With an uncompromising style forged in Detroit's rave heyday, Russell's spent the past two decades in relative obscurity, but now that's starting to change. Will Lynch talks shop with the ascendent selector.
Along with old friends and DJ partners like Mike Servito and Derek Plaslaiko, Russell eventually moved from Detroit to Brooklyn. When I met him there one preposterously hot afternoon this past July, he was at a turning point in his career. Since the beginning, his DJ style has been driven by a staunch commitment to music he truly loves, no matter how unfashionable it may be—an admirable stance, but one that hasn't always been lucrative for him. Now, though, he's starting to get his due. No Way Back has an international reputation, and he recently became a resident at The Bunker New York. In September of 2015, Russell played his first gig outside North America, The Labyrinth in Japan (he was invited back this year to play twice, on the opening with Peter Van Hoesen and for a non-dance music set closing the second night). European gigs have also rolled in. As we sat in his living room, cool and dark despite the searing heat outside his blinds, he explained his history with DJing, his approach to buying and playing records, and the importance of staying true to yourself.
On the Interdimensional Transmissions website, BMG says he considers you to be one of the few remaining members of what he calls "a lost era in the Midwest." Do you know what he means by that?
Sure, it makes a lot of sense, actually. There is a very specific style. The Midwest rave scene was really intense, and it was really unique, in that there were a lot of small cities that were connected. People would drive back and forth to different cities all the time, there was a network in a way. You had Chicago DJs, you had Detroit DJs, and there was also Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee—places that were playing really hard acid. And these all kind of bled together. I was inspired by all of those scenes quite heavily, and much of that acid scene was filtered through Richie Hawtin. I think he kind of epitomizes the Midwest rave DJ, in that he was very precise, he really knew how to rock it, but also how to mess with your head at the same time. He's one guy that set the wheels in motion for me in the early years.
It's interesting, with virtually everyone I've talked to in your generation of Detroit ravers, and especially among the No Way Back crew, Hawtin is the key figure. His DJing and his parties were the definitive experience.
I think so, yeah, but I wouldn't say he was necessarily my first and foremost inspiration. I took inspiration from a lot of different DJs. Before I was even going to the illegal parties, I was going to this club in Pontiac called Industry and seeing Mike Huckaby and D-Wynn. They were the first ones I got the whole DJing thing from. I was already DJing house parties, actually, but without a focus on techno and house necessarily, just kind of playing tracks with a friend of mine. I started going to this club, and seeing how they were fluently mixing house and techno, and just keeping it bumping the whole time. Something about that, I just gravitated towards it. I would stand there and watch them, and I kind of taught myself that way.
From there I started getting inspired by other DJs. Like Dan Bell, who at the time was more of a hero for his work as DBX, and earlier stuff even. He'd play tracks that nobody else in Detroit even knew about. He would spend so much time in Chicago getting these weird tracks, like Marcus Mixx, things nobody in Detroit knew about back then. I'd heard Detroit techno, I'd heard a lot of UK stuff, you know, Aphex Twin, IDM, I was very much up on that, but Dan's sets were what really kind of turned it for me. I started blending different styles together. And then came along Richie Hawtin. And through him and through other various sources, I started getting into acid and these weirder records.
You said Hawtin knew how to rock it and also how to be kind of a mind-fuck at the same time. That's pretty close to how I'd describe No Way Back—part party-rocking, part trippy, down-the-rabbit-hole kind of thing.
Yes. I don't know that we started No Way Back trying to do that. The original party was with the four of us—BMG, Carlos Souffront, Derek Plaslaiko and myself—and it was supposed to be kind of a throwback, we wanted to bring it back to basics in a way, do something with a big system, a decorated space. It was a way of moving away from the minimal scene that was so prevalent at the time, and doing something really different. And I think eventually, without us even really talking about it, it all started getting heavier and heavier and focusing on more tripped-out music.
Is that maybe the core of Brendan's idea of the Midwest rave DJ?
Yeah, I think that's kind of what's he's getting at with that.
It never occurred to me particularly, but some of my friends, especially from the UK, find it striking how much you guys play acid, how central acid is to Detroit raving. Why do you think that is?
I think there are a couple reasons. First of all, at least for the few years that I started going to parties in Detroit, people actually took a lot of acid—it was all they took. You couldn't find MDMA. There was an atmosphere and a mindset established early on that was fundamentally different from Chicago and other rave cities.
One thing that Brendan would also be quick to say, and that I've always said too, is that in Detroit, "acid" didn't necessarily mean a 303 line, it was about this gnarly, psychedelic, intense sound more generally. That word didn't have such a narrow definition to us.
You said a friend introduced you to DJing, and you were playing house parties. How did that happen exactly? How old were you?
Probably 16, 17. We'd throw parties at this guy's house when his mom was gone. I grew up in a small town north of Detroit. My friend, Phil, he's DJing with one turntable, one component CD player, a double cassette deck, all on this RadioShack mixer. You couldn't play two records in a row, or two CDs in a row, you had to go from one thing to another all the time. I was really enthralled by what he was doing, controlling the energy of this party, I thought that was really cool. He said he thought I had a knack for it, and started letting me do it all the time.
Phil's sister lived in New York City somewhere. He would visit her and go to the NASA raves that were happening in, I think, '92, and he would come back and we'd talk about all of this music he'd heard. I was so fascinated by the whole thing. I was already getting into some of that on my own—my first techno records were probably Joey Beltram Energy Flash, some early Aphex Twin, Artificial Intelligence compilations and things like that. I actually didn't know much about Detroit techno until Phil gave me this UR Revolution For Change CD. And it was from there that I started going to Detroit and seeking out that kind of stuff on my own.
What kind of music were you playing at the house parties before you were into techno?
A combination of weird things. Early, bleepy kind of UK stuff, cheesy things like Deee-Lite, even. Early house. Meat Beat Manifesto, Renegade Soundwave, all kinds of bizarre stuff.
How did you find out about records back then?
You would trainspot, basically. Just go and see what was on the label when a DJ was playing. I was relentless—I would carry a little notepad and pen with me and write it down. With the Chicago records, classics like Steve Poindexter "Work That Motherfucker" were played a lot in Detroit, but to learn about some of the more obscure records from wherever they were—Dutch records, for instance—you had to really work to seek them out and see if you could find a record store that would special order it for you. That was the only way to get it.
Do you think of yourself as a digger?
I would definitely say that, yes. Especially in my early days, it was all I did. I spent a lot of time in Chicago through the mid- and late '90s for personal reasons, I was there maybe once or twice a month. I would go to Gramaphone and literally take stacks and listen to everything, just to educate myself. And once I started hearing Theo Parrish play out in say, '96, '97 in Detroit, I started getting turned on to disco and the deeper reaches of that kind of sound, and just kept digging and digging and digging. I would go to record stores around Detroit, drive to all the suburbs and just dig through the bins. Sometimes you couldn't listen to them, you'd just take chances. Other times I'd listen to as many tracks as possible and buy as many as I could. Digging back then was about getting down on your hands and knees and getting dirty for hours.
So, actual digging.
Absolutely, yeah. I love doing that. Every time I go to a new city, or a city I haven't dug in before, I get excited just at the thought of going into a record store and seeing what they have that I couldn't find around Detroit.
Why do you think that part of it turns you on so much? Why is this search element so exciting?
I think it's different for different people. Some people like digging for certain tracks. I certainly have a list in my head of things I'm digging for, but it has always been more about the discovery of things that I didn't know about, especially when you're digging for house and techno. It's impossible to keep up with everything that came out over the years, especially in the '90s or early 2000s. I missed a lot in those years. Just going back and finding things I didn't catch the first time around—that's the joy of it for me. The discovery side of it.
And I guess also the knowledge that there will always be more to discover.
Absolutely. Of course, though, this side of it's changed in recent years. With so many records being reissued, with Bandcamp and other digital sources, it's much easier to get this music.
What are your digging methods like these days?
Mostly online. It's definitely shifted in the last four or five years. Even when I first moved to New York, I would go out to the record shops quite a bit, I'd go to A1 and dig for used records. I don't go as often any more.
The problem with Discogs, and eBay before that, is that now people know what the rare records are, and it's driven the prices way up. Even when you go to a place like A1, you might see a record that you need but it's on the wall for $50. And that's kind of a drag.
So before Discogs and eBay, the rare records would be sitting there with the same price as all the others?
Exactly, that was a big part of the thrill. It might be a one-in-a-10,000 chance you'd find a given record, but if you did, it would be for $2 or $5. I found a sealed copy of Glass Domain, the very first Gerald Donald record, at Record Time for 25 cents once. That's a real thrill.
But I've rarely experienced that since moving to New York. Digging in Detroit, that's where it was really at. At Record Time, even in its last days, it was just unbelievable. People would sell entire collections all at once. In 2000 maybe, or 2001, Duane Bradley, this big radio personality who was very intertwined with the Detroit house and techno scene in the '80s and '90s, he passed away, and all of his records went to this place Desirable Discs, which was already a massive record store. Literally an entire floor was just his records, and none of them were priced, whatever you found was $2—Prescription records, original Alleviated pressings, Robert Owens, Larry Heard, Clarence G, the most ridiculous things. I must've walked away with a two-foot stack of records. I had to go back, like, three, four days in a row to go through all of it. Over the course of a few days I spent a couple hundred bucks, easily.
Do you get a kick out of the Discogs experience at all?
I do, I actually really like it, for a number of reasons. It's an invaluable tool, I use it all the time just to look things up and for reference. And of course I buy records there, too. I mean, the stuff you want is right there, and it's worth it now just to pay the little bit extra for convenience, just to have it shipped to you instead of spending a year hunting it down for half the price. Also, I was certainly very involved with Discogs right from the beginning. I submitted some of the entries right back in the early days, as did [Mike] Servito, I think. I think I submitted the first Liaisons Dangereuses album, and the very first Alleviated record, the original Mystery Of Love. I still get Discogs messages asking me if I'll sell that record.
Do you sell many records?
You know, looking at my record collection you might be surprised that I don't have more. That's usually what people say when they first see it—"Is this all of them?" I've streamlined over the years. I've lost some to various living situations, but I don't like playing filler records. I like records that have a lot of weight to them and will stand up over the test of time. I'm very, very picky about what records I keep. There are certain ones I'll keep for a while, and then once they've outlived their usefulness, I'll just trade them in and get different records. And then there's certain ones that stay in the collection all the time. It's a kind of continual process of refining and streamlining.
How many do you think you have?
I have no idea. Probably around 3,000.
That's pretty concise for decades of avid collecting.
I mean, there was a time when I had every single Theo Parrish record. And there was a time when I had every single Larry Heard record. Which, those two artists, my collection of their material is still very strong, but I've just gotten rid of the ones that I may never play out on vinyl, or aren't particularly rare, or which I'm fine with just listening to a rip of, you know, digitally on my home hi-fi and that's it.
Do you systematically rip everything?
Over the last couple years, since I moved more towards digital, I've gone through phases. I was a lifelong vinyl-only DJ, purist almost, for many, many years. And it was in 2010 that I made the switch to using Traktor, 'cause I just didn't want to carry records travelling, even if it was just to Chicago or something for a gig.
Was that because you wanted to preserve your records?
Actually it was. It was something Derek Plaslaiko recommended. He's like, "You're bringing out all these rare records to play, you should consider trying this out." And I did, and actually the first time I used it was for my RA Podcast. I hadn't even tried using it before, I just downloaded it and gave it a shot, and digitized a bunch of my stuff. But yeah, it was more for preserving the records, not even so much for wear, but just I was worried something was gonna happen to them, and then I was gonna have to spend like 200 or 300 bucks to replace it. It's just ridiculous, the price on these things.
I saw a picture of you and Derek looking super young and sweaty at a rave somewhere. How have decades-long friendships like that influenced you as a DJ?
Well, without question, they've absolutely shaped my DJ career in a few ways. I met Derek in front of a speaker. He was always the crazy guy at the party, dancing next to me. And then we became friends, and I was already playing raves around Detroit and East Lansing, or Michigan State. And he was just starting to DJ as well, and it's just a lot of sharing information, we liked a lot of the same things. Carlos Souffront and I have known each other for pretty much just as long. Getting to know him and being able to sit around and talk records was just pivotal.
Carlos and I became residents at the second incarnation of the Family party at The Works. Over those couple years, he and I would challenge each other to play these crazy records. It was hilarious, no matter who the guest was—could have been Matthew Dear or whatever—we still played the same way. We both had this attitude, like, "We're gonna play our way and everybody else can fall in line." We just didn't care. At the time we never thought of playing around the world and doing all this stuff, we were kind of just playing how we felt at the time, pulling out these crazy Mike Ink records no one in Detroit cared about. Carlos has always been one to push me, whether he realized it or not. I've always drawn inspiration from him, for sure.
Let's talk about your mixing technique. How would you approach a typical transition?
When I mix a track in I generally have most of the EQ turned down, and I'll just try to sneak in one little element, whatever it is, and then slowly bring the others in. Snap them back, bring two parts back at the same time, something like that. I really like to layer things underneath for the first little bit, so you don't really know what's coming in, try to create that effect of, "Wait a minute, I thought that was part of the other track," you know? So yeah, sneaking things in, layering things for a long time, playing with the EQs. I don't know that I've ever brought something in with the EQ all the way up. That's just not my style at all.
I'd say the most important thing though is preparing myself with as much music as possible, but at the same time limiting it to records that I know by heart and really, really love. I tend to play a lot of complex music, stuff that's maybe not super DJ-friendly—for instance, I like to play a lot of Aphex Twin records. But if you know the record well then it goes fine. When to play it, how to mix it, all that stuff just happens automatically.
So it's basically a combination of knowing the records and following your gut instincts.
Absolutely. If you know those records inside and out, you know where every change is, you can almost do it in your sleep. Your little tricks, your EQ drops, they'll just follow the track without you really needing to think about it, and it will just sound right. Records I know really well, when I listen to them, they speak to me. They tell me, "I should be played early on," "I should be played towards the end," "I am a closing track," and so on.
I think you can tell when a DJ is playing a brand new track, or something they don't know that well, because the track itself may be very good, but there's not always a ton of life in the way they're mixing it. Or some nights I'll play something out and afterward I'll think, "Damn, I really didn't like that mix," but it's because I tried playing it kind of out of place. They fit in a certain part of the story, of the arc, and you need to feel out exactly where.
How do you get to know the records so well?
Mostly just by listening to them without mixing them. I listen to brand-new tracks over and over and over again. What's great is buying them off of Bandcamp, 'cause then I'll get them on the app on my phone, and then they'll download to my phone itself, so if I'm on a flight or whatever, I can just listen to the tracks and I'm not really given a choice to mix them, I have to listen to everything that happens in them, and I just listen to them until I feel like I understand them.
Interesting. I think that kind of close listening is pretty elusive for a lot of people, especially with dance music.
I also think a lot of music that comes out is—OK, it may be good, I'm not gonna dog it out, it might be a hot house track right now, but it's the kind of thing that fits a place in a DJ set for a while, and then it's turned over in favour of something else. It might not necessarily be a filler record, but it's something that you don't establish a longstanding relationship with, you know? And I guess that goes back to not having a ton of records, because I don't hold onto every last thing, I try and keep focus on the stuff that I absolutely love. Maybe that's to a fault. I play an Aphex Twin track, or a Mike Ink track, or a Jeff Mills track almost every set. But it's because these artists have such a wealth of incredible material, and I love so many of their tracks, that I feel like it's almost criminal to not play them out, because they're just so outstanding.
I think you accidentally touched on something interesting there. Basically, if you listen to a track on your phone during a flight, that means this is actual music that you enjoy, even when removed from the scenario of playing or preparing for a gig, which is actually a pretty strict litmus test. There are only so many club records that I'll listen to on my earphones walking down the street.
Right. There's a lot of atmospheric dub techno. There's a lot of New York-inspired house. There's a lot of current acid-line house, you know. But it has to rise to the top for me to want to play it. And again, it's just my own personal preference, my own taste. But for me, part of it is me wanting to show the audience what I experienced when I was young. In the '90s in Detroit, going to parties, I would hear these tracks and they would affect me in such a profound way that I still remember these moments 20 years later. And whether or not it's actually the same record—it might be something that came out last week—if I'm playing it, it has to be powerful enough to me that I think it could create that experience for someone else. I want to play it in the way that it deserves to be played, so it leaves that impression on these people where they go home and they're like, "Holy shit, he played this one track..." If I can do that, then I feel like I've totally done my job. I mean, back when I was going out a lot, parties would happen on the weekend, and by Thursday the next week I'd still be sitting there thinking, "Man, that one track was sick."
Sometimes that feels like the natural order of these music scenes. All these young people are going out and having these transcendent experiences that, after a certain point, aren't really going to happen anymore. But then for some people their role kind of changes, and they take on the mantel of trying to give those experiences to other people. Whether it's through DJing, putting on parties, whatever.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there has been a number of times where I've tried to quit DJing, for sure. Not making a lot of money, not really getting booked. Years ago, say, before I left Detroit to move to New York. But what am I supposed to do? It just kept sucking me back in until I finally just admitted to myself that…
You're stuck with it.
Yeah [laughs]. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love it, but you know, trying to balance DJing with paying the bills… it's not always easy. But I'm lucky that in the last couple of years it's gotten easier.
Speaking of which. Labyrinth 2015 was your first gig outside The States, is that right?
Correct. Aside from Canada, but yeah outside of North America.
And then you played Berghain not long after that. So it's a pretty recent development that you're an international DJ playing gigs that are totally removed from the US techno community.
It's more of a recent thing. It's something that I aspired to do years ago, and just never happened. Some personal things that happened in my life. And you know, I've never been the super social guy to go and network and everything, that's always been my biggest problem. I just stood my ground and stuck to my guns when it came to the music that I liked, even if it wasn't fashionable. In Detroit, when there was a lot of minimal going on, I was really into Hieroglyphic Being, I was playing all this gnarly acidy stuff. It's funny that now, after all these years of sticking to my guns, it kind of paid off. And then finally Russ, who organizes Labyrinth, he reached out last spring and said, "I want you to play, here's your slot." I was honestly beside myself, because it was finally this validation. I did this my own way. I did it the way that I've always wanted to do it, and not cutting corners, not playing bullshit tech house or incorporating elements into my music that wouldn't have been true to myself, and he wanted me there to play what I played.
Even when I played Labyrinth, I was ready to go on and I was sitting there just kind of still unsure of myself, you know? And Donato Dozzy came over, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, "Go out there and be yourself, do whatever you want." And I said, "OK." And I went out there and I did, and everybody loved it. From Russ to Dozzy to the audience, they were all very appreciative of it. And it's just been slowly, gig by gig, catching on in that manner. Which is extremely satisfying. Like, unbelievably satisfying, because as I said, there were many years I wanted to give up because I didn't have the energy or the confidence to put myself out there, on social media or in any other way, it's just not me. Other people can promote themselves, have a huge social media presence, and that's natural for them, they're being themselves, and that's great. But for me, I would have to change something about myself in order to do it.
I think I've gotten better at it, but historically I've been so introverted. Moving to New York was really huge. I got to know Bryan from The Bunker and everybody else, eventually becoming resident over the course of many years of just playing around town and things like that. But more importantly because the attitude in New York is so different than Detroit. Here people are always trying to hustle and get something going for themselves. In Detroit, people stand their ground, they have their guard up. It's kind of, "You come to me." Whereas in New York, you have no choice but to push yourself. And I think just the right amount of that has rubbed off on me enough to get that extra step, finally.
It's interesting you say that about Detroit. I've gotten the impression before that, whereas in most cities rave culture is this heavily social thing, in Detroit it's a little bit more introspective, a little bit more escapist. I went through a phase where every DJ I interviewed from Detroit would bring up a different sci-fi film at some point. Carl Craig for instance kept bringing up Terminator, so I asked him about it and he said something like, "Well, growing up in Detroit, you really had to have imagination."
Absolutely. For me, it was this whole other surreal situation. When I started going to these parties, it was early in the '90s, this music was changing every six months. You'd compare your new records to ones you bought earlier in the year and they were completely different. It was changing so fast, we felt like we were on this constant new thing. And there was no electronic music in commercials, or on TV, or on the radio for the most part. So it basically felt like this alternate world you'd drop into on the weekend, and then there'd be no evidence of it the rest of the week. It felt like a fantasy world, except it wasn't. You almost needed to slap yourself to remember: this is actually a real thing that's happening.
Also, for me, I lived out in the country, my parents' house was surrounded by cornfields. It was flat, I could see for miles in every direction. And it was quiet. I'd sit there at night listening to these records and just want so badly to be in these other places. I wanted to be at the Haçienda, at some rave in the UK, I wanted to be in Detroit. So for me, yes, it was and always has been about imagination and escapism.