Jay Daniel channels the new spirit of Detroit
It’s 2002 in the Wayne County area of Detroit and Jay Daniel is in trouble with Miss Cope, his seventh-grade teacher at the Detroit Academy for Science, Maths and Technology. It’s a repeated issue, as he’s spent the last five minutes making beats on his desk using only his hands. It’s something he would spend a large part of his young life doing – after starting to play the drums at the age of four – and carry through to his adult life.
Now 26, he’s widely known as a discerning producer of percussive led yet rough edged homegrown American house music, all built around the inimitable sound of an Akai MPC2500. His first EP, Scorpio Rising, landed in late 2013 on Detroit legend Theo Parrish’s Sound Signature, whilst his second came the following year, a double-pack 12” on close friend Kyle Hall’s Wild Oats label, titled Karmatic Equations. He then went on to feature on Abyss on FunkinEven’s Discipline EP on Apron Records, before launching his own Watusi High label in Spring 2015 with his School Dance EP. They were a varied collection of releases that suggested an artist not wanting to be confined to straight-forward house but, following the inaugural release on his new label, everything went quiet.
Daniel maintained his busy touring schedule, DJing at parties across the globe, but in his downtime would spend extended periods in the studio he’s put together in his mother’s basement at home in the Highland Park area of Detroit. The resulting recording dropped on Ninja Tune imprint Technicolour at the back end of last year, with Broken Knowz providing one of the most intriguing listens of 2016. Weaving jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop and myriad other sounds into his production, it took the blueprint of his more club orientated tracks but shifted the attention away from the dancefloor and onto its intricacies.
“I was just trying to kick open the door and remind people what time it is,” Daniel says about his debut full-length. “I could have done a traditional house album, but I wanted to experiment. That’s given people a lot more about me as an artist, and has opened the door for me to go in whatever direction I choose now.”
I speak to Daniel as he’s sat backstage the Corsica Studios venue in South London, and he’s reflecting on the point that he realised he’d hit something special whilst recording Paradise Valley and Knowledge of Selfie from Broken Knowz. “They’re where I really hit the nail on the head for where I want to be musically,” he enthuses. “I was totally sober and remember just thinking, ‘Damn. I’m really feeling this.’ But the album feels like the tip of the iceberg, as I still have a lot more to say based on that sound.”
And Broken Knowz marks a distinct shift in approach to recording that Daniel says he is now taking into the club tracks he’s working on in the studio. Disillusioned with the constraints of drum programming and its deficiencies in translating human emotion, he began recording his live drumming into a multitrack mixer. The result is a combination of deep grooves and percussive workouts that he says are born from “subconsciously studying” the jazz he was listening to in the lead up to making his debut. Reading science fiction and afrofuturist writers like Samuel R. Delany and Zadie Smith informs Daniel’s music too (“It helps me distance myself from things going on around me in everyday living”), and the result on Broken Knowz is a body of work with a much stronger narrative than what’s expected of most electronic music LPs.
“It’s about colonialism,” he says on the subject matter of the album. “The role it plays on black music and the commodification of it. So Broken Knowz is me protesting that, using the platform I have. If you look through history, black music has been the pioneer for pretty much every genre; rock and roll, soul, funk, whatever. And there’s a fine line between appreciating black music and respecting it, black people, and the art that comes from them, and then just making money off it.”
Broken Knowz is embellished with references to this theme too. The title is a reference to the Her Em Akhet, the Sphinx from ancient Egyptian times that some believe had its nose destroyed by British troops. The album’s press release also states that the title references the knowledge stolen from Africa by Europeans, whilst opening track Last Of The Dogons is a nod to the Malian tribe of the same name, who were linked to the ancient Egyptians and scientists discovered were astrologically way ahead of their time in the 70s. Elsewhere, Paradise Valley was a neighbourhood in Detroit that served as an entertainment and business hub of densely populated African-American residential area that people that had migrated from the south through the first half of the 20th century, until it was destroyed by the I75 highway in the 1950s. Niiko is Somali dance, and Yemaya a goddess in Yoruba culture, a Nigerian tribe that uses drums to callon ancestors.
“You can use music as your shield to protect yourself,” Daniel explains. “And money can’t replace that. With the album, I wanted to challenge the theory that everything has to fit into a genre in order to be marketed. For me stepping out of that realm is freedom, and a healing thing.” But despite breaking the mould of what’s come before from him, Broken Knowz is still indebted to the burgeoning Detroit scene he is part of, which has also recently spawned Kyle Hall – who Daniel runs his Fundamentals party with in the city – as well as Generation Next and John FM. These are all artists Daniel says will continue to shift attention back to Detroit’s house music scene, which is in his blood as his mother was the vocalist on Carl Craig-produced Planet-E classics Stars and Feel the Fire in the early 90s.
For 2017, Daniel tells me that he’s focused on pushing the Watusi High label he launched in 2015 with his School Dance EP, using the exposure for Broken Knowz as a springboard to push the imprint to a wider audience. He hopes to use this as a platform for up and coming artists in Detroit that aren’t getting the support they deserve, as well as his own material.
“It all comes from the spirit of Detroit,” he says of his productions. “And this next generation is definitely starting to turn heads.” Looking to the future Daniel also says that he’s been busy working on a live show, performing his music with other musicians, as well the upcoming releases on his label. “There’s no pressure on any of it though,” he concludes. “As right now, I’m exactly where I need to be.”
Broken Knowz is available now via Technicolour