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Theo Parrish2003 Interview
As the closing feature for the Overload Media site back in 2003, Nick Doherty talked with legendary DJ and producer Theo Parrish
By Nick Doherty
Theo. Here’s a guy with a lightening-bright set of standards, someone that won’t compromise, to whom the record industry is a distant concern. And yet he gets paid well, he sticks up for himself, he asks for what he thinks he deserves and he won’t be told different. This interview took three weeks to arrange as each question had to be checked and considered by Theo before he’d agree to speak. It also took three nights to transcribe: a Minidisc fuck-up rendered it audible only through one speaker at full volume with the grill pressed firmly to my ear. It isn’t promoting anything in particular, it has very little time sensitivity and it’s best read in the knowledge that Theo speaks in waltz time, in vortexes, with a voice you could dive into.
Like many other Overload interviews a version of this has appeared elsewhere (in this case, the San Fran-based magazine XLR8R). But only here will it be written out in full, exactly as it was spoken, without any editing, with all its glorious mistakes intact.
Yep, all is good. We don’t get much good weather out here in Detroit so I’m enjoying what we’re having. I’m getting to go out and about, checkin’ on some people... they all come out in the summertime. I can’t complain. I just need to get myself a little ginger tea here and ill be right with ya. Just get myself set... Agh!
You OK? Is that hot?
No man, I’m just excited about my tea. (Singing) I’ll just get my spoon. Everything will be all right. Everything will be just so... I don’t get much chance to sit down...Right. Ready to go.
How old are you Theo?
What? You’re gonna ask me about my age?
Well I read you began DJing and producing at 13?
The thing about that is, in Chicago at that time things were starting and that’s where I grew up, that’s where I was at 13. We paid a lot of attention to the radio, all the young black kids from the south side in particular. We listened to Farley [Jackmaster Funk] and all the big shows and DJs. A few of us would go down to The Box and other clubs, I went a coupla times when I was way, way underage. And basically, I started spinning at age 13 and I was making songs and tracks the next year. I formed a little crew with friends of mine and everyone asked their Moms for mixing equipment. Next thing you know we’re running around doing block and basement parties for little or next to nothing. At the time Trax Records was real strong. Anything you saw by Trax you bought it. We played our stuff in clubs off reels or off tape. We just imitated the Trax stuff when we started making tracks. There was never any intention of that stuff coming out or even an awareness of knowing how to get it out. Us having it on tape decks and being able to play it at parties was as far as we went and as far as we thought.
Chicago had a big effect on you then?
I guess so. It makes sense. Any experience you have throughout your life is going to have an impact, some things more than others. I look at everything up to now as the culmination of one big line of experience.
You had a pretty formal education. Is that unusual? Was it hard to focus?
[Angered] Look at it like this: when you go to school or you’ve been to school, I dunno for a fact you’ve been to school but I bet that you have... anyone at any point in life has never been hindered by it. It’s like... in fact, it’s a very strange conception to me ‘cos there’s a lot of people in quote/unquote ‘underground music’ who are college educated, I mean a lot of them, you’d be surprised. I’m talking easily 50 percent of the American producers have some kind of schooling and qualifications. There are all types of schools.
I meant more in the sense that it could distract you.
Oh, you mean me being at school and having to be there? That’s the way, y’know? That was always the thing. I didn’t even wanna finish! I just really wanted to do it; not even with the intention of being successful, just to do it. It got to the point where it was sink or swim. There was a year or so left... by that time I was always spinning, all through school, messing around with sound and music at the college. It never really stopped. I never really got depressed – except maybe when I was studying for finals and missed out on going out or making a tape or something like that. It was definitely educational. I’d say I built a lot of my [record] collection there in Kansas City. Surprisingly there’s a huge amount of diverse musical talent and taste there. It was really, really shocking. I kinda like it. Believe it or not, Kansas City is a lot like the Village except a lot smaller. You have people from all types of walks of life going through there. I would think that it was just... cowboys there basically. You got those but you got everybody. Everybody. There’s punk rockers, hip-hop kids, you name it. Ya got intellectuals, artsies, hardcore kids...
You seem to come at all this from a music lover’s perspective.
You know it. Ideally, music is nothing to me but a language. It’s the method in which you command that language that makes you distinct, in any given form. The thing about that, that’s a challenge, is your intention. A lot of people just don’t have their intentions straight and you always have to remind yourself of everyone’s intentions from time to time. Things get crazy but, basically, if you started off with the idea of coming into it as a participating listener, naïve, someone dancing with themselves, with their own person, their own body, reacting to this music, y’know, then it’s almost a natural progression that you would wanna get people to move the way that you did. You go ‘What about this song, what about that song’ and that’s the next progression I think.
A lot of people come into it from purely a musician’s standpoint, thinking ‘Hey, I can make a little bit of money spinning tunes, keep my profile up...’ I don’t think that’s a very valid reason for picking up some records, especially with the availability and how easy it is. All you gotta do is have the money to do it and it can be done. Very, very little is required. In fact, now you could go and download a whole record collection and then go get Final Scratch and be the best DJ in the world. But I’ll tell you this: if I walk into a party, and I know a jock has access to his whole collection to be able to bring to the party, I’m gonna walk outta there crying and be, like, two inches taller or two inches shorter or sumthin’. To me, that’s bypassing the necessary suffering for an art form and hyeah, records are clumsy, they’re fragile, they take up space. Yeah you can damage ‘em. Yeah you gotta clean ‘em and yeah – guess what? – after a time they will wear out and you won’t be able to use ‘em again. But that’s how it is. That’s what it’s about. People are making it far too easy. Far too easy.
A car boot sale in the English rain is a real pleasure...
But now you get it on eBay, you don’t have to actually go out and do it. But, I mean, that’s the beauty... there’s that technology. Technology is a necessary evil but we stop getting out of our homes, going out and actively seeking things with our hands and our feet. Getting our knuckles dirty. Having a conversation with another guy who’s playing records, looking for something you’ve been looking for. There’s a beauty that comes in all that’s lost. The very experience of going and searching and finding a record is being lost and that’s a part of the past that I think is a necessary element for anyone who’s ever gonna call themselves a ‘selector’. Anyone that wants to present themselves, y’know, as ‘an artist’- be it an artist who presents music or an artist who makes music, whichever way you come at it – it’s important that the sacrifice is present in the character of the person.
What’s your attitude towards sampling?
Right. Yes. It started off more as sampling by default. I didn’t have access to a bass player when I started, or a keyboard player, a live drummer and so on and so forth. But I did have a record and an SP-1200 (or SP-12 at the time actually). It was very, very simple: the idea of catching something that would be good to expand on and roll with it. As long as you’re tasteful it’s OK. The other thing that’s an issue, that makes it a challenge is that... once it becomes a... well, here’s how the cycle happened. When people first started sampling it began as a bar or two and then it became ‘we aren’t gonna take a bar or two, we’re gonna go after these hits’. So people would make hits and they were very, very easy to make, you find sumthin that was already a classic and you take the hook, or y’know, the main part, put a 909 beat all over it and you got a hit, you got ten thousand sold. There was a time when that could happen but now that that trend has come and gone you’re finding a lot of people start sampling half bars and then we’ve moved down to just individual sounds... well no, here’s a funny thing, I’m just speaking of how I’m doing it. I don’t really know how other people are doing it. It’s just become more limiting because if you’re locked into the idea of what a sample’s doing you’re going to have to play around how that band’s playing, everything is really based around their changes. Either you start finding things that are more challenging to sample or you just look at it as a way to collect sounds and not a way to find songs. That’s really the biggest difference: if you’re gonna collect sounds that’s one thing, but if you’re gonna use other people’s song structures so limitedly you have to have a little bit of respect for it, y’know?
What about edits like the Ugly Edit series. The Jill Scott Slowly Surely edit caused a hell of a lot of fuss...
The thing with that was, y’know, I originally sent that to be mixed to Hidden Beach, to Jill Scott’s production company. I never heard back from ‘em. So I did a couple of whites without even the intention of even selling ‘em. The idea was just to do a white of tat ‘cos I wanted to play it out and then put an edit of mine on the side. It was something’ I was doing just to put a little fun back in because at the time... there was no fun! Nobody was getting records that were special, that you searched for. No one was looking, no-one could find those and if they did it was some huge marketing thing. Next thing I turn around and it’s booted. And on a huge scale. The intention was never really to give them to anyone more than two or three hundred people at a time and over the course of a very long period of time. I wanted to do like, a hundred, as presents – which I did – and then I found that people had taken them and put them on eBay. These were gifts that I had given to people. So I started selling slowly to the little stores and then it went a little further than that. When I saw that it was booted up, it was like ‘well, here’s a choice, I can keep pushing these edits, knowing they’ll be booted if I don’t do a large run, or I can just give ‘em away as gifts’. So, from now on, all of the edit series will be strictly gifts, I won’t be selling. The intention was never to sell those edits; I just wanted to have fun. When I was coming up there were these edits that you’d come across on mixtapes and they were just the illist things in the world. They were songs you knew but put together differently, still keeping the energy of the original and the integrity of the original, but just a re-arrangement of it. It wasn’t trying to necessarily capitalise on it. That’s why there’s no names on the edit series; I know the boots have my name all over it. That was never an intention either.
Why so many limited editions. Is it important to make music collectable and rare?
That seems to be the problem, seems to be the thing... people just don’t care about there being something rare that they have to pay a little more for or go out and search for because it’s totally worth it. The second it gets taken away from that it’s lost its lustre. Now it’s like someone else is making a whole gang of money offa sumthin I coulda made a whole gang of money off of but that’s not the point. The rumours come up, I’m hearing every rumour from ‘We’re putting them on eBay’ to ‘We’re the ones who’s bootin’ the boots’ and all this other crap, you now know who the ‘we’ is as well, it’s jus’ me... It’s very, very interesting. When you do something you’re doing it more or less for the people around you, your closest friends, the people that you know will appreciate it ‘cos, you know, the bottom line is I didn’t really think a lotta folk would be understanding of those edits. When they caught on it was a surprise. I just thought old Detroit heads and Chicago heads, maybe old New York heads, London heads, Japanese cats, L.A. cats, Philly cats, Atlanta cats... cats all over who’ve been understanding, paying attention and have been on the line with dance music since really ’86 or something and can relate to those records and not be afraid to play ‘em. But when I was getting things happenin’ like people complaining that the third one skips and it stuck and it messed up... no, it’s not stuck, it’s an edit, it’s an edit like that. That let’s you know right there! Lots of those records ended up in the hands of people that ‘ain’t out there playing them. A lot of people were interested in the collection aspect, that’s why you see em on the net for a $100. I would never put my shit on there.
You even put her voice on there from your answer phone...
Yep, I did. That was more or less to let her know that I’m paying attention to her. I met Jill Scott at the concert – in fact, it was more I went to see her, I barely met her, I just tossed a tape up on stage – and she called me, which was cool. I wanted to give her the respect, let her know that I appreciated her calling me. My whole idea was that remix was for her. I was looking at them maybe scooping it up. I thought it was pretty funny that I heard all these remixes of her different tunes come out after that and a lot of them sounded very stock and very basic and I was hoping that maybe her introduction into dance music would be done in a way that wasn’t as harsh. You always hear the 4/4 – bm-tsk-bm-tsk-bm-tsk – all the time, y’know, the time stretched vocals and the 909 again! I don’t think a lot of those remixes captured her. I really don’t think mine captured her to be honest. To me, that’s more of a dub.
It’s not just that record, the whole album is a true classic with its own vibe...
Word. That’s a classic piece. So if you do anything, do a derivative... I wouldn’t go so far as rise it up to 120 bpm, I just can’t see that, y’know.
How long does it take to make tracks. They sometimes sound like they've been done on the fly.
It’s never that controlled. Sound creation comes at any point of the project. It could be anything. If I recorded the first take on tape and I like that first take, even after I spend two weeks on a song, if that first take is the hottest one then that’s the one that goes out. There’s no way to really gauge where a song or sound or inspiration point is going to take you or how long you’re going to be at it until you feel like you’ve brought it to fruition. There’s no set time and the range can be from thirty minutes to like... I’ve been on songs for two-and-a-half weeks.
Can you tell me about Smile?
I first heard it on Gilles Peterson’s radio show, it’s a truly awesome record. I thought it was one of those moments when you’re going through something... I came across this sample of a lady saying Smile. I was in such a sad state at the time and the music is probably pretty juxtaposed to the actual sample, Smile. For some reason it worked.
How much thought have you given the minimalism thing?
The idea of minimalism to me... there’s a lot of different versions. (Laughing) There’s the dance music version of minimalism and then the more universal version of minimalism. I don’t really subscribe to either of them as a concept or a starting point, or a plan, or a framework. It’s more ‘what works works’. If things work I’m gonna use ‘em, but what I do find is that with the dance music spin on it, that genre of minimalism in a German sense, the first echoes we had of that in the states was from Kraftwerk. That’s where it started and then we reflected and got hold of some Roland pieces here in the States and y’know, here comes this music. No-one really considers Larry Heard minimal but if you listen to any of his stuff that’s exactly what it was. If you listen to his stuff now there’s lush chords but it’s still based around minimal patterns. As all dance music is, come to think of it. Think about the Brazilian themed stuff that comes outta New York – [sings 3-note bassline] doom-doom-doom, doom-doom-doom – that’s minimal too, that bassline ain’t changing. So minimal is more a question of sound selection than it is anything else ‘cos to me, everything that’s really considered ‘dance music’ has that feel. The only thing I consider not to be minimal would be something like opera. The thing about opera is, it’s based around minimal ideas! It’s conceived, it’s not a conscious thing.
Have you any desire at all to 'cross over' or ever think in those industry terms?
Well, it’s that fine line where if the commercial can convey... there’s such a broad definition of ‘commercial’ or ‘commercial music’. First of all I’d like to say that Stateside is a very different game to anywhere overseas due to the freedom of radio elsewhere. For us to get recognition in The States, there has to be an image attached. A lotta times that means vocals or rather, ‘radio vocal’. I’m not against any major label exposure, I don’t fear that, but what I won’t do is change the format of my music to fit. If what I do works and it gets played, then great. If what I do earns a company a bunch of money, that’s cool too. But that’s not the intention. That happens as a result of the process and it’s one I won’t block or resist on principle. But hear me: I’m not getting on stage in a silver suit. At least not seriously, I’ll do it for fun.
And what’s new, anything?
I’ll have just started manufacturing my new Sound Signature album by September. It’s untitled as yet but it’ll be featuring a lot of Detroit artists, musicians and players. It’s a project I’m calling The Rotating Assembly for now. I’m really, really, really, really, reeeeally into this project.
Sounds a bit similar to the Detroit Experiment project, that kind of thing?
That’s more or less the idea, I’ve been working with the people I know already and quite a few new faces, some people that have been on the periphery that I’m trying to bring in to focus a bit. There’s a brother called Warren Harris who’s done some stuff for us before, Marcellus Pittman will be on a few, this other cat Maat Lo, a great vocalist called Karen Bosco and Genevieve Marantette. There’s quite a few.
OK, cool, thanks for your time Theo.
No problem man, respect, peace.