Delano Smith spoke to Marko Kutlesa about Chicago and Detroit, his own productions, Ken Collier's influence and much more.
Date published: 20th Mar 2017
Detroit resident Delano Smith is known to most as a successful DJ and as a producer of techno, for labels like Berlin's Sushitech (on which he has released two albums in the last half decade) and of house music too. He founded his own house label, Mixmode Recordings, in 2003 on which he has released over 15 well received EPs containing his own music and that of others.
Delano Smith's DJ career predates the techno music that first put Detroit on the map of electronic music, kept there ever since by several generations of unique and innovating techno and house producers. His DJ career predates the even earlier birth of house music in Chicago, where he was born.
He started spinning in the late 1970s, the disco era, sharing a residency with his mentor Ken Collier, the DJ who first brought mixing to Detroit, inspiring the entire city's DJ and club culture. Despite making strides on the local circuit, Smith dropped out of DJing in the mid 1980s in order to pursue education and a more secure career. But he rediscovered his love for spinning in the 90s, added music production to his talents and has since not looked back.
Marko Kutlesa caught up with Delano Smith prior to the Manchester date to ask about the old days and the new.
You have history in both Chicago and Detroit. What are the differences in the musical sounds of the cities?
Well I was actually just born in Chicago, I wasn't raised with music in Chicago. We moved to Detroit when I was very young, maybe 5 years old.
When house music came about we did used to hang out in both cities. We went to Chicago to buy records and to record the mixes of WBMX. House was in its infancy then, maybe 1985. I really didn't go to any clubs there at that time, I can't even speculate what they were like so I can't compare them to what was happening in Detroit.
OK. Aside from the clubs, can you tell me what you regard as the differences in the sounds put out on vinyl between them?
The Chicago sound was more rooted in house, its origin. Detroit, being the city of techno, the music took on a more electronic sound. Chicago was more soulful.
Sometimes in house music I think it's almost like the drum machines are trying to replicate the drum rhythms of Philly International Records. Why do you think that difference exists between Detroit and Chicago? Do you think maybe Detroit was more influenced by the drums of Motown or do you think it's more down to the individuals who made it?
I think it was more down to the guys who made it. Thinking about the music, I don't think Motown had any particular influence on techno. It was more Euro disco – Gino Soccio, Giorgio Moroder - and Kraftwerk. These were the sounds that shaped techno.
Obviously from the start of house music arriving there was an interplay, an influence that each city's dance music scene had on each other. From your perspective did that interplay and influence exist between Chicago and Detroit before house music?
I don't think either city influenced the other. Because the sounds were so different. Detroit didn't have bands like Earth, Wind & Fire or Chicago. We had Motown and a few other acts, but we didn't have any of the super bands. The sounds were so different. Even the Curtis Mayfield sound was so different, unique, sometimes reminding of that Chicago pimp life. I don't think any Detroit acts, other than Marvin Gaye for a time, sounded like that. I was so young back then too, it's hard for me to say if one city influenced the other. If there was a rivalry I wouldn't know.
Do you in any way associate the music of Parliament/Funkadelic with Detroit?
Well all of their songs from the late 70s and early 80s were hits here. I think it's because the radio DJ Electrifying Mojo would play a bunch of their cuts on his show. He would play obscure, early stuff, he really put Detroit on those guys. Their concerts did really well here. Parliament / Funkadelic is woven into society here, especially with black people.
You started DJing before house and techno came along, playing a mixture of music. What was the difference between the audiences you and people like Ken Collier would play to in those times compared to the people who would come a few years later to a night that concentrated on house and techno?
When we first started it was just black people. There was no techno, no house, it was just disco, synth pop, the music that we used to call 'progressive' back in the day. The difference now is the crowd, the multicultural aspect. When we first started it was only black people at all the parties, at all the clubs, all the time. Now it's a mixture. The music finally got integrated when house and techno took off.
I think the love for the music is the same, but I would say a difference is perhaps the energy. I would say the energy is a little less now, because we used to dance really hard back when the music was new. They would really dive into the music more than they seem to now. Now you have to be really high on drugs to do that. Some people can do it without drugs, but back then, when we didn't have computers or the internet, we only had our imaginations. There wasn't so much visual inspiration, you were forced to dive into it.
You were part of the next generation of DJs that came up under Ken Collier. Ken used to play at a few gay clubs and, bearing in mind this is 30 years ago we're talking about now, was there ever a point in Detroit when people would have to accept and hold a tolerance towards the gay community if they wanted to seek out this music?
Of course. Yes. That's how it started. A lot of the first gigs I did were very integrated. A lot of them were, especially the one's that Ken did. He had his own following, so wherever he went it would just bring everyone together. It didn't matter, everyone just partied together, there was no fighting, no animosity.
In some places the gays would conform a little, they wouldn't dance with each other so much, maybe they'd dance with a girl or by themselves. But in other places it was totally blatant, they just didn't care. Even when it was subdued though, it was still there. We were totally integrated, coming up together. It didn't bother anybody. I think it made it more authentic, because that's where this music came from. Disco, mixing, DJ culture, it was all birthed on the gay scene. There were three or four gay clubs here in Detroit and after those parties Ken would play these afterhours loft parties. He had such a big following, whenever he played his people came to support him.
It's only retrospectively that Ken Collier's name has become to be known over here in Europe. I first remember hearing about him around the time of his passing, when Terrence Parker released that Tribute to Ken Collier EP which used samples from records like 'Dr Love', Wood, Brass & Steel's 'Funkanova', Jackie Moore's 'This Time Baby', Two Man Sound 'Que Tal America', 'Love's Got Me High'. Do you think that was just a creative tribute by Terrence or do you remember any of those records being signature records for Ken?
I remember 'Dr Love' being a signature record for Ken. A lot of those records I heard him play. I think Terrence probably chose those records because they came from an era when Ken introduced this sound to us. He was the only one who was able to mix skilfully, he introduced a whole new world and style of DJing to everybody, me, Derrick (May), everyone.
What in your opinion were his signature records?
Donna Summer 'I Feel Love', Gino Soccio 'Dancer', New York City Peech Boys 'Don't Make Me Wait', D Train 'You're The One For Me', First Choice 'Dr Love' and 'Let No Man Put Asunder', all that Salsoul stuff he was the king of. Gary's Gang 'Keep On Dancing'. The first time I heard anyone play that it was Ken and it was awesome. Growing up in that disco era was an amazing time for music and Ken would play it all, as new releases. It was a beautiful thing to be there at its inception and have Ken introduce us to that culture. I didn't even think about being a DJ until I saw him.
When techno music started to arrive in Detroit quite a lot of international attention started to be given to that aspect of what was happening in Detroit, the people who made the music and the club, The Music Institute. What was the reaction to that happening from the people who were involved in the scene that weren't making that music or directly involved at that club?
I don't know. It's kinda hard for me to say. I don't think a lot of people took to it at first. It would have been around 84/85/86 and around that time was when I was backing out of it, so I wasn't down on the streets, into it, like I had been previously. After techno started being made everyone was a DJ here in Detroit. It was flooded. People were DJing for free. Club owners just weren't paying people any more because they knew they could pick ten guys who would do it for a lower price. It was horrible. So that's when I stopped, when music took a change. The crowd got younger, more multicultural, it changed the landscape of the scene here. In some ways for the better.
I wasn't so much in Detroit at the time of The Music Institute, I had gone off to college. I think I only went 3 times in the year it was open.
You re-emerged as a DJ only in the late 90s after having taken some years away from it. You've spoken a little about the explosion in numbers of DJs in the mid to late 80s, but can you talk me through any other reasons that made you want to take time away from it?
There was no money in it. It's cool when you're in high school and you're a DJ, then the next two years after high school you're playing in all the hot clubs. Then it got to be that all your friends were in college, I was kinda being left behind. I had to think about my future. Back then there was no way of knowing what this DJ thing would become. I didn't know. There was no internet, we had nothing to gauge it by. I did not think there was a future in it, so I thought I better get an education so I could get a real job. I wasn't producing records back then. I was just surviving. $50 or $75 a night in Detroit in 1984 just wasn't enough to live.
We've spoken a little about Ken Collier, who was a mentor to you. But which members of Detroit's musical community do you consider to be your own peers and which members of Detroit's musical community have you yourself contributed to mentoring over the years?
Who would I consider my peers? Probably everyone I came up with, Mike Huckaby, Norm Talley, Derrick (May) in some regards, Kenny (Dixon Jr), Rick Wade, Omar S, Rik Wilhite, Marcellus Pittman. I think we're in the same deep house/techno kind of circuit now.
As far as mentoring goes it's hard to say. A DJ called Al Ester, who was young back then. I don't consider myself much of a mentor. People cut their own teeth here in Detroit. You can only show people so much, then they have to go do it for themselves. I've had nothing that was like the relationship I had with Ken Collier because we had a residency at the same club. I would play earlier, he would play later and I would stay for his entire set.
Can you tell me if for yourself there's any difference in the sounds you create for Mixmode Recordings and Sushitech?
Yeah, they're completely different. The stuff I do for Sushitech is more modern dub techno, if you will. I try to keep Mixmode deeply rooted in house sounds, traditional house. The Sushitech stuff is more experimental. Between the two, and some of the remixes I do, I'm able to explore a lot of different sounds.
What do you have coming up in the immediate future?
I have a very busy touring schedule for this Spring, Manchester, London, France. I will play Suncebeat Festival this summer. I just finished a triple compilation for Sushitech, a 3 record LP that we're calling The Lost Tapes. It's a lot of stuff that didn't make it to my albums that I went back and changed, then I threw another couple of things on there. I think it's my best release on Sushitech. I wasn't rushed with it, I can't wait for it to come out.
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