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Remembering K-Hand, the Detroit trailblazer who did it her way

Kelli Hand, the artist dubbed the ‘First Lady of Detroit’, deserves to be remembered as one of the best and most important producers in the history of electronic music

Kelli Hand had no time for BS. Not that she didn’t endure her share of it – find us a female DJ or producer from the 90s who didn’t experience some form of sexism. But she simply refused to be ruffled by it. The late, great Detroit trailblazer, best known as K-Hand, one of the first women in the world to release house and techno records, was a master of “staying in her lane”, squarely focused on her greatest passion: making and mixing music.

Hand passed away on Tuesday aged 56, over 30 years after her career began in the city she was so proud to call home and four years after she was crowned “The First Lady of Detroit” by the city’s council in honour of her prolific, groundbreaking contribution to electronic music. The singular, rough-and-tumble experience of growing up in Motor City, along with formative pilgrimages to Paradise Garage in New York and Music Box in Chicago in the late 80s, where she saw the likes of Larry Levan, Loleatta Holloway, Grace Jones, and Ron Hardy work their magic, informed Hand’s sound as a DJ and producer, one as adept in mean acid techno as she was in expansive, romantic house.

She cut her DJing teeth with a residency at Detroit club Zippers, on the recommendation of Detroit house godfather Ken Collier, and began producing tracks at home with a modest setup of a mixer, synth, keyboard, Atari, and her beloved Roland R-8 drum machine. Her approach to making music was autodidactic and obsessive, especially when it came to hardware and vinyl. The tools she learned to produce and DJ with were imbued with warmth and soul – and had a foundational impact on her craft and skills.

Hand eventually made her first record with the assistance of Jeff Mills, Mike Clark, and Robert Hood, who came over, remixed the track, and offered to release it on Underground Resistance. She appreciated their help, but “figured I’d like to see how the full process went and decided to release it myself,” she told RA in 2016. “And then I knew what to do for the next one, and then the next one, and the next one.” That debut EP, Think About It, was released in 1990 under one of Hand’s earliest monikers, Etat Soldide (French for “Solid State”) on her first label UK House Records, later renamed Acacia Records after one of Detroit’s central streets and a cross street Hand grew up on. She subtitled the label “Music From A Well Known Place” and its logo – a dancing, long-haired woman, head thrown back in ecstasy – along with the brilliant, simple K-Hand symbol, are two of the most iconic in electronic music.

Hand’s output was enormous over the next three decades, even when holding down a full time job early in her career. From 1990 to 2021, under various aliases including Gorsch, KMH, and Rhythm Formation (with Claude Young), she put out over 70 releases spanning earliest ghettotech, bone-deep Chicago house, stomping loopy techno, and heady acid journeys. Most of her music appears on Acacia (also a home to artists such as Wamdue Kids and Party Crashers). But Hand also released on Distance, Ausfahrt, Tresor, !K7, who put out her 1995 debut LP On A Journey, and Warp Records, where her storming 1994 Global Warning EP marked the first time a Detroit artist had appeared on the label. Being signed to Nina Kraviz’s Trip recordings in 2015 and touring Europe with the label helped spark broader appreciation of Hand’s work. In a tribute on Instagram this week, Kraviz wrote of being inspired by Hand, “a mysterious woman from Detroit that made and played outstanding house and techno and also owned a record label,” as a schoolgirl.

Despite her title as “First Lady of Detroit” and being recognised alongside the likes of Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, and The Belleville Three at the Spirit of Detroit awards in 2016, given to individuals or groups for “outstanding achievement or service to the citizens of Detroit,” Hand never enjoyed the same level of success as her male peers. When, in a 2013 interview, it was suggested she’d been criminally overlooked for most of her career, she retorted, “Haha! Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder can see this also”. While Hand had received support and respect from the beginning from many of her Detroit cohorts, others were jealous. In an interview on the RA Exchange podcast in 2019, she spoke of producers who quashed opportunities for Hand to remix hit records, and booking agencies who falsely listed Hand on their roster, then pushed other artists when they received requests for her to play. But she was never bitter. 

“These people have done more gigs, well, you’re as good as your last gig,” she said, adding that she’d produced at least 300 tracks. “My material goes on forever. Bookings don’t.” Of sexism, she said, “I don’t deal with that,” which could be more accurately translated as, “I don’t engage with that.” She had chosen K-Hand among other monikers for their genderless qualities, but never complained about being hard done by. “Everyone will have their time when their time arrives,” she said.

“No one has walked in my shoes, I bring that to the table. Nobody can replicate me” – K-Hand

Besides, Hand knew her worth. She knew she had created her own, inimitable sound, one forged by a triumvirate of Detroit, Chicago, and New York influences, innate talent, a lifetime of tinkering with gear, and a moody disposition that fed into her productions. This enabled her to create one of the most diverse, robust catalogues in electronic music. Hand was aware of her influence on both her contemporaries and the many who came after. “No one has walked in my shoes, I bring that to the table,” she told RA. “Nobody can replicate me.”

Perhaps most importantly of all, Hand’s accomplishments as a Black woman in a male-dominated industry showed aspiring women producers and DJs, especially women of colour, that they could carve out a space for themselves too. “​​I think her legacy stands as that of a woman who was not waiting for someone to discover her, but made her own moves, started her own label, and ended up launching and furthering the careers of other artists via her label as well,” Cornelius Harris, Underground Resistance label manager, tells Dazed. “Maybe that’s the legacy, to show people to not wait and to create your own lane.” 

Staunch, funny, and optimistic, Hand was also fiercely private and trusted few people beyond her family, her late Pekingese dog and a select handful of peers. In tributes this week, which poured in from DJs and producers emerging and established around the world, some acknowledged “difficult moments” with Hand, but none could argue the immense respect she’d earned as an artist, label boss, and pioneer.

Last June, I emailed Hand requesting an interview, knowing she gave them rarely. After a while she responded, cheerfully apologising for the delay.  “Sorry nothing personal but I’m not available to interview at the moment. Please check back in year 2030,” she wrote. “Its too much going on as I feel there is no need for me to respond, further comment or answer any questions at this time therefore my answer is: Silent Answer, the EP is out on acaciaus.bandcamp.com.”

The true artist that she was, Hand always let her music speak for itself. 

Dazed asked those close to and inspired by Hand to share their thoughts and memories of the artist.

CORNELIUS HARRIS, LABEL MANAGER, UNDERGROUND RESISTANCE

“She was sincere and she was rude and she was fantastic, full of humour. I really loved her, crazy as she could be. She lived one floor below me when I first moved to Detroit in 1993. She was always having parties, and the walls and floors were super thin so she said, ‘Well, you’re invited to all my parties because you’re going to be there by default anyways!’ I laughed. And back in the day, in those lofts, her parties were amazing! When she’d smile… it was one of those things where it was like there was so much stuff behind that smile, you kind of had to smile too. I guess, now that I think about it, I probably had a slight crush on her! But she was really welcoming to me and I appreciated that.”

STACEY “HOTWAXX” HALE, “GODMOTHER OF DETROIT HOUSE” WHO STARTED DJING AROUND THE SAME TIME AS HAND

“When she started producing, she would make music using the least bit of equipment,” Hale says. “She was an excellent drum programmer, she showed me how to use the drum machine and helped me with a mixer and stuff, and she would always share. She’s very unselfish.”

“She danced to the beat of her own drum and she was unique, and that's how she was, always. And I admire her for that. She deserved to be as big as anyone else doing it because she was there and she was all that. It’s unfortunate that you get the accolades after the fact, but that’s how it is sometimes.”

“She was funny, genuine, and determined. She was Detroit’s queen of techno, she was number one, because there were no other women doing techno in Detroit. She made history, she really did.”  

THOMAS BARNETT, DETROIT TECHNO PIONEER

“My times around Kelli were filled with laughs, music and tech talk, and more laughs. Her energy seemed limitless and contagious, her aura was visible from miles away. She really knew how to connect with her audience and you could feel that. Kelli was real, she was consistent, and she followed no one but herself. She offered me the very best advice that I have ever received in this music game. It was personal so I won’t share it here, but I wish I had the chance to tell her that she was 100 per cent spot on.”  

SALLY C, DJ/PRODUCER

“K-Hand is without a doubt one of my favourite producers, her music has had an unparalleled impact on me as an artist. I discovered her label Acacia Records when I fell in love with the US house sound around ten years ago. I thought to myself, this woman is a fucking boss, look at her discography! 

Her productions have a simplicity that I love, the drums always have that perfect, rolling, heavy, bass-in-stomach kind of feeling. Straight up heaters, every track she has ever made. She motivates me to strive for simplicity yet excellence in my own productions. 

We are so lucky to have been graced by this powerful, inspiring being who has left us far too early. She paved the way for so many women, showing us all how it’s done. No one will ever do it like her though. I was longing to meet Kelli one day and tell her how much I respected and admired her as a woman and an artist. It was a real dream of mine to hand her one of my own records. However, the legacy of music she has left behind is the greatest gift. I will play her music forever.”