- Text by Alex King
Theo Parrish doesn’t look backwards. He refuses to be drawn into reflecting on Detroit’s mid-’90s underground scene; a special era that is still remembered, mythologised and continually referenced today. As a DJ, producer and founder of Sound Signature records, he can claim more credit than most for his personal contribution, but he’s too busy pushing forward to consider his past (or even think too long on his present).
For Theo, the fabled Detroit scene never really existed. To this day he sees himself alongside artists from the Motor City and elsewhere, labouring simultaneously to advance the frontiers of a continuum of black music that reaches back through disco, funk, soul, jazz and beyond.
A Theo Parrish set plays with your sense of time by blending old school and progressive sensibilities while blowing apart any boundaries you thought existed in dance music. At any moment he might reach into his record bag to pull out a cutting edge new beat or a vintage jazz cut so far out there it makes contemporary music still feel lightyears behind.
Watching him today, you’ll see a man still at the coalface, testing himself personally and artistically, and his latest live project is no exception. Theo explains he’s returned to the stage with a full band for the first time in a decade to challenge himself to play his instruments in front of a crowd and to educate a new generation raised on sets from laptops what it really means to play dance music live.
Looking back on the mid-’90s Detroit scene now, how does it feel to be involved in the growth of something so influential?
I see it more as something that I became a part of and added to. You had heavyweights walking around doing their thing to the fullest before I even became part of the lexicon. I look at it also as it being a continuum, not necessarily divided. Remember, the terms we use, or the terms that have been used to describe black music – because that’s basically what we’re talking about – usually come from outside the community.
So there’s never been a distinction for most of the people in there between jazz, funk, or any other things that have come from the midwest, particularly funk. There’s not been that much of a distinction, there’s just been that the outside world has seen these things with different titles and distinct parts, but different individuals that have come along, typically. When I look back I don’t see it as anything but a continuum, and it being inseparable form jazz, funk, soul, every other music that’s basically come from the hood. It’s all the same thing.
But how do you feel when you look back on your early career?
It’s really hard to see it as something I look back on because it’s still something that’s going on. Music is a continuum, when you’re doing it, you don’t really get an outward consciousness and I’ve been moving forward since then. It’s more just continually creating, making the next one and making the next one and moving on. You don’t really get the chance to take step back and go ‘OK, that time was special’ cause this has been special all the way up.
What do you feel you’ve learned over that period?
Firstly, it’s very important to be true to yourself. Anyone representing you has to be aware of who you are philosophically and execute things in line with that philosophy. The second is to dedicate yourself and to work hard at what it is, don’t cut any corners and respect the craft. Stay dedicated, honour the craft and be true to yourself. Those are the things that I see are mad stupid important.
Why do you keep challenging yourself?
I can’t really speak for other people, but for myself it’s more of an obsession. I’ve been obsessed with becoming a better musician, becoming a better DJ, improving on what it is that I know and pushing myself to just become better at it, more refined, more brave. Tighter. Those are the things that keep me interested. I’m not interested in getting it to a certain level and then sitting there with it, because that really doesn’t turn me on. It has to continue to move forward because that’s what I’ve seen other people that I admire and respect do; get better and get better.
But how do you know which direction to push yourself in?
It’s like ‘what do I not know how to do? What do I know how to do alright that I could get better at? With this live thing, I knew that I was pretty good at putting together songs in the studio, but could I pull it off in front of people? Could I get other musicians to believe in me enough to take my direction? Can I entertain and keep people interested enough?
I’ve seen these live acts out here and I get kind of get ticked off, like ‘wait a minute the dude is sitting up here with his laptop open, with this apple insignia beaming over everybody?’ It’s not interesting, it doesn’t qualify as live musicianship.
What people call a live show is starting to change and I’d like to do what I can to preserve what I know this dance culture to be. That means you dance with people and sometimes you’ve got to show them how to dance. You definitely need to be able to keep that energy up and you can’t be you wanking off on your own little trip just because that’s where you want to go. You have to earn that! You can go there, but you gotta earn that. You’ve got to earn your moments of egotism on stage, you know?
What effect do you want your live shows to have on people?
Feel something. Whatever they want. I just want some kind of emotional reaction. I can’t control exactly what they’ll feel. But I do want them to feel something. I don’t want them to be like, ‘ah, it was a’ight.’
I want them to be completely repulsed because they had a qualitative expectation that I didn’t I fulfil, it was so repulsive that they felt like they had to leave, or they felt the opposite of that, whatever that is. I just don’t want that middle, bland, beige kind of reaction. Just something, a strong feeling is all I’m really looking for from people.
Are there any live performers you particularly admire?
Prince is out of control, he’s pure music. He’s another level. He’s doing stuff that is just unbelievable. Hopping from the keys to the guitar to vocals, perfect pitch, timing, wit, he takes the piss out of himself. You know like he’ll be in the middle of a solo acting like he’s checking out, eyes rolling back in his head, mouth open and he’ll just take a look at the crowd and totally come out of it, laugh at himself. That’s a proper G who been in it, knows what the fuck he’s doing, and lives and breathes music.