It's gotta be the shoes
The ex-Detroit DJ boosted everyone from J Dilla to Danny Brown. Can he finally champion himself?
Published: June 20, 2012
Cars are zooming past a gray, stucco apartment building tucked away on a residential street in Los Angeles' Koreatown neighborhood. Up two flights of stairs, posted inside of a one-bedroom unit, a former Detroiter and a current Angeleno, House Shoes, is sitting on the floor doing what he loves to do most in this world — playing with his 3-year-old son, James. Sporting an oversized T-shirt, dark jeans and a well-traveled pair of size 10 Adidas, House Shoes relinquishes his cool factor and does whatever silly thing it takes until a baby-toothed smile emerges on his offspring's face.
Not surprisingly the tools of his craft are at hand. A pair of Technic 1200 turntables is set up against the wall; a mixer and an MPC 2000 XL drum machine sit on a table ready to be turned on any second. Shelves upon shelves of records, many of them limited edition, line the small room's opposite wall. Among those prominently displayed are a Detroit classic (Lyman Woodard's Saturday Night Special) and a kiddie classic (Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends). Invincible and Waajeed's "Detroit Summer" 7-inch is here as well, but the most telling and important of the display items may be Welcome to Detroit by his long-time close friend, the late producer-rapper James "J-Dilla" Yancey.
Some of the most important associations of his life have been with Dilla and the group Slum Village, with which Dilla originally rose to fame as chief producer. Dilla's stature among serious hip-hop heads is rather hard to convey to the uninitiated, but think of the reverence for Phil Spector or Brian Eno or Willie Mitchell in other corners of the music world and you get an idea.
You certainly appreciate House Shoes' deep allegiance in corners of the crowded apartment that look like a Dilla museum. Exhibit A is a picture of Dilla and Slum Village bandmate T3 sitting on a bed, working on their samplers and the like, with the air of two 15-year-olds about to conquer the world. Exhibits B through Z and beyond include paintings and fliers for decades-ago shows at the Shelter in Detroit. There are boxes of DVDs of shaky handheld videos in which Shoes captures the Slum Village crew and key contemporaries from some of those Shelter shows and in places like Dearborn's Studio A. It verges on the hoardings of an obsessive superfan — this writer isn't the first to say that. And even Shoes is at the point where he knows that he needs to let it go to an extent and get on with his own life. And art. And career.
After a long father-son romp on the floor, Shoes' partner and James' mother, Leonor Hernandez, takes charge of the lad while Shoes takes to the balcony and his cigarettes. He chain-smokes Newports as if the word "carcinogen"" hasn't been coined. He can finish a cig, flick it over the railing and have the next lit and in his mouth before the first hits the ground. His side of conversations, typically the dominant side, has the same nervously compulsive pacing — even if he's talking about his smoking problem. One night in February, he took a deep breath and nothing would come in or go out. He fell to the floor, and was gasping for air and getting nothing. Everything slowed down and, sure it was all going to totally halt, he says he began crying, thinking that he was going to die directly in front of his son. Hernandez tore their apartment up and found an old inhaler that belonged to her daughter. That got him breathing enough to make the trip to the ER. All that drama — and a $6,000 bill — to live to smoke another day, right? House Shoes for you.
He heads back inside when the smoke break is over. Hernandez, an attractive Brazilian-Ecuadoran Los Angeles native is readying James for a trip to the park. But father and son aren't ready to part just yet. The look in House Shoes' eyes suggests that the boyish man that his Detroit friends knew has finally grown up himself.
"Coming home to him is the highlight of my day ... this is what chills me out," House Shoes confides later that afternoon.
And there's more chill on the way. An ultrasound of Shoes' and Hernandez's soon-to-be-born daughter is on the refrigerator.
But to get back to the prickly, at times defiantly rude and brisk reputation House Shoes has developed over the years ... both in person and via his online personality, he's strongly opinionated and couldn't care less about those who dislike him for it. This is the same House Shoes who's hilariously loose with his tongue and can, when he's drinking heavily, cuss worse than a sailor with Tourette's syndrome. The same House Shoes who will scream in 140 characters to anybody who tries to diss him on Twitter. The same abrasive House Shoes who even had a falling out for some months with the aforementioned Dilla. And the same House Shoes who helped ruin rapper Charles Hamilton's minute-made career for listing Dilla as the executive producer of his horrible 2008 debut album, The Pink Lavalamp — despite the facts that the two never worked together and that Dilla had already been dead for two years.
Who knows why Hamilton made the claim? Cheap publicity? Mental health issues? Beyond-the-grave visitation? Take your pick. But by the time House Shoes was finished eviscerating Hamilton's reputation using every online portal available, Dilla's name was removed from the album's artwork, and the much-anticipated release was relegated to free, download-only promo status. Hamilton was dropped by Interscope Records not long afterward.
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