Seth Troxler On His Detroit DJ Education & The Rich Black History—& Future—Of Dance Music
Legendary Detroit-bred DJ/producer Seth Troxler is perfect person to spread the gospel of what house and techno are all about—community, self-expression and killer beats. Not only has he been living and breathing those genres since his teen years, he's never lost sight of that playful raver energy, remaining approachable, goofy and optimistic despite two decades of fame. He's a stellar selection for Beatport's Black History Month Residency, where he's curated and led deep-diving conversations and DJ sets with artists representing the history and future of house and techno.
Growing up in a house-music-loving home in the suburbs just outside of techno's birthplace of Detroit, he got his first vinyl stash and DJ deck from his dad at age 15. By 17, he'd put out his first track with mentor Omar S. After six years soaking up all he could in the rich Detroit scene, he relocated to Berlin to chase his techno-rave dreams.
Living primarily between Ibiza and Berlin, Troxler's status as a top-tier, in-demand DJ/producer hasn't faltered—but also hasn't jaded him or watered down his Detroit roots. And just as he was mentored by the Detroit greats that came up before him, he continues to make space for younger DJs of color.
In celebration of the Beatport Residency, we caught up with Troxler over Zoom from Bali, where he's been spending the last few months. Dive into the fascinating, far-reaching conversation below, and make sure to tune in to the final episode of his residency Mon., March 1 from 3 p.m. CET / 6 a.m. PST to 6 p.m. CET / 9 a.m. PST time on Beatport's Twitch. You can also find all the past videos on their YouTube channel.
How did you approach the lineup and content you were bringing into your Beatport Black History Month residency?
Well, I really wanted to look at the history of electronic music, but also have somewhat of an evolution through the shows. But more than anything, I wanted to look at the three different cities known for the invention of electronic music: Chicago, New York and Detroit. The first episode was kind of Chicago and New York. Then I wanted to talk about a later [era of] Chicago, and now, my next episode is diving into proto-Detroit with Al Ester and Stacey Hotwaxx Hale. So much of the story of Detroit has only been techno, but it really was a house city before techno. There were a lot of events and history that have not been told about that period.
So, I tapped to people who were there to look at that and to open up the conversation on what is the Detroit music legacy. And then the final episode, we're going to look at new artists carrying the torch of electronic music and being Black artists. I find it really interesting that a musical genre that was founded by people of color, and in LGBTQ+ spaces, has so few representations of those people now.
With the curation of this lineup, I really wanted to go deep into that exploration—also, into the content of the music. All the music in the DJ sets is by Black artists or people of color. It's to highlight the fact that it's there and to bring the flavor of that music.
There are so many OGs that are massive in Detroit, but don't have the name recognition outside of the nerdier techno fans that dive deep. What is the disconnect?
That's a big question that everyone asks, and it's funny, the music that's promoted on different media outlets. It's just party culture, and it's not the fault of any group of people. I think, now, especially within our wokeness and with the popularity of electronic music, people want to look back at its roots and see where it comes from. I think people of color in electronic music and house music have a stylistically different approach that's really fruitful for everyone. So, it's really cool that people are now trying to engage more, and more opportunities are coming up, like this one, to promote that past as well as show the future of what electronic music can be.
Also, it's about, more than anything, showing representation for youth of color and those communities to understand that this is a real thing. Everybody who's a connoisseur of electronic music that doesn't know the history of it, then even less so do the young kids in urban neighborhoods know that it's a culture that came from, actually, those exact neighborhoods.
And we were talking about it the last episode with Paul Johnson and K-Alexi, that people started getting really into rap in urban areas because they saw those rappers as success stories—of getting out of ghettos and situations [like that]. Many people in electronic music from those areas have gotten out of those places, traveled the world and lived incredible lives. And those are also success stories that we need to show the youth of today for creating something new for tomorrow.
What's something that you learned, or that's been surprising to you, during these Beatport conversations?
So much. Being able to speak to Doctor Russ was incredible, as was speaking to Tony [Humphries] and Ron [Trent]. Even for myself, [who has] read every book and spent my last 21 years of my life diving so deeply into this culture, there are so many anecdotes and little stories that you can only really get out of peer-to-peer oral histories. There's an openness when friends and peers are talking to each other that you don't quite get when you're speaking with a journalist, or in a more structured conversation.
Like in the Ron and Tony conversation, the two of them [related] stories, and there are so many little things I didn't know. Like, there was a church underneath [the former Newark, New Jersey club] Zanzibar, and other little factoids. I just sat there in awe and imagination hearing these guys talk. We're really at a special point in time where so many of the creators and originators of this music are still alive to give you oral histories. It's almost like hearing from Robert Johnson about the invention of rock and roll during the height of The Beatles.
The popularity of electronic music is like never before. EDM culture made a big bump in sales and popularity jumping over to America [in the 2010s] and took over the mantle of what electronic music is. That was a real starting point for American culture to get back into electronic music. But now, throughout most cities and countries, EDM is somewhat fading, and now it's more tech-house and techno, are becoming the popular forms of this music. It's interesting to me with that kind of—this didn't work in economics—trickle-down effect.
Don't Reagan-ize house music.
That's funny. [Laughs.] But with that trickle-down of interest, it's now shedding the light and opening the doorways of the rich history that is in house music, and all the musical possibilities that had been there. It's beautiful. The deeper you go into music, the more you find things that enrich both you and culture as a whole.
"Conversations like this are already a step forward, acknowledging the roots. I wish more often than Black History Month that we could acknowledge these contributions and give it that airplay."
What do you think the dance music community and industry need to do to better honor the roots of dance music, and also bring the current space back towards those radical, inclusive roots?
It's a really complicated question. Conversations like this are already a step forward, acknowledging the roots. I wish more often than Black History Month that we could acknowledge these contributions and give it that airplay. But also, it's funny, with Black Lives Matter and other things for it to be happening during a pandemic, it's opened up the conversation for people finally to start looking at it as a thing that has been not given the proper love or acknowledgement that it should. And acknowledgment is key to everything, as with the LGBTQ+ community, or women, or anything. It's the acknowledgement of our existence, I think, that plays a role in moving forward.
As far as institutions are concerned—say, particularly with the GRAMMYs—maybe an opening of a category that focuses on more than the pop side of electronic music, looking at the underground, perhaps a house music category. I think that would open up more opportunities to acknowledge Black artists. Because if you're looking at—Louie Vega actually has a GRAMMY—DJ Sven or gospel house, it's really hard to put those side by side, let's say, with a more commercial EDM act in terms of Best Dance/Electronic Album. They don't really fit.
"I think it's all a matter of time, because the artistry is the thing that should shine the brightest, and the art is not lacking. So, it's about the acknowledgement and visibility to said arts, that will really bring the things forward."
I think it's become clear that in most societies, especially the United States, more space needs to be made for people of color and for other communities that have been systematically kept out. And dance music, we need to be mindful of the people we promote to the top.
Yeah, definitely. I'm really lucky to have been in that position of being at the top, and then always using my position to also open the doors for many other people. I'm very much into that mentorship type of role. However, when The Martinez Brothers and I started our Tuskegee label and started to look around, we were like, "How is there only us?" We grew up mentored by some of the greats of New York and Detroit, but out of all those kids and all that great tradition, there were only five or six people that came out of it.
So that's a hard question to really answer. There's a lot of really great new artists coming up like Life on Planets, Brandon Lucas, Casey Ray. Ryan the Aquarius, Ash Lauryn and DJ Holographic. There are so many new, really exciting artists. We're just really good at opening doors for people and breaking down that barrier. And it's in this time now that the door is really starting to open, and people like you are taking the time to shed light on the experience, and I think it's all a matter of time, because the artistry is the thing that should shine the brightest, and the art is not lacking. So, it's about the acknowledgment and visibility to said arts, that will really bring things forward.
What did that Detroit community and the mentorship feel like for you?
My situation growing up in Detroit is kind of funny because I released my first record with Omar S when I was 17. But also, my mentorship wasn't only people of color. I was really also into the techno scene with Richie Hawtin, and then I moved to Berlin. At one point, Omar and these guys had me make a choice. They were like "Do you want to be a heritage Detroit artist, or do you want to go do this techno thing?" At the time I was "I want to do the techno thing. This is rad. I'm going to raves, hanging out."
Going back to my roots, my dad was also a DJ. My parents were really into house music. So as a teen, I was really into going to raves and techno. Now I'm into house tracks with flutes. I used to call it old-man house, but I guess I'm getting old.
I also had a lot of mentorships from other artists, like Scott Grooves. So many different people coming to the record store [I worked at], who I'm still very close friends with today. Other people who were coming up in that Black techno tradition and acknowledged me as a Black Detroit artist, that I think I've grown more into as an adult.
Those mentorships really helped so much bridge my music style, and my thinking about what dance music is. So many people were there for me. Mike Huckaby as well. The other day I was talking to Scott Grooves—I call him Uncle Scott—and we always have these really deep conversations about music and artistry. I think those things really helped shape my view of the world.
There's a new talent, Jaden Thompson, out of the U.K., that I've been speaking to a lot. We're currently working on a new social platform kind of like Resident Advisor called Early FM. A few other people and I are also creating a media platform—the only way to tell your story is to tell it yourself. There is no platform out there that focuses more on people of color and marginalized communities in music and has writers from those communities writing about that music. It's hard to have people understand the intricacies of music or a stylistic background who aren't from that background. There needs to be a place that represents other perspectives about that music to give us a fair shot at communicating its vision itself.
"I think today's generation of musicians in electronic music across the board, for all styles, has become a much more business-oriented and a less community-based situation. I got into dance music because I loved it."
Some of the OGs have said they feel like the younger DJs today don't have the same sense of community they had; it's more cutthroat. Whereas your relationship with the Martinez Brothers feels like a real friendship, and y'all came up together.
I think that the difference is, like The Martinez Brothers and I, we were both mentored from a different generation and time. Their father also went to Paradise Garage; he was part of that scene, and their uncles, too. And me being from Detroit, and us having that connection with the generation before us. Also, we started [out] very young. I think today's generation of musicians in electronic music across the board, for all styles, has become a much more business-oriented and a less community-based situation. I got into dance music because I loved it. The idea that you could do this professionally when I was a kid was not possible.
Actually, really funny, yesterday I did an interview with my high school. I got inducted into the wall of fame there. I wasn't really the model student, but I had a passion, a really geeky one at that, that no one else was into. There were no other kids into electronic music at my school at that time, the early 2000s. Matthew Dear actually went to the same high school, but he's a bit older than me. It wasn't popular to be into what I was into, but it was my passion.
I think now, with electronic music becoming so popular and this jet-set lifestyle being so prevalent, that people aren't so much into it for the passion of the music, but more into the lifestyle. I think that also permeates throughout the party culture in which electronic music has become where the party is, and maybe party favors, are more the endpoint rather than the community and the music itself.
When I started going to raves, I experienced the electronic music community, and in those days that was about being from an outside community and coming in and finding a place. Everyone was a bit more marginalized—slackers and street kids. I think there was more of a community-based aspect to it then.
I was looking online the other day, and saw some people with nine, 10 million views on a stream, and I had no clue who they are. They're not really active members of our community. I've never seen these people at a festival or heard their music before. The music was cool, but it just wasn't from the same background or perspective in which I associate with electronic music, house, or underground electronic music culture.
Before, it was so hard to become a producer and produce electronic music, but with Ableton and other technologies available to everyone, there're obviously going to be new spawns of creation, and that's an incredible thing for everyone. But I also think it's important to have some people holding the flag for the original heritage of this music and trying to keep that culture alive for future generations. That's something that The Martinez Brothers and I try to do. It's something that I'm trying to do, to create more community. There's a lot of other great artists out there still trying to do that.
There's always been competitiveness amongst the community, and that's what drove innovation, but that was among friends. And now it's this other competitiveness that is just about building followers and taking selfies. They're showing this really depressed, glamorous side of electronic music. It's a different thing, I guess.
What tracks and/or artists do you feel like really represent those foundations of dance music to you?
I actually just put up a Beatport chart with 30 or so songs on there that pinpoint the history of the dance music. There are so many artists. Obviously, Detroit, you have Drexciya, Kevin Saunderson, all the classic stuff, but also you have such a rich house tradition [there]. Scott Grooves, Keith Worthy. And Chicago is just a hit factory, there's so much. Gene Farris' old music was so real, classic house. I love Gene, he's making great stuff now. Green Velvet, everyone.
There are so many tracks out there. On the list I made, there are a lot of unexpected things that resonate with me, from a lot of my favorite artists that inspired me. Jamie Principle's "Your Love" is always one of my favorites. Adonis's "No Way Back." Any Ron Trent track is a really great example. Tony Humphries' body of work as a whole. Omar S obviously. There's just such a rich tradition.
Do you remember one of the first tracks or moments that really sucked you into dance music and made you want to DJ?
My parents have listened to house music my whole life, but one of the first moments, was when I skipped high school homecoming my freshman year. I told my mom I was staying at my friend's house, that classic high school move, and we went to a rave in Detroit with 14-year-old kids in this warehouse. We saw Frankie Bones, Adam X and Heather Heart, and I was just like "This is it." It was like being in a film, and then I had to go back to normal, suburban high school in a cornfield.
After, my birthday was coming up, and I was like, "All I want is a Scratch Pack!" It was a '90s thing, two turntables and a mixer that you could get it for 500 bucks from Gemini. I got that for my birthday, and my stepdad gave me a box of records. They actually were super classics, that at 14, I was like, "This is far out." One was Lil' Louis' "Frequency." It's this out-there record; it's beautiful. And then the other one was the original copy of Jamie Principle's "Your Love."
I was trying to mix anything you can put together, so I would go to Hot Topic and buy records there. Stuff like Alice DJ's "Better Off Alone," [Daft Punk's] "Around The World" and "Da Funk." Sarah McLachlan, too. It was all '90s, 2000s party jams. I don't know how much they influence me today, but at that time, they definitely worked on my teen sensibilities.
How do you feel like your Detroit roots influence you today?
I've always played the same music. It's fun. Before the pandemic, I'd be playing now for thousands of people, and I'd always pull out these records and look at my tour manager. I'd be like, "Got this when I was in high school for a few bucks," and it's gotten a little sticker with the date on it. I'll play these old records, and I'm like, same taste then as I have now.
I worked at a record store from 15 to 21. I got the job because I was such a geek and really into Derrick Carter and this label called Classic. This was in 2002 so that music and working there inspired me. I think with the scene, that culture, being with a lot more adults, you had to be able to academically engage in the history of that music, and really understand all the nuances of the music, or else people would just not talk to you. Instead of sports facts, I had to memorize catalog numbers when I was a kid.
I think all that stuff really played into who I am today and the tastes that I have. Being able to go to so many of those events, regularly when I was 15, 16, and then coming into the record store, pulling records. Working with Al Ester, and listening to Stacey Hotwaxx Hale, who are both on the next Beatport interview.
All those things, being a part of that musical legacy and background, there's no way it can't influence you. No matter what race you are, what color of your skin, if you're from Detroit or the Midwest, I think you have a very similar view of music. That's something really incredible. Anyone who's come from the city or come to the city, I think really realizes that, and sees the rich musical history that Detroit has offered from so many generations. It's not just electronic music, but rock, Motown, everything. All that goes into play, what we view as our musical heritage.
In dance music, do you think there will always be the underground and the mainstream?
I don't even know if there is really an underground anymore. I think there's always some kids in the middle of somewhere doing some type of underground movement in some basement, making some really out-there stuff. That's underground. I'm not underground. I've got probably a million people across all my social media platforms following me. In rock music, there are always different genres. There's folk, hard rock, metal, and I think all those things can and should coexist because they're different forms of art.
Electronic music is opening up to be really the music of the future, and I think the acknowledgement of all these different forms of this one art form is really important, instead of trying to ball it all into one group. I think to start to open up the conversation to the different subgenres would be really beneficial for everyone.
As far as commercial access goes, in the UK, underground records really make it to the top. In many ways a lot of what Disclosure has done was the bridging of both of the underground and pop worlds. The new album I'm currently working on for Lost Souls of Saturn with Phil Moffa, we're doing the same thing. We're using underground music structures but doing a lot of collaborations with A-list artists to hopefully give it a bit wider appeal. I think crossing over in electronic music is how even the original dance music artists gained their original popularity.
If you look at all the big hits from Detroit and Chicago, they were all-vocal records that you could play on the radio. I think coming back to that, a vocalized version of electronic music, is going to allow the people to connect again with sounds that are deeper than underground.
"I think the dancefloor is a very sacred space, and a place that so many people are allowed to express freedoms that they don't hold in their everyday lives."
What is your biggest hope for the dance music community whenever we're able to safely get back onto dancefloors?
My biggest hope is for exactly that, for us to get back and regain some normalcy and that freedom that we once held in those shared spaces. I think the dancefloor is a very sacred space, and a place that so many people are allowed to express freedoms that they don't hold in their everyday lives. If you go to—this is a bit of an extreme one—Berghain [in Berlin], you see people walk in and literally check their clothes in at the door. Those people are accountants or do whatever else they do in their everyday lives, but they're allowed to go to a space and have a real moment of total freedom and anonymity.
I think when you're listening to music and having internalized experience that you share with others, that clarity in that moment of dance and freedom on that floor is something that we all want to share and be a part of. That's my hope, and I think it's going to come soon, and it's going to be a very happy day for many people. I hope sincerely that we can all do that, but until then I guess we'll have to rely on these streams, and these conversations to keep our hope alive, and to believe in a future that we can all hold together.