It’s 4 p.m. on an overcast, cold Friday in early April. DJ Anthony “Shake” Shakir answers the door, cane in hand.
His house looks like a lot of older Detroit homes — lived-in and worn, not messy. This is the house Shake grew up in, one that he shares with his mother.
Shake’s room and studio are both on the second floor and going up and down the stairs is always difficult for him. Often, the disease has him stuck in bed for a day — sometimes for up to two weeks.
Shake’s sister is visiting, ranting full-throttle with his mother about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. They pause and say “hello” with warm smiles. Theresa Hill’s “After-School Groove” mix show on WDTR-FM 90.9 is playing in the background. Shake listens every day.
When asked how he’s doing, Shake replies assertively, “I’m OK. I’m not stoppin’ till God says ‘Time’s out.’” It’s clear that he’s talking about his music and his health. Just prior to his appearance at the first DEMF in 2000 (he’s played the festival both times), Shake was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “My affliction has made me take things more seriously,” he says, settling into his makeshift studio. “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for.”
He hasn’t set up his gear in a few days. “OK, it’s been about a week,” he says later. Yet he’s determined to play his upcoming release on 7th City records. After struggling with wires for a few minutes, he gets frustrated. Instead, he plays the promo he’s just given me of his forthcoming record on Frictional — a label that was once a partnership with Claude Young, which Shake now manages exclusively.
Radiohead’s Kid A, Prince’s The Rainbow Children — and … a Steely Dan record? — sit amid one of the hottest collections of rare vinyl in the city. Pick almost any early Detroit label and Shake’s been one of its heavy-hitting second-stringers. And he’s got anecdotes aplenty.
In the late 1980s, it was that close. Perhaps too close — perhaps too politicized — for someone who once used cut-up samples of the B-52’s.
Today, however, Shake’s “immediate DJ crew” is spread out across Europe, making money and getting respect from their peers. Claude Young, whom Shake taught how to DJ, lives in Glasgow. Kalamazoo’s Jay Denham, whom Shake introduced to the Detroit scene, is in Munich. And Dan Bell, whose 7th City imprint Shake helped inspire, holds forth in Berlin. Meanwhile in Detroit, one has to wonder, MS aside, why Shake hasn’t reached a similar plateau of success.
Shake’s eclecticism never quite fit into the original Detroit techno blueprint. His music is quirky, melodic soul with abstract rhythms and orchestral structures. He’s made straight-up, floor-pounding techno, recording as “Da Sample.” He was part of the original Octave One group, which even had a top-40 hit in England with “I Believe.” As part of Interface records (a Metroplex offshoot), his “Sonar 123” track prophesied the bleep sound that Warp records became known for. Since then, he’s made proto-2-step records that Craig David doesn’t likely own. And it isn’t probable that Timbaland was ever into Shake’s abstract hip-hop beats and switch-stance techno breaks prior to getting his “freak on” with Missy. But Shake was there first with lesser equipment, making brilliant music that didn’t fit neatly anywhere.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s when most techno producers were using countless pseudonyms — in order to make the Detroit scene look bigger than it was — Shake’s name may have been spread too thin. Shake readily admits that he’s a notorious shit-talker — a fact confirmed by almost anybody who knows him. Yet his self-proclaimed “big mouth” is always balanced by “… but that’s just my opinion” and “I’ve been wrong before.” Still, you get the impression that with all the politics in the original Detroit techno scene, it’s no wonder that Shake wasn’t press secretary. Instead, he’s joked about being the janitor at Metroplex so often that it even made its way to his All Music Guide bio.
He’s been featured on several bigger compilation albums, but as late as last year’s All Access DEMF sampler on Planet-E, Shake continues to give his weaker tracks to efforts that could boost his popularity. He stubbornly reserves his best material for the Frictional and 7th City labels.
Shakir never rode any coattails — at least not successfully. He was all about making his own sound.
“We didn’t copy each other back then. I didn’t want to sound like Derrick [May]. Jay [Denham] didn’t sound like Juan [Atkins]. You just did y’own thang. When John Coltrane’s playin’ the saxophone, you know it’s the saxophone, but he sounds like Coltrane. Nowadays, the younger people in Detroit are all copycats — But I don’t get out much, so. ... But I don’t [want to go on the] ‘Techno Pterodactyl’ tour either. I don’t want to look like some dinosaur … I won’t go for it.”
And he’s not willing to be “the Jerry’s Kid of techno.”
Shake not only has his own sound, he has rigidly independent ears.
“OK, this, the hip-hop track on this record … Could you turn up the volume?” he asks, pointing at the mixer with his cane. A jangly, crisp breakbeat is soon blanketed by a gentle ambient synth wave. Shake’s mom wouldn’t even call this hip hop if she were invited into the room.
There are several fractured moments like this throughout the interview.
“What do people mean when they say I make ‘moody techno’?” he asks, almost rhetorically, placing me in the surreal position of explaining this abstraction to someone who wrote a track called “Mood Music for the Moody,” and who earlier used “moody” to describe his favorite Velvet Underground record. Shake is not only genuinely oblivious to genre classifications, he takes pride in the fact that he doesn’t care.
“Detroit DJs have an identity problem,” he explains. “They say ‘I play house, but my thing is techno.’ It all works and if they’re good, they already know that.”
We’re constantly coming back to jazz musicians. Although he’s not comparing himself to any unsung jazz innovators, Shake sees parallels with jazz and techno as two black cultures that have been marginalized and misunderstood by Americans — white and black.
“I think everything is based on black music — it just lasts longer. If you ask these rock-heads who are trying to re-create the Sex Pistols if they’ve ever heard of Louis Jordan or Lionel Hampton, they don’t know who they are. That’s where rock ’n’ roll started — with jump jazz.”
Furthermore, Shake sees techno as just another example of black ideas being picked up and innovated overseas.
“In America, they never want to give [black artists] credit for anything. When I met Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk, I told him the Detroit guys are all attitudinal because we just want some credit — we ain’t tryin’ to sound big-headed. Then he told me that when he was doin’ the drums for Kraftwerk, he was tryin’ to sound like James Brown. If you listen to Man Machine, or “Numbers” on Computer World, you’ll know what he’s talkin’ about.”
As Shake speaks, a steady stream of musical knowledge, cultural observations and witty satire stream from his mouth faster than you can say “At least the English credit what they steal.”
Shake suddenly sees why his DAT isn’t playing and hooks it up properly. A layered melody floats atop a fractured beat like it is singing. This isn’t tech-step, glitch-hop, or so-called IDM — it’s just cool.
Then, between gossipy stories and pop-culture theorizing, Shake quietly mumbles a dark revelation. “Sometimes I feel like the invisible man of techno.”
Shake may be right, but he’s been wrong before.
Shake will appear as the guest DJ at Porter Street Station's weekly Mixworks night, Thursday, April 18.Robert Gorell writes about sonic adventures for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]