Cover Story: Byron The Aquarius Feels Like “Everything Came From Black Culture”
I’ve never seen Byron The Aquarius live. Under normal circumstances, I’d be lingering at the back of a loud, dimly lit club with an inconspicuous notepad and pen to observe my subject doing their thing. In fact, I prefer to be in-person, asking intrusive (read: clarifying) questions to the subject of my latest cover story. But we are in a different time — different time zones, even — and things have changed out of necessity. Luckily, Byron and I have a mutual connection to the wonderful DJ Ash Lauryn, who I’ve only ever met online, and she ushered this conversation into being via email. The conversation with Byron The Aquarius happens on Zoom from my yellow suede couch in Detroit, as Byron beams in from a piano bench in his grandparents’ basement in Birmingham, Alabama, with a Bulbasaur stuffed animal resting on the ivory keys, and anime playing on mute in the background. A self-proclaimed “anime-head,” he watches JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Akira, Dragon Ball Z, and Naruto. He’s also a video game fan — especially the Street Fighter series, as well as consoles like PS4 and Sega Dreamcast.
“[In anime], a lot of these people had to train to be powerful, so I kind of used it with my music like, ‘ Yo, you got to train and be powerful,” Byron says.
I recall that this is one of the things that came up during my desperate, pre-interview research; hours spent scouring the Internet to try to get a true sense of Byron The Aquarius, who I will soon find out is not astrologically an Aquarius at all, but a 32-year-old Pisces born on March 11 who earned the nickname from girls in college and never bothered to correct them. Can you blame him?
Byron has traveled the world and can get along with pretty much anyone, but wherever he goes he carries the South with him. As we speak, my Detroit ears perk up with the familiarity of having to interpret regional dialect to outsiders — our cities are kinfolk after all. Byron is a history devotee, so he knows that it’s both lucky and rare to have spent most of his life down South, while so many others moved away during the Great Migration, when Black families traveled from the South to northern places like Detroit and Chicago, out west to California, or east to New York, from 1916 to 1970. But his family has been firmly rooted in the South, especially his hometown of Birmingham.
“Birmingham really has a lot of history from the legacy of civil rights to music as well. I feel like I’m part of a legacy, I know my history,” says Byron.
Byron has enjoyed the spoils of the South’s rich musical influence. He started off as a piano player who studied composition and jazz, then jazz studies and classical music at Alabama State University and Jackson State University, respectively. Living in Alabama puts him just two hours away from Atlanta, in the middle of some of the fastest-growing scenes in mainstream and underground music. It’s only natural that his musical knowledge extends through musical theory, trap, horns, and hip-hop, but it does add a distinctively unexpected and bone-deep bounce to his sound.
“I give music space. When I make music, I really try to not think of [any] style. I just go with my natural instinct and how I feel — my moods — and I create. I really try to stay away from the genres, to be honest,” Byron says.
Byron The Aquarius spent a couple of years traveling back and forth between Atlanta and Alabama. He was making hip-hop beats at the time, under the same name, going to house parties, and rubbing shoulders with entertainment lawyers. One night, however, Byron attended a party in Atlanta where he met DJ and Detroit native Kai Alcé. The two hit it off and began to talk music, and Alcé introduced Byron to house music. There is no way that a Detroit native who frequents Atlanta could give you a typical electronic music introduction, not the kind you would get above ground in the outside world where a lot of people automatically equate electronic music to white, and specifically European DJs. Kai showed Byron that like many other genres, electronic music is a Black art form. It’s the loud, thumping, moving lovechild of jazz and blues. House music is a sound that defines itself as it’s being made, just like the genre’s producers and DJs.
“[DJ Kai Alcé] put me on to house music, so you might say he was the introduction and he from Detroit, but he stayed in Atlanta. So he kind of introduced me to it and the more I kept kicking it, the more I got introduced,” Byron says.
“Techno Is Black (Respeck),” a song from the What up Doe? Vol. 1 he released on Shall Not Fade back in May, is groovy and gritty; a celebratory and direct shoutout to all the cities that summoned Black folks from down South and put electronic music on the map. The track effectively traces Byron’s ascension through the scene with the three cities that are repeated and exalted throughout — “Detroit, ATL, Chicago” and one more “Chicago” for good measure. I wrote an article outlining the idea that techno is Black music for 2018’s Detroit’s annual Movement Electronic Music Festival, and got some interesting backlash. A lot of fans of Black music culture don’t like Black people claiming this music as their own. So it’s pretty brave and potentially divisive for a producer and DJ who is only a couple years into his career to make such a plain statement so early in the game. Detroit, ATL, Chicago Chicago. If you listen to a loop long enough, it becomes a mantra. A couple of minutes longer, it becomes the truth. As the song says, “techno is Black, it been Black.”
“The way I feel, everything came from Black culture,” says Byron
At a time when so many opportunities to engage with and contribute to the culture have been put on hold, it feels like, in some ways, Byron has been preparing for this moment. Before quarantine, he was collaborating on projects with some of the best, most lauded producers and musicians in the scene. A lot of the music we’re hearing from him now was created a while ago — he brings his gear with him while he’s on tour to catch ideas, or hops in the studio for collaborations.
One such recent collaboration was with the legendary Jeff Mills for a project called Ambrosia that will be released in the autumn. Mills came to Atlanta and they recorded in Outkast’s historied Patchwerk studio. Along with Mills, Byron spent his days with other OGs like Janet Jackson’s longtime drummer Lil’ John Roberts and horn players who’ve worked on Outkast and Killer Mike projects. While it sounds like an unbelievable all-star team, what else could you expect from Atlanta but to be rubbing shoulders with people who created the music we still listen to and reference now? And Byron is really in his element when live instruments are involved. When I ask about how he’s been able to collaborate with such iconic musicians, he chalks some of it up to his easy-going personality and Southern hospitality.
“I had such a short span and I just ran into the right people. I think it’s my personality and I think it’s like the music, you know, the music speak for itself,” Byron says.
A lot of it also comes down to being at the right place at the right time — at that house party in Atlanta where he met DJ Kai Alcé, on Myspace where he first connected with Kyle Hall on some hip-hop shit, and now back at home with his family during one of the most isolated and potentially rejuvenating times in recent history.
The pandemic has been tough for a lot of gigging or aspiring musicians, producers, and DJs because most live music events have been canceled or digitized. Despite that, Byron says right now is the “easiest time to be an artist or producer” and encourages musicians to use this time to their advantage. He believes learning a live instrument and brushing up on music theory is extremely helpful in progressing your personal practice. On a more logistical side, he says musicians should get familiar with their contracts and make sure they’re tight.
“If you not on your business, you will not get paid. Be patient, it don’t just happen so quick, you gotta work on your craft,” says Byron.
Byron’s own transition into quarantine was a rough one. Being able to travel and meet new inspiring people is a major part of his creative practice. He estimates that he typically books about 300 shows per year, with the bulk of his gigs happening in Europe.
“It’s kind of weird over there because you can be independent and do your original style and they love it, especially Black music. I miss it. I feel like it’s more appreciated and I think that plays a part with the radio. Over there, they got a lot of independent radio stations, so that’s what creates the freedom,” says Byron.
The pandemic has posed a very specific problem for an artist who prides himself on being “lowkey, private, and solid” and doesn’t feel comfortable taking his talents to Instagram Live just yet. This moment has forced him to slow down and claim his own freedom. He’s gotten into taoism and has been going on nature walks to unplug when he needs a break from the music. He’s still releasing music and holding out for the moment when he can return to playing in-person gigs. In the meantime, however, he’s following his own advice and working on his craft.
“’I’m just being creative, making music, meditating, and keeping myself moving and balanced. There’s nothing we can do, we just gotta make it happen where we at now,” says Byron.
Since lockdown orders went into effect in the United States around mid-March, Byron has dropped two EPs, What up Doe? Vol. 1 in May and Fish Soup (on Second Hand Records) in July. He’s also preparing to drop a new EP online and on vinyl called Apron with Apron Records that is set to release on August 28. It’s fitting that each of Byron’s songs sound like something I’d hear playing from the passenger seat of my cooler, older cousin’s souped-up car, because one such powder blue Chevy is sandwiched between six Byron The Aquariuses on the collaged cover of the Apron EP.
“I’m reinventing myself — new creativity, a new perspective, new creations, just a new me,” says Byron.
When all of this is over and we can get back to “normal,” or at least post-Corona life, Byron plans on going all out and playing with a live band. He wants an organ, drums, a harp, and a horn. Maybe it’s no surprise that he has returned to his childhood home, rifling through his grandparent’s records and scheming on how he can emerge in a way that honors every part of him — the live instrumentation and the electronic music that he also calls home. He’s allowed himself to be a student of this craft for so long, way beyond his time as a music major in undergrad. Student becomes teacher, digital becomes analog, every moment begs the artist, the reluctant Aquarius to take the next step. May the way in also be the way up.
Imani Mixon was born and raised at the magnetic center of the world’s cultural compass — Detroit, Michigan. She is a long-form storyteller who is inspired by everyday griots who bear witness to their surroundings and report it back out. Equal parts urgent and essential, her multimedia work centers the experiences of Black women and independent artists. Follow her on Twitter.