"There's no savior in Detroit," says Detroit DJ Brian Gillespie (a.k.a. DJ Starski).
Gillespie would know. The Motor City jock has spent his career sandwiched between local talent making good by nudging out more-established artists, with the also-rans languishing in local hero-dom. J Dilla, Gillespie points out, was relatively unknown in his hometown before he died last year, even though he'd been making gold records for a decade for artists such as Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest and Common. And it's no secret locally that Dilla's talent found its wider recognition after someone, as Gillespie puts it, "vouched for him." It was P-Funk keyboardist Amp Fiddler who taught Dilla how to use a sequencer and passed along an early beat tape to Tribe during a mid-'90s Lollapalooza stop, which led to Dilla producing Tribe's swan song, The Love Movement.
Gillespie's no hater; in fact, as Dilla hit big in the mid-'90s, Gillespie and his cousin DL Jones hooked up Dilla's group, Slum Village, with studio time in his absence.
Either way, as Gillespie sees it, success in Detroit is bittersweet. It never comes without a little charity, and even then, it's slow to be recognized. "It's like Detroit techno," he adds. "All those guys [Derrick May, et al.] had to get big in Europe before anybody in Detroit even knew who they were. And," he says with a laugh, "a lot of them still don't."
No surprise there; the Bible even says prophets are never recognized on their home turf, in reference to the MC Jesus, and not the 900 Foot one. Gillespie knows that all too well: He started his career as something of an unsung Jesus himself—the 900 Foot one—making industrial hip-hop in the studios of seminal techno label 430 West in the late '80s.
"We were trying to do what Jeff Mills did before he made techno," he explains, "industrial, but hip-hop." As techno blew up, Gillespie started a hip-hop label instead. That led to electro-bass imprint Twilight 76, which led to hit after hit of ghetto-tech goodness with DJ Godfather, before finally having a club smash with the Detroit Grand Pubahs' "Sandwiches" single on Gillespie's Throw label.
He's had his share of disappointments, too. A remix he did wound up—minus credit or cash—on a Fatboy Slim mix disc, credited as an original by the guy for whom he did the mix. When Watts Distribution folded, Gillespie and hundreds of other small-label owners lost thousands of dollars. So can you blame Gillespie if he has an opinion on what makes it out of his hometown and what languishes in local-hero obscurity?
"I don't want to get the Dilla police after me, but there's more to Detroit and than that whole hard-snare/lazy-kick-drum sound," he says. He points to MCs such as Low Louis, Elzhi and Guilty Simpson, as well as suburban rap prodigies MidCoastMost, and producers such as DL Jones, who has a new record with Amp Fiddler—as well as Ann Arbor blip-hop geniuses Dabrye and Todd Osbourne—as signs of life in post-Dilla Detroit.
These days, Gillespie is DJ Starski of Starski and Clutch, his collaboration with Osbourne. "Basically, it's me and him getting drunk, reading car magazines and making ghetto-tech songs about rims," he explains. He admits the talent he singles out are all his boys—one's even his cousin—but that's the point. "Everyone has their favorites, but someone has to put them on. Nobody knew who Eminem was before Dre put him on."
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Gillespie's no Dr. Dre, but he is a legend in his native D. He deejayed a hip-hop night with pre-Pam Anderson Kid Rock, then went on to found Family Funktion, Detroit's crazy uncle to OC's Abstract Workshop (where Gillespie headlines Saturday night). There, Slum Village would rub elbows with techno- and househeads as hip-hop and rave kids came together. Gillespie's crew threw Detroit's sickest all-local talent raves, the infamous Po' Boy parties, usually held, in a perfect twist on the Detroit diamond-in-the-rough-of-post industrial decay, in an abandoned Packard automobile plant.
"I'm a bridge DJ," he says. Recloose, another ex-Detroiter made good, once called Gillespie "a cross between Gilles Peterson and Electrifyin' Mojo," the latter a reference to the freeform radio-DJ legend whose odd, eclectic mixes (Peter Frampton, Kraftwerk, P-Funk, J. Geils Band's "Flamethrower," Cybotron and B-52's "Mesopotamia") influenced everyone from techno legends Carl Craig and Derrick May to Dilla and Waajeed, captivating both urban and suburban listeners.
Gillespie strives to be just as eclectic, but, more important, educational. Detroit may be a city of overachieving underdogs, but that's what makes anything that makes it out such a story. And Gillespie can tell the best of them, but better still, do it on turntables. "We all have a soundtrack to our life," he says. "I just tell my story with music."
BRIAN GILLESPIE PERFORMS WITH BLU & EXILE, DJ HOUSESHOES, COCOE, JOSH ONE, SCOTTY COATS, AND HYDER AT DETROIT BAR, 843 W. 19TH ST., COSTA MESA, (949) 642-0600; WWW.DETROITBAR.COM. SAT., 9:30 P.M. $10. 21+.