We had the immense pleasure and privilege to speak to DJ and producer Tyler Dancer. With releases on prestigious UK label Don't Be Afraid and a collab with Anthony Shakir on the Funkadelic (Reworked By Detroiters) album, the US based artist might seem reclusive or perhaps even shy, but don't let that fool you. We chatted about his hometown Kalamazoo and it's position as equidistant between Chicago and Detroit, his own roots and his hopes for future clubbing experiences.
Your mix has this hazy, real-world, darker corners of the nightclub feel to it. What was your intention with it?
The mix was pretty spontaneous, so I am glad you envision it in a nightclub. I had been playing for about an hour and realized I should have hit record. My prefrontal lobes have a sampler on 1 & 2, its Martin Bonds saying “Just hit record man!!!!” Thanks Bro!
It made us want to be in the club! What was your last clubbing experience? And what would you like to be your first clubbing experience post-pandemic?
My last clubbing experience was February 7th, 2020 at Corsica Studios in London for the Don’t Be Afraid 10 Year Anniversary Party. It was literally two weeks before everything shut down. It's surreal looking back on it. I was sitting in Benji’s (Don’t Be Afraid label head) living room and started getting texts from a friend in China telling me things were getting pretty bad with Covid. We went over to Limehouse Studios to finish mastering the DBA 10 Year Anniversary thumb drive given out at the party, had a nice birthday meal for Benji alongside Wheelman, Steven Jullien, Karen Gwyer, Mr. Beatnik, rRoxymore, and quite a few other lovely people, it was a nice group. Went over to the club. Had some nice chats with people like Ambient Babestation Meltdown and Fauzia in the green room. Walked around and danced by myself as I often do. We partied until the sun came up, slept a few hours, and took a train to Saint Leonards to chill with friends by the seaside and got hit by storm Ciara once we got there. I can only imagine stronger winds at this point in my life. Maybe if I went indoor skydiving.
I hope my next clubbing experience is like a reunion. They usually always feel that way anyway here in the Detroit scene but we are spoiled. You’d never really have to call anyone to see if they were going to be at the party because odds are your friends were going to be there sometime through the night anyway. I hope we can get back to that but it is going to be somewhat painful knowing that some of the friends we have lost this past year won't be showing up.
You’re a resident of Kalamazoo in Michigan, which is seen as a halfway point between Chicago and Detroit. Can you explain roughly what that has meant for the city’s dance music scene?
A book could be written about this subject. Kalamazoo is an important part of dance music history although most of its population here has no clue. Some of the early figures from Detroit such as Anthony Shake Shakir, Eddie Fowkles, and Bruce Bailey went to Western Michigan University and/or cut their teeth DJing parties and competitions here. Some real local DJ talents too like Tony Jackson. There are the Kalamazoo natives that became world forces and influencers like Jay Denham of Black Nation Records, Fanon Flowers, Chance McDermott, and Donnell Knox amongst others.
We could experience the best of both worlds here being able to just hop on I-94 and party in Detroit one night and record shopping in Chicago by the next afternoon. Shoot sometimes we would go as far as Toronto. For US Americans that is really special since things are so spread out here. It allowed us to be influenced by both early Chicago house, Detroit techno, as well as the funk, soul, jazz, and gospel influences that we all share across genres without pretension. Now I will say this. Kalamazoo locally sort of sees itself as a rock city and despite the rise in breweries there aren’t really places for artists of any genre to consistently perform outside of house parties that are dominated by a revolving door of college students. Some are incredibly talented. Despite this, it is an extremely difficult place for an artist to establish themselves in, which is a perpetual shock to every young musician that would assume a city of this size with universities would be interested in supporting consistent talented artists. They usually leave to Detroit or Chicago, or go abroad. And when they do, it's something special, but it's almost always a struggle.
What’s one track that sums up Kalamazoo?
I would have to say In Synch by Fade to Black. Pretty much everything about that record is legendary. Fade to Black is a Jay Denham alias. It originally came out in 1990 on Fragile in the US which was a sub-label of Transmat, distributed by Submerge, and on Network in the UK. Enough said? It is a definitive record in the history of Detroit Techno and very special that it came from Jay. It was even on the New Dance Show. He would need to tell his own story on that but to me it sums up the Kalamazoo sound because no matter what the sum of a track is from here, it is usually equal parts hard, cold, and funky, even when the artists didn’t have direct interactions with each other. It's a thing.
Your family are also very rooted in the city, right? What kind of influence do you think this has on the music you make?
A part of my family got here as free slaves in 1864 and we all grew up in the same house throughout those years so I’m literally steeped in it. Sure there are all these notes, sounds, and instruments to make music but it is life and history that informs and influences what is played. I remember when my Grandfather showed me a record at the library for the first time. How to turn the best songs into a mixtape, and enjoy it in your car. For kids back then that was so cool, now I think they’d say its too much work. He would be proud to know that music has taken me places in peacetime that he only got to see in war time. Even just this past month my great grandfather Bert Hackley was mentioned as an important part of baseball history here in Kalamazoo. It was still a young game back then. Sometimes with this club music people never realize who the players are and a lot of the greats come from this region. Techno is a defining moment in the progression of Black American music history which is paramount to all music history. It tells the story of our lives and our situations sonically. Even in the way that it gets to a listener, if it ever finds its way there at all. It is our struggle, our self expression, and our hopes for the future.
A perfect small world example was one night in Brussels I met up with Danny Wolfers and friends at Fuse. Knowing I’m a history buff they took me upstairs in the club so I could see the wall of artists who had played there and everything. Some of the guys were talking about Dwight Sykes off PPU Records being from Kalamazoo. I hadn’t been familiar with his stuff and it made me nostalgic for home since I had been off visiting my gal at the time and since a lot of the video is of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, I was feeling nostalgic. Its was mad seeing my stomping grounds on film a world away and have artists geeked about it. I sent his videos off youtube to my parents in which they immediately started recognizing people. A couple days later my mom calls and tells me my grandfather owned a record store with Dwight Sykes dad. You’d think I wouldn’t need to travel to Belgium to get facts like that. “Small World (In a Robin Harris “BeBe’s Kid’s” voice)!!!”
What’s one thing you’d change about dance music? BIG question ha!
We have got to change the people’s understanding of its history! It's for the greater good how music and dance can bring us together across so many intersections! It keeps getting exploited by the corporate model every three to five years here in the States. Rebranded and repackaged for the youth as if it hasn’t ever existed before. Then they are forced to painstakingly wade through it as more and more content becomes available. So much is getting lost. Media and marketing doesn’t tell the story at all. It's a real shame that could be very empowering, especially to the offspring of post industrial youth with all the mounting competition and few opportunities to express themselves outside monetized avenues. I imagine a Kalamazoo or Detroit with kids who knew its music made an impact on the World. It's sick they feel they have to leave to have a fighting chance when they should be embraced. For whatever reason respect for Jazz and Electronic music has to be sought here and it's a damned shame. My Middle and High School Band director was Rivets Drummer. He instilled some discipline in me and that is priceless. At least through a proper music education I can communicate across cultures, and that's powerful. But all the nuance aside, I just want people to have fun dancing together again. Even a wallflower wants to get down. I think more dance and self expression at the structural basis of our societies will do a whole lot of qualitative good than we can measure. There is more to life than learn, work, and attempt to make a profit.
What’s your guilty pleasure music? Something people would be surprised to know you dig...
I don't have any guilty pleasures. I am open about all my musical tastes. I am big into prog rock. Acid Mothers Temple is one of my favorite bands of all time. Gong is huge to me. Steve Hillage is my hero. I love how he did Canterbury and Techno. Oh, and I also like slow sludgy doom metal. Pretty much any recording where you can tell a person put their heart into it. My first time in England I was going crazy over all the great records and people were telling me I'm buying all their parent’s music. That's exactly what happens when cats come to the states for records. They’ll be crapping themselves for some original P-Funk or Motown. They are like “Man put me up on some of that Northern.” It's like, “Go ahead and look man.” We have great record stores still. For me, give me Soft Machine, Television Personalities, and My Bloody Valentine in the wild digging and I’m pretty geeked!!
Okay let’s talk about Y2K Tyler. What were you doing, what were you listening to, where were you hanging out etc?
In my basement on my Gateway PC. Moo! I was in middle school, so like 8th grade I think. Listening to music and somewhere on mIRC. Everything was Y2K compliant. I was listening to some Tortoise, from Chicago around midnight. That track Djed. It's got a nice slow modular feel to it that is heavy, ominous, and sweet. Perfect for this alleged global shut down. Twelve O’Clock hit and nothing happened. I watched some Evangelion and passed out. Those were the days long before Covid!
If you could see one big change (either in music or generally) to come out of the pandemic and the last 13 months sat at home, what would you want to see?
I had really hoped that through all the isolation that people faced due to the pandemic that there would be a little bit more compassion and empathy in the world.
Buy some of Tyler's music here.