Omar-S is a modern day Detroit maverick – one of a new generation of producers putting his own unique slant on the city’s venerable techno tradition.
With a raw, soulful sound that owes as much to classic Chicago house as the moody synth work of Derrick May et al, Alex Omar Smith is one of the last of his kind: 100% independent, he releases the majority of his work through his own FXHE label, which he runs out of his basement. He’s been putting out records since 2003, flitting effortlessly from abstracted techno to exuberant vocal house and some of the best instrumental hip-hop we’ve heard this side of Dilla. This month sees the release of Fabric 45, Smith’s mix for the eponymous nightclub; made up entirely of his productions, including last year’s near-symphonic club smash ‘Psychotic Photosynthesis’, it’s simply stunning.
An acclaimed DJ and Theo Parrish’s favourite engineer, with a dayjob at the Ford Motor Company, a family to look after and a lifelong addiction to speed-racing, Omar-S hasn’t got any time for bullshit – something Kiran Sande found when he called on his hectic home earlier this month…
So what kind of music did you grow up listening to? What started you on your path to producing the kind of music you do?
“Let me see…Usually I lie about this type of question…Let methink of something really quick…[laughs] I don’t know man, all the kindof stuff they played on the radio. Like Mojo…
You mean [legendary Detroit DJ] Electrifyin’ Mojo?
“Yeah, exactly. Prince, Roger Troutman, Kraftwerk, shit like that, you know what I’m saying? Later I was listening to a lot of music by my cousin, Big Strick, and guys like Patrice Scott. When we were just DJing the basement, making mixtapes, you know, WGCI things from Chicago, DMX tapes, that kind of thing…”
At what point did you start taking your own music seriously?
“About 2001 I cut my first record with Ron Murphy over on the West Side of Detroit and I started really getting started in distribution around the end of 2003.”
Were you aware of the Detroit “scene” at that stage? People like Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite…
“I was just worrying about myself. I didn’t know about Theo Parrish or whoever…You know, I’d heard a record or two of his, I knew a few people, but I didn’t really know who was doing shit. Rick Wilhite started distributing my records for me, and then I was at the Miami Music Conference and circulating some music around there. The rest is history. This was around 2005.”
You’ve been independent all the way, right? Do you feel there’s been any downside to this over the years?
“The benefit of it is that I own all my music. I own all my publishing. The downside is that you don’t sell many copies.”
A lot of your music, particularly the harder-to-find vinyl releases, have been put up on blogs etc. Obviously this is not ideal for you – it’s losing you money – but do you feel you benefit in any way? Do you think more people know who you are and buy your records thanks to the internet?
“I guess there’s a good side of it. The good side of it is that it opened my eyes that I should be doing this digital shit, so why not…Why have all these people getting the money that I can be getting?”
Why did you decide to approach the Fabric mix the way you did – i.e. comprised entirely of your own productions?
“I wanted to do all Detroit artists but there’s not a lot of Detroit artists right now that are putting out new music, and I didn’t want to use like the old shit. So I got to thinking…Fuck it, I can do all my shit, know what I’m saying? I didn’t know that some guy Ricardo had done the same thing on the Fabric mix; if I’d known that I would of done it in a different way – but it’s cool, though, it’s all good. I came up with the idea and Fabric were down with it after they heard the mix…They were down with it.”
How did you first hook up with Fabric?
“I played there five, six, seven times, I don’t know. I think this mix is whatI needed, and it’s what they needed. Me and my agent were asking them and Ithink they asked before, some shit like that, and eventually both sidesagreed on it. But I wanted to do it a different way; I don’t like to dothings one certain way. I want to do it a different way to anybody else’sway. Shit can’t be the same or boring like somebody else’s mix CD orwhatever, you know?”
It’s made up mainly of new edits of stuff from the last five years, right?
“Exactly, you’re the first person who said it right. They’re just newedits. They’re not remixes, I hate remixes – remixes are whack. To tell you the truth, I’d already been working on a FXHE mix CD. I wasgoing to put it out on my label, I already had a different mix goingon. Then I was like I’m going to change it around. So I just went to mymaster CDs, luckily Patrice Scott gave me those mix-turntables, you know, theTechnic mix CD things, the shit you mix CDs with? And I just workedthrough all the CDs and made sure all the songs fit each other in termsof what came off and what came on. Plus anyway all the songs I make, Imake them really DJ-friendly, all my songs, which people don’t reallydo these days…”
Do you feel like it’s a full and accurate portrait of you as an artist?
“Well, the first thing they’ll say is, ain’t nobody in the world rightnow making shit like this; they probably ain’t heard noshit like this before. And yeah, it’s the definition of Omar-S and Detroit. Basically, this is the new Detroit sound, even though some of the shitis old, and it’s a goddamn shame that people ain’t up on it yet. But you know, it’s all good though. Me and Fabric going to shake thatshit out, put people up on Omar-S and the new Detroit sound – as faras like Omar-S, Oasis, Kyle Hall, the new Theo Parrish shit, whoeverelse, you know, Deepchord, whoever.
“People are fucking lazy, you knowwhat I’m saying? Underground music is for people that’s not lazy.You’re supposed to be into this type of music and to find out what’sgood and what’s sweet as fuck and what’s different. That’s whatunderground period is for – underground cars, fucking undergroundfucking clothing lines, all types of shit, that’s for people that’sfucking different from mainstream. Mainstream you don’t look for shit,it’s all fucking garbage. I want to be one of the number oneunderground people in dance music period in the world, as far asletting people know there’s better music out there – not just Omar-Sbut anybody, you know what I’m saying? Punks are going to keep talkingabout all these old-ass people from the last goddamn 35 fucking 40fucking years in the underground – fuck those guys – it’s all about thenew guys’ shit.”
You’ve talked before about how you don’t spend much time at work in the studio. Can you tell me a bit about your working habits?
“It’s really not a habit…Sometimes I just go down there and fuck around and, I don’t know, I just make something. I went down the studio like two weeks ago, my brother was down there, singing around, fucking around – I made three tracks in fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour at the most…”
Do you ever get bored of making music?
“Bored of it? You get ear-drunk, and it’s start sounding like some bullshit…You get someone else there and they’re like, ‘Man, that shit sounds shit as hell…’ Then you’re like this shit is like some bullshit, I don’t even like it. I guess I don’t release that much music because none of that shit to me sounds good anymore, nothing, not even my music. None of it.”
You don’t buy any new music?
“No, I don’t buy nobody’s stuff.”
What about old stuff?
“I mean, shit…I really don’t like nothing no more. Not even my music. Shit is played out.”
You’re much-loved in Europe. What’s your audience like out in the US? Are you ever surprised at how into your records people are?
“Yeah, they like my shit out in LA, Texas, New York, Toronto, shit like that. I wouldn’t expect nobody to be into it at all, but you know, that’s how it is as far as keeping underground…even underground rap music, it doesn’t have to be underground dance music, it can be hip-hop…Slum Village or some shit. It doesn’t make a difference, you know what I’m saying?”
Speaking of hip-hop, are you still making much of your own?
“Yeah, I released Sidetrakx 2 two or three months ago…So yeah, every now and then I be making like hip-hop tracks, yeah…I made a whole bunch of them like a year ago. I made a shitload, like tons, like ten years ago. I be telling people – and I guess people don’t believe me – I be making shit and then sometimes I don’t make nothing for months. I’ll make some tracks and shit up and then totally forget about it.”
Are you going to continue releasing other people’s music?
“Uhh…no. I’m going to stop that because…I don’t know man. You know, a lot of people don’t want to do nothing, you know? They don’t wanna do shit so I ain’t doing shit for ‘em. Man, what’s hard to believe is I’ve got a full blown-out fucking studio, shit, I know how to work every fucking thing, but nobody’s going to come over here but Theo Parrish. Ain’t that fucked up?”
That is fucked up. What about the artists you’ve put records out for in the past? You’re not going to work with them again?
“Fuck no, nobody.”
What’s your relationship with Theo Parrish? You’ve released a record on his label [Sound Signature], but you help out on his productions too, right?
“I engineer, help with the editing, the razor and shit. I’m really like the post-production department. We’ve recorded a hit record in my studio, it’s called ‘Space Station’, it should be released in the next couple of months.”
What else have you got coming out soon?
“I just picked up a 45 I’m about to release, hopefully in the next couple of days, when I get some orders! [laughs hysterically]. But I’ve got an album probably coming out after the Fabric mix, you know what I’m saying? You know, it’s just that I’m really a busy person – people just wouldn’t fucking understand how busy I am.”
You’re working as well as producing, and you have a family…
Running a label must be exhausting on top of all that…
“I don’t even want to work on music no more. It’s boring to me. I just want to keep fucking doing shit with Theo as far as the engineering part. I don’t want to keep releasing records, but I might have to. Shit is fucking boring. It’s a fucking headache to sell records, you know what I’m saying? It’s all a fucking headache. I gotta make the music, do e-mails, argue with people, all this old shit, fucking mail order, fucking mp3 orders, it’s a fucking headache. Maybe I just feel in a bad mood right now. ”
So what else is going on? I mean, apart from music?
Is that something you still do regularly?
“Yeah, I mean, to tell you the truth, I was street-racing real hard in the 90s and then in 2001 somebody tried to carjack me. I was about to have my first child, my son. And I said man, fuck this. I’m stopping. So I stopped. And that’s when I started releasing music.
“I had a lot of tracks back then. Every day all day I was making tracks. And that street-racing shit was holding me up – you know that shit is addictive – and once that shit happened, once someone tried to carjack me, I said, fuck this, I ain’t about to become a fucking statistic, you know what I’m saying?”
But you’re back racing now?
“Oh, I been back. I only retired for one year!” [laughs]
So you feel more sense of fulfilment with the racing than with the music right now?
“I think I’m just confused…I’m just frustrated right now with this part of my life, about the music and shit. You know, this name-game shit got me frustrated, you know what I’m saying? I don’t know man, I really don’t know…I don’t want to say the wrong thing, ‘cos people on the internet they start kicking shit out of – I don’t know. I just think the name-game shit has got everything all fucked up.”
What exactly do you mean by the ‘name-game’?
“I just think that maybe being independent ain’t going to get me nowhere. People are just fucking flaky, you know what I’m saying? You know, my fans love me, my fans know I love them, and it’s ai’ght. I mean some people just talk shit…Far as FXHE fans go, we all got love from each other.”
So to go back to FXHE – let’s talk about ‘Psychotic Photosynthesis’. That was a huge record for you…
“I was listening to a few records, you know what I’m saying? And I thought, ‘FXHE Records needs a record like that…’ I did a remix for Marc Romboy, and the money I got from that I bought I this Dave Smith Poly Evolver [keyboard] and made a bunch of tracks and that track just happened to come out of that keyboard. Everything on that record is the Dave Smith Poly Evolver, besides the drums; and every string instrument you hear on ‘Psychotic Photosynthesis’ came out the Dave Smith Poly Evolver. But basically, what FXHE Records in Detroit needed was a ‘Psychotic Photosynthesis’. I don’t want to keep doing records like that, because then that type of stuff plays out, you know what I’m saying? I don’t have to keep making something that sounds like something else I did, or something someone else did.”
Subsequently you released a beatless version – what prompted you to do that?
“Well, when you listen to the beatless version, it kind of sounds like it’s like an arrangement and everything, right? But it actually started off with the beat. I went back to the masters and I took all the drums out, and I was like, ‘Shit, man, this shit sounds good without the drums’; you get more of what the song’s about, and hear certain things you don’t hear in the original – that’s why I released the beatless version, even though there’s a lot of faggots out here in the music industry that didn’t want to buy that. But it’s a good record – I mean, to tell you the truth the beatless version is better than the beat version. It was more on some type symphony type shit – kind of like some early Kraftwerk shit, around 1975 Kraftwerk shit, you know what I’m saying? More the Radioactivity type shit – I think that’s one of their best records of all time.”
Their last great record, really…
“Yeah, definitely. They got more commercial – like Computer World, I mean, that was a good album, but it was more about record sales that time. ’76 on backwards was their best stuff. They were more musicians, they were more themselves. After Computer World it was just more programming, more repetitive shit; no more note-playing, just programming, you know what I’m saying?
You’ve talked about how video games influence your sound. Can you elaborate?
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say video games influenced my sound..But I guess a lot of the earlier video games, from like 70s to early 80s had some kind of effect on me…It was the way you had to play ‘em, you know what I’m saying? You played for high scores, you know what I’m saying? Like streetracing – you know, you play to win. I guess that’s the way I make music – I play to make a good record, I play to win, I play to make a high score for FXHE Records…”
Do you still play video games?
“Yeah, my son plays them every day. I might play with him once or twice a day. One of my favourites is Samurai Showdown, it’s one of my favourites, on Neo Geo.
I have an original Robotron by Williams from Chicago – it’s a video games company from Chicago, Williams, they’ve got this one game called Robotron and I have the original cabinet in my basement and I used to play that shit like every fucking day. I got shitloads of games but yeah, as far the old-school, for the arcade, that’s my favourite one, definitely. Can’t nobody in the world fuck me on Robotron. I’ll put up a $1000 dollars on that shit, I’ll put any amount of money on that…”
I don’t doubt it.
How has working in the auto industry [Omar works for Ford] has impacted on your life, practically or perhaps creatively?
“I think working in the auto industry was a good thing for me but at the same time it’s a bad thing, because working in the auto-industry, there’s so much racism – it kind of gives you a fucked up worldview…It’s like everybody who works at a factory is always fucking mad about something, you know what I’m saying? For being a black person in America, I guess. Not just in Detroit, but in America – there’s so much fucking racism. For no fucking reason.
“Don’t get me wrong – it’s a good thing at the same time because, you know, it’s a guaranteed cheque. You know, your kid’s got health insurance – these kids got themselves the best health insurance now.”
And that’s the most important thing.
Do your music and your dayjob complement each other in any way?
“I appreciate both. I appreciate the music and I appreciate having work at the Ford motor company. I guess, I don’t know, it’s kinda hard to explain – I guess certain things I do at my job I do at the label. You know, to keep the quality, there are certain similar things you have to do. And working in the auto trade does more than just pay the bills. This shit is more guaranteed than selling records and DJing trust me. If I break my legs or break my arm I probably can’t DJ no more but I can still look at something at my job and do shit on just looks, you know what I’m saying?”
In Europe people like to romanticise the connection between Detroit’s automobile industry and the music that the city produces. Do you feel that connection?
“Er, not really…Because a lot of people work in the auto industry are like people who own grocery stores, it’s just something they’re doing to get money to better themselves, you know? Far as working at any factory, like Old Man Ford – he knew he had a bunch of ignorant-ass dummies working for him, so he started the education programs and just look – the Ford Motor Company used to have enough money for that kind of thing; I guess a lot of people don’t take advantage of that – they do a lot of alcohol and drugs and shit like that, which I don’t participate in myself – I invest in myself. That’s why my girl never gets mad at the shit I buy, because it’s always for profit, you know what I’m saying? I might buy a fucking keyboard for like $2000 or $3000 but, it’s going to make fucking 200% fucking profit within a fucking year.
“And make sure you print this: a lot of people always asking me this. No, I don’t get high, I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke marijuana, no, I don’t do none of that stuff. If I did any of that shit I would probably be whack and fucked somewhere. Like everybody who don’t want to come over and make music. I’m a collector; I collect a lot of things – I collect cars, all types of shit, musical equipment, records, CDs, fucking Star Wars shit, all kinds of shit. I don’t fucking collect drugs, no. I don’t do that – that’s not my thing.”
Is that something you feel is a problem with other musicians in Detroit?
“There’s definitely a problem with a lot of people in the music business. You know, I gotta deal with people over the fucking internet, you know, as far as doing business – I don’t forget nothing, you know what I’m saying? I’m an engineer so I don’t forget shit – I can’t forget shit. I can’t forget nothing, when I’m in the studio with Theo, I can’t do that, you know. Then I’ll get someone on the phone saying I said something, and I’ll say, ‘No, I didn’t say that’. Then I gotta go dig out e-mails to prove it, and I’m never wrong…The person calling me must’ve got high over the weekend, you know what I’m saying? So I just don’t fucking argue with people no more, I ain’t got time for these fucking people. I ain’t got time for some fucking drug addict trying to by records from me or some fucking bullshit, making my life fucking hard. I might as well not even sell shit to them – fuck them.
“If you’re going to drugs, let it be on a an artistic level. There’s no way in hell all those P-funk guys would’ve made all those records without all that shit they were doing, right or wrong. If you’re gonna do that, do it on an artistic level – where you’re just a badass motherfucker and you have to do that shit. So far as somebody doing that shit and then trying to do business – that fucks everything up, that fucks up people trying to get my music. People need to stop fucking doing drugs and then trying to go to fucking work and trying to run a fucking business. Make sure you print that shit too. And all those people who don’t want to come here and make music – fuck them. It’s frustrating. I got everything over here. It’s fucking crazy.”
Anything else we should know about Omar-S from Detroit?
“My shit is available on vinyl. It’s going to be available on Beatport. It’s going to be available on whatever fucking new format comes out in the next couple of years, some Shaolin space shit or whatever. I own all the masters and I own all the publishing, ain’t nobody else own it. Ain’t no motherfucking Atlantic Records type shit, me getting fucked out of my music. No, there ain’t none of that going on. Oh, and something else that you might want to throw in there, I don’t how you can fit this in, but – you know who Florence Ballard is? From The Supremes? I was related to her, if you want to put that in. She was an aunt of mine. I ain’t never told anybody that before.”