It’s one of those torrid August evenings in Detroit, when the sweat lodge-like atmosphere refuses to relent even when dusk approaches. Humidity scales epic levels, temperatures ascend to near-scorching, and the air itself seems heavier from soaking in all those rays. Hard to imagine that in six months, the steam rising from the sunbaked pavement will be caked over with snow and ice. These dog days of summer are a mixed bag here in the Midwest: we know what’s coming, so we cling to these final weeks of warm weather, but the heat clings to us too, leaving us prone to slumber and seclusion.
That’s not the case here at Tires., however, where the band ONEFREQ are rehearsing for an upcoming gig as one of the opening acts for neo-soul singer Erykah Badu. The group have steadily built their fan base with a beguiling sound that draws upon international influences — the easygoing swing of Latin jazz, the fraught tension of Middle Eastern melodies, the expansive harmonies in dub and reggae — but that’s also of a piece with the city these five young men all hail from — whether it’s Motown’s urbane stylishness or even the mechanical pulse that fuels the engine of the Motor City. ONEFREQ — as befits their name — synthesize all these disparate inspirations, add a healthy dash of their own creative energies, and come up with a frequency that’s universal but also uniquely Detroit. Faced with a sauna like tonight, they turn it into a melting pot of musical ideas that feeds your soul.
As ONEFREQ set up for rehearsal, the ambiance is relaxed and convivial. There’s really no sense that tomorrow the band will be opening for an artist as renowned as Erykah Badu. That relative ease and charm carried through into the conversation I had with Omar Aragones and Wayne Ramocan, the vocalist and drummer, respectively, as we chatted about how the group came to be and where they see this frequency leading them into the future.
Walk me through the origin story of ONEFREQ. What brought you together as a band?
Omar Aragones: Sure, I had played music by myself for a while now. I moved to the southwest part of the city circa 2014, and it was around that time that I had met Wayne [Ramocan], the drummer. He had played with Trey [Priest] and Roderrick [Gaston], both guitar and bass, in other bands. And Erik “Keys” [Washington], the producer, I had known him from out in the suburbs – back in the Canton/Belleville area – for a few years now. I brought him on, and the other three guys, we all eventually coalesced together and just started jamming out in Angela’s [Gallego’s] house in Southwest. It started as a jam, but also with the intention of, “Hey, we want to make music in Detroit.” I felt like that was my calling. I moved down there to get it started, and it felt like something organic just happened. The vibes were good, and the guys all eventually became my brothers. It became a very enjoyable experience and here we are now, doing what we want to do.
You describe your music as “globally inspired,” but at the same time it’s grounded in Detroit. Where does that connection come from?
OA: Well, speaking for myself as a vocalist, I grew up in Southwest Detroit and then the Dearborn area. My parents are from the Caribbean, so I grew up with a lot of Latin music, a lot of Afro-Latin music, as well as Brazilian stuff. My parents had a lot of those different types of records. So I came up with a lot of that. But I also grew up in a very Middle Eastern neighborhood as well, so right off the bat, I was introduced to different parts of the world in terms of my neighbors. They would bring over food, or they would play music. And for myself as a vocalist, I listen to melodies from all different types of backgrounds, so when I’m singing, and I’m pulling from that, I’ll hear a certain Middle Eastern record and the way that they’re singing and the emotion— I’ll try to emulate that sometimes.
But it all comes down to Detroit, you know. I can still feel it pumping in the air around us, with the whole Motown era. Some of my other favorites are Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, the classics, of course. They have just spoken to me so much as my favorite music, even before I decided, “I’m gonna be a singer!” I just always had them. But my exploration has always been of a worldly nature, so when making music, I just go with the flow. Sometimes I do it with the intention of, well this is something I want to do around the world, as well. And so bringing along these other fellas too that are doing music from their own perspectives — I mean, these guys are all from Detroit, you know, born and raised — they’re bringing that sort of meat and potatoes of it all.
So yeah, as far as me, I’ve found that being in the Metro Detroit area, it has its pockets of diversity. So I was lucky enough to have the ability to taste a little bit of each, to have friends from different backgrounds, to kind of just take that in, and to feel the world here without having traveled quite yet.
Music is a great way to take those trips without having to leave your physical environment. You mentioned jamming earlier, which is another sort of journey. Is there a lot of improvisation in your work? Or do you write lyrics and compose music beforehand, either together or individually? And is what we hear on record very different from what you play in a live setting?
Wayne Ramocan: It definitely is. When we make [music], we definitely have to make it in the moment. One artist that I think about is Marvin Gaye. You have a lot of contemporaries that do the same thing out in LA and whatnot, but Marvin Gaye is just very accessible to everybody, and that’s what he used to do. From what I know and what I’ve seen in videos, I’ve seen him jamming, and that’s apparently how he created music. That was right here in this city. It’s just good to see how that could produce music. It has been done, and that’s what we try to do. When we started doing it, it wasn’t intentional; it was just us jamming. Omar and myself, it was just us two, ‘cause Omar plays guitar as well. It was guitar and drums and vocals. That’s kind of how it was. We added pieces because we wanted a fuller sound. As we continued to jam, that’s how we started to make songs. It was like, “Okay, that sounds good. This is catchy enough. Let’s keep it.”
Now the thing is, that can only last so long. We started to play bigger stages, and we started to travel a little more. Chicago was showing us a lot of love, almost immediately after we started. It was up to us to step up to that plate. So we did, and even now we’re making steps up based on where we play, the types of stuff that we’re doing in our set, the length of our set. We’re creating new music, so we’re spending time on it, is what I’m getting at. As we spend more time on it, it evolves, and now our process is evolving as well. We’re going into the studio and learning how to be more efficient in the studio. That’s still a process, but that helps us evolve in our creative process, so now we’re not waiting to get in the studio, for instance, to write a song.
Now we’re focusing on how we put this together at a rehearsal first. Those are the types of things, truthfully, that we’re still working through right now. That’s just the stage of our growth and our evolution that we’re in. We’re a group that started December 14, , so it’s very brand-new. It’s almost two years. When you think about anything that’s almost two years old, you think, “How much has it grown since it was brand-new?” Right? That’s kind of how we’re thinking about our evolution.
It also speaks to the culture that we’re in now, the culture in Detroit. When you think about music, when you think about small businesses, when you think about other types of art – this is the time now, and people are working. But the thing is, as we’re working from the state that the city was in, or has been in for decades, with us coming from that sort of state, there’s a lot of growth that is happening right now in many ways. And I think for the arts it’s definitely happening, and that’s what we’re a part of.
It’s interesting that you draw a parallel between this sort of “New Detroit” narrative and the growth of ONEFREQ, from its infancy and taking baby steps to more maturity in the writing and recording process.
WR: That’s one way to think about it, but I would also add that as far as like, “New Detroit,” I think that it’s really the old Detroit. We’re all Detroiters, actually. We spent lots of time here, and even where we started was down in Southwest. I’m not even from Southwest; I’m from the Eastside. But it’s crazy how we all connected down in Southwest. So again, it’s not necessarily just an “old/new,” but I think it’s really just that the activity that has been going on over the last decade, or over the last couple decades that I’ve been in the city – that activity is now paying off. That’s what I’m getting at. So it’s not so much like “New Detroit” in the typical narrative, where you have a new group of people coming in. We the folks who been here. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what we’re a part of. The people who are creating this shit? We are part of it.
You have roots in the city, and they’re from all over, as you said: the Eastside, Southwest. You’re pulling from all these neighborhoods within the city and all these sounds from immigrant cultures that have resided in the city for so long – from the Caribbean to the Middle East – and it comes through in your music. But it can’t be placed anywhere but Detroit, which is awesome.
The video for “Drug of Choice” is really compelling. Tell me more about the creation of that song.
WR: I saw the videographer today. I saw Diego at breakfast.
OA: Yeah, shout-out to Diego [Cruz] from Southwest. He’s the director. Shout-out to Shot Selection.
WR: Tony Ray, for the Cadillac, the Fleetwood.
OA: Gerard Atillo, with Shot Selection.
WR: Everybody. All around.
OA: So the song came into fruition when Erik “Nuntheless” brought like a quick sample to just one of those regular jam sessions. He brought this sample that was the sound in the beginning. [Mimics opening sound of “Drug of Choice.”] Right away it was just like, “Oh, that sounds nice to our ears.” We were all just, like, swimming in this idea of making music with each other, and he put it on, and then right away it was just one that came with a jam. For me lyrically, I didn’t even have to sit down and write it out. That just came into my head. It was around that moment in time that I was in a new situation with somebody that I was feeling very inspired about. And so those words and the melody just kind of came simply, real quick. It was just one of those seamless, effortless type of songs, and it was the sound that brought it out. From there, yeah, we took it to the studio, and it was as simple as that. There’s other songs that we’ve been sitting on that we’ve been tweaking and trying to figure out, but that was definitely one that was organic.
You’ve gone from playing smaller venues to steadily growing your fan base, and now you’re opening for Erykah Badu. How are you feeling about this opportunity?
OA: I feel good!
You seem very cool, calm, collected about it.
OA: I feel like this is just the beginning of a wave of things to come. I wouldn’t say it’s a first step, but it’s a good step for us. It’s meant to be.
Photo credits (top to bottom): Michael Lapp, Angela Gallegos