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.

DJing Digital Rendezvous Tonight

Vitamin-T-Inner-Human-September-2015

I will be DJing an event called “Digital Rendezvous” during the Detroit Design Festival this evening at the Center for Design Education in the College for Creative Studies. The event is sponsored by the talent agency Vitamin T and starts at 5 pm. You can find more information here.


A selection of artists, I ended up playing:

Turkish folk musicians
Paik
Carl Luntgren
Fennesz
Herbert
Carl Craig
Luomo
Detroit Experiment
Orbital
St. Germain
Circlesquare
Jak Ü

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.

5.23.14 #detsound Redux

We have begun to post audio from our May 23, 2014 Detroit Sound Conservancy conference via Soundcloud. I am very proud of my work with the DSC and am excited to be sharing our efforts online.

You can hear my welcome to the conference here:

You can hear the rest of the audio below. We hope to have all of the audio up later this month.

An alternate history of sexuality in club culture (2014)

ahs-mitchell

The following is an excerpt from “An alternative history of sexuality in club culture” published on 28 January 2014 by Luis-Manuel Garcia on the Resident Advisor blog.

They were part of a generation of primarily black and gay DJs that brought new DJ techniques and sounds from places like NYC and Chicago. Throughout the ’70s, Detroit’s dance scene was divided along sexual and racial lines: Ken Collier used to play at the Downstairs Pub, in the basement of the upscale disco club L’Esprit, but it was the set lists of the white DJ upstairs that appeared in Vince Aletti’s “Disco Files” column. Collier would later go on to hold a Saturday night residency at the gay after-hours club Heaven until his death in the mid-’90s. Gholz reports that many of Detroit’s “techno pioneers” saw Collier as a mentor and “godfather” of DJ culture in the city, but he gets little more than a passing mention in the history books (see Energy Flash and Techno Rebels).

And yet, this generation of disco and post-disco DJs—playing mostly in queer venues and participating in that community—played a pivotal role in the development of Detroit techno, bringing new sounds from places like NYC and Chicago. “When Derrick May and Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes wanted to go to Chicago to see the house scene, the people they got in the car with were an older crew that went to Chessmate, a crew that had been part of that primarily gay disco community,” says Gholz.

In the ’80s, as the sexual segregation of nightlife in Detroit began to loosen up, mostly-queer venues like Heaven and Todd’s were important points of contact and mentorship between different generations of musicians. Many of Detroit’s techno legends got their start frequenting (and often sneaking into) venues where an older generation of gay, black DJs were combining disco with the new sounds of house and garage. But these encounters are almost entirely missing from the story of Detroit techno. Gholz points out that these venues and their social networks remained mostly “off the grid.” Indeed, most of the material for this section is based on oral histories collected by Gholz; almost none of it exists in print.

And Detroit’s LGBTQ-history didn’t end in the ’80s, either. This older generation of primarily gay DJs continued to play at local parties well into the early 2000s—although most of them have either retired or passed on by now. A younger generation of queer-of-color dancers, producers, DJs, event promoters, label managers and venue staff have also come up in the scene, such as Curtis Lipscomb and Adriel Thornton. Lipscomb runs Kick, stemming from a magazine running since 1994, which organizes programs and events serving the Detroit LGBT community; Lipscomb also had a hand in founding the annual Hotter Than July festival, “the nation’s third oldest celebration of African American lesbian, gay, bi and transgender culture.” Thornton is a local promoter of both electronic music and queer culture, founding the Fresh Media Group and engaging in community activism with Detroit’s Allied Media Projects.

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.