Attack’s Kristan Caryl calls one of Detroit’s unsung heroes to talk gentrification, junk food and Donald Trump.
“It was beautiful, man. Beautiful.” Amp Fiddler is remembering the Detroit of his childhood. “The architecture and big old houses and mansions were amazing. The streets were amazing. When I went downtown with my parents it was always a metropolis, it was busy. The Paris of the west, they called it. You had big department stores – ours was JL Hudson’s at the time, and JL Hudson’s was amazing. You could buy everything from a car to toys to jewellery.”
The 52-year-old producer, keyboardist and singer-songwriter is talking about Conant Gardens, an area on the north-east side of the city, right next to the Davison Freeway, the very first of its kind anywhere in the States. One of the most prosperous black neighbourhoods in Detroit, much of that stemmed from the booming motor industry. “Most people I knew worked in a factory and they were pretty well-to-do. They had nice cars and clean homes.”
Indeed, Amp’s own father – who arrived as a child from the Virgin Islands – worked at Uniroyal Giant Tyre, while his mother was a salesperson at JL Hudson’s. Though his father’s work gave the family a comfortable life, he never wanted the same for Amp.
“That job basically killed him,” he explains. “He died in his early 50s, not even 55. He worked in the area where they dyed the rubber black and eventually, when he came home, I started seeing the ring [of dye] round his head wouldn’t go away. It was lighter where his hat was and darker below the hat line, so my dad and I talked and we agreed whatever I did, I would never work in a factory.”
my dad and I talked and we agreed whatever I did, I would never work in a factory.
At that time, in the 60s, there was always another possibility, and that was music. As Berry Gordy’s Motown label blew up all over the world, it served as inspiration to the kids in the Motor City who realised they could be successful on a global level in ways never seen before. “It let everyone who loved music know you could be successful if you studied, sang or did anything musical, so my mom was always a fan of that. She taught me the piano I still have, the baby grand, and that’s how I got involved.”
With a CV as impressive as his, it’s always hard to understand why Amp Fiddler is as under the radar as he is. Not only did he famously teach game-changing producer J Dilla and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip how to use the Akai MPC sampler, but aged 20 he joined Parliament-Funkadelic and toured the world with funk pioneer George Clinton for the next 11 years. He’s also worked with Prince, Brand New Heavies and Jamiroquai, recorded with Moodymann, toured with “good guy” Theo Parrish and to this day releases solo records as well as working with myriad up and comers from Detroit.
Still living in the exact same neighbourhood of his childhood, Amp reckons, “It’s still beautiful. It’s funky. I have a beautiful yard, My house needs painting and I need a roof, but you know, it is what it is. You have to see beauty in everything, don’t you?”
Behind his positive outlook there is a more uneasy truth. Amp admits that when he graduated high school – a private one at that, because education in the city was, and still is, “fucked up” – the decline started. In the 60s it was down to major auto plants relocating to the South, to Canada and to Mexico. In the 70s, arson rates rocketed and the city became the murder capital of America. In the 80s, automation took over remaining manufacturing duties and rising gas prices slowed car sales. It meant that by the 90s, unemployment was at an all-time high and Detroit was left all but a ghost town.
“That’s when I met Slum Village and Dilla,” Amp recalls. “They were living not far from me, two blocks away [and Ma Dukes, Dilla’s mum, still is]. They had a group called Ghost Town ’cause the city was in array. When you went downtown it was deserted.”
If you’re born and bred in a city that’s one of the most innovative ever, it’s evident in your mind you’re gonna have to be creative.
This lack of distraction, agrees Amp, is what makes the people of the city so creative. “If life is simple and just about music, then that’s what we do all day. If you’re born and bred in a city that’s one of the most innovative ever, it’s evident in your mind you’re gonna have to be creative.”
If the 80s and 90s were tough, the new millennium was no better. The sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 that eventually crippled economies around the world hit the city hard. “People thought they could mortgage their home and it would be a free ticket. I was offered it because I’m a home-owner, but I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel with that one. It just looked like a black hole to me, so I ran from it. A lot of people didn’t and eventually lost their homes. Most of my friends and family stayed, they were smart.”
Stats show that those who did leave were mostly those rich enough to do so, namely white people. But now they are coming back: from 2013 to 2014, 8,000 white people arrived in the city, the largest increase in whites since 1950. They are there to buy up property at hugely reduced prices and set up “yuppie businesses”. One man in particular, multi-billionaire Dan Gilbert, has become known as the city’s sugar daddy.
He founded Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest online mortgage lender, and bought more than 70 properties downtown to seed dozens of start-ups.
“He bought businesses and buildings in some of the most beautiful areas, so it’s gentrifying really fast, but I just don’t see how he is helping anyone in the inner city. All he’s about is getting money, making money and rebuilding downtown to bring more white people into the city and push the black people out.”
Amp believes there should be grants for people who already own their homes but can’t afford to do them up. But he’s not hopeful that will happen. Although the city mayor, Mike Duggan, is white, and the city voted for Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton, Michigan State went for Republican Donald Trump (despite huge irregularities that showed 782 more votes than there are voters were counted in Detroit). Though amiable and calmly spoken throughout, the mention of the president’s name gets Amp angry. He starts to swear for the first time in an hour.
Trump influenced people to be more racist than they have been. I think he's a fucking idiot saying certain things about Muslims, Mexicans, other races...
“Trump influenced people to be more racist than they have been. I think he’s a fucking idiot saying certain things about Muslims, Mexicans, other races, that are fucking ridiculous. It’s a way to make it OK for people to be prejudiced against a certain race. People think if the president of the United States hates these people, then I can too. He’s justifying it.”
Though Amp doesn’t see any tension on the streets between different races and communities, he does have some dark stories about “one brother I know who owns a building downtown and wouldn’t sell. They’re forcing his wife to sell all his property because they already killed him.”
On the effects Barack Obama, the first black president, had on the country, Amp reflects. “I never believed he would be the saviour. Some people did. He did what he could. We just need to learn to love each other. I have this song, ‘Unconditional Eyes’, and maybe I need to remix it because those words need to be somewhat of an oath in this world. The way we see such differences in each other is crazy, outlandish.”
As socially and politically aware as Amp Fiddler is, you might not assume so from his music. Often couched in a deep and easygoing funk, his grooves are languid and soul powered, while his vocals range from buttery croons to steamy growls. That will be the case again on a new album coming later in 2017.
It’s a collection of songs from the last five years, written during a time away from music that came about after the loss of Amp’s son, who went to school with Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall. Shaped and edited with the help of his friend Moodymann, it will be one of two albums. The other is with another Detroit live outfit, Will Sessions, on Fat Beats.
“I also have this other band, Digitarians,” he says. “We talk about everything, and I push more of my energy towards social and political commentary there. We talk about the food industry, drugs and everything else they push on us that’s screwed up these days.”
White schools in the suburbs get all the funding, so those kids get all the good jobs. They don't want black people to know their own history.
Another of Detroit’s less proud titles is that it is said to be the fattest city in America. Amp says it’s all down to the fact that the education system in the city has always been a mess. “White schools in the suburbs get all the funding, so those kids get all the good jobs. They don’t want black people to know their own history. Just lies. Instead, they get their education from the streets, so if you keep the schools fucked up, you keep the people impoverished. They stay in a financial funk where they can’t afford to eat at Whole Foods, or whatever. They eat cheap, mass-produced and processed stuff that is labelled all wrong, claims to be healthy but isn’t. I can get a complete meal for $2.99 – a sandwich, fries and a Coke – but if you eat that shit every day, you will be sick.”
For Amp, music has always saved him from a similar fate. “I’ve always been happy to keep creating, guided by the spirits of the family members I keep losing to some tragedy or death,” he says, audibly shrinking. Though he might not have had the big break and big cheques of some of his peers, its clear that’s not what makes Amp Fiddler tick. “At some point maybe I’m better off than they are, because I don’t need a whole lot of things to be happy. My life, doing what I do, makes me proud.”