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
"At the end of the day, I'm one of the nicest people you'll ever meet," Shoes deadpans. "But if you cross that line or do some ho' shit, I have a platform ... and I can use that shit to help you or I can use that shit to fucking stop you. I'll shut yo ma'fucking ass down. I enjoy it."
For the past two decades, House Shoes (born Michael Buchanan) has worked tirelessly — as a DJ first and foremost — championing nearly all of the major hip-hop talent that emerged from Detroit before those artists went global. From his days broadcasting as a student on Southfield High School's WSHJ to his time working at various record stores in Detroit, Southfield and Ypsilanti, Shoes has been passionate about exposing music he believes in to the masses. His mother, Ellen McElmeel, remembers her son being fascinated with music from a very young age. During an interview she also offers an interesting fact about the day Michael came into the world. "He actually was born on Good Friday during a terrible ice storm," she says, which possibly accounts for the sanctity of his character and his iciness when someone tries to cross him.
A musical purist at his core, for years he was known for shoving early Eminem, Big Proof, Slum Village, Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Elzhi, Royce Da 5'9", Danny Brown and most notably J Dilla's music down the throats of anyone who would listen — before they had record contracts. Had he been wise enough (or temperamentally qualified) to work in A&R for a major record label in the mid-'90s rather than manning turntables, he'd probably be a millionaire. Unfortunately, being one of the most respected and trusted DJs in Detroit doesn't come close financially.
From 1994, when he got his big break holding down Friday nights at St. Andrew's Hall, to his brief but vital residency at the Buddha Lounge on Eight Mile Road and on to his years presiding over Tuesday nights at Northern Lights before decamping for Los Angeles in 2006, there were few reaches of the hip-hop stratosphere where his presence wasn't felt. His ear was and still is one of the best in the industry, and his propensity to consistently help deserving local artists get proper national exposure will always make him a hero of the Detroit music world — even if he lives 2,500 miles away.
"I had a platform, and I used it to expose the greatest that we had to offer," Shoes says, deflecting credit. "From Dilla to Black Milk to Guilty to Danny to Quelle to all that shit. Their music is amazing, and I want the world to hear it, it's just that simple."
His stamp of approval goes far. Take it from the skyrocketing rapper Danny Brown.
"House Shoes is the tastemaker here," Brown said in 2010, just months before he inked a record contract with New York's Fool's Gold Records. "You don't go nowhere without a House Shoes co-sign. ... To get out of Detroit, you need a House Shoes co-sign."
Despite all of that pull, whenever it came to pushing his own musical undertakings and original material as a producer, Shoes rarely invested the necessary time, hustle, focus and drive to get any real traction. "I always did my best to use my connections and get jobs for everyone else," Shoes says. "On the real, it was frustrating, 'cause I could never plan that equation out for my own shit."
In 2012, however, much of that is changing.
This week, House Shoes is releasing his highly touted debut album, Let It Go, on Los Angeles' Tres Records. At the age of 37, he says he's finally finished with neglecting his own music priorities. From a sonic standpoint, fans of purist rap and heart-heavy frenetic beats should recognize the wait ended up being worth it. Let It Go is a sledgehammer of an album if there ever was one.
Shoes produced the record in its entirety and then meticulously selected a virtual who's who of emcee talent to rhyme and sing atop his production. Ace Detroit rappers Guilty Simpson, Danny Brown, Black Milk, Big Tone, Marv Won and Moe Dirdee take the lead, rapping over old- and new-school beats that feel tailor-made for each artist involved, even though some of those beats are nearly a decade old. L.A.-based talent such as the Alchemist, MED, Oh No, Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, Fat Albert Einstein and Jimetta Rose are here as well. The reality is Shoes is a man rooted in two cities now, and that deserves to come across on wax.
The reviews and pre-release coverage of Let It Go have been overwhelmingly positive. It's a highly personal album, and its greatest accomplishment might be the way Shoes gets emcees to express exactly how he's feeling, song by song, without ever saying a word on the record himself.
Let It Go is more than just a labor of love, it's a double helix of Shoes' DNA spiraling at 33 rotations per minute. It's all here: the roots in early '90s East Coast sounds (like Pete Rock and DJ Premier), lessons from studying Dilla's handed-down beat tapes in the mid-'90s and early '00s, the evolution of Shoes' sound since moving to the West Coast. You'll hear comedic interludes, gritty drum loops, and well-chopped samples on some tracks and spacious, sun-drenched production on others. It's important to note that, despite Shoes' obvious closeness to Dilla, he never lets his beats come off as Dilla imitations.
"I started making beats in '94, on a four-track," Shoes says. "I started on the MPC [drum machine] in '96. I'm basically looking at, like, 15 years of music to choose from. I'm not the kind of guy that wakes up and makes music every day. On average, I'd say I make beats three to four weeks out of the year ... when the urge hits. It's real personal for me. It's not a monetary thing. I don't want placement on people's albums. This is my shit. So when I started the record, I just went through all my old beats and had plenty to choose."
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