The synth-saturated boogie of Mickey De Grand IV has only been in the making for a few years, but his records, which feature his own heartbreak falsetto, wouldn’t sound out of place beside 70s-era forefathers like Darondo or Roy Ayers. Decked out in a Havana player’s uniform of printed button-downs, suspenders, fedora, and slick part, De Grand champions a new wave of electro-funk in Miami-Dade County. He’s a first-generation Cuban American whose parents were among the surge of immigrants that fled Fidel Castro’s regime between the 1960s and 80s, and with US-Cuban relations thawing, he increasingly looks back across the Florida Straits for inspiration.
De Grand took enough time away from home to earn a degree in jazz and orchestral composition at City University New York and complete a stint in Tokyo at the 2014 Red Bull Music Academy, but he’s stayed loyal to his community in southern Florida. Alongside fellow members of the Miami Players Club, he heads up the small-batch vinyl and cassette label Cosmic Chronic—self-described specialists in gangster boogie, beats, and future funk—and fronts the 12-piece orchestra Psychic Mirrors. Earlier this month, De Grand returned to obscurities-and-reissues imprint People’s Potential Unlimited with his debut album, Eye Witness, so we tracked him to Los Angeles to talk method, Miami, and the songwriting greatness of Ariel Pink.
So I know your heritage is Cuban, but I’m guessing you never got to spend any time there.
No. It was very controversial to do that when I was growing up, but now a lot of Cubans in Miami want to check it out. That was something we never even thought was possible. It’s only been this past year that everyone’s started talking about it.
Is that partly because America and Cuba are now reestablishing diplomatic ties?
Yeah, big time. It’s definitely going change my community, and there’s a rift right now between the old school and the new generation. The older generation lost everything. They were forced to get on a plane or a boat, and they came over with nothing. My parents will never go back, but me and my brother want to. It’s mysterious to us. Nobody wants to live out there, but we’re over the bad vibes that these people had for years. We just want to go see where our families are from, and feel the vibe of it. We picked it up in Miami, but Cuba is the root.
When we were growing up we didn’t really accept music coming out of Cuba, even though it was everywhere. We wanted to be like the gringos or the black kids. But it definitely had an impact. Now, it’s different. My generation is more proud of Cuban music, and we happily draw influence from it, but it took a long time. Whether we’re from Cuba or Colombia, South or Central America, we take our roots more seriously now, because we realize that’s all we have, unless we want to be part of white America. We’re definitely not black America; we’re our own thing. There’s been a process of acceptance going on for years, and now I think it’s blooming more.
Was that why you got into boogie?
No, I got made fun of for listening to that shit. Everyone else was listening to hip-hop or rap. They didn’t really realize—and neither did I—where hip-hop came from, which was boogie and funk. We liked Gloria Estefan and all that shit, but we weren’t looking in the mirror hard enough. We really had to come into our own identity. We were too gringo for the Cubans and the South Americans, but we were too spic-ish and Latin for the white Americans.
So what did you listen to growing up?
Disney music, to be honest with you. That’s what was around in my house. Some Cuban music too, and I was listening to whatever was on the radio.
Did listening to soundtracks influence how you operate now? For all your different aliases and projects, you’ve said that you design the sleeves before writing the music.
Sure. I like to see what the story is before I make it. You can see the idiom and timbre in colors first. John Williams said, “I can’t create a movie out of sound, but I can create the emotions around it.” Doing the cover or poster art myself is a part of my own creative process, and my way of finding out what the sound is. It will all be more or less consistent when I approach making music like that; when I don’t, I go all over the place. It gives me borders, sound-wise.
Andrew [Morgan, PPU label head] didn’t realize how much control I like to have over what I do, so at first he tried to do the cover art and the center label on my record, but he understands now. My only thing with PPU is that we can’t get shit out fast enough. Record Store Day really slowed everything down. Eye Witness was supposed to come out months ago, but that’s the game right now.
When I listened to some of the tracks on this new record, I felt like I’d heard them before—they sound like classics. I heard that someone in RBMA Tokyo admissions had a similar reaction…
Oh yeah, this dude had a ’45 I put out, and he just thought it was an old record. When my application was being processed, he busts through the door and is like, “Wait a second, I have this ’45! Whoever this is, the guy’s a liar.” They had to go and find the ’45 with my name on it. James Pants told me that in Tokyo. He was like, “Yeah man, they didn’t believe you at first.” We got a good laugh out of it. But shit, if they hadn’t found that ’45…
How do you get that vintage quality, so that someone could mistake one of your tracks for being decades old?
It’s all an illusion. In Miami we work with a lot of tape, and we try to utilize filtering in the way that old records did, where they dropped or filtered the highs around 4K, 5K. You read about how Rudy Van Gelder and Phil Spector and all these people EQed everything, and you can imitate that. It took me 20 years, but I’ve figured out how to make any new record sound like an old record. And it feels more authentic, because that’s how the records I heard growing up sounded. They had a certain quality that I try to match in my music.
Who else is using this type of production technique?
At the moment the only person I know who does it constantly is Ariel Pink. He’s the only guy I really look up to in the game right now, as far as composers and songwriters go. To me, he’s the greatest of our time. What his process is, I don’t know. As for the older guys… most of my heroes are dead.
And you also have the Psychic Mirrors project right, which is a 12-piece orchestral unit?
It started out with 15 people. We’re not taking that many with us when we tour in Europe, and we tried to compress it down a little because it was getting out of control with scheduling—if one guy has to get a haircut, you can’t practice. But it’s good to work with other voices, and I made Psychic Mirrors because I wanted to go back to Miami. I had been living in New York, and I wanted to make a band with me and a bunch of girls. I wanted to see what it was like to work with like, 12 females.
I started singing falsetto to sound like a woman, so to have the real thing is wonderful. I can’t do what they do naturally. I can’t get my voice to sound like that, and I couldn’t play [an instrument] the way some of those girls could, either. But I had to sing like that because I hate my own voice so much. I can sing like Frank Sinatra pretty well, and I’d do that to make my grandma happy, God rest her soul, but I don’t really like my own voice. When I would do my falsetto, I sound like a completely different person, kind of androgynous. Anyone can do it— I’ve been a heavy smoker for 15 years—it just takes practice.
So what’s next? What’s been going on since RBMA?
I’m sure I’m going to be working with Benedek and (PPU affiliate) Moon B while I’m in LA—we’re all planning on doing something.
It would be great if you did do a project with Moon B. Didn’t some couple sit through your whole set in Tokyo thinking you were him?
That was funny as fuck. The best part of the night was when Kerri Chandler, who’s an amazing dude, came upstairs, and then the next day he was like, “Yeah man, I was trying to play, and somebody was playing some shitty ’80s music upstairs.” I was like, “Yo, that was me! That was me dog.”
Header image: Dan Wilton
Published May 19, 2015.