Blowing up in music did not compel Todd Osborn to blow town for the bright lights of New York, Berlin, London, nor any of music's other major epicenters. Believe it or not, the successful DJ and music producer prefers "the subconscious vibe of being in Ypsi," and the opportunities the area provides him to work and play his own way. You heard that right. Ypsilanti trumps urban heavyweights like Los Angeles and Paris.
It might be subconscious for Osborn, but speaking with him you get the sense that the "vibe" he's feeling is really about the personal relationships that he has with his community, his family, and the cats over at Ghostly - ever since he was a kid. And his self-aware approach to the business of making music has really paid off, allowing him to carve out an established career on Ghostly International's techno-oriented label Spectral Sound, as DJ Osborne, and his own label Rewind Records / Rephlex under the name Soundmurderer.
Osborn is reluctant to give budding musicians advice, due to the fact that much of his own success in music has been "a lot of luck and my friends coming over, hearing something I'm doing, and spreading it around." However, his story exemplifies how building long-lasting, personal relationships in your community creates the potential for success.
For him, it's about "doing business the way you want to do it." He concludes, "If you're already in that mindset and you carry yourself with integrity, then people will pick up on that, and they will respond to it."
Osborn grew up in the greater Detroit area until second grade, when his dad built a house in Chelsea. Although he was somewhat isolated from the Detroit music scene, his proximity to Ann Arbor allowed him to tap into the youth-driven culture of the college scene and catch groups like Run-DMC at the Hill Auditorium.
Chelsea was also within the broadcasting range of the Detroit and Ann Arbor radio stations that influenced him. He remembers, "When I was growing up, there were a lot of great radio shows like Mojo and the Wizard." He explains that "being isolated and by yourself when you are listening to the radio is just like radio plays from the 40s and 50s. You make up a story in your head about what's going on. If I was in Detroit, and I was actually going out to parties and hearing this, I might not have had such an interesting take."
In the early 1990s, Osborn was stationed in Japan with the US Air Force. He started spinning records in the basement of a punk bar, and eventually management moved him up to the main floor and started him on collecting vinyl. It's where he developed both his chops as a DJ and his interest in Japanese culture. Upon returning to the States in 1996, he started working for Tower Records in Ann Arbor and became committed to building his own music library.
On the advice of his friends and family, he opened his own record store, Dubplate Pressure, which eventually merged with Schoolkids / SKR. He was also making records as Soundmurderer, and collaborating with friend and fellow Spectral artist Tadd Mullinix. Osborn's albums were cut into vinyl and shared with friends, but never promoted or released in any formal way. This is how he still prefers to do business.
When many were jumping on the iTunes bandwagon, Osborn took an unconventional approach to sharing his music. Rather than waiting for people to rip his music to mp3 and post it online for free, he saved them the hassle and did it himself. His non-commercial approach to sharing paid off. UK-based label Rephlex Records downloaded tracks off his website and contacted him. Osborn "liked their philosophy," and Rewind joined Rephlex; however, he continues to have control over the music he makes as Soundmurderer, as well as its production and release.
It wasn't long before Osborn got to know Ghostly International's founder Sam Valenti, after Ghostly's late Dave Shayman told Valenti about Dubplate Pressure. "Me and Dave would play house parties around Ann Arbor sometimes. Then I opened up my record store around the same time, and Sam would come in to browse the classic jazz and funk records," he remembers.
Valenti was already impressed by Osborn's contribution to a release put out by Detroit's DJ Godfather when he started Spectral Sound. In 2002, Osborn released his first tracks on Spectral, cut in the living room of his parent's house. Since then, he credits his success to the constant support he receives from Valenti and other friends in the music business.
Much of what inspires Osborn to stay in Ypsi has nothing to do with his music career. As a devoted mechanical, electrical, and engineering hobbyist, the Detroit area's industrial history and culture supports his lifestyle. He acknowledges that many people are impressed by his "crazy" hobbies, which include home-made computer building, experimenting with new ways of producing music, and working on every type of transportation vehicle imaginable. It's not uncommon to find him working on an airplane engine, and, yes, it's true he has built a hovercraft. However, for Osborn, these are "just the things I’m into," he says humbly. What is more important to him is that he has access to the resources he needs to build and store the planes, cars, and endless list of gadgets that he likes to work on in his free time.
"Detroit used to be, and in some ways still is, a great industrial center. There are still remnants of these shops," he tells. "What's great about this area is that you can go down to one of these places like a tool and die shop, and tell them about whatever project you are working on. They want to help out someone in the area, and so they'll cut you a break," he elaborates. According to Osborn, if he were to move to New York City, he would not have the same level of access to cheap, or even free, labor, materials, and storage.
Osborn prefers Ypsi's smaller music scene, and he would rather spend his nightlife seeing bands and DJs in different genres than focusing his social life only on techno. "There’s not a scene that you can get lost in," he says. He prefers to see bands and DJs in different genres at venues across Ypsi and the Ann Arbor–Detroit stretch. He explains that a smaller scene creates a lot of potential for cross-genre feedback. Hearing diverse ideas and opinions on music helps him to create music that "translates into what all of these people are into," he says.
Lucky or not, Osborn has sustained a career in music without having to leave the source from which he draws his inspiration. And with the Internet making all things global, he can "mail it in" from home, he says.
Is Ypsi his final destination? There no telling. Osborn says that if he ever moves it will probably be to an island off the coast of Japan, to enjoy the place where his wife grew up. The good news is that, even then, we'll still have access to his music.
Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Ann Arbor. This is her first article for Concentrate. Visit her online at www.jenthewriter.info
Todd Osborn and His Vinyl Collection-Ypsilanti
Todd Can Fix Planes...Seriously....Dude is Crazy Talented-Ypsilanti
Todd is Very Mechanically Inclined, He's Fixing Something Here-Ypsilanti
Check the Levels-Ypsilanti
Todd Next to Captain America, Which Is He Painted-Ypsilanti
Some More of Todd's Artwork-YpsilantiAll Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. He had quite an awkward encounter with Todd, sticking his foot in his mouth plenty o' times. Dave digs music though...
Check out his blag here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up
for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.