When Detroit techno producer Omar S thinks back on the early days of his label, FXHE, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, he sounds as down-to-earth as his inviting, party-oriented music suggests. “I was just working at my job and making tracks,” he recalls over Zoom. Before then, he’d sent some music out to the major dance labels at the time, but none seemed to have a place for his sound. “I was sending demos to Nervous Records, Strictly Rhythm, Djax-Up-Beats,” he recalls. “I didn’t hear anything back from them people except for Djax-Up-Beats — Miss Djax sent me a letter back that basically said she wasn’t feeling this shit. But she said it in a nice way.”
Omar kept working, eventually getting a nudge from the late Detroit techno DJ and producer Mike Huckaby. “I had bought an MPC 2000, and I wanted to sell it,” he says. “Mike Huckaby said, ‘No, don’t do that. Just keep it and fuck with it.’” In 2003, Omar started FXHE as a way to release the music he was making. His sound was eccentric, spanning a range of influences and melding a deep musical history — from Parliament-Funkadelic to Techno visionary Juan Atkins to modern hip-hop and R&B — with an innately playful flair. Sure enough, after a few years, he became one of the most in-demand producers in dance music.
“Nobody had heard this type of shit before,” he says. “Record stores wanted anything I did. I used to call them and play tracks over the phone, and they’d send me the money right there. I’m like, ‘This shit is not even on the fucking record yet.’”
Born Alexander Omar Smith in Detroit, Omar S grew up in what he recalls as a time when “music was still instrumental with instruments,” just before the widespread adoption of drum machines and electronics led to the rise of hip-hop in the Eighties. “Then it totally shifted to the electronic shit,” he says. “The next thing you know, house music fucking exploded. Then rap music fucking exploded at the same time.”
Omar S was raised in a musical household in a city at the center of a golden age for Black American music. His father had a robust record collection, and he grew up around Motown legends like Smokey Robinson. (Omar’s Instagram bio notes that the two are related. “Yeah,” he says, adding that he’s a fan of Robinson’s recent release Gasms: “It’s some Smokey-type stuff. Smooth.”) As such, a sort of rugged individualism courses through his label operations. “I’ve been releasing other people’s music since 2004,” Omar says. “I released a lot of people’s first records and stuff like that. A lot of people just dig the shit I’m doing, and they can trust me.”
Around the start of the pandemic, Omar took over a building that his grandfather built in the Fifties. He’s turned it into a central hub for the local community, called the Conant Gardens Party Store. The building is a place for nearby residents to host events like soccer games and birthday parties, as well as a spot for the city’s next generation of artists to soak up game from a legend. “Just to carry on this dance music science,” he says. “I think these kids in Detroit are on a good path, but they don’t know anything about vinyl and how that’s important to keep the Detroit scene alive.”
The singer John FM is one of the many younger Detroit artists who see Omar as a mentor. He describes the ethos shared by FXHE and the city’s other long-running independent dance labels in simple terms: “We triumph Black businesses. We champion Black success and local independent success.” Born on the east side, John FM brings his vibrant vocal talents to house and techno tracks with a distinctiveness that brings the music into pop and R&B’s emotional terrain.
Like many other acts, John met Omar casually — he recalls running into him at a party and chopping it up with the older artist. The two share an easy chemistry that you can see in the video for their 2020 collaboration “Second Life,” where the duo makes a trek to a local liquor store, capturing a cinema verite look at life in the Motor City. “Although it was put out in the electronic world, it’s more leaning towards the R&B and pop shit I’m trying to do in the future,” says John, who is now preparing his debut album on XL Recordings. “FXHE gave me the platform where people were paying attention enough to be like, ‘That’s not just a dance record. That motherfucker was singing on side B.’”
The rap trio HiTech, who draw on Detroit’s ghettotech and techno history in exciting ways, are another example of Omar’s far-reaching influence. He recalls that the group’s producer, 47Chops, started throwing parties at his space with a much younger crowd. “I’m like, damn, this is some new shit. They all know my music and shit, which was surprising,” Omar says. “They mix everything together, and it’s really fast. None of these kids nowadays have an attention span, so it kind of works in their favor.”
This April, Omar S released his latest EP, Pain, which included features from both John FM and HiTech. He also has plans to reissue one of his earliest releases, “002,” on FXHE later this year. For both himself and the artists he works with, physical copies are a priority. To Omar, the vinyl market, which is still very much booming in Detroit, is a good way for an independent artist to make a decent living.
“I support the underground,” he says. “To an industry-type person, if you’re not making $5-$10 million a year, you ain’t shit. But somebody that lives in Detroit lives comfortably on $60,000, $150,000 a year. You living just as fucking good. You got a nice big house that’s paid off. You ain’t got to worry about shit.”