Detroit-based XL Recordings artist John FM, featured in issue 06 of WIP magazine, on exploring the American spirit, navigating grief, and how a roll of the dice brought him back to music. His new single “White Science” featuring ZelooperZ is out now.
Words: Myles Sinclair
Images: Samuel Trotter
The disintegration of Detroit started with fire. In 1967, as social unrest coursed through hundreds of major cities in America, Detroit was home to the bloodiest of uprisings. The infamous Detroit riots took place during the sweltering summer of that year — when decades of pent up Black frustration from systemized poverty, racial profiling, and police brutality boiled over and spilled into the streets. The entirety of 12th Street was ablaze, more than 2,500 buildings were looted, damaged or destroyed, and in the end there were 43 deaths and 7,200 arrests made over five days of rioting.
The fires, and the oppressive conditions that ignited them, are not where the city’s troubles began or ended. But they were arguably the most drastic turning point in its history; the point after which the vitality of Detroit was no longer. The flames were extinguished, but the city was never built back up in the aftermath. Instead, the white population fled to the suburbs, and the automotive industry, upon which much of Detroit’s economy was built, would quickly desert too, in search of cheaper labor overseas. What was left is perhaps the most damning microcosm of American institutional racism: as the nation’s largest Black majority city, Detroit is also the nation’s poorest city.
American Spirit, the most recent EP from the Detroit artist John FM opens with a local elder bellowing in captivating spoken word: “We got the feeling that will take you higher… We burn the wicked with the hot, hot, hot, hot fire!” It may not be the 1967 riots that he is specifically referring to, but it sets the tone for an EP that captures the essence of Detroit.
American Spirit is a collection of five songs that serve as timeless anti-capitalist spirituals disguised as soulful Detroit house. John describes the project as a soundtrack for the past five years of his life, but really the songs feel more like a soundtrack for American cynicism en masse. His lyrics cast a spotlight on greed and debauchery, those inherent byproducts of American capitalism, while at the same time exploring self-love and personal growth. The music itself is by turns moody and reflective.
On “Lockjaw – 7 Deadly Winnin’” he raps tongue-in-cheek about getting head to the rhythm of fire sirens, and overdosing on gluttony. “We always lookin for more nigga, that’s called greed,” he delivers in a moody lo-fi rasp. The opening track “February” reflects on the thralls of a sour relationship that ultimately serves as a metaphor for the common human inability to resist temptation.
“My existence is a protest,” John tells me plainly, when we speak over Zoom in late January. “My ability and my existence is a protest in itself. Me being able to make weird shit and be able to be free in my artistic integrity is that protest.”
Born and raised in Detroit, the artist currently lives in Oak Park, a tiny city on the south border of Detroit. He is a protege of one of the city’s most heralded house producers, Omar S., and has built on Omar’s deeply soulful and robust grooves to infuse his own hints of rap and soul — as best demonstrated by their 2020 collaboration on the track “Second Life.”
If John was raised anywhere else, he might be doing something entirely different, but as a result of Detroit’s unraveling, he says he was left with three paths: “Make music, work in the factory, or commit crime.” Coming up in Detroit, if nothing else, provides a rich and diverse palette for one to develop a distinct sound, with each era mirroring the fortunes of the city itself. From Motown in the 1960s and 70s; to becoming the hub of techno in the 80s; to the 90s which saw the rise of ghettotech, street rap from the Eastside Chedda Boyz and Street Lord’z, followed by the boom-bap era led by Dilla and Slum Village; and now the resurgence of Detroit street rap from the likes of Sada Baby, Babyface Ray, and Whitehouse Studio.
The city also provided John with a fascinating lens on America, one which has shaped not only his music but the message behind it. A city once built on the back of machinery and tactility seems to have naturally drawn him to the analog — an environment so centered around factories and the production of objects from their smallest parts perhaps produces a need to build things up bit by bit. That machinery being stripped away too engenders the realization that the American economic system is designed to work against you. This can either force one to be more resourceful with less, or it can lead one to dissolve.
John currently works a regular 9-to-5 in-between making music. Or maybe it’s the other way around. When we speak it is his off-day, which he tells me upfront, though it goes without saying. Over the course of our conversation, he glides around his house in a cozy black patterned bathrobe, while rocking a silk black bonnet and smoothly maneuvering between the home and his porch for the occasional smoke break.
“These past two years have actually been low-key painful,” he tells me. “My father passed away back in August.” The ensuing seven months were a tailspin of depression, confusion, and self-doubt. The kind of spiral that happens when you lose not just a close loved one but a personal pillar and guidepost. “He provided me a space where I could grow to be whatever I wanted while encouraging my music along the way,” he continues. “I can’t thank him enough for that.”
His father’s passing took place during an already destitute period of John’s life. Struggling with the dark fog of the pandemic, he took nearly a year away from making music, spending his time working his day job and learning how to take apart, then put back together, motorcycles in his garage. “I thought I was about to quit music and just start doing that shit full-time,” he says.
When we speak, it is the start of a new year, some months after that break from music and just over half a year since his father’s passing. So what changed? “In the last month I went to a casino and came up with 1,800 dollars. I felt this re-enlightening of myself.” John split some of the bread amongst his friends, and used the rest to buy him and his girlfriend a new washer. “That really brought me back to the root of what I am doing this for. Like, I’m making money and I can bring it back to my people and my family. That brought my confidence back and this last month I’ve been writing like a maniac.” The grounded soul cherishes the smallest blessings.
Those tortuous two years are just some of the five that shaped the music on American Spirit, which was released on XL Recordings last April. The album was birthed organically. In the middle of his music sabbatical, John started putting a playlist together of songs he had recorded over the years. “I realized all these things sound like my past and they also sound like now. If you put that together during the pandemic in tandem, it makes you wonder how we all got here.”
American Spirit provides some answers, if not a way out. The EP is not heavy-handed political music, but rather a more subtle, elusive social critique of the project’s very title, delivered under the guise of deep house grooves and techno synths. In John FM’s music, the American spirit is inseparable from the ruthless logic of capital, which has commodified nearly every aspect of our lives in pursuit of profit, eroding communities and our very surroundings in the process. “It’s like a little cry to just do better,” he says. “We have so much farther to go.”
For John, going further has been a journey of self-improvement. “I think priority for me is being a better person instead of being a better artist. We are human but we get stuck in ways that are detrimental. What five years really taught me is that humans are humans — but how can you be better?”
Now re-enlightened and creatively motivated, what beholds for the next chapter of John’s music is both unknown and exciting. On the heels of those chaotic and taxing two years, he continues to maniacally write, and is discovering a new voice in the process. He doesn’t reveal much but says his new music “sounds like a whole different palette.” He takes a brief pause, reflecting. “I’m just excited to finally feel free.”
John FM – White Science feat. ZelooperZ
This article was taken from issue 06 of WIP magazine, available from Carhartt WIP stores and our online shop.