“I Just let the Beats do the Talking”: An Interview with DJ Assault

Sam Ribakoff and DJ Assault talk about Detroit techno music, the ghettotech scene, and starting a record label.
By    October 3, 2016

dj assault

A name is a marker that a person, or an object, or an idea, or a movement, carries forever. A name carries the weight of history, calling up linguistic, historical, and anecdotal, associations with that name. People change their given names all the time, but changing or correcting the name of an idea after a title has already been tagged onto it is a little more difficult. In the mid-’90s, in America’s musical heartland, Detroit, two DJs, DJ Assault and DJ Godfather, crafted a unique style of music that organically took pieces of the musical culture around them. Techno, born and bred in Detroit, house music from nearby Chicago, bass and booty music from Miami being played in the clubs, and hip hop being played in the streets, was melded together to produce Detroit club music, or Detroit booty music.

Funny and sexy, maybe even a little juvenile, Detroit booty music was more inviting and approachable than some of the harder Detroit techno coming out of the city, and with that it attracted a lot of listeners inside, and eventually outside Detroit. As it happens with a lot of names given to musical styles, the name “ghettotech” was applied to the style of music created by DJ Assault and DJ Godfather by a teenage fan of their music in Ann Arbor Michigan as a way to sensationalize the music, by someone outside of the community that created the music. The term “ghettotech” has always rubbed DJ Assault the wrong way, he prefers to refer to it as Detroit booty music. I talked to DJ Assault over the phone while he sat in his office at Jefferson Ave, his record label in the suburbs of Detroit. —Sam Ribakoff


What was Detroit like at the time you were growing up?


DJ Assault: It was cool. It was a lot better. It was a lot of fun because everything was new, techno was new, house was new. I was born in Detroit, but I kind of moved to the suburbs at seven because the school system was better, my mother didn’t want me in Detroit public schools, but I still had access to Detroit because most of my relatives still lived in the city. We got all the Detroit radio stations too. It was very influential when I was a kid, but it stopped progressing due to the lack of business savvy by a lot of guys who were doing house and techno. Detroit starts a lot of things, like Motown and techno, but those guys in techno didn’t have the business sense of someone like Barry Gordy.


What do you mean they didn’t have business savvy?


DJ Assault: Because they went from being a cult thing to being mainstream, to being a past mainstream cultural thing, and you have to find some way to not being a complete sellout, and not to be so cult following, where [the music] it’s not interesting, where it gets too weird or mysterious. I don’t think that’s such a good thing. A lot of instrumental house or techno is like, ‘do the sounds really have identity?’ With no lyrics? Music is universal, but come on. Some stuff is just weird.

I found that most of the weirder stuff didn’t appeal to most of the girls, so that’s where I tried to get into the music [business], because guys will follow the girls. A guy might hate me, but if your girlfriend likes one of the songs that I made, then you might like me.


Did you start adding in the repetitive lyrics to distance yourself from that weirder techno stuff?


DJ Assault: Well, no, because some of the ’80s and early ’90s techno, I thought was good, but when more people jumped on the bandwagon. Any music, when it goes further and further away from it’s origin, it gets worse and worse, it doesn’t get better, because a lot of people imitate the originators, it don’t come from the heart, that’s what I think. But my lyrical content is because I always rapped. I’m a songwriter at heart. But just being a rapper, everybody does it, I just couldn’t see how you could make any money from it. Dance music was popular at the time in Detroit, not hip hop, so I figured, you could do dance music and incorporate some hip hop, and it became a win-win.


When you started coming up with the Detroit Club sound, could you play in those Detroit techno clubs?


DJ Assault: To the younger techno crowd, yeah, but when I started playing I mainly did high school parties, which was very good, because it was the younger crowds that really influenced everything. I never cared about the older crowd. The people that started techno and house were a lot older than me, so my music was definitely a rendition of classic Detroit techno and Chicago house, I was influenced by those guys, but I was also me, and I had a lot of hip hop influences as well. I had to play commercial hip hop records for the high school parities for like half of the show, then for the other half I played my own Detroit booty music that we created, that has Miami bass music influences.


How popular did your music, and that Detroit booty/club music get in the city?


DJ Assault: It was huge in Detroit until Clear Channel took over our radio stations. Now there’s no more local sounds. They really destroyed any kind of regional sound, because it’s the same format across the whole U.S. It [Booty house] kind of shut off in like 2001, that was like the last record I was able to get on to Detroit radio. Some people think that the music just died, but really it got bigger in a lot of places. I never stopped making tons of tracks though, it’s just that it’s harder to promote unless you’re on the internet.

Bringing awareness of the music up is kind of the hard thing though, but it is available all over the internet. When EDM stuff came in, and kind of corporatized it like it was hip hop or something the way it’s marketed. It’s a lot of politics. But the sheer length of time I’ve been around is a statement in itself, artist like me aren’t supposed to be around that long. Like, people haven’t heard the last of me. People also don’t have to put their money where their mouth is with this music anymore, they can just listen to it and download it, pretty much for free now with the internet. I’m not mad at it, that is the game, but that is a factor.


Can you talk about starting your record label, Jefferson Ave? I think it’s really interesting that so many dance producers and DJs in Detroit around that same time were starting their own record labels.


DJ Assault: Right. First of all, I don’t see how you could rely on someone else to get your dream in motion, if you’ve got music, and you believe in yourself, put your own money up. That’s the realest thing I think you can do, because the people who would give you money are going to dictate what you do, and I don’t like that. Before I saw that, I saw how much money you were able to make off of 12 inches that I did that I wasn’t getting paid for. I had about four 12 inches before anyone really knew who DJ Assault was, and I was promised a certain amount of royalties that I never received, but I saw how much money they stole out of one store, so the obvious conclusion is well, if this is one store, what if I sold to everybody, and I could put my record out and sell to everybody. That’s how I got to Jefferson Ave being solely owned by myself.

So with things like Itunes now, normally, for a song that sells on Itunes for $1.29, I get 99 cents, because Itunes takes about 30 cents, but some artists signed to a major label, they’re not going to even get 10 cents…I want it [Detroit club music] to be bigger. I’m not interested in stopping anytime soon. I’m just trying to see what I can do to get it a lot bigger. The marketing is the main thing. I might have to do some research on online marketing, or take some online marketing courses.


I haven’t heard you use the term ‘ghettotech’ at all. Is that a term you don’t use to describe your music?


DJ Assault: That’s the funny thing. That’s another good question. I got kind of hoodwinked, or bamboozled into that whole genre. Because I never referred to the music as that, but they group it into that category. That’s the funny thing, because people named the music, who didn’t make the music. It is what it is. Like how am I not the godfather of Detroit booty music? What song is bigger than “Ass n Titties?” It helped the people who were put in that ghettotech grouping though, I was never a part of it though, because it makes it seem like they had my support. I just referred to it as Detroit booty music, or I just let the beats do the talking.