Why do we think of Detroit as an all-time great music city?
For Waajeed, the secret weapon has always been education. The producer and DJ is woven into the musical DNA of Detroit many times over, coming up with J Dilla under the tutelage of Amp Fiddler and going on to become an electronic music staple in the city and highly respected overseas.
Of course, there’s always so much talent to point to in the Motor City. But if you ask Waajeed (who was born Robert O’Bryant), it’s about teaching the next kid up. The not-so-sexy day-in, day-out hard work and belief that the next generation of musicians will be the greatest to carry the torch.
For decades, it was the public schools bringing world-class music education to young Detroiters. You still see it today with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Youth Ensembles. And the jazz community has undoubtedly taken the idea of mentorship like its scripture.
Now, Waajeed is taking it on himself, with Underground Music Academy, to build the future leaders of electronic music through education and mentorship. Like the jazz stalwarts, electronic musicians in Detroit have always looked after their young.
The academy is in a humble three-story building at 2990 E. Grand Blvd. that Waajeed has been working on himself in between DJ gigs everywhere from Japan to Los Angeles. On his Instagram page, you’ll see him sanding floors and installing doors, skills that were passed on to him by his father, who owned a construction company in Detroit.
“I could definitely hear my father finessing my carpentry skills as I go,” he laughs.
The building has a killer location and an important history. Formerly home to the Detroit branch of the NAACP, it’s about a mile from the Motown Museum and two doors down from the headquarters of the legendary electronic collective Underground Resistance and its techno museum.
Last year, the academy celebrated its official ribbon-cutting, opening to the public with workshops and a pop-up shop with merch and records. This spring and summer, you’ll see more workshops and online classes announced.
The academy has been a very grassroots effort for Waajeed and his small crew, who have invested about $500,000 of their own cash into the project. The rest of the funds have been a mix of proceeds from selling merch and records and donations from individuals and philanthropic organizations.
“I’ve been traveling for more than two decades DJing, lecturing, producing,” he says. “But every time I get on the plane, I fail to see people that look like myself. I wanted to create a place that produced those people. If we can produce cars in the D, why shouldn’t we be able to produce opportunities for people to be their best selves?”
That’s what makes Waajeed’s mission something more than just to create a technical academy. There have been one-off workshops and weeklong classes as the academy grows, but Waajeed and his team are taking a spiritual approach, too — addressing life itself for young Detroiters who may not get direction like that elsewhere in their lives. There’s a heavy focus on civil rights and social justice as well.
“You can go anywhere, and they can teach you how to use a drum machine,” he says. “That’s a strong suit of ours, too, but I’m looking at not only educating but actually changing the system of disruptive and oppressive practices.”
As the academy grows in scale and scope, it will no doubt attract global attention. Waajeed, however, is more focused on the work being done on the ground here in Detroit. That includes educating the next generation and making sure Detroiters themselves understand the city’s critical role as a breeding ground for electronic music as a global export.
“People honor and respect this place every year during Movement, when people fly from all over the planet to see what we’re doing here,” he says, referencing the massive electronic music festival that takes place every Memorial Day weekend at Hart Plaza.
“I think it’s just as important that we start recognizing ourselves and celebrating our own.”
This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.