Theo Parrish Talks Beat Spacek’s Modern Streets

A legend of Detroit techno listens hard to an electronic album aimed at the head and the heart, and hears the future.

At the opening of “Tonight,” the second track on Beat Spacek’s Modern Streets, I thought I’d gotten hold of an African highlife mix tape. Then the guitar drops out, the snares stay and you get hit with a tugboat of a bass line and the sounds of a modern departure. It happens so quickly it flips your head. At this point your body responds or it doesn’t, but if you can’t feel this, you need to check your pulse. The changes are surprising as you float along: Steve Spacek’s vocals accompany you, turn to calypso for a little spice and then come back again. The song is a good metaphor for what you’ll hear in Modern Streets. With this album as evidence, I’d have to say that Steve Spacek would qualify as a futurist.

As an ideal, the future is filled with possibility. As a reality, we face the same trajectory of change, in which the rate of technological development doesn’t run at the same speed as human development. This makes the dream of the future exciting but the reality of it somewhat disappointing. Where are our flying cars? What do we do when we see neglect of other people grow as we stand in line for the latest gadget? The future is never as dramatic in its unfolding as we imagine it will be. It’s rarely shocking in terms of behavior. What does shock is human beings’ relationship with these material items. Most times they promise convenience, ease, security, beauty, youth, clarity, potency, power, improvement. Harmless enough? Yes, until everyone you know has bought the same gadget and uses it without vision or inspiration. Then those buyers and users form artificial communities, ideas, rules of etiquette. The danger with the future is that, as people, we rarely lead. We’ve given up that hard ride in exchange for buying our own individual form of pacification and calling it individuality.

So it’s refreshing to see an artist skilled in forms of creation utilizing new tools for expression. That takes balls, especially when artists are often defined by what they’ve used to create rather than by reflection on the actual art created. The beauty of the unknown in the future is that these days it’s too easy to look at artists and think you have them pegged based on what they’ve done already. Steve Spacek evades this. He tells you where he’s from and instantly takes you where he wants to go — no hesitation, no apologies.

He has an optimism that made me listen to this record analytically, and it won me over with its honest emotive risk and execution. This took me three listens. First I had to first take off my production headgear, then my DJ mindset and then my expectations, to really get to a place where I could be as neutral a listener as I could possibly be. This challenges preferences, as most critiques by producers tend to just be a resetting of what someone else has done in the fashion in which you would do things yourself, even though it’s not your song. We must strip that down as much as possible.

The combination of the production and Spacek’s vocal arrangements creates wide fields of sound very tastefully throughout — all grounded in conscious vibration, naturally. Take “Gotta Get Some Music,” which starts as a skit with children discussing music and then morphs into the creepiest, most thuggish little monster tune on the record. It makes me laugh, as it seems we all are sinister little babies acting as adults. But Spacek captures that innocence before we grow and shows us that the associations we have with certain sounds in particular arrangements are merely projections. It’s as if he’s taken the guns, drugs and slackness that I associate with trap music, deleted that, and then juxtaposed it with fatherhood by setting off the track with a conversation between himself and a young child. To me, that’s Afro Futurism: one foot in a place to understand what a thug is and the other foot in a place that knows fatherhood.

That’s what I find is missing in production-based music: playful challenge. It carries a depth without confrontation. But Spacek does it effortlessly and draws you further into his universe by making you curious. A special treat for you and someone you care about (real or imagined) is the track “Compact n Sleep,” Spacek’s take on modern baby-making music that exceeds lots of over-saccharine, dishonestly sung output that is flooding everyone, everywhere. The biggest distinction is that you can hear that he actually feels the yearnings he’s describing with his voice.

Modern Streets is a strong work for Spacek and the whole notion of modern electronic music. The vast amount of people who are now able to create and expose their art has created an ocean of electronic producer-based music, but a very small percentage of that work actually speaks eloquently from or to the human experience. Spacek continues to operate in that rarefied state. Enable the sub-woofers and no doubt this one will be on rotation in the car come spring, with sound-systems and sun.

Theo Parrish is a musician and selector based in Detroit, Michigan. He’s been releasing music independently on his record label Sound Signature since 1997.