The Music of the Comeback

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As a teenager in the 1960s, the DJ John “Jammin’” Collins danced on the TV show Swingin’ Time, Detroit’s version of American Bandstand. “I met all these entertainers—Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Supremes, Temptations, Spinners, everybody,” Collins says. “They all came on the show. It was a lot of fun.” Those TV-dancing days are long gone, along with Motown Records and even his home, demolished to make way for controversial urban-renewal projects in the 1960s and ’70s. But Collins is still here.

In 2011, in the midst of the economic crisis, Collins produced his first 12-inch record. The gospel-tinged house-techno hybrid “Yeah” went directly against the grain of the doomsday pronouncements of Detroit’s collapse. Now 61, Collins produces house and techno records for Underground Resistance and deejays in Detroit and around the world. He is a member of the Detroit Entertainment Commission and serves on the board of the Detroit-Berlin Connection—an attempt to more deeply connect two cities that have inspired each other musically and culturally for generations. Whether he is deejaying at an LGBT shelter or at Motor City Wine, a bar as open to house-music DJs as it is to jazz combos, Collins exemplifies the confidence and pride that comes with years of practice and a rich sense of musical history.

In Detroit, despite the atrophy of some small music venues, an overlapping network of clubs, talent and production crews continues to mix old and new traditions at the margins, reminding its audience that there is a continuity to the city’s brazen musical output. Promoter Steven Reaume, whose late-night after-hours parties are legendary, says it best: “Detroit is one scene. Promoters, DJs, artists all support each other, not compete against each other.”

Virginia Benson, a former bartender at Garden Bowl, one of the birthplaces of Detroit’s turn-of-the-century garage-rock scene, has taken what she has learned to become a critical promoter and talent buyer in the city. Her Party Store Productions now books talent like psych-punk band the Deadly Vipers at the Marble Bar, a venue hidden in plain sight in an old bank that only recently was a longtime Detroit leather bar. Benson also books shows at the UFO Factory, a Corktown hangout for Babe Ruth and Bobby Layne that was reborn in 2014 as an indie-rock club and art gallery. “I want everyone to feel comfortable going to a show or a dance party. I want it to be as diverse as possible, and open people up to new things,” she says.

That inclusive approach is best embodied by trumpeter Dameon Gabriel of the Gabriel Brass Band, which he leads with his cousin once removed and grand marshal, Larry Gabriel. Larry’s cousin, Detroit-raised Charlie Gabriel, is a clarinetist for the touring version of New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The Detroit-based Gabriels, especially Dameon, have their hands full. He is building out Gabriel Hall, a new venue in the city’s West Village. There is a lot of work to be done on the boarded-up building, which has been abandoned since the 1990s. But Dameon, a fifth-generation musician, is optimistic about opening next year: “Now is the time. I have the opportunity to do it. And yes, Detroit is ready.”

This piece was first published here. Photo by Laura McDermott

The Detroit I Love: Voom Approaches 25th Anniversary

Voom 1992-1993

Consider the dolphins. Dolphins have no hands, so they have no works — no weapons, no records, no history, no government, no property, no law, no crime, no punishment. No dolphin is married to any other dolphin, but all dolphins are kin. They are the true idyll of communism as Marx dreamed it. There is no forbidden fruit to expel them from Eden. They are naked and cannot be ashamed. They are some of the aliens among us; women are some other aliens, as are men…. So the dolphins sing and mate and play and eat and swim. They roll, exempt from the regime of secondness. What collective poetry, oral histories, symphonies of discussions over hundreds of leagues, fondness, relationships they must have. Voices that travel for hundreds of miles, allowing completely asynchronous dialogues. What friendships. What grief at the loss of a fellow to the nets or the killer whales. What philosophical dialogues, with no record but the consciousness of the community that listens. – John Peters from Speaking Into The Air: A History of the Idea of Communication

Flyers from Detroit’s early 1990s techno scene are red, blue, green and yellow. They feature numbers, letters, spirals, and shapes. They are made out of paper, cardboard, string, and metal. Animals and objects are present as well: a vacuum cleaner, an anamorphic wolverine, and dolphins. They feature messages, some cryptic (“Put some scuba around tonight!” ), others seemingly more understandable (“Join us now on a journey of pure ecstasy, into the deepest heart of joy.”). They mimic corporate brands (Standard Oil, Squirt) and play on the styles of mass commodities (bubble gum, laundry detergent). Their authors have names like Swan, MJF30-X10 and Eddie Munster. Though some are relatively plain, with black text on white backgrounds, all feature some sort of design or image on them, and many look like slices of modern and postmodern art, whether the pop-art styles of Andy Warhol or the formalist lines, circles, and structural designs of Russian Constructivists.

Amid Detroit’s oft-discussed de-industrial collapse, a handful of teen and twenty-somethings, inspired by local, national and international shifts in dance music culture, including its visual style and fashion , formed a collective to put on after-hour parties that provided a youth-friendly, mixed-race, gay-and-straight, alternative to an older, more corporate, largely segregated club nightlife offered in the Detroit area at the time. They called themselves Voom. Clever, cool, and, because of their various identities, sensitive to a longer tradition of underground dance music in Detroit, this collective produced flyers to encourage the crossing of boundaries between race and sexuality in one of the most segregated cities in the country. The result was a potent but short-lived series of parties that through the efforts of Voom encouraged Detroit’s budding rave scene. By the time Detroit police finally stopped a Voom party a little over a year after they had begun — according to interviews, the cars swamping an otherwise desolate downtown Detroit streetscape after the closing of most legal bars at 2 AM had become too hard to ignore — the collective had sparked the imaginations of a new, predominantly White and suburban, audience for electronic dance music in Detroit. Fifteen years later, some of Voom’s most devoted followers, like members of Paxahau, an event company whose genesis began in the wake of the Voom-era, have become ambassadors for electronic dance music in Detroit.

Octave One

Octave One on twenty-six years of techno
They believe

Originally published in the Metro Times on 20 May 2015.

The origins of Octave One —primarily Lenny and Lawrence Burden, but initially a band of brothers that included Lorne, Lynell, and Lance Burden — run simultaneous with the emergence of techno in the 1980s.

Pittsburgh-based electro-sonic aficionado Shawn Rudiman respects what these second-generation techno musicians do live. “They keep music as instruments, not as backing tracks. It’s a more human and rawer, more exciting — to both artist and audience — way to play. When computers came of age, most went that one-stop-shop route. They didn’t. It’s a fuller, heavier, and warmer sound. It’s more intense sounding, less sonically perfect. It has personality.”

Their first live show was only a decade ago, at the now-defunct Motor Lounge, performing as Random Noise Generation. And I was there. They improvised onstage with prerecorded as well as live sounds. At the time, our techno city had been reborn with the first festivals. Everyone seemed to be a DJ and to have a label. Hamtramck’s Motor Lounge was cooking multiple nights a week. But not everyone played live. That night, Lawrence, the eldest brother and the group’s DJ during the 1990s, jumped onstage while younger brother Lenny took control of the visuals, in addition to performing live.

“I was looking at him trying to work a lot of gear,” Lawrence says. “And he just looked like he had more than he could handle. He was running the mixing desk, and I think at that time he had some lights, or some visuals running on the laptop — he was all over the place! So I ran up onstage and my idea was just to kind of control the sound but I was amped up from DJing, so I started tweaking EQs and punching things in and out. And he started jamming even more, ’cause he was free up to start doing what he wanted to do, live-wise. So that’s how literally, before people’s eyes, that’s how we built the live show — that particular show, the very first one!”

The Octave One crew and their label are now based in Atlanta. But the label name carries the address of their first studio: 430 West, a small, two-story building still standing in Ferndale. At one point the label was host to a number of artists, including Anthony “Shake” Shakir and Terrence Parker. Shake appreciates their “straight to the point no holds barred” approach to creating music. Parker adds his appreciation for their “integrity in both their personal and professional lives.” However, the label is now more of a personal production company for their own work.

I caught up with them over the phone to discuss their live show Saturday night at the Movement Electronic Music Festival, the album release party scheduled for Sunday, and their career, going back to its start in 1989.

Metro Times: What’s the performance going to be like at this year’s festival? How might it differ from your normal road show?

Lenny Burden: Well, we’re releasing our album, Burn It Down. Last year at the festival, we had the opportunity of debuting a few cuts from the album and we’re going to play a lot more [of it] this time. Last year, we were on the Detroit stage; this time, we are actually going onstage with Disclosure, Method Man, things like that. For us, we always try to feel the crowd. We felt a little more aggressive last time, and who knows what we are going to feel this time — playing before Method Man and after Kerri Chandler — so we’ll see how it goes. We like to be very versatile. We’ve played harder techno events, more housier events; it just depends on how we feel.

Lawrence Burden: Yeah, really. How we feel, and how we feel the crowd. What they can handle at that particular time kind of dictates where we go. But this is going to be intense and progressive, because that is how we like to do things.

MT: In terms of technical stuff, how many boxes of things, how many suitcases, how many — what’s the metaphor here — what’s the stuff?

Lenny: We carry a lot of gear with us, man. I don’t know how many synths to be honest [laughs]. Lots of synths, lots of drum machines, lots of effects; this is primarily a complete recording studio, minus the recorder, onstage.

Lawrence: Even for certain things we carry backup, so for certain things there is double as well, just in case something happens. We hope it never happens, but we need to know we are covered in that aspect as well.

MT: Let’s talk about the album. Why choose Spectacles for the release party?

Lenny: For one thing, Zana [Smith, owner of the shop Spectacles] is a staple in Detroit, just period. She’s been there for such a long time, and she’s been part of the scene for such a long time, and we never had the opportunity to actually work with Zana. We don’t get that opportunity to play at something so intimate very often. And we wanted to be a free event and we want to play downtempo, stuff that we normally would not play. And really, to just have a nice little occasion with our fans.

Lawrence: And it’s in Detroit proper! [laughs]

Lenny: Yeah, it’s in Detroit!

Lawrence: Zana always supported the underground. People that might be new into the scene don’t realize she’s been around a long time. We wanted to show her some love as well. We are part of the same fabric, you know. We became friends with Ken [Collier, legendary Club Heaven DJ] later on. I don’t remember when we became good friends, but when I was actually a DJ, I had the opportunity to help Ken play overseas. WestBam wanted Ken to play Mayday, and that was actually the only opportunity he ever had to play overseas.

Lenny: I think it was the year before he passed.

MT: In terms of the new album, with a track like “Jazzo.” What does the word jazz mean to you?

Lawrence: It’s a way of self-expression, a deep creativity. And actually, I was a roadie, with my other brother Lynell, for [pianist] Bob James.

MT: Let’s talk about Dan Sicko for a second. Dan quotes you a couple times in his book Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (Painted Turtle, 2010). And of course Dan has since passed away. So what do good writers do for you, as artists?

Lenny: Let’s first say something particularly about Dan, and not necessarily him as a journalist because he’s actually a big part of when we first started. He did our first record label.

Lawrence: Yeah, he sure did!

Lenny: We actually recorded with Dan in our first studio; we made tracks with Dan.

Lawrence: Yeah, stuff that never came out —weird stuff.

Lenny: He sampled Hellraiser or something; he was crazy, man! He used to come by at the studio on Eight Mile.

MT: Dimitri Hegemann from the Berlin-based nightclub and label Tresor wants to create a new, Berlin-style club in Detroit. What are your thoughts?

Lawrence: We heard about it, and I think it’s a great and large endeavor to try to undertake. I think his vision for what he wants to do is really kind of based off what’s going on in Berlin. And I just don’t honestly think the infrastructure is enough to sustain that kind of endeavor. That’s a really heavy endeavor for Detroit — it would take a lot of people, a lot of people to hold it up. We’ve always had nice underground clubs. But we never had mega-style clubs.

Even the Music Institute, that was the bomb. But it was not a huge club, it was a small storefront type of operation. And even 1515 Broadway, even when I hit heavy house clubs like Club 246, we always had small venues. I think he really wasn’t around, or had really been exposed to those type of clubs. He sees the property is reasonable. But still, you got to get people in the club, and the only way to sustain it in Detroit honestly is to make it hip-hop, because that’s just a bigger scene. It’s a grand endeavor, and I hope the best for him. I hope he can pull it off. But I think it might be a bit grandiose for the real clientele in Detroit.

MT: I’m curious, what does the female vocal do for you — why go there?

Lawrence: To us, a female vocal is another instrument. It is almost like if we’re adding a flute or something, that type of vibe to what’s going on. For some of our bigger tracks, a female vocalist just works better for us. It gets the point across — it’s a lighter and sexier touch.

MT: Now “I Believe” [Octave One’s first hit featuring Lisa Newberry], the way she intones on that record, the way that she speaks or sings, she’s kind of speak-singing, you know. Did you ever make it to Club Heaven to hear Ken play?

Lawrence: Yes!

MT: So those vocals are different kind of vocals than the “I Believe” vocal, right? Like the real housey diva?

Lenny: Oh! “I Believe” is not a house track. Thing about it is that …

Lawrence: Our style was just different from the guys producing techno at that time. Shake coined the phrase. He was like, “Man, you’re not house, you’re not techno; but you can listen to it, dance to it, or make love to it.” He always said that “you can actually make love to your music” [laughs]. It wasn’t until later on that our sound became acceptable or popular. But we were always kind of a mixture: A lot of things for a lot of different people.

Octave One performs at this year’s Movement, on the Red Bull Music Academy stage, on Saturday, May 23, from 7-8 p.m. Spectacles will host their Burn It Down release party on Sunday, May 24, from 1-3 p.m; 230 E Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-963-6886; spectaclesdetroit.com; entrance is free.

Remembering Steve Nader of Dance Detroit

Steve Nader as featured in the Metro Times circa 1984
Steve Nader as featured in the Metro Times circa 1984

Remembering DJ and Dance Detroit founder Steve Nader (1955-2011)

Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy!
For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

— William Wordsworth, 1805

Longtime DJ and record pool director Steve Nader died on February 14, 2011 two days short of his 58th birthday.

His passing had been largely unknown to the dance community of which he had been a part for over thirty years. There has been no press mention.

According to Jeff Wentland, a friend and fellow pool DJ, Nader had been recovering from renal failure due to advanced prostate cancer. Nader is survived by two brothers but was estranged from his family at the time of his death.

Raised in Florida, Nader came to Detroit in the late 1970s via Georgia where he been DJing at Backstreet Atlanta, a club that emerged during that decade’s disco boom. Nader’s first Detroit gig was at Five West on Seven Mile and John R.

In December 1980, Nader wrote a column for Cruise magazine where he discussed his choosing DJ as a career.

“I suppose it all started with the first DJ that I ever met. He was a high school classmate of my mom, the shyest girl in town. The Elvis 45’s that he brought her were marked ‘Promotional Only’ even though daddy never knew where they came from. He was a nice-looking man who never came inside, and rarely spoke to me, yet I knew ma got excited every time he came around. The records he brought were the ultimate playtoy and many hours were spent spinning them on the old Zenith with its wonderful 12″ speakers. I wanted to share those moments with all the boys in the neighborhood except they were all older than me. The very top of my Christmas list every year was my own phonograph. Finally, when I was five years old, my first major fantasy was granted . Mom frequently left me with grandma and she became my first captive audience -she eventually learned to love Elvis.”

Shortly after he came to Detroit, he helped form one of the first record pools in Detroit called Disco Pool Detroit with fellow DJ Jerry Johnson, first at Escape (which later became Backstreet), then later as part of the Menjo’s complex on Six Mile, and then finally Ferndale. Record pools were key organizational units of the emergent DJ culture of the 1970s. As record labels realized the power of the DJ to break hits and understand audiences, DJs organized themselves to receive promotional support and exclusive tracks. DJ Stacey Hale remembers joining the pool around 1976 with a group of DJs including Ken Collier. Almost forty years after meeting Nader, Hale remembers those early Disco Pool Detroit days as a time of fun. “I remember that dues were $25 because that’s what I made on a Saturday night at Club Hollywood back then.” Hale might be turned away for being a woman at black gay spots like the Chessmate or being asked for three different types of ID at Menjo’s — ostensibly for being both a woman and black — but she remembers Nader as accepting and funny. “He was a cornball. He was hilarious. I would see him, he would come out of the DJ booth and give me a hug. I would talk about girls, he would talk about boys. We were busy being gay.”

DJ, producer, and early member of Dance Detroit, John Collins remembers a similar timeline, as well as early meetings, listening parties, and promotional tours held at Menjo’s where Johnson was a DJ. Collins also fondly remembers Steve during this period. “Back then Steve was humble, shy, and fair. He was a good friend.”

Nader brought a mixing savvy to Detroit along with his organizational energy. Both Hale and Collins took cues from Nader as a DJ during that period. For Hale it was hearing Nader mix Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” with another instrumental. “It was slower than what we were used to playing. It played a major role in my thinking about DJing. It opened the doors. He was excellent.” Collins shares a similar story: “He was an influence to me as a DJ. The first time I heard a DJ play two of the same record together was Steve at the Gas Station.” The Gas Station was downstairs in the same club that housed Club Heaven on Seven Mile and Woodward. The record was Chic’s “Good Times.”

The pool eventually changed its name to Dance Detroit and had a small office on the third floor of Ferndale Center Building at Nine and Woodward. That’s where Scott Gordon, a teenager at the time, met Nader around 1978. Gordon remembers the attraction of record pools:

“Record pools were the only way to get the coolest versions of records. They were also the best way to ensure you received virtually every record that was released by the major US labels…The pools were also the way I was introduced to re-mix services like Disconet, Razormaid, Hot Tracks, Ultimix, Disco Mix Club (DMC), and more, which I invested in heavily. For me, pools were the ‘in’ I was seeking. They provided the best music, the best gossip, and the best inside information on the dance music scene. The pools also introduced me to what becoming a Billboard reporter was, and how that would take my career to the next level. The pools were, at that time, a DJ secret of sorts. Few civilians knew of record pools, and many DJs weren’t clued in either. In those days, having DJ secrets were invaluable.”

As I and others have written elsewhere, by the time Nader arrived, Detroit was already feeling the DJ boom which had been incubating since the early 1970s in clubs that catered to gay men and women. However, by the time Dance Detroit took off in the 1980s, Nader was able to organize DJs of various sexualities and ethnicities who loved music and were able to translate that love to the dance floors of Detroit. Whether it was Ken Collier, Duane Bradley, and Morris Mitchell, who had both been DJing as True Disco as early as 1973, and catered at that time to a largely black gay crowd; Stacey Hale who played to a predominantly black gay female clientele; Chad Novak, who played at Menjo’s for largely white male gay audience throughout the 1980s and 1990s; Greg Collier, Ken’s Brother, who joined the pool after DJing in Chicago, who was a resident at Todd’s on Wednesday and Saturday nights to a largely gay audience throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s; Deep Space which featured DJs like Juan Atkins and Derrick May, and later Detroiters like Art Payne, who catered to a young black straight set; or Scott “Go Go” Gordon, who spun throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s to a mix of all the above at The Shelter; Nader’s network at one time encompassed much of what fans might now call the Golden Era of Detroit dance music.

At the same time, Nader continued his career as a DJ playing dozens of clubs across metro Detroit, including longer stints at the Detroit Eagle and the R&R. These last two clubs are now closed as are most of the network of gay clubs of the last fifty years. (The Woodward in New Center and Menjo’s on Six Mile are two of a handful of exceptions that prove the rule.)

Dance Detroit was not alone. There was Midwest Dance Association which, according to a September 26, 1981 Billboard article, was founded by Dawn Porter, Larry Saunders, and Lee Eckinger. Eckinger would later go on to open Advanced Music Promotions, or AMP. Both Gordon and Collins note that Enola Porter, Dawn’s daughter, was the leader of MDA while Dawn stayed with Dance Detroit. Only Tyrone Bradley’s United Dance Association Record Pool and La’Roc Bullock’s Innovative Jocks made it into our current decade. UDMA has changed its name to United Digital Music Association.

Pools like Dance Detroit did not survive chiefly because of major shifts in the record business beginning in the 1990s with the coming of the Internet and the end of service from major labels. After the closing of the record pool, Nader began withdrawing from friends and colleagues though he did DJ intermittently.

Fellow DJ and ongoing music retail employee John Kryston remembers seeing him during Nader’s time at the Detroit Eagle. “I will forever remember his playing Natalie Cole’s “Pink Cadillac” and Cece Peniston’s “Finally” in his sets in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s–they became favorites of mine because of him.”

Because of the time in which he lived–the renaissance of gay club life in the 1970s and 1980s–it’s worth clarifying that Nader did not die of AIDs which struck many Detroit-area gay DJs of the era. According to Wentland, when Nader realized what AIDs was and what a threat it posed to the community, he took it seriously. “He was very careful about AIDs–we were all panicking–we all thought we were going to die.”

It was another disease that eventually caught up with Nader. After struggling for years with drug addiction, Nader’s undiagnosed prostate cancer caused his kidneys to fail in 2009. Nader then contacted Wentland for help. Wentland, a local nurse who had been a mobile DJ who worked at clubs like the E-Ramp, Gas Station, and Gold Coast, amongst others, and was mentored by Nader during the 1980s, would care for Nader in his later years. Wentland helped Nader obtain Medicare and get food stamps. He visited him daily through the rest of his life.

During his final years, Nader made a conscious choice not to tell friends or longtime colleagues about this health. Wentland says, “He didn’t want anyone to know. He was a private man. He wanted to do everything by himself.”

Nader eventually died in February 2011 after being put on life support earlier that year. He had been living in a small apartment in Madison Heights. According to Wentland, Nader had thrown out any momentos from his time as a DJ when he had moved out of his house.

Nader, however, was not shy about being gay. “When people asked him where he DJed he said, ‘The gay club Escape.'”

As Wentland and others remembered, Nader loved high-NRG dance music, as exemplified by tracks like Patrick Cowley’s “Menergy” from 1981. “We couldn’t get enough copies of that record,” Wentland said. “We wore it out.”

“He had the biggest and most popular record pool in the Midwest,” Wentland said. “He was an incredible DJ. He could work that crowd like magic. He would work the entire bar. When he saw that the bar service needed help he would slow down the music to empty the dancefloor and then he would bring it back up. He could work that bar like magic.”

In that 1980 Cruise column quoted earlier, Nader looked back on his career, then under a decade old, and thought about his path to DJing, his orange-orchard conservative Father, and whether he would be remembered.

“Many years passed and my career took me from easy listening radio, to college radio, to developing the first commercial progressive radio station in Florida, to straight discos and finally, Atlanta and my first gay club. It was really ironic that we were having a benefit show for the gays in Dade County, because my own father, was in fact a Florida citrus grower and indirectly, paying for Anita’s campaign against me and you. When dad did my taxes for me in radio the first few years, he classified my occupation as a “Record Player.” I wonder to this day if he realized what a difficult path I was to follow and the inherent pain that usually outnumbered the joys in straining for acceptance and even stardom. I think that he glimpsed a little of my enthusiasm, though. I never knew that my happiness would probably be intermittent as it is today. Just as a shooting star , it may have only lasted a tenth of a second, but as it soared across the sky, it was the brightest spark in the heavens, only to disappear and be forgotten forever.”


Donations to the Detroit Sound Conservancy made in Steve Nader’s name will be used to preserve materials donated to the DSC from Detroit’s record pools. Donations can be made here.

Thanks to Scott Gordon, John Kryston, and Art Payne, for agreeing to be interviewed for this piece. Special thanks to John Collins, Stacey Hale, Chad Novak, Tim Retzloff, and Jeff Wentland for reading and commenting on an earlier draft. Any mistakes are mine. If you have edits to recommend or tributes to share please leave them below or email me at csgholzATgmail.com

Electrifying Mojo remembers 1972 (DEQ 2005)

I was in Ann Arbor standing on the corner of Stadium and University (1972). It’s where Discount Records used to be. I had just started working at this Rock and Roll radio station, WAAM. I went to Discount Records to pick up some music. When I came out, for a moment in time, I was locked into the scenery. I was thinking about what the mission of radio should be. I saw all of these different cultures, ethnicities passing by me. I was just standing on the corner watching them. Old people, young people, black people, white people, Native Americans—people from the whole world. I was thinking about how radio stations fight for market share. They look at radio through this narrow prism. I thought about how we might look at things differently. I also thought about the multi-layers of peer pressure and how people are confined to their own little prisons by the people they hang around with and the people they want to please or people they don’t wish to offend in any way. They say to the group, “What would you like for me to do? What would you like to listen to so I’ll be pleasing in your sight? You like to go here?” This is where I like to go. You like this music? Okay, this is the music I like.” That is them in the daytime, but at night, people don’t have the pressure of their peers. They are forced to be themselves and to take on their own adventures.

From The Electrifying Mojo, interview by Vince Patricola for DEQ: Detroit Electronic Quarterly—Old School Edition, v. 3 Fall 2005): 45.

The ‘Close-N-Play’ Interview: DJ Morris Mitchell Reflects On Establishing DJ Culture In ‘Post-Motown’ Detroit…

Detroit’s Morris Mitchell remembers a time before mixing records together was the norm. A drummer in local black cover bands like the Black Clergy and Stone as the 1970s began—he saw Led Zeppelin at Olympia Stadium in downtown Detroit during the era—Mitchell eventually became a player during the ensuing disco boom. Coming up in the “close-n-play” era, Mitchell hailed from a generation of predominantly gay DJs who pioneered turntable blending and mixing in places like New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. Although until now he has been historically overshadowed by his “True Disco” peer Ken Collier—a DJ who went on to influence the creators of Detroit techno and house spanning Juan Atkins to Terrence Parker before he died in 1996—Mitchell remains central to understanding Detroit’s real post-Motown story.

“Terrence Parker – Tribute to Ken Collier (Your Love, Original Version)”

Having left DJing and party promotion behind in 1998, Mitchell now makes a living by working at a senior center. This spring I interviewed Mitchell about his life in music, and our conversation found him reflecting back on his early years as a DJ—from his memories of the formation of “True Disco Productions” with Ken Collier and Renaldo White (both now passed) to the night that Greg Collier, still living yet retired from DJing, turned out the crowd at a converted coffee house-turned-afterhours-disco called the Chessmate in 1978.

ahs-mitchell

Photo by Carleton S. Gholz, collage by Morris Mitchell

GHOLZ: How did you get your first DJ gig?

MITCHELL: I went to a friend of mine having a birthday party and was like, “Can I play the records for your party?” Yeah that’s how I started off. At a house party….

GHOLZ: So that would have been you and a turntable? Or you playing…

MITCHELL: Me and a turntable. A 45. [laughs]

GHOLZ: So what would happen when the record ended?

MITCHELL: I took it off and put the next record on it. [laughter.] And that’s how you did it: they called it “close and play.” The record that’s playing, you close it all the way out, then take that record off, put another on the turntable, and play the next song. Close and play.

GHOLZ: Did you turn the volume down to fade it out, or did you just let it go out?

MITCHELL: I let it fade out. Then I turned the volume down, so when the next record started playing, I’d just fade it in.

GHOLZ: Were you trying to make it feel like it was a continuous mix?

MITCHELL: No. You couldn’t do a continuous mix if you played on one turntable – can’t be! But you tried to keep a flow going. If you play a fast record, then you won’t want to play something super fast next, you know: there’s a certain flow that you had to have for the close-n-play.

“Close N’Play by Kenner Commercial 1972”

GHOLZ: Right. [laughs] That phrase is amazing, close-n-play… Would there be kids, teen kids, dancing in the basement?

MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah, they’d be dancing.

GHOLZ: [laughs] So this would have been your first gig, around ‘71, ‘72?

MITCHELL: ‘71.

GHOLZ: And you just brought your own 45s over, I assume.

MITCHELL: Right, yes.

GHOLZ: Did you have a little box?

MITCHELL: Yep.

GHOLZ: Do you remember a track you would have played that day? I know this is a long time ago now.

MITCHELL: [laughs] Let me see.

GHOLZ: This is your 40th anniversary as a DJ, sir.

MITCHELL: Yeah, 40 years ago…. Yeah, the ‘70s, let me see: Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On,” “I’ll Be There” by Michael Jackson, “Love and Happiness” by Al Green. [laughs] It’s coming to me…

“Al Green – Love and Happiness (Studio Version)”

GHOLZ: Were you a DJ yourself, or were you more the promoter?

MITCHELL: I was a promoter, because when disco came out, I got together with Ken Collier and Renaldo White and we formed this group called “True Disco Productions.” All of us were spinning in different clubs. Then on the weekends, I formed this after-hours dance club called the Chessmate. For the three of us, that was our main spot, the Chessmate.

GHOLZ: Tell me about that moment.

MITCHELL: Well, what happened was back in high school I was a drummer. I was always into music. I was going back and forth to Chicago: Chicago had DJs, but Detroit really didn’t have a DJ culture—you know, we were still doing jukeboxes. I kind of got the DJ idea from Chicago and brought it to Detroit, so that’s how the first DJs in Detroit started playing in the clubs. We started out with one turntable. [laughs] And then everything progressed with the mixes, double-turntables, beat-on-beat, and then we got into a record club out of Philadelphia. So that’s how we were bringing our music into Detroit….

GHOLZ: How come you were the promoter? What made you be that guy, as opposed to some other part of the process?

MITCHELL: I was musically inclined, and I always liked talent. I would go to different clubs, and if I heard a DJ, I’d be like, “Come here.” I would pull them aside and say, “Okay, I want you to come to my club.” I liked to promote talent.

GHOLZ: Right.

MITCHELL: I’ve never been scared of anybody that was better than me; I think that made me popular. When I did cabarets, if I had somebody spin with me that they weren’t familiar with, and then they were really good, the crowd would really appreciate it. You follow what I’m saying? Because it was somebody new they had never seen get behind those turntables, they wore it out. They wore the crowd out. I was known to bring talent in. I remember when Greg Collier, Ken Collier’s brother and another great guy, came in from Chicago: he went to the Chessmate and played “Boogie Oogie Oogie” [the disco classic by A Taste of Honey]. He just turned out the crowd, you know? [laughs] Do you know what I mean?

GHOLZ: Yes, absolutely.

“A Taste of Honey – Boogie Oogie Oogie (1978) Capitol”

This post is dedicated to the memory of Dan Sicko, Detroit’s original techno historian who died in late August. To donate to the family in his memory please go to: http://www.gofundme.com/DanSicko

From Detroit to Tokyo (2007)

Originally published 5/23/2007

From Detroit to Tokyo
How DJ Jeff Mills helped shape not just a music scene, but an international culture

It’s a brisk winter night in downtown Detroit and Jeff Mills is simply killing it. With three turntables and a CD-mixer, the Detroit-raised DJ blends tracks as if they were all made in the same studio with the same drum machines — even if James Brown didn’t use a drum machine in 1969. Funk, disco, house, techno, early rap, electro, new wave, Italo-disco, acid, minimal — they all serve the same master in Mills’ hands, despite the varying production qualities, rhythms, timbres and transitions.

Nothing lasts long on his turntables.

Records are slid in, superimposed on one another, chiming, clicking, turning, then removed quickly and thrown back on the stack of records behind him. Sometimes, after taking one slice of wax off, Mills quickly grabs two more records and slams them onto the two unused turntables; he knows not just which one record will work but which two records will fit perfectly into his set. When beats fall out of time, as they do with the kind of turntable gymnastics Mills prefers, his hands, staying perpendicular to the platters with fingertips extended, restore the rhythm, nudging the disc faster or slowing it down. It’s a high-wire DJ act, requiring mechanical grace and human precision, one Mills has been practicing for Detroiters and audiences around the world for a quarter of a century.

That show was five months ago. It was an all-too-infrequent return to Detroit for Mills, and a preview of what can be expected at this year’s Detroit Electronic Music Festival on closing night.

At 43, Jeff Mills is accomplished. He has produced hip hop and techno, scored soundtracks to silent films (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 2000 and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages in 2005) and performed with a full orchestra under a Roman aqueduct in southern France (released as The Blue Potential in 2006). The DJ-entrepreneur runs his small-scale record label, Axis Records, with his wife, Yoko. He has also launched a new clothing line called Gamma Player and owns two homes, one in Chicago and another in Berlin.

But Mills’ bread and butter is as a well-paid, globe-trotting DJ, whether it’s a residency at a club in Tokyo called the Womb or scores of carefully chosen one-off gigs throughout the year.

The academic community has caught on to Mills as well. A short study of Mills’ musical approach was recently included in musicologist Marc Butler’s 2006 book Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music from Indiana University Press.

But it’s not all high-end theory and jet-setting. In addition to being a father to his 12-year-old daughter (who lives in Germany), Mills is also the de facto godfather of two very large dance audiences, each of which has its own sound: the stoic-yet-sexy minimal techno and what’s sometimes referred to as “ghetto tech,” the fast-paced mixing and scratching associated with the dirty-minded booty music very popular in Detroit.

From local stories to international ones, from tales told on DVDs made in Detroit by Hong Kong filmmakers, to a Japanese-language blog maintained by Axis Records, to more than 100 recent YouTube videos capturing him performing from Moscow to Barcelona, Sao Paulo to Australia, it’s clear that Mills has had a global impact for more than a quarter of a century.

We all come from somewhere, and Mills, like so many young DJs and producers of the early 1980s, was affected early on by all that was happening in the Motor City, from new technologies and sounds to social realities thick with meaning. His story is one of many that show how the continuing sounds of Detroit — from all musical genres — have helped shaped contemporary global culture.

In 1984, Metro Times freelancer Bruce Britt, who now lives in Los Angeles, tried to capture young Jeff Mills at his residence at Cheeks, a now-defunct club on Eight Mile Road, after a moment of profound turbulence in the history of the DJ as a performer. The scratching of hip hop had outpaced the record-blending of the disco era

[Mills] began this spectacle by blending two surging hip-hop tunes into one another. Having demonstrated this most basic of turntable techniques, Mills donned his headphones and cued up Yaz’s “Situation.” “OK,” Mills said, forebodingly. “Here we go.”

Mouth slightly agape and head bobbing to the beat, Mills manipulated the record and mixing console simultaneously so that the phrase “move out” was transformed into “moo-moo-moo-moo move out.” Later he blended parts of In Deep’s “Tonight a Deejay Saved My Life” with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” He then topped off this showy display by mixing a Berlitz language instruction record with the Deele’s synth-funk smash, “Body Talk.”

Meanwhile, on the dance floor, the converted attested to Mills’ disc-spinning abilities. “Is he good?,” asked [a dancer], dabbing the perspiration from her forehead. “You see me sweatin’, don’t you?”
Though the spectacle seemed to appear fully formed, Jeff Mills, like his peers out in Belleville — Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson — didn’t rise fully formed out of downtown manhole covers. The constantly name-checked godfathers of techno shared many of the same experiences (simultaneously) with Mills, including DJing competitively in Detroit and on the radio, traveling internationally and creating their own labels. But neither May, Atkins nor Saunderson (born in ’62, ’63 and’64, respectively), or anyone for that matter, other than the Electrifyin’ Mojo himself, had the kind of profound daily impact on Detroit’s youth over as long a period as “the Wizard.”

Years before, Mills, one of six children — his father, a civil engineer, and his mother, a housewife — had already begun listening to new sounds coming in virtually every day from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. By his senior year in 1980, Mills had built a collection of dubbed mixtapes by everyone he could get his hands on: from Chicago, Farley “Jackmaster” Funk and Ralphi “the Razz” Rosario on WBMX; from New York, DJ Grandmaster Flash, DJ Red Alert, Grandmaster DST, Gail “Sky” King and, importantly, the Whiz Kid; from Los Angeles, DJ Yella and Dr. Dre.

Meanwhile, Detroit stations like WLBS — the now-extinct urban sister station to New York’s famous WBLS — pumped out disco and R&B. For a short time from 1979 into the early 1980s, WLBS was programmed by DJs who frequented disco clubs and the largely underground after-hours parties where local DJs, like their New York and Chicago peers, were beginning to “blend” records with two turntables.

Two of these local DJs, Ken Collier and Duane Bradley, would heavily influence Mills (the former mixing on WLBS and the latter working directly with Mills later in the ’80s at WJLB). Mills also began listening to years of WJLB-FM, a station that already had a long-standing DJ heritage on the AM band, and had signed Charles Johnson — known to Detroit radio listeners as the Electrifyin’ Mojo — to the 10 p.m.-3 a.m. slot.

Mills didn’t just hear these sounds in his bedroom though. Thanks to a fake ID and late 1970s party-promoters like Zana Smith — now the proprietor of Spectacles in Harmonie Park, then a well-connected event planner with a hot car — future DJs like Mills, Tony Foster and Delano Smith were able to see Ken Collier and other DJs at the Downstairs Pub downtown. This older generation of promoters like Smith — with company names like Zana Take Three, Cosmopolitan, One Way, the Real and Luomo — made Detroit’s post-disco party scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s possible. “They were from a different era of partying,” Mills says. “The things I used to hear about that era were really incredible.”

Though Mills didn’t know it at the time, Detroit DJs like Collier had already established out-of-town connections, including New York City-via-Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles, and New York’s Larry Levan, two legends of disco and house music. The DJs in this predominantly gay social network made a conscious effort to share new skills and ideas that they were trying out across the nation. “They were doing the same things, trading information and doing it very purposefully,” Mills says.

Mills and his contemporaries could hear the results and they acted accordingly. “We were going anyplace to hear this new type of music in Detroit — gay clubs, straight clubs, really underground places — to hear this progressive sound,” Mills continues. “We were hooked.”

If these human interactions provided a model, the advent of the 12-inch dance singles in the 1970s, the availability of DJ mixers and direct-drive turntables starting in the late 1970s, and Japanese-made drum machines in the 1980s gave young artists like Mills the means to move audiences at high school dances, converted disco clubs and, eventually, radio. (Buy-Rite Records on Seven Mile Road provided Collier with records by such disco acts as First Choice and Mills with West Coast drum machine sounds from Egyptian Lover.)

Artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, Alexander Robotnik and Kano were making records that already sounded great. But using multiple turntables, mixing on the fly and overlaying the pounding of drum machines, the DJs created altogether new performances that transcended any single recording.

Mills made his entrance at exactly the right moment.

Mills took these sounds into his parents’ garage, perfecting his skills while emulating his heroes. He mixed it out against other mobile DJs at local parties. And then he took his growing rep to clubs like Cheeks, UBQ and the Warehouse in Detroit and the Nectarine Ballroom in Ann Arbor. Soon his numerous residencies and one-night stands put him at the right place at the right time, as the execs of a struggling WDRQ — then a Top-40/urban station — heard salvation in Mills’ live mixes. Within days of a live broadcast, Mills was asked to join WDRQ as “the Wizard,” a name he’d called himself when WDRQ’s on-air personality Lisa Orlando had asked him for a DJ name.

Immediately Mills was thrown on the air to compete with the popular Electrifyin’ Mojo on WDRQ’s urban opponent, WJLB. Though the two DJs respected one another and were on a first-name basis, their competitive spirit created a sonic backdrop for 1980s Detroit.

At that time Mojo owned Detroit’s airwaves, commanding an immense fan base as well as the keys to the new electronic music, from Kraftwerk and Zapp to such artists as Prince, who sought Mojo’s advice on new tracks and called in for on-air interviews.

Starting at 10 p.m. every night, Mills went in to the “battle with the opposite station. My job was to play anything and everything that was happening in order to take away from Charles [Mojo].” For the young Mills, that meant everything that he’d absorbed to that point — disco, house, techno, electro, Miami bass, R&B, rap and, in the later 1980s, industrial. Basically anything that would tweak the ears of the kids.

In this pre-Clear Channel era, corporate radio was still tied into the local community. The new music — so popular in Detroit’s neighborhoods — had forced radio stations to, at least initially, react to imported releases and street sounds, whether program directors understood them or not. MTV wasn’t yet in every home; computers for downloading and iPods were 20 years away; and CD versions of the vinyl-only DJ releases that Mills and others were playing weren’t available.

Radio was king.

“Back then, you had a city that was listening and, on the radio, you had a short time frame to have a big impact,” Mills says. “You had to keep them listening and you had to keep it fresh. If I bought it that morning, I had to play it that night.”

Mills adds that he was constantly honing his DJ skills, learning to mix and scratch, not as a tool for showing off, he says, but as a tool to reach into people’s heads, to get them to stop and actually listen. “That’s really where I learned to use texture to keep things interesting, how to set them up, you know, the one-two punch.”

Mills followed the radio ratings and says his show had, by the mid-1980s, begun to gain on Mojo. But WDRQ decided that they were not securing “the right demographic” by creating a sonic-paradise for Detroit’s predominantly black audience. Instead, they switched formats, attempting to break into a more suburban crowd and dumped everyone, including the Wizard, in 1985. But Mills wasn’t unemployed for long. In 1986, James Alexander, then programming director for WJLB, brought Mills on board to join the late Duane “In the Mix” Bradley. The idea was to replace Mojo, who hadn’t renewed his contract. Mojo subsequently left for WHYT. The competition continued.

At WJLB, Mills had access to the station’s recording studios, its library of music and sound effects. The station built a special booth for Mills to include his mixer, up to three turntables and an assortment of drum machines, so that he could program music before the show and then mix it into the set live. Mills estimates that more than 85 percent of the shows were still done live. “Most of the time it was just easier to just come in and play, because to make one 30-minute show required eight to 10 hours of recording time.”

What’s funny is the Wizard never spoke on radio. He never had to. In the WDRQ-era, Mills’ show was syndicated to sister stations in Houston and St. Louis; at WJLB it was syndicated to Stevie Wonder’s station, KJLH, in Los Angeles. The Wizard, though still a mortal to Mojo’s godlike status, had made a name. When James Alexander left WJLB in 1990, the station’s new director changed the station’s format. Mills could either compromise or he could quit. He played his last night at WJLB on New Year’s Eve 1990.

But internal radio struggles weren’t the only sign of change in those days. Near the end of Mills’ Wizard career, a number of crises began to roar in Detroit’s nightlife.

Mills remembers the possibility of fights and shootings at Detroit hip-hop events as a fairly constant hazard of the gig.

“Generally, things did ‘jump off’ — you just hoped you weren’t in the path of the bullet or in the middle of the fight,” he says.

But by the late 1980s an uptick in Detroit violence spilled even more intensely onto the dance floor. A gang fight at Climax 2, a club on Chene near Jefferson, was enough for Mills to stop performing as the Wizard in Detroit. Concurrently, his successful three-night-a-week stand at the Nectarine Ballroom in Ann Arbor— where he’d been living— came to an end. The hot, bass-heavy Sunday nights had become a problem for the local cops.

“Wednesday nights was a fraternity night where I played everything from Bruce Springsteen to the Smiths. Friday nights it was house, techno and Top 40. Sunday night was the black night. Kids came in from all around including Ypsilanti. That was the night we got down.”

It was also the night fans wouldn’t go home after the club closed, and large crowds would congregate on Liberty. The club was making lots of money, but city officials, Mills says, pressured the club to shut the night down.

Similarly, class politics was nothing new in the scene, beginning with notices on techno-party fliers in the early 1980s explicitly banning “jits”— the derogatory term given young working-class audiences who enjoyed the high-energy smashups that DJs like Mills unleashed. And that attitude didn’t die. As the ’80s came to a close, even the experimental dance nights at the hallowed Music Institute banned rap.

MTV didn’t help things either. It split formats further, now with visual accompaniment, encouraging audiences to define themselves as consumers along racial, sexual, cultural and geographical lines. The implications for DJs like Mills and Mojo, who had ignored those lines when building their sonic followings, were significant. After leaving WJLB, and a short stint at WHYT, Mojo would end up bouncing from station to station throughout the 1990s, never re-establishing the breadth of audience he once had.

For Mills, the years of Front 242-meets-Rakim — the Wizard years — vanished as quickly as they had come.

The stage was set for Jeff Mills’ exit.

Scott “Go Go” Gordon booked Jeff Mills to perform at Spanky’s, a teen club in the northwestern suburb of Waterford Township, in the early 1980s, long before the label “techno” even existed. Gordon paid Mills more money than he had ever dreamed a DJ could make. Mills’ only brother, 10 years his senior and an electrical engineer, was managing the young DJ at the time.

Says Gordon, “They came in with a blueprint drawing of what they needed as far as layout of the DJ booth, the necessary height of the table for the record players and other requirements as far as sound. His contract said that we could not record the performance in any way, and we paid him $100 an hour for four hours of work.”

In a deadpan voice, Gordon — who helped Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman) get his first Detroit gig at the Shelter downtown — finishes the story: “Mills absolutely brought the house down.”

Seeing Mills spin was a career-inspiring event. Gordon remembers recording Mills’ performance, despite his contract-rider demands, on a tape machine hidden underneath the turntables. He later studied the recording intensely. “I learned one of my favorite scratches of my career listening to that tape, based on a record by Egyptian Lover.”

Gordon later became a reporter for Billboard magazine, where he relayed the names of artists and the titles of records that were hot with his crowds in the Detroit area to the national industry magazine. Gordon traveled to New York City for music industry functions and conventions, where he remembers playing radio mixes of the Wizard to his New York DJ peers.

“They didn’t get it,” Gordon says. “They told me, ‘Why do you listen to this stuff? What is this?’” Neither West Coast nor East Coast inspired, Mills’ lightning-fast mixes were largely inexplicable to Gordon’s New York peers. That initial resistance, however, didn’t stop Mills, a few years later in 1991, from conquering Manhattan’s Limelight club, or blowing minds in Germany, when he first performed on two turntables at the Tresor club in Berlin.

Mill’s wasn’t alone, though — Detroit DJs Blake Baxter, Eddie Fowlkes, and others had played clubs like Tresor in those heady days as well.

Brendan Gillen, member of the electro-techno outfit Ectomorph, puts Mills at the head of Detroit’s German invasion. A techno scholar and electronic music producer, Gillen attended Tresor that summer in 1991 to see the influence of Detroit techno in general, and Jeff Mills in particular.

Over corn tortillas in southwest Detroit, Gillen shares his thoughts on Mills’ influence on global techno. “1990s techno music was Jeff Mills’ music. Everyone else was covering Jeff Mills. He is the theories and concepts of techno.”

Mills’ developed said theories and concepts during his Wizard era, competing with peers for gigs in Detroit clubs and jockeying with Mojo in the studios of WDRQ and WJLB.

“Competition was really intense — playing normal records was not good enough,” Mills says. When he was competing with other young DJs early in his career — contemporaries that included Al Ester, Earl McKinney, Kevin Dysard and Ray Berry — it meant trying to buy all the copies of a unique new record at Buy-Rite so no one else could play them. But on the radio the ante was raised.

The high-profile radio gigs had afforded Mills opportunities to produce and guest-DJ on some hip-hop and R&B recordings. But it was Mills’ move toward industrial music while competing with Mojo in the late ’80s — encouraged as well by crowds at industrial nights at the Leidernacht (now known as the City Club) — that cemented Mills’ commitment to making music.

His first official releases were with the house-inspired industrial band Final Cut with Tony Srock. Fortuitously, these early records were released overseas by the German Interfisch label, the same company that would eventually become Tresor and help Mills release music up to the present.

But it was Mills’ co-founding and short (1989-1992) but influential tenure with Detroit’s Underground Resistance — a still-operating multilayered group of Detroit techno artists, including Mike Banks and Robert Hood — that set up the Millsian myth in Europe and beyond.

Gillen traces the hardcore, chaotic, militant edge of the early Underground Resistance catalog directly to Detroit’s postindustrial condition at the end of the Cold War. “UR was the sound of the machine dying — the end of the assembly line,” he argues.

In 1991, the Limelight made Mills an offer that was too good to refuse — three nights a week spinning at a club willing to do anything to crossover “European” techno in New York City. At that moment, Mills had no radio job and no Detroit residency — but he wouldn’t be forgotten in 1990s Detroit.

His turntables found their way into the hands of Brian Jeffries, now known as DJ Godfather, and cassette copies of the Wizard’s mixes became — as they had for Scott Gordon, Richie Hawtin and so many before — required educational tools. What had taken Mills hours to create and, at times, speed-up, on four-track tape, funky and vulgar-minded DJs like DJ Assault (Craig Adams) and DJ Godfather, learned to do on two turntables in real-time performances, crossing-over “Ghetto-tech” or the “booty” sound in clubs, cabarets, and blistering DJ-mix CDs sold at area stores like Record Time in the 1990s.

And Mills’ work didn’t just appeal to Detroit working classes or those in nearby cities like Warren. It also spread to the predominantly Latino section of southwest Detroit, where Ray Rocha (DJ Rolando) learned to love the Wizard too, eventually joining Underground Resistance and releasing fast-paced mix-CDs and string-infused tracks — just as the DEMF began taking off in 2000 — that owed much to Mills’ performances and production work.

The minimalist techno that Mills spins and creates is borne of the work that he did on the air and in the clubs of Detroit. Mills continues to skillfully build multilayered pulses that encourage audiences to follow minute details within the music, dragging dancers into the mix as if they were car radios dialing themselves into some urban landscape.

It’s October 2006 at Womb, Mills’ Tokyo residency. It’s his final Friday there. The DJ booth is a “one man spaceship” where the traveler-DJ in the “cockpit” can access many options. With six turntables, the visual manipulation offered by a DVD-turntable and a drum machine one can do a lot. Mills plays every record he’s ever recorded — more than eight hours of music — beginning with his Final Cut work and ending on a series of unreleased recordings.

It’s a career moment.

Meanwhile, Mills’ own MacKenzie High School on Wyoming potentially begins its final year as a Detroit public school (it’s one of 34 schools to be closed as enrollment citywide continues to slide). It was here that Mills took drums; he was a sophomore playing in the senior-led jazz quartet (“stage band”) that featured future jazz star Kenny Garrett on saxophone.

The instructor was saxophonist Bill Wiggins who, like many instructors in Detroit’s public schools, had professional playing experience. Wiggins had played with Marcus Belgrave and Aretha Franklin. Mills and his fellow students were well aware of their antecedents — it wasn’t so long ago that students such as themselves had landed chart hits for Motown.

“We knew there was a legacy to be in the stage band and in marching band or in the vocal group,” Mills remembers. “All the Detroit school music departments were strong. We knew that in those days we were just a few steps away from people who were active in the Motown era or were studio musicians or active in the jazz scene.”

Though Mills would later take classes at Oakland University and eventually apply to Lawrence Tech in architecture, music clearly took over his career path. And if it hadn’t been for MacKenzie High and its community, who would’ve been the Wizard?

Dirtbombs / The Cyril Lords at the Magic Stick (2005)

an affordably screamy garage-rock trip…

Originally published 12 September 2005

With Jack White otherwise engaged in Chicago, and a dark cloud of violence and tabloid attention hanging over his hometown, tonight sees the second division of Detroit garagers given their chance to hold court and lay claim to the title of best rock band in the Motor City. In front of a pretty good-looking, slightly liquored and completely on-the-make crowd, the three faces in the Detroit-via Ohio Cyril Lords offer an affordably screamy garage-rock trip, stoking the crowd (complete with regulation members of The Von Bondies and Soledad Brothers) with a disciplined 30 minute set. Then, after the stroke of midnight, The Sights run through their retro-rock thing. It’s loud, but a little too humourless for a party night like this.

It’s up to garage-soul heroes The Dirtbombs, then, to finally settle any doubts about whether or not this is the place to be on New Year’s Eve, with frontman and ex-Gories-leader Mick Collins – sporting his now-legendary wraparound shades – providing the cues. Playing with authority via their double-bassist and double-drummer line-up, the band cut fifteen-plus songs in just over an hour, mostly from their newest release ‘Dangerous Magical Noise’. Though there are a few on-stage flourishes, including a behind-the-back guitar rave-up by Collins and Meg White’s flatmate Ko Zydeco holding out her bass so we can better see her glam pink mod dress, most of the show’s thrills came from the stamping-plant power of The Dirtbombs’ delivery. Songs like ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About It’, and ironic tour favorite ‘I’m Through With White Girls’, are the true shake-up numbers, pushing the by-now intoxicated crowd into a frenzy. In true NYE karaoke style, they even chuck in a couple of covers, including Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Kung Fu’, deep Northern Soul standard ‘Chains Of Love’ and even the Eurythmics’ ’80s classic ‘Missionary Man’.

As the crowd begins to thin after three hours of New Year’s Eve booze and full-on volume, the stragglers upfront inspire the band to new levels. During the final song co-drummer Ben Blackwell executes a headstand on his bass drum and tackles guitarist Pat Pantano, leaving the stage trashed and the crowd happy. Though Ma Blackwell is concerned about her son’s bleeding, all The Dirtbombs care about is whether or not they delivered. They did, naturally.

Adieu (2005)

One last spin: Carleton heads for Pittsburgh.
One last spin: Carleton heads for Pittsburgh.

Adieu, Carleton S. Gholz
A dance-floor lodestar, spindly mouthpiece and MT cultural documentarian splits for Pitts

By Carleton S. Gholz and Walter Wasacz

Originally published 8/17/2005

More than 500 nights. That’s how many times I figure I’ve gone out in the last six years in Detroit as a dancing, bullshitting, chin-scratching participant-observer in one of the most intense, competitive music scenes in the world. It’s nothing compared to Cliff Thomas’s 25 years at Buy Rite Records or Zana “Spectacles” Smith’s three decades selling clothes and throwing parties. But it was a time of great change in this shrinking city, one that saw a downtown festival breathe a sense of new cultural capital into Detroit’s likewise shrinking dance community. The results were there for all: an Adult. performance in the Kresge Court at the DIA, Derrick May laying it down in the Max Fisher Music Center, Carl Craig playing Harry Bertoia’s sculpture at Cranbrook, and Jerry the Cat creating percussive magic at Detroit Public Library.

In between those times, I’ve also seen tech-house anarchist Matthew Herbert rip a Big Mac to shreds and sample it live, and Anthony “Shake” Shakir beat-juggle a crowd into ecstasy from his wheelchair. I’ve witnessed DJ Houseshoes force a multi-ethnic audience to sing Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” and Delano Smith EQ a disco track so hard my gender identity split into shards leaving my inner diva to let loose screaming. I have taught Detroit high schoolers by day and been schooled by Derek Plaslaiko at Adriel’s “Family” weekly later the same night. As a DJ, I had the good fortune to play in the same booth at Motor that had been occupied by London’s Gilles Peterson, Warren’s Brian Gillespie and DJ Recloose, the only Commonwealth Street-to-New Zealand transplant I know.

I have also seen some of the city’s greatest DJs — Huckaby, Geiger, Ester, Souffront — play to near-empty rooms. I have seen Derrick May’s records spit on by Thomas Barnett at the Temple in Ferndale. I have walked out of the Candy Bar the same night shots rang out and bodies fell dead at the epicenter of downtown gentrification, Woodward and John R.

Detroiters have birthed this twisted, anxious and elegant culture, struggling in the midst of a maligned, deindustrialized, racist geography, cushioned only by the sublime beauty of the human spirit. The Belleville Three (or four, five or six) didn’t create this cultural terrain; instead an ocean of lovers and dancers ordained our way of life. So don’t wait, as I sometimes have, for techno gods to save us.

I know, I know: There are no bodies, there is no money, and no one cares. The cover at Oslo doesn’t get you into the Candy Bar; Minx hasn’t met Ricardo Villalobos; Neptune Record’s Brett Marion hasn’t met Submerge’s Mike Banks; the festival is still in debt; and who from Novi will ever know the situation at Fenkell and Meyers? But I am unrepentant. I shall die a club revolutionist, a techno lover and a dialectical bootyist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable dancer. My faith in the electronic future of mankind is not less ardent, indeed it’s firmer today than it was in the days of the Electrifying Mojo.

As I leave Detroit to analyze, expand and open the experiences of my heart-mind on other dance floors and through the eyes of the university, let me just tell you how beautiful you are. Blake Baxter is still making pounding acid tracks; Berliner Peter Grummich just delivered his best-ever track to Ann Arbor’s Spectral Sounds; and Mike Himes hasn’t shut down Record Time yet. The beats continue to pulse , and the bodies that we do have are lean and mean. Let Detroit’s future generations cleanse our world of all trance, watered-down electro and barriers that divide us — and enjoy it to the full. Farewell to the D; I miss you already.

Beats go on

While Carleton gets his academic groove on at the University of Pittsburgh, where his experience in the Detroit underground no doubt leaves him overqualified for a Ph.D. program in communications and rhetoric, the beats will go on for the Subterraneans. Club nights, disco lights, weird production in suburban basements and West Side attics, the best of visiting DJs and live electronic performers: All will continue to find space in this column. Keep slinging the dark riddims, kids.

Fifth at 40 (2005)

"Soon to be picturesque ruins!"
“Soon to be picturesque ruins!”

It is 2005, 40 years after the Watts riots, the death of Malcolm X and the prime time of Motown Records. On his WRIF radio show, Night Call, Peter Werbe’s husky voice is intoning some of the 217 reasons why he didn’t feel joyous about the recent “coronation” of George W. Bush. Some of Werbe’s callers are longtime listeners, so disturbed by America’s current political reality that the words stammer out of their mouths. Still others call in, clearly believing they have exposed a late-night communist conspiracy.

Werbe’s radio voice has been heard for decades. But it was his voice as a radical print journalist, once part of the Fifth Estate magazine collective, that first got the attention of Detroit’s old new left.

Fifth Estate was launched in 1965 as a quarterly publication dedicated to pursuing a gritty yet idealistic critique that was rarely found anywhere else in the media. Its name and mission came from the idea that the mainstream press, otherwise known as the fourth estate, was not doing its job. Decades later, the group is still going strong and the publication is just as relevant. Last year, the nationally and internationally read magazine tackled racism, education, primitivism, the election and resistance. This year marks the quarterly publication’s 40th anniversary.

Teenage riot

Harvey Ovshinsky started the magazine when he was 17 years old, financed by his rich father and inspired by a summer working for the Los Angeles Free Times. Ovshinsky, now an Ann Arbor-based filmmaker, educator and consultant, quickly moved the paper out of his parents’ basement in their affluent suburban home and onto Plum Street, Detroit’s one-time freak-haven that was bulldozed in the ’70s.

FE was initially printed by Reverend Albert Cleage’s Shrine of the Black Madonna organization. The paper carried stories from the Underground Press Syndicate and tapped local writers, such as John Sinclair, the twentysomething manager of the MC5, in order to create a unique outlet for a growing youth community finding its voice. “I wanted it to be a bridge between the politicos and the freaks and druggies,” Ovshinksy says. “My opinion was, ‘Look, you are all going to get arrested by the same police.’”

The magazine relocated its office to Detroit’s Cass Corridor, where it flourished, covering revolution and unrest both abroad (the Third World, Vietnam) and at home (civil rights in Mississippi, hippie protests in Berkeley, uprisings on 12th Street). By 1967, though, Ovshinksy was interested in other media, including radio. He eventually became the first news director at WABX, Detroit’s infamous freeform FM station.

Fuck authority

In 1975, a group calling itself the “Eat the Rich Gang” (ETR) took over the paper. Fredy Perlman, who helped found Detroit’s Black and Red Press in the ’70s, became a contributor. Perlman helped bring a wider array of influences to bear on the new FE, including ideas from the Situationist International and Italian council communists. Black and Red Press published the first English edition of Situationist theorist Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

The Fifth Estate crew called out lefty intellectual Noam Chomsky as an “idiot savant,” and participated in street theater, poetry readings and demonstrations against incinerators and nuclear plants. They even printed Big Three CEOs’ home phone numbers. Capitalism and empire were always targets of FE prose but, increasingly, so were the false hopes and reactionary reformists on the left. Eventually the critique came full circle with the paper’s own history, culminating in a fake ad, “Jail John Now!” branding its own former writer John Sinclair as a plastic revolutionary.

David Watson, now a Cranbook educator, states in his memoirs that, “We were not genteel in our approach, but the ideas had merit.”

Permaculture

The years have taken their toll. FE’s grand theorist, Fredy Perlman, died on an operating table in 1985. Other members have dispersed into the Detroit suburbs and around the country. But Andy “Sunfrog Bonobo” Smith and his wife, Victoria “Viva Bonobo” Jackson, are at the FE helm now in Liberty, Tenn. Pumpkin Hollow is the anarchist community currently putting out the publication.

The magazine’s contributors now meet largely over the Internet, instead of in the Cass Corridor. But as recent issues of the magazine show, the current publication is offering a different take than much of the new media’s blogosphere and Indy Media Web outlets. According to Sunfrog, “the FE is creating something that can germinate and be thought about over time.”

At the end of 2004, the collective reached consensus on not achieving consensus by printing a number of ambiguous yet distrustful critiques about choosing between John Kerry and George W. Bush. The issue also included a full-color center poster that stated, “If war is the last step … then voting is the first!” and “Don’t vote! Change Your Life Not Your Leader.”

Though recent issues — such as last fall’s “Unschooling the World,” and winter’s “Deconstructing Race” — have utilized diverse voices and international perspectives, the 20 or so active collective members are still majority male and, at the moment, all white.

Sunfrog doesn’t want to get drawn into guilt ideology though. “We support the self-determination of all people. But we aren’t interested in just exchanging one power for another. As Fredy Perlman talked about, we want to do away with power not seize power.”

Big words. The FE has always had them, yet corrupt conditions and right-wing revolutions maintain their ascendance. Perhaps not properly practical, the FE’s gritty idealism does encourage its readers to ponder a new world just a rant away.

The 40th Anniversary issue — filled with personal histories and explorations by longtime members such as Peter Werbe, David Watson, Lorraine Perlman and Sunfrog — launches with a release party 5-7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 26, at Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park. 248-968-1190.