An interview with Mike Huckaby

The Motor City. Probably the most musically enlightened city in the world. From Motown to techno, classical to hip-hop, it’s a place that has changed the course of music history on numerous occasions; often salvaging its people from a bleak reality. But it’s those very people that have etched Detroit’s name into folklore. Slaves to the rhythm, Detroit has a population with beats in their blood.

One of Detroit’s favourite sons, Mike Huckaby is synonymous with the deep house genre. Drawing on a vast exposure to music throughout his childhood, Huckaby forged his own way in music by melding alluring melodies with captivating basslines. House music, techno music, the rise of Berlin, he’s been there from the start and seen it all, learning to “speak the language of house music” along the way whilst always giving back to the community that made him. He’s a man truly grounded in his one true love; music.

From his first lesson in rhythm to his time with The Belleville Three and his legendary garage mix for Kiss FM back in ’95, Mike Huckaby gave us a glimpse into the life of a legend…

I’d like to get to the roots of your musical life. Why do you think you found music, or music found you? Was your family a big part of it or is it a given in Detroit that you grow up with music surrounding you?

Growing up in Detroit, the music simply found you, and presented multiple ways to participate in it and yes, my family was a major influence as well. My Uncle was a drummer, and he introduced my brother and I to the concept of rhythm. He would make us play the drums until our hands were red, or until we couldn’t anymore. My brother turned out to follow that influence, and become a drummer himself. For me, it was the foundation of djing and production. There isn’t a single DJ in Detroit that wouldn’t claim their own family as an influence on their DJ or production career. Often we would sneak and listen to our parents collection of music and discover things. We would look at the album covers and say what’s that all about?  Let’s play that and listen to it.

Being from Detroit and growing up as techno and house music emerged onto the global stage, what was/is your relationship with The Belleville Three? Did they have an impact upon your music and career?

I got introduced to all of this by being Anthony Shakir’s ride down to Metroplex, and Transmat Studios. Anthony and I had a mutual friend named Eric Sims, that knew Derrick May before all of us. We were all young DJs before anything, and Eric told us that Derrick May was spinning a gig at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

The Belleville Three had an influence on the entire city. They were really ahead of their time working with gear and making tracks at that time. Anthony would tell me stories from being down there, and what was going on down there was considered the law concerning producing this type of music. So I got the chance of using his connection as a valuable learning experience. I basically break down the three different camps like this:

Derrick May – very welcoming, he wanted to know everything else everybody was doing, and always wanted feedback on what he was doing.

Juan Atkins – Down to earth!! If you were talking what Juan was talking, you’d fit in.

Kevin Saunderson – Strictly business. Kevin didn’t play all that hanging out at Transmat studios like Derrick did. If you knocked on the KMS door, you were there because you had some work to do.

Tresor and Hard Wax have been instrumental to you and your career in Europe, what is your relationship like with Berlin? Do you look upon it fondly?

Berlin is the one European city that makes everything happen for everyone. There is no other city in Europe like Berlin. People often talk about the Detroit-Berlin connection, and it often sounds corny on paper. But there is a real, true living thing that has existed since the early days of forming various labels in Detroit. 

Personally, I wasn’t producing techno back then, so there weren’t any opportunities to release any music for Tresor. But Tresor’s ears are always open to embrace new talent from Detroit.  And the real important thing I want to say is this, you can build your own Detroit-Berlin connection.

You’ve said in the past that the music coming out of Detroit is often a reflection of the mood in the community, is this still true today? What is the current mood and how is that being reflected in the city’s musical output?

You can never separate the environment from the music being produced in Detroit. The music being produced here is just the sound and story of your life.

Are there a lot of artists you’re excited about in Detroit for the coming years?

There are just a lot of producers that have been around since day one, that still haven’t gotten out there. These guys remain solely as DJs and will not play the game of I need to be a producer in order to get gigs. And I can respect that. The city is filled will many DJs like that.

I quote my housemate when I say “Another Fantasy is so good it makes me want to cry.” This rings true with a lot of your tracks, particularly the ones that seem to embody what real deep house is, they seem to connect with people on a more intimate level. What do you put this down to?

I draw from my life experiences and try to connect people into house music like that. Man, that’s all you can do. Learn to speak the language of house. Man, I’m only just able to crack a lot of production methods I was always after in the 90s. I study all of my favorite records or the records I play, and I try to recreate the energy in them if needed.  

All of the workshops that I have done all over the world come down to this statement, and telling a beginner this one thing:

Production’s all about how you are speaking the language of house, or techno if you will, through your own music, and you use your life experiences to do that.  

What aspects of djing do you miss, if any, from when you first started out? Have you noticed a change in the crowds at all?

I mean there is a bit of a commercial attitude coming on these days. Sometimes people do not know why they are at a particular party anymore and they are missing the connection to the music. 

Your Kiss FM 1995 mix has legendary status in the UK. Do you still take a lot of pleasure from the UK garage scene?

I was traveling to London quite frequently back in the 90s, so I got to see that side of the story as well. That knowledge was invaluable. There is something in the water influencing producers for sure, because of all the different genres of music still coming out of London.  

London, Berlin, all over Europe. Music has taken you around the world. Is there anywhere left that you still really want to play/visit?

There’s still quite a few places I haven’t been. Kazakhstan, Iceland, South Africa, Peru, and some places in South America. Although I have played in Argentina and Chile. 

Back to Detroit, I want to touch on your time working with Rick Wade back when you ran Record Time record store in Detroit. Unrelated to the store, but your collab EP The Defenders Of The Deep House World on Third Ear Recordings; what I want to know is what inspired the great comic-book artwork for the sleeve?

I always was a fan of Alan Oldham’s drawings back when he was doing labels for Transmat and Djax. So naturally, we needed a full colour sleeve for that project, and it was decided to give him a go at it.

What’s in the pipeline for your Deep Transportation label, can we expect some new music soon?  

I’m always working on music. I’m developing new releases and I’m considering releasing some of my older stuff as well. Right now im working on an LP for S Y N T H.

After speaking with artists like Laurent Garnier and Oscar Mulero, artists who have been involved in the techno and house scene since its youngest days, they both said that the thing that has kept them going for well over 20 years is their involvement in different projects. Is this something you can relate to? Is this a reason for your lengthy remix list?

Well I just spent a lifetime on developing my sound and getting the concepts of synthesis right, and as a result of that I get a lot of remix requests, so I guess so!

Have you still got the appetite for music and producing that you had when you were just starting out?

YES. I can always hear another track, and wonder how did he get that sound? What is he using? There is a constant influence of other house music tracks being produced; when I listen to other tracks, I always say to myself, “I would have stopped right there”, or “I would have gone in this direction.”

On that point of listening to other productions, I want to get your opinion on genres and the constant labelling of music into certain categories. It is helpful in a lot of ways, but it also creates stigmas and puts up boundaries. You’re a man infamous for seeing past the boundaries in music and identifying it as a uniting entity. What’s your take on the incessant labelling of music?

Ah, different genres of music. This creation is something you can thank the British press for! We didn’t categorise music like this. A techno track was just considered a bit more aggressive to us. That’s just the way we say it.  And even to this day in most cases.

I’d like to close by getting an insight into your work with Youthville before it became defunct a few years ago. It was an amazingly admirable contribution, giving back to the next generation of musicians and providing young people with a way to channel their boredom in a city that doesn’t offer much opportunity, or many pathways for success. I’d recommend to anyone the short documentary you did with Thump that captures your work with the Detroit youth. Did you see similarities between them and your childhood in Detroit, or has it changed a lot? 

Youthville hasn’t been running for several years now and again, it was something that was way ahead of its time. There won’t be another organisation such as Youthville, or that could top Youthville in a 100 years from now! My hero from Detroit is the late Dr. Gerald Smith, the president of Youthville. He was such an incredible visionary. There was nothing like that in my childhood. I am just lucky to have been a part of that.

If you were only able to give one piece of advice to these kids and all budding musicians in fact, would it be?

Believe in yourself, learn the music business, and develop real talent.  

Thanks Mike, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk.