Of the original crop of Detroit DJs, Delano Smith is now the last. Reflecting on house and techno without his influence would mean viewing a very different musical landscape. Coming up at a time when the world was just discovering the influence a DJ could have, Smith battled his way to the top in a tough scene full of talent. With the guidance of the late, great Ken Collier, his early sets fusing soul, disco and early electronic sounds would plant seeds in the minds of many of Detroit’s subsequent generations of house and techno. Those dancing to his sets in the late 70s and early 80s would go on to become dominant influences in first rave then global music culture. Now, the circle is closing as Delano stands shoulder to shoulder with artists he once educated.
We are happy to present his MEOKO mix with an interview, discussing his upcoming projects.
1- Hi Delano, it’s a great honor, how you doing? What are you up to right now?
Hello, it’s my pleasure and thanks for the opportunity! All is well in my world, Just trying to finish my next two releases before I leave for my fall tour.
2- I hope you don’t mind going down memory lane, cause it’s not everyday I get to interview someone who’s been playing dance music since the disco days and I’d like to start with a few questions about those times. To some in this scene, Detroit might seem very removed — the music went through so many mutations since its inception. Do you see a certain continuity with what you experienced, say putting on high school parties in the late 70s, early 80s, and what’s going on now?
It’s actually a completely different world both musically and culturally. The music and the scene has morphed into something completely different from it’s humble beginnings I think. I don’t have a point of reference on how this musical revolution started in Europe, but in Detroit it started in the gay black community – then spread to straight black crowds and eventually integrated after the introduction of the Music Institute in Detroit where Derrick May and others began rolling post-Disco and early electronica. What started as Black Music primarily has now morphed into an entirely different thing spawning multiple sub genres – it’s crazy! But I like it!
3- Dance music has become a real industry in the meantime. What do you think of the evolution of the scene around you now, when you play in Europe for example?
It’s more industry driven in Europe than the States. In Europe, particularly in cities like Berlin and Paris, DJ culture is alive and well and a lot of people are connected to the scene in some kind of way allowing it to thrive. There are only a few markets in the States where the scene is strong. Europeans seem more open minded to various styles where as the States is more spectacle driven in my opinion.
4- You recently said it underwent some kind of revitalization since the heydays of Club Heaven — how’s the scene like these days in Detroit?
Time has changed the musical landscape in the D. It’s nothing like it was in the old days as technology has changed the way we think and interact with the music and the club scene. Right now, thanks to promoters like Paxahau (Movement Fest) and clubs like TV Lounge and Marble Bar, they have elevated the scene here to new heights. The scene here is very strong now.
5- Speaking of which, the Detroit Sound Conservancy launched a campaign to restore Club Heaven’s soundsystem. As someone who’s lived through it, what do you think of this initiative?
I think it’s great novelty, the youngsters in the scene now are not connected to it in any kind of way however- nevertheless, it would be good to have this piece of history restored though, I think it’s a good thing. Probably the only thing left in Detroit that is a directly connected to the beginning of how this all started in here.
6- More generally, how does it feel seeing things you’ve personally experience being granted historical and cultural importance?
It feels like I’m old now – LOL! It reminds me of simpler times in Detroit, when DJ culture and this music was still relatively new to a lot of folks. I think it’s only nostalgia if you actually lived through it – while it’s meaningful to us – folks that lived and experienced it first hand, I’m not sure if a lot of the younger crowd actually gets it. Only DJs and serious clubbers are interested in the relics of yesteryear – what are treasures to us are like MEH to this new digital generation. But it’s all good though.
7- Can you talk about the importance of this club and his resident DJ Ken Collier for the city and you personally? How have they influenced you as a DJ to these days?
Heaven was actually Ken’s House – it was where you could hear him in his most purest form – like Levan at Paradise Garage or Hardy at the Music Box. The system was like no other in the city and was a major influence to all the after hour party concepts that followed. Ken had other residencies throughout Detroit that were just as significant in the days prior to Club Heaven. His earlier residencies where the stuff of legend as well, it’s how we all became to know and love him. He was our ambassador to this music and culture.
8- How would you describe the Beatdown sound you became known for? It seems to be more about a vibe than a certain music genre, right?
It is more of a vibe. A stripped down vibe if you will, generally mid-tempo grooves that are soulful in nature – less electronic – more rooted in traditional House. An acquired taste.
9- You made it onto the scene with people like Norm Talley pushing that Beatdown aesthetic, do you think there’s a new generation of producers pushing that kind of sounds in Detroit?
Yes, I hear it all the time and I support the artists that produce this vibe as well. It’s a timeless sound and will never get old, especially with the a lot of producers pushing DAW-Less Analog rigs now, it’s a natural organic vibe. I’ve been hearing a lot of it at home lately.
10- How’s your sound received back home, by the way?
I think I’m still relatively underground in Detroit to the new generation, still new to the younger generation until they hear me or do a bit of research.. nothing like Europe though where my biggest market is. But thats the nature of things in the business now, loved more abroad than at home. I’ve accepted that fact.
11- I’ve heard you say you were making music for the clubs, which is a very DJ approach to it. Do you go out, whether you’re home in Detroit or when you’re in Europe, to sort of keep a finger on the pulse of the club scene?
Sure! I go out, listen to podcasts, stream DJ mixes on Soundcloud, YouTube, Be-At TV etc. in order to stay relevant you have to stay connected to the scene and adapt to it if you want to keep working. Plus, I enjoy watching and hearing other artists perform.
12- Your music remains obviously catered for the dancefloor, but after all those years, has your approach to production evolved?
Yes, somewhat. I’m longing for more musical elements in my sound now, more changes and progressions. I think this comes from age and attempting to escape monotony. I’m looking to entertain the listener more with talent and artistry versus just beats and groove.
13- From what do you draw inspiration then, when you produce back home, so removed from the club environment?
Thats a good one, and it’s hard to really say as it’s a variety of things. But I generally go in with some sort of concept as to what type of track this will be and go from there. I rarely just off the cuff starting with beat – bass- hat – etc.
14- Do you have any favourite clubs or parties to play?
YES. Paris is always fun, particularly Concrete (Rex too). Berlin is a great city too, but technically I’d have to say Contact in Tokyo is probably my favorite.
15- How did Europe and your success as a DJ it came to signify come to you? — you being first booked at Panorama Bar, your connections with Third Ear, now Sushitech…
Probably when I realized that I no longer needed a regular day job, when I realized that this was a sustainable career – now it’s serious and I no longer think of myself as just a DJ.
16- You released a new record on your own Mixmode Recordings after a 4-year hiatus for the label. What led you to re-launch it?
I decided to take a break from working with Sushitech as it monopolized mostly all of my production time with touring and all. That sound was working for me for years so I totally engulfed my energy into those projects. After the Lost Tapes album I decided to take a break from that sound and get back to some good ole House. I’m more inspired than ever now and have a lot of music that I will be releasing on the Mixmode label.
17- And what’s in the works for you, DJ-wise or personally?
I’m actually preparing to include some live elements in my DJ sets now, using a sampler, Drum machine and perhaps a bass synths to add some variety and perhaps doing a full blown live show. I will let you guys know when that’s ready.
18- We’re super happy to host this mix, how do you feel about podcasts? Did you try to convey anything different from what you’d do in a club?
Yes. It’s generally peak time when I play at clubs so I have to try an keep the energy level up and the crowd dancing and entertained. With podcast mixes, I can chill out bit – to me – it’s more of a listening experience. I try to entertain the listener with down-mid tempo grooves. Although you can still dance, I feel it’s a way to introduce another side of my DJing – rather than just playing bangers for 2 hours.
Words by Pierre-Alexis Chauvin
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