Waajeed is a man with a plan. I know this because it’s my second time speaking to the Detroit luminary, who’s always full of ideas and inspiration.
The longtime DJ and producer has deep ties to Slum Village and J Dilla, and he’s widely considered one of the city’s brightest and best. Waajeed knows Detroit’s cultural history inside and out. But this time, he doesn’t take my call so we can reflect on the past.
This conversation is about the future of electronic music and how his latest venture, a school called Underground Music Academy, will be the training grounds for tomorrow’s electronic music titans.
Located on East Grand Blvd in Detroit’s former NAACP building, Underground Music Academy is the new kid on the block and a welcome addition to a street widely associated with Black history. The Submerge record store is next door, Moodymann lives across the street and Motown’s first headquarters, now the Motown Museum, is up the block.
Waajeed says the idea for UMA, which has been brewing for 15 years, is heavily inspired by the ideology of Underground Resistance. The highly influential Detroit music collective (whose past members include Jeff Mills, Robert Hood and Drexciya’s Gerald Donald and James Stinson, to name a few) are known for their militant and anti-corporate ethos. The physical space isn’t set to open until 2022, but UMA’s soon-to-launch website will create a network for its students.
Whether you want to learn about music production or how to mix vinyl, Underground Music Academy intends to provide quality education for doing so, especially to those from marginalised communities. UMA plans fill an enormous void, and the possibilities are unlimited.
When did the idea of Underground Music Academy come into existence?
Fifteen years ago. The name of the learning centre is Underground Music Academy, and Underground Resistance inspired it. It’s also inspired by people like Berry Gordy, Moodyman, Theo Parrish – anyone who has been an advocate for thinking outside the box, independence, and resilience through all of these crazy times.
Many moons ago, the bug bit me to be an independent – not just signing things, then somebody owning my shit. When I started a label, I didn’t really know what to do until I met a dude at a record store, and he was like, “yo, you should talk to these people about how to move forward.” My first sit-down with [UR co-founder] Mike Banks and his sister was exactly how things should be inside our community. It was very much based on ‘how can we help you get to where you want to go?’ And as you and I both know, it doesn’t often go that route. Sometimes you have elders in positions that are just looking to be opportunists of the next generation of dreamers.
I’m one of many Underground Resistance pupils, and they certainly inspired this act in terms of creating a space to continue [their] legacy. Underground Music Academy is on 2990 East Grand Boulevard – the NAACP’s past home, that I would like to open first to Detroiters. Ideally, in 2022 we’ll open up the physical space for people inside our community; then, we want to teach remotely. Meanwhile, the ramp-up to that is us developing our curriculum, which is based on two things; the art of DJing and the art of production.
There will be countless other things inside of those pillars, including teaching people how to manufacture independently, publishing and management. All the dos and don’ts that we share within our community on a personal level we want to teach at the school. And most of all, your value inside of the space. [We’ll be] considering not just Detroit’s history, but the history of people of colour, our presence inside the space, what it means, and how you negotiate and manoeuvre that without being on some dumb shit.
There’s never been a road map for us to focus on, nothing to follow or even mimic. My dad used to say ‘fake it till you make it’. There are very few places that we can kind of copy and have integrity for ourselves, our nation, and our ancestors at the end of the day. This space will provide that for not just our community, but people worldwide. Anybody who’s marginalised, that’s who we’re here for. Anyone who has been slept on and forgotten, that’s our priority. It’s just the question of putting paint where it ain’t, you know?
Is it a youth-focused programme or for all ages?
Our job is to teach those who don’t know, whether it’s you or a person who’s been marginalised because they’re 50. It’s open to anybody that is open and wants to learn. I always think about the artist Bill Withers; his career didn’t develop until later in life.
How will you go about funding the space?
That’s the tricky part because I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to ask for help, which is very strange for me as a person producing and manufacturing independent music for the last 20 years. I’ve never been in a situation where help was necessary on this level, so that’s a tough one for me. But in realising the value that Detroit, people of colour, and the students will bring to the market, I should be asking for all the money.
I realise, though, that the donations are not for me; they will benefit the world at large. Techno and house music are a multi-million, probably even a billion-dollar enterprise. That started from some brothers packing their bags and going to Berlin, and it wouldn’t even be here if Detroit was not a part of the conversation. Our school is right on the boulevard, the boulevard that’s the same home of Motown, Moodymann and Submerge. We’re an extension of that; we’re the next plateau, the next step up the ladder. So that kind of changes the narrative.
How are you going to raise funds for the project?
There’s nothing that I’m not willing to do to bring light to the situation. That includes raffles, and we also want to auction off possibly the very first drum machine I bought from J Dilla. We want to talk to some of our OGs about getting equipment that our heroes used at the beginning stages of their careers. Even perhaps some of the photos I took of very substantial people in our business – auction those off.
There’s no means that I wouldn’t take to be able to steer someone from going to prison and into making the next genre of music that’s undiscovered. That’s the shit that keeps me up at night. Every moment this school is not up and running is a moment that handcuffs are put onto somebody and taken from this genre into a prison. The first sincere fundraising opportunity that we’re going to do is a release that I produced. It’s called Acts of Love Mixtape. The first one will be released in October, and the second in December.
Will there be any significant renovations to the building?
The building is pretty much set. It’s around 2,500 sq. ft.
What are the next steps in the planning process?
The plan for the rollout is to start to build free online content. We’re manufacturing content for our website to make ourselves available to build a relationship with the public. It’ll almost be used as a film studio for the fundraising and for us to start building trust and consistency with the people that we want to educate. I’ve been told several times by my board to ramp up slowly instead of running out there and getting at it like I usually do. That also gives us time to develop our curriculum in a way that benefits the students; we need to find out what works and what doesn’t work. I plan on having content out as soon as the latter part of November to start building the community that we want to serve.
What type of content will be featured on the website?
We’re going to do tutorials, live questionnaires, or ‘this is how you use this drum machine‘, or ‘this is how you fill out publishing papers’. The initial parts of it are not so much tutorial-based, but actually seeing me going in there and doing work. Building cabinets, doing some of the plumbing… We want you to see these things! We want people to see this thing manifest in front of their very eyes; that way, it means more. If we don’t know anything else as underground artists ourselves, we do know that nobody’s going to stand in and save you. You have to do the work; this is not an option. It’s not an option to put in late nights or to show up. It’s the narrative of nobody giving it to you, you’ve got to make it happen.
What are some of the responsibilities of your Director role?
I started to develop a board of community activists, people well connected to this type of work, and that have been doing it – what’s important is to keep the board small. That way, we can be more agile and adapt to this situation in front of us. You know, Covid-19 changed the game. I mean, not just for people like us, as far as being musicians and people who love and play music, but it’s changed the narrative in terms of bringing people into the space. So to answer your question, I’m the Executive Director. My job is to do eighty per cent of the lifting at this point. To [create] content and figure out what needs to happen for us to get to the space going.
Would you say the blueprint is somewhat similar to Youthville, the youth centre where [the late Detroit techno artist] Mike Huckaby mentored upcoming producers?
I’m familiar with Youthville because it’s right up the street, but I’m not as familiar as I should be because I’m a working artist. But I do know the result. I’ve seen people like Kyle Hall and others that come from that space. I’m sure we will produce a similar result. But I would almost say, and with no disrespect to Mike, that this will probably be times ten. Based on my level of intensity and the people on the board, we’re here to make the next Mount Rushmore of people coming out of this space. Whether they’re from Detroit or not, we’re here to carve the next level of musicians, artists, and business people. It’s in the spirit of those like Mike Huckaby, and I feel like because those came before us and have given us tools to do this job, we can step up the next rank of the ladder.
How can one get involved if interested in instructing or volunteering?
Our Facebook will be the best way to do that at this point; all inquiries will be funnelled through that space. There’ll be more information about the school, and there’ll be more information about where it is. It’ll be a place for any questions to be answered or for any donations that people wish to make.
Why is it essential for something like this to happen in Detroit?
There’s not a better place on the planet for this. I always was taught that great design is a result of a great need. The iPhone is a great design, it’s the result of a great need. Techno is a great design that was brought about by a great need, and so is hip-hop. Everything that happened in the Bronx and Queens with hip-hop, what happened in Detroit with techno, resulted in this magical, huge thing based on the circumstances. Independence, resilience, working with what you have, embracing doubt and fear. These are all results of being a Detroiter.
Our results made Motown what it is, and they were counted out at first; people didn’t even look. It’s white supremacy at its finest; they were looking in other places. We’re forced to look at what’s happening in Europe while Europe is not forced to look at us. So then when we show up with these revolutionary ideas, it’s always a big fucking surprise because nobody is even paying attention. So we have the perfect storm to produce, manufacture, and nurture the next generations of people who will change our electronic community. There’s no other place on the planet that will produce the revolutionaries that come from this space.