Of the original crop of Detroit DJs, Delano Smith is now the last. Reflecting on house and techno without his influence would mean viewing a very different musical landscape. Coming up at a time when the world was just discovering the influence a DJ could have, Smith battled his way to the top in a tough scene full of talent. With the guidance of the late, great Ken Collier, his early sets fusing soul, disco and early electronic sounds would plant seeds in the minds of many of Detroit’s subsequent generations of house and techno. Those dancing to his sets in the late 70s and early 80s would go on to become dominant influences in first rave then global music culture. Now, the circle is closing as Delano stands shoulder to shoulder with artists he once educated.
I hope you don’t mind going down memory lane, cause it’s not everyday I get to interview someone who’s been playing dance music since the disco days and I’d like to start with a few questions about those times. To some in this scene, Detroit might seem very removed — the music went through so many mutations since its inception. Do you see a certain continuity with what you experienced, say putting on high school parties in the late 70s, early 80s, and what’s going on now?
It’s actually a completely different world both musically and culturally. The music and the scene has morphed into something completely different from it’s humble beginnings I think. I don’t have a point of reference on how this musical revolution started in Europe, but in Detroit it started in the gay black community – then spread to straight black crowds and eventually integrated after the introduction of the Music Institute in Detroit where Derrick May and others began rolling post-Disco and early electronica. What started as Black Music primarily has now morphed into an entirely different thing spawning multiple sub genres – it’s crazy! But I like it!
More generally, how does it feel seeing things you’ve personally experience being granted historical and cultural importance?
It feels like I’m old now – LOL! It reminds me of simpler times in Detroit, when DJ culture and this music was still relatively new to a lot of folks. I think it’s only nostalgia if you actually lived through it – while it’s meaningful to us – folks that lived and experienced it first hand, I’m not sure if a lot of the younger crowd actually gets it. Only DJs and serious clubbers are interested in the relics of yesteryear – what are treasures to us are like MEH to this new digital generation. But it’s all good though.
Can you talk about the importance of this club and his resident DJ Ken Collier for the city and you personally? How have they influenced you as a DJ to these days?
Heaven was actually Ken’s House – it was where you could hear him in his most purest form – like Levan at Paradise Garage or Hardy at the Music Box. The system was like no other in the city and was a major influence to all the after hour party concepts that followed. Ken had other residencies throughout Detroit that were just as significant in the days prior to Club Heaven. His earlier residencies where the stuff of legend as well, it’s how we all became to know and love him. He was our ambassador to this music and culture.
How would you describe the Beatdown sound you became known for? It seems to be more about a vibe than a certain music genre, right?
It is more of a vibe. A stripped down vibe if you will, generally mid-tempo grooves that are soulful in nature – less electronic – more rooted in traditional House. An acquired taste.
Your music remains obviously catered for the dancefloor, but after all those years, has your approach to production evolved?
Yes, somewhat. I’m longing for more musical elements in my sound now, more changes and progressions. I think this comes from age and attempting to escape monotony. I’m looking to entertain the listener more with talent and artistry versus just beats and groove.
From what do you draw inspiration then, when you produce back home, so removed from the club environment?
Thats a good one, and it’s hard to really say as it’s a variety of things. But I generally go in with some sort of concept as to what type of track this will be and go from there. I rarely just off the cuff starting with beat – bass- hat – etc.
Can you talk about how you balance the gigging, the traveling, the airplane, the studio and family time?
A lot of times people don’t realize how difficult this life can be because they only see the glitz and glamour of it. There is never enough time and it can be exhausting if you don’t rest properly. I try to take a month or two off in the beginning of the year and again at the end of the summer just to finish some production and enjoy my family and home. It’s a constant waiting game when traveling and it can wear on your patience. I try to remain in good spirits when I meet the folks that come out to support me. People don’t realize the stress that constant travel can bring.
Speaking on the studio, a lot of artists tend to approach it one of two ways. Either having a set concept in your mind and attacking that concept or two or just sitting down at the equipment and experimenting to see what happens. Are these ways you work?
I generally have an idea and direction I want to go in from the start. If I’m thinking of an interesting bassline, I’ll start that first and work and build around it. Rarely do I go in with no direction. There’s a concept to my projects I like to think.
I notice a lot in your music as well as your performances that you seem focused on creating a vibe, an enveloping air of groove. Sonic pleasure comes from folding into your music to say the least. It’s music for the long haul as opposed to the whizbang, tricknology, A.D.D. state of current music. Do you think this plays into the fact that a lot of young millennials are drawn to your music as a way to escape the instant gratification society we live in now?
Absolutely! The tricks and constant EQing is a U.S. thing. Constantly trying to get some kind of reaction from the crowd is not building any suspense or excitement in your performance I don’t think. It’s not educating. We must constantly educate while we entertain. The attention span of some in the states is limited however, IMO, they want what they want NOW.
What are some of your current favorite artists out there right now?
I listen to so many different styles and genres, it’s really hard to say. Right now I’m digging a lot of 60’s stuff when riding in my car. I try to take a break from house and techno from time to time as of late. It can burn you out if you’re not careful.