Versatile, eclectic, Detroit-based DJ / producer, Blair French has demonstrated his chops across a wide range of genres – from hip hop to ambient. Sculpting sunset soundscapes for NuNorthern Soul, and building balearic beats for Claremont 56. Constructing fourth world funk, as Cosmic Handshakes, for Going Good, and detonating dance floor dynamite on Rocksteady Disco. His new long-player, The Art Of Us, is an accomplished, celebratory work – which features contributions from a large extended family of friends and local singers & players. Here, Blair provides a bit of background to the album, and the vibrant scene that it stems from.
Where are you from?
Where are you based?
How did you get into making music?
As a child, I was amazed with the idea of a cassette tape being in different places around the world while the artist remained in one.
How long have you been making music?
Since 1995. Pressing cassettes in middle school.
Were you / do you also DJ?
I DJ more now. I started in around 2006
What instruments do you play?
Drums, percussion, and keys. I wouldn’t jump on stage though.
Have you had formal training?
A little with drums as a child. Nothing serious.
Were you in bands and stuff before?
Not so much, but a few hip hop and electronic groups
Can you tell me more about the hip hop you made as Dial81 and Dialtone?
It was my “teachings” – where I learnt the process of recording, mixing, about visual arts, to the pressing and distribution. A song’s structure or de-structure. Performing and traveling. It’s where I found my voice and from there was able to have a simpler transition.
What brought about the switch in musical styles?
I felt too early or too late with hip hop. I saw the change coming, so I made the choice to step away and do things I was holding back from. Performance and visual art, experimenting with tones, etc.. I was sick of drum breaks, vocals, and being on stages. I made a few ambient songs and six months later was scoring the film, Detropia. I wasn’t sure about scoring movies at the time, so it was a little difficult after 15 plus years of emceeing. Around 2015, I was re-inspired by drums and vocals through African, Brazilian, and balearic records.
Do you still listen to hip hop?
I didn’t for some time. I recently found some old CDs and have been enjoying them again.
I have to confess that I stopped buying and following hip hop in around 2000, but recently have found myself going back to those old records – they have a righteous anger about them in a similar way that roots reggae does. Can you give me some examples of stuff you’ve gone back to?
Edan, Outkast, Micronauts, Def Jux, 5Deez, Quasimoto.…
How did you hook up with Peter and Moonlighter and Rocksteady Disco?
I met Peter at a DJ gig in Detroit around 2014, I think? I was living in the country at the time. We didn’t click right away, but came back around and changed each other’s life. We started playing around town and traveling to New York together. I met Moonlighter a little later on when Peter and I played out in Grand Rapids – we had a blast and it was a night I really needed. I met Eli of Soul Clap that weekend as well.
Your musical output under your own name sometimes leans towards the “balearic”, the chilled out and the sunset soundtrack. Not the sort of music people normally associate with Detroit. Is there a local scene for this music – other local artists and DJs, pre-pandemic parties, that focus on this kind of sound?
There`s a handful of DJs on the balearic vibe. A few of us gravitate towards this and the people really enjoy it. Peter Croce and I do a night called Mango Dive as Belle Isle Balearic at Temple bar – playing African, Brazilian, Balearic and Disco. Todd Modes and I were doing a night called Out of this World with a little more edge to it. Outside of the Rocksteady Disco family, some of the Portage Garage Sound heads – Ryan Spencer and Bill Spencer – do their thing at Motor City Wine. Scott Zacharias throws heat as well. We’re a few small circles that cross paths now and then.
Are there shops where you can readily find this music?
Are there bars, clubs, cafes that cater to this sound?
A handful of people will soundtrack a night with balearic music. Paramita Sound is another home for us, great people. We did a pop up at a tiki bar called Lost River for a small room of 40 and it was so much fun. Phat Phil, of NuNorthern Soul, came to town and we played balearic tunes at a Marble Bar Party with Moodymann, Rick Wilhite, and stack of others. Then a sunset session at a pop up called Houseyard with Aroop Roy Pontchartrain, Peter Croce, and John Collins.
One night playing at Motor City Wine, I was introduced to Grace Jones’ guitarist, Luis. At the end of the night, I played the Elvis Costello tune I Wanna Be Loved and he ran up to me and smiled. Luis hipped me to the Style Council’s Long Hot Summer tune. We clicked and exchanged emails. The next day I woke up to be invited to open for Grace at the Masonic Temple. I asked Peter to join as a birthday present.
My favourite this year was The Chillout Tent Sunset Sessions: Phat Phil, Chris Coco and some others hooked that up. It was very special and emotional.
If you were to go out dancing, where would you go?
Motor City Wine
How did you get turned onto this sound?
While making the first Cosmic Handshakes E.P., Todd Modes and Bobby Dolo were pushing me towards electronic music. I didn’t get into techno, but with Moodymann, Harvey, and others, I could relate to soulful dance music and then started digging. With balearic, it helped me feel comfortable going from ambient to downbeat to dance music. I don’t always want to dance and I don’t always want to hear drums. I enjoy different styles and see it as one.
Who, what would have got you interested in making this kind of music?
I gave myself 5 years – like a reset button – between 2011 and 2016. I started collecting records from labels like International Feel, Music for Dreams, Golf Channel, Music from Memory, Balearic Blah Blah, Emotional Rescue, and so on. I listened, DJed, and only experimented in the studio until I felt it again. In 2014, I was sitting on Through the Blinds, which came out on Delsin records, and then in mid 2015, I recorded Cosmic Handshakes` In the Mist LP for Going Good, the Sandbar Caviar 10” for Claremont 56, Patio Pastels for NuNorthern Soul, and during breaks from that came up with Standing Still is an Illusion 12″ for Rocksteady Disco). Those were the first demos I ever shopped.
Would it be possible to give me 3 key records that inspired you?
Three records that come to mind from around then are; Arthur Russell’s Another Thought, The Beach Boys` Pet Sounds, and Nils Frahm`s Spaces. Arthur made some of the most beautiful poetic songs as well my favorite disco to dance to, Brian Wilson opened up that child of experimenting, and at the time, I was driving an hour home from Detroit sometimes catching the sunrise while listening to Spaces. I love ambient music while night-driving.
I recently interviewed another Detroit resident, Ali Berger – who makes quality old school-ish house – puts out music on the UKs FCR and local Detroit label, clave.house. Do you have any overlap with this scene?
I’ve met Ali a few times, and was actually thinking of taking over his rent when he moved away – but the walls were too thin for me. I respect the quality of what others do when they do their thang.
Can you tell me more about Cosmic Handshakes In The Mist – I love that LP. It’s almost a kind of mix of KDJ and Jon Hassell. Could you give me some clues to the inspiration behind it?
We’ve been recording together since 2004. Our name came from the album #1 by Skylab. In the credits on the record, it said “a cosmic handshake to…” instead of “special thanks to…”. We loved that. By the time it came to making an LP, we let the music do its thing. One moment sticks out with the song No Heat. The drums were playing and I was on foot pedals looping and tweaking as Todd played the Juno 60 and Korg SV1. Two live takes later the song was basically done. Other times we pulled out glass bottles and loose change, recorded outside and Todd found a snake on his foot and freaked. I’d get the songs in a good place, then go to Detroit and we’d put touches of sax, guitars, and bass on it. Actually, Pathe Jassi’s vocals on Chest Drum from my album was originally recorded for Cosmic Handshakes Read the Ashes. It didn’t fit and Todd gave me the go ahead.
How did you hook up with Todd?
In early 2000 a mutual friend, Jason Hogans, gave me his number and said, call him! I was more anti-social back then, but did. We were gonna make a hip hop track, but stayed up talking about spirituality, aliens, relationships, music, drinking scotch, and eating pancakes til 8AM. We`ve been brothers ever since.
How long did the Cosmic Handshakes LP take to make?
Hmm…mid/late summer to December of 2015 I believe.
We didn’t know where the album would fit, but had a few labels in mind. Todd played me some of the Going Good releases and we sent it to them. Brian’s a sweetheart. He came to Detroit and we all clicked right away. Miss him.
Will there be another Cosmic Handshakes record?
We hang out all the time. He was the my best man at my wedding. It seems we pause for 3 – 4 years and do our own thing. He has a new 12″ for Going Good and some other things lined up, but we were just talking about doing something last night.
Can you tell me more about your design work?
I started doing design the same way I started music production, I couldn’t afford or rely on anyone else (laughing).
Who have you / do you work for?
Friends mostly. Paul Randolph, Eddie Logix, Todd Modes, Andres (DEZ), John Beltran, and so on.
Which artists’ work might have impacted your own?
I wouldn’t know where to start…Edan, Ray Johnson, and friends in the art community.
How did you get involved with Detroit Electronic Quarterly – DEQ?
After I was featured in Issue 15, the founder, Vince Patricola, asked if I’d give it a shot for the following issue. We were already friends for some time. He’s a bridge between generations, connecting different groups and has been in the music scene for years.
Is DEQ still going?
Yes, slowly. It’s a work of love and takes a lot of energy and time.
Do you also do any writing for them?
Not so much. I did an interview with Dave Graw – I mixed and produced his latest album, HEALING – and the Eddie Logix interview.
How much do you charge for a logo?
I haven’t done logos really…type is still a weak point for me. Monster Free Design is my go to for that.
I have a few questions about the new album, The Art Of US. How much of it is played live, and how much is machines and samples? I ask because its pretty “musical”, accomplished. It sounds like a lot of proper playing is going on?
There is a lot of playing and sampling. Live percussion mixed with programming, tweaking of live keys, voice recordings turned into piano plugs and other tricks.
Can you tell me more about the collaborators on the album – the musicians and the vocalists? How you hooked up?
Craig Huckaby has a great deep voice and I’d see him at record shops. Todd Modes and I had been working together. Eddie Logix stopped by and I asked him to say some bugged out vocals, so he read my DEQ interview, by Vince Patricola, over Honey Rooftop (Reprise). Kaylan and I became friends while working on the Pure Sounds Of Michigan compilation. Mike J, Allison Graw and I grew up together. Dave Graw and I met through his wife Allison. Pathe Jassi and I met through John Arnold, whom I’ve known almost as long as Todd. Ryan Gimpert lives around the block from my parents. 2040 I’ve known since 2000. Stephanie Fica – Tap Dance – I met through my wife….so mainly really close friends and a few new ones. It was as natural as possible.
From the outside, the album sounds a lot like a celebration of Detroit`s musical history – doing my usual “referential” thing when writing the review – I could hear echoes of everything from Hastings Street, and Paradise Valley, to Carl Craig, KDJ, UR, Stacey Pullen, Kenny Larkin….all mixed in there. Is this the case? Was this a conscious move or do you think you’ve simply absorbed all of this history by osmosis?
More of an absorption or the vibration of home. I respect all these of people / artists, but my musical rotation was elsewhere when it comes to long drives or the homestead.
I also have to ask what your current situation is like – I hope you and yours are safe and well – `cos America looks a little crazy right now.
The fam is well, thank you. There’s a lot of fear, stress, and anger tactics being pushed. Misinformation is at a high. The fight for equal rights continues. There’s also love, joy, and kindness being spread. Kaylan – featured on Honey Rooftops – sets up tables of free food in her community. People are marching, donating, and bringing the conversations to home.
I felt 50/50 on releasing an album during these times, yet the album is a spiritual dance of unity, strength, and joy. People need that. Not to say my record is for you, but the overall vibrations that can align you, raise your spirit, consciousness, and so forth. Could be a meal, conversation, bike ride, movie, book, or an old record. You know that feeling when it hits you.