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Remembering Mike Huckaby, a towering figure in Detroit house music
The Detroit house-music DJ and producer Mike Huckaby at the Movement Festival in Detroit on May 29, 2016. Huckaby, one of global dance music’s most widely beloved figures, died from complications of a stroke and COVID-19 at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., on Friday, April 24, 2020. He was 54. Laura McDermott/The New York Times.

by Michaelangelo Matos

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The death of the Detroit house-music D.J. and producer Mike Huckaby on Friday, at 54, sent a shock wave through the music community he called home. Huckaby — who died from complications of a stroke and COVID-19 at Beaumont Hospital in Detroit’s Royal Oak suburb — was one of global dance music’s most widely beloved figures.

A tall, quiet man with a sly sense of humor who made friends easily and often, Huckaby — known widely as “Huck” — was a pivotal scene figure, equally renowned as a D.J., producer, educator and tastemaker who was widely acknowledged as one of the foremost practitioners of the jazzy, mature house variant dubbed “deep house.”

Between 1992 and 2005, he worked at the Roseville, Michigan, store Record Time as the buyer for the dance room — a separate space within the shop dedicated solely to house, techno and hip-hop 12-inch singles. This was a rich period for Detroit dance music, in particular, and Huckaby was a tireless champion of local music.

“Tons of the music we sold was made right down the street,” said Record Time’s founder, Michael Himes. “We were the epicenter of a lot that was happening during the most formative and busiest years for Detroit electronic music.”

Dance promoter Adriel Thornton, who worked with Huckaby in 2002 on the third Detroit Electronic Music Festival, called him “an unspoken force, the unseen influencer on the music itself in the city.” Huckaby was on the event’s programming committee alongside fellow techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Mike Grant, K-Hand and Alan Oldham. They all came with their own ideas for who should perform, but Huckaby’s word carried the most weight, because he was responsible for most of the other D.J.s’ playlists.

“He made sure the music that needed to get to them, got to them,” Thornton said.

Rick Wade, a Record Time co-worker and close friend of Huckaby’s, said, “People would come to the store and Huckaby already had records in a bag, their name on the bag.” He added, “They wouldn’t even listen to the records. They’d pick up the bag and head to the register. If Huck pulled it, they bought it.”

Wade called Huckaby’s sense of other people’s taste “uncanny.” Another Detroit D.J., Craig Gonzalez, recalled taking Huckaby’s suggestions even when his own reaction was lukewarm.

“I bought it anyway — maybe I wasn’t ready for it yet,” Gonzalez said. “There were a couple I remember listening to at the store and wasn’t feeling particularly at the time, but then a couple months later: ‘Oh!’”

Born Jan. 4, 1966, in Detroit and raised in the city, Huckaby began collecting records at age 10, initially enamored with rock; his early favorites included Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley. Huckaby came into Detroit’s techno scene early, through his friend, producer Anthony “Shake” Shakir.

“I actually became his ride down to the studio — he was engineering sessions for Derrick May and Juan Atkins,” Huckaby told journalist Joshua Glazer in 2017.

Atkins and May were two of the city’s pioneers, creating synth-heavy dance grooves with a heavy sci-fi element, and numerous Detroit artists would follow in their wake.

“For guys in Detroit, music wasn’t a way out; it was the way out,” Huckaby told dance website Resident Advisor in 2010. “I mean, we took it seriously. It’s got to work; there ain’t going to be an option to fail. That was embedded in your thought processes no matter how tough that was.”

Huckaby was soon collecting gear and working on his own tracks, as well as at parties beginning in 1988. He held a number of residencies in Detroit throughout his career, including a Friday-night run during the early ’90s called Three Floors of Fun, at Detroit’s three-story St. Andrew’s Hall. (Industrial and hip-hop D.J.s played the other two floors.)

It was during this period that Huckaby started at Record Time, at a moment when “the only other store selling this music at the time was Buy-Rite,” said Daniel Bell, a techno D.J. and producer who worked at Record Time alongside Huckaby. At the store, Huckaby’s hires included a veritable who’s-who of Detroit D.J. culture: Mike Servito, Magda and Derek Plaslaiko, along with Wade and Bell.

Huckaby’s ear didn’t just benefit locals.

“Record Time was doing a lot of mail order,” said Alan Oldham, aka DJ T-1000, a Detroit-born D.J. active since the mid-80s. “He was dealing with foreign buyers and fans — he was an ambassador and tastemaker all over the world.”

In particular, Huckaby’s tastes affected the club scenes in London and Berlin.

Bell said Huckaby was a library of house and techno knowledge, always eager to share.

“This was a quintessential quality of Mike,” he said. “He was ready to teach anyone who would listen.”

He was a rigorous self-educator, too. Although his early recordings — beginning with the 1995 EP “Deep Transportation,” issued by Wade’s label, Harmonie Park — were largely based on samples, Huckaby soon grew tired of relying on found bits of others’ work and started taking music theory classes, something he continued for 10 years.

In the early 2000s, he explored recording software programs such as Reaktor and Ableton Live. While working on the 2002 Detroit Electronic Music Festival, Huckaby made direct contact with some of the manufacturers and began to run workshops, both internationally and in his hometown.

“It’s funny — he did all these lectures but he wasn’t a big talker,” said Cornelius Harris, manager for Detroit techno label Underground Resistance. “He spoke with his actions.”

UR was instrumental in the founding of the Detroit youth center YouthVille, where, beginning around 2007, Huckaby hosted seminars for neighborhood kids.

“He was the guy there working with young people, showing them how to produce — just building and creating with electronic music,” Harris said.

One of Huckaby’s YouthVille students, Kyle Hall, has gone on to an international D.J. career as well.

“He’d even give me rides home afterward,” Hall said of his days as Huckaby’s pupil. “He was like an uncle figure, a real kind dude.”

Huckaby was scheduled to play Detroit’s famed Movement Music Festival on Memorial Day weekend; it was postponed, like so many other events, as the coronavirus pandemic spread. He suffered a stroke March 6. Another Detroit D.J., Delano Smith, started a GoFundMe for his hospital bills, raising triple the amount needed.

“People could not wait to help,” Oldham said. “He was the best Detroit had to offer.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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