“Just do what you do”: Detroit hip-hop pioneer HouseShoes moves forward

The motto of the city of Detroit speaks to its resilience and tenacity: ‘Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus’, or, ‘We Hope For Better Things; It Shall Rise From The Ashes’.

Over the past century, this midwestern hub has fallen multiple times and picked itself up just as often. Drawing from this, and an unshakeable hometown pride, Detroiters past and present have made their city a key musical centre of the 20th century. From Motown to techno, Detroit has given much to the world and received little in return.

Michael ‘HouseShoes’ Buchanan is a lot like his city: rough on the outside, outspoken, and generous. Growing up in Southfield, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit, Shoes—as he is known to most—fell in love with hip-hop in the mid–1980s after Father MC’s nephew moved to his neighbourhood from New York City. Over the next decade, he taught himself all he could about the music, leading up to his first experiences of Detroit’s own vibrant hip-hop scene via trips to local venues The Rhythm Kitchen, Saint Andrews Hall, and 1515 Broadway. In 1993, as he headed off for a short-lived stint in college, his mother gifted him a pair of LB Evans house shoes. They were so comfortable he wore them everywhere for seven years. The name stuck.

Shoes got his first major break following a fight between two residents at Saint Andrews Hall, a celebrated venue that stands in the shadow of the General Motors headquarters in downtown Detroit. Starting in 1994, the young upstart took over as the hip-hop resident, a position he held for over a decade. At the same time, Shoes started working at many of Detroit’s notable record shops. He soon made friends with some of the city’s up-and-coming hip-hop artists, including a young producer by the name of Jay Dee, and Proof, host of the foundational Hip-Hop Shop open mic session.

For 15 years Shoes lived and breathed Detroit hip-hop, providing a platform to others and playing a part in the career of every notable act to emerge from the city. For the re-enactment of Eminem’s freestyle battle in the 8 Mile biopic, the producers used Shoes’ records and crates. He was Detroit’s Hip-Hop Ambassador to the World, a nickname earned through hard work and dedication. But, like his city, there was only so much the man could give before he had to stop and consider his own wellbeing.

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“I started The Gift to keep things moving”

In 2006, HouseShoes relocated to Los Angeles in the wake of Jay Dee’s death. For 12 years Shoes had witnessed his friend being mistreated and misunderstood by all but a few, until death provided a bitter celebration of a genius he had recognised the moment they met. The loss triggered a process of transformation for the rugged Detroiter, culminating in 2012 with the release of a debut album, Let It Go. Years in the making, the title said it all: time to let the past go and move forward, not as the voice of a city, but as his own man.

I first visited Shoes in January 2013 at his L.A. home in the neighbourhood of Koreatown. We sat and talked in a living room crammed with records and littered with toys as his young daughter tried to nap. Seven years into his new life, Shoes had been welcomed by the local music community with open arms and was preaching his gospel via DJ gigs in town and around the world. Still, he was first and foremost on daddy duties, looking after his son and daughter while their mother attended school. He needed to do something. That something was The Gift.

“I started [The Gift] to keep things moving,” Shoes tells me, speaking over the phone in an accent that marries the grit of Detroit with the cadence of Los Angeles. The Gift began in early 2013 as a free download series, delivered via SoundCloud. The idea was simple: use his knowledge and experience to shine a light on unknown hip-hop producers. “I was just trying to move towards the new way of doing things with digital,” he explains. Shoes chose artists from his direct or extended network. They sent him beats—hundreds of them—and he would select, tidy up, and package a handful for consumption.

Six months after The Gift started, Shoes decided to step things up. Digital was all well and good but nothing could beat a piece of vinyl for someone raised in the heyday of 1990s independent hip-hop. “The free stuff did well,” he explains, “but even then most kids don’t know about records. I wanted to teach them about something important: the physicality of the music. We could wake up tomorrow and the internet could be gone. But the records won’t go nowhere.” Shoes hit up Fat Beats, the iconic hip-hop store and distributor, with whom he had a longstanding relationship. They’d been waiting for him. “I liked the idea of a small boutique label and its connotations of art,” he tells me, “it’s a record label but I feel like I’m selling art prints, limited and exclusive. Ninety percent of the records have sold out within the first week or before.”

“Street Corner Music was the first store to give me a platform to sell records to kids in Detroit”

This wasn’t the first time Shoes had dabbled in putting out records. Back in 1997 he christened House Shoes Recordings with the Jay Dee Unreleased EP, a collection of seven remixes the producer had done for major label rap artists which kept being shelved. Undeterred by his lack of experience, Shoes decided to help his friend out. They sold 3,000 copies across two pressings. This time around, Shoes didn’t want his name involved in the label. “I wanted it to be bigger than me,” he explains. That’s when “the light bulb popped off.”

In the autumn of 1994, Shoes got his first job at a record store just as his Saint Andrews residency was starting. The shop was Street Corner Music, a local retailer in Southfield founded by Chris Flanagan and Mike Rome in 1992. The pair didn’t sell any hip-hop at the time but they gave the young DJ an opportunity, and he seized it. Speaking during our first meeting in 2013, Shoes recalled how he “got those two platforms, Saint Andrews and Street Corner, at the same time. You could come and hear me play all the live shit on Friday night and then come to the shop and buy it.”

Back to the present, Shoes realised the name for his new label had been there all along. “Street Corner Music was the first store to give me a platform to sell records to kids in the city. So I called Chris and Mike and asked if I could use the name.” Chris’ answer? “Take that shit and run with it.”

Street Corner Music, the label, launched in autumn 2013 with the vinyl release of the first volume of The Gift: 12 beats by Nameless, a young producer from Flint, Michigan. Fat Beats handled manufacturing and distribution. The artwork took its cue from the music’s roots: sampling. “We jack breaks off the records so I thought ‘we’ll jack the covers too’,” Shoes recalls with a laugh. Every record in the 10 volume series re-interprets a design from Blue Note’s famed 1500 and 4000 album series, which began in the mid 1950s and were art directed by Reid Miles. Dert, the subject of The Gift Vol. 2 and one of the few producers in the series with a prior music career, handled design. “We made the covers character based. It had to have roughly the same amount of characters as the original title, so it made sense visually.”

In October 1994, James Yancey, then J.D, had walked into Street Corner Music. Dressed to impress, he began to dig through the shop’s crates with meticulous attention. Having made a pile of his picks, he took them to the listening station at the back and gave them his full attention. Shoes recalls how the man soon to be known as Jay Dee “would hear something, take the headphones off, close his eyes, and start nodding to himself, beatboxing little drum patterns.”

The two struck up a conversation and Yancey offered to play Shoes some of his beats in his white Ford Ranger pick-up truck. “He put that tape in and that shit was like… reset!” Shoes exclaims. “It was like the first time I heard hip-hop. But our region, our city.” It was also the start of a lifelong relationship that defined Shoes’ Detroit years and continues to inspire him.

“‘Joy Road’ is the holy grail of Detroit records”

Six month after the Street Corner Music label began, as vinyl copies of The Gift were flying off the shelves, Shoes decided to revisit an idea Jay Dee had included in their 1996 release. The third track on the Unreleased EP is a piano interlude lifted from a Pucho And His Latin Soul Brothers record. Shoes liked it but couldn’t figure out the point. Jay explained his logic: “I just wanna give cats something to play with, some loops to chop up.”

Eighteen years later, the lightbulb in Shoes’ head went off again. He uploaded the sample to SoundCloud, under the name Shoes’ Flip Sessions Vol.1: Electric Piano Solo, and invited anyone to use it for a beat as part of an open entry contest. The prize for the top two entries was a limited 7″ pressing. It proved successful enough for two volumes to be pressed, featuring producers from Detroit, Montreal, Los Angeles, and Texas. Both sold out.

Enthused by the success of his new series, Shoes decided that the third volume would use a sample from his favourite song, ‘Joy Road’ by The Lyman Woodard Organization, taken from the band’s first album Saturday Night Special, released in 1975 on the little known Detroit imprint Strata Records (cousin to the more famous Strata East label). Shoes calls the song “the holy grail of Detroit records. It’s Detroit to the T, so somber but sharp. Not the best recording but it has so much emotion!” But ‘Joy Road’ proved too much for Shoes’ audience. “It was all bullshit,” he says with a laugh. “I got 250 entries and there were maybe five, 10 joints that were cool but nothing dope enough to be pressed up.”

Shoes put his idea for ‘Joy Road’ on the back burner. He then remembered that Amir Abdullah, of DJ and production duo Kon & Amir, had acquired the rights to the Strata catalogue. A phone call later and the pair agreed to reissue ‘Joy Road’ on 7“ via Street Corner Music. As it turns out, Strata had mocked up labels for a potential 7” release back in the 1970s.

Coming to the conclusion that the Flip Sessions were a dead end (“I get caught up in community service sometimes”), Shoes reached out to an old friend to handle flips of the track for the B-side: Virginia’s Nottz, who has produced for Busta Rhymes, Pusha T, and Scarface among others. The 7″ series will continue as a private affair between Shoes and his close circle with a focus on tracks that can be licensed. Volume four features Carlos Nino, with the track ‘Rhodestargate’ from his last album, and a remix from Stones Throw’s Knxwledge.

The Gift ended its run this past summer, just over two years after it began. Volume 10 features 14 productions from North Carolina’s D.R.U.G.S Beats, an artist who has worked with 50 Cent and Ludacris. With over 300 beats to choose from, it was the hardest volume to compile for Shoes.

A few weeks after the record came together, Shoes got a call from D.R.U.G.S to say Dr. Dre had cut a song for his Compton album using one of the beats included in the compilation. “It was the last one I picked,” Shoes recalls, still incredulous. He promptly removed the beat from both SoundCloud and the impending vinyl pressing. Unbeknown to Shoes, Ty Cannon, A&R at Aftermath and joint friend of Shoes and D.R.U.G.S, had facilitated the placement. “It’s amazing because I’m so anti-industry,” Shoes admits, “I just love the music so for something I put my hands on to make its way onto one of the most important records of the year is telling. You don’t need to chase [success], just do what you do.”

“You don’t need to chase success, just do what you do”

Rare are the careers in the music business that are defined by altruism. Shoes is one of those exceptions. Back in his living room two years ago I asked him why he chose to connect people instead of keeping things to himself, as many do. “A connection ain’t a connection if you ain’t connecting a motherfucker,” he replied deadpan. “Just put A and B together, who knows what the fuck C will equal to. It could be crazy.” Street Corner Music, the label, is a continuation of this ethos. Shoes may have decided to “let things go” three years ago but he can’t help himself. Today, he’s just wiser about how much to give of himself before pulling back.

Now that The Gift is over, the label will continue with artist albums. The first is Worth The Wait from Detroit producer and MC Illingsworth, another producer with deep ties to the local community who has remained in the shadows. “Street Corner is a label for those who deserve records,” Shoes explains, qualifying this as a mission statement of sorts. “It’s for artists that have never had them and people who love the music.” The albums will be compiled from existing work, in a similar way to The Gift, to present the artist to the world and give them a leg up towards bigger things.

This past July saw Shoes enter his tenth year as a Los Angeles resident. A lot has changed and yet, as the saying goes, some things are still the same. He’s back behind the counter of a record shop, Record Surplus on Santa Monica Boulevard; he holds down a DJ residency at local Korean fusion restaurant Escala; and he’s got his own radio show, Magic, on dublab, something he’s been waiting for since his voice first appeared on the airwaves of WHFR in Dearborn, Michigan, back in 1995.

So, is the loud-mouthed, opinionated veteran still glad he made the move? “Fuck yeah,” comes the reply, “best thing I ever did. I will always love my city but you gotta love yourself. No one else will take care of you. The city didn’t necessarily take care of me but we were young, we were in the moment. [Since leaving Detroit] I’ve taken my friends’ music to 40 countries. I don’t think the true fruits of your labour will ever come until you step out of your comfort zone. Anybody can do what’s easiest and be safe, feel comfortable in their little box, but the world is a big fuckin’ place.”



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