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 ecstacy.
“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.