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

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

Matthew Dear, Backstroke (2004)

Review originally published in Earplug online mailer 5-18 August 2004

Matthew Dear
Backstroke
Spectral
Released 13 July 2014

Seven tracks on vinyl — eight on CD — arrive just in time for Dear’s current Ghostly International tour. Backstroke‘s high quality lies in its inclusive take on the last 20 years of dance history. Dear’s decision to add lyrics to the mix on his first LP, Leave Luck to Heaven, was an important one that aligned him with Lil’ Louis’ “The Conversation,” New Order’s “Blue Monday,” and Plastikman’s Closer. On Backstroke, Dear, who recently made Detroit his home, continues to speak — about relationships, the generation gap, and even the future — while expanding his beats to include a Paradise Garage-like disco effect on “And in the Night.” The album is sure to be a summer classic.

The Search for Heaven (2004)

Originally published 7/14/2004

The search for Heaven
How Ken Collier, a gay black DJ, influenced a generation

“When the sun goes down they hit the streets,
to the bars to try and meet,
some other stranger,
to ease the pain of living alone,
till it drives them insane,
the woodwork squeaks and out come from the freaks.”

— “Out Come The Freaks” by Was (Not Was)

Ken Collier was black, gay and one of the best DJs of his time. Largely unheralded, Collier bridged the musical gap between the Motown sound and what is now considered house and techno music.

From his base within the gay community, Collier pioneered a style of mixing and participated in an underground network of clubs and parties that would eventually expose him to (and influence) generations of future DJs, producers, promoters and entertainers.

Though he had high blood pressure — and is rumored to have taken a bullet in the 1990s — he was unaware of the diabetic condition that put him in a coma and eventually killed him in February 1996. By his 47th birthday, Collier had DJed professionally for a quarter of a century.

“Ken was a music man. He was made for music,” says famed Detroit techno producer Kevin Saunderson in a recent interview. Catching him at Heaven — an after-hours club at Seven Mile and Woodward where Collier ruled Saturday night after-hours from the late 1980s until within a year of his death — Saunderson remembers Collier as Detroit’s passionate Godfather DJ, towel draped over his shoulder, working the box and dropping tracks like Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and Saunderson’s own Inner City track “Big Fun.” Saunderson talks of a passionate DJ who had an adoring crowd eating from his hands. To Saunderson, and others from his techno-pioneer generation, Collier is a legend.

Collier’s smiling face at Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibit, “Techno: Detroit’s Gift to the World,” hardly betrays the man’s complex and pioneering lifestyle. Instead, Collier’s commemoration is shortened to showing him as one of the original inspirations behind the techno sound, an old-school DJ who learned how to up the ante at his parties by playing the coolest records by the younger artists of the day; those considered by the historical museum the “Godfathers of Techno” — Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins.

Simon Reynolds’ 1998 book, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, references Collier as a techno inspiration, quoting Derrick May’s famous account of a 1981 high school party in which Collier blew an early version of his and Juan Atkins’ “Deep Space” off the decks. The account ends with May saying, “It was the most embarrassing, humbling experience of our lives.”

Collier played cross-over parties for the young, straight, black prep scene. Collier and a myriad of other disc jocks, both male and female — a predominantly black and gay set — had been developing a mixing vocabulary in a post-disco era.

Their full stories, and Collier’s in particular, have been all but drowned out by techno’s overpowering historical din.

Collier was born in 1949 to a family that had arrived in Detroit years earlier in search of work. He attended local schools and would often stroll over to the nearby Motown studios to see who was playing, to see who the stars were. By the time he graduated the young Collier had moved from music fan to a kind of music creator, mixing records in his parents’ basement.

He moved out of the family house in his early 20s after informing his parents of his sexual preferences (no mean feat for a young black man at the time) and began his professional career as a DJ. Throughout his years, Collier would appear on disco station WLBS (102.7 FM) and at various straight cabarets, prep parties and clubs. He would also dabble in record production, co-mixing a handful of tracks with Don Was and Duane Bradley (the “Wasmopolitan Mixing Squad”) like Was (Not Was)’s “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” and “Out Come the Freaks” in the early ’80s. (The mixes, which became hits in places like Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage in New York, were recently re-released by Ze Records.) But if clubbers wanted to hear (and see) Collier regularly, they didn’t turn to their record collections. Instead they had to see him with his audience, in local gay clubs, from the Chessmate to Heaven.

DISCO (NOT DISCO)

Disco died famously at a 1979 Tigers vs. White Sox baseball game at Comiskey Park in Chicago. In an oft-told tale, a local radio jock asked fans to bring disco records to blow up before the game. The resulting riot — and cancellation of the game — underscored the reactionary fervor of the times and set the stage for a new kind of scene.

In Detroit, the scene that had benefited from the cultural freedoms of disco retreated into the shadows. One of these places was The Factory on Jefferson. It is now an empty lot. Club regular and house-music head Robert Troutman remembers when Collier DJed after-hours there, after hot-spot Studio 54 (now the City Club’s basement) closed at 2 a.m.

“Hey. Look at this,” Troutman says. He produces a tape with a label that reads “Ken Collier 82-83-84.” He throws it on and the Collier he’s been talking about for the last hour unravels rather starkly. Listening intently to the syncopated hand claps, accented high-hats and four-on-the-floor tempos pounding from the speaker behind him, he adds, “Hear that? See how he just mixed that record in? That was difficult.” The effect is subtle, even seamless.

As great as the mix sounds, the importance of it lies in the openness of the music itself. What’s on the tape is not disco, though disco’s spirit pervades it. It’s not house either; it’s too early for that. The cut-up rhythm tracks that would eventually become known as “house” and wind their way along I-94 from Chicago didn’t exist yet. Instead, the music is what Troutman and others refer to as “progressive,” a mix of disco flavor with new, thoroughly synthesized energy. Songs like Alexander Robotnick’s “Problemes D’Amour,” and Quest’s “Mind Games,” along with tracks from Europe and New York — all unavailable just a few years before and not necessarily meant to be mixed — are included in this early non-genre.

The music is soulful and terribly funky despite — or perhaps because of — its mysterious, in-between origins. The way the music is presented is telling.

Collier wasn’t alone in mixing progressive post-disco. Other histories give credit to DJs like New York’s Tee Scott and Chicago’s Frankie Knuckles — two instrumental figures who undoubtedly spread the DJ vernacular to Detroit. Indeed, these were just two of the many DJs that Troutman and others traveled hours and hours practically every weekend to see.

But aside from who gets credit for what, the movement toward mixed music was far bigger than any one person. A whole generation of future DJs and producers heard mixers like Collier, Jimmy Lockhart, Duane Bradley, Tony Hunter, Morris Mitchell, Elton Weathers, Felton Howard, Darryl Shannon, Stacey Hale, John Collins and Ken’s brother Greg Collier. These were but a few of the people that proved that there was a musical message — a true underground dance club alternative to the mainstream — worth spreading.

SECOND WAVE

Detroiters Al Ester and Delano Smith are smiling, laughing and egging each other on. On the back patio of Woodward bistro Agave, between cigarettes and frequent interruptions by friends and admirers, the DJs ruminate on their collective and individual histories and the genesis of progressive music in Detroit. They both cite Collier as a huge part of their musical upbringing.

Ester describes sneaking into downtown’s Downstairs Pub in the early ’80s to catch Collier. “There was a restaurant upstairs and I would order something and then go downstairs to supposedly use the bathroom,” Ester says. “Then I would stand up on one of the toilet seats until the music started and slip out into the crowd.” Ester was 16 at the time.

Smith remembers hearing late-night guest appearances by Collier on WLBS — Detroit’s version of New York’s disco WBLS —in the very early ’80s, and seeing him mix records at prep parties near the University of Detroit in the late ’70s. Smith himself eventually became a resident DJ at L’uomo, promoter Michael Neal’s traveling party that started at Studio 54 in the 1970s.

Smith laughingly acknowledges (though Ester shuns the idea) that they “were horrible back then!” Perhaps they were. But the two were young and the craft of mixing was less than a decade old. But they were hooked. The lineage of who hooked whom into the new style of music and presentation, however, remains unclear.

Longtime DJ Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale, a spiritual older sister to the aforementioned DJs, remembers seeing Duane Bradley in 1975 behind two turntables at the Chessmate, a one-time beatnik coffeehouse in the 1960s (now a coin laundry on Livernois near Six Mile). The Chessmate had become a private gay club where Bradley, Collier and others played. She had sneaked into bars before — Mardi Gras, the Twenty Grand, the Argyle — but had never seen anyone mix records. “There was no mixing in straight clubs,” Hale says. “The DJs that mixed were gay.” But it crossed over.

By the mid-’80s, the center of underground club music had shifted from the gay, black, “progressive” scene of the Chessmate, Studio 54 and L’uomo to the straight-black prep scene written about in Dan Sicko’s seminal 1999 book Techno Rebels. Said scene was expanding despite Detroit’s larger socioeconomic decline. But for DJs like Collier there were still setbacks.

Collier had another residency at Bookie’s Club 870 — or just “Bookie’s” — for years. Bookie’s was a place where new wave and punk rock shows bookended with underground dance nights with DJs like Collier. The venue, now an empty parking lot just east of Menjo’s — another gay club that has seen more than 20 years in Detroit — was torched early one morning in 1991. Many of Collier’s records were inside the club at the time of the blaze.

Trina Brooks, an old friend of Collier’s, remembers when the club burned down. She lived in the area and saw the fire. Someone had called Collier, and when he arrived Brooks says he began “crying like a baby.” Collier, Brooks and others stood by watching in disbelief and sadness.

The scene was symptomatic of the city’s reaction to the underground culture itself, a movement that was forced to conceal itself in heavily secretive, invite-only places just to exist.

But the musical and cultural message — a manifesto of freedom to dance and be oneself while doing so — was already out, and clubs like Todd’s on Seven Mile and Van Dyke had already risen to embrace it. The club, where Collier also appeared with his younger brother (and longtime Todd’s resident DJ) Greg, had two types of nights. On alternative nights Charles English would play everything from new wave to hardcore and everything in-between, and on the house nights, the younger Collier would present a large-scale, overground version of the developing dance-mix sound.

There were distinct differences between the two crowds — one young, suburban and freakish and the other black, gay and soulful — though they sometimes cross-pollinated. Still, whether it was “Every Day is Halloween” by Ministry on an alt-night or “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice on a house night, Todd’s was an incredible and subversive mix of underground style, culture and substance.

The creativity and freedom of the crowd that Ken Collier saw at Todd’s flowed directly into what he would do for almost eight years at Heaven for a predominantly black and gay crowd. He transformed the place into an underground dance mecca.

PARADISE LOST

DeAngela “Show” Shannon (aka Miss D., aka Miss Heaven 1991) remembers Collier’s night at Heaven as a place where an entire community felt safe to be stars. Now a “female illusionist” Shannon recalls that she and others would lip-synch to Collier-spun songs. From atop the speakers, these essential-to-the-show performers would work with Collier to present a whole environment that would peak with huge “kick circles.” To tracks like A Guy Called Gerald’s “Blow Your House Down,” these Heaven “stretchers,” or “kickers” would practically battle-dance to the music, throwing their legs above their heads, as hundreds looked on.

Former radio and St. Andrew’s Shelter jock Scott “Go-Go” Gordon recalls Collier’s impact on the scene and was struck by his soulfulness. In the midst of a “cutting-edge” crowd, with a “wall-of-sound” music system, and after waiting in a long line outside at 3 a.m., Gordon remembers Collier nights at Heaven as “the place to be.” He says Collier would, “walk a tightrope between gay anthems and house without offending anybody and pleasing everybody.”

Heaven’s sound system was remarkable and Collier worked it. The treble speakers jutted from the club’s ceiling and the bass bins — the famous “earthquakes” — were situated at floor level. The results, according to longtime Detroit DJ Norm Talley, were “ferocious,” as Collier would tweak the highs, and drop the bass out completely before kicking them in at peak moments.

Label-head, vinyl junkie and Todd’s regular Alvin Munk remembers a night when he was so overpowered by the experience of dancing — in a club so hot that the walls sweated — that he simply blacked out. He does remember walking out hours later, soaking in sweat and hoping that when he got older he would be able to get a club gig like Collier’s. “To have a home base like that. It sounds like a cliché now, but it really was magic. Heaven was special.”

But not everything was ideal at Heaven.

A live recording from the era has Collier demanding, “Security to the dance floor! Security!” Though just a random moment from years of DJing at the club, it’s clear from interviews that the line between “edgy” and “dangerous” was blurred at Heaven as the crowd — which peaked around 3 a.m. — mixed with the economically depressed area surrounding it.

Parallel to all of this was the gradual disintegration of the underground scene itself. Shannon remembers Collier playing “The Pressure” by the Sounds of Blackness when he heard that one of Heaven’s tight-knit community had died. Going to funerals, sending flowers, and sharing a few words about dead friends became semi-regular occurrences for Heaven regulars. AIDS, drugs and violence took their toll on both the club and Detroit in the 1990s.

When Heaven closed to make way for a McDonald’s, Collier moved to Times Square downtown and Off Broadway East off I-94. But the venues were not Heaven.

“Things started to go down for him after Heaven closed,” says Stacey Hale.

Collier had obviously found a home at Heaven, a place where his was a marquee name.

Though he played a handful of tour dates in the United States and a few shows abroad near the end of his life, Collier rarely strayed far from home. The DJ was a Detroiter who stayed here his whole life.

Collier’s friends and devotees formed the now-defunct Ken Collier Memorial Fund (KCMF) in 1997; throwing parties and raising money and awareness for diabetes, the disease that finally killed Collier. For reasons still unclear, the KCMF was recently asked by Collier’s family to cease its work and its parties.

Collier’s death left a hole in an already tattered scene. Though dance music was just taking off in the mainstream, with techno DJs traveling the world and raves blowing up in warehouses in Detroit, the progressive/house music and its DJs had fallen by the wayside. The new music picked up fast, had fewer vocals, and, for many, had lost the original soul that fans had originally sought. A mixed scene, which had come so far so quickly, resegregated. Collier’s death closed the door on a Detroit era.

Clubs like Todd’s and Heaven, as well as the older, mostly forgotten stops in Collier’s DJ travels, stretched Detroit to the limit. You’d be hard-pressed to find stories about these places in the annals of techno history. Collier and the clubs he played explored how loud, beautiful, ugly and racially and sexually mixed Detroit could be. Complex, contradictory, hazy, utopian and even cautionary, the stories still echo Ken Collier’s name.

Kevin Saunderson arrived on the scene in the late ’80s, but was still able to hear and see the phenomenon that Collier represented. Recalls Saunderson: “When I did go to Heaven to drop off my records for Ken to play … I just didn’t realize he could play that way.”