If you’re looking for The Progressive Underground, you won’t find it.
The 101.9 FM public radio program broadcasts live from an otherwise nondescript building with four glistening letters, W-D-E-T, that reflect the nearly setting sun as Chris Campbell begins his weekly, dimension-defying segment. Chris looks at home as he adjusts levels on the mixer and thumbs through a burgundy 3-ring binder with concert giveaway tickets during commercial breaks.
Within the first five songs of the show, Chris has travelled from deep house to down tempo and back up again featuring a range of equally emerging and eminent artists. Each of the tracks, some unearthed from the deep internet abyss and others lifted from vinyls, are handwritten in neat columns on a notebook page featuring song titles plus artist and album names.
As the set ascends into its calculated groove, it becomes easier to imagine that this is what Detroit music would sound like in some alternate universe where the present is suspended in equal proximity to the past and the future. If you listen closely, you’ll hear sharp sonic contrasts and looped vocals. If you close your eyes, you’ll notice light shining in spaces typically obscured by booming instrumentation and pulsing production.
Join me on a journey through Detroit soul with writer, radio host, DJ, and tastemaker Chris Campbell (also known as DJ Cambeaux) as we discuss what happens when you stop looking for The Progressive Underground and start to find the feeling.
What were you doing before The Progressive Underground?
I was a reporter and editor covering the culture of music for a few years. I’d been doing a lot of stories on artists like Jill Scott, Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, and Amel Larrieux. At the time, those were the essential artists with the essential albums of the neo-soul movement, that’s what we called it. We’re saying it’s progressive soul now because the artists didn’t seem to like that label. Some of those stories didn’t make copy in the paper, so I just started to put together a book with the stories that were not used. That’s how I got into writing books and that’s how I discovered the scene too.
How did the radio show get started?
I wrote The Essential Neo Soul and The Essential Neo Soul 2.0 books and while I was on tour, I was making the rounds. Nick Austin, Ann Delisi, and Craig Fahle had me on a couple of shows here. The book was getting a lot of love and after my third time being interviewed here, they were like, “You sound okay on the mic. Think you may want a show?” We got to talking and we debuted the show in 2012.
Did that transition of categorizing neo-soul artists as progressive artists spark The Progressive Underground name?
I had that name in my head for a while, going all the way back to the 90s. When we started the radio station, it was just a natural fit and the name captured what we were trying to do. You’re going to get music that makes you perk up a little bit, music that you haven’t heard, music that’s just high-quality. We consider what we do as a refined listening experience. So you can either get with this on the dance floor or just chill and slow groove.
Is this show the first of its kind?
A lot of people compare the show to The Electrifying Mojo from back in the day because he played a lot of stuff. You could hear rock, new wave, hip hop, and r&b all under one program. Here in the states, everything is so segmented. My program is trying to get back into back-in-the-day radio that had all those shows in one station. They’d have the host be a tastemaker and actually select the music. With radio today, the DJs don’t select the music, it’s selected by a corporation. Oftentimes that’s how local artists get ignored because they focus on the national artists. Here, we present local artists as if they’re national artists, so they really like that exposure.
Have you gotten a lot of love from the other stations that are here?
It’s not even on my radar, but some of the music that we’ve been playing has been seeping into mix sessions on other stations on the weekends. That’s kind of cool because that means they know we’re here.
What was it about this genre that made you think it was worthy of a dedicated show?
We cover genres that no one is hitting like deep house and techno, but we still put a lot of soul music into it. We call it future soul in an attempt to focus on some of the emerging soul music. Then we’ve got new jazz b-sides, rare groove, and some of those emerging genres that are obscure here, but overseas they’re huge.
How does that affect your artist selection?
The ironic part about it is that these niche genres feature music that has been put together by artists who are from Detroit, but are popular overseas . They go overseas and blow up, but here in Detroit, you don’t even know who they are. This show has been instrumental in getting their music out in their hometown. We have a synergy now with a lot of these overseas markets because we’re essentially playing a lot of overseas music by all of these Detroit artists. That’s been a blessing.
Are you originally from Detroit?
Yep, born and raised. I lived in New York for several years then moved back here. You can see what is needed to help promote Detroit artists after moving away and seeing how they’re promoted in other markets.
Tell me more about your time in New York.
Living in New York, I found that we differ with some of these other communities. Sometimes Detroit can have a crabs in a barrel mentality. If you’re doing something and people are digging it, it’s like, “Oh you think you’re all that?” In other communities, they’ll look at that and be like, “Wow, you’re doing something good, I support you.” I’m trying to develop that sense of community. If I can support somebody else and they’re uplifted and elevated, that elevates what I do. Not just with music, but with art and people that love the music and tastemakers.
How does the US radio landscape differ from overseas markets?
The US market is all about who’s popular and who’s got a name behind them. They may have a name behind them, but the music might be wack. But overseas, they’re more concerned about the quality of the music and that’s the kind of spirit we’re exemplifying. If it bangs, it bangs. You can tell what’s wack and what’s not.
Detroit is going through a change right now, do you think that manifests within the music that’s being produced?
Actually Detroit is going through what Brooklyn went through a few years ago and what San Francisco went through a few years ago. Some people call it gentrification, it is changing a little bit. But shows like this, we respect change. We play some of the emerging artists who are evolving and new to the area, but we give a lot of importance to some of these legacy artists who built the scene too. We try to have a nice balance and there’s room for everybody.
There’s a sense of musical education that goes on with the show, is that intentional?
That’s a pretty big thing of what we do. Usually, I try not to talk too much because I want the music to be the forefront. I’ll talk about tracks or artists and their significance within certain genres. It’s educational for sure.
You have a natural interest in music, but you also have a show every Sunday that requires research. How do you still enjoy yourself?
You know, what keeps me going is just these artists and this music. Especially these new artists. I heard BevLove and ONEFREQ at Jägermeister’s Concept56 event and that keeps me excited because it shows you that the future is in good hands. It’s up to people like me to help expose people’s ears to that music and some of these niche artists who are making dope tracks. Sometimes it’s a lot of work and we’re tired, but the music just chills you.
How do you make peace between digging online to find new artists and traditional crate-digging?
That’s the beautiful thing about the internet. You really get a chance to curate the music and really discover artists. Before you’d have to wait on a record pool to see new stuff. So we’re pretty aggressive. I spend about ten hours each week searching for fresh-sounding music and we do a lot of crate-digging. The more obscure it is, the better because then you’re really turning people on to new sounds.
What’s your rubric for choosing music?
We tend to really put a lot of attention on the quality of the music and we don’t care if you’re making the music in your bedroom, I’ll put it on if it’s bumping. What I do appreciate is artists who have their stuff together. It makes our job easier when the artist has prepackaged their stuff.
In a perfect world, what does The Progressive Underground look like five years from now?
We’re still doing what we do. We want this to be in syndication and we want to be doing periodic music concerts and festivals where we feature artists who are featured on this show. I wouldn’t mind taking it on the road after doing things here. Maybe going over to London and the overseas markets like Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Switzerland, and Japan where a lot of these artists are huge.
Any future projects people should know about?
I’ve done a lot of DJ gigs and traveling and I think I’d like to get back to doing some stuff out of town. I’m actually beginning to work on another book that’s a little bit out of the soul music genre. This one is going to get into the rest of hip hop. Kind of a history of hip hop and jazz fusion, so if you dig groups like A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, The Roots, and present-day artists like Schoolboy Q and Kendrick. I’m going to delve into the history behind some of that progressive stuff.
So what keeps you in Detroit?
Everybody asks me that all the time and sometimes I don’t know. I think everyone needs to live somewhere else for a minute. That helps you get perspective. It helps you say, “Let me get back to Detroit and see what I can do to impact the scene.” A lot of artists who are emerging are checking us out and we’re encouraging building together as a community. We’re just trying to be ambassadors for Detroit artists around the world.