In the tight-knit nu-disco community, Michael the Lion stands out for his ability to stay truthful to his own sound while staying true to the sounds that inspired him. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, he migrated to Philadelphia in the early 2000s and quickly established himself in the flourishing Philly DJ scene, performing under the name DJ Apt One. While exploring various pseudonyms and group gigs he developed a confidence that has allowed him to have a larger impact on the genre than any one person should have the time for. With releases on all of the best labels, he is a veritable nu-disco ambassador.
His latest stop brings his second body of work on Soul Clap Records, with whom he is releasing a 5-track EP. This release is replete with immaculately crafted disco-house jams. The slow-burning opener, "Side of Life", sneaks up on you with it's somber yet uplifting progression. This is followed by "The Changer", a hypnotic whirlwind of strings and synths backed by a set of sturdy bass-lines that do just enough to keep your head straight.
These two originals are accompanied by some truly exceptional remixes of his recently released "Get It On" featuring truly incredible work from vocalist Amy Douglas. Her rawness shines through each take and it feels inordinately refreshing to hear some modern vocals as soulful as hers. Ahead of this top notch release, we tracked Michael the Lion down to get some answers to some burning questions we had on our minds. Check out the album embedded below, and, if you know what's good for you, you'll cop the vinyl too.
Available for purchase here and stream the EP premiere below.
Magnetic Mag: How has your DJ style progressed over time?
Michael the Lion: I played strictly vinyl probably until about 2006 or '07. I just got really tired of hauling so many crates of records around, and so started using Serato with vinyl as well, depending on circumstance. More recently, I've started using CDJs alongside vinyl as well. I mean, I'm not really a huge purist when it comes to the medium, although I really prefer turntables with CDJs, just because I've been using them for almost 20 years. I'm really much more comfortable with them.
MM: What advantages does digital have versus analog?
Michael the Lion: You have the ability to play your own music that has never been pressed, or different kinds of edits that are only available in digital. So that's an advantage, obviously. There's also a huge disadvantage in that there’s an information overload problem when you're trying to make your next selection, where you just have too much music to sort through mentally. One other thing that has been lost is the forethought that you put into a vinyl gig. You have to sit down the night before and physically pick out the records to try and anticipate the situations. Sorta mentally walk through what you think is going to happen in that particular space, with that particular group of people, on that day of the week, just processing all of the variables. When I use digital, I don't really think about that much anymore, because you just figure, "Well, I'll have what I need and I'll be able to adapt."
MM: How have your music discovery habits changed?
Michael the Lion: I certainly don't dig as much as I used to. I used to be a pretty committed vinyl digger. Ever since my son was born that's something I've had to cut out of my list of activities. There's not as much time for everything I want to do. That said, I use Discogs a little more because you can't always go to the record store, so you have to bring the record store to you. When my son was really little, and I was up all night, it would be three in the morning, and the baby's crying. In some sort of haze I would order things on Discogs in the middle of the night, but I would forget so then records would just show up at my house and I'd be like, "What the fuck is this?" It was nice. It was like getting presents from myself.
MM: What about Philadelphia appeals to you?
Michael the Lion: Well, when I first moved to Philadelphia in the early 2000's it was a really amazing time for DJing and nightlife in that city. I mean, Rich Medina, King Britt, Questlove, Cosmo Baker, Diplo, people like that were really rewriting the rules of the game as far as how DJing was supposed to sound. The level of technical expectation was really, really high and it was a really exciting time. Philadelphia also has just an amazing musical heritage and musical history, from Sun Ra, to the Philadelphia Sound, to Schoolly D and invention of gangster rap, to Hall and Oates, to John Coltrane. There's just so much there, it's incredible.
MM: What’s disco look like in NY?
Michael the Lion: I played at JKriv's birthday party in New York where he played as JKriv and the Disco Machine, after which Escort came to Philly. JKriv was playing in Escort and so we had a Razor-N-Tape family DJ lineup with me and Sean Ryan, who's in Superprince. There are a bunch of people in this ecosystem in New York that play in all these disco and dance rock bands but are actually flown in for different gigs. They're just that talented and they know how to play that style. Once, at one of the gigs, the sax player was like, "Yeah, I also play in M83.” Or, usually, it’s "I just got picked up for tonight. We did one rehearsal” and they hit it out of the park. They’re masters. These are people who get it.
Amy Douglas is a good example of one such virtuoso. As a singer, and also as a writer of both songs and melodies. She’s really the straw that makes the drink on “Get it On” and she’s able to do things that other people simply can’t do. I’m very excited for this record and for the work we have coming up because we’ve been finding out that we’re a really good team and you have to catch that energy in a bottle.
MM: What are your favorite far-flung genres do you like to go between?
Michael the Lion: Man, I don't know. It's kind of a funny question, because prior to the existence of the Michael the Lion project, I did a lot of stuff as DJ AptOne, which was sort of my Philly DJ, play anything, play at any time, kind of persona. There were definitely some wild things. There was this one guy I used to play with named Skinny Friedman who also grew up in Pittsburgh and we used to have this dynamic where I always wanted to take big chances, and he was against it. That was the creative tension that really made us work as a DJ duo.
So, we were playing at U Street music hall in DC, and we were kind of shit-faced. One of the owners of the club brought a bottle of Jameson and gave it to us. I had just made an edit of "Because the Night" by Patti Smith, and I was like, "I'm gonna play this," because we were playing at Bliss Pop, which was ancestrally an indie dance pop night in the mid 2000's. I was like, "This is gonna be awesome, or it's gonna be a disaster."
It was a disaster, and since we were super drunk, we got into an argument and ended up swinging on each other briefly in the DJ booth. Just getting some of the lead out, but it was definitely a failure. It cleared the dance floor. You have to clear the dance floor every once in awhile to test the parameters. If you don't do it, you're not trying. You don't know how far you can push people until you push them too far