AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: Theo Parrish
By Piotr Orlov
June 6, 2018
How is Theo Parrish a Don?
It’s not just because the Detroit producer’s steady stream of vinyl missives (released mostly on his own Sound Signature Records) regularly rewrite the working code of the soulful dance music often grouped under the banner of ‘house.’ It’s not only because he’s an iconic DJ, whose unique sets span an improbably broad spectrum of music, filtered through Parrish’s hyperactively funky mixing style, last no less than three hours (contractually — but often stretch to six or seven), and turn every single gig into an event. And not simply because more than two decades into his career, Theo’s unwavering championing of global black culture and community remains the primary driver in much of his creative and business decision-making.
No, Theo Parrish is a Don because all these things are true AND he suffers no fools, telling his truth as he sees and hears it.
Mostly, that truth takes the form of his DJ sets — one of which he will perform this August during his first appearance at AFROPUNK Brooklyn, closing out the Gold Stage, following music by a legendary line-up that also includes Just Blaze, Honey Dijon and Josey Rebelle — but on occasion Parrish will illustrate his beliefs in words. Last Fall, ahead of his incredible appearance at AFROPUNK Joburg, we talked to Theo about the 20th anniversary celebration of his label, Sound Signature, the importance of running a black-owned and –operated small business in a cultural marketplace (with an interesting side-discussion about the ethics of dance music’s remix/re-edit phenomenon), and how house music and punk rock aren’t really all that different.
The Don, unfiltered:
Let’s first talk about Sound Signature. Did you at any point feel like you were running a record label that was going to last for 20 years?
No, man. It’s an interesting thing: when you start, you’re in the moment and worried about the next release, and you don’t have the objectivity to look at it in a protracted sense. You’re dealing with all the details over years and years and years. It’s this constant maintenance—like a farm. You’re worrying about what’s happening and not necessarily thinking, Oh, my God, this is gonna last this long! It’s shocking, though. That’s it.
And it still feel like Sound Signature is growing. Over the last few years, it even feels like the percentage of records you’ve released that aren’t Theo Parrish records has been a lot higher. Can you talk a bit about that? Is it that you’re more into the label? Is it that the market’s different? Is it the talent — with veterans, like Ge-ology and Dego & Kaidi, and younger producers, like the ones on Roots That Talk — coming around and coming up? Tell me what the energy around Sound Signature is like now.
Well, from my perspective, the biggest shift in the past, I’d say, four years is I have a great team. They will allow me to focus more on what’s out here and what’s in my head, and it’s helped out a lot.
The other thing that’s happened is there’s a huge amount of flat dance music out here when I go to the stores. I hear a lot of unfiltered, unfinished things, and I think the more people have an idea of craft, the more it will change. For my own label, craft has always been a thing [I value], and it’s evident when someone puts their music forth. I simply come across songs that make sense to me and chase them down. A lot of the [music] licenses [I’ve received] have been pretty organic. People bring them to me in surprising ways. They’re just dope. Things that take chances and bring a little bit of light to something. It’s interesting: as it’s gone on and on, the label’s gotten stronger and has been able to do more, but it’s still work every day, and we’re just lucky to be able to give these opportunities to strong producers.
Being a label that’s associated with you and from Detroit, being a black-owned and -operated business in the greater house music and dance music community (as the perception of these genres has become that they’re white-dominated), do you think people look at Sound Signature in a different way? And has the perspective of Sound Signature brought something different?
If I can correct you real quick: You say “white-dominated,” but I would say it’s not dominated. At the end of the story, if you look at the trends and the originals that are there, a lot of times, they go back to black artists. That’s just natural. What we see is a lot of multiplication, and that doesn’t necessarily ensure quality by the market, which tends to be Europe. The biggest confusion that happens is the marketing and the engine that is there. There’s a magnification and a multiplication of the numbers and the people that are involved, especially with the technology that’s here. When you back it up and look at who is really doing new writing and who is really consistent and in it, the numbers get really thin, and the numbers end up pushing and pointing fingers to Chicago, Detroit, New York, Atlanta, Jamaica, Nigeria. This is just the way it works.
Now, if you look at, as a black business, how that works in the market, you’re talking about essential situations versus copies of copies of copies. Fortunately, a lot of people have their own story to tell, but they refuse to tell the story of what they know and are intimate with, and they look on it and copy the masters. There’s nothing wrong with that—the only problem is that the ability to get records out because of the commercial aspect and the engine of selling records that are promoted and pushed forth is very easy. Look at the edit phenomenon! Now, granted, I’ve had my hand in it, and I regret that I had my hand in it—
Do you really?
Oh, absolutely. It was a mistake. It was a big mistake. I didn’t think ahead. I didn’t think that 1) you’re not crediting the artist; 2) that’s not your writing; and 3) even though I had the best intentions, that it’s offensive to the people who did the originals. How dare you touch my music without my authorization? Regardless of how creative you’ve made it or whatever place you’ve put it out there, you’ve done it without my authorization. Even if it’s sweet, why didn’t you talk to me first? I might’ve given it my endorsement and given you the tapes! But you did it because you got excited and didn’t have any patience to reach out to the community. That’s something I regret, and now I really regret it because I see people copied and mimicked that. Because it’s easy.
Also, the craft changed, the technology changed. I mean, I can do an edit—I’m known to do an edit—on a plane, starting from zero, in three hours. The technology allows it. That makes it easy. And then you get a P&D and now it’s all handled? Now you’re thinking about the DJ career. All of that is because you live in the market that supports that. In the States, it’s not like that at all; you have to completely work your ass off and be dedicated to it. A lot of guys work two jobs or wean themselves off their jobs, which they shouldn’t be doing when there’s no infrastructure support.
So when you talk about the definition of a black label, it’s really matter of fact—it’s just survival in America. You just have to push forward and hope for the best in some situations and plan for the worst in others. It’s scary. But I’m pretty confident that the music is what it is that shows. If you’re doing a really good tune and it’s honest writing, so be it. Throw your hand out there. But really question yourself! Are you just copying people? If you’re just copying people, keep those songs! Keep doing it, and when you get something that don’t sound like nobody else, release that. But before you release that, have 10 people tell you whether or not that’s sweet enough. Don’t just go pushing it at people, thinking that’s the way to do it. But that’s not how the chase for being a DJ works.
Back to the questions of edits and ownership, which are really prevalent and important right now. There are so many edits being made, but the ones I want to hear more than once are very few. Part of that is that sounds can work on a dance-floor, but the ethics under which they’re made are part of the actions that my brain can not escape.
It’s even strange when you do reach out to the artist and you are being honest about it. You have to look at what it is that you really want to do, who you really are and what you really know — looking at what types of exploitation that is, and if it is exploitation. If you’re not coming from the place that created it, but as a gentrifier, really, and using this music, there’s a responsibility. And that responsibility, it has more weight — flat out — when you’re coming from segregation and Jim Crow, and the results of the results of the results. You’re not gonna be able to completely understand what that is — and that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just means you need to be looking at what happens in your life, and what pains and struggles those are, how shit is happening now for you where you’re at.
It’s like…if I have a farm at home, and my kids are eating what I grow out of the ground, and they come along, they pick a potato, they get their nutrients, they’re good, it starts to be known that there’s something there that they can have to survive this shit. When we start shipping and exporting [those potatoes] out at such a rate that there’s nothing for local retailers to grab — that kid can’t come grab nutrients anymore — and that’s happening externally, when [that export turns into vulturism], we have to be very, very careful of what that means, as humans, as people. But it’s just the way of the world.
Do you feel like the nutrients of African-American dance culture have always been valued locally?
I think, to the extent that the population knows about it, yes. When they know about it, yes. They value it. But it has to be that nutrient-rich soil. A lot of stuff isn’t that, but it’s parading as that. When it’s rich, yes, then it’s totally valued, and it just comes down to knowing about it and having access to it on a regular basis.
Recently I spent some time talking to Ron Trent, with whom you go back to your childhood in Chicago. One of the topics was AFROPUNK. And Ron said that, growing up, house music and punk rock were viewed as kind of the same thing, but from different perspectives in different communities. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I know what Ron’s referring to. There’s a place called Medusa’s in Chicago, and it was a punk rock club that would sometimes have Lil Louis and DJ Rush play. We would hear Ministry mixed with Trax [Records] right in. It wasn’t that big of a stretch for us; it was basically the same community. The issue we would run into was the same as the [issue the] black punk rock kids would run into sometimes if they were at a punk rock show. That was part of it.
Do you find yourself listening to punk at all?
I mean, here’s the thing you gotta remember: To me, punk rock has always been Bad Brains. Bad Brains has always been punk rock to me. I remember when I got my first Bad Brains [record] and the energy was just dope. I was blown away. Everything about it — free-thinking, empowerment, forward movement, non-judgemental thinking, out-the-box ideas, and respect across the board — are concepts that we call “afropunk.” But we have to remember that the symbol and the sign isn’t the thing. There needs to be space for people that really [embodies] the punk rock ethic and the afropunk thing. It’s a concept that basically speaks about black music not being a part of the commercial cannon. I’m grateful to be included in that because, yes, it’s a glaring mistake to be disincluded in this music. It’s essential. But we have to remember that we have to have the space for the hardcore—for the Bad Brains and their ilk. It’s a balance that has to be understood. It starts as one thing and then the ethic can spread, but… it’s a balance. You can’t survive in America and be a sensitive, thinking, caring person and not have the kind of bravado that’s part of the punk ethic. It’s not possible. You’ll either die or be a robot. It really comes down to understanding the ethic, and I definitely see what I’m doing as part of the ethic.