Nearly all Theo Parrish’s music is now available on streaming platforms. Listening through nearly three decades of music, it’s easy to understand how the Detroit artist has gained such a cult following.
Now available for the first time on streaming platforms, Theo Parrish’s bumper back catalogue of several full length albums and countless more EPs and 12s is a testament to his lifetime dedication to music. Equally revered as both a producer and a DJ, his sets sometimes spanning up to 12 hours, Theo Parrish treats music as something that should have a genuine physical effect on listeners. High quality sound systems are a crucial requisite to his DJ sets, his records are pressed loud and his music often characterised by intricate, immersive layering.
Raised in Chicago, Theo benefitted from a two-sided musical education. Jazz and soul music were a constant soundtrack within his household, with his uncle Dexter Sims also a musician on the local jazz circuit. Living in the city that birthed house music, Theo was also exposed to the likes of local legends like Larry Heard, Lil Louis and Ron Hardy from a young age. From hearing tracks like Larry Heard’s Can You Feel It being played out on local radio at the age of 15, Theo soon began heading out to seminal Chicago clubs like Music Box. It was there that he first experienced the kind of eclecticism in DJing that would so heavily influence his own style of playing and, in particular, the way in which selectors like Ron Hardy would take records by artists such as Stevie Wonder and reshape them for the dancefloor, EQing and isolating different parts of a track to create something that felt more like house music.
Clearly, these early influences had a lasting impact on Theo’s DJing. He has spoken about a DJ’s selections being the most important part of playing and will regularly jump between styles, eras and sounds in his sets. For him, the act of DJing begins with the soundsystem and the setup, having the capacity to fully control the sonics of each track. This idea of sound being something physical and tangible is also at heart of his own productions.
Studying sculpture in Kansas before moving to Detroit in 1994, Theo first began to explore the layering of sound and loops that has remained a defining characteristic of his music. Initially appearing on the B side of a 1995 Moodymann record, Theo’s first release Lake Shore Drive used a simple soul loop and a basic 909 drum pattern. Although a simple affair compared with his later music, the track’s minimal rawness and shuffling groove set out a clear template for the signature Theo Parrish sound. The years that followed quickly saw Theo becoming a prolific member of the Detroit underground scene, working alongside contemporaries like Omar S, Marcellus Pittman and Rick Wilhite. 1997 saw the release of several records, including the deep ethereal Moonlight and the track Lost Keys, which is set for a reissue later this year. Soon followed his first full length LP First Floor in 1998, as well as a run of sought after releases, including the initial 2001 version of the Parallel Dimensions EP and 12s like Dirt Rhodes and Dreamer’s Blues.
In 2004, Theo put together The Rotating Assembly, comprising various musicians from the Detroit scene. The project saw him re-constructing their live performances in post-production and signalled a move towards the organic sounding, instrumental tracks of recent years. In 2014, Theo cemented his move away from sampling and towards live sounds with a full-band tour of his latest album American Intelligence. A track from his most recent album, the excellent This is for You shows Theo at his finest. A brilliant counterpoint between his signature spiralling, shuffling percussion and the dreamy wistful vocals of Maurissa Rose, it’s immersive on both a physical and emotional level.
Theo has spoken of music’s ability to “change our DNA” in interviews. Listening through his back catalogue, the same immersive sound and atmosphere can be felt throughout. The rough and raw production gives the music a characteristic sense of spontaneity, it invites you to get lost in its intricate spiralling layers. The same can certainly be said of his DJ sets, particularly of someone dedicated enough to play music to dancers for 12 hours straight. Committing nearly three decades to these transportive dancefloor experiences, if anyone deserves the status of cult hero its Theo Parrish.