearing up subtly at the the same time, “It was the biggest hit in my life. No one saw it coming. It was tough when my grandma passed away when I was 12 or when my grandpa did too, when I was 17. I was very close to them. But with Seamus passing, there was no let up at all. My whole life was intertwined with his. I had to take over two of the teams he was coaching when he passed. I stopped making music for about 8 months. He was one of my biggest influences from a musical perspective and one of the biggest fans of JMAC. He was very confident, opinionated and charismatic. I remember him telling me at parties that ‘All these people are here because we are awesome’ and being 100% serious. There has always been a weird gravitation of people toward us. When we started coaching, I noticed it more and more. His funeral was the most incredible thing I have ever seen. There were 2000 people who attended! The Go Fund Me Page for his family raised 100 000 grand in the space of a week. People truly loved him”.This was one of the most life-altering event in Jmac’s life and it reminded him how important his quest for finding an equilibrium between the personal, professional and musical aspects of his life, was.
With a renewed sense of his own purpose in life, 2015 marked a new transition for Jmac. In November, he got invited to perform at the infamous TV Lounge. According to him, “this led to a bunch of stuff kinda happening”. He spun for his friend Mathieu Detryck’s b-day and a lot of people who did not know about Jmac, took notice. In Jmac’s words, “Mathieu is the glue of Detroit. He knows everyone from everywhere. Plus, the owners from TV never had someone play music from such divergent origins: techno, disco, hip hop, popular, rare. That probably explains why I became a partial resident DJ on Fridays through the Spring and Summer of 2016”.
Furthermore, Mel Wonder got him into one of Zay’s events, Zay being one of the biggest Techno and House promoters of the city. It was a Hip Hop event called Cinco de Mayo. He performed with Mel, Crate Digga, Super Dre, and Chuck Flask. The event led him to acquire more recognition beyond the Hip Hop scene.
2016 also marks the year where he and Valid released their second EP titled “Samply Red”. The idea was to come up with a “Smooth jazz club” atmosphere in the EP. After some discussion, they mutually decided to sample famous and new Simply Red tracks, hence the name “Samply Red”. Jmac describes the EP as “more refined, more soulful, more mature”. To check it out, go to: https://beyondphysics.bandcamp.com/album/the-samply-red-ep.
Along with these major events in Jmac’s life as an artist, he also started performing at prestigious gatherings for the crate digging community of Detroit and of the Midwest in general. Thanks to Mel Wonder’s friendship to Eastside Jon and Erno, co-founders of the weekly 100% vinyl Slow Jams event, Jmac got booked months ahead of time for a performance in December of 2016. In Jmac’s words, Eastside Jon “is one of the most legitimate crate diggers of Detroit and Erno is a respected Detroit DJ and producer, who has been around forever. Further developing my ties with them by being featured at their event was a huge deal for me”. Check out Jmac’s Slow Jams set right here: https://soundcloud.com/ernotheinferno/slow-jams-vol226-jmac-all-vinyl-dj-set-live-at-slow-jams-12516.
Moreover, before even performing at Slow Jams, he organized to meet with his friend Frank Raines, orchestrator of the famous Detroit Funk Night event and owner of FNR, the premier Funk music record label in the U.S. Before the meeting, which was to complete his Funk night record catalogue, Jmac had 15 to 20 Funk 45s. He walked out with about 60 to 70. And quite unexpectedly, he got invited to do his first Funk Night on the 31st of October of 2016. He performed in the small room with Crate Digga a Japanese Detroit-based DJ and producer and sushi chef, while the Will Sessions Band (Funk Night’s original house band) along with Frank, Eastside John and Sicari, performed in the larger room. Jmac, who has, since then, performed a lot with Crate Digga, including at the New Year’s Eve Funk Night, describes them as “Yin and Yang”, as two parts of one whole.
These gigs symbolized the major headway that Jmac had been making as a musician because finally, after all his efforts to acquire a record collection and to develop himself as a producer, he was starting to be invited to perform at two of the most respected and established music events in the city alongside up-and-coming artists, as well as music legends.
To wrap up this part of the interview, Jmac wanted me to give a shout to his wife Michelle, who has accompanied him faithfully throughout his grief and his successes. He met her when he was 26 through his Dad and has been in a relationship with her ever since. They got married in August of 2016 and went on their honeymoon in Amsterdam in October of that same year. He told me that she was always interested in what he was doing musically. He often recalled the story of how she has often told him that she didn’t realize that there were good and bad DJs until she met him. Like Jmac, Michelle is into different kinds of music and has eclectic tastes whether it be for food or culture. To quote Jmac, “Michelle and I share pretty much everything in common. She makes it out to as many things as she can. She never discourages me from doing what I want to do. I am blessed to have her by my side”.
Stay tuned for next week’s final release, a video co-produced by Josef Petrous and I on JMAC’s approaches to digging music and producing beats. Also, a short featurette on his thoughts about Hip Hop, Detroit, and music as a whole, as well as a short layout of his future musical projects!
You can find Jmac on Social media:
Facebook: John Jmac McIntyre
Instagram and Twitter: DJJmac19
JMAC’S DUAL IDENTITY: SOCCER COACH
BY DAY – DJ/PRODUCER BY NIGHT
PART I: JOHN MCINTYRE’S EARLY BEGINNINGS AS AN
ATHLETE AND A MUSIC HEAD
by Catherine Diggs
Throughout our interview, Jmac often said, “I have always wanted to put 100% into everything that I did, which means that I couldn’t be a full-time soccer player, coach and artist at the same time. Because I am not playing soccer full-time anymore and have been coaching seriously for the past 7-8 years, Djing and producing have come to be compatible with my job and it has become possible for me to devote myself 100% to music”.
John McIntyre, more commonly known as Jmac, is a talented up-and-coming DJ and producer out of Dearborn Heights, performing most of his work in Detroit, Michigan. In this two-part piece, I attempt to answer the following question to demystify a now-beloved member of the Detroit music scene: “How did Jmac’s unexpected love for Hip Hop and eventual passion for music digging and Djing bring him to become deeply a part of the Detroit hip hop scene and how does he, to this day, balance his love for both Sport and Art?” This article explores the very early beginnings of his life, which are unknown to many, as an athlete and a music head.
The interview took place over the span of 2 weeks in Jmac’s home studio in Dearborn. He wore his usual track pants and T-shirt, Detroit Hustles Harder snap back, pair of white socks and Adidas sandals. Dressed practically but with style, always ready to be on the field with his players or behind the decks with his records.
Jmac was born March 18th 1984 in Dearborn Heights, the suburb adjacent to the West side of Detroit. He grew up in a lower middle class family with his brother and sister and his Dad, who had gotten out of rough divorce with his mother when Jmac was 10 years old. Jmac and his siblings thus grew up without really seeing their mother, who had moved to Chicago to build a new family with her newfound husband. When I asked Jmac what it was like not having his mother around, he answered plainly, “I had never really experienced having a present mother in my life so I was not sure what I was missing out on”. Jmac’s father on his part, was fending for his kids alone by juggling multiple jobs as a mail carrier, a bank teller at Comerica Bank, and the list goes on. Jmac explained that he and his siblings had developed a strong bond with their father and were always well surrounded by their grandparents, cousins, and maternal uncle.
He described their economic status as “close to poor” saying that he was sure his dad “qualified for food stamps”. That is why, starting quite young, he and his siblings had to find jobs to contribute and help their father out. He remembers caddying golf clubs and working at a local grocery store, but more memorable and game-changing, was the job he got at age 15 to be a retail representative at Dearborn Music, an independent music store on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn open since 1956. It services the Detroit area with CDs, cassettes, and vinyl and Jmac describes it as “one of the best in the area”. Working there from ages 15 to 20 gave Jmac privileged access to a wide array of music genres, from Classical, Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop, Funk, Soul which enabled him to considerably develop his curiosity for music.
I wanted to know in this context, if Jmac’s father or family had any direct influence on his growing love for music or exposure to it. He said that his Dad has introduced him and his siblings to late 80s early 90s American Grunge, Alternative, and Industrial Rock bands like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. He remembers that one of his first cassettes was Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991), which unexpectedly made the band famous especially after the release of their hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, considered to be on the anthems of “Generation X”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tW0cU-084iM. Jmac explained however, that these artists were playing on the radio all the time and by that, he meant that his Dad had good music taste but that music was not of central focus to him. Jmac would develop his passion for music quite autonomously and in unexpected ways…
It is needless to omit that from the ages of 4 to 25, soccer was Jmac’s biggest priority. Music came second. He went to an all-boys private high school called University of Detroit Jesuit High School founded in 1877. It was the oldest private school in Michigan at the time and advocated for diversity, educating boys not only from different ethnicities but from different socioeconomic backgrounds from the richest to the poorest. It is a school that has trained boys who would become leaders in their communities from lawyers to senators to artists. The motto of the school in Jmac’s words, was “Being a man for others and always putting others before yourself”. He also explained that if one student was apart of a certain social bracket, he could qualify for a scholarship. And Jmac did. A rich alumni and his wife, who loved soccer, decided to sponsor his last 3 years of high school when he was still a freshman.
Music did nonetheless always have a central place in Jmac’s life. He remembers that his coach, Tom Rustin, who had started coaching him when he was 9 or 10, would drive him to games along with other boys whose single parents were too busy working to give them rides. And during those rides, the boys were “getting music lessons about what was cool” by listening to infamous 70s British bands like The Clash or The Cure, or the notorious American funk band, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. No one can miss P Funk’s 1978 track “One Nation Under A Groove”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WOZwwRH6XU. Jmac explained that Tom, who had an incredible vinyl collection at home and who had “cutting edge” music tastes, was one of his first music influences. But it was his son Seamus, who became assistant coach with his Dad at age 14 or 15 and then, Jmac’s team’s main coach, who was, in Jmac words, “my biggest musical influence for record collecting and Djing”.
Jmac admitted that throughout his childhood and for a large part of his teenagehood, he knew nothing about Hip Hop as a music genre. It took going to one concert when he was 16 for him to fall into what he called “the Rabbit Hole of Hip Hop”. “The worst part”, Jmac said, “is that I was not even supposed to go. My buddy backed out last-minute and gave me his ticket. It was my first time going to a concert in Detroit alone”. He went to St. Andrew’s Hall – famous Detroit concert hall, originally a meeting space for Saint Andrew’s Society, open since 1900- to see a bunch of 90s West Coast Hip Hop groups: the Jurassic 5 (a 90s L.A-based Alternative Hip Hop group), The World Famous Beat Junkies (West Coast-based Hip Hop crew of DJs specialized in Turntablism), the Dilated Peoples (L.A.-based underground Hip Hop group known for being oriented more toward traditional conscious Hip Hop over gangsta rap), and MC Supernatural (considered one of the best “on-the-spot” free-style rappers of all time). It was also his first time seeing bboys and bgirls performing on stage to the music.
From that moment on, he devoted almost all his energy digging for Hip Hop at Dearborn Music. The first Hip Hop album he bought was Outkast’s fourth studio album “Stankonia” released in 2000. Outkast is an Atlanta Georgia-based Southern Hip Hop group formed in 1991, known for experimenting with various genres of music from funk, to gospel, to techno, to psychedelia. Here is the link to their famous track “So Fresh, So Clean” from their fourth album: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JfEJq56IwI&list=PLtsR2kt6q-v-WwTQBXBIcehGjCAOoB7MT&index=4. The second album Jmac bought was Dilated Peoples’ 2000 debut album “The Platform”. Listen to their track, which holds the same name as the album itself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEVVGCK1Pl4. They are well known amongst other things for their track “Wort Comes To Worst”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sevZEOUXpw4.
“Working at Dearborn music”, Jmac said, “was like being kid at a candy shop”. He described the “Jazz room” to be “ridiculous”. He said that when he worked there, he was able to listen to the classics like Miles Davis but also discover less known artists like Jimmy Smith (American jazz electric organist who has released acclaimed instrumental jazz albums. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3X5J_wGHrw&spfreload=10) and David Axelrod (famous American soul, jazz, funk, fusion composer, arranger, and producer. Listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8j8pSu3U7WM). He could play whatever he wanted for the room and experiment. This love for jazz and fusion had an influence on his growing love for Hip Hop, which became his favorite genre because it was by definition sampled, in that it originated from diverse sources whether known or obscure.
But again, Jmac admitted that he was not apart of the afro-centric Detroit music scene until 2011-2012 when he met his friend and music collaborator, an Emcee who goes by the name of Valid. He does however, remember commuting to Detroit a lot throughout his youth. To quote him, “my Dad was always big into diversity and culture”. “Ever since I can remember there being sports events like the Red Wings or Tigers’ games or cultural events like the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF), known today as Movement, The Detroit Jazz Festival, or Dally in the Alley (largest annual community art festival), I remember me and my family being there”. He explained that his Dad had always been “pro Detroit”. Even though once he got all his gear stolen from his car, his love and respect for the city had never been altered.
Yet, before being fully immersed and knowledgeable about Detroit’s music scene, Jmac had different stepping stones to climb. In 2002 when he was 19 and on his return from a failed soccer scholarship experience in Illinois, he went to Madonna University and majored in Chemistry and Biology. He also continued collecting music and played college and semi-pro soccer until his graduation at age 24 in 2007. Despite his original goal being to go to Dental School, little did he know at that time how much his life would steer away from that direction and closer to his life’s passions: Soccer and Music.
A major influence on his dual identity as a soccer athlete and coach on the one hand, and as a Music Head on the other, was his long-lasting interaction with the Waza F.C. Soccer Club in Redford, which was founded by two brothers – Dominic and Mario Scicluna. The word Waza is simultaneously a Japanese word that means “good technique” and a Swahili word meaning “to think clearly”. As Jmac explained, Waza’s founders, both of whom had a background in breakdancing, worked to intertwine Hip Hop, yoga, martial arts and soccer cultures together. In Jmac’s words, the club focussed on training the players on their “creativity, their flash, their flare and expression, as well as on their ability to be competitive and to win. Anything you would want for your kid was provided in that club”.
Jmac, who had been playing soccer since he was 4, had interacted with Waza since he was 10. In 2005, when he was 21-22, he started being eager to learn how to breakdance, as b-boying, was one of the 5 Elements of Hip Hop. He turned to Mario and Dominic, who knew Hardcore Detroit, a dance crew that was founded in 2001. In the words of its own Facebook Biography, the crew is “a product of the Detroit subculture cultivated through the experience and vision of designer/dancer Haleem “Stringz” Rasul […] Stringz’ “motto is ‘hardcore’, which represents success after struggle and overcoming hardships to achieve victory. His objective was to establish something positive and great within the city of Detroit; accomplished, by providing urban dance entertainment/instruction locally and abroad.” Hardcore Detroit was invited by Waza to perform during the half-time period of their semi-pro indoor soccer team’s games. And that is how Jmac built his connection with Stringz.
In Jmac’s words, “my b-boying career was very short lived. It lasted from the moment I was 21-22 to 23. I was very intrigued about breakdancing and wanted to know how to dance. I got invited to practice with Hardcore Detroit”. When I asked him how good he became at b-boying, he chuckled and said “I became very ok at it. I had always had a weird feeling of being embarrassed when dancing. I didn’t think I looked good doing it even though I was ok at it. They showed me the basic 3 step and 6 step, the Top Rock technique. I started getting into Windmilling. But in the end, I only trained with them for one year and a half”. And to conclude on the subject, I asked Jmac to describe his experience with the Hardcore Detroit crew, to which he answered: “They are not an easy crew to break into. They are very talented and hardworking. Stringz is a world-renowned b-boy for a reason.”
**Watch these videos if you wish to learn more about the basics of breakdancing:
How to 3 step: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8cjtX4SMF0
How to 6 step: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPdQ1gN7Ngo
How to Top Rock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Dp0PHv5mMU
How to Windmill: part 1- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swId_MFHywI,
part 2- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXzF-S6T5Xg,
part 3- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BU9QOm7VUO4
Furthermore, throughout college, along with his studying, breakdancing, music digging, and soccer playing endeavors, Jmac also coached soccer and worked at a soccer retail store called Soccer Plus, out of Livonia. Yet, he only started coaching seriously at age 25, once he stopped playing semi-pro soccer. He explained that since he was no longer playing, he could devote a 100% of his energy “giving back to the next generation”. In his words, “I always liked working with kids. During my childhood, I had to take care of my younger sister and brother. I always had to help out”. He coached at Waza Club for a total of 9 years from ages 23 to 32, which gave him an opportunity to use his knowledge on both soccer and Hip Hop to coach. In June 2016, he started working at a club called Michigan Rush. He describes this decision as a “great move”, a “needed move”. It has allowed him to bring all the knowledge he has acquired at Waza to a new setting.
Intertwined to this Waza experience, 2 years before his graduation, his friend Seamus, who had gone on a 3 year trip to California with his wife Reggie, came back with “turntables, a mixer, and drum and bass records”. In Jmac’s words, “everything changed musically from then on”. He and Seamus would not only dig for cheap CDs and tapes together, but would spend entire days digging online on Music blogs and Torrents for rare music. They would download entire discographies to listen to, that is thousands of songs a day. They would “venture into new musical styles” they did not know much about. It started off with reggae and drum and bass and quickly evolved into World music, Funk, Soul, Boogie, Jazz, Fusion, Prog Rock, Synth, and Rare groove, which according the the google definition, is a “soul or jazz music that is very hard to source or relatively obscure”. In Jmac’s words, “Nobody that we knew was into the stuff we were into”.
He remembered the time when “you could download anything you wanted on a MacBook without getting a virus”. Or the time when he, Seamus and their friend Ted, who was a Hip Hop head, would meet up and burn CDs off each other. Or the time when they uncovered “The Kings of Diggin’” by professional crate diggers Kon & Amir and Japanese Dj Muro. This was a jazz, funk, soul, fusion two-CD Compilation released in 2006 by German record label Rapster Records. This is an example of a track, which came straight off the compilation series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWcBh_2cK5E&feature=youtu.be. Or the time when he and Seamus discovered the “Dusty Fingers” compilation, which corresponds to a 16 volume compilation series, each volume containing 12 to 20 tracks. According to its official website http://www.dustyfingers.net/p/about.html, “Dusty Fingers is the name of a series of compilation records of songs that are widely admired as breakbeats collected by Bronx DJ Danny Dann the Beat Mann TBB ”. The tracks on the records, which contain “an eclectic range of musical styles: mainly funk and jazz, but also including soul, rock, disco, and pop”, have been widely used in DJ sets and for sampling purposes by producers. In Jmac’s words, the “hottest of the hot samples are on that compilation”. Here is a pretty famous track by American trumpeter Billy Brooks off of Volume 1 of the compilation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TwyuJqiRBA0&index=4&list=PLBpRiZJYrzv76SEbtZVLl3DdqE8D3I4qi, which was used by alternative New York-based hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest in their 1990 track Luck of Lucien: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCvr8sevyLk.
Jmac described 2005 to 2008 digging and discovering music with Seamus as “the craziest time musically for us. We were playing music from all over the map from Drum and Bass to Bollywood breaks. We couldn’t get enough of weird funky stuff”. 2005 to 2008 was also the period during which they listened heavily to artists like Gorillaz (the British virtual band founded in 1998 by Damon Albarn, from alternative rock band Blur, and Jamie Hewlett: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLnkQAeMbIM) or Beck (Beck is a famous singer/songwriter, record producer and multi-instrumentalist active since 1985, known for tracks like “Loser”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgSPaXgAdzE). Jmac also recalls listening to American soul duo Gnarls Barkley’s debut album “St Elsewhere”, six times in a row when it was released in 2006. Here is the link to the full album should you feel like listening to it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ex46uMw_jyg&t=1018s.
Most importantly to Jmac was when Dilla’s second studio album – “Donuts” – was released in Febuary of 2008, that is, 3 days before his death. This hip hop instrumental album, received universal acclaim and marked the passing away of a pioneer of the Detroit Hip Hop scene. Jmac explained that he had not understood the extent and depth of his influence until he heard that album. A link to the full thing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nO7IA1DeeI&list=PL9dk_xtWpAkKXxzv_TfLWmlJj6G3quWQ2&index=1.
Parallel to his digging experiences, shortly after the time of his graduation from college in 2008, he moved out of his Dad’s place into a house in Dearborn Heights with his childhood friends Zach and Pauley. David Pauley, the photographer for the project, has known Jmac since they were 10, as they both played soccer together growing up. The three of them lived together for 4 years until 2012. The basement of that house was a “Dojo” for Jmac to practice his mashups and his musical skills. It symbolised his early beginnings as a DJ…
Stay tuned for the Part 2 of this 3-piece series on DJ Jmac, which I will release next Sunday March 5th at 9pm Eastern time. Read more about Jmac’s journey to become a DJ, his unexpected success as a beat-maker, his collaborations with veteran as well as with up-and-coming Detroit Hip Hop artists, and his growing success in the Detroit music scene.
PART III: Mel Wonder’s Thoughts on Being
a Woman in Hip Hop and on her home of
by Catherine Diggs
Having drawn the broad lines of Mel’s dense life story, I thought it would be interesting to share with you part of her philosophy on DJing, Hip Hop, and being a Detroit-based artist. As we were nearing the end of our interview, I asked Mel to describe what the craft of being a DJ was to her, and her answer was, “Being timely. Being a good listener and knowing when to be on time and on point. The smallest thing can throw you off”. She explained that being a DJ has pushed her to be more punctual not only behind the decks but in her life too. In her words, “To be more complete in what I’m doing. Believing in it”. Tracks are more to Mel than songs she listens to or that she carefully selects for her audience to listen to during a set. They are also entities that allow her to make sense of her existence both symbolically and concretely. More simply, striving to organize tracks in a comprehensive way to build a storyline in her sets has pushed her to do the same with the elements of her everyday life.
When I asked her to detail her role and position as a female DJ in the Hip Hop scene, she told me that her primary roles were to be a “networker and a performer. To encourage other people to be better. To be a supporter of others”. Given all the effort she has put into the betterment of her community and given her devotion to it, Mel stated in a tone of calm certainty: “The time will come where I will take a position of leadership”. Needless to say, Mel is already a leader in her community. From having spoken to her and spent time with her, it truly seems that people consistently come to her for support and look up to her for advice.
I furthered my questions by asking her what being a female DJ in a very male-driven environment, that is, what being a minority voice, did for her as an artist and person. She answered straightforwardly that it made her a hard-worker and pushed her to continuously ask herself how to be better. To her, her experience has made her more progressive and more focussed. As she put it: “It has pushed me to always be on my toes for shots that may come and to always be prepared for possible opposition. But also, to turn around and strive to be better at my craft. I am here to improve”. In other words, Mel does not take for granted her position as a Hip Hop DJ and constantly strives to renew herself and her craft to best support the artists she works with.
When I asked her to state how she established her identity as a woman who had acquired a lot of her knowledge about DJing from male artists in her community (DJ Sicari amongst others), her statement was the following: “ I do what I know how to do. I know what good music is, what I think is dope and why. I don’t know if my opinion holds any weight – Mel said this in relationship to a comment she made about influencing 2 Hip Hop groups to collaborate on a track, which they actually ended up doing – I just say what’s on my mind. I don’t hold back. I’ve never been afraid. I’ve had enough experience to know what I’m talking about. Becoming a DJ has been a hard-working humbling experience for me. I still remember spending all my babysitting money on records and music shows”.
In that same vein, when I asked her to describe her relationship to records, Mel explained that she was at one with records. In her words, “There is nothing better than vinyl. It’s the real thing. It’s original. Things change and technologies evolve, but always go back to what’s original.” I then asked her to explain how she would say her relationship to records had evolved from being a listener of music to a DJ and she explained that now, she not only had a unified relationship to records but also a more “fluid tasteful relationship” to them. DJing for her is about making obscure sounds compatible. To quote her: “If the sounds blend, you’ll feel it. It’s a very spiritual and moving experience. As a DJ, you must bring contrast and feeling to a record. You control what the audience is listening to and what they feel about it. You give that part of yourself to them”. We both agreed that DJing was fundamentally about taking part in a communal experience of sharing between performer and audience.
It therefore made sense at that point for me to ask Mel to tell me what Hip Hop was to her. This is what she had to say: “Hip Hop has done so much for me. It has allowed me to develop my sense of style. It has affected how I see things about life. It has helped me laugh and cry, believe in myself, want to be better. It’s hurt me a lot too. With that hurt, you get over it.” She then laughingly concluded that Hip Hop was her lifelong “lover” and “boyfriend”. To Mel Wonder, Hip Hop “expresses all aspects of life. It’s taken from all sorts of things and genres of music. It’s sampled and pieced together in one song. The drums are African. There are many influences: Indian, Russian, Asian. Hip Hop is the melting pot of music. People reject it to this day” – that is, as a respectable genre of music- “But to this day, it is still an avid source of business and artistic creation”.
With this in mind, I wanted Mel to tell me how she felt about transitioning out of the 90s Golden era of Detroit Hip Hop into the new era of today and she told me that sometimes she felt sad. It was to her, the best time she’d ever had in Hip Hop. She told me that regardless, today, at Hip Hop events, a lot of the same faces were still there and that people still supported one another so that the scene could grow into something new and meaningful. She stated that the scene today was very new and that it’s always ever-changing.
To conclude, I wanted Mel to tell me what Detroit city was to her as an artist. She said that it made her much more confident as an artist. In her words, “You have to be when you are a lady playing Hip Hop. To push past the fear and be able to play it. You gotta put on your Detroit skin. Be tough about it and sound good doing it. I love Detroit. Detroit made me. This is home. We are spoiled. Motown, Rock, Jazz, Techno, Hip Hop. People say a lot of bad stuff. They don’t know what we are. Our experience. When I went to the West Coast, I loved where I was from”. Mel then told me that what she thought she could contribute to her city and to the music community is to “pass along the legacy. To let people know who J Dilla was along with the others”.
Her final words were “Believe in what you’re doing … that’s it”.
Mel’s ongoing project is a mix tape she wants to release in the spring or summer of 2017 in order to promote young MCs. Her future goal is to travel out of country to Europe or Japan and State to State as a DJ. Mel can be seen playing at all sorts of venues in Detroit including City Club, Old Miami, Whiskey Disco, Tangent, Trixies in Hamtramck, Woodbridge Pub during their 100% vinyl events every Monday night called Slow Jams. She also performs at events like the Upper Hair Lip Affair and festivals like the Michigan Glass Project, which I described in the previous article. Mel can also be found on social media. Her Facebook name is Mel Wonder. Her Twitter is @DJMel_Wonder. Her instagram is “MelWonderful”.
PART II: How Melanie Jackson came into
her own as Mel Wonder
by Catherine Diggs
– Photographs taken by Alexandre Da Veiga
Last week I spoke about how Mel’s family and upbringing had been essential in developing her taste for music and her dream of becoming a DJ. Today Wednesday the 21st, I will speak of the trials, tribulations, and successes she was faced with in becoming one.
Mel’s serious involvement in the music scene in Detroit is apparent at an early age and much before she started DJing in her late 20s. As she explained near the end of the interview, she had always been an “avid listener, supporter and concert goer”.
She explained that her sisters became more “West Coast in their tastes” as Street Hip Hop – themed around the questions of guns and drugs amongst others- began its emergence in the late 80s early 90s with foundational gangster rap groups like N.W.A (formed in Compton California in 1986), which she vividly recounts discovering for the first time in the playground with her friend Desiree. Her sister Miriam knew all the words to Ice Cube’s AmeriKKa’s Most Wanted: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyQpWS3sNkw. But Mel told me that she always maintained a deep taste for “Conscious” East Coast Hip Hop dealing more with social and political issues. She remembers being 12 or 13 when she got A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” Maxi Single on tape, which her sisters wanted to steal from her. Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s6oO-1iWc1c. A Tribe Called Quest was a legendary Hip Hop group formed in 1985 in Queens, NY. They are at the origins of many classics such as “Can I Kick it?”, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”, “Electric Relaxation”, etc. They are also pioneers of the genre of alternative Hip Hop. Mel to this day regards them as one of her favorite groups. She was 15 when she went to her first Tribe concert.
Mel was indeed a devoted concert goer. She saw countless artists like The Ghetto Boys, Ice Cube, DJ Quick, Naughty By Nature, Cypress Hill, the Pharcyde, The Fugees, Jamiroquai, Portishead, Nirvana, and the list goes on. She also went to countless raves to see foundational groups like Gang Starr or Wu Tang Clan, which she remembers seeing at the Packard Plant in Detroit. Wu Tang is a Hip Hop group, which formed in New York City in 1992, and has been active ever since. They were amongst the pioneers of East Coast Hip Hop and hardcore Hip Hop. Wu Tang are considered one of the most influential groups of all time in that genre of music. When one listens to Hip Hop, one cannot miss Wu Tang’s infamous track C.R.E.A.M: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBwAxmrE194.
Mel has fond memories of spending all her babysitting money not only on CDs and tapes as mentioned in part 1 of this series, but also on these concerts, which she went to hand in hand with her partner in crime and best friend, Nichole.
Mel also never failed to go to all the gatherings of the Hip Hop scene in Detroit proper. As Mel put it, “I was at all Hip Hop things”. She attended places like the Hip Hop Shop, which was founded by fashion designer Maurice Malone on 7 Mile Road on the West side of Detroit and which stayed open from 1993 to 1997. As the former shop’s website puts it, it was known as a “worldwide Mecca for Hip Hop Culture” and featured famous “Rap Battles on Saturdays from 5pm to 7pm” with artists like “Eminem in his youth, members of D12, Slum Village, producer J Dilla, and other Detroit Hip Hop Legends” such as, DJ House Shoes, DJ Dez, DJ Head, Proof, etc. Watch one of Slim Shady’s battles against Kuniva in 1996 at the Hip Hop Shop: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZ1-if9Gt2E.
Mel told me with a loving tone to her voice: “I have always cared so much about Hip Hop. I was at all the shows. She added as a side note that her boyfriend at the time did not appreciate her being such an avid supporter of Hip Hop. He thought it was weird because to him, “ladies shouldn’t do that type of stuff”. She remembered the day the late-J Dilla, Detroit-based rapper and producer member of Slum Village, considered one the most influential figures of Hip Hop to this day, came up to her while they were at a record store and asked her: “Mel, why don’t you buy records?”. She wanted to but had no way of playing them. Listen to J Dilla’s timeless instrumental beat “So Far To Go”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrUpxLXVRzk.
This was a significant moment for Mel because she didn’t know she was being taken seriously in the scene and realized, even more so today, now that she is a DJ, that important music figures around her had recognized her as a serious listener of music and a visible individual in their community. This is even more so the case today, now that she is a DJ. When I asked Mel to sum up what her involvement was in the Hip Hop scene before becoming a DJ, she answered: “I was a listener and avid supporter, as well as a deep lover of Detroit Hip Hop and Hip Hop in general. There was a beauty in the scene. Hip Hop comes from other genres from soul, dance, classical, rock, that are sampled and reused. It is made of obscure sounds that are given a melodic tone”.
It was from that position of support and devotion to her people, that Mel slowly began following her dream of becoming a DJ. I asked her to tell me what her role in the Hip Hop scene turned into ever since she started DJing and developed a more tactile relationship to music and records and her answer to me was that she was a “networker”. To quote her, “I display other people’s talent as a DJ. I feature other people’s work”. I also asked her in that context, to tell me a little bit more what her relationship to rappers and Emcees was as a DJ and she explained that since her father was a songwriter, she always had a strong organic connection to MCs, because they were lyricists just like her Dad. They wrote poetry, just like he did but on a different tone. In her words, “My dad was on a melodic tone. Hip Hop is on a sharper tone. Regardless, both share the commonality of being lyricists and poets”. Her role as she describes it is to “mash up beats to the rhyme” with all the beats she’s ever listened to in order to make the mission of her MCs possible. On that note, Mel emphasized that as a DJ, she has an obligation to “be real, to be thorough with displaying what other people have to offer”. And when I asked her to tell me how she brought her own flavor to records because records never sound the same from DJ to DJ, she said, “I have to bring my own opinion on why it’s dope”.
Going back in time, it’s important to describe what Mel’s everyday occupations were before and as she began learning how to DJ. She went to Wayne State University in Education and Journalism but eventually decided to take a break from her studies to pursue other endeavors. This all happened during her early to mid twenties, which she describes as a spiritual phase. She said that during that phase, she spent more time with herself and tried to cut out the bad influences in her life.
At age 26, she took a security job at the Detroit Institute of Arts. At that point, she started going out more and buying more records, wondering what she would do with them. Her friend Vince decided to give her a portable turntable so that she could start listening to her records. This was a major event for Mel. She knew however , that more was awaiting her.
It was around this time that Mel remembers experiencing a turning point. Mel describes her friend Christopher, aka C-Sun, as a major influence on her pursuing Djing. He was a member of The Almighty Dreadnaughtz, a collective from Highland Park and Detroit, that in her words, “have more than just lyrical talent. They had a reputation about the way that they did Hip Hop and they were often being compared to Wu-Tang Clan”. Watch “Ride With It”, a J Dilla track they were featured on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yzb32WhhILo. Mel went to high school with Almighty and became close friends with a lot of the members of that group, especially C-Sun. And it was around the period when Mel received a turntable that her friend C-Sun lovingly made fun of her by saying: “I can’t and won’t believe it until I see it”. He was quoting a track called “Hey DJ” by 80s NYC-based Hip Hop group called The World’s Famous Supreme Team and one of the main lyrics was, “Hey DJ play that song! Fake DJ play that song!”. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHMVkqCKknc. And the real punch line was when he told her almost as if to challenge her: “You’re a fake a** DJ Mel”. Mel then confessed that she did have the records but didn’t know how to use them yet.
It was in the early 2000s that Mel got behind the decks for the first time. Northern Lights, bar situated on Baltimore avenue in New Center, which hosts everything from karaoke to DJ nights, was hosting an open decks event every week. Mel would start playing records at those events and in her own terms, “sounded terrible”. She vividly remembers that 87, MC/producer For Wasted Youth (Detroit Hip Hop group active since the mid-90s), held her hand the first time she got behind the decks. In her words, “I was scared to death”. Watch Wasted Youth’s track “Sleepers”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XW4q0_DRgY8. But despite a lot of the male DJs challenging her, two DJs, Gregory Check and Raoul Dukke, would give her the space she needed to practice. They would tell her to “just keep doing it” because they knew how the other male performers treated her. She explained that at the time, she knew what to play track-wise but that her mixes and blends were not efficient. She couldn’t hear the 2 and the 4 on a 4 by 4 beat sequence.
It was in this context that her friend Frank Raines, owner of FNR i.e. Funk Night Records and orchestrator of Funk Night, other major music event in Detroit, which takes place every month and which promotes vinyl culture and funk music, would take her to record dig. Parallel to that, she started taking mixing lessons from DJ Sicari Ware, co-founder of Detroit’s 5e Gallery along with Piper Carter, renowned fashion designer and photographer. In Mel’s words, it “is a gallery dedicated to the 5 elements of Hip Hop (Emcee, DJ, Graffiti, Writing, B-boy, Knowledge)”. As author Megan Krueger from online magazine Black Life, Art & Culture (B.L.A.C) in her article “5E Gallery in Detroit’s Historic Corktown District” explains, the gallery emphasizes the importance of promoting Knowledge in Hip Hop by educating youth through workshops on music production, computer software, art, entrepreneurship, to remedy the fact that art programs have been widely cut out the Detroit public school system. Mel describes Sicari as “an amazing teacher and as a master turntablelist. He invests a lot of his time teaching youth about Hip Hop and matters of being healthy.” He would invite Mel over to his house and show her how to scratch records. He however, wanted Mel to show him what she could do with a record. Her blends were not perfect but he could tell she was improving.
Piper, who was running the gallery with Sicari, believed in her as much as he did. She and Mel joined forces to create a night called “The Foundation” every week, which was dedicated to the “Women of Hip Hop”. The night was by extension meant to support Mel as an artist and DJ. During one of the Foundations events, Frank, Funk Night orchestrator, came to the event and baptized her with her DJ name. He said, “You are Mel Wonder” in reaction to how determined she was in making her career as a DJ manifest. And the name simply stuck.
Mel was about 30-31 when she underwent this major turning point in her life. And to give you an idea of how up and coming she was in her career, during one of her birthday parties, Talib Kweli, who was performing in Detroit that week, and whom she met through DJ Dez (major Detroit Hip Hop producer and DJ), came along to celebrate with her. That night, he asked her, “Mel, how is DJing going for you?”. Kweli is an American Hip Hop recording artist, entrepreneur, and social activist, known amongst other things for his work with Mos Def in the New York-based Hip Hop duo Blackstar and for his collaborations with artists like Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar, and the list goes on. Listen to Blackstar’s track Respiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeTnog5RRQo. Adding to that, during one of the Foundations nights at 5e Gallery, Danny Brown, Hip Hop artist from Detroit, who has gained recognition in recent years for his individuality as an artist and for his second 2010 studio album called XXX, came to see her perform. All this to say, Mel had always been acquiring throughout her life, the recognition of the legends of Hip Hop, whether they be J Dilla, Dez, Kweli amongst others and was respected by up and coming talent like Danny Brown. And in a very symbolic matter, her dear friend C-Sun, came to her and said “I can’t say you are a fake a** DJ no more, Mel”.
Mel did however hit some obstacles along the way. When faced with a misunderstanding regarding the Foundation night at 5e, she started performing weekly at Old Miami, another landmark Detroit bar and venue in the Cass Corridor, featuring important Hip Hop nights for the city like First Fridays where every first Friday of the month, the bar features local Hip Hop producers and MCs. Mel explained, “I was trying to discover myself playing”. At that point, she was faced with a job crisis (she had quit her job at the DIA) and did not trust herself and her skill yet. She was 33-34 when she received another turntable and a speaker from her friends as gifts and when she got hired to be a figure model for Wayne State’s College for Creative Studies (CCS). She was simultaneously playing and looking for more work. She was in her words, in “hustle mode”. She described herself as a “woman growing in her craft”. Around the age of 35, she found her job at the Detroit Casino, which she has had to this day.
Another important turning point came her way when she took a trip to California with her friend Jamie, also an artist, who offered Mel the trip as a gift. They went out for a festival to see artists belonging to all musical spectrums with Rock and Indie Rock bands like Queens of the Stone Age and The Kills, and with Hip Hop producers like DJ WhooKid and DJ Quik. At the time, Mel felt in a stump and being out there on the West Coast to see what went on outside the D, gave her a whole new perspective on what she could do as an artist upon her return.
When she did come back, a show was organized on her behalf by the CCS art students who had painted and drawn her when she figure modeled for them. They presented their interpretations of her in a gallery under the umbrella title: “The Melanie Jackson Chronicles”. People had a lot to say about that show, good and bad. To quote her: “It took a special person to do something like that. People were intimidated”. Another tribute to Mel’s audacity as a person and artist.
But in 2014 Mel got into a car accident with friends and she was the only person who got injured. Her humerus broke, which truly challenged her ability to DJ. She still got support from the community for her DJing and eventually healed and took to the decks again. She has ever since been offered more and more opportunities to play at events like the Upper Lip Hair Affair, where she performed on Saturday November 26th of this year. The event raises funds for research and treatment of Men’s Health issues and has been hosted every November in Detroit for the past 5 years. She also plays at the Michigan Glass Project, a yearly two-day festival in July, which hosts local and national glass blowers to raise funds for art programs in Detroit public schools. A few months ago, local MC, promoter, photographer, and sound engineer, Josef Coney Island, asked Mel to be one of the featured DJs at an open mic Hip Hop event that took place every week in Hamtramck. Opportunities keep coming her way to perform so keep your ears open.
As Mel becomes more and more experienced in her craft, her best friend Sun never fails to remind her that “Every superhero needs a layer, a black cave where they can practice their skills.” DJs are the same way, they need a private room at home where they can practice and practice. Mel is slowly building that space so that she can keep improving her craft and by extension, maximize the opportunities she has to play gigs.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of this series on Mel Wonder. It will detail her philosophy on being a woman in Hip Hop and on what it’s like to be an artist from Detroit. I will release it next Tuesday the 28th at 7pm.
Mel Wonder: Involved DJ and Performer,
Daughter of the Golden Era of Detroit Hip
PART I: Her early beginnings and family influences
by Catherine Diggs
Mid-way through our interview, I asked Melanie Jackson, aka Mel Wonder, a talented individual of the Detroit artistic community, the following question: “Did you know that you were apart of a movement that would be recognized worldwide as an essential legacy to Hip Hop and music in general, that is the 90s Golden era of Detroit Hip Hop?”.
This is what she answered: “I was just living. Livin’ proof”. In this answer, Mel was citing the track “Livin’ Proof” released by 90s New York-based duo called Group Home in 1995 with producer DJ Premier (YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TI264qcI2lo). This statement is representative of her involvement in the Detroit music community from the moment she was a child.
Mel is a strong and very important female presence in the largely male Hip Hop music scene of Detroit not only as a DJ and artist, but as a friend, advisor, and supporter of the ones around her. Her humility, passion, determination, and talent emanate from every one of her pores. This can be seen in her boundless smile and in the twinkle of her eye. And it can be heard in that raspy, affectionate, soulful voice and laughter of hers.
The night of our interview, to the background hum of Chet Baker’s voice and trumpet, she sat down in the chair facing mine and leaned over in a meditative act of concentration. Together we laughed out our nervousness and traveled back in time to the late 70s when began her fascinating life story.
Mel was born August 14th 1978 in Royal Oak and grew up on the West Side of Detroit. She is the youngest of six children: four sisters and one brother. She went to Detroit Public School and then attended Highland Park High. “H.P”, as she called it, was a neighborhood where a lot of her family members resided. When I asked her about her family and how it felt to be the youngest of six, Mel explained how fundamental her family had been in making her the devoted music connoisseur she is today. In her words, “My brother and sisters are awesome human beings. That’s where I get a lot of my style. It’s taken from them. Me and my oldest sister Renza, we are a lot alike. My brother Marc, is a music head. My Dad too, was a music person. He was a songwriter. He wrote a song called “Cry Before I Go” for former John Lee Hooker” (Blues music giant born in 1917 and known as “King of the Boogie”). Click here for the full song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qeomUbEKl0M.
Her childhood home was the prior home to The Four Tops, Detroit’s legendary quartet vocal group active since 1953, known for Motown hit singles like “Baby I Need Your Lovin”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joqjBAJx4ZA. And when I asked her about her mother, whom had been divorced with Mel’s father since Mel was a child, Mel said assertively, “My mother is absolutely awesome. My demeanor comes from my mother. She is a lady. My Mom loved going out and dressing up. Dressing to the nines you know. Me and my Mom are really kinda the same. She knew some sweet people when she was younger. Count Basie (renowned former American jazz pianist, organist, bandleader and composer born in 1904) was her friend”. Take a listen to Basie’s 1943 composition “One O’Clock Jump”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08jyOwx96Ig. Adding to her family’s musical involvements, her sister Renza sang and toured California to do commercials. She and her Dad played the piano. Mel played the violin and the viola as a young girl. All that to say, Mel was born into a family that breathed the soul of music history. This has had a permanent impact on her as an artist.
Mel also took the time to emphasize how influential her brother and sisters were on her as a child and growing teenager. Her sisters would listen to Electrifying Mojo every single night and would record all his shows on their parents’ wooden stereo with its record drop, radio, and reel to reel tape recorder. Electrifying Mojo is a disc jockey and radio personality based out of Detroit, who shaped a generation of music lovers in the city by introducing them to artists such as Prince, the B-52’s, Kraftwerk, and the list goes on. He is therefore by extension, at the root of the development of Detroit techno in the 80s. To take an example, listen to an extract of Electrifying Mojo’s renowned interview with Prince after his birthday performance in 1986 at Cobo Hall. It was called The Purple One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJZCoxZ5COY.
In this context, Mel described her relationship with her brother and sisters as follows: “They took care of me. Everything that they did, I had to go with them. They had to take me with them everywhere they went. So I saw some pretty sweet stuff as a kid. They took me to go see Prince! I was 10. I had a Prince birthday cake at 7 years-old. I wore a purple suit on my birthday. You’re making me remember where all this came from (laughs). They took me to all the record stores. I remember, my first record was a Chicago record. It was a 45”.
She recounted how her sisters collected records and went to shows. Her sister Miriam collected soul, R&B, ballads and owned the entire Earth Wind & Fire collection, while her sister Renza collected soul as well as disco. She told me that her sisters Yolanda and Rebecca were “all about the party”. She laughingly remembered sitting down in the dining room of her home as a kid listening to 2 Live Crew with them. 2 Live is an influential Hip Hop group active since the 80s and based out of Miami Florida. They are known for the controversy their sexually explicit albums like As Nasty as they Wanna Be (1989), which almost resulted in their work being censored for being ‘obscene’. The trial the band underwent stirred up debates about freedom of speech in the U.S and led them to release their fourth major album called Banned In The USA (1990). Watch the video for the song “Banned In The U.SA”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEH_ms8d1ws.
Mel also explained to me that while her sisters helped connect her to the music scene of Detroit, her brother, who was “a collector”, was also a big influence on her artistic side by tapping into what she really wanted to be from the get-go: a digger and a DJ. To quote her, “You didn’t see a lot of female DJs. You really had to dig for them. Spinderella” – DJ of the all women’s Hip Hop group Salt-N-Pepa – “she spun a lot of Hip Hop. She is the one I saw back in the day. I wanted to see more ladies doing the turntables. Of course, today there are a lot of ladies doing that. I am so happy. I am very grateful that they are doing that. It’s a rather difficult job.” Watch the video for “Push it” by Salt-N-Peppa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCadcBR95oU.
She vividly remembers spending all her babysitting money on CDs and tapes. Her sisters and brother were listening to Hip Hop classics like Run-DMC’s Beats To The Rhyme, Public Enemy, KRS-One, Maestro, and they would go to underground shows she was too young to go to. Yet she would give her older sister Yolanda the money to buy her tapes labeled with advisory stickers “Must be 18 years or older” , which she was obviously not allowed to buy at her age. She remembers that one day while her cousins went to see Disney’s Snow White at the movies, her siblings sneaked her in to 1993’s Menace II Society, which in her words, she defined as “an iconic hood movie” about a young man named Kaydee “Caine” Lawson and his close friends and their lives in the projects of L.A. Watch the trailer by clicking the link below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHle3FQbWmw. Yet another example of the fact that Mel’s cutting edge tastes as a young girl were defined and influenced by her five siblings. So when asked how Hip Hop came into her life and how she got involved in it, she answered simply that she had always been involved in it through her brother and sisters: “Everything sweet and knowledgeable about music came from them”.
On a broader socio-historical level, Mel expressed that “music kept her sane” as a child and teenager. When I asked her to tell me how it was to grow up in Detroit in the 80s, Mel plainly and unapologetically told me that things were not easy. Going to an all black High school exposed her to the difficulties her community was going through. She explained that familial tensions pervaded for “80s kids or kids from the late 70s”. But she expressed in an unassuming tone that music kept it together for a lot of them and we strongly agreed that music was and always will be a rallying force of hope for people in times of difficulty. With that conviction at heart, Mel began to forge her own identity as an avid concert goer, listener of music and supporter of artists, some of whom she had begun to admire from the moment she was 11 years-old.
Please make sure to read Part Two of this three-part series on Mel Wonder to know more about her journey as an artist and her emergence as a DJ and performer in the Detroit music scene. It will be released next Tuesday the 20th of December at 7pm.
Chinelo Amen-Ra was born into the Ngoma Za Amen-Ra New Afrikan Cultural Dance Theatre onJune 16 in Detroit, MI. Since his first concert at the age of two, his unique and electrifying approach to drumming has connected with audiences everywhere. From elementary through high school, drumming became entrenched in Chinelo’s life. After high school he attended and graduated from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) with a B.A. in African American Studies. During this time he pledged Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. and began to expand his artistry as a choreographer; applying his unique sense of African polyrhythm to the ‘art of stepping’.
Chinelo has had the honor of performing with major artists such as the legendary Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, John Legend, India Arie, and Tommy the Clown. He has also crossed paths with several master drummers from the African Diaspora, including Famoudou Konate (Guinea), Mamady Keita (Guinea), Epizo Bangoura (Guinea), Koto Ngum (Gambia), Kissima Diabate (Senegal), Mama Mabiba Baegne (Congo), and the multi-instrumentalist Baba Bill Summers. In addition, he has studied intensely with the renowned Dagomba drummer and dancer Sulley Imoro (Ghana). He has also been afforded extensive facilitation experience, and most recently Wayne State University brought him aboard in the capacity of Instructional Assistant in the College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts.
Presently, Chinelo combines all of these experiences – the training from his formative drum teachers and his drum teachers from Africa as well as his literary studies of the African Diaspora – into a drumming style unique to him.