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The following is an excerpt of a voice mail from a month ago:“Yo, Dave, this is Shoes. How you been, baby? I just heard the new Jaylib[Jay Dee and Madlib collaboration] joint … Listen, all I gotta say is: I’m focused … I’m focused.”
And just like that, DJ House Shoes picked himself up by his Timberland bootstraps, and resumed work on the mixtape many figured he’d never finish. Sure, things got in the way: Investors balked on him. A flood damaged his records. He was booted from his last residence. Then there were the problems with the women. But, hey, headwinds notwithstanding, Shoes stands ready, record crates in hand.
The locally revered DJ who has spent the better part of a decade playing parties in slippers and smoking too much, is finally giving the world a hearty serving of Detroit hip hop.
The front cover
Shoes (aka Michael Buchanan) rises before noon, earlier than most in the hip-hop game. He begins the day with a blunt. Then he plays a record and kicks back on the couch. If he can muster the energy, he’ll attempt to organize his records. Right now all the DJ can do is grin.
Shoes is waking up in his new digs off McNichols in Detroit. His last place was pulled from under him when his trusted investors at the time failed to inform him that the house had been sold. He had 12 hours to vacate.
So this is a particularly blissful time. His records, hundreds upon hundreds, are all in one place. His cat (and unofficial business partner) Smokey now has room to roam without competition or interference. He has a stable job working at Jazz & Jams record store in Southfield. The DJ gigs are steady.
For Shoes, this is the life. Now, all he has to do is finish the damn album, the one that has been 10 years in the making, The House Shoes Collection Volume 1: I Got Next.
Side A: Hip hop
Shoes grew up in Lathrup Village, “back when it was lily-white.” He was introduced to hip hop in the fifth grade, and by his senior year at Southfield-Lathrup High School, Shoes was making warm-up mixtapes for the girls’ basketball team.
Then came the ill-fated attempt at college.
It took but three months for Shoes to get the boot from Eastern Michigan University. The school mistook his burning of a single flier for the act of a serial arsonist.
So Shoes took his last $3,000 and blew it all at Record Time in one month, mostly on 12-inch advance-release vinyl promos. With a growing record collection, he began doing remixes. From there he began blending beats.
“A DJ from Detroit is all about the blends, cuts ain’t shit,” Shoes explains.
Last Ones Out, a Detroit crew he’d been running with, would pick Shoes up from his house in Ypsilanti and head back to Detroit to party at St. Andrew’s Hall, the mid-’90s mecca for hip-hop. Shoes would sometimes cart crates of records and solicit DJ Cheese to let him spin at last call.
Eventually, Shoes was invited back by St. Andrew’s management to spin the main floor on Friday nights. The gig lasted seven years and Shoes witnessed the rise, golden age, and decline of hip hop. In that time, he worked in scores of record stores — from Street Corner Music to Melodies & Memories. The DJ probably sold a record to every music consumer in town.
As is the ebb and flow of pop, hip-hop music and culture shifted dramatically. Shoes went from spinning for hundreds on St. Andy’s main floor to a handful of stragglers upstairs. Disagreements with management ensued, and in 2001 Shoes bailed on the St. Andy’s DJ gig.
Along the way, Shoes built a solid rep and gained respect in the hip-hop community. Hence, music production was inevitable. In 1999 local MC Phat Kat, who had been recording with Jay Dee (aka J. Dilla, formerly of Slum Village), approached the DJ and played him three tracks. Shoes immediately offered to executive produce a 12-inch single, Dedication to the Suckers. Shoes’ label — House Shoes Recordings — was born.
As with most first ventures, Shoes learned success the hard way. Suckers had a first run of 6,000 copies, which sold out within 30 minutes, mostly to hip-hop heads in Japan. He underestimated the initial pre-order and couldn’t keep up with the demand.
“I ended up selling 9,000 copies, but it could have easily been 15,000,” he says. Four years later, Don’t Nobody Care About Us, the B-side to Suckers, is enjoying a surge of airplay on WJLB-FM’s Saturday night local showcase, “What’s On The Menu.”
Side B: Realization
Shoes says of his debut album, “[The House Shoes Collection Volume 1: I Got Next] originated as a 12-inch series of five records I was going to put out,” adding, “I got all the cream of the crop, all the hottest cats in Detroit. Guilty Simpson, Waajeed (of Bling47) on production, Big Tone from Wasted Youth, DJ Dez from Slum Village, Fuzz Scooter, King Gordy (of Fat Killahz fame) … basically, anybody who’s doing some real hip-hop shit, they’re on the mixtape.”
But getting the project off the ground wasn’t easy.
Continues Shoes, “I told all these cats, ‘I’m about to do this album for ya’ll,’ and I gave them my word. Then it all fell apart, and I felt like my word was fucked up. … If anything, you’re worthless if your word ain’t good.”
After relationships with several money men soured, Shoes was up the creek and without a paddle. And he was broke. He spent months moving from place to place. Sure, St. Andrew’s hired him back on Fridays to play the upstairs room, but things there weren’t so rosy.
“All that shit had me wanting to quit, but I couldn’t,” explains Shoes. Then he adds without hint of irony, “Because without me — and I’m not trying to be funny — but I say it a lot: I carry Detroit hip hop on my back.”
Then there was the supposed dis on the Jay Dee/Madlib collaboration album, Jaylib. See, Dee and Shoes have been close for years, digging crates, sharing beats and connecting each other with friends in the industry. Months back, the pair had a falling out over a crate of records.
“We fell out over some real petty shit, but I love that guy” says Shoes about the man he considers to be “the greatest producer of all time in hip hop.”
In the last few months, things finally took a hopeful turn. Shoes scored the Jazz & Jams record store job and started doing DJ sets there on Saturday afternoons. Other DJ gigs popped up. He moved into his own flat. Now stable, all he had left to do was finish the mixtape.
He scrounged up the dough and spent days and nights at No Tyze studio in Detroit, a place as dilapidated and “ghetto” as it gets. After what seemed like an eternity, Shoes finally completed what he says will be the greatest compilation album, ever.
With The House Shoes collection … the casual listener might expect the usual DJ mixtape format: club- and radio-friendly fare. Shoes says he’s more concerned with making sure that Detroit hip hop is put in its rightful place on the world map, staying authentic to the sound of its artists.
On the record he’s critical of himself, those around him and the world at large.
“I’m not trying to satisfy everybody,” he says. “This is what the fuck I want to listen to. That’s why it’s called the House Shoes collection. It’s going to be [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Love Movement shit, all the way to the gutter. You might have a couple joints you can play in the club, but for the most part it’s totally anti-industry and totally nonconformist. I don’t care about trying to get my shit on FM 98 or 105.9. Fuck the radio.”
The back cover
It’s Saturday evening and Shoes has finished his shift at the record store. He climbs into his Jeep Grand Cherokee, turns on the stereo and smiles. The best part of his day has arrived. He has a set at the Buddha Lounge on Eight Mile.
“I love that place, man,” he says. “It’s real intimate, and I get to play what I want.”
He spent part of the afternoon organizing three crates for the Buddha set. The first contains old soul, jazz, and funk classics: Roy Ayers, Heatwave, Bobbi Humphrey, etc. The second crate holds standard old-school (and some new) hip-hop: Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, A Tribe Called Quest, and Biggie, among others. The third crate is dedicated to Detroit: Jay Dee and Waajeed instrumentals, Slum Village, Lacks and Breakfast Club, Dwele, and even some productions by Shoes himself. He calls it “my vibe shit.”
Spending an evening with Shoes at the Buddha is a music history lesson with the added bonus of booze. It is a combination of music that is nearly impossible to find.
After his much-appreciated set, he’ll head back home. The night will end much like it started, with a blunt. He’ll light a candle and put on a Mingus record. Perhaps he’ll play with his cat Smokey for a bit. For now, DJ House Shoes is at his most comfortable, which is good because Detroit’s hip-hop shepherd needs his rest.
The House Shoes collection Volume 1: I Got Next will hit streets Tuesday, Nov. 25. See DJ House Shoes at the Buddha Lounge (21633 W. Eight Mile, Detroit) Saturday, Nov. 29. Call 313-535-4664.
David Valk is a freelance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.