Soul survivors

Aug 25, 1999 at 12:00 am

Before Detroit techno, there was Detroit house music. And, as Cedric McDougle of Detroit house label Nouveau Riche Entertainment is finding, there’s house after Detroit techno as well. House may not be as visible as it was a decade ago, he’ll admit, but it still has relevance – to Detroit and the world. Even if, as he and his partners in Nouveau Riche are finding, the world and Detroit are two very different marketplaces for Detroit-bred house music.

With two new 12-inch releases of jazzy, future-retro house by Detroiters Jevant and Niko Marks, McDougle and NRE’s Fred Darwin Mosley and Arbie Mosely are heading into their third year as one of Detroit’s most ambitious labels.

Some would argue just being a house label is ambitious these days. Times have changed from the days when McDougle saw high school pals such as Jeff "The Wizard" Mills evolve from a local celebrity DJ to a world-renowned techno heavyweight. Back then, house music and techno were what Detroiters danced to, before major labels abandoned urban dance music for rougher, tougher hip hop and R&B, and before weekend mix shows replaced house with the lowbrow but wildly popular electro-bass sound.

McDougle and Nouveau Riche Entertainment think the fight for Detroit house music is still worth fighting. House music is making a worldwide comeback of sorts, even breaking into the occasional U.S. pop-radio playlist via a fluke retro-disco house song like "Music Sounds Better With You" by house producers Stardust (who are heavily Detroit-influenced). And Detroit occasionally exports its own hit; one half of Stardust remixed a track by Detroiter Scott Grooves which became an international club hit this summer.

But as Mark Finklestein, president of New York’s Strictly Rhythm Records, the world’s biggest house music label, observes, "Eighty percent of our business is overseas. And until major labels get back into dance music here, I don’t see that changing. I thought we might have seen it with Cher’s dance record, but it just hasn’t happened yet."

McDougle takes it in stride. "Marketing-wise, we have the same plan, whether domestic or overseas: If a record’s hot, it’s hot!"

To get a record hot, he gets a test pressing to all his old Detroit pals, including Mills and Derrick May, who likely will drop the record into their sets overseas. "These cats I’ve known for years are taking the seeds and spreading it out over the whole world," he says confidently.

"We’ll always be based here, but Detroit doesn’t show us the love and respect. Whoever’s paying the bills gets the musical thrills," he says.

It isn’t always that easy, though. "We’ve had a lot of headaches with overseas distributors. They see we’re from Detroit and they’re like, ‘You got any electro?’ And we’re trying to tell them, ‘Man, that was 10 years ago; we’ve got what’s happening right now!’"

"Detroit is looked at for what it used to do, and for what it used to be," he continues. "We’re trying to be the new school."

NRE is doing a decent job of representing Detroit’s talent while simultaneously playing the game for the world market with records by such esteemed producers as Norm Talley and first-wave techno-house personality Eddie "Flashin’" Fowlkes. But it’s NRE’s two new releases by lesser-known artists that show they’re heading in the right direction. Marks’ 12-inch mines a classic techno bass sound over a cool-groove beat, but continues the current trend of using male vocalists rather than the traditional female house singers. Jevant’s single has a B-side, "Aquarian Swing," that funks up a classic house sound with pitched-up female vocals and an exaggerated hi-hat flourish that puts it right in line with the breakbeat-garage/speed-garage sound popular in England on taste-making pirate radio stations.

But for all the talk of business overseas, McDougle knows the party starts here. Last year, he and NRE threw the summer’s classiest, funkiest record release party, "Breaking the Chains that Bind the Mind" (who says dance music has no personality?), which brought house music back to the upscale urban audience that spawned it.

This year’s party, scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 29, at St. Andrew’s Hall, is no less ambitious. Called "Resurrection of Soul," it features internationally acclaimed East Coast house music heavy hitters Tony Humphries and Teddy Douglass, as well as performers and DJs from Nouveau Riche Enter-tainment’s roster.

It ain’t called "house" music for nothing: "We’re taking it back to the backyards and the party-goers," McDougle says. "All y’all are invited," he adds, "Just don’t forget who’s throwing the party."

For one night at least, Detroit isn’t just in the house, it is the house, again. Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]