Omar S: Up from the Underground

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The man known as Omar S, buried so deep in the underground for the past decade that few in the Detroit technopolis have seen him or know how to find him, is inching toward the surface.

Suddenly, the cagey, reclusive, combative, and calculatedly funny Alex Omar Smith is virtually everywhere, granting interviews to journalists representing magazines he’s never heard of, getting chunks of the huge catalog of his homegrown FXHE label distributed on Beatport, recording new tunes, engineering others’ tracks, and releasing re-worked versions of his largely unknown classics to the world via London’s Fabric mix CD series.

In print, Smith comes off like a mean ol’ nasty bastard—profane and bitter, he bitches about the desperate state of club music, not just in Detroit but all across the USA. He rarely plays in his hometown and says flat-out he would reject an invitation to play at Movement, the city’s annual electronic music festival. “Fuck no to that,” he offers. “If they haven’t invited me already, I don’t need 'em. They can go to hell.”

But smiles and chuckles emerge after Smith’s little tantrums, which he says he uses to get a rise out of people and wake them up. “People have become so arrogant, you can’t tell them shit,” he says. “They won’t respond to anything different unless you fuck with their heads with some off-the-wall shit. I need to do my own hype, man.”

Get him talking about what inspired him to create his own personal sound factory in a modest house on Detroit’s far north side and he gushes like a little kid. Smith grew up in nearby Conant Gardens, an extraordinary square-mile area that produced such talents as Amp Fiddler, Slum Village, Frank-n-Dank, and Platinum Pied Pipers. As a youth, he was thrilled to the marrow by Detroit’s rich musical legacy.

“Man, it was Motown and Levi Stubbs—may he rest in peace—the greatest voice ever produced in Detroit,” says Smith about the Four Tops’ singer. “It was P-Funk and Prince … then Inner City, ‘Big Fun.’ Before Basic Channel it was Kevin Saunderson and [late mastering engineer] Ron Murphy that started all that dub [techno] shit.”

He says it like he knows it, because he does. He was there—he refuses to say how old he is (“Just write, ‘Between 20 and 40’”)—in the '90s at Detroit house parties, getting schooled on the dancefloor by Kenny Dixon Jr., Theo Parrish, Scott Grooves, and Mike Huckaby, processing drums, basslines, and melodies in his head, plotting new directions for the psychedelic soul-funk tech-house dubs of the future. What would emerge were tracks like “Just Ask the Lonely,” an homage to Motown joy and melancholy delivered as an exhilarating 10-minute rhythmic skip overlaid with gorgeous jazz piano riffs; or the spacier, tougher “Blade Runner,” which suggests the science-fiction fetish of the electro-fied 1980s without appearing dated.

Along the way he became a guardian angel to young (Seth Troxler, Luke Hess) and neglected (Malik Pittman) local talents who, like himself, have had to find love and respect far from the city that shaped their sound.

Why is that, Alex? What makes Detroit the fucked-up, schizoid, yet uniquely innovative musical incubator that it is?

“Oh, I don’t know, man,” he says, laughing. “That’s a Derrick May question. I can’t answer that. Ask him. I just do what I do.”