2 x Vinyl LP
Even before the release of Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz, 2022 was already shaping up as Waajeed’s watershed year. For over two decades, the producer/DJ born Robert O’Bryant has been among Detroit beat music’s stalwarts, creating tracks and initiating the inherent links between the city’s hip-hop and dance music, a community connector of rare social and artistic dimension. This year, Waajeed’s role in J Dilla’s crew and the group Slum Village received proper historical context in Dilla Time, Dan Charnas’ wonderful biography of the late hip-hop legend; and he helped open Underground Music Academy, a community-minded, music production school, alongside compatriots from the Detroit scene. Waajeed, who was himself expertly mentored (by some of the best, including Dilla’s guide Amp Fiddler, and Mad Mike Banks of Underground Resistance/UR), is very much invested in simultaneously looking backwards and forwards. So it makes perfect sense that from its title on, Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz, his first full-length since 2018, reflects what’s already gone down and previews potential futures.
Memoirs spotlights not only Waajeed’s story but the alliances within a Black musical tradition often segregated by genre-minded separatists and its role in local cultural history. “Hi-Tech Jazz” was a hugely influential early ‘00s track by Galaxy 2 Galaxy, a “group” within the fabled (and deeply political) UR crew; it affirmed techno’s relationship to the improvised nature of dance music while nodding to the city’s own specific electronic tradition (“hi-tech soul” was originally one of Derrick May’s nomenclature alternatives for the music which came to be known as “techno”). Waajeed makes these connections explicit. Memoirs is bathed in horns and strings, driven by well-placed narratives and unexpected contributors (local rapper Black Nix and Wanika K. Stephens, senior pastor at San Francisco’s Church of John Coltrane). It’s personal and communal, a call to arms and a product of joy, the beautiful creation of Black Detroit through and through.
Sonically, the title tells no lies: Memoirs is basically a classic Detroit techno album replete with jazz textures, many of them courtesy of De’Sean Jones, whose myriad credits extend from UR to Makaya McCraven’s group, and who’s become central to the city’s current evolution. (De’Sean is also all over Theo Parrish’s new DJ-Kicks compilation, which is in some ways a sibling to Memoirs.) Jones’ sax and EWI, as well as his string arrangements, are featured on nearly every track, instantly expanding the palette of 808s and 909s that are Waajeed’s primary weapons. And these horns—often including Frank Alowishus’ trumpet and Khristian Foreman’s trombone—are not here to simply solo over open beatscapes, as is the deep house norm. When they’re not woven deeply into the fabric of these dance tracks, syncopating alongside the percussion lines or sequenced synths, the horns affirm and recontextualize Waajeed’s wistful melodies (long a hallmark of his productions), bringing the music into a new space. “The Ballad of Robert O’Bryant,” for instance, moves from the sounds of documentary crime scenes into electronic marching band music, beautiful horn lines evocative of mid-’70s soul flirting with layers of drum machines.
The first single “Motor City Madness” opens with minimalist jacking, evoking the city’s classic “hi-tech” sound; but not a minute in, trombone and sax asides (individual, but often in harmony) begin appearing in the crevices. Soon the horns syncopate into formation, and by the end, a wonderful theme appears, and a classic is born. The closing “Remember” opens with meditative piano chords and mid-tempo 808 handclaps before a line of Jones’ harmonizing horns ushers it into wonderfully redemptive jazz-house territory. Memoirs is a stunning journey, surely familiar to any listener or dancer who knows how Detroit has helped reshape global rhythm, yet also fresh with possibility. Waajeed knows the lineage; now, he’s very much part of it.