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Electronic > The Subterraneans

Songs of the hour

Saving Detroit techno from the train station's fate

MT Photo: Walter Wasacz
Christiaan Macdonald
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Published 7/7/2010

Christiaan Macdonald, Jennifer Paull and I are strolling through Corktown, meandering down leafy side streets that lead us from Mudgie's, where we had lunch, to Hello Records, in search of some Detroit heart and soul — on the ground, in the air, on vinyl.

"This neighborhood's quite nice," says Macdonald, a quietly crucial player in the ongoing world electronic music party. "But I want to go up there, to the top. Can you arrange it?"

Up there is the spectral Michigan Central Station, which looms over the increasingly greening neighborhood trees. It's sunny, bright and warm; a perfect day for climbing abandoned skyscrapers. Paull says she went up on the roof a few years ago with an eccentric Wayne State photography instructor. But I doubt if we could find our way through the maze of rubble, I say, given we only have about 45 minutes to spare. I suggest digging for rare records in its haunting shadow is a better option. Macdonald, who co-founded Amsterdam's Rush Hour Records in 1997, and now runs its label Rush Hour Recordings (essentially from a phone and computer wherever he may be), says "OK, cool." He says this a lot, not because he appears to be agreeable to everything but because he goes — in laid-back, picaresque Dutch style — with the flow of the moment. It turns out to be a good choice. He finds so many records he wants to buy that he has store manager Wade Kergan put them aside for pickup the next day.

Macdonald was in the city this spring to meet with local artists, take in the Movement Festival and DJ an afterparty during the Memorial Day weekend. Rush Hour already had a reputation for its quality before its more recent concentrated dedication to remastering and rereleasing classic tracks from the golden era of Chicago house and Detroit techno. Now the buzz about the shop and label is reaching another level, in tandem with a global resurgence in interest in the roots of Midwest dance music of the 1980s and 1990s.

One of Detroit's most informed record guys, Mike Huckaby, described the store to me a few years ago: "It's the shit, man ... where you can find just about every Detroit record still in print. You usually can't find those records here, unfortunately, but you can find them in a store in Holland." The only other shop competitive in this way is Berlin's Hard Wax, with London's Phonica coming in a distant third.

Largely due to Macdonald's hustle, people talk about the label stateside.

Rush Hour Recordings was on the Detroit tip early on this decade, releasing Recloose (the "Us vs. Us" EP in 2003); Carl Craig (The Album Formerly Known As... in 2005); and Kenny Larkin ("Art of Dance" and "Dark Comedy" EPs in 2006).

But the focus has tightened as Macdonald has uncovered archives of gems that were long-forgotten, neglected or dismissed — sometimes by the artists themselves.

"I get their full cooperation, but the musicians might not understand how valuable their own work is," he says.

A recent example of this is Virgo Four, a Chicago House duo who released an EP in 1989 called "Do You Know Who You Are?" on the famed Trax label. The records made their way into the crates of a few enterprising DJs — mostly from Europe, V4's Merwyn Sanders told John Maclean (DFA's the Juan Maclean) during an interview I moderated for XLR8R mag earlier this year — "but I was always surprised when people had heard of us." The group kept playing around, he said, but "even people in Chicago hadn't really heard of us or given us much support." When told by Maclean that Virgo Four's music had held up strong for the past 20 years and that if the group were to play today in, say, London, the show would likely sell out, Sanders said: "Wow! I had no idea."

London's Soul-Jazz imprint included Virgo's "Take Me Higher" on its 2005 Acid: Can You Jack? double CD comp (well worth the dig), but Macdonald went a step farther and remastered eight titanic tracks, releasing them on CD and two 12-inch formats earlier this year. "The music was so good, all we had to do was beef up the bass lines to make it ready for today's big club systems," Macdonald says. It's one of the best dance LPs of the year.

The records that signaled that Rush Hour's archival ball was on a roll, however, were by Detroit artists, Anthony "Shake" Shakir, Rick Wilhite and Rick Wade.

In 2009, the label reissued two CD box sets of Shake's legendary Frictionalism sides, 35 indescribable techno-house-hip-hop-new wave hybrids mostly recorded between 1994 and 2000, when his production was slowed by a diagnosis of MS (he still performs as a DJ, occasionally in a wheelchair, mostly with a cane). The comp, which came out in a wallet-sized CD package and limited edition four LP vinyl set, included tracks like "Here, There & Nowhere," "Detroit State of Mind," "Mr. Gone is Back Again" and "Fact of the Matter." All of which sound like nobody else producing techno in Detroit, or anywhere else.

Wilhite's "Soul Edge" EP was first released on Moodymann's KDJ Records in 1997. It included a remix by Theo Parrish (Wilhite, Parrish and Kenny Dixon Jr. make up the group Three Chairs); a year later, KDJ issued Wilhite's "The Godson" EP, with two remixes by Moodymann. Rush Hour rereleased them in 2009; each made best-of lists (including one published in this column).

Wade's box set on Rush Hour, Harmonie Park Revisited, compiled tracks originally released on the Oak Park-based label. The comp was also issued in limited-edition vinyl and CD packages. Like the rest of the Rush Hour reissues, it became almost instantly collectible upon release.

But that's not the reason Macdonald does what he does. "No, man. It's because it's great shit that needs to be played out. Once people get into it, they will know what I'm talking about. It has a human face and comes from a real place. You can't ever forget about something that sounds this good."

That heart and soul we were looking for? Consider it found.

The Subterraneans is column dedicated to Detroit dance music. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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