By Reisa Shanaman
Often mistaken by outsiders for its 8-bit arcade cousin, in our realm, the Ghostly International emblem connotes quality, taste and class. There are no other music labels to which it can be compared, as Ghostly embodies the very definition of innovation, nor can it be classified by genre, as its roster is a vast array of artistry and instrumentation. Yet there is a consistent and intangible essence to the Ghostly aesthetic, due in large part to the careful curation of founder Sam Valenti IV.
Inspired by the Midwestern DJs that preceded and surrounded him, he deserted the mold and expanded the global understanding of electronic music with the creation of this seminal stamp. We spoke with Valenti ahead of the Ghostly Showcase at Movement.
Movement: The first release on Ghostly was Matthew Dear’s “Hands Up for Detroit,” which has become something of an anthem for the city, and is especially relevant over Memorial Day weekend. How did it come to pass?
[It] came about while I was in school [with] Matthew Dear. [We were] trying to help each other out. He knew that I was trying to start a label, and I wanted to help him get heard. When it came time to discuss what the first release would be on Ghostly, that was a song he had that we both really responded to. We put it on wax and drove around Detroit giving it to [record] shops. The next year, I think it was the first year of the [Detroit Electronic Music] Festival, Shake (Anthony Shakir) played that record. That was the first time we had heard it out . . . it’s a really fond memory.
What about Detroit inspired the track and the formation of Ghostly itself?
Detroit culture. Detroit music was what we were inspired by and what we wanted to bring to the table. Detroit’s a great place because there’s no BS. People are very serious about what they do. They’re not just going to pat you on the back because you’re doing something. You have to be good and show commitment. And it was great growing up with brothers, so to speak: Derek Plaslaiko, Mike Servito, Keith Kemp and the team at Record Time. People like this were instrumental in creating a place where this was all possible; where an electronic music scene felt revitalized . . . The culture of people who really care and want to create . . . and just being around people who were so passionate. I feel like that’s the kind of people Detroit Techno represents, [and] what we always wanted to pay homage to.
Do you remember any of your earliest experiences in Detroit?
I remember going to the Packard Plant and all sorts of events downtown as a high schooler. I was more of a hip-hop kid, but once I realized the musicality and, obviously, the architectural aspects of dance music in Detroit—being a city that evokes romance through its history—it made more sense to me . . . I understood it as an artistic thing. It was bigger than just the music; it was a way of life. So Ghostly has always been about music, but it’s also about the art and the ideas and the sense of humor and trying to build something bigger than the sum of its parts, and something that is for the world.
Ghostly was formed at the tail end of the ‘90s, during the so-called “Second Wave” of Techno. Was there anything in particular that was happening at that time that fostered such a forward-thinking brand?
The lack of genre and the lack of adherence to one style has been a huge part of that era. That time in music was really special because DJs on the radio and club DJs in Detroit would play ghettotech and they’d play jungle and they’d play hip-hop. And I think that the open-mindedness of DJ culture in Detroit of that time really, for me at least, was what made it seem possible. It was an adventurous [time]. Detroit DJs—Carl [Craig] and even Stacey Pullen and Claude Young, Jeff Mills—these were not just Techno DJs. These were music people. I think that we all grew up on the idea that DJing was a serious, interesting and romantic art form.
How did you curate the lineup for the Movement showcase? It definitely seems more Detroit-focused than, say, the showcase you did in March at SXSW.
Absolutely. And artists that were inspired by Detroit, like Fort Romeau and Matrixxman. Both have their own take on the classic dance music style, but they’re also bringing fresh perspective. The Untitled events we did back in the day with Derek [Plaslaiko] and Servito, Matt [Dear], Ryan Elliott, Tadd [Mullinix] and Todd [Osborne]. Those were a template for the kind of parties we wanted to go to. So we wanted to pay homage to the parties that we used to throw with this lineup. I [also] hope that our stage reflects diversity, from Shigeto to Matrixxman to Heathered Pearls to Matthew Dear, who’s obviously a genre-shifter himself.
Do you feel like Ghostly and Movement have similar cultures and missions?
Yeah, I do. I think creating context around this music is important. This festival is one of the grandest stages of context, maybe ever. The festival further propagates the sound and the history of this music. And I like to think Ghostly, in its own way, is paying homage and trying to bring a certain aesthetic, or a certain sensibility, to whatever we’re doing. Whether it’s art or music or collaborations, there’s a Detroit spirit, the Midwestern spirit. So yeah, I think we have similar aspirations of creating great experiences and showcasing artists we believe in.
Is there anything you hope to achieve or convey through the showcase?
I would love to make sure that people either discover or are reminded that Mike Servito is the DJ to watch right now. He’s done such a great job of building that Midwestern style and taking it globally, [as have] Ryan Elliott at Ostgut and Matthew Dear all over the world. I hope the stage is a good representation of the global importance of the Midwestern DJ art form.
Interdimensional Transmissions, another Detroit-based label originally formed in Ann Arbor, has as a mission statement “This is a celebration of the lost art of the late night Midwestern DJ.”
Do you feel that it is a lost art form at this point?
100%. That’s better than I could have ever said it. Growing up, whether it was Waxtax-N Dre or Jeff Mills or Carlos Souffront or BMG or Derek or Richie [Hawtin] or Carl [Craig], the spiritual intensity and passion—well passion’s sort of an overused word—the mood that a Detroit DJ or a Midwestern DJ—that includes Chicago, that includes Traxx, that includes Derrick Carter, the crucible of dance music in America is the Midwest. I always feel an obligation to honor that in any way we can. It’s the most interesting style to me, still. So if I can be a part of helping that sound get heard, it means a lot to me.
As someone who resides in Brooklyn now, how do you feel about all the declarations in the media over the last couple of years claiming that Detroit is “the new Brooklyn?”
[Laughs] I think that’s convenient for media . . . You can’t compare the two. I think what that means is there’s a lot of progress and cultural interest in Detroit. But Detroit is peerless as far as its importance to global music culture, and to a story of a city in transition. I think it’s a nice press story, but I think really Detroit is just its beautiful self. And the more energy it generates the better.
I read an interview in which you said something I really appreciated: Essentially, that Detroit isn’t a blank slate or an empty canvas to fill. What made you say that?
[Detroit] deserves respect. It has history. It has culture. People have been fighting to make it great for a long time. It is already great, but to make it even better. It’s not just about the train station, it’s also about the new shops, the new stores, the new people, the new artists. It’s not about the past. It’s about respecting the past, but also fostering new things. I’m very protective of the city’s image and want to always tell good stories and convince people to come. And the Festival is a good opportunity to invite people to come experience the city.
How do you feel about the future of electronic music?
I try not to focus on what’s going to happen and more on what’s happening now. A lot of new people are discovering Detroit music. A lot of new people are discovering electronic music, and I am grateful that a lot of really great talent is being discovered that maybe would not have been discovered ten years ago. People who have been in the shadows have found a bigger audience and new attention. So I’m confident that, as long as great things keep coming from Detroit—from the Midwest—the future is bright.