Another thing you get with Huckaby is candor. His first release, Deep Transportation Vol. 1, dropped on Rick Wade's Harmonie Park imprint back in 1995 although by his own admission he had been seriously struggling to get to grips with the production game for years prior to its release. Even beyond those initial tribulations Huckaby speaks openly about crucial mistakes that have held him back down the years. Now among the most celebrated of Motor City producers, with a dizzying handle on production processes and a sample CD bearing his name, it's little wonder he's so willing to impart the advice he so clearly would have relished in his formative years.
Well, that was probably the [Yamaha] DX-100; any classic Roland piece—the Juno 106—then I started piecing together Alesis' MMT-8. A lot of people use those in Detroit and like [with] that and the 909, you could make 100 records.
How difficult was it to get your hands on these things at the time?
The MMT-8 was fairly inexpensive. A lot of people bought DX-100s, second hand Juno 106s. You could run a lot records like that with a 909. Then I started to listen to a lot of records that didn't just have 909 and 808 drum sounds.
Records coming out of...?
Everywhere: New York, England, Chicago. They didn't just use those sounds and the formula was simple to rocking the 909 and 808 and the combination of both or a Roland 727. There was always some track that was working outside of that.
I've heard that you learned a lot from Chris Simmonds in the early days of your music education.
Yeah, he showed me, he held my hand and walked me through everything. He showed me how to truncate a sample, which I thought I understood but once I sat down with him, I [found out I] really didn't know. A lot of producers have problems where the tracks, or beats or parts of a song drift, and I had that problem.
How long were you stumbling around in the dark before Chris guided you?
Man, at least for like five or seven years I had that problem. Then so, I started to hear a lot tracks that had drum sounds and kicks outside of the 808 or 909. That led me to wonder what my next piece of gear should be to purchase...
Did you manage to identify those machines?
The result of that was sampling. I was like "What drum machine is this?" because I went through all the drum machines—606, 727, 909, 505—I went through all of that, and I still found that there were sounds outside of all this, and the result was sampling. It's kind of taboo with sampling in Detroit.
Derrick May kind of put it out there. People kind of took that as one of the ethics of Detroit production but then things start to restate that definition and so I was really persistent as to what my next piece of gear should be. I fell in love with the Roland S-770 and S-750 samplers. The 770 was more money so I could only afford the 750. I was like, "If I get a sampler, I got access to it all: Any sound I ever want." It had an amazing library; it had the warmest filters ever—way warmer than the Akai samplers. I actually bought an Akai later. I bought the model that had the removable... I can't remember which one but they came out with a sampler which had a detachable interface. I bought that, listened to the filters in that thing: it was cold as hell; searched for my receipt, immediately took it back.
So the Roland samplers: is this what most guys who were sampling...
No, no, no. I discovered that. On my own. That was like $3,500 back then. That was a lot of money. It's like $200 on eBay now.
What was the sampling time like on it?
The default was like 18 seconds or something and then blown out was like two minutes. It was a bitch to learn how to use. I wanted to take it back. I was really frustrated, it was like industry standard. I mean, the reviews I read on it said it was a kick-ass sampler. I wanted to take it back, but stuck with it. I was like, "Man, you bought something that was ahead of your time." And that was the same thing with the [Waldorf] Wave. I mean this kept happening to me in my production career: I would get something, then I would read the reviews religiously before I decided to buy it and then get it and the learning curve would be crazy as hell and then I'd doubt if that was the right decision or not, and then years later it'd open up and then man, you really did buy the right stuff. Cos when I bought the Wave and took it home and listened to the presets, I was like, "Can I really make some house with this?"
Actually I got a picture of the UPS guy delivering it. I spoke to the guy in LA who was shipping it; he said the estimated time of arrival should be this day. I took off that day, waiting on that doorbell to ring. I was looking out the window waiting on his ass... I pulled my camera out—boom! I almost invited him to come in and try it, I was that excited. Tore it open on the living room floor, right there, plugged it in with an extension cord, started the OS disk, booted it up went through startup, man, this was going to be a doozy right here... [But] immediately I was like "shit." But then I knew it was a super Jupiter 8 on steroids, I knew that it was like the ultimate Mini Moog, the ultimate Jupiter 8.
Tell me what the presets were like.
Horrible, they were fucking horrible. They were not suited for house at all. They kind of base the presets on the popularity of the music at the time. So they want to capture users who are interested in making possible music that's available of interest at that time...
I mean, like earlier on, presets were kind of like analogue-based and as time went on later in the mid-'90s trance started to heavily influence presets… I actually sat there for a couple of years without even actually using it, and not really getting much out of it and, one day, in a bind for cash, I had thoughts of selling it... I was like, "Whatever happens, I'm not selling it." Then one day I woke up and said, "You have a $9000 synth that's not making you any money. You bought a $9000 synth; you need to learn to play a $9000 synth."
To give things some context, what year did you pick this up?
I bought it in like '98 or '97, it kicked in 2001 or 2002. Actually I started taking piano lessons heavily in '99.
That got you in the mindset?
The complexity of the machine just didn't lend it to be user-friendly. Then Reaktor: I started getting involved and I saw the reciprocal relationship between all the software. I was looking at things in Reaktor and I was like "Oh, that's what this is on the Wave."
So actually looking at it from the software perspective?
The reciprocal relationship: I was looking at that, and [thinking] "That's how that works on the software on Reaktor and that's how that works on the Wave." You had dealers that were saying you can get any sound out of the Wave and I took that literally.
What do you mean?
I would look through my DJ crate which I played out. I would think of all these records and take that literally. That was like a really crucial dumbass mistake. What they meant by that is that through the tonal and harmonic spectrum, you can get any sound. It's been like a critical mass of mistakes in my production that's had me stuck for years.
Nah, man. First of all, the whole Detroit techno thing was a DIY ass movement. Sometimes you were privy to the information, sometimes you weren't and you pieced it together. If you got so far as to seeing how it was done when it was done, that stuck with you. Then some scenarios provided more info from that.
What was the climate like post-"first wave" around Detroit? Were there many guys like you trying to get into the productions thing, trying to piece bits of information together?
Always man. Everybody was doing that. We were just piecing together things slowly but surely. Even Kevin, Derrick and Juan didn't have it all together. There was always something to learn, branch off into. I remember the first time Derrick May cut a record on a DAT. We were like "What's this DAT thing? What's this digital thing about?"
Was there anyone from the upper tier who was willing to drip down information to you guys?
I can describe the differences between Kevin, Juan and Derrick easily. Derrick was really... he was really open. You could go down to Transmat; he would give you a white label. He was really friendly. He had more of a collective vibe and camp of people. Juan was straight up like hood cats: Down to earth ass people. No pretension at all. And Kevin was strictly business. If you went down to KMS, he didn't really play the hang out game. If you were down at KMS, if you rang that buzzer, there was a little spillover to "Hey man, what's happening?" It was like, I played early tracks with Derrick, I played early tracks with Juan. But I was blending in more with Juan's camp.
Was there anything other than your sampling mishaps that you were struggling with?
You know Derrick May: a lot of stuff that he was saying back in the day became the law. Not so much what Juan or Kevin were saying, it was like Derrick was making a lot of statements and that became the law. And it kind of became taboo to sample. But then I was just hearing too many dope ass records that sampled things. I was like "fuck that."
Were there any other "rules"?
He was just saying "We don't sample shit like Todd Terry." His [May's] stuff was taking off, and Juan's stuff was taking off, and Kevin's stuff was taking off and none of it had samples. It's such a funny story sometimes this Detroit stuff... I was starting to hear records that had samples in them. I was like "I'm getting a sampler and I ain't going to have to buy another cus I can sample things."
What were you sampling in those days?
Anything off a record... Shake [Anthony Shakir] was kind of like the Todd Terry of Detroit a little bit. He would put some drums together and he would just beat it up... The reason that people are feeling Shake and this new wave of producers that were always there is because now people are starting to seek and search willingly for missing information about the Detroit electronic music story. People are finally starting to see that there's more to Detroit house and electronic music than just Kevin, Juan and Derrick because they dominated the perception of Detroit techno for well over a decade.
it was the way out."
Could you talk me through some of the ways you might approach composing an original production?
I try to create a vibe, feeling or idea that could create a vicarious expression. Often, this is derived from many of my personal clubbing experiences. I have a permanent snapshot in my mind from the vibe I remember at the Music Institute in Detroit, or the Shelter in NYC. So I vibe off of that quite often. In terms of house, it's usually based around strong chord progressions, and very colorful and expressive sounds. For techno, it can be a mixture of both, or purely abrasive and dance floor driven.
Music is reciprocal. I have coined or phrased a term called "the reciprocal relationship" in music. The reciprocal relationship in music demonstrates that tones excite chords, and chords excite tones. Here's an example to further elaborate on that: A chord can invoke a specific feeling within the listener. But the strength or degree in which a feeling is invoked within the listener has a lot to do with the notes or chord progression that is played upon a specific tone or patch.
I know Reaktor has been key for you down the years. How did you first discover it?
I got Reason off somebody named Tom Mitchell. He showed it to me one day, and later on a few months after that, talking to Tom [I asked], "What else is there outside of Reason?" He said, "Get Absynth and FM8." Went out and got it the next day. I said, "Yeah man, I bought that." He said, "Really? Honestly man, a lot of cats are saying this program Reaktor is the be all end all. This is supposed to be hard as hell!" I said, "Who made that?" "The same people who made those other two synths." Went out and bought it the next day. That was it.
And I understand this was partly down to the fact that you didn't feel your peers would be willing to stick with it?
I always adhere to that: Always do what your peers can not do and will not do.
I guess this thinking fed into your decision to buy the Wave?
Absolutely. For guys in Detroit, music wasn't a way out, it was the way out. I mean we took it seriously. It's got to work, there ain't going to be an option to fail. That was embedded in your thought processes no matter how tough that was.
Tell me a little bit about the classes you teach at YouthVille. What form do they take?
Well, with Reaktor we do a lot of beat making, there's a lot of influence on beat making in Reaktor. I teach them about Reaktor first, then Ableton second. Make your beats, then learn about synthesis, then make instruments in Reaktor, then you take it, mix it down, then sequence it in Ableton.
Is Ableton the sole DAW you use?
Logic seems like Garage Band plus, Protools is too expensive... there is too much stuff you can do in Ableton. Even the students, they ask me all the time, "How did Swizz Beatz chop up this drum? How is this hip-hop track going with a Black Sabbath solo?" And you have to show them how to do that, and it can only be done in Ableton. That's not necessarily true, but I pity the person that's trying to do that without it.
What would you advise your students to buy as a first set-up if they asked you?
For me personally, it would be Maschine, Reaktor and Ableton Live. For a student I would say Maschine and Ableton. I wouldn't tell them to get Reaktor.
Do you personally place more emphasis on learning new skills than putting out new records?
I can only continue to put out records if I'm continually learning. Otherwise it's over. In this business you're only as good as the last records, the skills you learn. You'll get eaten up in this business. You've got to keep reinventing yourself. Since the last ten years, I've reinvented myself like ten times.
What form does that take?
Man. Looking at where you're at, what you've done, how long can you continue doing that? The more I learn, the sampling just dropped off, I stopped sampling so much. You know, DJ Sneak hit the sampling disco filtery era—he plateaued with that. I was like, "I'm probably not going to be able to do too much, finding those rare samples. You're not Prince, you're not Kerri Chandler whose father was a DJ..." In Detroit we were just some homeboys, we didn't have none of that. Our father wasn't a DJ who had like a 20,000 [vinyl] collection or was a pianist. We didn't have none of that and that's why honestly I can say, New York has kicked our ass production-wise. They had more resources, but now this is the first time that Detroit's perceived as a being a bit higher than New York.
If I were to suggest that the deep house has already reached a creative plateau, would you agree?
No, not at all. There are too many emerging concepts and technologies available in terms of creating new sounds. Hybrid synthesis methods which employ multiple synthesis techniques within a single synthesizer offer more sound programming possibilities than ever before. A thorough knowledge of synthesis and music theory can expand the horizons of deep house for a lifetime.
If a producer thinks that deep house has reached a plateau, the difficulty of being able to come up with fresh new ideas and sounds, is often the root of the problem. This is often rooted in a limited understanding of music theory, and the principles of synthesis. It's just that simple. Any producer saying this, and especially one without a widely accepted classic under his production belt, is obviously not pushing the boundaries very far.
Can you foresee a major change in gear or style of music in the coming years?
I think many hardware and software combinations will continue to emerge. There is such a strong need for software to possess the processing power that's needed while being combined with hardware. I think more modular synthesizers will emerge. I think modular synthesizers may become more affordable within the market; modular synthesizers with computer recall of presets and important information and data is a good reason to predict its rise in the market place. House music is here to stay. House music and techno, and all of the different variations that have emerged from it, will continue. A complete shift in consciousness or paradigm shift within individuals could be the only cause for electronic music to cease as we know of it.