The Mentor And More: DJ Mike Huckaby On Spinning, Producing, & Educating
Detroit – Longtime Motown DJ/producer Mike Huckaby wears many hats. The skilled artisan, a master of his trade behind the decks where he develops a smooth blend of deep house and techno fused with jazz elements, is a forward-thinking proponent of Motor City dance music culture whose influence is recognized both locally and overseas.
His sound is melodic, but not in terms of vocals. Huckaby’s style is warm, emotional and welcoming; it creates an enticing feeling that hooks listeners from the very beginning, when the first deep grooves are absorbed and processed. Like Huckaby himself, his music is soulful and innovative.
Always one step ahead of the game, the revolutionary DJ is one of the first to not only embrace new technology, but also share it with future generations of music. Huckaby is an educator, teacher and mentor for YouthVille, a program based out of Detroit designed to teach music production to inner-city children between the ages of 11 to 19. He uses Native Instruments and Ableton software to help YouthVille children understand how their favorite beats are made, and how they can create those beats themselves. Huckaby understands the importance of continuing Detroit’s renowned musical heritage, but he also teaches REAKTOR and Live production globally. His work with Native Instruments goes even further, however, as Huckaby is a sound designer for the software.
His love for music is deep. Huckaby is a major proponent of vinyl records and embracing the sound preserved within. It’s a passion that developed after a lengthy career at Record Time, a now-defunct mainstay in the avid Detroit-area record-store scene, as well as Buy-Rite Music. He spins only vinyl, a characteristic that draws people to his strong live performances, where viewers are captivated by Huckaby’s precision at digging deep into his collection and selecting the perfect record to get his audience dancing.
Looking past the multiple genres of electronic music, Huckaby is a rare example of a musician who can get down to the bottom of any element and bring forward the core sound and beat. He is expert at uncovering the foundational quality of any track and remixing it to create one of two outstanding results: a profound departure from the original or an enhancement of the original. Regardless of which remix path Huckaby decides to embark upon, the results have lifted him to his rightful place in a select category of DJs who are apt at bridging soulful deep-house with thumping techno, while still maintaining their own twist and sense of originality.
Huckaby has remixed everyone from Juan Atkins to Deepchord to Loco Dice. He has his own platform for releasing music, Deep Transportation, and his work with Rick Wade’s Harmonie Park collection is internationally recognized. Huckaby is also credited with linking Detroit and Berlin, broadening the Detroit/Berlin connection through his European travels and extensive use of German software like Native Instruments and Ableton in homebred Detroit music.
DJ Times caught up with Huckaby as he returned to Detroit following several weeks overseas in Europe, where he was DJing and teaching production to children, to talk about his multiple roles in the dance music industry.
DJ Times: So you just came back from a European tour. How did that go?
Mike Huckaby: I don’t even remember where I played, but it was quite a good time and quite exhausting.
DJ Times: Sounds like it! Let’s start off by talking about Deep Transportation. When did that start?
Huckaby: I started Deep Transportation in 1995 in Detroit.
DJ Times: And what was the reason behind it?
Huckaby: I wanted to create my own brand of house, which was uniquely personal to me. I had a lot of ideas in my head and I thought I could create a platform to release my own music.
DJ Times: How would you describe that brand of house?
Huckaby: Deep, melodic and jazzy. A lot of rich tones, colorful palettes and real emotional core progressions.
DJ Times: Are you happy with where Deep Transportation is today?
Huckaby: Well, I mean… I have to be. But there were a lot of delays in releases over the years and I kind of stumbled in terms of some technical handicaps that I had later championed, but earlier on, I just was kind of just stumped by technical difficulties, which then became ironed out and mastered over the latter years.
DJ Times: What were the difficulties?
Huckaby: Working with analog equipment, fusing samples. A lot of the samples were drifting and I didn’t know how to quite honestly truncate the sample properly, and I ran into a lot of tracks jumping or skipping in various locations of the track. So later on in my career, I learned how that was done and I overcame that difficulty.
DJ Times: Do you think the advance of technology helped improve those difficulties as well?
Huckaby: Absolutely. Certain things technically couldn’t even be done if it weren’t for advances in technology and equipment.
DJ Times: What are some of the things you can do today that you couldn’t do 10 years ago?
Huckaby: Time stretching, and to the extent of quality concern in time stretching, that’s, like, number one. Working in small and limited places. Actually, that’s number one—time stretching would be number two. The ability to work on the road, the ability to work in limited places in terms of space and time. Working in the car, working in line, working in an office or restaurant or coffee shop. Not having to be at home in order to finish a product or project.
DJ Times: How often do you work in line or in a car?
Huckaby: All the time! Working in an airport—I work in the airport all the time.
DJ Times: So how did you get involved with YouthVille?
Huckaby: I was doing Native Instruments demonstrations. Alvin Hill was the director and we both worked at Record Time, and I inquired about doing a one-time [Native Instruments] REAKTOR demonstration. That became a conversation about doing a class down there, so they [YouthVille] gave me a tour. And I just bypassed a one-time demonstration and asked, “How can I teach a class down there?” And they said, “Well, that’s even better! Come down here and we’ll give you a tour.” I came down there and right in the middle of the tour, I said, “When can I start?”
DJ Times: How have the YouthVille kids responded?
Huckaby: Well, I’ve met some great kids coming out of the class. It’s interesting—they get the chance to see the process in making some of their favorite beats by their favorite producers and how that process is deciphered. I try to break that down to them. But I’m also doing a workshop at the Detroit Public Library right now, as well as YouthVille… and that’s picking up a lot of momentum.
DJ Times: Is the Detroit Public Library workshop for kids, too, or everyone?
Huckaby: Yeah, it’s for kids—it’s a youth program.
DJ Times: Are the kids willing to learn [the trade]?
Huckaby: There’s a handful of them that are and a handful of them that aren’t. For the most part, they are. You get some that just want to sit in for a day and some that want to sit in for the whole six sessions of the series. Some of them have some interesting concerns and questions, so they keep coming back.
DJ Times: What kind of music do the kids want to produce most?
Huckaby: It varies. Mostly it’s hip-hop, but the thing that’s interesting about it is if their parents were into house music, then they often want to make house music. So there has to be almost a primary influence of house for them to want to make house.
DJ Times: Do you try to show the kids more interested in hip-hop some house production as well?
Huckaby: Honestly, no, because I don’t try and push any particular direction or influence on them. I try to just be there for what they indicate to me. I think it would be a hindrance to try and push house on them when they haven’t indicated any interest in it or even know what it is. But now if they come from a house [music] background, and house has been played in their house, there’s something I can do. I have equal satisfaction trying to show them [the kids] house as well as hip-hop, ’cause I try to show them the rules and I also try to show them some of the famous producers from here and their methods of sampling and creating beats. I try to show them J. Dilla’s style of beat-making or something and how that plays into the Detroit heritage.
DJ Times: Have you had any standout success stories teaching these kids music?
Huckaby: Well, there’s been a kid who was suffering academically and I wound up mentoring him and he ended up on the honor roll. There was Kyle Hall, and then there are a couple other students that are well on their way. We had a student who had Facebook friends donate a brand-new Mac to. We’ve had tons of donations due to the popularity of a “Real Scenes” video shot by Resident Advisor and then a Thump documentary shot by VICE. So there’s been a tremendous amount of love and support, and the global community, worldwide, is so influenced by this project.
DJ Times: What effect do you think people like yourself who educate children in music will have on future generations of music [producers]?
Huckaby: I think I helped some kids demystify the whole baffling aspect of making music and answered a lot of their questions. And I showed them and kind of identified to them which way to go next in the pursuit of electronic music.
DJ Times: Did anyone teach you music when you were a kid?
Huckaby: Nope, I learned it all by myself. There was nothing [back then] necessarily like YouthVille when I was growing up.
DJ Times: You teach music production with Native Instruments and Ableton. What do you like most about those brands?
Huckaby: With Native Instruments, I like Maschine and REAKTOR. Maschine is an intuitive way of making beats and REAKTOR teaches the students a lot about synthesis and how the perimeter zone of a Native Instrument works. Ableton is just essential for intuitive song development and song creation, and it’s probably the most cutting-edge software available to young electronic music producers.
DJ Times: What other equipment do you like?
Huckaby: The Waldorf Wave—the synthesizer that I have. And I rely a lot on the things I’ve learned outside of that synthesizer to have a reciprocal relationship in terms of teaching more about it itself. I have a SP-12 and [Roland] S-770 sampler; that’s a sampler I used in my Deep Transportation [material] that I still use to this day. Those three pieces I’m really heavily active with.
DJ Times: Out of those three, which do you use most?
Huckaby: I would say the Waldorf Wave.
DJ Times: I know you like vinyl, too. You used to work at [the Detroit-area vinyl store] Record Time. What was your experience like there?
Huckaby: Well, it was a chance to learn a lot about what was going on in the foundation of house. I got a chance to pretty much define my style and develop my ear [for music]. I also worked at Buy-Rite [Music] in Detroit and that was pretty much the foundational record store in Detroit, which preceded Record Time.
DJ Times: And you spin all-vinyl, right?
Huckaby: Only vinyl.
DJ Times: Do you think working at the record stores influenced this preference?
Huckaby: Absolutely. After working in a record store for 14 years, [digital] files just don’t seem natural to me and I just like the human interaction with vinyl, being able to sell vinyl, talk to people in public about different things [vinyl-related]. I just like the interaction in a record store and possibly meeting up with somebody to discuss music in an open environment of other people.
DJ Times: So vinyl is more personal.
DJ Times: What else makes vinyl different from digital files?
Huckaby: It’s more of a hands-on thing. You can actually touch and bond with an album or the album artwork. It’s more of a stimulation of the mind when you’re dealing with vinyl. Not only can you appreciate the record, but you can also have just a strong sense of fondness for the artwork or the album cover as well, or even the label graphics.
DJ Times: Who are your favorite artists?
Huckaby: Ron Trent, Glenn Underground and Kerri Chandler—these guys just do it for me.
DJ Times: You also do a lot of remixes. What sound do you bring these remixes that make them different than the originals?
Huckaby: I kind of just try to identify direction that I can take the track in. I might want to just complement [the sound] or complement the artist, or I might want to make a radical departure where I imprint or import my own influences over the source material. Each track is different and each direction is different, and I kind of look at each artist in a way where I ask myself beforehand, “How can I make a contribution to this artist? Would that be in making a radical departure or would that be working with something that is a part of his or her original idea or original stems in the recording, or do I just discard that all together?”
DJ Times: What are some of the most radical remix departures you’ve made?
Huckaby: There was a remix I did that was really just a live-band mix and I slowed it down and made a jazz, deep-house vibe out of a lounge track. And then I did an up-tempo deep-house track, so I actually got to do two remixes of the same track with two different ideas for both of them.
DJ Times: In your mind, what was the most important remix you’ve ever done?
Huckaby: Hmmm, I can’t really say, but it’s interesting because I’m really critical of the remixes I do in the first place. That’s kind of like an embedded requirement in the selection process. I pick remixes that will amount to something. If it’s just good for the artist themself, then it’s really not a good deal for me.
DJ Times: Are you currently working on any remixes?
Huckaby: I just finished up two tracks—I can’t even keep up with them with the amount of stuff I’m doing… sound design all the time, remixes, teaching, my own projects. Anyways, I’m working for Sounds of the Universe right now, which is a subsidiary of Soul Jazz. Not a remix, but my own tracks. I just finished up a track for Kai Alce’s label and I also did a remix for Motor City Drum Ensemble. Those are things that I’ve immediately been involved in.
DJ Times: Where do you find the time to do all of that?
Huckaby: Because I get to work in the airport! So I’m on an eight-hour flight and I utilize that eight-hour flight. That’s one way technology has really helped, because otherwise I’d have to be home or going back home to even initiate or start the process of finishing a project. I no longer have to do that. I mean, I was checking my email a few minutes ago and I’m just finishing up the presets on a software device and I already got an email to do another one.
DJ Times: You have so much going on, with DJing and remixing and teaching kids music. How do you balance all of that?
Huckaby: It’s really important to know that I’m a DJ first, a producer second and an educator third, and I wear all three of those hats in that order. Because if you don’t know what hats you wear, and when to wear them, there’s somebody else who will tell you when you wear them and that might not be fitting for you. You may have considered something completely different.