A few months ago, when veteran Detroit producer Julian Shamou got a call from Disclosure's label about licensing one of his tracks, he wasn't immediately excited. "I didn't even know who Disclosure was," he says. "I didn't know of 'Latch' but I knew who Sam Smith was. I asked some of my friends, like, 'have you, heard of a group called Disclosure? Can you tell me a little bit about them?'"
After his friends confirmed that this was, in fact, a big deal, Shamou agreed to license his 2002 record, "Pass Out," to Disclosure for their new single, "Bang That," which premiered last week on Annie Mac's Radio 1 show. The bass-flexible tune relies almost exclusively on a slowed-down "Pass Out," which Disclosure's Howard Lawrence tells THUMP he discovered three years ago, "the same day I found the 'When A Fire Starts To Burn' sample." With its lyrics about twerking, freaking, shaking, and as the title suggests, banging, "Bang That" heralds the return of the UK duo who first turned dance music on its head in 2012 with Chicago house-inspired singles like "Latch," "White Noise," and their Grammy-nominated 2013 album, Settle.
It's hard to blame Shamou for not knowing about the biggest house music act of the last three years. Though he got his start DJing as a teenager in mid-90s Detroit and produced over 100 tracks under multiple aliases including DJ Nasty, Digitek, Detroit's Filthiest, and 313 Bass Mechanics (to whom "Pass Out" is credited), Shamou has remained out of the spotlight for much of the last decade while his catalogue of vinyl-only releases have gone largely overlooked outside of the ghettotech scene he was known for. He has kept up with his producing but he hasn't played a DJ set in years—by choice.
"I couldn't tell you what's hot," he laughs. "I don't even listen to the radio or watch TV. Sometimes when you try to work on music you don't want to listen to other people's music, so I'm just so out of the loop."
Born in Baghdad, Shamou and his family fled Iraq at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, when a young Julian was just two years old. After being waylaid in Italy for several years while their US visas were being processed (and Shamou's father collected a sizable amount of Italian 7" vinyls), the family moved to Detroit in the summer of 1983, just before the dawn of techno. Despite growing up in Detroit during the 80s and 90s, Shamou says he never planned on a career in electronic music.
"All the music that I liked, you could only get on 12" records; they wouldn't make it on CD," he says of his early record collecting days. "I just wanted to have this music. I was buying vinyl for a year before I bought a $99 turntable. A year after I bought that turntable, I bought a drum machine and thought, this is more exciting. I want to make music."
Too young to have been a part of Detroit's first wave of techno producers like Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins, Shamou instead was part of the city's emerging ghettotech scene in the late 90s. Working primarily under the alias DJ Nasty, he was one of several producers who stood in the shadows behind better-known artists on the scene like DJ Assault, DJ Godfather, and the late Disco D. While his peers enjoyed success outside the city, particularly on the European club circuit, Shamou had other obligations.
"At 16 years old I was taking care of my family, including two disabled parents," he explains. "All my friends were traveling overseas to DJ all the time; I couldn't do that. I was working double shifts to pay the rent while they were hanging out and meeting people. Especially starting out in the 90s, maybe you could make $100 a night as a DJ. I just couldn't rely on that."
Shamou did go abroad a handful of times, scheduling days off from his day job at a hospital (where he still works as an instrument technician) so he could play one-off gigs in Paris and Brussels. "I remember going to Europe and people meeting me for the first time," he recalls. "They were so mind-blown by who they envisioned me to be. Listening to my music they thought, 'this has gotta be a brother.' Here, they see a white guy. They didn't even know I was Middle Eastern."
Through tenacity and old-fashioned networking, he was able to connect with London-based producer and Breakin' Records honcho Ed Upton, also known as DMX Krew or EDMX. "He was a fan of techno music and Detroit and all that stuff," Shamou says of Upton. "I did a total of three records with his label but some tracks didn't fit the ghettotech style. He didn't want to put it out under DJ Nasty." Upton recommended Shamou use a different alias for his non-ghettotech records, and thus, 313 Bass Mechanics was born.
One of those tracks included "Pass Out," which Shamou says he recorded in '00 or '01. "I wrote some vocal but the style of music was urban and I didn't want to sound like a chipmunk on the record," he jokes. "I wanted to have a more urban, ghetto feel to the record." Thus, he tapped his friend, rapper and singer Fletch Flex.
"Pass Out" was released in the UK on Breakin' in 2002 as part of the vinyl-only Ghetto Booty EP, but a limited market for vinyl house and techno records in the early 00s meant that there were typically only a few thousand copies pressed. Partly because Shamou wasn't touring the UK, the EP didn't sell well and in 2006, one of Breakin's distributors offered to give Shamou the remaining unsold copies of Ghetto Booty for free if he paid for shipping from London to Detroit. "I already didn't make any money on this, I thought, why am I going to pay for shipping on 200 records?"
The unsold copies were destroyed, making the EP instantly, though accidentally, collectible. While there are a few copies available for sale by collectors online, even now, Shamou isn't quite sure how Disclosure found it; even he only has the masters to the EP on DAT. "A couple of days ago I went in my basement and I could not find a copy," he says. "I don't know where it is, to be honest with you."
In the mid-00s, Shamou had a few false starts with some licensing deals for films and as a hip-hop producer. The advent of mp3s meant a temporary hiatus for vinyl, and having bypassed CDs, Shamou had little interest in shifting his output to digital. "I kept doing stuff but I couldn't get anyone to release it; mp3s didn't pique my interest," he says.
In 2010, he lost his good friend and collaborator Aaron-Carl to cancer. After that, Shamou admits to getting depressed and not working much on music for a while, though it was never out of his life completely.
Still, Shamou describes the call from Disclosure's team as out-of-the-blue and the subsequent surge of interest in his work even more so. Though he was first asked for permission to license the track in February, the deal was only finalized last week, and he just found out about its release the day before it dropped. Of the 100-plus records to his name, that Disclosure found and sampled one he made 15 years ago and released on a limited-pressing vinyl is "mind-boggling."
Since Friday's premiere of "Bang That," DJs and house heads around the world have been scouring the internet for any hint about who the enigmatic 313 Bass Mechanics might be and where his records are sold. In a musical climate where every sound is so readily accessible with a few clicks, there is something inherently thrilling about finding a previously undiscovered record from a pre-digital, albeit recent, age.
Some collectors have digitized and uploaded their copies of "Pass Out" to YouTube, but Shamou says he plans to re-release much of his catalog this year himself, including the Ghetto Booty EP and some new records as well, all under his most recent alias, Detroit's Filthiest. His new work, he says, will be slowed down a bit from the 145-and-up bpm of ghettotech. At 36, Shamou is still young and energetic enough to be who his friends call "the hardest working person in Detroit," a title he earned in his twenties, when he was holding down a full-time job, taking care of his family, going to college, running a record label, and producing music.
Even though he is excited about the opportunities the Disclosure sample might bring, his priorities haven't changed. "It's not about the money," he says. "I've been doing this for 20 years. Back then, people would say this of music is garbage. People dogged electronic music. We didn't get that respect. Music was an outlet for me. I could have gotten into drugs, but music saved my life. That's why it's near and dear to my heart. I love it."
Now that his work has been discovered by a global audience, Shamou could be at the start of a very new phase in his already-two-decade-long career. "There's always the easy way and then there's the long road," he adds with the casual wisdom of a musical journeyman. "But you never know when you're going to get there."
Zel McCarthy is THUMP's editor-in-chief and banging that on Twitter.