One of the most important producers in modern dance music, Theo Parrish is the living embodiment of Detroit. Deeper, more soulful and more innovative than nearly anyone else you’ll find, Parrish makes music that rejects immediacy in favour of a more captivating journey. Built from layers of samples, hardware beats and considered instrumentation, his style sees elements drop in and out to create anarchic structures, somehow immersing the listener as his subtle explorations push the boundaries of dance music. Drawing from jazz, disco, funk and soul among less conventional pools of samples, Parrish is as close to genius as producers get, and sits proudly among a revered group of Detroit DJs and producers that includes Moodymann, Marcellus Pittman, Rick Wilhite and Mike Huckaby.
When an entire collection is this essential, it’s hard to pick just five entry points, but here’s our best effort.
Leaning on the Blade Runner soundtrack for his source material, Parrish transformed Vangelis’ "Memories of Green" into one of the most emotive and delicate deep house tracks of the Sound Signature collection, with luscious strings and thoughtful pianos rolling in and out of this twelve minute masterpiece. Cinematic in the atmosphere that is created, this one is as essential as house music gets.
Never losing touch with the culture that birthed Detroit’s rich musical heritage, Parrish pays tribute to his own with this stirring deep house journey. Featuring a prominent sample taken from a 1970s educational record “initiated as an effort to acquaint Western Electric's personnel people with the dialect of the black American", “Ebonics” is a mesmeric trip through emotive territory. Strangely haunting in its refrain, the track demonstrates the infinite importance that should be attached to black identity, something that Parrish asserts in much of his music.
The opener to the exquisite LP Parallel Dimensions, this percussion driven chugger just eases its way into the elegant instrumentation and chopped up samples that so often mark out a great Theo Parrish work. Cycling hypnotically for what could be a blissful eternity, “Serengeti Echoes” takes human voices and removes all comprehensibility, transforming them into rhythmic tools that simply carry humanity along with them.
Some Theo Parrish tracks have an almost J-Dilla feel to them, and “The Rink” is one. Splendid in its use of space, the track enjoys plenty of silent breaks as it presents Marvin Gaye soundbites in the form of a nu-disco jam. Triumphant summer anthem material, it shows a fun side to the Detroit producer to balance out some of his incredibly deep, experimental and darker tunes.
Jazz is arguably the root of all modern dance music, and the jarring pianos of “Secondary Darkness” present those roots in a completely new light. At times discordant, Parrish’s work is intentionally uncomfortable at times, catching the attention with its distinct breaks from convention, and “Secondary Darkness” is an extraordinary example. Delicate melodies revolve in short loops like a fairground ride as minimal percussion marches through the middle, with erratic flourishes adding an unpredictability that Parrish has made into his signature style.
Theo Parrish can be seen in London on Saturday 12th August, with Sunfall Festival inviting him to Brockwell Park alongside an impressive lineup including Ben UFO, Helena Hauff, Larry Heard and fellow Essential Listening subject Roy Ayers. He will then be heading to Croatia at the end of the month for Dimensions Festival at Fort Punta Christo.
Photo courtesy of Theo Parrish