Waajeed constructs Afrofuturist realms from the seed of Detroit techno

The musician's latest album, 'Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz,' is an exploration of the technological funk and soul that defined his youth and the city's cultural history

Reimagining Black electronic music on the global stage, Robert O’Bryant IV—better-known as Waajeed—composed his latest album, Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz, to be a personal exploration of the technological funk and soul that defined late-20th-century Detroit sound. During the multiyear lockdown, the global electronic dance music industry—like many others reliant on in-person commerce—experienced a full-scale collapse that led to the loss of half of its $7.4 billion value. Prior to this, Waajeed was spending most of his time on the road, while simultaneously launching the independently Black-owned educational facility Underground Music Academy (UMA) in the historic NAACP headquarters of Detroit’s North End.

To Waajeed, Afrofuturism is a feature of techno—a cultural and familial context in which Black people work together to build speculative futures beyond the tragedy of Black citizenship in the United States. Embodying the vision and revolutionary politics of label and collective Underground Resistance, Waajeed hopes to structure UMA in a way that promotes local investment in the future leaders of electronic music. “Pushing ourselves beyond the pain of the 2020 [Black Lives Matter] protests might be tough, but techno is about envisioning a greater space for us to be in connectivity and unity,” he affirms. Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz was conceptually driven by Afrofuturism, amplifying the hopes and dreams that Waajeed has for UMA. “It took a lot to hand over my masters like that,” he says of signing to labels Tresor and Sony BMG. “I took the deal with the incentive of amplifying the equity I always talk about and fight for.”

Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz transposes UMA’s mission statement into music. The record opens with vocalist Black Nix, who declares that—with an open mind and heart—listeners will understand that techno is the Black community’s “embedded birthright,” which has “been packaged for export” around the globe. She reclaims ownership of the genre in an evocative duet with saxophonist De’Sean Jones, who is part of Underground Resistance’s chronopolitical jazz ensemble, Timeline.

“It’s a very lush listen,” Waajeed explains. “The word ‘lush’ directly relates to the sentiment of what Black culture brought to the [techno] landscape.” This particular quality throws Waajeed back into the memory of riding in his father’s car in the early-’90s: “My dad had these really lush car seats. He would take me to vocational school, which taught me commercial art.” Despite the promise of this sort of education, Waajeed remarks, “Kids would get fucked up. One got shot on the bus that I was on. That’s why my dad started driving me to school.” Intent on keeping out of trouble, he dove into drawing and music. “I used to fall asleep in the back of that car, listening to the radio,” he recalls. “They used to play groups like Galaxy 2 Galaxy, and the DJ would speak over it. Just hearing hi-tech jazz normalized a standard of Black independent art for me.”

“Slum Village became a way for him to explore music production techniques, which sutured the retrofuture of techno to the timeworn present of hip-hop, on the cusp of the 21st century.”

Memoirs of Hi-Tech Jazz was written to inspire the listener to drive from point A to point B; it was made to soundtrack Waajeed’s daily automotive journey from UMA, around to Belle Isle, and back to UMA again. “My family spent every weekend in Belle Isle,” he says. “Black people weren’t even allowed at a certain point in the city’s history. It’s a place where we barbecued, where we celebrated. I remember having birthdays there.” He reflects on audio samples taken from his father’s VHS tapes, which are sprinkled throughout the album—notably in “The Ballad of Robert O’Bryant,” an ode to his patrilineal heritage. Liner notes written by Detroit native Taylor Renee Aldridge—co-founder of the art criticism journal ARTS.BLACK and visual arts curator at the California African American Museum—position Memoirs as an album that “can be played alongside and within protest,” as well as an apt soundtrack to “the more quotidian moments that exist outside of the gaze of oppression.” She writes that Waajeed’s expressions of hi-tech jazz are “a reminder that although violence and injustice [loom], it is not the only story.”

Detroit’s nearly hundred-year-old musical culture is often overlooked. Luminaries of modern jazz, like Alice Coltrane and Elvin Jones, grew from venues that undergird what once was a multimillion-dollar music industry, established by Chess Records and the Blue Bird Inn, and popularized by Motown Sound. Waajeed insists that Black people care about their culture. “If nothing else,” he continues, “it’s like we are our ancestors.” His former partner’s uncle, journalist Herb Boyd, authored Black Detroit, which retells the story of the city from a Black perspective. Covering much of pre-techno Detroit—spanning the 1930s through the 1970s—the text lays bare a people’s history of the city and culture that inspired Waajeed’s diaristic, electronic, 21st-century jazz. “It’s not a footnote, and it’s certainly not a fucking book. These are things that are living,” Waajeed says, referring to the stories embedded deep in the grooves and tones of Memoirs. “We’re living because of those people. Not only do we care about our culture and our ancestors, we’re passionate about maintaining and adding to their traditions.”

As techno exploded across the Atlantic, 14-year-old Waajeed was honing his skills as an electronic musician alongside J Dilla, Baatin, and T3 of the underground hip-hop group, Slum Village. “Dilla and I went to Pershing High School together. We used to DJ at parties, playing what we call ‘booty music’”—that is, a hard, fast, raunchy, and bare-bones subgenre of Detroit techno. “I think it’s asinine to ignore Dilla’s connection to techno. What was ‘Big Booty Express’?” Waajeed asks, referring to a standout track from the artist’s 2001 debut, Welcome 2 Detroit. “Some call it ghettotech or electro, but those were the records we were playing: Underground Resistance, Metroplex. I didn’t really know who these people were—I just knew they were ours.” Dilla’s angular percussion patterns are considered an innovation in electronic beat production—but oftentimes, the effect is disconnected from the sounds and environments that inspired it. The generational bridge between the blues, jazz, soul, techno, and hip-hop scenes, and the sound of Detroit, was always there unconsciously for Waajeed and his peers. Slum Village became a way for him to explore music production techniques, which sutured the retrofuture of techno to the timeworn present of hip-hop, on the cusp of the 21st century.

With Memoirs, Waajeed hoped to connect the dots of Detroit music, updating it with pointed live horn samples and momentous words of community engagement. “At the very beginning, I was working on ‘Let’s Give It Up’—chopping the vocals my buddy recorded at the Church of Saint Coltrane out in San Francisco,” he recalls. “I’m very close with the archbishop there. He’s a huge mentor—not just for my life, but also for UMA.” He explains that “the brother was an ex-pimp turned missionary, who started the church. Now, his daughter [Wanika K. Stephens] runs it as reverend archpriest.” Waajeed chose to sample from the church, not just because of his closeness to the family, but also to highlight the spirituality embedded in jazz. Its recognition of Coltrane’s late-career transition—from the modernist jazz standards of Blue Train, to the musical prayer of A Love Supreme, to the otherworldly, improvisational symphony of Ascension—pushed the church further into a Black imaginative space, paralleling Sun Ra Arkestra’s cosmic, mythic-scientific interactions with (and eventual expulsion from) a house owned by the Black Panther Party in Oakland; they disagreed over the usage of Euro-American technological production within the music of the Black community. Over a half-century later, Waajeed consolidated these visions of possible Black futures, in homage to the Church of Saint Coltrane.

In his hometown of Detroit, trumpet player Marcus Belgrave characterized jazz as a language of compositional and improvisational music—the building blocks for techno, and its further development in hi-tech jazz. “The scene is the connective tissue for all of my generation. It later became some of the foundation of hip-hop. We saw middle-aged, middle-class people dancing to techno tunes,” Waajeed says. He asserts that techno is an integral part of Detroit’s musical continuum, in that it serves as a post-Motown, post-Civil Rights Movement representation of the city’s resilience. Following the methodology of Belgrave and Galaxy 2 Galaxy, hi-tech jazz is a modification of the original scope and format of techno; it doesn’t separate Juan Atkins’s home-studio music from the assembly line “hit factory” of Motown, or even from what Waajeed has contributed to hip-hop with the members of Slum Village. “It’s part of the same conversation,” he insists. “It all comes from humanizing machines—putting soul into the machine.”

“Despite a global understanding of techno as a body of faceless, seemingly automated music, Detroit techno is more an industry structure and cornerstone of the city’s culture than a genre.”

In the grand scheme of techno’s industrialization and standardization abroad, Waajeed is aware of the ways in which the sound was stripped for parts and utilized differently than originally intended. Techno is an incomplete music—a DIY electronic innovation that traded expensive ensembles, requiring skilled, employable players, for a single-person prosumer blueprint. “The rhythm is first, and has always been the key,” he explains. “I think that there’s some part of my ancestry, some part of my soul, that continues to resist academia in my music.” He feels that playing in a classical manner constrains his intuition and creativity: “I learned all that shit, and then it went right out the window. I totally forgot it. But the thing that always stuck was the rhythm.” Waajeed remembers his brother telling him of his time spent in prison, hearing other incarcerated Black men freestyle a beat and rhyme on the lunch table. “You can take my saxophone; you can take away my drum machines, even,” he says. “But the rhythm is always there.”

Thinking about the parallels between Black men lost to the prison industrial complex, and the perils of slave labor in the rural Southern planation economy, Waajeed speaks to the ways in which Black people have revolutionized rhythm and soul. Similarly, he recalls a time in the early-2000s, when his friend Dilla had fallen on hard times financially, as the standard sound of hip-hop was beginning to shift in a way that muzzled his expressive use of the sampler. “Sampling was a fucking headache for labels, between all the red tape of clearances.” Waajeed remembers saying to Dilla: “I would love to put out some of the instrumentals we’re listening to, every time we go record shopping on Friday and Saturday.” Dilla was reluctant, but Waajeed insisted that his music would speak volumes. At the time, he was thinking about Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, which he felt were the keys to his soul. “I was excited to see da Vinci’s thoughts, because the thought is more important than the product most of the time,” he says. “I reveled in the idea of getting those beats from Dilla, and putting out an instrumental series—and he trusted me. He said, ‘Look, if you can give me some money, I’ll give you all the stuff you need.’” Taking cash from his own bank account, Waajeed paid Dilla an advance. “I thought I would see him the following weekend, but he came back an hour later with a trash bag full of tapes, all beats. I think there were 40 or 50. I started to go through them, and decided that the first series would be eight tracks.” He remembers selling the tapes hand to hand, until a guy at the record store suggested he contact Submerge Records to expand distribution.

Upon meeting Bridget Grace and Mike Banks—the sibling duo behind Submerge, and the foundation of Underground Resistance—Waajeed told them he wanted to be Berry Gordy. “I remember [Banks’s] eyes lit up like a fucking Christmas tree, and that was the beginning of our relationship. I sold them records first—close to 20,000.”

Despite a global understanding of techno as a body of faceless, seemingly automated music, Detroit techno is more an industry structure and cornerstone of the city’s culture than a genre. “We sometimes forget that Detroit has some of the largest narcotics distributors in the world,” Waajeed says. “It’s fucked up how it affects communities, but at the core of it is capitalism, and an understanding of business, marketing, and distribution. There’s a system at play.” He continues, “At the end of it, I got a dope boy spirit and I say that in the most positive way I can muster. Because those are the people who I looked up to, and those are the people who were willing to pay the cost—you know, with their lives. I don’t know [how] many people at Harvard Business School are willing to put their fucking life on the line.” Finding joy in the midst of the chaos of America’s racial capitalism, Waajeed finds relief in Black modernist and radical tradition. “One of the biggest acts of resistance is peace. Peace of mind. Peace of soul,” he says. “And you know what? I never smiled as much as I have since 2020. I can’t stop smiling. I’ve been able to restore my faith.”