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
By his estimate, the oldest piece of production on Let It Go was created in 1999 while he was living on the east side of Detroit on Courville Street. It's featured on the song, "Goodfellas to Badboy," which Detroit rapper Moe Dirdee lyrically devours.
"When he e-mailed me the beat, the file said 'Goodfellas,' and I didn't even have to listen to it to know that he wanted me to think of some mob shit," Moe Dirdee says via phone. "What he did was marry a lot of beats with different personalities. So the first half of the song is a play on the mob. But then people always look at me like I'm a bad boy 'cause I used to be in and out of jail a lot. So it ended up being a double entendre on the Bad Boys of the Pistons. I sent Shoes a rough version of the song, and he sent it back saying he didn't like it. To be honest, I was pissed off, 'cause that's the first time somebody sent me something back like this. And I normally wouldn't accept it, but he gave me constructive criticism."
Dirdee is also featured on the track "Trouble" with the painfully underappreciated emcee Marv Won. But when asked which of the two songs he's most proud of, he pauses and says "Goodfellas to Badboys" without question.
"That song was more of an accomplishment, and the behind-the-scenes turmoil that I've never really spoken about publicly is the reason why. When he rejected the verse I sent him, I took it personal at first. Nobody does that to me. But his professionalism is high, and the song turned out better because of it."
House Shoes is honest enough to recognize that he wasn't focused enough on business as he should have been. Blame youth, heavy drinking and a party lifestyle.
A few of his beats have made it out to the world previously, including the cathedral-like beat for Big Proof's song "Broken" featuring Mu and Journalist 103. He also did the Out of Focus EP with Elzhi in 1998, and was fortunate enough to sell Dilla two beats for the still-shelved MCA album (which may never see daylight).
He was supposed to get $5,000 apiece from Dilla for two beats, he says, half of it after the album was released. "All I got was the $2,500 up-front," he recalls. "I came over to his crib back in 2001, 'cause he said he wanted to hear some shit. I brought over a 60-minute Maxell cassette, and the very last beat on the tape ended up being the beat to the intro for his album. I was geeked. He had Universal Records send me a check via Fed Ex by the end of the week."
At 21, he also put out Jay Dee's much-sought-after Unreleased EP in 1996, then Phat Kat's Dedication to the Suckers in '98 (produced entirely by Dilla) on his own House Shoes Recordings. But the business side of things slipped through his fingers. Detroit electronic DJ Mike Huckaby remembers hiring House Shoes back in the '90s and was his boss at Record Time on Gratiot. "I was observing him for quite some time before I hired him," Huckaby says, remembering what House Shoes used to be like during his early 20s.
"He was full of energy. I used to give him hip-hop promos whenever he would come in the shop. The look on his face said everything. I knew from the days of handing him white labels and promos that he wasn't your average kid, so I pulled him in."
When asked if there's one thing he'll remember House Shoes for in those days, he responds, "He was always late, and that was eventually his demise at the shop! But more importantly, he kept it real in his attitude and demeanor the entire time. He would never push a record he was not into. He knew the hip-hop game like no other."
Rolling around Los Angeles with House Shoes and his good friend Jeremy Mennel for two days is guaranteed to be comedic no matter what. Just as in Detroit, he's got jokes and jabs galore for all things real and imagined, and nobody is spared.
On rapper Talib Kweli: "He's so wack." On L.A. funkateer and producer Dâm-FunK: "He's got, like, 60 variations of the same three songs." On Tyga's mind-numbing 2011 song, "Rack City": "I lose all faith in humanity whenever I hear anybody singing that shit." With regard to any overplayed pop song that comes on the radio: "Did you hear that bullll-shit?" he'll ask no one in particular. "That's the worst song I've heard in my fucking life."
This is the comedic side of House Shoes at its best. He knows he's an asshole and talks shit with the best of 'em. If nice guys finish last, Shoes won't be with them.
At a lounge in a Silver Lake neighborhood called the Virgil, Shoes is on hand to see singer Jimetta Rose perform for her birthday. The talented songstress is featured on what is easily Let It Go's most captivating track, "Castles (tHE SKY IS OURS)," which was created in memory of Shoes' good friend, Master Blazter drummer-producer Jovan "J-1" Coleman. Shoes and Coleman were quite close at the time of his passing last year while on tour at the age of 32, and his death marks the third close music friend that Shoes has lost in recent years, along with Dilla and Proof of the group D12. As irony would have it, while standing outside the bar, the previously dissed DâM-FunK actually walks up with a Lisa Bonet-esque date on his arm and immediately yells out, "What up, Shoes!"
Shoes' circle of hip-hop friends in Los Angeles isn't nearly as robust as it was in Detroit, but the folks in it give him plenty of love just the same. Stones Throw Records label head Peanut Butter Wolf, for instance, was instrumental in Dilla's career, and it was House Shoes who introduced them. He remembers when Shoes first landed in L.A. permanently back in 2006. "L.A. adopted him right away," Wolf says. "He has skills as a DJ and a good ear. He knows how to bring people together too."
A day later, we're riding down Santa Monica Boulevard in afternoon rush hour traffic. The sun is baking, and we might as well be stuck on a side street in hell. Shoes, who doesn't drive but always wants to make sure good music is played, has plugged his phone into the console and is now DJing with his Blackberry — out of habit.
At one point, while at the intersection of Santa Monica and Ridgeway, we pass a poster for fellow Detroiter Jack White and it reads: "Jack White — Blunderbuss — Debut Album."
Given how prolific the man has been, it's weird to think of Jack White with a debut release at 36. And though their careers have been very different, for Detroit hip-hop fans to see House Shoes at 37 releasing a debut anything is a bit eyebrow-raising as well. But that's the case.
"Everything is happening on time," he says, anticipating a question that wasn't fully asked. "I couldn't have created this record if my life had gone any other way. This album would not exist if not for my eyes being open to the true nature of a lot of people that I've helped support over the last — God knows how long — turning their backs on me."
Much of the stress he's alluding to is related to his semi-public falling out with J Dilla's mother, Maureen Yancey, a woman with a smile and demeanor sweeter than pie.
Since the death of her son from complications related to lupus, she's come to be viewed by many as the mother figure of Detroit hip hop. And as numerous Dilla tribute shows are staged every year, mostly in February, the month of Dilla's birth in 1974 and his death in 2006, the two people who have taken these benefit-fundraisers to heart the most may be Yancey and House Shoes. They're now officially at odds.
It was Shoes who consistently used to lean on promoters around the world who claimed they were throwing benefit concerts to raise money for the J Dilla Foundation for music education and insisted they fork the money over. Yancey never had the time or energy to track down party organizers online herself. Shoes always made sure people played her honest.
But this year, Yancey told Shoes his help is no longer welcome.
At a concert this past February at the Fillmore Detroit honoring Dilla, Shoes was noticeably absent, a rather telling sign. In the background, there've been rumors — from sources unknown — that House Shoes was sitting on loads of unreleased J Dilla beats that he wouldn't surrender to Dilla's heirs, and, more egregiously, that Shoes was secretly selling Dilla beats in Europe and lining his own pockets.
Shoes vehemently denied both rumors during an expletive-laced phone interview. Public spats on Twitter about the situation didn't help either.
"I deleted her number and everything from my phone," Shoes says, getting heated.
Rapper Guilty Simpson, who feels caught in the middle, empathizes with both sides.
"Him and Ms. Yancey not being close anymore killed him," Simpson offers, trying to contextualize how hard it is. "People can say that Shoes sort of built his legacy from spinning Dilla records, but Shoes was the first DJ in Detroit that would spin Dilla's material. He has always championed Dilla's music. No knock to Maureen Yancey. Has Shoes kept his own name out there off Dilla's music? Yes, but in good taste. You can't be mad 15 years later."
(Efforts to reach Yancey for this story were not successful.)
This summer is crunch time for House Shoes. His daughter is due Aug. 28, and he plans to push Let It Go, touring behind it until he's got to show up at the hospital. A zigzagging national tour kicked off with the raucous show at the Shelter three weeks ago. He's got plans to hit South Korea, Japan, Australia and anywhere else that will book him. "There's so much pressure with this record," Shoes says. "If this record was released 10 years ago, it could sell 200,000 copies. In the late '90s, hip hop was still doing 200,000 to 300,000 copies. I'm trying to go platinum independent. I'd be happy with 30,000 copies sold. I'd be content with half of that."
It's too early to tell what the figures from Let It Go will be, but the buzz behind it is strong, and taste-making magazines and blogs (FADER, The Source,, Wax Poetics, the website Pitchfork, etc.) have been enthusiastic. Regardless of sales, it appears Shoes has done what he finally set out to do.
"I wanted to have an album that I've created, something that nobody can take away from me. My legacy is more than just boosting up other people. It's time for me to really boost myself."
Jonathan Cunningham writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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