Something you don't expect, speaking to such an accomplished newcomer as The Lady Blacktronika—producer, vocalist, owner of Cocaine Recordings, disco re-editor, self-declared "First Lady of Beatdown"—are such revealing admissions about vulnerability and fear.
2009 was the landmark year for The Lady Blacktronika, AKA Akua Marcelle Grant. The Cocaine EP for Spanish label Deep Explorer, her first solo release outside of Cocaine Recordings, marked the arrival of something different: By melding her own deep-timbred vocals with the shuffling slo-mo step of Detroit Beatdown, Grant succeeded in creating a new point of view for Beatdown house, and some of the best deep house productions of the past year.
For any new artist in the midst of underground hype and critical support, the next natural step is to sate public curiosity outside of the studio. And thus as talk turns to DJ sets and live PAs, club appearances and tours, Grant is faced head-on with her most deep-seated phobia: live performance. "They are talking about bringing me out to Spain eventually," she continues, "and I have another friend who I'm working with in the UK who said 'Well, you're going to have to remember the lyrics when we are touring and stuff.' I'm like 'Oh no!'"
The memory of her first and only live performance—a solo in a high school concert at age 14—petrifies her as much now as it did then. But it's not the sole cause of her apprehension. "The honest truth is that I hate my voice," she confides. "I don't really think that I sing that well, so I'm nervous. Sometimes I listen to my music and I'm like 'Wow. This is really good,' but later I'll listen to it and go 'Oh my god, this is shit..."
Mid-sentence, however, something in Grant's tone shifts. "...but I have to find a way to get over that and believe that people wouldn't be buying my records if I wasn't doing something worthwhile. I still want people to hear it. I need to express myself."
A conversation with Grant, particularly one about her music, swings back and forth in this manner, from crippling self-doubt to self-sufficiency, despondence to clear-eyed pragmatism and back again, buoyed by her disarming candour and engaging skills as an expert raconteur.
With that evocative name—The Lady Blacktronika—issues of race and gender are embedded in the DNA of Grant's music. And by employing all of the sonic and cultural signifiers of Detroit Beatdown, she appears to be following directly in the footsteps of Theo Parrish, Omar-S and Moodymann, the genre's most outspoken and notoriously media-wary pioneers. Grant's productions undoubtedly take inspiration from Detroit, and while she credits the aforementioned names as her musical heroes—"(these) guys are like Michael Jackson or Prince to me!"—she was born and raised in San Jose, California, and has lived for several years with her father in the small alpine city of Mount Shasta, crouched at the base of the volcanic mountain of the same name, six hours north of San Francisco.
Grant's physical location is surprising, but most remarkable is ability to remain upbeat and unjaded, despite occasional self-doubt and long periods of disinterest in and rejection of her music by her Detroit-based peers. Throughout these frustrating periods, behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny, singing has afforded Grant an opportunity for private catharsis and expression. As a child, she was shuttled between an aunt, her white American mother and her African-American father, and singing became a refuge. It continued to offer similar comfort later during turbulent periods of adulthood. "I've always sung," she explains. "I sing about whatever I'm going through. Like if I'm having a problem with somebody, when I'm by myself I'll have a conversation with them, but I'm singing it. I'm singing my feelings."
Grant experiments with vocal samples, but it's her own voice that has been the most unique and affecting character of her productions. She radiates contentment and gratitude within the refrain of "Sometimes I can't believe / Oh, oh these good feelings," on "All These Good Feelings." She's unmoved by the manic synths and jacking beat of early solo production "Love Can Hurt," quietly repeating "Love can hurt / As well as give pleasure" like a meditative chant. Most recently she sighs, and moans, layered in triplicate and freeform in spirit, at the forefront of "Lose My Life" on the First Lady Of Beatdown EP, the inaugural release from Barcelona label Your Only Friend. Pensive, she ruminates "I don't wanna lose my life / Loving You" before the Dark Love Beatdown Dub mix of the same sees her cries attaining a new sharpness and intensity, cloaking it with whispered asides and a new sense of urgency.
Before beatdown revealed itself to her, Grant voraciously consumed electronic music while living in San Fransisco. Her bio only hints at the "harsh and dangerous reality of street life" of this period, drug-dependent, prostituting herself, and sleeping rough on the streets of San Jose. Her friends during this period gravitated towards hip-hop, especially gangsta rap, but Grant was uncomfortable with its literal retellings of her daily existence. "I had knives and guns pulled on me, that whole experience," she explains. "I didn't want to listen to rap or listen to anything that was going to remind me what I was going through."
Among other sounds, German speedcore was of particular importance to Grant. "[It] has nothing to do with my music," she explains, "or what I produce, but I used to listen to Gabber and I still do. It really helped me survive, and house and disco as well. If it wasn't for that music I'm sure I wouldn't have survived because it helped me elevate above. I was looking at my situation and thinking 'I am in this, but not of this. This is not what I want to do with my life.'"
Avalos first introduced Grant to Beatdown, and the disco-referencing "Come Into My Room" by Norma Jean Bell and Moodymann in particular struck a chord. For Grant, Beatdown presented the most cohesive and meaningful way to combine her own vocal ability with electronic music for a soulful, danceable result. "I really felt Detroit Beatdown was this really sophisticated progression of tracks," she enthuses. "It just has this emotional content that I don't feel any other music has. Then the Detroit Beat-Down compilation came out and I was like 'Wow, this is my type of music.' It's so slow and there are so many elements that you can borrow and I'm able to really express myself."
In the meantime, Grant and Avalos's fledgling attempts to secure label interest for their early productions were stonewalled by ambivalence and negative feedback. "I tried to get Marques Wyatt to listen to the music I was producing with Mattski, he was like 'That's nice,' but moved on. I guess he just didn't really feel it."
Other connections proved fruitless, and Grant soon set her sights on Mike Grant and his long-running Moods & Grooves label. "I spoke to Mike Grant by accident because I have his Moods & Grooves compilations and his number was on there. He answered the phone, and I didn't release that it was his production and studio. I played a whole bunch of stuff for him and he just didn't like any of it. He was like, 'It doesn't have any progression. Or any of this or that.' It was really starting to hurt my feelings because I really thought I was making good music and he just didn't like it. There was really no future there. I thought that if he didn't put out my music that probably no one would."
When pressed on why she thinks she was unable to connect with some of her Motor City heroes, she's typically forthright: "I really feel like the Detroit thing is really nepotistic," she states. "They really stay within their own community of producers. They really haven't shown me the time of day."
Ironically, it was only after Grant had reluctantly relocated from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta that her career began to find some traction. Disheartened and struggling to make ends meet in LA, she originally sought temporary respite at her father's home. Four years later she is still, begrudgingly, there. "I really came up kicking and screaming," she says, "because I did not want to come up here."
Resigned to a not-so-temporary stay in Mount Shasta, Grant decided to further her education, enrolling in an art course. Although she now had the structure of a school schedule, Grant soon found herself with the time, resources and motivation to finally pursue her own productions without the safety net—and crutch—of Avalos' advanced studio experience. "I really fall into 'the vocalist' and he to 'the producer'," Grant admits, "He is really like the big brother. Mattski has his own life and he didn't have time to teach me how to DJ or let me produce any of my own tracks, so finally I was like 'Well, I have a few extra dollars, I'm going to do this on my own and invest in my own music.' It really forced me to produce my own sound."
sure I wouldn't have survived."
Armed with Reason and the newly created Cocaine Recordings, a number of raw-sounding promo tracks followed. One of which, an intensely woozy and narcotic creation full of space and tension named "It's All About Survival," found its way into the hands of longtime Detroit figure Mike Huckaby, who debuted it on his radio show. An intrigued online listener, Dubbyman, tracked Grant down, and requested the track for inclusion on Deep Explorer's 2007 Ocean Species label sampler. Alongside the Alton Miller remix of Dubbyman's "Jazz for May," and an original track from Russian producer Anton Zap, Grant was in admirable company, and made a memorable first impression. An "I Heart Huckaby Mix" suffix was added to the track's title, as a nod of gratitude to Huckaby's influential support.
Any reservations Grant had about further releases with Deep Explorer were soon allayed. "I had always hoped to be put on one of the Detroit labels, but it didn't really matter who was putting my music out, as long as it was being put out. Dubbyman never asked me to alter my sound or said it wasn't good enough, he just really believes in and enjoys my sound, so it's really been a perfect relationship." The Cocaine EP that followed on Deep Explorer in 2009 featured two versions of the Mattski collaboration "All These Good Feelings," leaving the B-side to Grant to showcase her solo non-vocal production chops. "You're on the DL" shuffles and lopes into the kind of leftfield, loop-driven hypnotism that the likes of Moodymann have mastered, and "If Some Rain" reveals her deft and capable handling of minimalistic, sample-driven soul.
With critical support and peer validation finally achieved, Grant now splits her energies between production, label duties and amassing a trove of her own disco re-edits. Deep 'N Dusty, a social networking community, was originally created by Grant as an outlet for her re-edits, and has now evolved to become an online archive and meeting point for fans of disco, rare groove, funk, deep house and broken beat. The future for The Lady Blacktronika looks bright, with continued relationships in Europe, collaboration with UK producer Human Condition, and finally some opportunities closer to home, with a release in the works for Aybee's Deepblak Recordings. But there are still hurdles—and fears—to overcome, even as Grant accepts that facing an audience will be necessary.
"I was going to school but am actually physically disabled and have bad back problems," she explains. "It's kind of embarrassing to say I am disabled because I am 33, so I should be able to be as active as I used to be, but I am just not physically able to, which really saddens me."
"I said I felt pathetic, but I should take that back," she says, brightening. "Because I found out that Paul Johnson is actually in a wheelchair. It worries me that I will have to sit down to do the shows, but then I found out that he is in a wheelchair I thought, 'Hey, if he can perform as well as he does as a DJ and producer while sitting down, then certainly I can too.'"