I will be presenting at the “Mastering of a Music City” Music Cities Summit in Toronto on April 21st. Here is the title and accepted proposal:
Much like the threat of climate change, the threat to our audio heritage is real and it is here now. In 2015, the British Library put a date on that threat announcing that they had 15 years to preserve their country’s analog audio through digitization before it was lost forever. But the problem is even more acute in cities like Detroit where archival media lab resources and preservation dollars are practically non-existent. In this presentation, Carleton Gholz, PhD, Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC), using Detroit as a case study in “sonic apocalypse,” outlines the risks and opportunities for cultural preservation in a time of economic austerity and political crisis.
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.
I have written a chapter on the history of Detroit radio station WJLB for a book called Listening Spaces: 21st Century Perspectives on Music, Technology, and Culture. The book is edited by Richard Purcell and Richard Randall of Carnegie Mellon University and will be released by Pelgrave next month. My piece is entitled, “The Scream and Other Tales: Listening for Detroit Radio History with the Vertical File.” You can find more information here.
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
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.
Rourke’s work illustrates three distinct areas of American humor: the Yankee peddler, the backwoodsman and the controversial minstrel performer. These three are often referred to as the “trio” by Rourke scholars, including Clarey and another scholar, Dr. Carleton Gholz. Gholz is the founder of the Detroit Sound Conservancy – a group committed to the preservation of lost Detroit sound recordings and related historical material like press interviews found often on magnetic or other analog media.
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.
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.
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?
GHOLZ: And you just brought your own 45s over, I assume.
MITCHELL: Right, yes.
GHOLZ: Did you have a little box?
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.
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