In Conversation with Marcellus Pittman
On Sunday, April 10th, Coloring Lessons is making it’s return to Nowadays for a day of univeral rhythms with special guest, Marcellus Pittman. Detroit native Marcellus “Malik” Pittman is known for his international genre-bending DJ sets, his raw productions, his Detroit staple imprint, Unirhythm, and his contributions to the electronic music supergroup, 3 Chairs. He is a staple within the Detroit scene, and his glowing personality shows us why he’s loved and respected everywhere he goes. In this off-the-cuff conversation, we chat about Marcellus’ early influences, his label, his production style, and more.
sat down with Marcellus to chat about his
influences, his music, and his city, ahead of Sunday’s Coloring Lessons party, on April 10th.
We sat down with Marcellus to chat about his influences, his music, and his city, ahead of Sunday’s Coloring Lessons party, on April 10th.
Coloring Lessons: My brother! Thank you so much for taking the time to sit with us. It’s so appreciated.
Marcellus Pittman: Man look, all I gotta say is I fuck with y’all heavy. When we played together last time, I was like “these guys are on some shit”. I fuck with y’all.
CL: You just got back from Southport Weekender. How was that?
MP: First of all, I met one of my all-time favorites, Dexter Wansel. He’s top 3 for me and I met him. He knocked on my door and he thought I was one of his band players, and I’m looking at him like “this nigga is Dexter Wansel!” I was thinking to myself “what the fuck was that?”.
CL: That’s crazy. I feel like we’re all so inspired by his sound, too. Did you get to see him play?
MP: I didn’t but we were all in the same hotel. Jean Carn, Norman Connors, Bobby Lyle. I got to see Norman Connors play. It was magical.
CL: Yeah, we hear Southport is so special. Speaking to those influential figures, I wanted to chat a bit about your early childhood and some people who were really instrumental in your musical journey. Can you tell us a bit about that?
MP: Man, my shit is 3 Chairs. My shit is Mike Huckaby, rest in peace. My shit is eastside, Detroit. Dilla, Omar S, that’s all east side. As far as music, there’s not too many eastsiders.
CL: For those who haven’t been to Detroit, what would you say is the difference between the east side and the west side?
MP: West side is way better. I give that to them. We all give it up to them because everybody that likes Detroit music likes the music from the west side…but I’m from the east side, so of course I’m gon’ say the east side is the best!
Coming up, I liked Philly too. I honestly felt Philly music more than music from Detroit.
CL: Like Philly International?
MP: Philly International. TSOP. I thought that shit was way fresher than our shit, because Philly shit was more colorful.
CL: Is that what your parents were listening to at that time?
MP: Well, my dad was attempting to try out for the Temptations at the time, but he didn't make it. That said, my whole family was musical. My dad played the bass. I got into DJ’ing from my cousin, DJ Rahjah, who was a techno DJ. Growing up, that shit was all around. It’s like how in South Africa, house music is normalized. That’s how it was back in the day when I was growing up in Detroit. All my cousins and my family were into it…it was on the radio…everyone loved it.
CL: Speaking of, I had heard that you were working under your cousin [DJ Rahjah], as somewhat of an apprentice. How old were you at that time?
MP: I was 16 years old. Man, do you know what? This year will be 30 years of me playing records.
When I was coming up, the older guys looked at me like I was stupid. They were like “What the fuck are you doing here?”
CL: Which is funny, because you were playing the Soul and R&B jams of that time, like Off The Wall and—
MP: Yes! But the thing was, when I was coming up, those older folks were sophisticated, and I was sitting up there looking like 2 Pac with my baggy ass jeans. When they saw me they were like, “What are you doing here?” I'm like, “I need to be here…you dumb motherfuckers, if I'm not here, this music would not last.” That’s why I love y’all man…you guys are keeping it going.
CL: Exactly…this can’t move forward without the new generation.
MP: …and the only guys that looked at me was motherfucking 3 Chairs, my homie Raybone Jones, who's still doing it, and a couple of other Chicago motherfuckers that showed me love.
CL: Was Raybone Jones somewhat of a mentor to you?
MP: Raybone Jones was a mentor to everyone. He doesn’t get his props, but there would be no Kyle Hall without Raybone Jones. I just had him play with me over at Marble Bar. That’s the homie, man. He’s one of the guys who bigged me up when everyone was looking at me like “shouldn’t you be listening to 2 Pac?”
CL: But you also were listening to and making hip hop at one point, no?
MP: Yeah, of course, I still make hip hop! I make music that makes me feel good. I don’t understand when people think it’s all about house music. Y'all don't do just one thing either, so you get what I’m saying. You feel music that makes you feel good. Don’t matter the style or where it comes from; as long as it sounds good, play it. That's my motto.
If it sounds good, I'm going to play it. I don’t care what the fuck it is. I fucked around in New Zealand and I played a Led Zeppelin edit I made of Immigrant Song, and those people were snapping.
CL: We've been seeing you play for a while now, and you’ve always had this same versatile, non-compromising style. Has that ever not worked out? Has there ever been a time where maybe you took a risk and people weren't into it?
MP: Damn, that's a good question. Yes. Recently, right at Southport actually. It was Beyonce’s ‘Blow’. They were like “Man, what the fuck is this?” I played it here in Detroit and it went off, but they didn’t get it out there.
CL: I’m sure your non-compromising style of DJ’ing informed the way you produce, too. I actually want to go back and talk about your early influences. When did you start producing and how did your influences affect your style at that time?
MP: My early influences were DJ Premier, Mr. Mixx [2 Live Crew], Dexter Wansel…Loose Ends was super spiritual to me, Roy Ayers, who was like the god of the groove.
CL: Were you trying to emulate these artists when you first started producing?
MP: I was trying to emulate Loose Ends. When I first heard ‘Hanging On A String’, like man, I wish you were there with me when I first heard that tune…WJLB, a popular Detroit radio station played it. I actually asked my dad like, “Dad, you can actually make music like this?”
Another instance…when I first heard “Take It Personal” by Gang Starr, there was this disc jockey named Billy T on WGPR. Legendary station in Detroit, that was the very first black owned radio station in America actually. Billy T played that and I was like “Damn, what the fuck is this?” That’s what got me hip to hip hop too, and that’s how I discovered DJ Premier.
CL: In your early productions, how were you making music? What equipment were you using?
MP: I started off with the SP-12. The homie Theo [Parrish] got me hip to this guy at Guitar Center who had it for like $500. I grabbed that bitch. You know how much that is now?
CL: Damn, and did you have anything else?
MP: Yeah, so this is when I first met Pirahnahead—he was working at Guitar Center. He hooked me up with the Roland XP10, which was like $300…and then the homie Sherard [DJ Stingray] let me borrow his Alesis MMT-8 sequencer. Shout out to him. I made a lot of tunes with that.
CL: When you first started making those tracks, did you put them out right away or did you sit on them for a while?
MP: Nah, I didn’t put them out, but there’s a whole bunch of shit I made with that equipment. Eventually I got an MPC1000, and I made ‘Chicago Nights’ and ‘There’s Somebody Out There’...a bunch of stuff.
CL: In addition to DJ Stingray, I also read somewhere that Javonntte helped you out in the beginning, too. What was your relationship with him?
MP: Javonntte! Yes! He really helped me out. The way Javonntte is now, he was the same way back in the 90’s. He kept making music, and the way he helped me was a real blessing. I think I made my very first track over his crib and he gave me the space to do so. It was wack as fuck but he allowed me to do that and I appreciate that.
CL: He’s such a genuine, great guy.
MP: A very genuine guy. He was very helpful in my career. There’s a lot of people that helped out…Detroit is a very friendly place.
CL: Do you feel like that collaborative atmosphere in Detroit had a big effect on you growing up?
MP: Look, man. Ain’t no city like my city. Eastside. I’m east side till I die, baby. The only city that reminds me of the eastside of Detroit is Harlem. I love Harlem…that's my baby girl. When I went to Harlem for the first time, I felt like I was in a small, condensed Detroit. Ain’t no place like Harlem, man. When I go on 125th, I’m like “oof, this shit is the east side.”
CL: What's your connection with New York City beyond that? Did you come here a lot when you first started playing?
MP: You know what was funny? The very first time I came to New York, I did not like it. We were in the Manhattan meatpacking district in the early 2000s. I was like “this shit is some bullshit.” Theo had his residency at APT, but I wasn’t into it.
You know who made me love New York? The twins, Jacky and Kat [Analog Soul].
CL: Ah, yes! We love them!
MP: I hooked up with them, and I was like “oh yeah, this is where it’s at!” Shout out to Amuary and Miguel too—they brought me to Brooklyn, and I was like “this is where I need to be! Motherfucking Brooklyn!”
CL: Yeah, I always hear Manhattan in the late 70s through mid 90s was good. I think that's what we've all been chasing; this golden era of nightlife, but unfortunately it just doesn't exist anymore. Manhattan now has too much bottle service culture and parties centered around everything but the music.
MP: That shit’s gone…ever since the towers fell down. Yeah, bottle service and all that. That’s what I was fed when I first went there and I was like “this is some bullshit!”. But when I first met the twins, and Miguel and Amuary, I was like “Oh, this is where it’s at! Brooklyn!” Ever since I met that crew it’s been nothing but love.
CL: Yeah, it's so special here. Especially in the past 5 to 10 years, there's been so many spots that have opened up and there's so many new parties and collectives coming about. Do you have a favorite spot for when you’re here?
MP: Yep, it’s right where we gon’ get on down…Nowadays. Man, Nowadays, that’s my baby right there. That's probably the best club in the United States, bro.
CL: We always tell people how special that space is.
MP: Yeah, that space is special man. It’s got an energy that’s unmatched. You know what I mean? With sound by Shorty [Craig “Shorty” Bernabeu]!? Come on, man.
CL: Ah, how do you know Shorty?
MP: That guy, man…He’s the best sound man in New York! That’s facts. The best sound in New York.
CL: We couldn’t agree more. We just interviewed him for the series, and it should be coming out after yours. He’s incredible.
MP: When it comes to sound, you cannot fuck with Shorty, man. He showed me his outdoor system, and I was like “Come on, man…this is crazy!” That’s his life. There is no other sound man that could be in his place. He’s there every time I play at Nowadays…every single time.
CL: Yeah, he takes this to another level. Every time we play there, he’s there and he truly doesn’t have to be. He’s just tapped in and making minor adjustments to get the best listening experience for the people on the dance floor.
MP: He’s there constructing his sound! Come on, man! That’s love for his sound. Not just for the music, but for his sound.
CL: Yeah, and to that, he also has great taste in music and has even released tracks in the past. He’s super talented.
MP: Right, and he loves me and he loves y’all. I only fuck with elite, man. I’m talking to y’all, man. You’re elite. I recognized that from the jump; from when we played the last party together, and y’all was getting down. I was like “what the fuck is y’all playing!” You remember…you sent me the track!
CL: That’s so appreciated. I want to talk a bit about you though, hahah. Specifically, your more seasoned productions. On projects like Erase The Pain or The East Side Story, there would be one track that’s considered techno, and then another that’s funk-inspired, but they would both share similar sounds. It was always easily identifiable that it was a Marcellus Pittman production. For the up and coming producers, how did you hone in on your own sound? Did it take some time or was it more of a natural thing?
MP: Nah, it came naturally. It’s some weird spiritual shit man; music is spiritual. Everybody needs to have their own way of making music because music is religious. It’s this weird religious spiritual thing. I remember when Jay Dee [J Dilla] was making his stuff, everybody wanted to sound like him. He always said his god was Pete Rock, but he didn’t make music to sound like Pete Rock…you know what I mean? That’s what differentiates us and makes it special; when it’s your own sound. For example, y’all don’t make music that sounds like Louie [Vega] or Joe [Claussell], you make music that sounds like motherfucking musclecars. That’s what differentiates you, from Kyle [Hall], or from me.
CL: You’ve had so much success with all these EPs and 12 inches that you put out solo, and with Theo…what made you want to make an album? It seems like it was never your intention to make Pieces, as it came out 10+ years after your first records.
MP: Yeah, well I'm going to be very honest with you, there was some personal stuff going on and I was like “I may not be doing this music thing much longer”.
CL: So, it was a culmination of your work on some level?
MP: Hahah yeah…I was like “y’all may not see me again”, but the album ended up coming out and things worked out differently.
CL: It seems as though you put a lot of that emotion and experience into the records that came after, as they were all really special. I noticed you were releasing mostly on your own label, too. I wanted to talk a bit about the Unirhythm label for a second. What was your mission with the label?
MP: Unirhythm’s mission and goal is to put out music, no matter the genre. That’s the reason why the publishing company is called Genre Free. We’re not hung up on if it's house music or hip hop. We don't care about none of that. As long as it sounds good, we put it out. It’s universal rhythms. It’s not for a certain genre, it’s for people to listen to the music and feel good. I want you to cry when you listen to this shit. Tears of joy.
CL: I remember we went to the 3 Chairs party during one Movement weekend. I forgot the name of the venue, but it was in a BBQ spot and—
MP: 2015! That was the last 3 Chairs party, too. It made the news.
CL: Wow, yes exactly! The one thing that shocked me at that party was I remember seeing Theo Parrish behind a table in the entrance selling records and merch. I wanted to address the DIY nature of your label Unirhythm. Is it intentional for labels like yours, as well as Sound Signature and KDJ/Mahogani to hold such a DIY structure, with an emphasis on ownership?
MP: Look. When we were growing up, all of us, Kenny [Moodymann], Rick [Wilhite], Theo, we had to look at labels and those people ruled the rosters. Like Nervous Records and all of them. But the thing was, they didn’t fuck with our shit. Especially because we were in Detroit. We we’re like “man, fuck you! We gon’ make our own shit!”.
So, Kenny did his thing, and came out with KDJ Records, then Teddy [Theo Parrish] with Sound Signature, and then Rick had Soul Edge. Huck [Mike Huckaby] and Rick Wade did Harmonie Park Records…you had a whole bunch of independent labels. It was our time.
CL: Truly; and now all these labels that you're mentioning are very important within the dance music community and all have seen such great success. Do you feel like when you first started the label it took off right away, or did it take some time?
MP: With me, personally? No. I didn't feel that. I didn't feel like nobody was listening to me. To be honest, to this day, I still think nobody is listening, so I just do what I’m feeling. Especially when the pandemic happened, that really fucked with everything that I was trying to do. I had a bunch of plans. I was supposed to release ‘Pick Yourself Up’ in 2019, but the pandemic fucked my whole plan up.
CL: I feel that. We were supposed to do an EU tour, and pandemic cancelled that too. Actually, the homie Ashleigh [Ash Lauryn] who’s also on Uzuri was out there when shit was getting shut down. It was such a mess.
MP: Yep, and she just quit her motherfucking job! I remember that. She went through the exact same shit I went through in 2009. I quit my job and shit went south…and when I quit my job, shit was not coming through. I had to sacrifice, bro. Later the shit came through with Nina Kraviz and things took off.
CL: We always hear cases of these big artists and how their careers have tremendous highs and lows. Sometimes you’re up, and the next minute you can be down bad.
MP: Because that's the thing. I think it’s the universe trying to test you and see if you're really all about it. Because you gon’ get tested; make no mistakes about it. You're going to get tested. In 2009, that was like the universe testing me like “oh, you really want to do this? Well watch you ain’t gon’ get nothing!” And in those six months, I didn’t get nothing.
CL: That's perseverance and that's the same thing with what happened to Ash, or really what happened with any of us artists these past two years…it was like “how much do you really want it?” Because if you want it, you're going to make it happen regardless, and you did that in 2009, just like Ash is doing now.
CL: I want to briefly touch on 3 Chairs…Did you meet all those guys at the same time?
MP: I met Theo first. It was me and my homie Howard Thomas, and we met him at the Billiards Gallery, but I officially met him at Melodies & Memories record shop, when he used to work there. I hipped him to a tune he didn’t know about—it was that Phife Dawg and Whitey Don tune, and he was like “What the fuck is this!?” He ordered it and it was in store the next week. Since then, we were cool. That’s my guy.
CL: and Theo, Kenny, and Rick had already established 3 Chairs at that time, yes?
MP: Yeah, I met them all through Theo. I definitely went through a hazing phase when I got initiated into the 3 Chairs…like trying to test me to see how serious I was about this shit.
CL: I’m curious about the collaborative element within that dynamic. In the beginning, working with 3 Chairs, it’s like these four different tastes, ideas, and sensibilities in one room. You were producing with that level of collaboration for the first time in your career. What was that like? Did it come with challenges?
MP: You know what? That was the most super easy shit. It came naturally. Dude, the craziest thing was it started when the towers fell. It started that motherfucking week. When the towers fell, I spent the night over Kenny’s crib and we were all playing Tekken. I asked them, “man, what's up with the 3 Chairs? That shit is fire, when are y’all going to do some more?” Kenny was like “I don’t know nigga, you wanna do some shit with us?” I said “what?”, and he responded “Nigga, you heard me! You wanna do some shit with us?” When he said that I was like, “yeah!?!?”
3 weeks after that we started making shit and we didn’t stop. It was like two months of just making shit. This is the time when Theo was in Cleveland, OH and would drive over to make stuff. That was such an era in Detroit, man. Movement festival was just gaining traction. Mike Huckaby was the mayor…
CL: Mike was so special and such an integral part of the Detroit scene and community.
MP: and when he died that shit fucked me up. I was fucked up afterwards. Still fucked up to this day. You ask everybody in the music scene in Detroit, there was only one Huck. He was super integral in our scene. He was the master record buyer, too. He was buying for both locations of this shop, Record Time, and every Detroit superstar DJ went to Huck.
That fucked the whole city up. We haven’t seen nothing like that since J Dilla—that’s how important he was. And even with J Dilla, I got stories about him. He let me come over to his house to make tracks. Those dudes were so integral to our community.
CL: It sounds like coming up in Detroit was truly a unique and special experience. You have Mike Huckaby providing mentorship, J Dilla around making hip-hop AND techno, your own career, solo, and with 3 Chairs. In comparison, how do you feel about the Detroit scene in its present day?
MP: It’s funny…I don’t go out, but I love the fact that there's a new generation. I love it. Because I was the only young motherfucker that nobody fucked with. They looked at me funny. Like what are you doing in our club? The only motherfuckers that cared about me was 3 Chairs and Ray Bone Jones. They were like “Hey man, good to see you in this shit.”
CL: and look at how impactful that was, because the push and support from the older guys gave you the motivation to do your thing and inspire others.
MP: Exactly! I came up with Kevin Reynolds, Twonz, Mike Servito…we all from the same school. There’s a whole younger generation now doing their thing.
CL: Did y’all have a favorite place to play back then…or perhaps to go out and dance?
MP: I’d have to say Saint Andrew’s [Hall]. It’d be a toss-up between Saint Andrew’s and Motor Lounge. Saint Andrew’s had three floors of fun. Mike Huckaby used to play on the third floor. The second floor was DJ House Shoes…he used to play a lot of that unreleased J Dilla shit. We were blessed to hear all that. Then on the first floor, which had the best sound system, had alternative music. Ask Wilhite…that was the best sound system in Michigan at one point, and strictly alternative…Nirvana, Foo Fighters, all that type of shit.
Come to think of it, my favorite shit was the Hip Hop Shop…Maurice Malone’s Hip Hop Shop.
CL: That’s so dope. We love to hear about yesteryear’s nightlife culture. Thank you so much for this. It’s been so great chopping it up. Is there anything else you have in the pipeline that you want to share with us?
MP: I'm coming out with an album man. It’s long overdue. I got a lot of shit to express, and I think everybody needs to hear that. It’s projected for this year, and hopefully it’ll come out before my birthday.
CL: Amazing. We’ll be on the lookout for that. Thanks again and have a safe flight! See you at Nowadays!
MP: Yeah, no problem man! Peace brother.
Tickets to Sunday’s party below. We’ll see you then ;)
On Sunday, April 10th, musclecars presents…
Coloring Lessons With Special Guest Marcellus Pittman
5PM | Nowdays
Coloring Lessons With Special Guest Marcellus Pittman
5PM | Nowdays