An interview with Rick Wade

Rick Wade is a name now synonymous with the deep house greats from early-90s Detroit. Despite this – and a now thoroughly-stamped passport – he remains a modest, devout creative who values a good laugh and the virtue of producing art over any romanticised notions of the past. 

Inspired by the smooth blends of the late-night Chicago airwaves and the juggernaut style of Jeff Mills’ earlier incarnation – The Wizard – Wade developed a sound marked by sombre Rhodes keys, rich strings and well-worked, sampled material.

Previously known as ‘Big Daddy Rick’, he helped push the likes of Moodymann‘s early records on Motor City dance-floors and through his role at a once legendary Detroit record store – back when ghettotech was king.

Now featured on well over 100 releases – several on his own Harmonie Park imprint – Wade’s developed a global rep from humble beginnings despite having no initial aspirations to do so. 

Following his recent release on Moteur Ville Musique, we caught up with him to talk about COVID-19, some hilarious early encounters with Theo Parrish, influences from 70s cop dramas and the systemic racism that pervaded America throughout the 80s. 

Hey Rick, How’s it going?

I’m doing alright, it’s early in the morning here. I was all screwed up with the time man, haha. For some reason I was thinking 11am your time was 5am Detroit time.

Haha! Ahh, that’s a shame man! Sorry to have gotten you up so early in the morning. You’re not too tired?

No, no I’m not too tired. I’ve gotta hit the store here early anyway, hoping that there won’t be some big giant lines or something, ‘cos I gotta get some supplies since we’re all on self-lockdown.

Yeah, how are things looking in Detroit at the moment? Have you experienced much of a positive community response to the pandemic in Detroit so far? 

Yeah, as far as artists and musicians go, there’s been a really positive response to try and support one another. I saw an increase in a few of the tracks that I sell on Bandcamp. I also have my own modest clothing line and people have been sharing links to that on social media saying, ‘Let’s support each other’ or, ‘Support Detroit’, and online I’m also seeing a lot of mix shows and live streams from people.

That’s good to hear man! And you’ve just released a track on an up-and-coming Detroit label – Moteur Ville Musique. What was the approach to your track on that release? 

Well, I remember why I ended up calling that track ‘Techcreep’, because when I sat down to make it, I was just intending to make a normal, deep house – Rick Wade – Fender Rhodes-style track and all of a sudden I’m halfway into and I’m like, ‘Man, this doesn’t really sound like my normal stuff! I wonder why the spirits are guiding me down this path?’, haha. But I just decided to go with it and when it was finished I’m like, ‘This sounds a little more on the techy side’ – so it was almost like the techno kinda creeped into the track.

Mike Huckaby described you as one of the fastest-working deep house producers from Detroit. He said you would always find amazing samples before anyone else and then have fellow producers trying to trade you out of them before you could whip them into a quality track. Do you have any particular memories of this happening back in the day?

Hahaha! Man, you’re talking nearly 30 years ago or something now. Yeah, that was back in the old days when we were working at Record Time – Me, Mike Huckaby, Dan Bell and Claude Young. And this is before any of us were anybody. Back in those days we were looking at Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan and thinking, ‘Man, they’re like travelling the globe DJing… how they doing that?’, haha, like, ‘What kind of sorcery is going on? Don’t they have DJs in Europe?’.

But years later we started producing too and because me and Huck worked at the record store we were privy to gettin’ stuff before other people, because you could sell or trade-in your records to get store credit. DJs would bring their collections up like every other day and me and Huck would have to go through the records to see if there was anything that we could use in the store.

But if we saw things that we wanted ourselves, we would just set that off to the side like, ‘Okay, that one’s gonna come home with me today’, haha. And sometimes, depending on who the DJ may’ve been – because it may’ve been a Detroit DJ that we both knew had been around for a while, who used to play disco or something – me and Huck would try to be the first one over there to service them, so we could get first pick at the records, haha.

Haha! How did that Record Time job with Mike initially come about then?

Well, Huck was already working there and technically I had met him before that because I would shop there, but we hadn’t really talked.

Record Time was basically two stores inside of one. You had the main part of the store, where they sold cassette tapes and CDs, but there was also a 2nd part of the store called the ‘Dance Room’, where the turntables were set up.

When I was first hired there, I wasn’t in the dance room, but Huck was. I was in the cassette tape section and on the cash register. I always wanted to get into the dance room but for whatever reason, the owner of the store never wanted to put me in there. So, I was always just stuck on the cash register, gazing longingly into the dance room.

After a while they finally needed another person in there and Mike went to the owner and said ‘Hey look, you need to put Rick in here. He knows all the music, he knows all the DJs. It’s a logical fit.’. So the owner eventually agreed and it was during that time that me and Huck became good friends.

So, was that intervention by Mike quite a pivotal moment in your career as a DJ in Detroit?

Well, in the old days, a record store was like its own mini society or subculture unto itself. The DJs would just hang out there all day – every day – and may or may not buy anything, but just tell jokes, talk about gigs and talk about tracks. Since we all knew each other, we all knew what each other’s tastes were, whether you were a techno DJ, hip-hop or whatever. So, we would get turned onto a lot of different tracks, just by the virtue of that community aspect, and the knowledge you would gain in there was invaluable. Especially for me when it came to old, classic rare groove and disco tracks, because there were a lot of older DJs coming and saying ‘Man, you like this, you need to check out this guy’, or ‘this album.’ So, during that time my record collection was out cold – even Huckaby was saying to people ‘Maaan, you gotta see Rick’s collection. It’s one of the deepest in the city.’

So, as far as getting to know the other DJs from Detroit, that definitely came from working in the Dance Room, because that was how I became friends with a lot of them.

And it was around this time that you first met Theo Parrish when Claude Young was spinning one night? I love that story.

Well, actually I met Theo before that night. He came into Record Time like five minutes before we were about to close, and me and Huckaby used to hate that, because we couldn’t shut the store until the last person left. He had this half New York-style of dress, with big, baggy jeans and giant, Timberland boots, and these really long dreads with a black leather jacket – more akin to a motorcycle gang jacket, haha! And he was just talking at the top of his lungs like, ‘Hey fooool, give me the deep shit, fooool! Where’s the deep shit?’, and Huckaby just said, ‘I ain’t dealing with this guy’.

Now, a lot of the time people would come in and say they want something ‘deep’. But their definition of ‘deep’ was completely different to what me or Huck would think is ‘deep’. So, I’m thinking, ‘Alright, we’ve got a bunch of stuff that’s not selling. Let me just try to push it on this guy. He seems like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about’, haha. So, I played this stuff to Theo, but he didn’t like it. I think Keith Worthy may’ve been in there at the time too, so I was playing records to Keith and Theo was like, ‘Hey fool, that’s the stuff I’m talking about. That’s the stuff I want… that stuff.’, and at that moment I thought, ‘Okay, this guy does have an ear.’

So, fast-forward to the weekend and we’re at the party Claude Young was DJing at and nobody’s there except a handful of DJs that had just arrived from the record store… and Theo. And Theo’s going around the dance floor, hollering and skipping and just having a great time – in his own world. And Claude is playing the first Harmonie Park release – that track “Nothing to Fear” – and as Theo works his way around the dance floor he stops next to me and starts bobbing his head. So, I said to him, ‘Hey man, you like that?’, and he’s like, ‘Oh fooool, I love it, I love it… that’s the shit. I love that.’, so I said ‘Hey man, I made that.’ And he was like, ‘Ohhhh fool, you’re Rick Wade?’, I said, ‘Yeah’. So, he said, ‘Ohhh, I love your shit fool… I just moved to Detroit. I’m looking to meet up with some people and make some friends… I’ve got a mixtape if you wanna check it out and let me know if you like it…’, or whatever, and I was like, ‘Cool, man, cool.’

Back in those days, a mixtape was a calling card for a DJ and because we worked in the record store, people gave us mixtapes all day long. Most of the time they were trash and it might sound mean, but it would crack us up! Haha. So after gigs, you would usually go and grab something to eat – late night – and as part of our amusement we would take these mixtapes and listen to them in the car, and we would just be cracking up, laughing! So after this particular gig, I was driving back with one of our friends – DJ Trackula – and I said, ‘Hey man, you remember that fool that was at that gig? He gave me a mixtape. Put it in man.’

So, the first track comes on – some old crazy disco banger – and I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what it was, so I’m cautiously like, ‘Hey Trackula, what was that track?’, but he didn’t know either. Second track comes on – and the blends were fine, can’t say nothing about that – another old, angry, disco groover that I’d never heard before. So at this point I ain’t saying nothing – I’m just listening. Trackula ain’t saying nothing. We pull up in the restaurant parking lot. Third track comes on – another straight up groover that you could tell was from maybe like the 76ish era, sounded like a KPM library track or something, but we didn’t know – and Trackula just looks over at me and says, ‘Hey man, you better call this fool… I’m serious. You need to call this guy’. We didn’t even get anything to eat that night. It was a 90 minute tape. Me and Trackula just sat in the parking lot of the restaurant and listened to Theo’s tape. The whole thing. We didn’t even go in.

The very next day I called Theo up and invited him over to the crib to hang out. I had a studio at the time and Theo didn’t, and he was like, ‘Man, I got all these ideas!’. So for the early tracks I was basically acting as his engineer because he didn’t know how to use the equipment – like the sampler and stuff – so he would say, ‘Hey man, can you sample that?’, and I would sample it, and then, ‘It needs a drum pattern under it’, so I would put some drums on it. But he would watch me all the time, and then it got to the point where I would just turn him loose on the stuff and he would just be banging away, whilst I was doing something else.

Then I ended up moving to a different city and I took my studio with me, and by this point he knows how to use the studio, he’s comfortable and everything, and he was like, ‘Hey man, can I still come over and use the studio?’, and I said, ‘I tell you what man, every time you come over, if you bring me a Burger King whopper meal, you can use the studio whenever you want.’

 Hahaha! That’s a pretty cheap studio rate.

Yeah, haha. That summer, I don’t think I ever ate so many whoppers in my life! Because Theo was there every day, knocking at the door like, ‘I got your whopper meal!’, and I’d be like, ‘Go on in the studio, man’.

I’ve read a lot of stuff about how some early Detroit artists were disheartened by the European circuit sometimes – with a hint of skepticism often noted. What were your first impressions of actually travelling to perform over here in the UK and Europe?  

I don’t remember the first international place I played at exactly, but I will say this much: It was completely different to how I thought it was going to be. Now, I’m sure you’re aware of the inequality and the systemic racism that goes on over here in the states – especially back in those days. Well, as part of that propaganda they would tell you, ‘Well, you think it’s bad here, just be grateful you’re not overseas. Be grateful you’re not in Germany, or the UK, because they would really be treating you bad.’ And that’s the mindset that a lot of us black people have here in the States. Now, I don’t know if it’s like that with some of the younger cats out here nowadays, but I know that’s what my generation thought back then. We were like, ‘Damn, the whole world hates us… and it might be bad here in the states, but at least we’re not in France, or somewhere like that!’

Ahhh, that’s awful! It’s such a shame to hear…

…yeah, and then when I finally got over there I’m like, ‘Man, this ain’t nothing like what they said! I tell you what, I feel a whole lot safer and more comfortable in any of these countries than I do any day of the week in the States!’. You know, if I see a police officer in Russia for example, I don’t feel threatened or anything – they just want to take a picture with you or something, haha. Here in the States – in my own backyard – I’m worried. Like, ‘Is this guy bored today? Is he gonna give me a hard time, just because he can?’ That’s the kind of stuff we think about over here in the States. But when we go overseas we don’t think about that, we’re just having fun.

It’s great to hear it was such a positive experience! Has the feel of the international scene changed much since those early days? Are there any particular places that you have really fond memories of?

Yeah, in Japan about 99% of the gigs I’ve done have been really good – very warm and welcoming – and I would say the same for Russia. In Russia, I remember playing in this city called Rostov-on-Don and the clubs were so small! The capacity of the nightclubs was like 50 people. I was like, ‘Dude, how did you guys book me? How can you guys be making money from this?’, haha, and they were like, ‘Aww man, you just seemed like such a cool guy, it was always our dream just to party with you!’, haha!

If you could work with one artist – or a group of artists – from the past or present who has significantly inspired and shaped your tastes as an artist, who would it be and why?

Well, my love of that Fender Rhodes sound came from when I was a small kid in the mid-70s. I would hear that stuff from my Dad, because he liked to watch these 70s, police action-drama TV shows on Friday nights. I enjoyed the shows a little too, but the music – especially in the chase scenes – was always this funky, electric piano, Fender Rhodes, symphony orchestra-style stuff and I remember thinking, ‘Oh man, I just love that music!’

Years later, I found out that most of that stuff was called ‘Library music’, and there’s a library called the KPM library – I think it’s in the UK – and movie studios, or whoever, would go and listen to what was available and be like, ‘Okay, yeah, we want this in our TV show’ or, ‘in our movie’, or whatever. So, any of those cats, I would’ve loved to work with.

But, fast-forward to when I was in high school, the artist who was probably the most influential for me wanting to make music was – hands down – Larry Heard. I heard ‘Never No More Lonely’ from the Fingers Inc double album and that was the main track that made me say, ‘One day I’m gonna do that. I wanna be able to create emotions in people – feelings in people – in the way that that song has just done for me’.

I remember it was on a Friday night, just sitting there in my house – everybody else was asleep because the mix shows would be on late – with the headphones on, sitting in front of this little console stereo system, recording the mix to cassette from 102.7 WBMX, outta Chicago. It was around 1am. That Larry Heard track came on. I said, ‘this is something that I need to do… I will do this’.

That’s amazing! It must be such a gratifying feeling to have realised that dream. So, now that you have such a massive reputation around the world for your music – as well as for your anime and other artwork – and with touring heavily perhaps not being as appealing, what can you see yourself being drawn to creatively in future?

Well, what I find nowadays is that I get more tired of the actual travelling itself. When I arrive at the destination, I’m fine. I’m always happy and appreciative to be there and it still kind of trips me out too. Sometimes when I’m being picked up from the airport I’m like, ‘Man, these guys really like my music so much that they’ve brought me halfway around the world? Okay, if they say so, I’m not gonna tell ‘em they’re wrong!’, haha.

But I won’t stop making music. You know, even if the gigs stop and I’m not travelling or DJing anymore, I’ll still be making music. Because when I first started making tracks I didn’t make them to start travelling overseas or anything. That wasn’t even a concept for me at that time. I remember in the old days Huck would be saying, ‘You know fool, one day you’re gonna be getting flown around the world’, and I’d be like, ‘Man, you’re talking crazy Huck. Nobody flying nobody nowhere. You need to stay in Detroit and stop talking crazy.’ Hahaha.

But as far as career-wise, anime’s still there. Anime and music are neck and neck for me, I love one or the other more than the other depending on the day of the week. So, I’m still in contact with the guys from Japan. I’m still trying to do animation, I’m still trying to do game development and I’ve even started to expand my artistic abilities in the 2D realm using photoshop, because I’ve been seeing all this amazing artwork recently – and I share all my own stuff on TikTok.

Thanks Rick, that was a pleasure. Good luck with everything that’s going on at the moment. 

Thanks man. You have a good one!