Michael The Lion: “What Was Old to Me Became New to Everyone Else.”
There is barely enough room for Michael Fichman to sit down in the recording studio he built in his West Philly home. He slides between two guitar stands and sits down in front of his desk, atop which sits a computer and huge speakers pointing back toward shelves upon shelves of his dense record collection. Then he queues up a track off his upcoming album.
“Generally speaking, this is not what’s popping in the club scene,” Fichman says with a laugh.
While that may be true of the club scene in general, here in Philly, people get it.
That’s because Fichman, who goes by the stage name Michael The Lion, samples heavily from the types of disco, funk and soul music that have deep roots in this city. It’s also got him huge recognition at clubs like Franky Bradley’s, where people are looking to get down to something a little funkier.
When Fichman started DJing at Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh (the same school as Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller), the now 33-year-old DJ went by the name DJ Apt One.
“That name meant I could play anything at any time,” he says.
After moving to Philadelphia in 2001, Fichman’s first claim to fame was a party he dubbed Philadelphyinz to connect his new home to the “yinzers” of his birthplace. It was an exciting time to be a DJ, Fichman says. Especially in Philadelphia.
“You could play anything at any time and mix broad styles together. And Philly was exporting it,” Fichman explains. “Cosmo Baker, Rich Medina, Diplo—these guys were taking this around the world and I was fortunate to kind of get in under the bar when people in other cities wanted to hear what people in Philly were doing.”
Fichman had monthly gigs at Medusa Lounge and Silk City, where he’d mix Baltimore club music with Chicago juke and everything in between. In his private studio time though, Fichman was becoming increasingly interested in the sounds of yore.
“I started playing hip-hop, so I learned about music in reverse by finding the samples in the songs that I liked,” Fichman says of his gravitation toward funk, soul and disco.
As Fichman’s secret catalog grew, it was his friend and fellow DJ Cosmo Baker who gave him the push to pursue production.
“Cosmo Baker, who’s a friend of mine and one of the people whose opinions I respect the most, said, ‘This is really amazing. You need to create a new side project for this, or change the name,’” says Fichman.
“There’s a certain soulfulness that has been lost in dance music,” says Baker, who recently opened the Philly branch of Scratch Academy. “I appreciate the way he pays homage to what came before without sounding cheesy or retro.”
With encouragement from Baker, Fichman set about devising a new alias and ended up going with his own name. Aryeh, Fichman’s middle name, is Hebrew for lion.
“I had been trying for years to access a new level,” Fichman says.
With the new direction, he was able to get there. Music that he had been working on in private suddenly found new life. Soul Clap Records ended up putting out Fichman’s new music on vinyl in 2014.
“What was old to me became new to everyone else,” he says about bringing out his Michael the Lion music for the first time.
Fichman’s first set as Michael the Lion was at the first installment of his Hooked party at Franky Bradley’s in March of 2015 and it set the bar record for total profit from sales in one night.
Seeing how pleased the packed crowd was with Fichman’s music, Franky Bradley’s insisted he bring the Hooked party back to the venue every month.
“I looked around and said, ‘I think we’ll do it every quarter. We don’t want to wear this out,’” Fichman says.
Fichman’s proudest moment was when a DJ from New York contacted him on Soundcloud about a 40th Anniversary box set for Philadelphia International Records. To his starstruck bewilderment, Fichman learned that the legendary Kenny Gamble wanted to buy his Teddy Pendergrass remix for the record.
He was the only Philadelphia artist to do a remix for the box set.
It’s no surprise Fichman has found success with the sounds of funk and disco because really, he says, they’re Philadelphia’s sounds.
“People in Philadelphia fundamentally appreciate it,” he says. “It’s a part of our culture.”