An elaborate discussion with Detroit's Filthiest
Julian Shamou is an artist who has been shaped heavily by both his personal struggles and the Detroit party scene in the ‘90s. Julian played a key role in the formation of Ghettotech as a genre as opposed to solely a style of DJing.
He has released music under such aliases as Digitek, DJ Nasty and 313 Bass Mechanics to name a few and to this day continues to release cutting edge music for the dancefloor as Detroit’s Filthiest. Arun had a chat with Julian following the release of the ‘Honor Among Thieves EP’ released on Leipzig Based label Defrostatica.
Anyone aware of your discography will know that you are no newcomer to the scene. Where did it all start for you?
I been doing this since ’96 and my first record came out when I was 17. It started in ‘83 when my family came to America, I was always fascinated with music and for as long as I can remember my father always played music, it was a big influence on me. Detroit radio and the new dance show were the biggest influences.
In terms of your entry into music production, how accessible was music and production equipment back then in Detroit? I've always had the impression that the scene there has always been very DIY and emergent from socio-economic/political struggle.
The first piece of equipment I bought was an MPC3000 in ’96, at that time it was an expensive piece of equipment that cost $3,000. I remember saving my lunch money from school every day to buy that. My parents weren’t rich by any means, we were actually in the process of losing everything and this was the only thing I could afford. I produced 50 records with just turntables and an MPC, I would borrow keyboards from friends where I would sample sounds I had created from a SH-101, Pro-1, etc... that’s how I did it. I had to make the best of what I had, it was a DIY mentality because of what you had to work with. Ghettotech was a creation of making something out of nothing, which I was a master of.
That's really inspiring. The DYI attitude is very consistent throughout underground music, making the best of what you had. What was your relationship between producing and DJing and how did each influence one another?
The reason I got into music was never to produce or DJ, there was all this music I would hear on the mix shows and the new dance shows, then when I went to the record store to buy the tapes and cd’s they told me this was only released on record.
I started to buy vinyl without any ambition to DJ just because that was the only way I could get this music. I probably had about 100 records and didn’t even have a turntable, I ended up buying a cheap $100 record player just to listen to the records. I had collected so many records that I decided to buy turntables and try my hand into DJing, after 1 year of DJing my friend motivated me to get into producing. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, then I fucking fell in love making music. I decided I would rather spend all my time producing instead of DJing.
So, when you started to produce was that when you really started to listen to your records differently and think about how you could sample them and create your own ideas? Just for those who may not know too much, what was your take on Ghettotech at the time and what were key technological elements that cemented it as a music style?
That is a question, I started to study the records more to see how they were structured, this first record I release was an electro record "Hi Tek EP" made under an alias of mine called "Digitek". This wasn’t sampled from records, but from equipment that I borrowed from friends and created my own sounds to sample. There was no music called Ghettotech, the style of DJing was created in Detroit where DJ’s would mix everything from hip hop to techno to electro to drum n bass to Miami bass all in the same set. This was unheard of back in the day.
I remember the first ghetto record I made was with all these samples from Miami bass records that I put together, when I played it to my friend, he said “that shit is ghetto”, meaning the samples I used to make a whole track. Ghettotech was a style of DJing, playing techno records on 45 and mixing it with Miami bass records. There was no Ghettotech genre, it wasn’t until Databass records was formed by myself, DJ Godfather, DJ Starski and DJ Dick, we were instrumental in creating a label and making music in that genre.
Ghetto DJ’s were all over the radio, Ghetto style music was huge in Detroit. You would hear it every night on the radio and see it on the “new dance show”. Ghetto was bigger than hip hop or any other genre in Detroit, DJ’s like Gary Chandler, DJ Fingers, DJ Zap, etc....were instrumental in playing the music on the radio. You also had the biggest artists in Ghettotech, DJ Godfather and DJ Assault getting a lot of attention into pushing the genre by traveling all over the world and DJing.
So, DJs and their experimentation played a large part too? I find the timeline of underground music fascinating, whilst you had techno, Electro and Hip Hop, house, Ghettotech etc. in the USA around the 80s and into the 90s, over in the UK Acid house inspired a mass cultural movement, evolving into breakbeat, hardcore and jungle forming over the 90s.
What was your awareness of the UK scene at the time? An artist’s music comes from a huge melting pot of styles/genres that it's not always possible to label it.
Detroit Techno was a big influence on the world, I think that broke off into many different genres from that. I was very much aware of Europe and the music that came out of there, Kraftwerk being the catalyst for inspiring techno. Also, I was aware of the fact that jungle/drum n bass came from London. London was huge for what it did for DnB which was similar to what Detroit was for techno and Chicago for house, that’s the reason I changed my name from DJ Nasty to Detroit’s Filthiest, because I didn’t want to get pigeon holed into a genre. People won’t listen if they think you are great in that genre, like you can’t be great doing something else.
My philosophy is that there is a big difference between an “Artist” and a producer. An Artist creates, and producers make whatever someone else is doing, whatever is hot at the time. I am not a Ghettotech artist but an artist with over 200 releases. I have made music in many genres that aren’t just Ghettotech.
That's a good point, often people refer to someone as a type of producer, e.g. a drum and bass producer, a house producer a techno producer. More and more this seems to be the case.
It’s disingenuous for me to make something that I have no connection to or isn’t part of my culture. Footwork is hot right now, but I would be selling out if I did a footwork record.
I make music based on my emotions, I can’t make music based on other people’s emotions.
I treat music as therapy. It takes me to a time and space where I can get away and create a world that is my own. I’ve been told to stick to one genre either techno or house if I want to get big in the scene, to me that’s boring. I am too creative to do one thing.
I get where you’re coming from, as I’m sure those who listen to your music do. How did the hook up with Defrostatica come about?
I did a record with Sinistarr which Defrostatica released as part of a compilation. I emailed Rob and asked him if he would be interested in some music of mine. After that we hit it off and I submitted him tracks. We were working on this release for a more than a year.
Oh wicked! What is the music scene like in Detroit nowadays?
There is a small scene here, not like the 90’s or 2000’s I couldn’t tell you what it’s all about or who’s in it. I have no clue, neither do I follow it. I am out of sight, out of mind.
Is that how you prefer it?
Yes, but it wasn’t by choice, especially when I first started DJing. I had to quit DJing because I had a family to feed and I couldn’t rely on one day playing out or two to make a living. So, I had to make the decision to give up DJing so I could work a full-time job and focus on producing. This is probably the biggest reason I never achieved the level of respect or recognition I deserved because I wasn’t playing or traveling.
They both go hand in hand, that's completely understandable. It seems difficult to attain financial security within the underground music scene.
Yes, in any art form, you’re often struggling
What I find so interesting is that your music, which is representative of your emotions, experiences and struggle is upbeat and through speaking to you that's not surprising as there still seems to be a huge influence from the 80s and 90s in Detroit.
Exactly, you incorporate what you know in life, that’s why it’s disingenuous to jump to what’s ‘hottest’ right now. The music you hear is what influenced me.
I feel you, and that point of reference for you is pre-footwork, pre-juke, pre-jungle, drum and bass, I guess what people find synonymous with 160bpm now.
I was doing 160 tracks back in 98, before it was cool!
Thank you, there’s a lot of information but people tend to go to the same fuckin' people. I get it, they were the first ones but fucking talk to the people that pushed the genre! It gets nauseating.
100% often people mark the "start" of a genre by technological changes, e.g. time stretching for Jungle, even when there was what you would call jungle years before or DJs playing electro at 45rpm, breakbeat tracks at 45rpm or just straight up experimenting in their studios.
I don’t think that’s the case with new genres. Because electro was being made in the late 60’s and 70’s. The 808 wasn’t the birth of electronic music, although It became synonymous with it. So, I don’t think technology is what pushes you to be creative, It can help you but man, I don’t care what equipment you use, If you don’t got soul or talent, then God help you.
Let’s take Ghettotech for example, I started in ’96, the drum machines and samplers were there before me and turntables, it wasn’t technology for me to make it, it was my influences of hearing people play that style of music on the radio and playing all these genres together. So, I had the idea of taking Miami bass vocals and putting them on techno/electro tracks.
An artist will always find a way to create and express themselves and with less at hand to express one’s ideas that’s where an artist will get more creative, I guess?
I make house music but not what’s in style, people tell me it sounds like something from the 90’s; that’s the point. I was influenced and that’s what I heard, so I try to put my spin on it. Many artists don’t take chances, they get comfortable in a bubble.
So, you like to have a point of reference however your influence, so to speak, is personal, from your emotions and thoughts.
Listen to my discography and put me against anyone else. They might have all the equipment and money and talent, but one thing they’re not going to do is outwork me, that’s a fact. To answer your question that is exactly what I am doing, for every release I try to push myself and reinvent my sound.
To be clear, the music I made in ‘96 isn’t going to work 2018, you have to adapt and change with the times or you will get played out. A lot of producers I started with failed to do that, they were big in the 90’s and 2000’s but ain’t doing shit now.
I get you, sometimes artists make music that is self-referential within a genre and therefore cannot progress, but place your reference outside of the music scene or genre and you can produce music that is truly reflective of yourself and develops as you do.
Yes, the one thing you can say is that I like to take chances and do something that I haven’t done before. Push myself and progress as an artist and a person. Let’s take the record I did with Defrostatica, if I come out with another record that sounds like Honor Among Thieves then I would have failed, because there is only one Honor Among Thieves. The next record might be house or an electro record, whatever I put out you won’t be able to say it sounds like so and so. If it isn’t different then I am not doing it. I don’t think you can judge my success with how many records I have sold or how many people know me. I came to the States as an immigrant that didn’t speak the language and to get to where I am, is the real success to me. I was the first middle eastern to make electronic music from Detroit and help create a genre and I have been independent since 99 with my own record label. People who aren’t from ethnic minorities won’t know the struggles.
Yeah there are artists that become predictable and play it safe to get bookings. I guess the upside of not DJing and having a full-time job is that when you produce it's completely on your terms.
Were there any cultural expectations from your family or societal prejudices in America that you had to face?
I had to deal with that from both sides white and black. My family supported me. They actually thought that it was going to be one of those things after a month I will get sick and tired of, but they became supportive when they saw how dedicated and passionate I was about it. Music kept me out of of trouble, who knows the stupid shit I would have got involved in if I wasn’t making music.
I think there were more prejudices from the African American community than the white community. I remember going to bars in Detroit where me and DJ Godfather would be the only white people there, people would stare at us like, “what the fuck you doing here”, at the same time, they were dancing to our music. There wasn’t support from the middle eastern community because techno, house and electronic music was underground, they didn’t know what the fuck it was, and it wasn’t as big as it is now. Detroit was, and is, very territorial, it’s like the prison gangs, you run with your kind and I was always the “other”.
But the inception of your label and your influence in the scene seems to support the notion that music transcends race and can diffuse these prejudices?
Yes, that’s correct. For the longest time people didn’t know I was middle eastern but thought I was black.
What would be the reaction when people would meet you?
Funny story, first time I did overseas I went to Belgium, the promoter was looking for a black guy to pick up thinking he’s DJ Nasty, an hour goes by and finally we connect.
This is one of many stories that I experienced because people thought I was black and didn’t expect some white, let alone Middle Eastern, making this music.
Did you feel that there was a lasting impact that these kinds of situations had on people, in relation to changing their expectations or realising their biases?
To the people that know who you are of course it changes their biases but I’m sure there are still a lot of people that heard of me but never met me and don’t know that I am Middle Eastern.
Very true, and there are these two dimensions, one where people solely anthropomorphise your music with no further knowledge about you, and one where your music resonates with people and either they meet you, see you or find out more about you, your experiences, struggle and cultural background, leading to an appreciation and respect for your differences and a common ground through your music.
I couldn’t have said it any better!
Cosmic ink-slinger keeping his ears out for anything that can or cannot be comprehended sonically. Collector, selector and occasional knees-up director.