Waajeed, Specter, Lakuti, Gerd Janson and more reflect on 20 years of Theo Parrish's pioneering label.
We love Theo Parrish because he is uncompromising. His philosophy is both obvious (vinyl, emotional EQ work, a disbelief in genre) and profound; the note on the back of his second album, 2000's Parallel Dimensions, nods towards the cultural roots and radical potential of dance music: "We are being programmed to consume with such cold precision, free will has become more about what to purchase than what to create. This programming gets interrupted every time someone cuts loose and starts dancing. The medicine found in the dance is real, and is originally African, so who are these distant purists with all these adjectives and comparisons?"
With Sound Signature, Parrish uses the language of soul, jazz, disco, Chicago house and Detroit techno to form a black music at once steeped in the past and hopeful for a better future. His is a deep, experimental music that is nevertheless redolent of pool halls, jazz clubs and dusty record stores. Of course, we are those distant purists wielding adjectives and comparisons, so in our profile of Parrish's Sound Signature label, which recently turned 20, we look beyond these descriptors to Parrish's immediate circle. We spoke to artists, label owners and DJs from Detroit, Chicago, New York, London and Germany about their favourite Sound Signature records.
[In the mid-to-late-'90s] Detroit was a soulful place, it was black. The early stuff, "Walking Thru The Sky," "Heal Yourself And Move," all that stuff was from back then when nobody had nothing. When Theo still worked at the liquor spot. "Synthetic Flemm" is a huge, huge, huge record. I play it all the time. I'll put it this way: at the Warehouse or the Music Box back in the day, Ron Hardy would have banged the hell out of this shit.
Heal Yourself And Move
Some of the early Sound Signature stuff, I never knew it was Theo. In the early '90s in Detroit, I had always heard that I had this twin walking around town—we had shared friends and common interests. So, I knew Theo as my distant brother more so than musically. I remember Theo's first record, Musical Metaphors, with "Carpet People Don't Drink Steak Soda." I was hearing a ton of dance music at that moment in life. I remember thinking about how authentic it was. I remember feeling that this wasn't dance music in a linear way, it was music I could identify with in its texture and its feel and its rawness. It felt like a bar fight.
Carpet People Don't Drink Steak Soda
There was a time when I was consistently going around to Theo's studio. What happens is, he hits record, you take a seat at the keyboard or whatever instrument's in front of you and you just play. It could be from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, and you just keep going. No questions, no conversations, just vibe. It took some adjusting to, that's not my typical flow, but we've done at least 20 or 30 hours of sessions—and "Warrior Code" came out of one of those sessions along with many other tracks that I've never heard again.
If you're ever in trouble, Theo is one of the guys you want to call. Our collaborations have been musical, they've been spiritual, they've been emotional and they've also been physical, meaning we've gotten in fights against other groups of guys. I will say that Theo is my favorite crazy person.
I have a fond memory of Theo playing this song in 1998 at Paradiso in Amsterdam at a Rush Hour party. I'm pretty sure he played it from cassette. It was something like 5 AM. I went straight up to ask the title and a year later while in Detroit visiting him I asked Theo if he could play me that song again—sounded so phat in his car! It was "Dreamer's Blue," which came out a couple of years later on the Parallel Dimensions album. I think it's the militant, uncompromising, free and quality-driven approach that makes the whole Sound Signature thing special. And yeah, Theo is still by far my fave DJ!
[Choosing a favourite] is an impossible task as there is so much to pick from; an inspirational label and one that just keeps on delivering. My pick will be "Sky Walking" as I believe it was my very first purchase. I heard it for the first time being played by Kenny Dixon Jr. at a great New Year's Eve party back in 1999 or early 2000 in a warehouse in north London. The track encompasses the genius of Theo, his ability to find a perfect balance between machine music, jazz and soul.
Theo Parrish is the Miles Davis of our times. Truth lies within his music. He lives and breathes music. This is not fashion or hype. This is someone who deeply understands and gives a voice to the marginalised. He charts our struggle as a people through his music. He's the master of presentation. I remember back in the early '00s, him playing at Plastic People when it had moved to Shoreditch. The room was packed to the rafters. There was this special energy in the room already in anticipation of his set. He then played Larry Heard's "What About This Love," and the room went berserk. There was a Japanese woman in front of me who literally attempted to jump over the DJ booth, tears of joy streaming down her face. We all felt unified by the moment. It felt so emotional. This is the power of Theo.
I've got a good memory hearing "Smile" for the first time on radio. I believe it might have been 4Hero's or Phil Asher's R Solution show on Kiss FM—I used to have my cassettes ready to record unreleased heat. I remember driving around London listening to that song in my car all the time and getting inspired, it was during my early producing years learning the MPC, which I believe Theo uses a lot. There's so many tunes but another good memory is hearing Theo's "Thumpasaurus," which was on Sketches. He played it at Plastic People and my mate Femi and I freaked out. How the hell did he make something like that with such a crazy groove and time signature?
I was fortunate enough to go to Theo's residency at Plastic People back in the day—I went to Plastic before knowing who Theo was due to a broken-beat night called CoOp that I religiously attended to every Sunday. I heard that I should check this dude out on a Saturday night named Theo Parrish. Once I saw this dude play I never looked back. It was the first time I saw anyone using a rotary mixer like that, playing around with it like a lil toy, it blew my mind! A DJ/performer has never gotten me to jump up and down like a Maasai warrior in a dark corner all night. The energy was unreal. He's definitely one of the last of the Mohicans to DJ in its purest form.
"Lost Keys," "Love Triumphant," "Renaissance" and "Her Song!!!!" blow my mind every time. But I guess it must be "Healing" if I had to choose one. There are so many! As a Londoner, I feel the context of these records and Theo are inextricably linked to Plastic People. Hearing this at Plastic People was a moment I think I'll remember forever. I would have been on the floor surrounded by my friends, we'd all be having "WTF" moments. I'm certain a lot of people have moments like this in clubs, but more often than not, at Plastic, Theo would be behind it.
I was in a music store in Detroit, Southfield, Michigan, and Theo happened to be there. I used to work for Roland, and I used to go to a store in Southfield. It was really like a barbershop because everyone was in there making tracks. We were having a beat battle in the store, making these hip-hop tracks. Theo was in there at the time, there were about 20 cats in the keyboard department at that moment. And I was like, "Yeah, this is some new stuff I just did," and Theo was like, "Give it to me, man!" That's when he first heard those tracks at the store, it just came off of my machine, it was just stuff I'd been working on, and he released it.
It was the first record that had my name on the front cover, Warren Harris. I'd always said Hanna. At that time, he told me I was the only solo artist he had signed to the label, and Theo, man, he's a cool guy, kind of like a big brother. We don't just connect musically, he's just one of those few people in life that I've met that I feel cool about. We talk about life stuff and kids and our relationships and stuff like that—the music is almost secondary. He likes my music and he releases it and that's just kind of business as usual. The time I've spent with Theo at his house, we listen to J Dilla records together, Jay-88 stuff together, he's one of the few people that I can just sit around and tell him records that I like and he has all that stuff and we can listen to it.
The whole catalogue is full of my favorite records. "Overyohead," "Dark Matters," "Capritarious #7," "Friendly Children," "Walking Through The Sky," "Illumination," "Going Through Changes," "Black Mist," I could go on and on here. Seriously. All of the artists and records—Duminie, Specter, Billy Love, Leron Carson. My first Sound Signature records were "Can't Take It," "Moonlite," "Walking Through The Sky" and the [Jill Scott] "Slowly Surely" edit. I love this label because the music hits me straight away. It makes me want to create, grab some pens or fabrics and start, and inspires me to dance. So many grooves to jam to—so much space! It is rich. Pure inspiration. The records fit all the music I love. They make me experiment and travel in between sounds, inspire me to go to places I haven't been. They will sound fine before a jazz record and will lead you to go into another direction after it. Live music and electronic music do feel right next to each other. No boundaries. Unity.
Slowly Surely (Theo Parrish Remix)
The opening hi-hats on T.O.M. Project's "Renaissance" wobble in like a toddler, but when that heavy kick drops in with the bassline—bam! You are locked in and moving. I remember picking this one at Rick [Wilhite]'s shop Vibes Music on 8 Mile. My copy was a clear blue one, singled-sided. "Renaissance" is an acid track through and through, but it's different. It's a mutant Detroit acid affair. Real grimy but with these eloquent strings that come in and out. What really gets me about this track is how it just bounces—man, it just thumps! To the point where you need to be careful you don't fuck up your neck from jerkin it too hard. Produced by three of the realest in the game—Theo, Omar-S and Marcellus Pittman (T.O.M.) Definitely a highlight for me from the Sound Signature catalog.
My first release on Sound Signature was originally going to be two of my original tracks on a 12-inch, with Theo then remixing them both on a separate remix EP. Then we're down in my basement studio one day, running through more recent things I'd done, as well as dusting off some older bits, and we came across this tune that I'd forgotten about. I hadn't exactly structured it, so it was pretty much short and sweet; all the parts just came in, did their thing, then left. Guitar, cymbals, drum kit, Fender Rhodes, vocals, all live, no programming, just a circular groove.
I have a habit of extending everything into pretty indulgent excursions, but occasionally something seems so succinct that you just have to leave it as it is... or maybe you’re not totally ready to elaborate on it, for whatever reason. I hadn't even unpacked this one, or allowed anything to unfold through all the various parts I'd laid down, but I guess through fresh ears it sounded ready to roll since he was saying he wanted to play it out. I hadn't really arranged it yet, and he was asking me to put it on a CD for him, exactly as it was, to play to thousands of people. What does finished mean anyway?
Despite my aversion to the spotlight, Theo was insisting that my image and full name should appear on the vinyl because "people should be able to see who's behind your music." On its release, we still had people thinking that I was this guy who had sung on that Theo Parrish record (as he had knowingly predicted) despite always being a pretty reluctant singer. I had written, played, produced and engineered it, with my vocal being just another layer of instrumentation for me. But I guess voices get a different share of people's attention, even if it is just four bars. And this record and many other records would not have been, were it not for the legendary Mr. John Dent of LOUD Mastering. Rest in peace.
Anyone who's been around Theo knows he's definitely not shy about having opinions, thoughts and feelings about things. I think he really values that, and his independent and assertive approach to his art is his response to the homogeneity that often surrounds us in these creative spaces. Somebody's got to break the ice, break the rules, break convention, break the mixer, the amp, the system... I suppose as an artist it's essential to make space for your passion and time for the spirit to create, uninhibited by hesitation and indecision. I don't think he's particularly held back by anything too methodical or mundane, as his heart seems set on the unorthodox, uncommon and elusive aspects of what we do as artists. Our processes may sometimes seem illogical, but maybe they make sense to the senses. I think he gets that; our inalienable right to be alien.
I took a break of about five years from putting out records. I took some time to transition, and in 2012 I started to rebuild my studio on the West Coast and then got started recording again. I wasn't rushing, I just wanted to do something different, that people were not really going to be expecting from me. The thing with Mark was really just spontaneous, honestly, he came up to where I was living, him and his family stayed at my house. We'd always talked for years about recording some stuff together, we'd talked about touring, we'd talked about so many things.
He was in the kitchen eating and I was in the studio, working on some of the stuff. But when I started to play it and work on it he was like, "Yo!" He ran from the kitchen to the studio and was like, "What's that? Plug me in, plug me in." So we got him all plugged in, patched in and we just went with it. It was really spontaneous, he liked what I had put down, and when he started playing on top of it I was like, "Oh this shit is crazy." We went into the zone and that's how that happened.
Moon Circuitry feat. Mark De Clive-Lowe
"Overyohead" would probably be my favourite one. It felt like a totally different thing, especially at the time. I think it was the time signature to start with, usually with dance music it's a 4/4 kick. I remember picking up the first EP and the second one, and then hearing "Overyohead" in the store for the first time and just being blown away; every release just kept getting more nutty. I was always instantly drawn to it, because I was always attracted to those kinds of sounds, I first started out hearing classic house and disco, in the '90s I started listening to B12 and Black Dog, techno that was coming from the UK, and then here comes the Sound Signature stuff, that just fit into what I was listening to at the time.
After "Pipe Bomb," Theo said, "Why don't you think about working on an album?" I put out a few things on my label [Tetrode Music], and another one on Sound Signature, "The Gooch," and would just give him a few tracks here and there. It's been a minute, but I think [2018's Built To Last LP] came out at the right time.
I remember finding Theo Parrish's "Baby Steps" on Elevate Records in Midtown Records in Amsterdam around '96. After that the hunt started. On early internet pages I found out that Theo had a record out on Sound Signature: "Carpet People Don't Drink Steak Soda." I am not sure anymore how I found that copy, but the stuff was very difficult to get in Europe or at least Holland. Later on in '97 we started the Rush Hour store and my former partner and me stepped into a car and drove to Container Distribution in Hamburg. We found more Sound Signature and other Detroit records, which became one of our store's unique selling points. In '98 we decided to throw our first party and booked Theo Parrish and Moodymann at Paradiso. This is when Theo played "Dusty Cabinets," which he released on Sound Signature. The sound of that tune was weird at the time but so spot on. We loved it. This party was one of the first times they played in Europe and many people came to the show: San Proper, Marsel Delsin, Serge Clone, I-F, Pim Clone, Aroy Dee, Volcov, Shinedoe and a whole bunch of others from Amsterdam and beyond. That night, Theo and Moodymann won the hearts of many people in Amsterdam.
Summertime Is Here
In '99 we brought Moodymann and Theo back to Holland for a party on the beaches of Bloemendaal at a place called Solaris, which doesn't exist anymore but they were the neighbours of Woodstock. At that party Theo played "Summertime Is Here" for the first time, which he released as Sound Signature 08. It felt like he brought Sun Ra to the dance floor.
It's like asking the hypothetical question about the favourite child. But I guess a lot of it would be from the first years—just due to personal reasons, youth and dedication. I was obsessed with so-called deep house and the early Sound Signature releases were so idiosyncratic, wondrous, mesmerizing and peculiar that it was breathtaking every time a new 12-inch made it into the local record stores. I think I probably would pick "Dan Ryan" with the "Liberation Mix" of "Walking Thru The Sky" on the flip, or "Moonlite." Parrish's early music was minimal, abstract, yet playful and imaginative. Deep in the non-cliché sense and hyper-hypnotizing.
I remember reading his name on a KDJ record for "Lake Shore Drive." He had this wonderful way of flipping samples of classic R&B or disco records, adding his signature keys to it, a loose drum programming. He managed to make house music sound fresh and exciting at a time when the book almost seemed to be closed. Of course, there were also people like Herbert who operated at the same time and were similarly groundbreaking, but you immediately recognized a Theo Parrish record when you heard it. I remember seeing him DJing on a cold Monday night in January or February 1999 at Café Kesselhaus in Darmstadt. He started with Rolling Stones' "Miss You" and ended on a white label that turned out to be Sound Signature SS06, "Overyohead." My friends and I were overwhelmed by it. Nothing sounded like that at the time and we immediately made it out to be one of his. I cannot listen to the record without thinking back to that moment.
I think Sound Signature continues to fulfil its original mission: music that is not formatted to be anything other than music that Theo Parrish makes, plays or likes to listen to. From his own releases, like American Intelligence or Sound Sculptures, to the brilliant new Specter album. I am happy that he found people that could answer the question he raised in the contact details on his early releases: "What do you sound like?"
And here's one for the road...