ss. Titties. Ass and titties. Ass, ass, ass, ass, ass and titties.” -- DJ Assault, “Ass N Titties” (1996).
Everyone loves “Ass-N-Titties,” And by everyone, I mean me, everyone I know, and a legion of YouTubers. DJ Assault’s magnum opus, easily the biggest novelty hit Detroit’s ghettotech scene ever produced, and probably ever will, pushes all the right pop buttons: the silly sex-talk over a bouncy electro throb anticipates (and bests) Fergie’s entire career by almost ten years.
Where did this irresistibly dumb sonic oddity come from? Detroit, of course: a city whose musical legacy continually strives to rehabilitate its image as a crime-ridden post-industrial wasteland. But ghettotech (a term of some contention) was not merely a sound from the Motor City; it was the sound of urban Detroit, a ubiquitous presence in clubs, cars, and local radio before it infected DJ playlists worldwide. The full story of ghettotech can’t be summed up in a simple place name, however. Especially for a locale as complicated as Detroit. Because while the music’s lyrics mostly stick to sex-talk, ghettotech’s story tells us much about the state of local music scenes, and their subsequent effects on the current delightful proliferation of mongrel hip-hop/dance genres.
It starts, like many Detroit stories, with techno—a tale told many times by better writers than I. Nevertheless, a quick recap: in the late 1970s a generation of relatively affluent black teenagers, the children of newly emergent middle class of black auto workers, was eager to express their class status through the organization of social clubs. These youths invested their identities in the imagined sophistication of European discothèque scene and turned it into a self-contained social world of competing dance clubs, DJs, and teenage fashionistas. These clubs aspired to exclusivity and pretension as a means of distinction from the poorer black youth of the city—the so-called jits who hailed from the city’s rougher East Side.
The soundtrack for these clubs was an eclectic mix of European synthpop, new wave, and Moroder-esque “progressive” disco. This not only reflected the Europhilic leanings of Detroit’s middle-class high schoolers, but also another aspect of Detroit’s own idiosyncratic musical history. From the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, radio DJ Charles Johnson, a.k.a. “the Electrifying Mojo,” put together self-consciously genre-bending radio playlists almost every night of the week. Mojo’s goal was specifically to alter the consciousness of Detroiters by breaking down radio format barriers: “I would go and bridge the gap that separated young from old, rich from poor, black from white, and informed from uninformed as opposed to my joining the circle of radio celebs who pretty much dominated the airwaves and the psyche of the people.” Mojo’s show not only exposed the Detroit area to Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, the B-52s, Parliament, Prince, and Zapp, along with early Detroit techno productions from Juan Atkins and Derrick May—he charted connections between music that traditional radio formats kept segregated.
This logic is readily apparent in another formative outlet for Detroit eclecticism—the local access dance show The Scene, in which Detroiters strutted their stuff Soul-Train-style to early Detroit electronic experiments like A Number of Names’ “Shari Vari” and Cybotron’s “Clear” along with white synthpop and new wave, like Kano’s “I’m Ready” and Tom Tom Club’s “Wordy Rappinghood.”
Out of this fertile mixture Detroit techno was born, so the oft-repeated tale goes. Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, made up the “Belleville Three,” the nucleus of the emerging techno sound. While each started as DJs on the party scene before branching into producing their own records, none of the trio was heavily involved in Detroit’s small club scene. According to them, music was an intellectual pursuit, not one based merely on dancefloor requirements. In techno, heady concepts (inspired by Alvin Toffler’s futurist theories), dreamy melodies, and odd sounds contrast and conflict with the rhythm’s syncopated funk sensibility. However, as Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton point out, techno didn’t have a name until it was marketed overseas in the 1988 compilation Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit—up until then, the Detroit producers were happy to be an adjunct to Chicago’s thriving house music scene.
In fact, Brewster and Broughton claim revealingly that “techno’s protagonists did a good job of rewriting the music’s history, retrospectively adding layers of intriguing philosophy to their work. And journalists, enamoured by the idea of degree-level dance music, were keen to let them.” Even so, this journalistic boosterism had little effect in Detroit, where techno had been one piece of a diverse musical landscape, but it did set the stage for the style’s integral role in Britain’s rave movement of the late 1980s.
What, then, of Detroit? In spite of the innovations of the high school “prep parties,” the city never had the extensive clubbing culture found in Chicago, New York, or Europe. Techno touched many lives in Detroit, and while Brewster and Broughton perhaps overstate the irrelevance of techno to the city, they are right when they claim that it did not catch on as well as it did in Europe. Techno remains a persistent feature of the city’s black dance music scene, but not in its “pure” form. As mixed music, it was integrated into the musical culture of the working class blacks that remained in the city during Detroit’s economic decline—the denigrated “jits,” who are only at the margins of techno’s history, but play an important role in the Detroit scene that birthed ghettotech. It is to their tastes—to hip-hop—that we must now turn.
Hip-hop has the benefit of an extensive and wide-ranging reservoir of historical accounts. Yet it too has its oversights and margins that will become important to tracing the evolution of ghettotech. In particular, hip-hop’s electro phase has been eclipsed by the more romantic visions of street youths dancing to funk breaks, or masses electrified by the political rhetoric of Public Enemy. But the blip between those moments laid the groundwork for ghettotech in Detroit, in the decidedly unromantic guise of electro-funk, or more simply, electro. Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” spread hip-hop culture worldwide, but while doing so it spread the electro aesthetic as well.
From coast to coast, the synthesizers, drum machines, and robotic voices that mark electro had a pervasive influence on black music in the first half of the 1980s. Electro beats quickly replaced the disco backing tracks of the earliest rap recordings. In New York City, hip-hop was dominated by electro funk acts like Mantronix, Jonzun Crew, and Newcleus along with Bambaataa; even old-school hip-hop legends Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five put out the vocoder-heavy “Scorpio” in 1982. On the West Coast, Ice T got his start with electro producer Chris “The Glove” Taylor (their song “Reckless” was featured in the hip-hop movie and camp classic “Breakin’”). Other notable West Coast electro funk acts included the lascivious bass grooves of Egyptian Lover and the robotic funk of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, of which Dr. Dre was a member. “Planet Rock” did more than spread hip-hop to the rest of the nation and beyond: it spread particular types of sounds which were incorporated into emerging black music subcultures. The dispersal of these sounds was facilitated by the spread of a particular type of technology: the Roland TR-808 drum machine. The “boom” of the 808 bass kick has assumed an almost mythological status in hip-hop and dance music, and continues to undergird most of what’s on today’s hip-hop charts.
Electro emerged at an important time on the hip-hop landscape. Hip-hop DJing techniques were spreading along with other aspects of the culture. Hip-hop itself originated as a DJ technique where DJs isolated breaks from funk, rock, and disco records, scratching rhythms into the beat collage while MCs toasted over top and dancers popped and locked. Electro, the predominant style of hip-hop during its irrevocable transformation into a recorded commodity, provided easy templates for the spread of hip-hop mixing and scratching styles. Producers designed tracks for DJs to mix into sets—indeed, most electro producers were also DJs. Electro’s lengthy tracks (usually over six minutes), its steady tempos and staccato beats, and its 12-inch single format all made it a quintessential DJ tool. Many electro singles even contained instrumental dubs as B-sides which leant themselves to more complicated mixing and scratching techniques.
It was through DJing that hip-hop aesthetics infiltrated Detroit’s techno scene. The Electrifying Mojo refused to play it, but it wouldn’t take long for hip-hop to alter Detroit’s musical landscape as it did everywhere else it touched. Mojo’s protégé The Wizard—the radio alias of future techno superstar Jeff Mills—brought a hip-hop sensibility to his own wide-reaching mixes. Mills started out as a guest on Mojo’s show before getting his own radio show in which he mixed techno, house, new wave, and electro with the quick cuts, overlays, doubles, backspins, and scratches characteristic of hip-hop DJing (deephousepage.com has archived some of Mills’ early sets: 1, 2, 3). The sounds of The Scene and Mojo were complemented with the exciting new sounds of hip-hop and house, invigorated by a new mixing style that threw everything into a maelstrom of sound. This process did more than expand the musical palette of listeners—it opened up a new way to approach the sounds themselves. Mills’ hard, interventionist mixing punctured the tightly wound sophistication of Euro-disco and early techno, injecting it with the manic energy and a rebellious attitude of early house and hip-hop. This was not merely dance music, it was party music designed to inspire delirium. While Mills eventually abandoned such eclectic sets to focus on ultra-serious minimal techno, these shows were a formative crucible for Detroit DJs, not only because of the highly technical, irreverent style of mixing. It is also where Miami bass first entered the Detroit music scene.
“Ghettotech was around before all of us, I don’t care what anybody says. It’s a style of DJing,” maintains DJ Nasty, one of ghettotech’s biggest names. “Detroit is a melting pot of so many cultures. I remember listening to the radio, 107.9 back in the early ‘90s, late ‘80s, and they were playing all this techno stuff and mixing it with house and blending all these styles of music. It wasn’t considered ghettotech. They were playing 2 Live Crew with Juan Atkins. It was just Miami bass with techno.” (A cursory look at some, clips from The New Dance Show, successor to The Scene, bears this out). In Detroit, local DJs controlled the music scene, providing an eclectic mix of music that, for all its hybridity, reached for something coherent—a merging of dance music’s futurism with hip-hop’s emphasis on explicit “realness.” Bass music provided the perfect “black face” for techno: full as it was of exaggerated performances of hypersexuality and hedonism, black voices and vernacular, it provided an antidote to techno’s ambivalent attitude towards its status as African American music. Similar experiments, on Chicago’s Dance Mania label, were already making their way into the Detroit scene. As techno turned its attention overseas and Miami’s bass scene dried up, a new generation of Detroit DJs-turned-producers stepped into the void with their own sound.
DJ Assault and Big Red started as hip-hop group Assault-N-Battery, but, in collaboration with several others, made some of the first Detroit records mixing techno and Miami bass. Assault and Red were old friends in Detroit who attended college together in Atlanta, ostensibly studying business, but also soaking up the bass sounds big in Atlanta clubs. After returning to Detroit they started working at Buy-Rite Records, a hub of sorts for aspiring Detroit DJs and producers owned by Cliff Thomas. Juan Atkins had gotten his start working at Buy-Rite in the 1980s, using a back room for studio space. Thomas, a long-time booster of techno, pushed his employees to incorporate techno sounds into their songs. Big Red recalled, “With Assault and Battery, we both were rappers. We were a DJ group, but we were both rappers, we were strictly hip-hop, but we DJed with the fast stuff because we were Detroit DJs…. But Cliff, when we signed with him, he started talking to us about the actual techno dance music stuff. So we were into hip-hop and we didn’t really know how to do techno, house stuff, even though we spun it, but we didn’t actually produce that type of music. So the fast stuff we would do, the dance stuff we would do had a hip-hop or R&Bish feel because we didn’t know about the different sounds for techno and all that stuff. So I guess that’s where they started talking about the ghettotech stuff.”
Thomas operated several labels out of the store, selling the records exclusively at Buy-Rite in order to secure a steady customer base. This arrangement did not suit Assault as his music career blossomed. “[Thomas] got us making records to build a clientele to shop with only him exclusively. So I was thinking that’s stupid, I’ll do my own records and sell them to everybody [and] it would make way more money than it could out of one shop.” Soon he and Ade Mainor (who records as Mr. De) parted ways with Thomas. The two’s subsequent experiments, on the Electrofunk and Assault Rifle labels, would go on to create some of the most revered ghettotech tracks set to wax. Many of these records were little more than sample collages of earlier techno and electro records supplemented with more powerful drums and funky bass lines. One example, “Numerals” reworks the robotic voices and twitchy electronics of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” into a pounding drum workout.
Full scale raps hadn’t yet been incorporated into the songs, but sampled black vernacular—“crank this motherfucker,” “now what’s up, what’s up”—were interspersed through many of the productions. This juxtaposition of futuristic sounds with street-level black music is jarring in a way that 1980s electro often is not—these concentrated distillations of black voices, undiluted by narratives of space travel or the electronic distortions of the vocoder, deliberately inject an embodied blackness into techno’s continuum. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, this appealed to whites as well as blacks in Detroit, some of whom would become instrumental in launching ghettotech beyond the 313 area code.
DJ Godfather was a talented teenage DJ gaining notoriety around the Detroit area for his skills on the turntables. He and friend and mentor DJ Dick had put together a couple of bass singles in 1993 and 1994 as Bass Association. In 1995 they founded the Twilight 76 label, moving their productions in a more techno direction. These early records were rough arrangements of techno and Miami bass samples, and collaboration was common as the producers pooled their resources and learned to master their equipment. DJ Nasty, part of the Twilight 76 clique from the beginning, described producing his first ghettotech record. “I was one day sitting in the studio, and I sampled some stuff together and I played it for Godfather and he was like, ‘Man, this is ghetto,’ because I took Luke [Skyywalker of 2 Live Crew] and you could hear the drums in the background and it was cut off and I’ll have another beat, and it was just like fucking unprofessional. I was 17, 18 years old and I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Even so, he was working in the right direction. The music mirrored the mix style inundating Detroit—fast tempos, bass, and dirty lyrics. Detroit had long been a competitive DJing scene, where jocks had to incorporate turntablist tricks and scratches into blistering mixes that pureed decades of tunes popular in the city. Ghettotech recordings play directly into this facet of the city’s culture, where the stripped down repetitive beats make for perfect DJ tools. Homegrown bass hits regularly outsold the popular hip-hop singles at the local record shops. And because many of the requisite DJ tricks necessitated two copies of the same record, it was not uncommon for a DJ Assault or DJ Godfather record to move thousands of copies in just a few weeks just within the confines of the 313 area code. “Ghetto records were selling more than LL Cool J,” Nasty affirms. Lesser-known artists could profit off a decent local hit. DJ Body Mechanic, whose latest homespun label is H3O Music and has produced several notable ghettotech hits, broke down the economics of selling in Detroit during ghettotech’s heyday: “You can make your money two or three times over and eat off a single. You pull 10,000 singles, you’re doing pretty damn good, but you’ll average 1000, 2,000, 3000.”
During the mid-Nineties, Detroit had a wealth of overlapping outlets for music, an essential contribution to the quick success of the ghettotech artists. Local DJs traversed a network that included strip clubs, dance clubs, local radio and TV stations, and a burgeoning rave scene. Dave Shayman, an ambitious Ann Arbor teen with the DJ handle Disco D, started DJing ghettotech after seeing Assault and Godfather at a rave, and eventually coined the oft-debated moniker for the style. When it was contained in Detroit, ghettotech needed no specific name—it was “mix show music,” “fast stuff,” or just “dance music,” a ubiquitous presence wherever social dance occurred. But in order to be marketed to outsiders unfamiliar with the Detroit scene, it needed a brand that distilled its particular charms into one catchy moniker. That a Jewish teenager from Ann Arbor was dubbing the music “ghetto” rubbed plenty of the originators the wrong way, but the name stuck. Disco D became one of ghettotech’s chief champions outside the city.
Whether because of a marketable brand name, the spectacular talent of its principle DJs, or simply by the strength of its recorded output, ghettotech found a worldwide audience by 2000, and a new generation of ghettotech DJs and producers, based primarily throughout Europe, is currently adding its chapter to the story, working and reworking with the set of conventions established by the Detroit scene. Ghettotech’s club-centric bass-n-bad-words approach anticipated crunk sweeping the hip-hop world (Lil Jon had been a bass music producer in Atlanta before he hit it big by slowing down his tempos), and predated the explosion in popularity of Baltimore club (which certainly draws inspiration from Detroit and Chicago). However, Detroit’s own scene shows signs of fatigue. Twilight 76 is still going strong, maintaining a presence at Detroit’s annual Movement festival, and boasting new all-digital releases, but much of the momentum behind ghettotech in Detroit has dissipated, which is especially sad with the current cachet similarly inspired genres enjoy.
Old hits continue to crop up at parties and on Diplo’s playlists, but even the most hardcore ghettotech fans complain that new tracks are lacking in both quality and quantity. Ghettotech’s solid niche in Detroit’s clubs and radio stations has been eroded by the steady onslaught of major label rap music, which enjoys almost exclusive access to Detroit’s corporate-owned airwaves and strip club chains. DJ Assault splits his time between the Motor City and Atlanta; Disco D moved on to other styles before succumbing to depression; and even DJ Godfather’s residencies in Detroit-area clubs are more suffused with what’s coming out of expensive Atlanta studios than any MPCs within driving distance of Jefferson Avenue. Detroit still has loads of creative people working the seam between hip-hop and dance music, but pretty much every artist I talked to agreed it was much harder to get music heard now than it was 10 years ago.
I know it’s not exactly cool to care about what happens to the places that produce the music we enjoy—and be sure, music always reflects the place where it came from. If ghettotech’s best days are past, why hold on to this “bias” against the superior major label pop that’s taking its place? If DJ Unk can get Detroiters moving better than the home team, why complain? It should be about quality music, not some bleeding-heart attachment to fading genre-scenes, right? As a music fan, I understand this position, in which quaint notions like supporting independent music or maintaining loyalty are ideological blinders blocking the potential for ever-purer enjoyment. But as a music fan, it would be dishonest for me to support it—I don’t think it leads to better music. As much as I enjoy many of the sounds on corporate radio playlists—I’ll put Clear Channel rap stations on my presets over NPR any day—I’d hate to see every city’s distinctive beatmaking reduced to exotic spices added to an expensively multi-tracked stew (even when Mims makes it sound so seductive).
Ethnomusicologists often advocate for the preservation of folk music traditions in the name of “musical diversity,” a kind of implicit value to their work, but one not often applied to music made for the market. But it applies there too: without scenes with an infrastructure independent of big corporations (a loyal audience being perhaps the most important part of that) we wouldn’t have the regional variation that has sustained hip-hop creatively for the past decade. And as ghettotech, hyphy, screwed-and-chopped, crunk, and snap (and can juke and Baltimore club be far behind?) become adjuncts to major label productions, we might not take this diversity for granted.
10 Essential Ghettotech Tracks Not Often Mentioned In Other Lists Of Essential Ghettotech Tracks (Because You’ve All Got “Ass-N-Titties” By Now)
DJ Nasty—King of Kings (Motor City Electro Company)
DJ Assault—Yo Relatives (Jefferson Ave.)
Aaron-Carl—21 Positions (Motor City Electro Company)
DJ Godfather—See U No More (Databass Records)
Mr De’—Shake It Baby (Electrofunk Records)
DJ Deeon—Gimme Head (Booty Bar Records)
Starski and Clutch—East To West (Databass Records)
Bitch Ass Darius—Dolphin Massacre (Databass Records)
Erotek—I Shall Tek Thee (Metroplex)
DJ Zap—I Can Make You (GTI Recordings)
Where To Find Ghettotech Mixes Online
Non-Stop DJs—All Cylinders
Britain’s best ghetto-style DJs live up to their name
DJ Body Mechanic—WSEX Mix
H3O serves up some classic Detroit ghetto mixing
The best of Belgium’s own ghetto scene
Disco D—Live In Paris (MP3 Link)
The late great Disco D spreading the gospel to Europe
Twilight 76/Databass Records
DJ Assault/Jefferson Ave
Motor City Electro Company
Big World Entertainment
Buy Rite Music
Ghettotech Fan Forum/Record Databass
By: Gavin Mueller
Published on: 2007-08-27