Matt Unicomb checks in with an unsung hero of US house and techno.
The K-HAND sound is based on smart sampling and even smarter drums. Taking cues from the percussive Chicago aesthetic sculpted by Paul Johnson, Cajmere and others, her tracks are stripped-down and full of personality, built on swinging beats and catchy basslines. The many gems in her catalogue—"Love Games," "Candle Lights," "Project 5 (Untitled B1)" among them—ooze character. It's the sound of a lost era, built with the qualities that so many people love in this type of US dance music—funk, rawness, emotion.
Hand was born and raised in Detroit, but her earliest experiences with dance music were at New York's Paradise Garage. "I would go to Paradise Garage on weekends, and after the club closed for the day I would go to the record shop nearby and buy the records that were played," she told Jacob Arnold in a rare 2010 interview. Those experiences shaped Hand's music, leading to an upfront rhythmic style that has more in common with New York and Chicago than the smoother house sound of many of her fellow Detroit producers.
I caught up with Hand in Berlin at the tail end of a European tour, some of which was spent on the road with Nina Kraviz and the rest of the Trip crew—Hand signed to Kraviz's label with two tracks in 2015, and remains in close contact with her today. In a free-flowing conversation, she looked back on a long career in dance music, recounting her earliest forays into production and the beginnings of what would become a lifelong obsession with hardware. Not long after our chat, Hand received the Spirit Of Detroit Award along with Jeff Mills, Carl Craig and the Belleville Three—names she very much deserves to be mentioned alongside.
You're over in Europe on tour at the moment. Do you remember much about your first visits here as a DJ?
Well, I usually don't like to talk about anything too far back—most of the people I associate with these days seem to be, like, 20 years old. Some weren't even born back then. But I think it was in '94 or '95. I was playing techno, not house. I had about 20 dates in Germany, and we just drove to all the different cities I played in. It was such a culture shock. I was so quiet when I got over here that everyone kept telling me that I should talk more. We'd be driving to the next destination and I'd be thinking, "Where are we going? Where am I at?"
When did you realise that house and techno was a big thing over here? It obviously wasn't like today where you could watch YouTube videos of your friends playing overseas.
The only way we could tell was when someone showed up with their camcorder and showed you in person. Maybe I realised when I saw videos of Richie [Hawtin] playing to thousands of people in Europe.
How did you come to start producing music?
I was staying in an apartment, and then my mom was like, 'Hey, I got this house—do you wanna move in too?' It was perfect, 'cause I wanted to do my music and I couldn't be too loud in my apartment. I bought a used keyboard, mixing board and a drum machine—the basics. And a synth, 'cause back then, they didn't have like all this software that you could just install on your computer. Oh, and an Atari. Every day I would just mess around. And I had a friend come over, and we would just mess around with different sounds and keyboards, and do a lot of reading. You know, reading and messing around. We didn't have internet so we couldn't look at YouTube to see how to do things.
Did you enjoy programming drums from the beginning?
Yes, a lot. I had the Roland R-8.
Your drums really stand out next to a lot of other house from Detroit. They're very punchy and energetic, like what you'd find in Chicago stuff from that time. A lot of other house producers from Detroit—Rick Wilhite, Moodymann, Rick Wade—often have a more laid-back sound.
Those guys have a more Miles Davis type of sound, maybe. They still produce a lot of dance floor stuff, but yeah—their style is a little bit different. More like a live band type sound, not too jacking. But once in a while they'll get in the mood and put out one of those type of tracks.
Tell me about your first record. I read that a few other people were involved.
My first record was called Think About It. Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, Mike Clarke and Rob Hood all came to my house. I already had some equipment in there. They were like, "OK, we're gonna help." I had all the sounds arranged already, then Rob and Mike Clarke both did a remix, and that's how it turned out more techno-y. The original was much more housey. After it was done, I took it to one of the DJs in Detroit to get his feedback, and he told me, "It sounds like the track is saying 'Think about it.'" That's where its title comes from.
How did it get released?
So I had the track I wanted to put out but had no idea how to go about it. So I went to Dwayne Bradley at the radio station and said, "This is the one I wanna release." Mike Banks and Jeff Mills heard it and said, "Let us release it!" After that they told me about the whole process—how many minutes on each side of the record, things like that.
Later on, I figured I'd like to see how the full process went and decided to release it myself. And then I knew what to do for the next one, and then the next one, and the next one. And then, of course, as you go along, you get better with your productions. I was working on music every day. I was working a regular job, and on weekends I was just going at it.
Where were you working?
I was doing fraud control at a phone company. Back in the day we had calling cards, and people would steal those cards to make calls all over the world. We'd go into the computer and cut them off. We had a thing that would show us when there was some unusual activity on this calling card, and we just swiped it.
How often were you DJing at that time?
Not often. I was just producing, but was really going at it. I'd just sit there and tinker, re-tinker and re-tinker. There was a lot of studying. It was self-taught stuff, 'cause my friend was like, "You've gotta read the book." So I read and read and read.
Are you still like this with new equipment?
Oh yeah, I'm like a kid in a candy store. I get crazy with new equipment. Once I read the manual I can properly pull sound out of it. The key is to pull out a sound that's genuine and your own.
How does someone develop their own sound?
It's a natural thing. I don't care about other people's sound, I just come up with what I think sounds good. So it's a personal thing. Some producers I know, they'll go in and say, "Oh, I'm gonna make this acid track, but I wanna sound like K-Alexi." But it doesn't work that way. You can't sound exactly like K-Alexi.
My background, I would say, mostly comes from Chicago and New York—even though I'm Detroit born and raised. The main influence out of Detroit for me was Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance. They were the ones who were supporting me from the beginning. And they had the most music out.
Was Detroit competitive in the early days?
No, back then there was no competition. In my opinion, at least.
I've wondered if some people were looking over their shoulders thinking, "What is this guy doing? What's she doing?" and becoming jealous of other producers.
There were a couple like that, but I'm not gonna say names.
I had big companies contact me early on to do major remixes. Some people would get jealous, 'cause they felt like they were supposed to be the ones to carry the Detroit torch. Nobody else can come above them. I can't say the names, but it's really sad that it goes on, you know? I got cut out of a studio because they heard I was doing some big artist remix. But that's alright—that's why we're at where we are at today
Have you seen that some of the K-HAND records from back then are pretty expensive to buy now?
Yes, but that's going to change shortly. I'm working on something so you'll have to order directly from my website. I told Omar-S, "Sorry, but I'm copying off you. I love your website." So he told me how to do it. It looks boring, but so what? I've made a few hundred off it in the few months I've been in Europe.
It's nice to see that people still want the records, though. I feel really grateful to be part of today's scene. Back in the day, once you connected with one group of people, you couldn't connect to the next younger group of people. You have the 20-, 21-year-olds who only like the new fresh thing, so you'd have artists from back in the day totally trying to reinvent themselves. Luckily for me I was able to jump right back in.
Maybe it's because you've made a lot of timeless music.
You think so?
Just look at all the DJs still playing your stuff.
That's interesting, because a lot of the guys I've met—they're in their 20s—have been, like, "Oh yeah, I know this record of yours, I know that record." I'm just like, "Wow."
What does a track need to be effective on the dance floor and stand the test of time?
I think it's all about rhythm and quality of production. Quality should be number one—it's gotta sound fat.
Speaking of rhythm, your tracks swing a lot. Why did this become so important to your sound?
It's just part of who I am, I guess. I like to have that swing, I dunno where it comes from—it's just natural. For me, house has gotta have swing. It's big in the Chicago house sound, as you'll notice. There's a certain sound from Chicago that's very swing-ish. And that's why the sound of Chicago is slightly different from a lot of other house.
Like this Paul Johnson stuff. You know his track "Suck My Candy Cane"?
The drums there are a great example of the Chicago sound.
There's a certain tweak in the equipment that you use—most of the Chicago cats know it, I know it. It's that straight-up Chicago sound. You can't go wrong when you're using it.
Lots of house from this era was produced with MPCs. You must've used one for many of your tracks?
A lot of my tracks are from MPC, yeah. MPC-3000, I love it. It has 120 load-ins, and if you have the space you can just load the samples in, or use the zip drive, or the exterior. MPC is real tech. A lot of people think it's old school, but old school to me is new school. Technically, all the hottest music came out in the '90s. All the hottest music.
Why do you think that is?
Computers. And producers. In the '90s it wasn't a saturated market. Everybody's got a label now. Another thing is the drums. If you listen to the drums from the '90s versus today, or just the overall quality, it's not as clean-sounding as today's. More people are using digital now.
So much of the house that's popular now seems to have a simple, straight beat. There's not as much swing as there used to be.
If you take ten vinyls of tracks made in the '90s, and take ten vinyl records made today, they're going to sound completely different percussion-wise.
Cab Drivers, these German guys who make a lot of swung house music, told me that they think it's because everyone is sitting down in front of a computer clicking a mouse now, not dancing around their equipment like they used to.
Exactly. I record live straight off the hardware. I actually used to play live in clubs when I was on !K7. But I was just using my MPC, and everyone was like, "Oh, an MPC, that's kinda lame." They wanted to see Kraftwerk-style equipment, going all around you in a circle. It wasn't like today where someone comes in with an Ableton laptop and just syncs it.
What do you think when you hear the house music being put out today?
If it's not on vinyl, it's not final. That's the bottom line. Because you need that warm sound, that analogue sound—not the robotic mouse clicking sound. From 2000 it's all been Einstein, twinky-twinky electronic computer-mouse clicking music.
A lot of people produce by putting things in blocks on a screen. Some people make good music doing that, but for me that's not producing—you're playing a computer game. But that's just my personal opinion. There are people making good music doing that, but I've tried it and I don't like it. I like to go on the keyboard and come out with the actual sounds.
All of your tracks seem to have a different mood or theme, which is quite rare in house music.
Theo Parrish said the same thing. He was like, "How do you come up with all these different things?" I've also thought about it. How can I come up with one track, and then a totally different one four hours later? It's gotta be my moods. And which equipment I use, of course.
We were talking right before I came over to Europe. We were in the studio, and I was like, "You see all of your equipment laying around? That keyboard right there? I'll make a song off that one. You see that other keyboard there? I'll make a song from that one, too. And they'll all sound different." It's the different equipment and different moods.
Do you think about how your tracks will sound in a club while making them?
I don't think about parties at all when producing. I just make the tracks. I just go with it. I like to dance, so I'm always energetic. The only thing I think about is making sure the track is DJ-friendly so they can mix with it. But as far as making the track, I don't say, "Oh, this has gotta be for the club." I don't think about that, I just make them.
I think a lot of your tracks have a very specific and strong sense of emotion. Look at "Love Games," for example.
There are a lot of love themes, huh? I noticed this in the past two months. I'm like, "Wow, a lot of my songs are lovey-dovey."
I think a lot of them would sound very different if they didn't have punchy drums underneath them. On the surface, the themes don't seem particularly suited to clubbing.
Absolutely. Maybe that's why I don't think about making club tracks, specifically. I already know that if there are drums in something I make, it's going to be for the club. If I make the drums first, whatever I put on top is just finishing something that's already club-friendly.
"Candle Lights" from your Project 5 record is a perfect example of that.
Glenn Underground asked me about that track. He said, "Kelli, how did you get that warm sound?" Well, it's a lovey-dovey song. I was going through a little crush thing then. So if everyone thinks this song is good, maybe I need to go through some more crushes to get some more lovey-dovey stuff going.
It's a special track. Not many people are able to nail a functional sound with such a strong sense of feeling.
I think it's something to do with the way I feel while I'm making something. Maybe I have a crush on someone—with "Candle Lights" I did. Even one of my fans, a girl, told me, "Something was going on with this record when you did this. What's going on?" I was like, "I ain't saying nothing."
Nina Kraviz has put together an introduction to K-HAND playlist for RA's YouTube channel.