While many others of his ilk decided to get behind their machines straight away, Dulan first set about becoming a respected DJ in his own right, mastering the art of playing on three turntables in order to stand out from the crowd. As anyone who has seen the man in action will attest, DJ Bone is a serious vinyl technician, creating an outrageously kinetic and polyrhythmic sound via his triple deck setup and frenetic mixer antics. His fervour and enthusiasm for DJing even caught the ear of John Peel, who invited Dulan to perform live in front of an audience at the BBC's Maida Vale studios back in 2001—quite a coup when you consider that only Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills and Dave Clarke had the honour of doing this before him.
During the mid-'90s, Bone set about founding his own imprint to showcase his nascent productions, testing the waters with an anonymous 12-inch before exposing his name on a release for Juan Atkins' Metroplex imprint. It was another five years before Bone gathered enough momentum to launch Subject Detroit properly, unleashing a flurry of his own techno and electro productions as well as bringing Juan on board for a release. While Subject Detroit has remained a platform that is primarily used to showcase his own tracks, Dulan has been keen to nurture and promote talent outside of Detroit, bringing in producers from Scotland (Stephen Brown), Holland (Crudo), Japan (Rennie Foster), England (Mark Williams) and most recently Belgium (Trish van Eynde) to inject a bit of fresh blood into the label.
Bone has always made a point of being "100% independent," and that's certainly the case with Subject Detroit, essentially a family business which he runs alongside fiancée Ahnne Araza. Some artists have difficulty maintaining their art as their primary source of income without making commercial concessions, but this has never been the case with Bone. Both him and his partner have made some clever choices in order to weather the storm that the electronic music industry is going through at the moment, from forcing distributors to pay for releases up front (and avoiding the serious financial losses that have plagued labels like Crosstown Rebels to Underground Resistance) to dealing directly with the major players in the burgeoning download industry. And while 2009 has been a relatively quiet year for the label (with the exception of Bone's The Lost Tribe Of Techno compilation), the next 12 months are promising to be some of the busiest that the label has ever been through. We caught up with DJ Bone at his Detroit residence to ask him about his influences, ethos and his upcoming projects.
Your aggressive three-deck mixing style has become one of your trademarks. Was Jeff Mills the main inspiration for this?
I would say the majority of it would have to be when he used to DJ as The Wizard in Detroit, because I had never witnessed Jeff play techno at all until years after he had already been travelling—he had moved out of the city and gone to New York and everything. When he was The Wizard he was playing hip-hop and funk and all kinds of stuff—it was just the way that he mixed. You would hear it on the radio every night—it was amazing! When I got my turntables and started to play on my two decks, what I found was that I was actually starting to get bored. I just feel that when people come to see a DJ—if every DJ deejays the same then that would be extremely boring in my books. There has to be something about that person that is unique. I'm not going to get booked to go to Awakenings or I Love Techno and go and play the same records that everyone else is playing in their top ten. It doesn't make sense for me to go all the way over to Europe to play European records that everybody else has been playing over and over. I need to go over there with unique skill sets, unique vinyl, stuff that's either unreleased or promo, so I have an advantage.
When I got bored, my cousin was the one who suggested, "Why don't you add the third deck?", so I did and started practicing that way. It was weird because I was inspired by what I heard on the radio from The Wizard, and when I finally saw Jeff play on three decks it was years after I had already started practicing on them. So I finally get to see his technique, and I thought it was cool because my style was totally different from his. It wasn't mimicry, and I was happy because there was more than one way to play on three decks.
I had hardcore practices. I lived in a loft, my cousin lived in the loft underneath me, Carl Craig lived in the building, Kelli Hand lived in the building, singers from Members Of The House lived in the building, and we'd have barbeques and I could play my music loud and nobody cared. They just wanted me to record it and give them a copy. But what I'd do is go to the record shop get a bag full of records and come back, and my cousin would hand me one record at a time and I had to mix 'em—and these were brand new records—and I had to mix it in. it would be a techno record, then another techno record, then a house record, and my job was if the tempos didn't match up, I had to make a transition that would make sense. Not only would he do that, but he would do things like bump the table that I had the decks on, or touch one of the records... it was hardcore! It was like some Karate Kid shit. [laughs] It was hilarious, dude.
The first thing you learn when you DJ is to beatmatch: match the beat tempo to tempo. Say it's ten, fifteen, twenty years later and it's the DJ you are going to see who you love and have seen all your life, and all he does still is beatmatch. So he hasn't made any progress since the first time he actually started DJing twenty years ago. That's all he does—beatmatch. I think it's a shame—I think DJ's need to progress and try and come up with some creative ways to push things forward. Now it could be through technology or through skill or the music they play but it has to be something.
The Detroit scene
The only scene that thrives for me in Detroit is the deep house scene. I don't even want to say deep house because it's a trendy term now. Deep house to me is like Kenny Dixon or Theo Parrish, and now there's what they call it—I don't know what they're thinking... The deep house scene in Detroit has been around for years, and it will always be there. It's the old-school house crowd, and that's a perfect thing.
Whenever I go to a party in the D, you'll usually catch me at a house party. I'll go see Theo Parrish, Kenny Dixon, Rick Wade, Rick Wilhite, Stacey Hale, Minx... [Because it's] like a family reunion, you know? All that's missing is the barbeque! I love that vibe! I was at the festival this past year and we went to one night, and Glenn Underground was playing and a few other house DJs were playing. Man, you wouldn't believe who was there. Every person with soul was all up in there and it was beautiful, man. Just sitting there kicking it with Kenny Dixon, Theo Parrish, Boo Williams and Rick Wilhite—that was the shit! Just seeing these people up in there enjoying some nice soulful music. I wish that whole vibe could translate into the techno arena again, but I just don't see it happening.
The only problem the house scene is it's an older crowd, and that's it. There are very, very few young people that get into that scene. It's almost like once it runs its course, you worry about it because there is no new blood in there. The young black kids wanna be hip-hop, and the young white kids are going towards either techno or minimal, so it's really tough to get young people—whether it's black or white—into the house scene. You'll see a few young faces in there but it's not like what you see at a techno event.
Detroit was an amazing scene for year upon years, but now it's sad when you really think about it. When you ask people how often Derrick is playing in Detroit? "Uh, never. Maybe once a year." How often does Kevin play there? "Never." It's really sad. For the people who still live there, you should be able to have a kick ass party. You should be able to have a UR night every month, or every week.
I didn't feel any pressure. I don't know if it was because I was young or just my mindset. But I didn't even put my name on my first release on Subject Detroit. My whole goal of that was it was done on out of frustration. It was basically to check the market and check people's psyche and see if they still buy records based on what it sounds like as opposed to seeing someone's name on it. So, the whole experiment of that was to make a record, put it out and see how it does. If people like it they like it. I think it's a proving ground. You don't really step out of the studio with anything until you know it's tight.
There seems to be quite a few people doing the whole anonymous stamped white label thing at the moment.
It's definitely become a gimmick. There are still people who thrive on anonymity. What frustrates me the most as far as doing that—limited release white label thing—it is a gimmick. If you are going to do it, then do it in some way that no-one else has ever done it. Don't just slap a white label out, scribble on it and say, "Oh there you go, this is very rare and limited and mysterious." I think that there's such a glut in the whole scene now, that it's very difficult for people to discern quality. Or they are trying to attempt to be anonymous but focus on the music, or just trying to sell the record. You hear an "anonymous DJ" record but it's just a cut and paste/a loop or something. I think it would take guts for someone to take a masterpiece and not put a name on it. Imagine if "Jaguar" came out and nobody put a name on it—that's when you know that someone is really intense, when they release some great quality music and not put a name on it. It's something that so magnificent without getting any credit, because they know that they have it in them to do it over and over again.
It must have been more expensive to get some production equipment back then as well. Did you use someone else's studio, or build your own?
Back then it wasn't easy. You didn't have the "producer in the box" setup like you have now. You had to build your studio. I talked to various people when I first decided I was going to record. I had saved up a sum of money and I was either going to by a car or start building a studio—so I started building up studio. I bought a workstation, so basically it had the sound, drums, sequencer and everything built into it. It had to be about three-thousand dollars. It's not taken as seriously as it used to be and I think it's just ease of use. I equated different ways.
Do you think that techno music has become more disposable due to developments in digital production and distribution?
It's almost the same as if certain chefs just decided to use a microwave oven. Of course they're going to be cranking out the food, but what kind of quality is it going to have, and what sort of soul and spirit is going to go into making it? It's so easy, and that's what happened with music. It got easier and easier and easier for people to do and finally it got to a point where you don't actually have to be talented, because the machines can do all the work for you now. I lot of peoples ears have perked up and they've said "oh, let me try it."
There's so many people just swinging away just taking a stab at it as opposed to focusing on formulating a plan and putting a lot of hard work and blood, sweat and tears into it. If you have a physical liability involved with the studio; if you have expenses as far as pressing up a physical medium and then the time and effort, what happens is that you're going to try your best to make sure that you succeed. If you don't invest any money—say you buy software one time or get a free program from someone and then everything you make is in digital form, then there's no real physical investment; there's no product, there's no risk. To me, making music solely on a computer without having ever encountered the risk of a physical medium is the equivalent of doing a core exercise in gymnastic with a harness—there's nothing difficult because there is safety all around you. You can try and do some outrageous stuff knowing that you are going to be safe.
It's funny because humans don't have a natural quantize function, so whether they want to or not, their music is going to swing, and the swing is what makes it funky. So if you have a machine that can correct everything perfectly, then there's no swing. And the whole essence of music for me –look at jazz, bebop, hip-hop, house, techno, drum and bass—anything that's ever been funky. James Brown didn't do anything on sixteenths or eighths or quarter notes. There is all kinds of shit happening in between—if you leave that to a machine you would never have the funky drummer pattern. You know what I mean? It would be really raw, robotic and sterile. Now for some people, that works, and in some cases all that they can do. I have nothing against that or people who want to use laptops. I don't care for it and I won't do it, but if they want to do that, that's cool. My problem isn't with them.
A lot of people really hate the laptop culture, but what I can't stand is the fact that people who pay their hard-earned money can't tell the difference between some shit and some art because they look at all the bright shiny stuff that's going on—all the technology—and they just assume that its good, because it's something that they haven't seen before. Also, it's the fact that they feel they can relate to it more because it's easier now, so they think "that could be me." How many people in the audience at a Prince concert thought they could actually be Prince? They admired him and they loved what he did but no-one sat there and said, "Oh, I can do that shit." If you look at these DJs with laptops they're programming their whole set, their live set, they're bringing their entire record collection with them... Who can't do that? My daughter is thirteen and she can DJ. She started on vinyl and is moving onto CD decks, and I'm going to have her actually go and do some gigs with me, just to show people. Okay, you're paying however much money to go and see Joe Shmoe big name play on his laptop, and my thirteen year old daughter can do it.
Five choice Bones
Riding The Thin Line [Metroplex, 1999]
Juan Atkins' Metroplex imprint was the home to Bone's sophomore release, and it isn't surprising that he quickly made a name for himself with the quality of these three cuts. "Shut the Lites Off" marries a raw tribal pump with a downbeat spoken vocal intoning the track's title before introducing an arresting chord sequence that wavers between despair and euphoria, while the B-side (which was double-grooved using Ron Murphy's custom-built NSC-X2 pressing machine) contains bass-heavy rolling electro ("The Funk") and hyperkinetic techno with complete with eerie vocal manipulation ("The Haunting").
RIDE (Rest In Drexciyan Eternity) [Subject Detroit, 2004]
On the second Subject Detroit release Bone pays tribute to the then recently deceased James Stinson of Drexciya with a set of electro-infused tracks. He experiments with sharp chiming metal noises on "Mettalo," while the title track sees him get rowdy with booming bass drums and an irresistible snaking bass line.
Hop [D1 Recordings, 2005]
Bone's first and only 12-inch for Eamonn Doyle's Dublin-based label is a solid affair, but it's the B-side that makes it an essential purchase. Wonky carnival techno is the order of the day on "Space Bounce," while "What You Believe" is a deliciously deep stepping house number that would sound like the future of UK funky if it wasn't made nearly five years ago.
Struggle (The Intricacies Of Simplicity) [Subject Detroit, 2006]
Quite a few styles are explored on this five-track EP, with Bone looping a serious female vocal atop his takes on headfuck techno, disco-house and funky minimalism.
Circus World [Subject Detroit, 2008]
"There's no escaping this circus world," croons Bone on the title track to this recent EP, managing to skate the line between inertia and funkiness with aplomb. "One More Tune" is arguably the real gem, though, mixing up whistling, chanting, deep chords and shuffling beats to create a proper end-of-the-night anthem.
You can almost look at the digital market as a virus. I adapted to it because we utilise the digital market as well—but we don't drop everything and go straight digital. There's no way. The physical aspect being taken away has basically jacked up the whole scene. Like you said, there's no filter, there's no person on the other end of the phone saying, "Can we buy your release for distribution so we can sell it to the store?" And then the store has people who are knowledgeable about the music—that's their job and they know this stuff—and when the customers come in they say, "Hey, I got a hot one for you." Not the latest one, the most popular one, the shiniest one, but a hot one. It didn't matter what it looked like, they just knew that it sounded great and that you were the one that needed to be playing it. But now what it is that they look at you and say, "Oh you need to go here and download these twenty tracks cause everybody's playing these." So what's the point? I've been to parties where there may as well be one DJ playing the whole night—because it sounds like it.
Was there any particular reason why you decided to go digital with Subject Detroit a couple of years ago?
We were blessed with the option to do the digital. We had thought about it and we were holding off and holding off, and then we were approached by a company who basically said, "Okay, we'll take this stuff and give it to all these online shops so people can download your music everywhere," and initially it sounded good. We were like "cool, it'll be everywhere," but they didn't get it everywhere. So what happened was, a few of the major shops were contacting us direct. After a while they said, "Hey, we got a lot of people enquiring about your music. Can we get it direct from you because the people who are supposed to be distributing it to us aren't getting it to us." We had checked Beatport and a few other places, but they only deal with aggregators. They don't deal with people directly. So we got an e-mail from Beatport direct saying "we need your shit". That's huge in the respect that they respect the label enough to go around protocol. So we decided "what's the point of having it in three thousand online stores when on the web, you can go anywhere? It's not like they were three thousand physical stores, so why be on this site in Russia, and this site in Germany, and this site in the Netherlands..." We decided to go with the heavy hitters, which were Juno and Beatport, and that was that.
You've even got your own download store on the Subject Detroit website now. Do you find that many people go out of their way to get the music directly from you?
It's been going for over a year. It's really cool, because we're getting downloads every day and we're finding out that more and more people... We kinda don't like the whole release date thing. Even dealing with distributors, that was the one pain in the ass that kept killing me. "We need a release date!" I liked the thought of when it's done I can put it out, and I have the budget to advertise it anyway. Distributors don't do a great job of advertising the product anymore like they used to—they used to push it. Now what they do is start a distribution company, so they can start up a bunch of sub-labels under their own distribution, and then push their own stuff. That's why Prime went out of business. They were letting people who worked for them start up their own label and just give them a budget. You ended up with a bunch of labels that sounded the same and it was a glut. They had a lot of quality stuff, but in the end it didn't work out. What I like to do is release it and when people find out about it, they find out about it.
I was reading that you were working on an album that was called Another Language. Have you finished it up yet?
That's the working title right now—it's not finished. It's a work in progress, because there's actually about three albums that I work on at a time. What happens is I come up with an idea or a concept and I can't get 'em out fast enough, so I have a really huge backlog of ideas, concepts and projects that sit there. So I work on everything all at once. I basically say that it's due to the fact that I am a Gemini that I can handle a ton of different things at once, but the Another Language project is unique. It's almost exactly like what I was saying about people being different. You have to be different. You have to have something familiar to the point where they say that "it's techno" or "it's electronic music" or whatever, but so out there that they get almost scared.
The best songs—or the greatest music that I've ever heard in my life has scared me to a certain extent—in a good way. It used to be when I listened to a Prince album I'd go "Ooh, I don't know about that shit." Then I started listening to it three or four times and I'm like, "Woah, this is amazing." My ear and my whole spirit became capable of listening to something enough on the first listen—not even a full listen—and just feel something, because I know it's special. So that's how when I go to record store, I actually don't listen to the whole record or the whole song. I skip through it, because I know when something is going to happen and I know what sounds will keep my interests, and I have done that since '89. I would go to a shop and skip through the records, and I would know immediately. I think early next year is when Another Language is going to happen, and if I'm crazy enough I might end up doing all three albums at one time, but they are all so different.
I have to keep a lot of it secret, but one album is super organic. I'm trying to step as far away from machines as I possibly I can, to make it techno but human. Almost like if you could imitate the beat of your favourite techno track and take that somehow and amplify it, and then be able to tweak it or arpeggiate it; that's what it's shaping up to be.
Is it just natural found sounds or are you using acoustic instruments?
It's real sounds—real organic living things—as well as organic instruments, and the least amount of plug-in instruments as possible. It's turning out to be something pretty cool. I think it's something special. I can't even put that in a techno category to tell you the truth. It's just soul music.
Is there still a dance floor focus to the album?
A couple of tracks definitely are, but for the most part it won't be. It is something that might make you move but it just might not make techno people move. [laughs] It might make the hip-hop people, or somebody in-between, or more independent music listeners.
There are obviously a lot of common themes running through your vocal tracks: struggle, oppression, adverse conditions, etc. Was the prevalent racial tension in the Detroit metro area a direct influence?
It's partially experiences from me and my family—my father, my grandfather. Just instances that I've come across, be it something that's directed towards me that is profound but is ignored. I have this argument with people all the time when it comes to techno, and they say, "You don't like white people making techno." I don't care if your green and making techno. What I care about is when I see a white guy come over from Europe, find some gullible sap who'll let them sleep on his couch, and then he goes and investigates everybody's studio who will allow him in there and then give him any kind of hints and tips, and he goes to all the clubs and watches the DJ's and actually physically takes notes, and then goes back and starts making music, and falls short of what he is trying to copy but runs with it anyway and then denies any kind of inspiration from the city of Detroit.
So is it the fact that some producers don't credit their inspiration from Detroit the thing that annoys you?
That's all it is. You don't have to think Detroit every time you play a record or make a record, but there's a certain respect for the people who are blatantly trying to be Detroit. You'll see on their one sheet—every time I see this one sheet... Detroit-inspired, Detroit-esque, Detroit sound, Detroit-influenced... But then they don't want to have anything to do with Detroit or the Detroit artists, or want to help anyone. I have seen it a million times, and I try and warn people. I don't want to name names or talk about labels, but there is a formula. A label will start up and nobody knows it, it's basically not worth anything yet until people start to buy its products. So what do they do? They start licensing back catalogues from prominent Detroit artists, or they do brand new releases. It's not any one label—it's tons of labels. So they will do a release with a Detroit artist, or a couple of them who are prominent, and then it builds up the label. So now everybody is looking at that label going like "that's the shit!" So what happens next? They start pushing the Detroit shit to the side, they see you later, and start introducing their own artists. So now they've got all this momentum on the back of the Detroit releases, but they're not bringing in any new Detroit people. They're bringing in all new artists, but no Detroit artists.
You've been going a bit international yourself with the releases from Stephen Brown, Rennie Foster, Crudo and Trish van Eynde...
That's when people try and say, "Oh, you don't like the Europeans." A lot of people talk about who I am without really doing their homework, but you got to know what you're talking about. So that's why if I'm saying something and people think I'm talking shit—there is a difference between talking shit and just telling the truth. Most people who retort are the ones who are the offenders, so that's like someone saying, "I hate DJs with big egos," so if I get upset from that general statement, then that must make me a little guilty on the ego tip, to actually think that they're speaking about me. It would be different if they say "DJ Bone has a big ego" because that's direct. I couldn't care less if someone didn't like my DJ set or if they don't like my release. That's a personal opinion. I can't get mad at everybody who doesn't like what I do. Direct attacks are different. If everybody liked everything then there is something definitely wrong. I really subscribe to that theory.
Speaking of jacking Detroit artists, your "Music" acapella got lifted by Dan Andrei on his "Just Music" track without permission. Did you ever come to an agreement with Be Chosen?
These guys used the "Music" speech, and the owner of the label claimed that he didn't know that it was a speech that someone had done, and the artist said that he didn't tell the owner of the label. They're saying that it was a miscommunication. So I said "fair enough, just cease and desist all sales of that, and you're good," And they said "it's already been through our distributor and the shops," so I was like, "Well, you have to pay me." They never sent me a dime. After all this when I finally started threatening people they stopped pressing and selling downloads of it. Still no money from them to this day but...I have a few people on that case. It will be handled.
You said that you had a lot on your mind when you agreed to do this interview with us. Is there anything that you would like to say to our readers?
What I really wanted to say was that it's a crucial time for underground electronic music and the underground community to take a stand, and basically take stock in what they they've grown to love; so they need to be really, really, careful and they need to be smart about how they spend their money, who they support, and that they can't fall for any old bullshit that's out there. Make a choice based on what you feel is good and not just what's popular.