Monty Luke article by Kevin Reynolds. Photos by Lyndon French
Monty Luke’s Black Catalogue label has boundary pushing, forward thinking style which has become a favorite for electronic music enthusiasts. It is a solid reflection of his flawless, floor filling DJ sets that tell the story of his global journeys and long history with quality music.
Kevin Reynolds: With many guys our age, it seems that our first exposure to electronic music was through hip hop in one form or another. Was this the case for you? How did you first get exposed to electronic dance music?
Monty Luke: Yes! I came to house music from a very solidly hip-hop background. My first years as a DJ, I was exclusively playing hip-hop. Ironically, my first gig was at a party thrown by the L.A. chapter of the Black Rock Coalition. It was called ‘The Nappy Dugout.’ It was at a club spot that no longer exists on Sunset Blvd. I played a lot of east coast shit like B.D.P., Big Daddy Kane, pretty much anything that was on Tommy Boy. At that time, a lot of hip-hop was uptempo and clubby…LL’s “Jinglin’ Baby,” Freshco & Miz, “We Don’t Play,” Roxanne Shante’s “Go On Girl,” “Raw” by Big Daddy Kane…even Heavy D’s version of “Now That We Found Love…” all uptempo tracks. And also back then, it was pretty common for hip-hop artists to have that one house track on their albums, like Queen Latifah’s “Come Into My House,” because you know, black folks actually listened to house music back then. Nowadays, they generally do not. But yeah that’s really how I was first exposed to electronic dance music, along with a college radio station called KXLU.
KR: You began your career on the West Coast, San Francisco prior your move to Detroit. There seems to be a connecting force between the Bay Area and Detroit, namely Barclay Crenshaw (Claude Von Stroke) who is originally from Detroit, the Jonah Sharp / Carl Craig connection, Jason Kendig and yourself. Can you speak on this?
ML: Yeah this is basically accurate. I first started in the rave game during my years in college at UC Santa Barbara…I DJed at the first ever rave in that town (it got busted). I was also Music Director at KCSB, the university radio station and had a couple of weekly shows. This is where I first got exposed to the actual music industry as a whole. After a while, I crewed up with some friends who were originally from the Bay Area and we began throwing parties…I left Santa Barbara for San Francisco to pursue DJing and event production with that crew, which eventually led to me to meeting Carl. I know it really sounds crazy, and I for a long time while I was in the Bay Area, I never fully understood it, but my gut always told me that the road to my success was in Detroit. At that time, I was calling Submerge, physically calling them on the phone, to mail order records from them. It was always the most nerve wracking thing. This lady would answer the phone all deadpan like, “Submerge…” and you could just ask what the newest stuff was and she would play them over the phone for you so you could choose. I later learned that that woman was Mike Banks’ sister, Bridget. I have mad Submerge white labels with dot-matrix one-sheets taped to them from UR, 430 West, Metroplex. Being a black DJ in a lilly white scene like San Francisco’s and then having the knowledge that there was this city where Black folks were actually *running* dance music…I always knew somehow I would need to delve further into that. Fortunately, when Carl offered me the opportunity to be Planet-E’s label manager, I was able to do just that. Nearly nine years later, I’m still here.
KR: I think when I first heard of you was when the dot coms where coming into existence and the digital music revolution was happening. Am I correct that you worked for an electronic music digital distributor/licensor? (If so) What was your take on this digital medium? What was your involvement? How did it impact your life?
ML: Oh my god, bro…yeah I was around during the first dot com boom. You remember the search engine, Ask Jeeves? I was the 20th employee there. They eventually went on to have something like 1500 employees at the height of their popularity, just before the bottom fell out of everything. Anyway, the digital distributor you’re thinking of was called IRIS. For a long time, I had been looking for a way to fuse my music life and my work life. My mother and I had a very intense and longstanding disagreement about what direction my life should take. She thought I should forget music and find a nice, safe, steady job. And listen, I didn’t necessarily disagree with her. San Francisco is an insanely expensive city and I did have some rough, tough times there. But I had a fire in me for this music thing, which I’m pretty sure I got from my dad. Fortunately, the position at IRIS was a good mix of being a steady desk job that involved music. But it wouldn’t last. My job was A&R, which basically entailed me contacting labels and signing them up to distribution deals. I really loved doing it as it was almost like a second nature type of thing, but it was a very early time in the game of digital distribution and I don’t think people had a lot of things figured out as yet. In fact, every three months when I get my royalty statements, I think to myself these things are *still* a long way off from being figured out. Anyways, long story longer, IRIS sent me to Miami/Winter Music Conference one year to meet with labels and what-not. When the trip was done, I flew back to SFO and my phone was blowing up as soon as I landed. It was IRIS. I got home and called to see what was up. I literally was not even back from Miami long enough to unpack and they said, “You’ve been doing a great job, but we’re running out of money and have to shift direction for the company and let some people go.” Under pressure in an expensive city to pay rent and bills and with a real fire to further my music career in the creative realm eventually led to the position at Planet-e.
KR: You and I had similar routes as we both worked for well known, seminal record labels like Planet-e and Transmat respectively. How did working at Planet-e influence your career, work, life, taste in food, music? Did learning the business side first before fully embarking on a solo adventure help or did it make it more of an “all that glitter ain’t gold” situation? I know from my side after dealing with the record label business it was extremely tough at times, making it really difficult to even put a finger on a keyboard. Yet the next day would be full of creativity and inspiration with energy just flowing out. Was this your experience?
ML: Yes, I would say this was also more or less my experience, too. Although, I should point out that I did have a certain amount of industry knowledge already from my time working in college radio. But yeah, my time at Planet-e was very instructive. I think Carl (Craig) and I definitely had a certain way of working together that was very much in lockstep and led to some interesting things. In the beginning though, it definitely felt like I was being tested. I can vividly remember once not long after I moved to Detroit, the phone rang at like, 4am. Carl was in Japan and asked me about something hella basic. I picked up the phone right away, answered his question and kept it moving. I woke up later and was like, “that was some shit he could’ve waited until he was back in town to find out about!” But you know, I totally understood it. PE is a family business. I was the only one there not named Craig. He needed to know I wasn’t just fuckin’ around. Also, there was the time during my first week there that I overcooked a bag of microwave popcorn. For the peeps out there, don’t mess around with microwave popcorn until maybe a month into your new job! But really though I think working at PE definitely influenced my decision to start Black Catalogue, but it wasn’t *the* reason why. 2008 was a very rocky year in the industry. A lot of things shifted in a major way during that time. Vinyl sales hit rock bottom, the U.S. economy tanked (and then recovered), currency fluctuations, (Detroit Mayor) Kwame Kilpatrick and his text message/stripper scandal, you name it. It was a crazy time for nearly everyone.I think one key difference that you and I may have had between us in terms of our jobs is that at Planet-e, generally if Carl was in the office, he was working on music. His studio was right there on Milwaukee Street. Sometimes the music was so loud, you couldn’t talk on the phone! Either a remix or something new he was almost always working on something. That work ethic definitely rubbed off on me. I take frequent breaks, but when I’m working on something I keep going until it’s done. Then I take it from the top and work it some more. I think the first track I finished as a Detroit resident was “Panic Attack.” Obviously, the entire experience had a huge impact on my career. Always grateful to Carl and his family for that.
KR:How important was it for you to move to Detroit? Was Carl Craig influential in that decision? What where some of the challenges and rewards that stood out.
ML: Well, I moved here specifically for the job. The way PE was run at the time, there was no real way to manage a record label remotely. Everyone thought I was out of my mind moving here. I’m pretty sure even the Craigs thought I was nuts! And yeah Carl was like, “if you’re going to live here, you have to live in the city. No suburbs.” Again, it was 2008. Pre-comeback. Tumbleweeds and wild dogs down the middle of Michigan Ave, bro. I really struggled with the paradigm shift of being a West Coast guy moving to this Midwest, rust belt town. I left a huge dance music community of friends I had built up from thirteen years of living the Bay Area. I still struggle with it at times. It’s been nearly nine years of living outside of my comfort zone. It’s a really interesting feeling. I feel like I’ve grown immensely from it, though.
KR: Let’s talk about your label Black Catalogue. With releases on Mothership, FINA, Get Physical and Rekids can you tell us about the concept of your Black Catalogue and the importance to you.
ML: I mean, it’s simple. Black Catalogue is about modern, underground music. Listen, I can’t afford to sign chart topping artists or pay for crazy money for PR and coverage in magazines. What I do is very organic. I meet people I like or hear a demo I like. I talk to the artist a little while to get a sense of who they are as people. Then if it’s right then we usually end up working together.
KR: One of the things that strikes me when I see you DJ is your perspective of the Detroit sound. It is wholly unique. Refreshing is the word that seems to fit. The same goes for your productions. Often you see people try to emulate the Detroit sound but there just seems to be something missing. Yours on the other hand has a grasp on the musical history but fearless of venturing outside the box. You can hear it in Yesterday, Rude Photo, Dystopic Visions. What goes into your thought process when DJing or producing?
ML: I appreciate that. I have a very deep respect for Detroit house, techno and hip-hop. It’s a part of who I am. I’ve gotten an immense amount of inspiration from the music. That being said, I have absolutely no interest in mimicking what has already been done. I feel like that story has been told and my job is to contribute something new, to add something different and if I’m lucky, something that stands the test of time. DJing is like something to me that is totally vibe oriented. With my studio productions, almost everything is the result of some type of experimentation. I don’t usually sit down and try to make a specific kind of track. I just start working from a specific starting point (lyrics, rhythm or hook…something like that) and see what happens. This is why it takes me so damn long to finish tracks!
Sometimes I feel like people expect everyone from Detroit to sound a certain way. The larger global dance music community has this expectation of what a Detroit artist should sound like, and if s/he doesn’t fit into that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to them. We need to push through that. I think the attitude ultimately holds this city back in this regard.
KR: I think you and I spend almost an equal time talking about music as our love of Science Fiction. Would you mind sharing a Sci-Fi top ten (books, film, TV, whatever).
ML: Oh dang, dude. here we go:
- Version Control by Dexter Palmer. It’s hard to put my finger on what it’s about at this point, but it does include themes around time travel, social media, relationships and loss. Feels very relevant to current times. Author is African-American.
- Currently watching the 2017 version of The Handmaid’s Tale.
- One of my more recent all-time favorite Sci-Fi films is Children of Men
- The cover of that Convextion album, 2845 is one of the hottest Sci-Fi images I’ve ever seen!
- The Expanse!!!
- I’m actually a huge Dr. Who fan, but I think I’ve finally outgrown watching the show.
- I read Seveneves by Neal Stephenson last year. An unknown force strikes the moon, shattering it into many pieces that eventually strike the Earth and wipe out humanity. And that’s just the first 100 or so pages of this 500+ page book.
- I recently spent some time in Philadelphia and I rented (airbnb) a room in this house owned by a woman who is a big Sci-Fi fan. We were talking about Black Mirror at one point and she said something to the effect of, “I used to really like dystopian movies/tv shows/etc. but now, dystopia is boring. It’s every day.”
- The movie Interstellar has the best example of the saying, “Black Don’t Crack.” When they arrive at the ocean planet (the one on the edge of the black hole), and Cooper and the lady astronaut (Amelia) go down there and the brother (Romily) stays on the ship, right? They get into some shit down on the planet and end up spending 23 Earth years away from the ship and when they get back, dude looks *exactly* the same, except for like, a couple strands of gray hair in his goatee! I died laughing when this was pointed out to me!
- My Mandingo alias is heavily influenced by Science Fiction. “Another Night on Earth” is the first part of a multi-part space opera!
KR: Speaking on Sci-Fi, without the fiction part. You were a top running candidate for the private Mars Colonization program Mars-One am I correct? Looks like you were willing to put your money where you mouth was?
ML: Yes, I made it to the 3rd round of finalists for the Mars-One project. art of my initial argument on my application was ‘hey, Detroit is pretty similar to Mars itself; I already have experience….’ A lot of my friends thought I was insane. Then Trump happened. Suddenly it was like, “hey whatever happened with that Mars thing? you should go!”
KR: Coconut Babylon is a dub/reggae monthly you do here in Detroit with Jeff Risk and Dai Hughes from Astro Coffee that goes off every single time. Can you tell me what was the push behind that night? Do you feel a connection between the Dub sound and Detroit Techno?
ML: The three of us have been neighbors for years and discovered we all have a deep love for Reggae/Dub and African sounds. Interestingly, we all came to that music from totally different angles. I myself am first-generation Caribbean. Jeff used to be a drum and bass DJ. Dai lived in London for years and is a lover of all global and roots music styles. We wanted to offer something unique to the city. No one really associates Reggae with Detroit, but if you think about it; Reggae is soul music. Detroit is a soul city.
KR: Something that many readers might know is that you are a curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Recent bookings have brought King Britt as Fhloston Paradigm and electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani. As a man of many talents can you describe your position there.
ML: If someone would’ve told me in 2007 that in a year I would move to Detroit, manage a seminal record label, start my own and eventually become a museum curator, I would tell them they were full of shit! But it’s all happening. Yeah somehow, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit hired me to curate for them. So for the past year and a half, I’ve been curating all of their music, film and lecture events. It has been one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. But I’m having a blast. You think the music world is crazy? Try the art world!
KR: Speaking of hats… according to IMDB you are an actor. Let me see that SAG card!
ML: Dude! Yes, I do have an IMDB entry for one film I appeared in….I played myself in the rave film, Groove. I really tried to get a SAG card after that but was denied because it was explained to me that at the time the film was made, it was an independent production. The film later went to Sundance and was bought by Sony, but because it was indie at the time I worked on it, that I was ineligible. Booooooo!
KR: What are some upcoming projects that you are working on? (Records, tours, etc).
ML: Right now, I’m working on a full-length album. It’s my main focus. I’m having a lot of fun working on it, but it’s a very nerve-wracking experience….collaborating with a few vocalists, and using every ounce of energy I’ve got to put 100% into this effort. Unfortunately, this also means I have no social life at the moment but this is only temporary! Black Catalogue will be releasing 4 records this year from myself and various artists like Sepehr, John Tejada, Thomas Melchior and my Mandingo project will be returning with some more spaced out dub house vibes.