Label of the Month: Sistrum Recordings
Label of the Month: Sistrum RecordingsAugust 5, 2020
Since 2006, Sistrum Recordings has steadily become one of Detroit’s best kept secrets. Speaking to founder Patrice Scott, Thomas Cox hears the story behind the label’s history, and discovers that Scott’s unwavering commitment to his own musical intuitions is the driving force behind Sistrum’s success.
In 2020, dance music is big business. Over the last three-plus decades, we have seen the commodification of nearly every aspect of the scene, as well as corporate penetration into all levels of what was once called the underground. Many of the player’s antics are known worldwide simply because the infrastructure behind them excels at spreading information through social media and lifestyle branding. Somewhere beneath the buzzwords and hype, however, there are foundational artists and labels whose music is the unshakeable bedrock of the industry. And thanks to his DIY attitude and strong music family connections, Patrice Scott‘s Sistrum Recordings has endured as part of that base ever since its humble beginnings in 2006.
The Detroit techno scene has been documented extensively, with the focus often falling on the innovators of the ’80s, as well as the explosion of styles and sounds in the ’90s. The aftershocks of such major seismic movements were able to reach even younger kids like Patrice. He discovered the music when he and his friends happened upon the legendary DJ crew playing music in a park. “I was around 12 or 13 when my friends and I went down the street from where my grandma lived,” Patrice says. “There was a crew there throwing a party called Sharevari, set up in the park. The DJs called themselves Direct Drive. One of my friend’s brothers was part of that crew. They were just a few years older than us; that’s how we ended up hanging out watching them play. We were just blown away. We had never heard this type of music. It was just exciting.”
Detroit’s fabled radio disc jockeys also reached many new ears and provided a blueprint for those who were not yet old enough to attend dance parties. “I always wanted to be a DJ from around the age of 9 or 10. Not a dance music DJ, just a radio DJ,” he explains. Record shops like Buy Rite Records became places Patrice and his friends would often frequent to find this new form of music they had discovered, spending what little money they had to score records. This ground proved to be quite fertile for developing talented DJs and producers, as the techno pioneers merged with the burgeoning rave scene.
Chicago and Detroit had a much more symbiotic relationship during this era than many realize. Only a short drive separated the two, which facilitated easy access to the other city’s music. “When I was like 17, we used to get in the car and drive to Chicago to buy records, like on a Saturday morning,” Patrice recalls. “Get up, leave at 8:00 in the morning. It’s a four-hour drive, and we’d be back at home by nine at night. We’d just buy records and get all the stuff that came out on the Chicago labels before it arrived in Detroit. They’d have it on the shelves in Chicago as soon as it was available, and it would arrive in Detroit like two weeks later.” The intense competition to have songs people didn’t know, and to have them before everybody else, was at the heart of these trips for Patrice. But another exchange would influence his tastes and future. On trips to Chicago, he found mixtapes by Frankie Knuckles and others, adding another perspective to his developing DJ technique. Mixing these influences through the ’90s helped Patrice develop his take on the music, which would prove very useful for him down the line.
In the early 2000s, raves had begun to die off, and a reconnection to the roots was afoot. Inspired by local labels like Moodymann’s KDJ, Rick Wade’s Harmonie Park, and Theo Parrish’s Sound Signature, the ’00s saw multiple generations of producers stake their claim to the lineage of house in the city by starting imprints of their own. Older DJs like Delano Smith and younger upstarts like Omar S and many more between, began showing the world a different side of Detroit dance music. It was in this environment where Patrice first sent around his initial demos. “I was shopping some music around, and I just got tired of guys telling me how to do it. Explaining how ‘this part should go here, and this part should go there.’ I’m open to suggestions, I respect opinions, but I just wanted to do it my way. So I decided to go for it and create my own label so I can put out what I want to put out.” With two EPs’ worth of material completed, he just had to choose which one he would lead with.
Sistrum kicked off in fall 2006 with a bang. The very first release, Atmospheric Emotions, came out on vinyl and sold exceptionally well. Despite Patrice being a part of the local scene, the title track eschewed the disco and funk samples Detroit house was known for in favor of a spaced-out take on Chicago’s synth-heavy deepness. This was not a coincidence, as heavyweight producers like Ron Trent and Mr. Fingers were big influences on Patrice. “Half of my sound comes from growing up in Detroit, listening to Electrifying Mojo, being around the early days of the Detroit techno scene,” he says. “Also, 50 percent of my sound was influenced by Chicago because I had strong connections to Chicago. I had a cousin and friends who lived in Chicago. I used to study how they did it in Chicago.” Feeling justified in his insistence on releasing on his own, he dropped the second record, Beyond Deep, in spring of 2007. Another synth-heavy house excursion, the title track added musical elements to the equation. When this record also blew up, the scene was set for the label to expand.
The label was clearly at the vanguard of the deep house revival of the time — rooted in the classic US sounds which had sprouted in places as diverse as Japan, Russia, and many other locations. It was on the third release where these connections started becoming more tangible. Underground Anthems was released in two volumes, the first on Sistrum and the second on Detroit compatriot Keith Worthy’s Aesthetic Audio label, starting the era where Patrice reached out to others to contribute releases. “I’ve never released anything people send me as demos,” Patrice says. “When you see other artists on the label, it’s because I went to them and asked them to contribute something. Most likely, we had already become acquainted in some kind of way.”
With this simple premise in mind, records from underground heroes like Specter and deep jams from lesser-known artists like Mike Edge began appearing on Sistrum. Early releases by European house producers XDB and Leonid established their names on an international level through the imprint. Sistrum also helped restart classic Chicago house producer Brian Harden‘s vinyl career more than a decade after his last release. These records varied in sound from organic to electronic, emphasizing deepness and stripped back arrangements. But this had more to do with Patrice’s personal tastes than what he DJed. “I play some of everything,” he says. “I consider myself more of a house DJ with a sprinkle of disco, a sprinkle of techno, a sprinkle of this or that. It has no bearing on what I put out, it’s just about what I’m feeling. I don’t try to compare the two. Around the time of the early releases on the label, I would hear promoters say ‘Whoa, that’s not what I was expecting,’ in terms of my DJing being a different sound. Some of them might have been disappointed, but you know, sorry, it doesn’t work that way.”
By releasing only a handful of records every year, Sistrum has been able to practice quality over quantity, with Patrice being the almost solitary force behind the label. “I don’t have a big operation here; it’s just my girlfriend and me,” he says. “She does the artwork. Not long ago, I revamped the website, and she helps out with all that kind of stuff. There’s no plan, man. It’s just what I feel. It’s a free-for-all.” His production abilities continued to develop as well, with the label being the primary avenue for his tracks to see the light of day. Tracks like “Distance Against Time“, “Far Away“, and “Analog Dreams” showed an increasing confidence in his own prowess, without resorting to flash or gimmicks. There was also a more well-defined shift toward a dense techno mood that began to show itself in his Modular One collaboration with Florida acid king, Chris Mitchell.
A number of EPs over the years led to his first and thus far only LP, Euphonium The Album, in 2015. The slow buildup to the album seems very in character for an artist who is not all that active on social media, or particularly outspoken in the few interviews he’s done. By combining ambient tracks with his more techno-influenced sound, the album was programmed to tell a story, and did so in a very pleasing way to Sistrum’s fanbase by that point. Nobody would have been surprised if the label went right back into the same well-mined (but still rewarding) groove it had favored for the previous nine years. As it would turn out, this wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, Patrice’s feelings would facilitate a turn towards a different style of emerging Black dance music in the US underground. Increasingly boxed into a precise genre, he decided that what he was putting out was not well balanced enough with the diversity of sounds he preferred to listen to and DJ. He began working on tracks with a different vibe, introducing more overtly musical elements and fewer straight, four-on-the-floor beats. Elements of jazz and live instrumentation mixed in with the synths and drum machines helped shift his musical tone into something refreshed and exciting.
“Looking back on it, maybe the first couple releases were sorta kinda like the sound I’m doing now. Now is way more musical,” Patrice says. “Then I went through a phase where I wanted to be more Detroitish as far as Detroit techno. That’s part of me. I still make music like that at home. Then I got to a point where I was like, ‘Wait a minute I want to put out some of this stuff that is more musical, more pianos, and more musicality to it.’ So I just started releasing that kind of stuff and making more of it. That’s where my heart has always been. I don’t know what triggered me to go kind of tech-ier for a little, but that’s what I was feeling.” It wasn’t a startling change, but one that would help his music and the label find new audiences.
The first release to bear these hallmarks was The Detroit Upright EP, released in spring 2016. Immediate reactions to the title track’s electric piano and slightly broken beat were powerful and sparked great feedback from a few of Patrice’s favorite DJs. “Ron Trent called me when he first heard “Detroit Upright” and said, ‘Keep doing it like that. You gotta educate and teach.’ That just blew me away,” says Patrice. In addition to that Chicago legend, prominent Detroit jocks like Theo Parrish were also playing the track. Joe Claussell in New York and many others across the world would also pick this record up, another clear sign that following his instincts was a winning formula for the dance floor.
While it is easy to look back positively on this success, it was never inevitable, and required Patrice to take a risk in putting his new art out into the world with no cosign other than belief in his music, and in himself. “I was kinda scared to put that out, to be honest,” he explains. “It was such a change to what I had done previously. I’m just going to put out what I feel. I’m not going to sit around here being timid. Some people will like it, and some people won’t. Just keep it moving.” With such a positive response, he continued down that path with 2017’s Soulfood EP, which pushed even further into funky, almost breakbeat drum patterns.
This stylistic shift would apply to Sistrum releases by other artists as well. The looser organic feel he was embracing has a close kinship with Kai Alcé — an artist who appeared on the Genesis Tracks Vol 2 EP in 2016, alongside tracks by Reggie Dokes, Eric Cloutier, and another deep track by Patrice. NDATL alumnus Javonntte also dropped a nicely varied record that year for Sistrum. The tandem of the two helped the label-head set off on his current path toward underground domination. New York producer Henry Maldonado’s Son of Sound project made a notable appearance with an EP that adds jazzy flourishes to his lush garage production and manages to fit in perfectly with the label’s current aesthetic.
Established names such as these are not the only artists to grace the label in recent years. French producer Aleqs Notal has made two EPs for the label. The first, Ascending Nodes, came in 2017 while the second Lighten You UP dropped in 2019. Both feature a fresh fusion of soulful house and electronics. This year saw the Sistrum debut of an Italian producer who goes by the alias Butch Haynes. Very mature deep house and downtempo hip-hop fit together seamlessly, and Patrice’s remix was the cherry on top.
Patrice’s 2018 remix of “All The Little Things” by Alton Miller featuring Ree is another recent highlight for the label. The soulful and organic original gets flipped into a more driving garage number, and already is being hailed as a classic. Patrice followed this up with perhaps his most accomplished work so far, Moments and Concepts. With a descending chord progression that throws back to the early ’90s, underpinned with thumping modern drums, the EP’s title-track is primed for the dancefloor and is still gaining steam amongst a broad group of DJs. The B-side sees Patrice take another step toward diversifying his sound with “A Song For Mia” — a track tinged with a strong neo-soul flavor, and his first foray under 100 BPM.
These recent tracks especially have been embraced by the younger generation, but it is clear that the influence is reciprocal. Patrice says, “I love Kyle Hall‘s music. I also love him as a DJ, and he’s really turned into a great one. Another guy is K15. Man, such great music. They inspire me to be honest. I don’t listen to everything; I just listen to what I like. I get inspiration from all these people.”
Keeping with his DIY history has recently led Patrice to expand his presence on the internet. The Sistrum website is now up and offering a line of merchandise, all with the new label logo. And he is continuing his explorations into slower tempos and melodic deepness, releasing on other imprints like Night Time Stories, for which he provided a languid remix for Session Victim.
Looking forward, Patrice hopes to further expand into slower tempos to express his love for neo-soul and hip-hop. Some projects currently in the works involve vocals, something he’s found an increased interest in following his remix of Alton Miller. Music by both himself and others is currently wrapped up and ready to go, though with the current COVID-19 crisis, release dates are sketchy. Regardless, Patrice explains that he doesn’t feel all that stressed about it. “For me, it’s all about putting out good music. It’s not about putting out releases and behaving like, ‘I’ve just done this, let’s hurry up and do that.’ I’ve got tons of music ready to go, but it’s just about what I feel. If I’m not feeling anything, I don’t put anything out.” Most importantly, Patrice Scott will continue to follow his own path and trust that it will lead him to where he needs to be.
Thomas Cox is a DJ, music producer, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. He has been involved in underground dance music for almost 25 years, and his writing can be found in Detroit Electronic Quarterly, 5 Magazine, Love Injection, and many others. But his primary outlet is his blog infinitestatemachine.com. You can also find him on Instagram and Twitter.