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Music in 2010 is a detached and virtual experience, an era forced on us without consent by the winds of technological change.

It’s become genuinely hard to remember a time when the art of DJing was as simple as this – collect records, build a collection, exhibit that collection in front of an audience. Technology cares little for the curious antique relationship we humans have with material objects and sound, and for the rich history and tradition that lies at the heart of sound system and discothèque culture. Although this may seem a weird way to begin a discussion of Theo Parrish, in fact this is at the philosophical core of the man and his work – human beings and their physical relationship with music. Whether on the dance-floor or in the living room, Theo Parrish’s goal is to rock your body, quite literally, right to your heart, soul and genetic core.


“And you’re 15, you walk in and your DNA gets changed instantly, just walking in the spot. You’re like ”Oh my god, I can’t believe it – this is mom’s song! Mom used to play this on Saturdays cleaning up the house.” And now I’m getting hit in the head, and the imagination takes you places.”


Theo is talking in that extract about an early experience at a gig listening to one of his heroes – Chicago house legend Lil’ Louis – but the language he uses speaks volumes. Hit in the head, he changed my DNA – this is a physical experience he is describing, as much as it is a cerebral or a metaphysical one. And this notion of material structure and form extends to his own work, in that he visualises his music in physical terms – as “sound sculptures”.


“I went to Kansas City Art Institute. I went in for painting of all things, ended up in sculpture. Went from sculpture to performance. Performance turned into sound sculpture.”


Although much has been made of Theo’s geographical lineage – the fact that he is an associate of many Detroit luminaries like Moodymann, Claude Young, Omar S, Marcellus Pittman, Rick Wilhite – he was actually born in Washington DC and raised on the south side of Chicago, and only moved to Detroit “because I was broke, I figured I could work in a factory.” Thus it’s often written that his music bridges perfectly the emotional, soulful heritage of chi-town, with the stripped-down bleak mood and automotive energy of the D.

But in the hearts and minds of his many fans, Theo’s sound signature defies simplistic geographical categorisation, as it draws on a much broader range of genres and influences – from Sun Ra through to easy listening, from Acid to Samba. Perhaps it’s the inspiration found in his favourite DJ, Ron Hardy, legendary curator of the Music Box, which leads Theo’s musical road away from any overly familiar destination. In his pioneering sets, Ron fused disparate sounds from around the world into one continuously jacking groove, mixing them with ease at a time when few DJs even knew what a pitch control was, lifting his hedonistic dancers up to a higher plane of ecstasy.


“Ron Hardy was I’d say the foremost important selector of the 20th century. Easy. The most important selector of the 20th century. Because not only did he have the skills and the energy, the emotional energy and the connection to every song, but he had the balls to do whatever he wanted to do. And some people call it just insanity or craziness, but it takes guts to have the floor rocking, at peak hour, and all of a sudden he’d just drop whatever the hell he wanted to. No matter what. He’s going to do what he’s going to do. That takes guts.”


If you didn’t know the context of that quote you’d think that was someone talking about the hallmarks of a Theo Parrish DJ set. At Weekend club, Berlin, he twisted and manipulated the acid lines of Adonis’ ‘No Way Back’ endlessly into fresh new shapes as the sun began to rise. At his Plastic People residency, a typical night includes ‘Smiling Faces’ by The Temptations blended into Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’, followed by ‘Los Ninos Del Parque’ by Liasons Dangereuses, into fresh beats from Olivier Day Soul and Tone Control.

At one festival in London a club tent became a dust cloud as thousands of revellers literally churned the muddy floor up into the air as his own ‘Synthetic Flemm’ washed down on them from the speakers, pounding the earth. A Theo Parrish set is never about compromise, it is about a return to the genesis of the art form – vinyl records, played at such volume and with such passion that the sound waves could literally “change your DNA”, baptising your body in the crunchy warmth and soft distortion of soulful music from the last 40 years. Just don’t ask him for requests, take photos or stand by the booth eyeballing his records – you have been warned.

The no compromise gene in Theo also extends to his total devotion to collecting music culture in its physical form, and he has become an ambassador for those who believe that the analogue experience is the purest way to live through music.


“It’ll take you the better part of ten years to collect, in my opinion, the amount of vinyl that’s worthy of being presented to other people. Take you, what? A couple minutes? To download somebody’s whole collection. Now the question is, is it worth the convenience? Maybe. But are you missing out on all of the knowledge that goes into looking for those specific records? […] Are you going to take that time and get your knuckles dusty, and go meet another crazy obsessed individual just like yourself? You got to take that time.”


Some people brand Parrish an eccentric, a luddite, unpredictable, irrational. They ask each other on message boards – why does he play so loud? Why are his records pressed so raw? Why does he not play house music all night long? But the truth is that both his DJing philosophy and his abstract sound sculptures are grounded in the real world, reflecting the rawness of nature’s spontaneous unpredictability. This is music for people who can see the beauty in ugliness, for real djs who love real records, for real dancers who stay on the floor all night, written with real passion and real soul, mixed down on reel to reel. From the start of every 12” to the very end of the run-out groove, his music crackles with the surface noise of life in all its glorious imperfection. Here are ten Theo Parrish records every home needs.

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01: THEO PARRISH
‘LAKE SHORE DRIVE’
(KDJ, 1995)

When Kenny Dixon Jr. a.k.a Moodymann first released this on the flipside of ‘Inspirations From A Small Black Church On The Eastside Of Detroit’ in 1995, the world had never heard of Theo Parrish. In his own words, ‘Lake Shore Drive’ is “a damn Mass Production sample with some 909 under it. There you have it.” Crunchy, raw and hissing with distortion, made on an SP1200 drum machine borrowed from Claude Young, at a time when Theo was the studio handyman at Prescription records. Simplistic compared to his later work it may be, but this funky groove is so iconic that if you ever see a copy, you’ll be unlikely to purchase it for less than 20 quid. The birth of the Sound Signature.

02: THEO PARRISH
‘SOLITARY FLIGHT’
(SOUND SIGNATURE, 2002)

Solitary Flight is still one of Theo’s best, and probably the tune that got the most attention early on, widening his audience and building his fan base. It still sounds as good today as it did eight years ago, an arrangement that begins with spiralling flute melodies, like a flashback sequence from an old film. Gradually the track transitions into a wistful piano and string led melody, looped and chopped from an obscure orchestral cover version of the Blade Runner soundtrack. A beautiful, timeless piece of music, ‘Solitary Flight’ is Theo at his most romantic, melodic and uplifting, and sadly damn near impossible to find these days. If you are lucky enough to own this, dig it out and check the harder edged flipside ‘Dellwood II’, rarely played out at the time, but sounding fresher than ever today.

03: THEO PARRISH
PARALLEL DIMENSIONS

(SOUND SIGNATURE, 2000; UBIQUITY, 2004)

The original version of this came out on Sound Signature in 2000, a 2×12” pack containing five tracks – ‘Dreamers Blues’, ‘Nefarious Stranger’, ‘What U Cry 4’, ‘Reaction To Plastic’, ‘Serengeti Echoes’ – but the 1000 copies Theo pressed sold out almost instantly, whilst the rest of the album remained unreleased. In 2004, in a rare deal with an outside label, Ubiquity managed to reissue the whole album on CD, and the full length version, 9 tracks deep, is the one for first timers to track down.

Except that the best track, ‘What U Cry 4’ is only on the vinyl version. Confused yet? Parrish is a collector’s worst nightmare. Let’s keep it simple – this is a great selection of early Theo tracks, lots of raw SP1200 ideas and chunky grooves, far less polished than his current stuff. I guess you could say there’s a hip-hop quality to his music at this time. Crate-dug goodness, it’s humble and simple and yet raw, abstract and uncompromising in what it does. Even more confusing – the other opus ‘Summertime Is Here’ is on the CD version, yet only appears on vinyl on a one-sided Sound Signature 12”. Rather like ‘Solitary Flight’, ‘Summertime’ is a blissed out slice of honeysuckle breeze and would be worthy of inclusion here on its own terms if we had more space.

04: THEO PARRISH
‘MOONLIGHT MUSIC & YOU’
(SOUND SIGNATURE, 1997)

We could have gone for the EPs that contained ‘Took Me All The Way Back’, ‘Lost Keys’, ‘Carpet People Don’t Drink Steak Soda’, ‘Children Of The Drum’… 1997 was a bumper year for Theo, with a string of brilliant and inspirational 12”s dropping one after another, packed with great tunes. But my personal fave has got to be ‘Moonlight Music and You’. Truthfully a fan needs them all, but this is the desert island disc, like a soundtrack to a lunar eclipse on a beach for two, sharing a bottle of rum with an attractive castaway. The word “moonlight” goes round and round like a Vajrayana chant, until eventually it folds over on itself as if inspired by Steve Reich’s phasing violins. The haunting melody played on an old techno pad gives the track a dreamy, romantic, nocturnal quality. The moonlight, the music, and you – the title says it all.

05: THEO PARRISH
‘THAT DAY’ / ‘HOW I FEEL’
(ARCHIVE, 2000)

Less well known than the Sound Signature tracks in the Parrish canon, but a favourite of the Theo cognoscenti nonetheless. This was a one-off release for Volcov’s label Archive, a label better known for releasing broken techno records by the likes of Domu and Nubian Minds. Outstanding because it marks a progression in Theo’s work, closer to the New Jersey sound of Kerri Chandler or Larry Heard’s opus ‘Genesis’ than the grimy, sample based house of the previous years. The cycling pads and changes of ‘That Day’ never tire on me, and the record has a much more polished and harmonically rich sound than the raw shit that preceded it. A hint at the direction that Theo would pursue in later years.

06: JILL SCOTT
‘SLOWLY SURELY’ (THEO PARRISH REMIX)
(BOOTLEG, 2002)

It’s usually not cricket to include remixes in an essential round up, but Theo’s bootleg rub of Jill Scott is so outstanding it would be criminal to exclude it. The story goes that he threw the demo tape of this onto stage at a Jill Scott show, and her manager promptly threw it back at him. After a few repeats of the tape being tossed from stage to crowd, Jill intervened, took it home and liked it so much she left the endearing answer phone message you hear at the start of the vinyl version. This is Theo reshaping a neo-soul record into a lush slice of 4am warehouse music, chopping the Moe Kaufmann sample that drives the original into a slow, pulsating groove that rises and falls like waves, a prototype for the “slow house” music of recent years. Slowly, surely, this track caresses the dance floor; Jill cradling the audience like a newborn child as she sings.

07: FREDDIE HUBBARD / SYLVESTER
UGLY EDITS VOL. 3
(UGLY EDITS, 2002)

Long before it became the done thing to slap your name on someone else’s work and start building a career as a bootleg remixer, the likes of Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan, and Ron Hardy were reworking and extending their favourite tracks for use in their club sets. These re-edits were never meant to be bootlegged, they were simply DJ tools on acetate forged out of necessity – after all, a tune like The Dells’ ‘No Way Back’ is simply far too short to be played out in its original form. Theo revived this process with his Ugly Edits imprint, an outlet for raw unabridged takes on classic favourites and obscurities from his personal collection, sparking a wave of imitations. Vol. 3 is heavily admired, mostly for the brilliant edit of Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Little Sunflower’ – and yes, those crackles you hear throughout are supposed to be there, it’s a celebration of dollar bin crate digging. Sadly some wanker took it upon themselves to repeatedly repress what was intended to be a very limited series, and as a result the Ugly Edits series was abandoned.

08. THE ROTATING ASSEMBLY
NATURAL ASPIRATIONS
(SOUND SIGNATURE, 2004)

The Natural Aspirations LP never seems to get the kind of praise that the Sound Signature 12”s do, possibly because it was such a clear departure from the stripped down sound of early Theo. Strange, because it’s actually one of his best.

Here he moved into vocal led “jazz” of sorts – but not in the sense of Charlie Parker – and big band, but not in the sense of Duke Ellington. He says of the project; I went into playing everything real time and recording it. That was a big step, and don’t really expect to master that, just only improve. It’s currently what I wrestle with now, along with incorporating the methods I have a moderate grasp of already”.

At the core of the Rotating Assembly are 21 different musicians including Genevieve, Maat Lo, Marcellus Pittman, Rick Wilhite, Warren Harris, Andres, Karen Bosco, John Dougalas, King Sunshine & Trent Mitchell – essentially the great and good of the Detroit underground scene. As the title suggests, the Rotating Assembly revolve around the speakers like a Reich ensemble emulating a Roland drum machine, their live playing deconstructed and reformed into new patterns by Parrish’s post production. From the shimmering Rhodes piano of ‘Mess I Made’ through to the airy ambience of ‘Orchestra Hall’ and the emotive, edgy soul of ‘Split Me Open’, this album is a triumph, and showcases Theo’s abilities as a producer in the traditional sense of getting the best out of a band.

09: THEO PARRISH
SOUND SCULPTURES VOL. 1
(SOUND SIGNATURES, 2007 / 2008)

2007 marked the release of Sound Sculptures Vol. 1, Theo’s most recent full length outing. It’s great simply because the ten tracks found on the three 12”s here exist in a balance between the live sound of Rotating Assembly, the heavy acid of the TOM project and the stripped down techno of The 3 Chairs (I feel bad for not expanding on  the latter two, it’s a space issue – you need them all).

There’s also a marked sophistication about Sound Sculptures, you can hear how far his sound has evolved, how the process has evolved and how the sound sources and genres have changed and multiplied. From house to soul, from techno to acid, Sound Sculptures has a far more diverse narrative arc than any of Parrish’s previous work. If you’ve never heard it, you’re still probably familiar with the distorted 303 that bleeps away in the foreground of ‘Synthetic Flemm’, one of the most popular club cuts he’s ever written, which was engineered by Omar-S. As with Parallel Dimensions, the CD version of Sculptures is completely different, with multiple unreleased tracks and experiments on show. And to add to the (deliberate) format confusion, ‘Love Triumphant’ and ‘Goin’ Downstairs’ were both CD only, then appeared on two separate 12”s in extended form, well worth dropping the extra 14 pounds for – both 4am club tracks of the highest calibre.

10: LCD SOUNDSYSTEM
‘45:33’ (THEO PARRISH REMIX)
(DFA, 2009)

A decade and a half of making records, and the man is still filling floors around the world, and attracting a new generation of fans in the process. Though it may be a remix in name, the ‘Space Cadet’ dub of elements from James Murphy’s ‘45:33’ bears little resemblance to the source material it draws from – Parrish makes this his own show.

“When you’re in outer space, you feel so… fly” sings the choral refrain, before chunky, angular juno chords pummel the speakers. A disorientating dance floor experience in a club, perfectly arranged and funky as hell, this has more in common with Sun Ra than Parrish’s own remix of ‘Saga Of Resistance’. It’s worth noting that the mp3 promo version of this is slightly different to the legit release Nike put out, excluding the vocals in the intro, and thus a slightly better DJ tool. Beloved by many and a certified floor filler; to use an analogy, if Daft Punk are playing at Murphy’s house, then Theo is sat alone on the porch with a blunt and a plastic cup of Grey Goose, tripping amongst the stars.

Thanks to – Jimmy Jean, Dj Liamski, Alessandra, Rupi and the original Sound Signature disciples. Gerd Jansen and Red Bull Music Academy for all the interview quotes – full transcript here. Rotating Assembly quote taken from Little White Earbuds interview – full transcript here.

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