Born and raised in Detroit, “techno city”, Kevin Reynolds began his musical career as an intern at the legendary, groundbreaking, Transmat Records. Eventually working his way up to label manager. A role that took him out on tour with folks like Amp Fiddler and Octave One, and has seen him heavily involved, both performing and organizing, in the prestigious Detroit Electronic Music Festival – Movement. Releasing music since 2005, some of it on his own Todhchai Records, Kevin’s long-awaited album, A Certain Circumstance, has just been completed for Osunlade’s imprint, Yoruba. Here The Insider conducts and in-depth interview with Kevin, which covers not only his storied career, but also provides some insight into what it was like to grow up working class in Motor City.
Interview conducted by our favourite 4-to-the-floor expert, The Insider.
A lot of people are talking about Kevin Reynolds at the moment, and they are saying “where has been all these years?” Where have you been?
I could feel my ears burning. I assume this camouflage is finally wearing off? I’ve been mostly behind the scenes involved in music, in some form. From working at Transmat, to tour and stage management. I’ve always been working on music and performing live, both here in Detroit and around the world. Most recently I helped my friend Mike Ransom open and expand his Japanese-inspired noodle shops here in Detroit, while providing tour management support to Octave One outside of Europe. Now, I’ve dedicated myself to music full time again, and am looking forward to this journey. I feel very privileged and grateful to be here.
When you first started out making music did you think you`d still be working in the industry now? Or maybe you didn’t think about the future then?
I fell in love with hip hop and technology when I was kid, so there seemed to be this guiding force directing me toward electronic music. I was lucky enough to be involved with our first music technology class in high school, allowing me to get my hands on gear. My family didn’t have a lot of means growing up, so this was life changing. Then when I was 18, I maxed-out a credit card and bought my first sampler, an Ensoniq 16+ with 1MB of sampling. That week I reluctantly went to my first “underground” techno party, seeing Twonz and Tim Baker DJ in a basement with one red light. I was hooked. I was in college studying history and that moment I knew that this was the life I wanted. Never did I think it would parlay into a living. Working at Transmat really opened my eyes to the world. You know it was always a struggle growing up poor, working class, and choosing to follow a passion that didn’t immediately get you money. I was lucky to have parents that chose to follow their passions and become successful later in life. But I think it’s proof that you don’t have to give up your passion because society says you have to. Being surrounded by people that succeeded in the industry helped me realize this was the way.
Kevin Reynolds in 2023, compared to a decade ago, how much do you feel you`ve changed?
Wow, yeah realizing life is about constant change and accepting that change, not matter how radical. On a personal level the amount of growth in the past year has been incredible for me. I feel extremely focused on music simply because that`s what brings me joy. I’ve had to deal with a heavy amount of loss during the course of my life and coming to terms with it has changed me. From the mental to the physical I’m finally seeing the power of the work. I’ve always been a person that goes out of the way to give. My family – Music, Military, Medicine, and Social Justice – taught me that service is one of the most important things you can do. For me the biggest change is learning to receive. On the outside seeing dramatic change in my city is inspiring as well. Growing up in Detroit we are taught to have an immense amount of pride for the city and I think folks that grew up with that are now making waves here.
If you could go back to the beginning, what would you have said to a young Kevin?
Hustle harder homie for yourself. Don’t take music industry bullshit personal. Be more confident in your art and accept the kind words about your music. Put that shit out and don’t give it away. Be here now. Basically all the things amazing people in my life said to me at that age but I couldn’t hear it.
You are one of the few people I have talked to born, bred, and living in Detroit. Paint a little of where you grew up?
I grew up on the border of Hamtramck and Detroit. Hamtramck is a city within Detroit founded by the Dodge – automotive – brothers so that they wouldn’t have to pay taxes to the city of Detroit. It’s pretty inexpensive so it draws a lot of immigrants. When I was growing up it was mainly Polish, Yemeni, Albanian, and folks from Yugoslavia and African American. I think we were the only Irish and African American family in our neighborhood. I remember going over to some new neighbours house, straight from Poland, and we were playing Atari and they put a “Football” game in the system… My brother and I were like that ain’t no Football, little did we know. Hamtramck could be a rough city in the `80s so you had to watch your back and be prepared. As I mentioned before we didn’t have a lot, but my family made do. Education was paramount, so my Mom got us enrolled in one of few magnet schools that draws kids from all around the city. At that school I was exposed to kids who’s parents were doctors, lawyers, fire chiefs, along with kids that came from families struggling as hard and harder than us. Through that school I was able to get a scholarship and travel and stay in Japan when I was 11 years old… life changing. We moved to the Northwest side of Detroit and the Eastside before my Mom finally got accepted to medical school in a college town, East Lansing about an hour drive from Detroit. But few things were constant, but music was one of the constants.
Detroit is known around the world as Motor City. Did car manufacture touch your life?
I don’t think you can grow up in Detroit and not be affected by it. My Dad used to throw the engines in Mustangs at River Rouge back in the day, before hurting his back and getting fired for being an agitator. He was heavily involved in the labour movement as a form of social justice. My Mom worked on the line at one point drilling in windshields. The auto companies were on a crusade in the `80s to destroy workers rights and maximize profits, so a lot of those jobs disappeared to unorganized labour down south and through automation – robots replacing workers. My brother and I used to watch them build the Poletown plant – while wiping out peoples homes and businesses – so we knew at a young age that the companies were not suffering, it was the people. Cars are so ingrained in Detroit… public transportation is beyond terrible so almost everyone has a car to get around, even if it has one headlight, no hood or brakes and just a mention of gas in the tank. Looking back so much time was spent in a car, I mean people hang out in their cars here. A lot of times it felt like you were in a bubble with music always on.
What was your first exposure to music? What made you get into sound?
Mom still. to this day, tells me how often she would play Songs In The Key Of Life by Stevie Wonder when I was a baby. Not a bad start, eh? Music was always on in the house, usually accompanied with cleaning, cooking and hanging. Stevie, Earth Wind & Fire, Commodores, Aretha, Luther, Kool & The Gang. I would stare at those futurist EWF album covers for hours. My stepdad was a working musician, lounge bar piano, super talented. My Dad got heavily into the blues and played harmonica. Detroit radio was incredible back then. For me when I heard Planet Rock, Newcleus, Cybotron, Egyptian Lover, Kraftwerk that’s when I lost my mind.
When did you first start getting into dance music?
I think it’s everywhere in Detroit even if you are unaware of it. I guess if you consider all the breakdancing music I mentioned. I mean, growing up you hear Cybotron on the radio, you hear all the early Detroit techno, Shari Vari, etc. But I had no idea what it was.
When the Detroit Pistons won the championship Good Life was EVERYWHERE. After school we would watch Kung Fu theater on TV and The Scene, which was a local dance music show. I got heavy into hip hop, especially in high school. Obsessive one might say, Tribe, De La, Gang Starr, DITC, LONS, Wu-Tang. Because of golden backpack era of hip hop I got more into the samples, leading me to jazz, which in turn lead me to digging in record stores. As I mentioned I went to my first underground party in 1995 and hearing “Detroit Techno” for the first time in a proper setting. I was growing disillusioned with hip hop as it turned more Puffy and commercial. The first CD I bought was recommended to me by a guy working at the record store. It sounded amazing, it had this guy`s head on the cover. I flipped it over and it said “Detroit” on it. Kenny Larkin Azimuth. That was it, sold. I was heavily into that Detroit techno and Chicago house sound. It was the heyday of Midwest rave scene and I was 100% in. Jeff Mills, Rob Hood, 7th City, Chain Reaction, Plus 8, UR, Transmat, Planet E, Communique. We would buy records just based on artwork… and usually it would turn out to be amazing. It was a magical time.
Who were the artists / DJs that you looked up to back then?
Oh man, Jeff Mills “Live at the Liquid Room”. I think I listened to that mix hundreds of times, studied it. Plus the fact that he used to do the Wiz mixes when I growing up on the radio, which I used to tape. Derrick May… untouchable. Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, Claude Young, Shake, Traxx, D Wynn, Alton Miller, Stacey Pullen, Derrick Carter, Mike Huckaby, Scott Grooves, Bone, Mike Banks, Tim Baker, Twonz, Rob Hood, Dan Bell, Derrick Ortencio… The reason I play live is because I saw Rob Hood and Dan Bell do a live set in Detroit and that was that. I could go on forever.
So, you studied music right? How did you go from studying sound design to working for Derrick May?
I went to a college for audio engineering and sound design out in Arizona called The Conservatory. It was a very small, intense school at the time. Part of graduation was an internship at a studio. I did pretty well in school and they expected to ship me off to L.A. or NYC. When I explained that I wanted to go to Detroit, there was a lot of head scratching going on. This was the beginning of the internet so most knowledge was through print. I brought in a stack of magazines – Jockey Slut, Mixmag, DJ Mag, etc – with all the Detroit guys on the cover. They didn’t know anything about this music and the counselor was so wowed by it that she worked hard to get me an internship and Transmat was the only label that called back.
What was the experience like working at Transmat?
I often compare being at Transmat to being in a sports proving ground. I mean this was an Olympic workout camp. I started out stuffing envelopes and calling record stores, to distribution, then licensing, all the way to label manager. It was a small team of outstanding people, with each having a great unique talent. Neil Olliverra, Derrick Ortencio, Kent Spencer, Derrick Quinn, have all gone on to do amazing things. As far as artists are concerned, I was usually the one that would A&R, and Aril Brikha’s record had just came out. We are the same age and both play live, so we created a bond quickly, I consider him like a brother. But yeah… lots of great artists and friends like John Arnold, John Beltran, Jeremy Ellis, Ian Pooley, Michael Trommer, Microworld, Lucas Rodenbush, Tony Drake. The Movement compilation was probably the biggest project I worked on.
You’ve had many different roles within the game. You’ve been a tour manager for Amp Fiddler in your time.
Working with Amp was again another amazing experience. Of course you can’t be a Detroiter and not be a fan of Amp. In Detroit there is like one degree of separation between genres and artists, if that! Back then if you were involved in music then you knew Amp. So being able to tour manage for him was super exciting, and challenging, because it was a new world for me, but Amp made me feel very comfortable and gave me the confidence to do it. We did North America together with about 8 people in tow and all the gear. I don’t think I would have been able to do it without guidance from Amp. It’s amazing to work with a professional that is a just a great human being. I’m very grateful for that experience.
You`ve spent some time lecturing in music. Is that something that you still do today?
I’ve done a bit of lecturing, and workshops, mainly for kids. Some production classes. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of the kids over the years and it’s great seeing their progress! This really goes back to the service thing ingrained in me. As fas as making a living is concerned, I’ve done music for commercials, which has sustained me, and was always fun. I was lucky in the sense that I didn’t have to bend far to compose for those projects as they wanted my sound. The past 6 years I’ve been helping my friend with his restaurant – he’s doing great and came out with flying colours after the pandemic. He has four shops now. I can’t be happier for him. I’ve had quite a lot of working class jobs in my life, which I don’t regret because I feel like I got to experience a lot of different cultures and wide cross section of American people.
I know that you play live. What does your set up consist of?
I actually only play live. My first live set in 1996 was basically my 1mb Ensoniq, 707 and a Roland Sound Canvas for a whopping 35 minutes. Then it progressed to the MPC and a ton of gear, then Yamaha RS7000 and TR-808. Some of my first shows in Europe and theUK was that setup until one day, Aril Brikha said to me why do I carry around that MacBook – just to check MySpace? I was steadfast against having a laptop on stage simply because I saw so many bad live sets with a laptop. But when I got home I downloaded Ableton and slowly switched over. Now it’s usually Ableton, TR-8S, Model 1.4 and maybe another synth or drum. I love the freedom of not being linear with my live set, which Ableton allows. I’ve performed at Panorama Bar, Tresor, Movement, Corsica in London, Good Room in NYC, Dublin, Tenerife, Japan, Sri Lanka, Belgium, Holland and a whole bunch all over Detroit.
I saw Hazmat Live once. Is he on your radar?
Walter is the man. He’s great. When he was first getting into techno and house we had a long conversation about gigging at the club one night. He’s one of Detroit’s soon to be discovered gems. That’s the thing about Detroit… It’s always giving new talent. I’m hoping one day the powers that be in the city realize this and invest in the talent that`s here.
Can you tell me more about your involvement with the Movement Festival?
So my first major gig was when Carl Craig asked me to play at the second DEMF / Movement in 2001. I think I’ve played 6 or so times over the years, and I’m performing again this year. Movement holds a special place in my heart and soul. I’ve staged managed there for probably 12 years. It truly is one of most beautiful times in the city. For years and years people had this fear of Detroit and I think Movement helped erase this fear and expose what us Detroiters already know – What a loving place Detroit can be. The thing I love most about the festival is the open sense of community. All the smiles… It’s a must attend event, coupled with all the amazing parties. The team that run Movement are some of the most passionate and professional people I’ve worked with. These folks don’t come from nowhere. They are all veterans – making things happen in our city for over 25 years.
Do you know the Underground Resistance crew?
Yes, absolutely. I met Mike probably the first week working at Transmat. Immediately got along with him and learned a lot from talks with him over the years, and while working with their distribution. They are always trying build a better local community, and that’s true to this day. I met some great people and made some there friends over the years… Cornelius, Santi, Franki, Dex, Rolando, Ray. I was over there recently to meet with a new artist Amani Olu who is making some great sounds, and ran into Huey Mnemonic who is just killing it right now.
Why do you think Detroit has produced so many seminal artists?
It’s the water, it has to be the water. I just think there is a culture here of friendly competition. I don’t think that people are afraid to tell you if something is wack or if it’s dope. The thing is that you know the ancestors are always looking over your shoulder so you should always come correct.
What are your thoughts on the Detroit sound and the notion that folks from outside often try to appropriate it? Is this a source of bad feeling within the Detroit musical community?
I think there is a sound but each artist has their own vision. Honestly if people want to emulate the sound I don’t think its a bad. As long as the music is good, and the artists are being true to themselves then it doesn’t matter.
Which artists in Detroit – that we may not have heard of – do you think are doing great things at the moment?
As usual, there are a lot. Like I mentioned, Amani Olu, Huey Mnemonic, Hazmat… then you have Ke Thu – who I’m loving right now. Jo Rad Silver, Joey Two Lanes, Jonah Baseball, Gustav Brovold, Blair French, Peter Croce, Pontchatrain, David A-P, Ladymonix, Issac Prieto, Drummer B, RayBone, Stacey Hot Wax, Mike Clark, Al Ester, Vince Patricola, Scott Zacharias, Father Dukes, LadyLike, Tylr, Psycho, Dru Ruiz, WhoDat, Tammy Lakkis, Michael Geiger, Ian Fink, Sherif, Mr. Joshua … SO SO MANY (laughs)
What was your first release. How do you feel about that release today?
My first release was back in 2006, on my own label, Todhchai, and was called Afrik. It sold really well, Gilles Peterson charted it, and pretty much kicked off my career. I still love that E.P. and am very proud of it. It was a difficult time… I was working hard to pay bills as the great recession hit but the E.P. was a light. I’m hoping to provide more light.
What do you think is your most significant release?
Afrik tends to be known in house circles, but I did an E.P. for Richard Zepezauer’s label, NSYDE, in Berlin. Liaisons – that is the one the techno guys latched onto and really started me touring. The funny thing is that it’s like 116 bpm if remember correctly, but all synth!
Your album, A Certain Circumstance, is an incredible body of work, but it’s taken some time to get it ready. Tell us a little about the journey?
It was a lot of revisions, and a lot of straight up trust in Osunlade. He’s like an older brother to me, and I have ultimate trust with him. For me one of the biggest things I learned from him is capturing a moment in time. Spending time in his studio in Santorini, and working here in Detroit, it’s been a five year journey to make this album and I’m very happy about finally sharing it with the world.
What other projects are you working on?
My label, Todhchai – which means “future” in Irish Gaelic – is relaunching. The designer – and my amazing friend – for the original artwork, Mike Haener, and his company Midwest Common are helping again with the vision. The amount of music I have is pretty staggering, but now is the time to put it out. I also hope to have some more works for Yoruba, and some other to-be-named labels!
Where you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time?
I love running, going to the gym, and skiing. The whole mind-body thing is essential. I also love to cook and food – but most importantly hangin` with my lovely wife Suzy and crazy Doberman puppy Finnegan. That and reading books when I can.
What do you think is the biggest threat to our world right now?
Fascism, Systemic Racism and Capitalism. You know, shit that’s killing people and the planet.
If you had the power to change something in this world what would that be?
Ending everything I just mentioned.
Kevin’s album, A Certain Circumstance, is out now, on Osunlade’s Yoruba Records.