Ask him what his favorite city is and he’ll tell you Kalamazoo. It’s a city in Michigan located halfway between Detroit and Chicago and the music it has given birth to reflects just that. This anything-but-insignificant scene’s patriarch is artist Jay Denham, who has been promoting himself as a musician and DJ since the mid-80’s and more recently has been throwing parties in the Kalamazoo area. Denham’s most recent largescale event, Sector 616 (July 4, 1998) entertained over 2500 people, some attendees flying in from as far as New York, Arizona and California. Denham is, as he puts it- “thirty-something” (although he tells me he’s 16), and looks not a day older than 25. He stands at 6-feet-4-inches and though his size is intimidating, he smiles most of the time and stays youthful by laughing a lot -or at everything- and not taking himself too seriously. But now as a producer, label-manager, writer, and performer, his business is very serious, and so is his music.
I met Denham at his Black Nation headquarters located in the warehouse that was home to his first successful party, “A Hard Black Evening,” which featured the impressive line-up of DJs Surgeon, Shake, Fanon Flowers, Kikoman, Baby Pop, Chance McDermott, Aaron Bennett, Mike Grant, D-Knox, Horsepower, Justin Reed, and also live PAs from Powerhouse and Chris Sattinger, putting Kalamazoo on the map. We spoke in his private studio- windowless white walls decorated with huge posters promoting parties he has spun at, including Mayday (Berlin, December 1996), The Orbit (Leeds), Tresor (Berlin), and Lost (London) and a signed-by-all-DJs and mounted flyer from his “People’s Revolution” party that was thrown in a sheet metal warehouse located in north Kalamazoo featuring techno icons Claude Young, Rob Hood, and Mike Dearborn.
Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Denham’s initial involvement with music was playing bass guitar for a small high-school rock cover band playing tracks from the Clash and Aerosmith. He began making the transition from pop to techno when he started DJing 18 years ago. He first started spinning Chicago House because he loved the music; it became his passion. Although Denham didn’t live in Chicago, he went there for the house music. “One of the guys I met in Chicago was Chip E who worked at Imports record store in Chicago. I was in the store one day when he played this promo for me. It was the track, “Time to Jack,” by Chip E. I said, ‘man, who’s that?’ and he said, ‘it’s me,’ and I was like ‘no dude that can’t be you!'” Meeting Chip E in person made him think, “Hey, maybe I can do this stuff!” Then, in 1986, Denham met Shake of Frictional records who, at the same time, was a DJ at Western Michigan University spinning at a lot of the campus parties. But it wasn’t until 1988 when he heard Rythim is Rhythim’s “Nude Photo” that Denham actually began making techno. “At the time [Nude Photo] was totally different than what else was going on. So when I took the record home, I played it 20 times back-to-back and said, ‘wow, this shit is just great!’ and that got me interested in what was going on in the techno scene in Detroit.” Denham bought the only piece of equipment he could afford, a TR-505, and MIDIed it together with a synthesizer Shake had and the two began making the sound now associated with Kalamazoo techno. “I [later] bought a 707 and sold the 505 but I wish I had kept it and had it bronzed because the 505 was the beginning for me.” His favorite drum machine is now his 909. Denham recorded his first track, “Ritual” in 1989 for a compilation simply titled “Techno II” on Virgin records that came out in London. He then recorded his first album for Derrick May, “Fade to Black,” on Fragile (a sublabel of Transmat) in 1990 which is now a Detroit classic on which are tracks some consider to be his best ever (i.e. In Sync). Ironically he mentioned only one regret: “doing my record with Transmat (laughter). That’s the truth.”
After frustrating experiences with other record labels, Denham decided to start Black Nation Records in 1993. In particular, he had a bad deal with Fragile, from which he never received just royalties for even though it has been reissued. “When you don’t get paid, you’re backed against a wall like a wild animal and you have to come out fighting. You don’t trust anybody after you have a bad experience in the business. After my experience of not getting paid with Transmat, I took some time off and it wasn’t my priority to put out music. Once I compiled so many tracks, I wanted people to hear what I was doing, so I had to start my own label. It wasn’t to get rich… it was to give me an opportunity to put my music out the way I wanted to put it out and have no one tell me how to create my music.” Unfortunately, Black Nation’s first planned release, a compilation, was recorded and put to wax, but never hit the stores. Denham, Fanon Flowers & Brett Dancer, Tony Ollie, D-Knox, and Chance McDermott all did a track on it. It was a little ahead of its time and no one wanted to take a chance on the new label (big mistake). Only 50 copies were pressed- which were used to try to find a distributor for the record. Denham explains he would like to do a limited release of that album later on for collectors. Other labels he has appeared on are Tresor, Fragmented, KMS, Ideal Trax, Cosmic Record, Clone Vinyl, Disko-B, Mechanisms Industries, and Sonic Mind under the various guises Swizzle-Stix, Blackman, and Vice, a name he borrowed from the faded 80s show, Miami Vice. His label began really taking off in 1996 with the release of “Day of Atonement” by Blackman, D-Knox’s “Meditation” EP, and Vice’s “Player Hater I” which also has a sequel.
The word “black” in Black Nation does in fact pertain to race. Denham implies it’s “about identifying with yourself and being strong and believing in yourself.” Denham’s primary musical influence is his environment. “It drives my music. The struggles of everyday life and trying to survive in this mad world we live in inspires me every day.” His production pace has a slightly more organic dependency. “It’s based on my chronic consumption. It moves along quite fast when I’m pretty stoned.”
Just like his herbal inspiration, a good track for Denham brings an experience that can’t be found everyday. “For me it makes me feel a way that I normally don’t feel. I get sweats, hot flashes, and sometimes it may even bring tears to my eyes. It’s amazing what a good track can do. Not all music does that to me. A good track has to alter my mood.” With his experience, Denham has heard his fair share of good tunes. “So many great tracks have come out in the 18 years I’ve been DJing (laughter). The one that makes me say ‘damn this is a great track’ is Mr. Fingers’ ‘Can You Feel It?'” He also watches the releases of several labels with interest. “Axis is one of my favorite labels along with Drum Code, Dynamic Tensions, Blue Print, Frictional, Pure Sonik, UR, and I think Mechanisms and Sonic Mind are top for the future.”
Eventually, Denham decided to pursue promoting, which he also proved to be good at. “I wanted to throw a party where I felt that people were getting their money’s worth. A lot of people would have great line-ups but they didn’t have the right line-up I wanted to have. When you charge $20 for a party, you should have a bunch of guys, not just one headliner and ten local guys; people aren’t getting their money’s worth. My parties have at least four headliners.” Sector 616 included a live P.A. from Bios, the celebrated Jeff Mills, Shake, Claude Young, Traxx, Surgeon, Upstart, Frankie Vega and Brett Dancer. (History Note: This was not Jeff Mills’ first appearance playing in Kalamazoo. About ten years ago, Tony Jackson, A.K.A. Funk, had brought Mills in, but this was before the big hype about Mills existed.) Since a party of this magnitude scared off some of the locals, Denham is making up for it with a $1 party on a smaller scale due at the end of the summer. Denham is also turned off by other promoters’ desires for profit. “If I break even and everyone’s had a great time then that’s what it’s all about.”
Denham is modest about what he has had a major part in nurturing. “I don’t consider myself a founder because I’m not Christopher Columbus to claim anything. I was just always down with the music and down with promoting the music. It was there before me and it’s going to be here after me and more or less I just wanted to spread the gospel, spread the techno sound.” After living in Detroit where he expanded his music career and got more involved with techno, Denham came back to Kalamazoo to get his friends involved who he knew had strong desires to make music too. The people he exposed- Fanon Flowers, D-Knox, Aaron Bennett and Chance McDermott have him to thank for helping them reach out and spread the sounds they all live for. “My intentions when I came back to Kalamazoo from Detroit was to help all my friends because I knew there was talent here. It just needed somebody who had the vision and know-how to influence these guys and open their minds up to what they could do with their music. I consider them to be techno pioneers like myself.”
Obviously, Denham has reasons to respect the music that has come out of Detroit over the years and the vibe that it represents. “It’s the creative music that has come out of Detroit that gives it so much attention. As we speak, there’s not a lot of Detroit techno coming out of Detroit, but with artists like Rob Hood, T-1000 and labels like UR, we still have people who are true to the music. A lot of up-and-coming guys went to the electro/Detroit Bass sound.” However, he doesn’t consider himself part of the Detroit scene. “I lived there for a few years and was greatly influenced by a lot of the guys coming up like Shake, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Juan Atkins]and the rest of the guys. But that’s their thing. I always wanted to come back to Kalamazoo and do my thing. I think I’ve come across with that in my music, more of a Kalamazoo sound than a Detroit sound but a mixture of the Detroit and Chicago scene.”
Recently, Denham has traveled to Europe, spreading the Kalamazoo sound to more of the world. His first European DJ tour was in March 1996, where Denham traveled to Belgium and Germany. In that same year, Denham hired Aaron Bennett to work in promotion and to aid as a business advisor, and is now Denham’s personal domestic booking agent (Disko-B and Dynamics Booking Agency are Denham’s agents overseas). The fact that he is more popular abroad than in America is no surprise to him. “The music there is a lifestyle when here in America it seems to be a trend. People seem to want to ride trends here and personally I don’t want to be a part of it. In Europe, you can’t deny the funk in the music. When you’re consistent with your releases, people can only respect that and I try to put my best in my music. It shows when the fans come out to see me play.”
With a record collection in excess of 9,000 slabs of wax, Denham has accomplished many things and played for many crowds. So far he has two favorites: “Spinning the first time at Lost in London and the first time I played at the Orbit in Leeds. Those were early in my DJ career and they influenced me to play better for the crowds.” However, there are still names he would like to see next to his on a flyer. Jokingly he adds, “one person I would like to spin with is Derrick May. I think that would be a night to remember. Someone out there, please, just line me up with Derrick May!” (Derrick May is the owner of Transmat.)
While Jay Denham’s future certainly seems bright, many question techno’s popularity. “I feel that it’s going through a phase of sickness right now. To me it’s a scene all over the world. It’s not what it used to be. I think that in turn is going to make it strong for the future.” Ultimately, it’s up to the people who are in the scene to keep techno alive. “When you add trendy gimmicks to the music, it kills it rather than being true and being real to the music which would keep it growing and keep the music going into the next millennium.”
Black Nation Records is still on the rise. In the past, Denham has done between four and six releases per year, and now his goal is up to ten. Artists he is planning to feature this year or next on his label are Kevin Kennedy (Powerhouse,) another one from Bios, Brian Zentz, Elliry Kowles, Fanon Flowers, D-Knox, Aaron Bennett and more. In addition, Denham is resurrecting a new Fade to Black “In Sync” or “Insistent Rhythm” remix album with Claude Young and/or Surgeon. For Denham’s own releases, he will have a new EP on Lost Recordings (London,) Cosmic Records (London), Clone Vinyl, Disko-B and for Black Nation Records, a new “Psychic Warfare” 12-inch, Carjacker EP, and another Surgeon meets Vice.
Denham’s release of the double 12″ album, “People’s Revolution” (Black Nation Records), featuring seven techno tracks, continues to prove Jay Denham to be at the forefront of techno, keeping it hard and head-bangin’. Techno -let me remind myself and you- is still alive and breathing because of dedicated artists like Denham who have kept the dance floors packed with the bangin’ 4-4 beat that makes us sweat and dance longer than the original Star Wars. Denham is once again preparing for a European tour: Spain, Croatia, Dublin, Malta, Zurich, and his prestigious residence at the Ultraschall in Munich are some of the places he will be hitting. Even with all this major work, and a cemented career in music, for him getting married is his next “big thing.” His beautiful girlfriend is a student in Germany and although a long-distance relationship may be nearly impossible to attain, moving there is going to be hard for him because “it’s always hard to leave home.” He’s not permanently packing his things yet.
Jay Denham Discography:
On Black Nation:
Blackman: Day of Atonement EP
Vice: Player Hater EP
Jay Denham: Anomie EP
Blackman: Redrum EP
Vice: Player Hater EP Vol. II
Jay Denham: People’s Revolution 2 x 12″
On other labels:
Fragile: Jay Denham – Fade to Black
430 West: Vice – Survival Instinct EP
Drought: Jay Denham – Lifeforce EP
Tresor: Vice – Pressure EP
Cosmic Records: Jay Denham – 1964
Elypsia: Jay Denham – Fade II Black
Disko-B: Jay Denham – Escape to the Black Planet
Fragmented: Jay Denham
Mechanisms Industries: Jay Denham – Muffler Man II
Sonic Mind: Jay Denham – SM 004
Clone Vinyl: Jay Denham
Ideal Trax: Surgeon meets Vice