On Cue: Waajeed
Detroit’s Waajeed records a thumping house mix for the On Cue series, and speaks to Tajh Morris about The Underground Music Academy, an ongoing project with UR's Mike Banks and others, which aims to elevate a new generation of local artists
Waajeed is an artist with deep roots in Detroit’s musical landscape. Growing up during the ‘80s in Conant Gardens, things could have gone in a very different direction for him and his friends. A chance meeting with local musician Amp Fiddler would steer the adolescents on a creative path that would culminate in Slum Village and J. Dilla changing hip-hop. After spending some years in NYC and growing disillusioned with mainstream rap, Waajeed moved back to Detroit to connect with Mad Mike and Underground Resistance, and together they’re now working on a major project to help raise a new generation of Detroit musicians.
As with most conversations nowadays, the struggles of the past year come up first as we start our conversation. “My story is the same as everybody that I’m surrounded by,” says Waajeed, known to those around him as Jeedo. “You think that you’re okay some days, and other days you’re really not. What it has taught me is the importance of real-life communication and how important it is to see and to speak with family and friends and loved ones. Just to be out and about. So yeah, I’ve been up and down. Primarily I’ve been up. But it’s a fight for your sanity some days, especially given what’s going on in our political climate and for people of colour in the United States.”
While lots of DJs and musicians resorted to streaming DJ sets over the internet, many artists in Detroit have not delved as heavily into that realm. There has always been a sense of knowing one’s worth and not being taken for granted that has resonated with generations of musicians from the city.
“I’ve been doing very few streams intentionally,” Waajeed says. “I believe that professionals should be in the category of professionals. I put in the work, I’ve been a part of the dance community and the music-making community for such a long time. I believe that sometimes we are undervalued. In general I feel with the free streams that are happening, it undervalues the mental and psychological work that artists do to help people heal. We’re shamans, largely. And I believe that a shaman needs to be there in order to keep doing the work.”
For the last few years, Waajeed has been building The Underground Music Academy (UMA) a few doors down from Underground Resistance headquarters. The brainchild of Mad Mike Banks, Wajeed and other close collaborators in the community, the idea is for it to be a space that the next generation of Detroit musical artists emerge from. As the world shut down due to the pandemic, Waajeed took the opportunity to focus more on getting the school off the ground.
“The thought was largely to put some paint where it ain’t, as my dad would say,” Waajeed explains. “To find people who are from similar conditions as myself and put them in the workforce and diversify dance music, electronic music, in general.”
Waajeed sees this as a new link in the chain that is the Detroit musical pedigree. Along with a crew of friends, he was lucky enough to be tutored early on by accomplished musician Amp Fiddler, who was part of the Parliament-Funkadelic project at the time, touring the world with George Clinton. Whenever he was in town, he opened up his basement studio to neighbourhood kids that had a real interest in music making. This was an amazing opportunity, as it gave them a chance to learn first-hand the mechanics of music making.
“When I was in high school and we were just starting to form Slum Village, the person that we idolised and was a mentor to us was Amp Fiddler,” Waajeed says. “He lived very close to our high school, and if we decided that we wanted to skip school or after school, or whenever he was available, we would take the opportunity to come into his basement. He would teach us about drum programming, arrangement and generally just how to be a fly motherfucker. He was a person that really bathed in his uniqueness and his own personal style. Amp was touring with Parliament-Funkadelic at the time. For me, that was a superstar.
“Long story short, Amp taught us who we could be just by being present, just by being in front of us most times,” he continues. “Amp has always played a role in the traditions that have always rung true, not just in Detroit but in the Black community as a whole: each one, teach one. Amp was always a light and a beacon of hope for us to be more okay with the fact that we were different and be okay with the fact that you’re a king. That you should work to maintain or gain your crown. That is a debt that I can never repay.
“UMA is meant to be a place that is very much like Amp’s basement, a place where we could feel safe. That’s what his basement represented for us. The passage into that basement and the passage out of that basement, that was the toughest part. Getting there after school and walking through the crowd, not getting shot or getting into some argument or some dumb shit.
"Getting to Amp’s place offered us a refuge and kinship," he continues. "What I realise now is that it offered a place for us to be different and make different shit. To let our imaginations walk in front of us. That’s what the goal is for UMA, not to just cater to what is being done now, but really build the future leaders of independent electronic music. The next genre is within those walls in terms of us feeding and nurturing, not just in Detroit, but the world.”
What the UMA programme will look like definitively is still to be determined, but an alternative to the hierarchical structures that dominate our society’s idea of education is the goal. “I’m more in a position to be taught by young people about who we should be approaching, where we should be going,” says Waajeed. “These ideas of leadership and how things are now, they don’t work. A president and then people under them, this Mafioso kind of thing — with just one person on top, and then it tiers down and down. It has never worked for Detroiters, it has never worked for the world. We had General Motors and all of these plants that hired people, and now look at us. Our government has constantly failed us and they have these systems. So my goal is to figure out another way to have this thing run.”
When it comes to the state of society, including the rebellions in support of Black life and the uneasy conversations they have spurred in many areas, dance music included, Waajeed speaks about the historical role the music itself has played. “I’ve seen some things about people responding to Jeff Mills or others talking about Blackness and the fact that dance music in its most natural form was created as music of resistance. It’s revolution personified and in song,” he says. “Folks in Chicago weren’t creating that music because they felt safe going into normal clubs. They weren’t welcome in those spaces. They were pushed out and largely they created their own clubs. Same here with techno, you know what I mean? It’s like folk music, more than anything. These genres were created out of resistance. Just by participating or listening to the songs, you are in an active resistance.”
As the vaccines roll out and events are put back on the calendar, Waajeed is cautious when it comes to playing parties. “I had a conversation with my agent last week and they said that I could go back to work today if I wanted to. But I’m not in a huge rush,” he says. For now he will be staying put in his native city, putting in the work so that his educational vision can be fulfilled.
“I think for me it’s more important to focus on the ‘Acts Of Love Volume 3’ [EP] and finishing that up,” he adds. “All the funds from that go directly to UMA. My job in front of me for the next couple of months is focusing on the work that needs to be done in Detroit. But not just for Detroit, for the rest of the world.”
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