Detroit is a very special place. To many who have not been there, it's easy to fall for the typical news story about Detroit's decay and political issues. But what most of those people do not see, is the tenacity of it's people, and the unique approach to the arts in particular that have made Detroit an incubator if you will, of some of the most amazing music to influence the entire world. Decade after decade we are witness to musical acts so unique, they inevitably revolutionize the music industry from the top down; sometimes with a single record. One of those groups is the one and only AUX88, and within that circle, a man in particular who almost needs no introduction; a man in many ways so mysterious however, that to not do so would be a disservice to many of you, as you may not realize what a critical component of Detroit Techno music he has actually been over the years. Anthony Horton ladies and gentlemen, better known as "Blak Tony", is a man who has been somewhere in between the spotlight and the shadows of his own success, as he has gone from local musical hero and back-up instrumentalist, to helping found the groups AUX88, and Sight Beyond Sight, later as behind the scenes member of Scan 7, eventually leading to the formation of the iconic group "Auxmen" at the turn of the century. Let's find out more about this fascinating Detroit artist!
Welcome Tony! It's an honor to get a chance to interview with you. Let’s start off by talking about your beginnings, always an interesting peak at how an artist comes into being. How did it all start for you musically as a kid? Who are your greatest influences?
Thank you for the opportunity! I didn’t even want to be a musician. I was into graphic art and journalism. Abstract album covers inspired me to draw. Later I’d listen to the music in my mother’s collection. Had so many influences from Jazz, R&B, and Funk. I’d document or write in High School newspaper music reviews to share the music. Certain situations put me in a position where I had to make it myself, being involved in many groups/bands. I wrote songs then ended up loving to produce.
Very interesting. I guess sometimes the music follows you, even when you only intend to follow the music. You were destined to do something you didn't think was for you it seems! So explain to us life in Detroit in the early 80’s as American Techno was born and the proliferation of Electro Funk and the breakdance culture took over as well around the country. What was it like? Was the Hip Hop aspect more prevalent, or was there a very different vibe in Detroit through this period?
A very different vibe. The draw to me with Techno was that I live not far from “Techno Blvd.”. I considered myself an "Afro-futurist" then, and met others alike. My ideas were futuristic, the music and art reflected that. As far as the birth of Hip Hop, I remember watching on TV what was happening in New York at the time. I literally opened my door and folks were breakdancing in the street. I lived on a street then known for it’s block parties (Manistique St./Eastside Detroit). We took the arts & creativity seriously. Detroit always had it’s own style. We dug Electro, New Wave, etc...long as it was good, no matter where it was from. Detroiters love the progressiveness in music.
I wish I could have seen that, it was a special time no matter the darkness that surrounded everything back then. So not a lot people know that in 1985, what could be considered the early forming of AUX88 came about, with the group RX-7 with Keith Tucker, Tommy Hamilton, Marcus Greer, as well as yourself. How did that come about?
We were all involved in the same entertainment collective (Diamond Entertainment) and toured the city. "RX-7" came about as we all had a craving to create and write our own music. For some reason many of the groups on the radio and in our collections at that time didn’t tour, so we’d include their songs in our playlist to perform live. We came from an R&B background, we didn’t know anything about sequencers and computers, so we learned to play everything raw (the futuristic parts all the way to the strings). We’d rehearse like a muthafucka to get the exact sound. Outside the studio all hell was breaking loose with crack hitting the streets. Our band gave us an escape mentally, spiritually, & physically.
That draws a very dystopian image in my mind. I am always fascinated by what seemed like Detroit's response musically to Hip Hop and the overall vibe of the 80's and society issues like crack addiction and AIDS, not to mention the city's own political issues. These are typically the kind of rough things that may bring down others elsewhere, but seem to be catalytic for Detroiters having such a strong will to overcome and create so maturely.
Before moving on, from what I understand, through the success of RX-7 in Detroit, you guys wound up becoming the back-up band for Juan Atkins and Model 500 correct?
Yes, this is true. We had met him over the years and we had a reputation for playing. His music was always included in our set. A lot of people gave us props for being able to play live, a lot didn’t. But they couldn’t deny it.
I gotta say, it has always amazed me how you guys could play those fast basslines by hand, that's talent! So tell me, why did you remain rather quiet during the ‘90s? Can you talk about that a little perhaps? What were you up to?
I was on tour of the world in a mask, as a member of Scan 7, and writing tunes for many aliases. Learning my craft. Stayed in the shadows.
"I’m a rebellious dude, I never let my environment hold me back from doing my thing..."
Interesting, I had no idea you were in Scan 7. Staying in the shadows can be a good thing too! But now as the 2000’s rolled around, you made a great comeback to the spotlight, starting with the first Auxmen performance at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, and later moving on to collaborations with K-1, as well as Tom Linder on vinyl; even writing as Alien FM with Keith Tucker on the record "Large Mechanics". What made you decide to "take off the mask" if you will, and get deeper into production and stage performance?
I didn’t want to be part of the industry, it wasn’t my cup of tea. I wanted to avoid it and have more of a personal life I was missing at the time. But the music was calling me back. Music is like a time capsule, you plant it and someone will discover it sooner or later. The people who loved it brought me back into it, their love for it as I had. We have a global connection and I wanted to keep my end. I hated social media at first, but as I made my profile...they were there. I decided not to be so shadowy and become more transparent. Plus, I’m addicted to the stage. I’ve never been afraid to perform. Weird coming from a shy kid from Detroit!
Let’s talk about the immense project that is the AUX88 documentary box set. What does it take to put something of that magnitude together?
I had the idea decades ago for us to document what we were doing, that one day it would be history told by the members themselves, instead of someone who didn’t know the history. I always took pictures and video recorded what was going on in Detroit and the group. It took research (we only knew), time (we all didn’t have), and effort. We all were going through some rough patches in our lives then too. I myself was in jail writing the book included in the box, and managed to produce my first solo E.P. (“Caddy Soul”/Dockside Records) while homeless. I’m a rebellious dude, I never let my environment hold me back from doing my thing. I found a strength I didn’t know I had.
That's amazing, you have a very strong will indeed! What inspires you in the studio then? What kind of gear do you use?
Some days I’ll just hear a sound and the music in some way creates itself. I never try to force it, that’s how I can go through so many genres to create. I don’t listen to radio, I create the music I want to hear. I use whatever gets me faster through the process, keeping in mind I may have to play a tune live. Not really a big "Gear-head".
How about the so-called “Digital Revolution”? Do you see it as having been a positive thing for the industry?
I don’t care for it...I’m oldschool! I have to have something tangible in my hands.
Very true, somehow digital just doesn't feel real, and leaves much to be desired in terms of releasing and even owning music. So you mention not being a gear head, but much of this new hardware coming out lately I feel is revitalizing music in many ways, though I would argue its effects are still in its early stages. Any synths that have caught your attention lately? Do you have a preference between digital or analog?
I don’t have a preference between Analog or Digital, I do both or one or the other. I do have my eye on a few new synths and keyboards. If it’s got lush strings and different sounds other than I already have, it must be mine.
What about this Loudness War that has been going on for some time? Does music seem excessively loud to you? Many steps have been made to rectify this, with even Spotify reducing levels by -14 LUFS (Loudness relative to Full Scale). But what’s your take?
My issue with this is that everyone wants to compete with each other on how loud, instead of how to be more individual and creative in the tunes themselves. I’ve never been into sounding like anyone else, can’t go forward like that.
I agree, plus the loudness is often so offensive and aggressive, it kills the dynamics of music! Moving forward a little, let me ask an intriguing one. Some people in Detroit, and even around the world, often believe the word Techno Bass to be just a Detroit thing, though history shows us this was already a slang word for Electro Bass music in Miami already with artists like Dynamix II and Beat Dominator; a sound which influenced Detroit heavily into its “2nd Wave” with it’s low bass rhythms. How do you feel about this bit?
It’s true, that was one of our influences along with Detroit Techno. But we wanted a futuristic street element to it to define our own environment in Detroit. Detroit has to have its own identity...we (the city) play dope, underground music even til’ this day and don’t even know it. Our group is a product of our landscape, I'm fortunate to be a founding member of a group that is accepted outside of the club environment. We live our style.
Before closing, what’s in the pipeline for you? Any new records coming out that we should know about?
I’m always doing something. I never stop recording because I’m always learning things new. My issue is who releases the music, who believes in it. At the moment I have a House EP floating around the city and no one knows it’s me...once I find a proper label, I’ll release it. Also some more Techno Bass vocal tracks in the works. I want to do video from now on for every release and continue to write my second book other than the one in the AUX88 box set; on a completely different topic. Most of the things coming up are on the hush-hush until confirmation, but once they’re green lighted, I’ll let the word know through social media!
Thanks for all you do Tony, it's been great getting a chance to speak to you! Looking forward to new material in the coming months.
Interviewed by: Santino Fernandez