Electronic Directory (re)presents Subject Detroit – featuring interview with DJ Trench.
As an old school house head, Trench had the pleasure of experiencing Detroit’s dance subculture from its infancy.
As a regular attendee of many now legendary hotspots, he experienced the birth of Detroit’s audio subculture firsthand, and his support and dedication to this art form has been relentless. As a DJ his skills are tight and saying flexible in selection is an understatement! He attributes his adventurous nature to his roots; "Back in the day there was no right or wrong, there was just music. You grabbed what you could and gleaned the parts that touched you. I believe in embracing experimentation, we can make our soundscape much more exciting".
Trench brings more than a style to the decks — he brings personality. A genre splicer constantly moving between palettes, he follows no man’s drum but his own, breaking through the expected and slamming down flags in new ground. With his soul deeply rooted beneath the mainstream, his love for the music is embodied by action: an endless source of complex creativity, simply defined by conviction.
As an accomplished designer Trench has provided artwork for many labels and artists: Mike Hukaby, Terrence Parker, Juan Atkins, Brian Gillespie, DEQ, NDR, Beretta Music, Throw Records, Visillusion, Detroit Grand Pubahs, Lumina, Pure Plastic; but home is 100% independent record label Subject Detroit where he serves as visual liaison. The extensive catalog of DJ Bone showcases many of his graphic contributions to the underground movement.
Interview with DJ Trench by Kazuumi Ishii
Let’s start from the beginning: when did you get started with electronic music ?
I didn’t just turn it on one day, it came from quite a few influences. As a kid, my Mom provided all the music for parties at the hospital she worked at so we had a ton of dance related vinyl around to get familiar with. Beyond that though, as cheesy as it sounds, I gravitated toward other stuff she had like "Hooked on Bach" and other early electronic compositions. I liked classical, but what really got my attention was the sci-fi sounds of the instruments these guys used to compose.
In middle school, breakin’ got big and groups like Jonsun Crew, Afrika Bambaataa, and especially Kraftwerk were using these sounds to do their thing and I was hooked. Rap was equally up and coming so folks like Run DMC were huge and in Detroit we just jammed it all together and got a very aggressive urban sound.
I started collecting House records around 1984, most of them still in my collection, and I was fortunate enough to have some friends who were able to get me into parties underage around 86. My buddy played some background keyboards for some of the early Detroit releases and I would tag along when he went to the studio on Grand River where Kevin Saunderson, Derick May and if I remember right, Eddie Fowlkes was staying. Soon after, I was a regular at The Music Institute, The Shelter and The Warehouse.
However, the two men that me and every other person in Detroit can thank for blessing the underground were "The Electrifying Mojo" and "The Wizard". "Mojo" exposed us to an unprecedented amount of variety and was on a mission to promoted racial and social tolerance through a common bond of music. Jeff Mills to this day is genius, but to me, my hero will always be his Wizard persona as I sat tight with my radio every weekend praying that my Memorex had enough space left to tape the whole show.
I’ve always been into drawing, and I would help with flyers and made a lot of change back in the day airbrushing jeans and jackets for local crews. I was shy back then and was strictly a bedroom jock, but with all this juice running through my veins, I stuck with spinning and have been able to stay involved in one form or another with electronic music every since.
You’ve just finished your first 12" single on Subject Detroit. It sounds like you were influenced by Jeff Mills and (a bit of) X-10x. Who are your other favorite artists and record labels that help you create your sound ?
As I said, the source of my influence is wide-spread. I think my life in general contributes to the music I make. My love for games and movies, sci-fi in particular gives my music a very full theatrical feeling and I approach each track as if I am telling a story.
As far as direct influence to my production development, my friends, DJ Bone and Aaron-Carl have been instrumental in my education. They encouraged me for some time to start making my own tracks and have been kind enough to put up with and honestly critique all the crappy stuff I made in the beginning. Now, I have quite a few projects that I am proud of that are poised for release, directly due to their much appreciated guidance.
The funny thing is, I never really wanted to make music. I am first and foremost a DJ. Unfortunately, the music industry has lost its appreciation for DJs strictly as performers and has forced them to become producers.
The way the game works today, no tracks = no bookings. This is not all bad. Since embracing the creation process, I have found a great love for forming my own personal vibe. Inversely however, it has also led to an industry over-populated by producers who claim to be DJs. It is NOT the same thing.
Too many producers saturate magazines under the banner of "DJ" and fill bookings with mediocre performances that rely on filters and flash to fool the public into believing that they are being significant. Now people boo if a beat is slightly off pace in the middle of a complex execution, and they go bananas when a guy just turns off the bass and points.
It makes no sense to me. The art of DJing is all about creating-in-motion. It is a heartbeat that draws upon instinct to push boundaries. You can take 3 skilled DJs and give them the same 5 records and have them play them in the same order and guaranteed they would each sound unique. I’d clap for a train-wreck from a guy who shows heart any day over someone who blends perfectly, but safe. The chance-takers get my respect.
Describe your relationship with Subject Detroit/Real Booking Artist Agency ?
My involvement with SD/RBAA is kind of a full circle sort of thing. Once upon a time, DJ Bone and I actually went to High School together at Cass Tech. We were friendly, but by no means did we hang out at all. In fact neither of us even knew of the others interest in music till years later. After high school I traveled for several years before moving back to the D. I was checking out a clothing boutique owned by DJ 3000 where I ran into Bone. We hit it off after all that time, and our collaboration of "his music" / "my art" began. I guess it has been about six or seven years since then and I am fortunate to consider him one of about five of my true friends in the world.
There is an amazing quality that Bone has that I have come to respect. Bone is a very giving person. He will encourage you to accomplish any goal you set, but the key is he will not lie to you and he will not carry you. If you suck, he’ll tell you, but he will help you get better. You will stand on your own legs and when ready find your own way. You come to the table strapped with your own talent or you don’t eat. It can be frustrating, but I value this tough love approach greatly. I don’t need a "yes man" telling me I’m smooth just so I can go look like a chump on stage. It is hard to tell people you care about a negative truth, especially when it involves the creative process, but that is the mark of a real friend.
Subject is unique as it is run at a 100% independent level. No major budgets, not a ton of PR and hype. It is a grassroots operation, relying mostly on word of mouth, solid products and our own hands. If a project is not hot, it will not get made. Our catalog sells itself on quality, not lip-service. We are only as good as our last project, no excuses. It forces all involved to learn the business, take responsibility and be professional.
To combat the trend of Producers posing as DJs, RB is very focused. Every Jock on the roster is a monster. Some like myself may be less known, but each is a very powerful performer. The folks in the line up are not only friends, but heroes. It makes you step up, pull weight and really pushes you to come strong every time.
My involvement with Subject/RB formed out of friendship and a mutual appreciation of one anothers skill sets. Now we are family.
Let’s talk a bit about designing: you are working in this special field for some years now. How did it all start ?
Early on I realized that there is one in a thousand (these days more) who make it in music. I looked at what made me different and thought about my strong points. I decided to go to school and focus on design and then apply that to my love for music. I found a lot of talented musicians, DJs, etc., had poor business and marketing sense, often a problem with creative types, and figured I could fill a need. By day, I work on advertising, branding and identity campaigns. By night, I apply these same principles to independent performers to help bridge a gap between artists and industry. In a sense I am still "air-brushing jackets" just using fancier tools and techniques. This has also opened many doors for me as a DJ as I have something more to share besides records. Also, I can be selective in shows I take on and I am not threatening to other DJs. They know I don’t undercut to gain exposure and I don’t backstab for a timeslot to pay the bills.
Detroit is surely a good base for a record label project like Subject (Detroit) Art. Are there other cities ? And what would you consider to be Detroit’s standing in this context ?
I think any city can have a strong base. The key ingredient is to do your own thing and have pride in your product. Detroit is a city of industry with a do-it-yourself attitude given birth by necessity. The true Detroit sound is raw and our stuff looks un-crafted simply because we had no funds and no one to show us how to do it. There are a lot of products with rough personalities out there. The weak ones can easily be singled out because they are not born of the environment and only emulate the process.
There is an epidemic of music out there that claims to be Detroit and is nothing of the kind. There is nothing wrong with saying "Detroit Influenced", but "Detroit" has become a word used inappropriately to legitimize other forms of dance, the same way trance, progressive and house were absorbed to make "Hi-energy" or "Club" music more appealing to mass audiences. Minimal is its own beast. It has shifted from its original roots, and don’t get me wrong, change can be very good, but I feel most of this stuff has moved forward and the soul got left behind. These days I hate to define what style I do and because of diverse selection, most of the time I can’t even if I try. Forget genre, I will play anything as long as it is good and funky. Now that I think about it, it is pretty funny. That is what we used to do all the way back in the beginning.
So, digital art seems to enter the established art market now. How are your predictions for the future ?
No predictions. Art is art, the computer is just a tool. There may be a greater saturation of contributions with the amount of accessible programs, but nature will swallow the copycats and filter whores. Effects will never trump a solid concept and more often then not, simple communication and creativity always wins.
My only sorrow with album art is that with the decline in vinyl and even cds, we have less opportunities to craft tangible packaging. There is something special in breaking a seal, handling the art, smelling the paper and plastic, reading the notes and simply interacting with an organic piece on a human level. Although cool, seeing a 4 inch picture of a release on iTunes, just doesn’t completely do it for me. The silver lining however, is the titles that do make it to wax these days hold more importance to me in my collection. As Bone once said "No such thing as a collectible MP3".
How did the Jackit parties come about ?
"Jackit" appeared out of frustration. Aaron-Carl and I were annoyed with the lack of good events being thrown in our home town for House and Techno. The mainstream crap is around plenty, but as ground zero for some of the world’s best DJ talent, you would expect killer line-ups and no end to parties to choose from. Further more, local booking tend to be based on the "friend factor" not necessarily talent. People don’t go out, promoters take the largest cut and if you can make $50 playing you are lucky. I know it is not about the money, but when a bar is pulling in thousands on your crowd for alcohol sales, and your cut comes from the door, it is hard to put on a quality event, especially when it is not uncommon for the few people who do come out to complain about paying $5 and begging to be listed.
We decided to put our money where our mouths were and organized a group of folks to try things differently. We created a nomadic party, meaning no location used twice in a row, so people followed the vibe, not the bar. Since bar owners almost never promote anyway and expect you to do all the work, plus blame you if the night is light, this took their long-term ability to poach our crowd out of the equation. I did flyers, we both promoted online and I got a street team on board for the events. PSP has a crew of five or six guys that hits the town nightly, runs sound and repairs equipment professionally. A very organized bunch that I can count on. I am not going to lie, this bi-monthly event is an opportunity for Aaron and I to play locally on a semi-regular basis, but more importantly, any type of music we want. Also it gives us a platform in which to book other talent as headliners who were equally frustrated. We never post time slots and vary our order, so people don’t just cruise in for the highlights. Finally, the opening slot is always determined by the PSP crew, and either one of them or someone we all think needs exposure has an opportunity to play out on a fantastic rig. After expenses, the business model also includes an equal split by all parties. All DJs no mater how big the name, came understanding no defined fee. We all succeed or fail equally. This gives us all incentive to work hard and get the word out. This experiment is going on three years now, some nights are better than others, but I don’t know of anyone who has been unhappy with their share and everyone always has an amazing time.
What’s the ‘Jack’ thing all about ?
Jack is an old slang term from the early days of Chicago house. It basically means "dance your ass off". To be honest, I don’t think we can call "Detroit’s Sound" "Detroit". Most of what we played in the early days and what influenced us were tracks coming from our sister city Chicago. In those days on the dance floor, people just threw down. You came casual, ready to sweat and no one was there to fight. You could even dance by yourself all night without a girl and nobody would think you were strange. Everyone was there for music and music alone, the Institute didn’t even serve alcohol. These days it is unheard of for people to show up anywhere without a bar. Sure there was drinking in the parking lot and people trying to hook up, but those were side notes. People went out to experience music period.
Over the years, the Detroit underground has become a spectator sport. You get a couple dozen people standing with their drinks waiting to see what the DJ will do next and ready to say they would do it better. We are about a return to dancing. I’m glad people are interested in what I’m doing, but I would rather they turned their back on me and worked the floor into a frenzy. Part of being a great DJ is feeding off the crowds emotion. You can read them and share an incredible experience if they are just willing to participate and enjoy themselves. Obviously, you can still entertain folks while they watch, but it will never amount to the amazing collaborative effort that happens when everyone is invested in the moment.
What’s your philosophy as a DJ ?
Don’t stick to sets. You never know who will be there or how the night will go. Blend between genres to reach a larger audience, provide familiarity, evolve mood and create original arrangements. Half the time I surprise myself. Mashups as a category cracks me up. In Detroit, we just call it DJing. Above all, keep it pumping. I don’t want excuses for not getting a groove on. Mellow is cool for restaurants and coffee, but I’m there to swing it. Pop in a CD if you want to chill, you don’t need me.
What’s your ideal night ?
Dark room, not too fancy, but not too dirty. Good vibe, friendly faces. Mixed audience, gay, straight, girl, guy and any culture welcome. Crowded is good but I’ll play to one as long as they are feelin it. I’ll take stacks of speakers that are arranged right, over some high-end fancy system any day. I love to play, but I don’t mind hittin the floor while the next person does their thing. If I can make new friends, bonus. Car is whole and still where I left it. No fights, everyone goes home safe and wants more the next day.
What’s next for DJ Trench ?
More of the same, but at a continually refined level. New tracks on the horizon and an increased road schedule for performances. I’d also like to submit songs for video game publishing and get into creating motion graphics. Expanding my apparel graphics and working on street stencils would also make me happy.
Finally, any religious life-changing experiences you want to share ? Anything else you want to blatantly plug ?
I’m very spiritual, but I’m not much on religion. I follow the "do onto others" philosophy. As far as plugs go, my debut "Comatose" and a few other samples of my music can be previewed alongside the techno elite at www.subjectdetroit.com. My website is www.djtrench.com. I can also be contacted at www.myspace.com/djtrench and bookings are handled through REAL Booking at www.bookrealdjs.com. In regards to art, music or mixing… I love doing it more than anything. As to quality, I’ll let the audience decide.
DJ Trench makes his first release
Trench – Comatose [Subject Detroit]
Subject Detroit with yet another corking release – ‘Comatose’ comes with Donna Black, Aaron-Carl and DJ Bone mixes. The Original Slumber is a great pounding groover with a lurching synth that builds beautifully. It reminds me a little of early Jeff Mills. I can’t choose one of remixes, I love all of them !
- A1. The Original Slumber (Trench)
- A2. Can’t Catch Electric Sheep (Aaron-Carl)
- B1. Narcoleptic Nightmare (DJ Bone)
- B2. BlackisBack remix (Donna Black)
You can pre-order your copy of this here: