Adieu (2005)

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

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

By Carleton S. Gholz and Walter Wasacz

Originally published 8/17/2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beats go on

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

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.”

Stooges Live (2003)

Originally published August 2003 for New Music Express.

The Stooges
Sonic Youth
Von Bondies

DTE ENERGY MUSIC THEATRE (formerly Pine Knob)
Clarkston, Michigan (aka NOT DETROIT)
Monday, August 25, 2003

Iggy demanded the house lights be eliminated from the stage. “Blackout! Blackout!” he howled as the riff from Fun House’s “TV Eye” pierced the humid night. As a song-closer, Iggy called out to the now united thousands in attendance at the grassy-amphitheater: “We are the FUCKIN’ STOOGES!”

Introductions aside, the “original” reunited Stooges—guitarist Ron Asheton, drummer / brother Scott Asheton, bassist Mike Watt (Minutemen / Firehose) filling for the departed Dave Alexander and saxophonist Steve Mackay, from the original Fun House sessions—seemed to be as passionate about their audience’s delusion as their fans could rightfully expect on a Monday night. And after the disciplined but dry, one-riffed barrage of the Von Bondies and the more mature than staggering O’Rourke version of the Youth, it was clear who really knew how to play minimalist sludge for an audience of (now aging, predominantly suburban) derelicts.

Though no chests were slit with glass (at least on stage) there were a number of vintage moments, including a stage-heist from the first ten rows during “Real Cool Time,” and an ironic pelting of the band with $7 plastic-cupped beers starting with, “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

Both the band’s obvious aging and the concert’s environment—the hinterlands of Clarkston sure ain’t the Michigan Palace in Detroit—kept the show away from true revelation. But on a muggy evening in August with dozens of people on stage dancing and sweating and a shirtless, atrophied Iggy threatening to “dance to the back of the lawn,” one could be excused for allowing the familiar fear to kick in one more time.

Waxing on Detroit (2003)

Cliff Thomas’ Buy Rite Music (7324 W. Seven Mile Road, 313-864-0219) has been a linchpin in our dance community since 1980, when he opened his first store on Detroit’s west side. To DJs including the Electrifying Mojo and Ken Collier this was, as Thomas claims, “the club.” To producers, from Kevin Saunderson to Blake Baxter, it was a place where records could be distributed via the Music Master imprint. To others it was simply a place to work while they produced and DJ’d, attempting to feed themselves and their families. Thomas says, “We slept and ate off the music.”

Alexander Robotnick, Martin Circus and Kraftwerk all broke out to Detroit’s ears via this store; Thomas takes great pride in his place near the center of Detroit’s vinyl dance culture for more than 20 years.

Today, though, the store seems caught in 1990. Though there are current R&B and hip-hop records in the bins, the vinyl hit wall contains still-in-the-plastic 12-inch singles and (now) old-school techno compilations from a different time, long before the explosion of white labels, bootlegging, digital downloading or the advent of Apple’s iPod.

Thomas argues that it is a conscious attempt at exploring the history of the art form, which he says has not been very easy. He talks of the rampant drug problems and gang wars that raged through the city in the 1980s. Thomas’s eyes grow wide as he explains how the scene splintered into subgenres and the music became, in Thomas’s words, “diluted” in the 1990s. “We lost the people who wanted to live the music.”

At the same time, places such as Submerge (3000 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit, 313-964-1025) and Record Time (262 W. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, 248-336-8463; 27360 Gratiot Ave., Roseville, 586-775-1550) were taking the Buy Rite model of store/ record label/ distributor and cutting into the latter store’s dominance.

There are movements to take Buy Rite into the 21st century. There is new paint being applied and construction is obvious in the barnlike space that holds the vinyl wall and CD counters. But it is difficult to believe that Thomas can really bring the store back to its glory days. In many ways, vinyl picking and listening has never seemed so anachronistic. Many DJs use a program called Final Scratch which allows them to use MP3 files like records, allowing for scratching, matching beats and remixing in real time. Even CDs are threatened by even easier methods of downloading, and burning. Finally, with Apple’s new iPod and online music service, there is a user interface that at least theoretically cuts out any need for brick-and-mortar stores, whether they sell vinyl or not.

Record stores, it seems, may be going the way of the drive-in movie theater.

Say goodbye to mom-and-pop

There are a string of west side record stores that have weathered the storms, and even the first wave of the e-music attack. These include Damon’s (20124 Plymouth Road, Detroit, 313-838-3500) and Kendricks (12828 Fenkell, Detroit, 313-862-8555), both of which sell dance, R&B and hip-hop vinyl. Some have made it by offering unique niche environments, like Strictly Roots (15734 W. Seven Mile Road, Detroit, 313-836-8686), another west side establishment that specializes in dance-hall reggae culture and music, as well as African- and African-American-centered books. The current incarnation of the shop, which has been family-owned in the area since the early ’80s, has lasted seven years.

On the east side, Car City Records (21918 Harper, St. Clair Shores, 810-775-4770) and Melodies and Memories (23013 Gratiot Ave., Eastpointe, 810-774-8480) have both survived, despite rumors of each store closing up from time to time. Melodies has its own dance room that has, in the past, been competitive with Record Time’s farther to the north.

Car City is considered the home of Detroit garage rock, if only because of its employees. Many Car City vinyl jocks have peppered the bands, clubs and studios of the last two decades in the city. But it is the store’s jazz vinyl and regular supply of used CDs that brings in the regular customers.

Perhaps the most unknown, and most hazardous to your health, survival story is Mays’ Used Records (126 W. Eight Mile Road, Hazel Park, 248-547-7470). Record collectors know that this shacklike record store is an essential stop. However, strains of mold in the place and old man Mays lighting up every five minutes reinforce that there is no cross-ventilation. But with thousands of 45s, a small record player to play them on, and LPs to the ceiling, it is worth the potential asthma attack.

But many more stores come and go. CD shops throughout the city open and close in seemingly six-month rotations. Some of the great stores of the last 20 years in the metro Detroit area, The Hip-Hop Shop, Kaboodle’s, Sam’s Jams, Coachman’s, Detroit Audio & Art and many more have closed. The reasons seem to be extremely complex.

Technology is important to the story, but economic drops from the ’90s heyday, and the day-to-day stresses of running a business in Detroit (never an easy thing to do) seem to be significant here too. The dwindling market for older vinyl mixed with the aging of the generations that bought vinyl the first time around also make things difficult. Coachman’s Records did not survive the Detroit blues cheerleader’s death in December 2000.

Not only have the inner-city stores been affected, but the more profitable mom-and-pop chains, many in Detroit’s wealthier suburbs to the north and west, have bitten the dust. In the early ’90s there were a number of these chains, including Record Time, Off the Record, Repeat the Beat, Play It Again, Shantoniques, Detroit Audio & Art, Dearborn Music, Desirable Discs, The Record Collector, and the regional giant Harmony House, which rose to more than 40 stores. Today most of those “chains” are down to one or two stores or closed altogether. Harmony House is now down to two stores, the only vinyl shop being in Berkley (28297 Woodward, 248-544-1700).

Record Time still maintains two stores, though its ad with the Detroit Music Retailers Collective (“What Happened to All the Real Stores?”) seems to point to a disbelief in the reality of changing market conditions. There are two locations, one in Ferndale (262 W. Nine Mile Road, 248-336-8463) and the other in Roseville (27360 Gratiot Ave., 586-775-1550). What Buy Rite was to the ’80s, Record Time was to the ’90s, providing a place where all facets of the dance community had become a way of life for everyone employed there. Record Time has been brought to earth in the last few years, though it is still the major player in dance music in the city. Though Roseville is the flagship store with a near-definitive techno/ house dance room, Ferndale is the place to regularly shop, with better service and without the Eight Mile R&B/ hip hop vs. rock segregation that makes Roseville feel so problematically old school.

But overextension is an issue and two stores may be the limit for anyone wanting to make it in the retail industry in the early 21st century.

Desirable Discs at one point covered Dearborn, Garden City and Dearborn Heights as well as western and Downriver suburbs that lacked their own wax resources. Now they are in a transplanted store (13939 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, 313-581-1767), after a fire took their Garden City location; their Telegraph store will close this month. Though the remaining store is still one of Detroit’s best, especially for collectors specializing in mint LPs, the feeling of the original street-corner store and its oceans of vinyl downstairs has been lost.

Of course, you can leave the metro area if you must. Ann Arbor still boasts a number of strong record stores, including the indispensable, musician-staffed Encore (417 E. Liberty, 734-662-6776), Wazoo (526 1/2 S. State, 734-761-8686) and Schoolkids in Exile (332 S. State St., 734-663-7248) run by the original Schoolkids Records owner. Out east Brian Gillespie of Family Funktion and Throw Records fame continues a fairly fantastic dance shop inside DJ Supply in Warren. It’s called Hearwax (3854 E. 13 Mile Road, 586-582-0871).

In Royal Oak there is Wendell’s (511 S. Washington, 248-336-9246). The place is busy, and currently there are three White Stripes magazine covers on the wall. The 45s in the bins are current and powerful: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Rapture, and Detroit’s own Clone Defects, etc. Though a mainly a rockist venture, eschewing the techno and dance beats that Neptune (see below) does so well, Wendell’s has improved since it opened only a few years ago. The place is now a must stop for any scenester rocker. Down the street, Fun House, Noise and Toys (525 S. Washington, 248-336-9900), has taken up residence on the corner, featuring a fine selection of rock from the ’60s to today.

In Hamtramck, two shops make the drive on the Davison or I-75 well worth it. Record Graveyard (11303 Joseph Campau, 313-365-8095) was recently honored in an all-Detroit article in UK’s NME — along with Car City Records — and in the pages of the current Blender magazine. The positive press likely will not change the store though, which continues the great tradition of long bins, long aisles and tons of records. Detroit Threads (10022 Joseph Campau, 313-872-1777) is run by a red-haired Iggy fan named Mikel Smith whose love of good electronic wax and vintage clothing is only matched by his commitment to the 24-hour party he always seems to be enjoying.

Downtown ’03

A newer generation of record buyers, though, weaned on the Lager House and the Bronx Bar, may be ready for a new twist, and a few inspired people might be prepared to give it to them. Idle Kids (4470 Second Ave., Detroit, 313-832-7730) has been open for a short time in the basement of the old Zoot’s coffeehouse, supplying punk records and anarchist books for the skater-punks and fellow travelers south of Wayne State.

There are also two new stores in the works, one of them set to open soon on the second floor of the CPOP gallery (Woodward at Willis, Detroit). Called Young Soul Rebels, its owners are Dave Buick of Italy Records and Dion Fischer, record producer of the highly anticipated third LP by Slumber Party. Brad Hales, the undisputed DJ king of detroit contemporary’s funk nights and an unrivaled record collector, also plans to open his own shop this summer.

Epilogue

Brett Marion is strangely confident about the future of record stores.

After years of working in retail, first at Play It Again, and now, for six years, at Neptune Records (503 S. Main, Royal Oak, 248-586-0519), Marion has created an underground haven that is competitive with any cutting-edge record store this side of Other Music in New York.

Like Stormy Records (22079 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, 313-563-8525), run by Detroit noise duo Windy and Carl, Marion and his two partners have built up a community of musical believers, much in line with the dreams that Cliff Thomas and the Buy Rite movement put together 20 years before, built on living and breathing the music. Neptune’s patrons DJ, produce, promote and distribute some of today’s most important music, from skippy Germanesque techno and electro to garage rock and shimmering avant-pop.

Asked about whether he is worried about the iPod or any other threat that may come along to threaten vinyl or his store on Main, Marion, normally the Woody Allen-like worrier, relates an optimistic story: “Neptune just recently had its best-ever sales day — that includes the busy Christmas and Thanksgiving seasons … It’s hard to do the all-purpose mom-and-pop,” he concedes, “but in many ways it has never been a better time to run an underground store with a niche market and a community to cater to.” As one of his two employees, Nathan Justice, perhaps prematurely states, “No matter what, the iPod isn’t going to tell you what to buy.”

But even if it does, one can imagine Marion and the boys surviving, and perhaps Buy Rite too, and all the rest. There is a community here in vinyl, an energy, that speaks of youth, new adventure and the wide-eyed feeling of seeing art work that you can touch and be mystified by. It is an acquired taste but also a communal taste, best served up with other people.

What’s goin’ on?! Motown meets Marxism in a searching new study of Detroit roots. (2000)

Originally Published 2/16/2000

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Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit
by Suzanne E. Smith
Harvard University Press
$24.95, 320 pp.

Unlike nostalgic histories of Motown such as Berry Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved, and Nelson George’s chronological study, Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound, Suzanne E. Smith’s new Dancing in the Street neither concentrates exclusively on the stories of Motown’s protagonists nor relegates its interest in Motown to a simple fascination with pop trivia.

Instead, Smith’s book is a political work of anti-nostalgia and de-individualization, an important and necessary disruption of “public memory” regarding Motown that concentrates on the things spectacular consumer merchandise such as The Big Chill and the 1998 Super Bowl halftime show leave out: production and roots.

Dancing in the Street’s analysis takes on the conditions that made Motown possible – many of them established years before Berry Gordy Jr. switched from boxing to songwriting. These conditions, Smith argues, were produced in the streets of Detroit in the years leading to Motown’s ascendance.

A growing black community, locked out of both mainstream politics and mainstream culture, was able to assemble a rich mosaic of strategies to better the lives of black people. It’s within this very specific historical framework, fraught with the hopes, fears and day-to-day realities of black Detroit, that Smith locates the music and politics of Motown.

Smith’s early chapters examine particular movements and moments in black Detroit’s struggle for freedom – such as Detroit’s 1963 “Great March to Freedom” which featured an early version of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (recorded and distributed by Motown). She details Motown’s own parallel struggles to establish itself as a black-owned business that produced and distributed the synthesized fruits of black culture.

These sections look at everything from the name and inspiration behind Gordy Sr.’s Booker T. Washington Grocery Store, to the recording career of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha’s father. The grocery allows Smith to make connections between the Gordy family and the key tenets of black nationalism, while the Reverend’s story brings out Detroit’s history of black struggle and sound recordings (Franklin’s sermons were distributed by Chess Records out of Chicago). Thus, Franklin was one of the greatest preachers of his time and one of Detroit’s first major recording stars.

In later chapters, Smith investigates Detroit politics and culture via Motown’s Black Forum subsidiary, a label that produced such un-Hitsville recordings as Poets of the Revolution, Guess Who’s Coming Home?: Black Men Recorded Live in Vietnam and Free Huey! Poets Langston Hughes and Detroit’s Margaret Danner’s efforts to be recorded by Black Forum – despite the parent label’s on-again-off-again interest in the project – are set within the growing violence and frustration in Detroit that peaked in the 1967 rebellion.

Similarly, Smith compares events such as the creation of DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) by black workers at Dodge Main with the songwriting work slowdowns and stoppages of Hitsville’s most efficient songwriting team, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, creators of “Where Did Our Love Go?” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Nowhere to Run,” and many other songs. In both situations, Smith argues, black workers fought against working on a production line, whether it was in a factory in Hamtramck or a house on West Grand Boulevard.

These comparisons culminate in Smith’s discussions of why Motown artists Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and others felt the need to comment more explicitly on their realities as black people, despite the teenage lyrics and themes generally encouraged by the label’s front office. This late-’60s / early-’70s groundswell of message music is one of Motown’s most significant cultural legacies, with Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” leading Smith’s list.

Dancing in the Street is a wonderful blend of thorough research, firsthand interviews and an impassioned discussion of the music which keeps the book far away from the suffocating reaches of the academy. Smith, a Detroit native, has found in Motown’s apparent order (its arrangements, performers and beats) the perfect juxtaposition to Detroit’s growing disorder (in the riots, police violence and cultural devastation of urban renewal).

Quasi, Field Studies (1999)

Enjoying the music and lyrics of Quasi, the ex-husband and wife duo of Sam Coomes, organ (formerly of Heatmiser, Elliot Smith’s original post-grunge band), and Janet Weiss, drums (Sleater-Kinney), reminds me of something someone told me once about the emotional power of Hollywood film. Show someone the final scene of Casablanca with writing on the bottom stating that, “All this took place in a studio in Burbank, Calif.; the people in the background are midgets; the planes are cardboard cut-outs and Bogart is wearing 3-inch lifts in his shoes” and the viewer, raised on Hollywood since day one, will simply jump right over it and back into the story — “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Ditto goes for pop music. The pull of Quasi’s Beatlesque-indie-pop-Prozac is so strong, so familiar, with Weiss’ Ringoisms fitting perfectly with Coomes’ anti-Ritalin organ attack, that it’s easy to overlook that Coomes and Weiss’ harmonies are calmly singing that everyone is a sellout, everything sucks and that, “You can cover up your chains and call yourself free / It doesn’t really matter to me.”

After 14 more tracks about selling souls to the devil, coming in last, living in abject loneliness and realizing that there is always something worse than blandness — namely death — you’d think I’d be ready for a few hours of time alone.

Nope.

I’m back listening to this same godforsaken album and you will be too — as long as you believe strongly enough in pop music where you can unquestioningly sing along to such lines as, “Don’t believe a word I sing / because it’s only a song and it don’t mean a thing.”

Brilliant. Play it again, Sam.

Prince, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)

Relaxing really isn’t the proper word, but it’ll do to describe the latest release by the former Prince Rogers Nelson. Relaxing, not because he has forgotten funk or left out any harsh edges; though never unruly, the album still pushes and shoves its way through the funk, from stripped-down drum machines (“Undisputed”) to Nelson’s pungently funky, post-Hendrix guitar growling (“Baby Knows”).

What is relaxing, though, is the fact that it’s a Prince record — in 1999 — that demands as much intelligence, open-mindedness, and playfulness from its audience as anything he might have done 20 years ago. Note: Except for a few short string segues, any song on this album could theoretically sell anywhere on the dial — including two killer piano ballads (“Man ‘o’ War” and “I Love You But I Don’t Trust U Anymore”) that no one in so-called modern R&B could touch. Even so, none of the cuts on this record will get out of the R&B charts — if any of them ever get in. Name one white-formatted station that would even acknowledge Prince? And while you’re at it, name an “urban” station that would still drop Kraftwerk.

But, for the anti-Will Smith, it’s about expectations and Prince has once again failed to lower his, despite MTV interviews and salivating mouths over at Arista who are quietly hoping that Mr. Purple will pull in the big green in the Y2K. Anachronistic as it may seem, Prince is still a musical auteur, an artist, preacher, pimp, producer, hype man and romantic who doesn’t care about keeping it real, doing it for the community or trying to please fools who only take what’s on offer.

Everything Is Nice (1999)

The first two discs of this three-disc, 10-year anniversary set start with a simple nod to what Matador has always epitomized: underground rock ʻnʼ roll, aka indie-rock. The breadwinners since day one – Pavement, Jon Spencer, Guided By Voices, Yo La Tengo – are joined by a new set of indie-rock illuminati – Sleater-Kinney, Mogwai, Cat Power. Great music, few surprises.

But then a funny thing happens on Matadorʼs tour of the corporate offices. By the end of the first two discs youʼve been taken to places you never imagined going in the heart of American indie (heretofore white) musical elitism – places as disparate and complementary as techno, hip hop, and avant-noise. But what first sounds like Matador forgetting its audience – in a thoroughly overground example of middle-aged identity collapse – by disc three sounds like the most subversive musical move since Pavementʼs Steve Malkmus uttered the words, “Darlinʼ, donʼt you go and cut your hair.”

On the first disc it is Non Phixionʼs “Refuse to Lose” – as in “I got so much trouble on my mind/refuse to lose” courtesy of Chuck D. – that starts the shift, breaking down the indie-pop political ambivalence of earlier tracks. By the second disc Matadorʼs gloves are completely off and the electronic outfit Matmos, along with Khan, Red Snapper and another underground hip-hop troop, the Arsonists, begin to finish off any thoughts of returning unchanged to the indie-rock womb.

Everything is Nice is a brilliant commercial ploy (three CDs, 43 songs, for around $11.99) as well as an incredible statement, calmly exploring a new way of thinking about being an independent label, where dichotomies that have ruled the American underground since punk rock and hip hop divided paths – somewhere after the “World Destruction” sessions between Johnny Rotten and Afrika Bambaataa – donʼt seem to be nearly as important or permanent.

After 10 years of business, Matador has seen through enough of the world to understand the financial and ideological importance of bridging the space between black nationalism and white boredom, urban ghettoes and suburban garages, childish naïveté and hard to earn street-cred, Americana and international pop, feminism and machismo, and the bedroom and club. Though the implications of all this need to be worked out – something for the next 10 years – Matador has found a way to make a buck while still fucking with their version of rock ʻnʼ roll, making the greatest record label in America one of Americaʼs greatest cultural assets.

Malcolm X Park and Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation (1999)

What is striking about these two newly available-on-CD releases from former Arlington, Va., residents Unrest are the subversions that Mark Robinson and his band get away with. The freedom is obvious and immediate; this is punk, the “new thing,” fresh refuse from the blank generation. Reagan is still in the White House; Michael Jackson is king of the airwaves; Poison is kickin’ ass and Robinson et al., armed with the emerging possibilities of an American underground and the subversive incantations of British punk rock, are able to generate a stirring musical curveball while still having a laugh.

The bread-and-butter tracks on both records are the hardcore stabs that shift between nervous-teenage-boy energy and nervous-adult-is-there-anything-else release. But it’s the nonsensical rants, spoken word segments, rockabilly segues, movie samples and pop-torrid love songs that give both albums their edge. Punk is not a repetitive musical style for Robinson. Rather, punk is the ability — or more exactly, the obsessive need — to break the straight face, to transgress the mask in front of the microphone, sending up ’80s sexism (“Love’s like a muscle/And you make me want to flex” from “Black Power Dynamo” on KKB) while warning against emotional fascism (“All I need is more time to remember/time is something you don’t have/they’re going to crucify you!” from “The Gas Chair,” Malcolm X Park).

And though Malcolm X Park is the more “consistent” and emotive of the two records, it’s a song like KKB’s “She Makes Me Shake Like a Soul Machine,” an overly serious acoustic power ballad à la “Patience” with full-on vocal overdubs and a FM-radio fade-out — surrounded, of course, by killer hardcore — that illustrates punk’s brilliant fusion of irony and honesty. It’s 1990, the last quiet year in the underground, and punk is an open world where Robinson feels at home pairing Kiss’ “Strutter” to Fugazi-esque lyrics and upside-down Zeppelin riffs to bar-band middle fingers.