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Herb Sundays 44: House Shoes
Season Three finale. [Explicit Lyrics]. The LA/Detroit Hip-Hop DJ and producer with a selection of b-sides and remixes from the 92-96 era.
Herb Sundays 44: House Shoes
Hi new subscribers, thanks Substack for including Herb Sundays in their What To Read column this week.
Some weeks of Herb are more fan mail for artists I admire or people I’ve met in passing and some are dedicated to people who’ve distinctly shaped my taste. This one is for the latter, so it’s gonna run long.
When he’s not calling out racists and bigots and getting thrown off Instagram for it, House Shoes, AKA Michael Buchanan is a full-time “motivator” for hip-hop artists and producers, a stalwart for the sample-based sounds he’s dedicated his life to promoting. His biggest discovery was that of J Dilla (then Jay Dee), amongst the greatest hip-hop producers of all time, and he has championed rappers like Danny Brown, Guilty Simpson, Roc Marciano, Quelle Chris, and Mach Hommy before they were known to the general public. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2006, DJing in over 40 countries and hosting a sometimes-weekly radio show, Magic. Since 2013, he’s released over 80 projects from upcoming producers and artists to multi-platinum producers through his record label, Street Corner Music.
My story with Shoes starts in the mid-1990s in the Detroit suburbs. As a wannabe DJ (starting to have a few skate shop events, school dance, and house party gigs) trying to find new music, the record stores were my favorite places to go. DJing was the only way I could think to get “close” to the music I liked. It was a form of hobby that made me feel like a participant, which I think running a label became a logical extension of. Because I was on my Herb shit, I spent a lot of high school weekends in the basement listening to records and working on blends (acapella on one turntable, and an instrumental of another song on the other turntable). This was the 12" vinyl era (pre-cd-j/pre-download) so you had to get lucky and find the record at your local store for the most part (no Amazon). Luckily a shop near me called Street Corner Music (the origin of his label name) was home to one of the best rap buyers, Mike Buchanan.
Detroit has historically had a strong club scene, the audio transmission of which is used as radio programming on weekend evenings. Detroit-style DJing is genre-diverse and technical and the city’s music culture is serious. The (good) gatekeepers of my youth were the DJs working the record stores making sure you didn’t buy wack shit (they’d tell you to your fave). At the time, there was an awesome feedback loop between the radio/clubs/record stores where DJs/clerks at places like Record Time, Melodies and Memories, and Street Corner, acted as “taste engines” and were responsible for breaking records locally.
Here’s Shoes on his mix:
My golden era was 92-96. These years are unrivaled in my opinion as far as the rise of the musicality of production in hip hop. The records that were created despite the limitations of the machines they were created on.
I began Djing at St Andrew’s Hall in 1994. I spent 6 days a week looking for these records to bang out on Fridays at St Andrew’s. I tell people something changed on the 3rd Friday I’m May of 1996. Not even changed really. There was just something noticeably absent.
When the money started really coming in a fork in the road appeared. And the age-old dilemma of Art vs Commerce appeared once again.
Commerce won. But before it did there was an unrivaled era of remixes and b-sides in hip hop.
I started going to Street Corner enough that Shoes would save stuff for me and hip me on things. Eventually, that would lead to me going to see him at the famed St. Andrews Hall in Detroit, on their “three floors of fun” weekly nights. The venue would end up being a mainstay for Ghostly events, especially the basement venue, The Shelter. St. Andrews (which you may have seen a clip where the floor is about to fall through during a show) was written up by SPIN in 2003 as America’s Craziest Club. Fresh with my driver’s license but too young to drink or enter the 18+ club, Shoes assured me if I helped him lug his record crates (and drive him, conveniently) I could walk in with him at the beginning of the night and not get carded. I still got frisked though, and it’s not far from the awkward SPIN write-up:
The club hosts some of the country’s more thug-oriented hip-hop nights and mosh-intensive rock nights. Weapons checks are, shall we say, an important part of the process. Staffers rely on frisking rather than metal detectors, which miss plastic shivs, fiberglass knuckles, and other popular accessories.
“I mean, you don’t cup their junk or anything,” Schuster says of crotch detail. “You just kinda put your forearm up there.”
Not knowing anyone in the club, I was mainly just concerned with finding a place to sit (offstage or up in the balcony) drink a fountain coke, and listen to the music I loved, played loud. It was how I learned to DJ in many ways and formed a very powerful bond with the music. It was heaven to be free from school, social pressure, everything. As herby as it sounds it was just about the music, which the feel of this playlist embodies. Hip-Hop was my first real musical love and thanks to this era, there was a direct line I could draw from Hip-Hop to electronic thanks to the resurgent rave scene of the late 90s and the DIY electronic music scene which would lead to Ghostly a few years later.
I feel grateful to have been up close to this moment and my most cherished cassette tape, amongst thousands, is my original Slum Village (Dilla’s original group) cassette with the Street Corner tag on it sold to me by Shoes. This playlist takes me back to the wonder of the moment, being a kid, and just loving what I was hearing, week after week.
Moments like these never last.
a little postscript on the era.
There’s been a lot of reflection on the ‘90s (Bandsplain podcast, Kl*sterman) recently and a common thread is that there were “two ‘90s” the first half (grunge, gangsta rap) and a second half (pop-punk, boy bands), obviously this reductive but there’s something to it. This playlist captures that bridge perhaps.
Crudely I think of Pete Rock as sort of the Big Bang of this era. His work just represents another level of musicality, big bright drums, and a focus on the producer as part of the audio narrative. Why did Hip-Hop sound like this then? I have a few ideas. The lightweight production power of the SP-1200 sampling drum machine and Akai’s MPC series, plus access to good studios, great engineers, incredible visual and video producers, and a connection to mainstream fashion (the appropriation of Polo, Hilfiger, Timberland, and more) created an amazing pop culture moment. Most refer to this period as “boom bap” but that also feels a bit quaint.
The production of Rap records follows this arch, roughly: Original rap records (Sugarhill Gang, for an easy one) are disco record loops, there’s a layering of drum machines/synths in the early 80s (RUN DMC), then the more constructed sample era which leads us here. The wall of sound of the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy, early Ice Cube) and the pre-legality sampledelic free-for-alls from Prince Paul/De La Soul or Dust Brothers collage of Beastie Boys’ Pauls boutique are more reverential of the source samples as a foundational layer, re-contextualizing known material into grooves. In the early 90s, producers like Pete Rock and Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest), and others are grabbing stolen “moments” and making them into themes. The son of this sound is Dilla, who is more subversive and relishes re-sampling known material in a way (time signature, etc) that others can’t recognize or just can’t believe.
All that to say this, the 92-96 era is sacred to me, and I feel I got to live through an exceptional period of time, like a jazz advent. I fully realize nostalgia is a demon, and teen feelings are the perfect music cocktail, but it’s true to me. I have competing theories about what enabled this moment. I think the advent of SoundScan in 1991 apparently showed the industry that rap (and country) were actually what Americans were buying en masse which loosened budgets. My other thesis is that the success of Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (1992) and the Death Row era, which had a Beach Boys-type influence on suburban youth globally, showed the commercial potential for rap and allowed greater artistic freedom from major labels.
Whatever the case, the original producer era which I sort of loosely flag as from Pete Rock to Dilla (and followed by Diddy and cabal, Trackmasterz), Timbaland and co., and The Neptunes. Much of Shoes’ playlist centers around a handful of producers (Q-tip, Da Beatminerz, Large Professor (Main Source), Diamond D, Buckwild, Rza, Erick Sermon) who were tapped to make exclusive remixes (often with new vocal verses) for these vinyl releases, resulting in a treasure trove of rare cuts (many of which aren’t on streaming services yet).
As rap and pop music moved on to a less sample-driven aesthetic (the Korg Triton, etc) with The Neptunes and Timbaland, the sound moved on but it also paved the way to the next generation of indie rap (Company Flow, Mos Def, Rawkus, Kweli, etc) which saw groups pressing up their own records and selling them via shops like Fat Beats. Hip-Hop had truly become multi-platform by 96/97.
I watched the Yo MTV Raps! series finale on August 17, 1995 in the middle of the night at my Grandma’s house and cried (#herblife). Less than a year later, Shoes “felt” the shift, and less than a year later 2Pac and Biggie were dead. The Diddy era fused sampling to new technology and is more of a perfect photocopy of the sample sources, perfectly shined up, like a Koons balloon dog, and better for it. The “Mo Money, Mo Problems” (post-humous) video by genius director Hype Williams is sort of the apotheosis of a new era, where pop and rap truly merge.
Two days ago, on Tom Breihan’s essential The Number Ones series on Stereogum, “Mo Money, Mo Problems” gets the treatment.
Today, the “Mo Money Mo Problems” video stands as the purest version of peak-era Bad Boy spectacle. When people talk about rap’s Shiny Suit Era — and if you spend enough time talking about rap, it comes up again and again — they are referring to Puff and Mase’s wardrobe choices in this video. Here’s Puff and Mase walking away from a slow-motion explosion. There’s Puff and Mase in zero-gravity, too fly to remain earthbound. Here’s Puff and Mase dancing together in front of the Unisphere, or dancing together in a room full of artfully designed fluorescent lights, playing directly to Hype Williams’ fisheye lens. Those guys just loved dancing together. They were good at it, and it’s fun to watch them go. The whole thing is pure motion, with Mase’s smile shining in every direction. In the face of real death, they looked utterly undefeated. In retrospect, this was the point.
For all their posthumous revisiting, Pac and Big (and Cobain, and Dilla) were as good as we talk about them. The East Coast/West Coast beef was just another media creation, thinly veiled as a commentary on black-on-black violence. Just like the steamrolling of gangsta rap CDs in the early ‘90s by politicians or the PMRC, Hip-Hop has been a convenient place to point the finger at what ails us as a country. Black artists always pay the price for America’s ills, although we’re reminded again and again that it’s angry whites who cause true carnage, and the cases against Drakeo and now Young Thug continue this theme.
For a moment, Hip-Hop held both commercial and political sway and refigured jazz and soul history into beautiful new shapes, a rare and balanced merging of pop and underground, art and commerce.
If you enjoyed this episode, here’s Additional Herb Media for further learning :