Rick Wilhite: Analog love
Written by : Todd L. Burns
Detroit is a city full of underrated DJs and producers, but The Godson might be the least appreciated of them all in the wider world. RA’s Todd L. Burns catches up with the oft-forgotten third chair.
If you look closely at the early records of 3 Chairs, the Detroit trio (at the time at least) of Theo Parrish, Moodymann and Rick Wilhite, you’ll always see a little icon next to the tracks written by Parrish and Moodymann. For Wilhite, though? Nothing. It likely wasn’t a purposeful move, but it seems a tidy way of summing up Rick Wilhite’s career thus far. There. But still in the background.
You grew up in Detroit, correct?
When did you first get into electronic music? Was it Electrifying Mojo?
What do you mean by that?
Well, do you remember the first electronic stuff that you were hearing and what was the thing that got you hooked?
Well, I mean, it wasn’t the Mojo. It was a series of self-experiments, like record sales and picking up stuff that was kind of, you know, on the level… It’s kind of hard to really say, because I was buying records in the ’70s and Mojo wasn’t on the air yet.
Where were you going to buy records back then, was there a special place for you?
Yeah, just any of them.
What was the type of stuff that you were buying back then? Do you remember a certain artist that was really special to you?
It was a little bit of everything from Latin to hip-hop to R&B to rock. KISS was my favorite rock group, so I was a collector of KISS. I had all kinds of posters and stuff.
What other posters did you have on the wall back then?
Wow, let’s see. A lot of movie stuff, Star Wars posters…
Are you a big movie fan?
Oh yes, you need to come to my house. The thing is, you can never do a proper interview with me because you need to come to my house and really see what’s happening.
If I came to your house, what would I see?
Well, as I said I’m a collector so I have action figures, I still have posters from the ’70s, action figures from the ’70s, I have signed autographs from actors, artists, musical artists, everything. I’ve got a whole museum of stuff—movies and music [laughs] and sports.
Why do you think you are so into collecting things?
That was probably from my mom. I’m actually related to [the boxer] Joe Louis. He’s my great uncle, so from the whole family aspect things have been collected from the 1920s through to now. It all sort of trickled down, but now it’s something that I have to do now. I have to take over the whole Joe Louis realm of things. It’s going to be quite interesting, because there’s a whole lot.
My whole upbringing has been about everything he was about. That’s why I’m so into helping people and doing a lot of stuff publicly because a lot of speeches had to have been made [back then], and we’re still keeping the spirit going as far as what he was trying to do. He was trying to get Americans to understand world peace…that we don’t have to hate each other.
You talk about Joe Louis being a mentor to a lot of people. You regard yourself as sort of a mentor. Do you take that role very seriously?
Yes. Especially in the music industry, because I’ve been doing this a long time by myself pretty much. I hadn’t had help from anybody, didn’t nobody teach me anything, it’s all self-taught. It’s all me, until we created the 3 Chairs. That’s when I started getting more involved, and started teaming up with all the people that I felt were on the same page as far as trying to get people together to create a better music community. Everybody was kind of like, “I’m the best, hire me,” you know what I mean? It was really personal in the mid-’90s.
Obviously you’re doing some teaching in the DJ field. But what other kind of lessons do you feel like you’re imparting to people as they’re coming up? What is important for them to know that maybe you didn’t know when you first started?
It’s more in the music end, because I’d been working in a record store for so long and then I ended up owning my own record store for so long. It’s the music that a lot of people really come to me about. The DJing aspect of it now has totally changed.
The technology, these DJ programs. The time you spent learning how to DJ—the experience behind that—you knew it was pretty much impossible to become a DJ over the weekend. Right now, depending on how intelligent you are with computers, you can become a DJ overnight.
That’s a good thing and a bad thing, right?
I don’t see how it’s a good thing at all. It’s completely ruined the music industry. The whole entertainment industry has created people that really have no passion doing what we do, as a producer, as a remixer, as a DJ. All these new websites and everything have totally annihilated the industry. Nowadays anybody can just do overnight what took somebody else ten years to really become sufficient enough or experienced enough to do.
The industry is in total shambles—from the pressing plant to the mastering plant, the people that make the labels and the jackets, to the actual artists themselves. All of that is totally gone because most people don’t believe music is worth more than a dollar. If that.He was there, after all, playing “Cosmic Cars” at his school talent show. He was there, with a remix, when DJ Stingray released “Time to Party” under the name NASA. He’s sold records to some of the world’s most famous DJs through his now-shuttered shop, Vibes. He’s thrown parties since the age of 12. And he’s not afraid to let you know about it.
Like many Detroit DJ/producers, he is intensely proud of the things that he has achieved. With Rush Hour recently reissuing some of his early work on KDJ and releasing a new compilation celebrating some of his former record store’s biggest supporters, perhaps Wilhite will soon find the recognition he so richly deserves.
I guess you saw that firsthand with your record store.
I saw it before my record store. I knew it was going to be a problem when CD singles came out. The owner asked me a simple question, “Do we need cassette singles or CD singles?” I said “No, we don’t need those anymore.” The reason being is that, obviously, cassette singles clutters up the car, you know the vehicle.
Back when I went to school, I didn’t have CDs to carry along with me. I had to bring my records. I had to live in an apartment where I could house my records so I could do those parties. You have to have a place big enough to put your stuff in, your turntables, your speakers, your amplifiers.
You couldn’t do that living in a dorm, even though I did know some people that actually slept on top of their speakers. The point is: Now, it’s just a point of convenience. Music is all about convenience now. I’m tired of DJs saying that they’re going digital because of convenience. I’m like, “That wasn’t the case for over 50 years of this music.”
It has never been about convenience. Imagine going to see a band, and seeing everybody up there with a laptop. It just wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be the same. You want to see the band play, you want to see the bass player, you want to see the trombone, you want to see the flute, the clarinet, you want to see the violin, the cellos, the symphony. If you give everybody a laptop, it’s not a symphony, it’s some bullshit.
Technology has advanced to the point where it’s trying to annihilate what the actual point of all of this is about. The point is the music. It’s about the music lasting forever. You know what I mean? There will never be a classic download. There will never be a download worth $1000. It will never happen.
When did you first start DJing front of people?
I would say middle school, around eighth grade. We had talent shows in school, so I DJed for the talent show and I won. [laughs] There was people dancing, people singing, but I won because I had the whole auditorium just erupt. [laughs] Believe it or not “Cosmic Cars” was on a 45 or a 7-inch, and that was one of the records that I played.
Who else was performing at the talent show?
There were some guys in a dancing group. At the time, the “water wave” and all of that had just come out pretty much. There weren’t names for them back then for the dances, but now there are. Detroit has always been a dancing city.
Were you ever a dancer or were you always a DJ?
Oh yeah, everybody dance now, you got to dance. Me and Terrence Parker go way back, and we use to dance. [laughs] In Detroit you had to dance pretty much if you were involved in electronic, DJing or dance. Dancing was a big part and still is a big part of Detroit. You have to really know your music as a DJ because there’s a dancing aspect.
This kind of rolls back to what I was saying about people wanting to DJ all of a sudden. The next thing you know, they’re on the front of a magazine or inside of a club and they’ve only be DJing a couple of months. I can’t see how a person just learning the art can have the same opportunities as someone that has been doing it for years.
When did you first start making music?
I’m gonna say ’83 because there was a machine called a Synsonic drum, which you could program. That was more the hip-hop side of things, because obviously techno wasn’t around yet. My friend used to come over from down the street, this guy who believed he was a rapper. So I would just pull out the track and he would rap over it. We didn’t have recording equipment so we recorded on cassette, a handheld cassette recorder. My friend still has those tapes. I saw him a few years ago, and he was telling me he still had them.
How long were you making music before you actually released something?
Well, the first release I had was on Sherrard Ingram’s Time to Party 12-inch. I was on there with Juan Atkins. Inside of Buy-Rite [Music], there was a studio. It wasn’t the full-fledged, 24-track board thing, but we had a few pieces of equipment that we were making music with. We would stay there all night. [laughs] I still to this day don’t know where all this music went, but we were down there toying around. Me and Blake Baxter. Kevin Saunderson. All sorts of people.
You were learning from all of these people?
We were pretty much all learning together, because all the music equipment was new at the time. Everyone was coming out of the LinnDrum era into the 808/909 era. We were kids, though. We didn’t have money to afford these types of machines, so we put our money together and we purchased a used one. It would just go into the studio until it became a studio.
How did you get the name The Godson? Was that something that someone gave to you?
I’ve had a lot of names as far as DJing throughout the years. You have Working Mix Rick, you have D.O.C., Tech Twelve, The Dangerous One, I can’t even remember some of them. The Godson part of it, though… Particularly in America, they say that someone is “The Godfather of X.” Here in Detroit, they consider Ken Collier the Godfather of DJing.
I’ve taught myself everything, and everything has been done pretty much on my own, my own dollar, my own hands. So what I’m saying is I would love to be considered the Godfather, but I wouldn’t try to take that title. I do consider myself a young person with enough knowledge to be considered up there with the Godfathers of the industry, though, because I was young enough to be right there at the same time everything was popping and cranking.
But I wasn’t focused on because I wasn’t a known legend, you know? So I thought it sounded perfect. I’m a young person with a whole lot of knowledge of what I do and what I do for other people as well.
Speaking of what you do for other people, I wanted to talk to you about the new compilation for Rush Hour. Did you come to them, or did they come to you?
I kind of presented it to them. And they were very interested in it. I wanted it to be really represented well and marketed well, so that’s why I went with Rush Hour.
Kyle Hall mentioned to me that the track he made on there is from when he was 15 years old. Is a lot of this stuff archival material?
Some of the stuff has been around for a while. Most of the tracks were things that people came to me with, and wanted my opinion on. “What do I need to do? Do I need to add this, take away that?” But once I listened to them, I liked them. I said, “Don’t do anything to them.” They were like, “Nah!” And I said, “Just to prove it, I will release this music under my own name. I will release it just to prove my point!”
So I went ahead and put together the compilation as a Vibes Music collection because pretty much everybody on it was a supporter of my store. Not all of them, but a lot of the artists have been on the backburner for a long time. I told them, “You’ve got some good productions, you just need someone who can put you out there.” That’s pretty much how the compilation exists that way.
Do you have new stuff coming out anytime soon? You released a couple of tracks on the compilation.
There’s a CD being released by Rush Hour that collects The Godson and Soul Edge EP, with a new bonus track on there. And there’s also my debut LP, which will come out in Japan through Still Music. I’ve been waiting a long time for that. It’s all new productions aside from a new version of “Cosmic Jungle.” It’s called Analog Aquarium.
That’s a great name.
Yeah. The whole thing is analogue. There is nothing done with any kind of Pro Tools, no assistance from software programs. This is all keyboards, actual drum sets, hand claps, whatever.
Where does the aquarium come into it?
An aquarium doesn’t just have one fish swimming in it. There are different colored fish, different species. So the album has pretty much any analog equipment that you can think of on it. I still want to produce and make music the natural way. I’m not ready to go into the whole technological advancement of computer programs and things like that to make my songs. I’d still rather just find my own beats, find my own sounds, create my own sounds. I make a lot of sounds with my mouth.
With your mouth?
I make a lot of the sounds that you hear on my records with my mouth. I beat box.
What track could we hear samples from your mouth?
A lot of the Three Chairs stuff. Some other 12-inches I’ve done with other people. There’s some on this album, but it’s not like you can actually figure out what sounds were made by the mouth because I’m pretty good. I can make almost any sound that you can possibly think of, as long as it’s not something that’s really, really high-pitched.
Any bass sound, any clap, any Moog sound. Then I just put that into a mixer or a recorder or an MPC or something and go from there. [laughs]. I start experimenting with it until it’s a sound that I can use. People often want to know, “Where did you get that sound from?” I’m like, “I made it myself!”