The Music of the Comeback

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

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

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

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

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

This piece was first published here. Photo by Laura McDermott

The Detroit I Love: Voom Approaches 25th Anniversary

Voom 1992-1993

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

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

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

Movement 2015 Preview

A dozen things not to miss at Movement 2015
Prepare your brain, and your ass will follow

Originally published in the Metro Times 20 May 2015

It’s Memorial Day weekend — what are you up to? Perhaps you’re headed out to fish upon those Great Lakes, or maybe you’re headed to International Mr. Leather in Chicago? Me, I’ll be at the Movement Electronic Music Festival, my 16th as a fan, journalist, and activist. I’ll be there, managing my cell-phone battery life, making sure my earplugs are working, experiencing my spine vibrate from the sonic pressure, and from time to time smiling ear to ear. Here we present to you recommendations from the entire realm of Movement’s parties, after-parties, shows, events, and goings-on.

Conferences, talks, films, tours

Will Berlin remake itself in Detroit? How did “Big Fun” actually get crafted? Is techno merely a musical footnote to the career of Coleman Young? I recommend you get your urban sonic psychogeographical game together starting Wednesday, May 20 at the Detroit-Berlin Connection Second Annual Conference (MOCAD, 4-9 p.m.), before heading to hear local legend Kevin Saunderson get interviewed by WDET’s Chris Campbell (Crash Discourse, Detroit Public Library, 6-8 p.m.). Then on Thursday, May 21, check out the opening of the Coleman A. Young Collection (Detroit Public Library, 5 p.m.), and on Friday, May 22, be sure to visit the Michigan Sound Conference (Detroit Public Library, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.), and then catch some films at the Electric Roots Micro Music Film Festival in the evening (Charles Wright Museum, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.). Finally, Saturday, hop on a bicycle and get a tour of Detroit’s musical history from the Music Institute to the Packard Plant and back from Wheelhouse Bike Shop. (Techno in the 313 Bike Tour, noon-4 p.m.). Whew.

The best bar for electronic music

6 p.m.-4 a.m. Friday, May 22, TV Lounge

TV Lounge is always the best bar in Detroit for electronic music, but this Friday is your best bet in terms of who’s spinning there. Formerly Half Past Three, formerly the Blue Ribbon Bar, TV Lounge still holds down Grand River despite major real estate transitions all around. On Friday, you’ll hear the smooth blends of Norm Talley in the alley behind the bar (Tunnel Effect) before checking out the big Chicago boom of Smart Bar residents Michael Serafini and the Black Madonna (Smart Bar x Resident Advisor Opening BBQ). And then numerous other DJs will join them after that. Take advantage of this sonic jewel now.

Fjord Agency

9 p.m.-3 a.m. Friday, May 22, Whisky Parlor

Is it the DJ that makes the party? Or is it the promoter? What about the sound? The location? The flier? Steven Reaume, manager at Grand Trunk and longtime party promoter, has been thinking about all of these elements since throwing his first parties in the Atlas Building in Eastern Market during the final years of the Reagan administration. He’s throwing multiple events during the festival, but the key party here is Fjord Agency at the Whisky Parlor, a reinterpreted space above Grand Trunk. His longtime colleague, the Michigan-raised, California-mussed Marke Bieschke, joins him in planning for the night. Bieschke’s haiku on the flier might hit close to home: “Are we model citizens? / Within this model world? / Or is our darker will possessed / by some celestial agency?” Electronic music, with its sonic voids and waves, piercing signals and ambient blessings, invites the citizen to cosmological constants as well as deep transitions.

Sinistarr

8-10 p.m. Saturday, May 23, Movement, Sixth State

Twenty-nine-year-old Jeremy “Sinistarr” Howard has already attended 12 festivals, played at two, and more importantly has had a serious career for the last eight years as a drum and bass producer. What did you do in the last decade? I do not know him outside of his excellent drum and club Soundcloud mixes and productions, but I plan to find out more on Saturday.

Carl Craig and Mike Banks Live

10-11:30 p.m. Saturday, May 23, Movement, Thump Stage

Craig started this festival. And, despite a few early bumps, he now plays live and/or DJs at it every year. This is one of Detroit’s major cultural wins of the last quarter-century, like having Marcus Belgrave still show up to jazz fest or Don Was continue to put together the Concert of Colors house band. Underground Resistance co-founder and musician Banks joins him on stage. That Twilight in Paris two-song EP, which featured Craig and Banks, as well as Detroit jazz legend Wendell Harrison, came out almost eight years ago but the ideas — layered electronic dots and dashes, building with elegiac key lines and blasts sampling themselves across the voids — are still unfolding.

The Formula

9 p.m.-4 a.m. Saturday, May 23, Drive Table Tennis Club

The formula here is simple: housemusicallnightlong, housemusicallnightlong! This excellent lineup features a cross-section of Detroit house heads and longtime critical faves including Minx and Pirahnahead, John Collins, and Baltimore’s Karizma. Drive is in the Penobscot Building, which once held the illustrious WJLB, home of the Electrifying Mojo — a must for out-of-towners.

Deep Detroit: Juan Atkins, Kai Alcé, and Stefan Ringer

10 p.m. Saturday, May 23, 1515 Broadway

This party, likely sold out, is worth standing outside to hear the thump and to mix and mingle with Detroit and global music makers and their fans. The legendary Music Institute used to be located down the street. Alcé, whose party this is, remembers that moment well, and curates accordingly. This is the seventh incarnation of the party, and features Atkins, who is celebrating 35 years of producing music. The foreboding, subtle house producer Ringer, like Alcé based in Atlanta, opens up.

Hip-Hop artists not named Snoopadelic

Does anyone remember when DJ Defiant brought 50 MCs onto the main stage of the festival? If not, perhaps spend some time with the Red Bull stage on Sunday afternoon to hear some of Detroit’s best, including Danny Brown and Waajeed. Yes, Method Man is performing at this year’s festival, and so is Snoopadelic. But with numerous former P-Funk musicians throughout Detroit, the largest failure of this year’s festival may be booking Snoop without a full live band. (Note: Afrika Bambaataa plays Bert’s Warehouse on Saturday, May 23, as well.)

ADMN

2-4 p.m. Monday, May, 25, Movement, Sixth Stage

I met Alex “ADMN” Dazin at Urban Bean Coffee House last week. And I am pleased to say that if the future of funk-driven dance music is in the hands of such good, earnest, musically trained post-post-hardcore, bassist hands, we just might make it through the next five or so festivals with our souls intact. This is ADMN’s first festival, and his parents cannot make it. So if he sounds good make sure to tell his mom that he hasn’t chosen the wrong career path.

Shawn Rudiman

9-9:30 p.m. Monday, May, 25, Movement, Sixth Stage

This has taken too long to happen. Hats off to Detroit Techno Militia for putting Rudiman on at the festival. I first met Rudiman at Kraynick’s bike shop in Pittsburgh in 2005. He is as serious about his bikes as he is about his drum machines. He is very serious about Depeche Mode too. He is, actually, very, very serious. But as techno fans, we know how this story goes. As seriousness reaches toward infinity, the celestial force of the funk emerges. Wear black. Dance hard. Listen as Rudiman channels the disseminations of a lifetime of electronic body music. It will be a short set, so be on time.

Richie Hawtin

11 p.m. Monday, May, 25, Masonic Temple

Recommending a Ritchie party in 2015 is a bit of a cheapie. The globally influential producer and DJ does not need my help. And this is an official after-party, so it will get all the promotion it needs. However, given the recent turnover and troubles in the Cass Corridor because of the impending hockey arena, I vote that we all party as hard as we can on Temple, while we still can.

Full Energy

5:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday, May 26, UFO Factory

After the dance, let Auxetic Detroit, the brainchild of Maggie Derthick (a dance music fan, promoter, and full-service industry underground technician) take you home on Tuesday. The Audio Rescue Team of sonic-scene professionals Alan Bogl and Michael Fotias, who handle sound at numerous events throughout the city all weekend, navigate your ears through your final transition. Detroit duo Ataxia will be featured.

Octave One

Octave One on twenty-six years of techno
They believe

Originally published in the Metro Times on 20 May 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lenny: Yeah, it’s in Detroit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence: Yeah, he sure did!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence: Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ahs-mitchell

Photo by Carleton S. Gholz, collage by Morris Mitchell

GHOLZ: How did you get your first DJ gig?

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

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

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

GHOLZ: So what would happen when the record ended?

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

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

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

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

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

“Close N’Play by Kenner Commercial 1972”

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

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

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

MITCHELL: ‘71.

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

MITCHELL: Right, yes.

GHOLZ: Did you have a little box?

MITCHELL: Yep.

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

MITCHELL: [laughs] Let me see.

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

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

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

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

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

GHOLZ: Tell me about that moment.

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

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

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

GHOLZ: Right.

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

GHOLZ: Yes, absolutely.

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

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

From Detroit to Tokyo (2007)

Originally published 5/23/2007

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

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

Nothing lasts long on his turntables.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mills made his entrance at exactly the right moment.

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

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

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

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

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

Radio was king.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stage was set for Jeff Mills’ exit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a career moment.

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

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

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

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

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.”

Two Lone Swordsmen, Tiny Reminders (2001)


On first glance/listen, Keith Tenniswood and Andrew Weatherall’s newest Two Lone Swordsmen album, Tiny Reminders, doesn’t say a whole lot. No glossy faces on the cover. Close to zero liner notes. No multicolored booklet — unless you consider a green background with yellow typing multicolored. Similarly, Tiny Reminders’ sonic vision, a consistent and skilled set of electro forays (like King Tubby and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with only an electronic dildo to keep them company), doesn’t necessarily scream anything too important. At least not anything that hasn’t been said before.

But Tiny Reminders does leave a rambling series of hints — a sonic gesture here, a cryptic title, such as “Cotton Stains” and “Brootle,” there — that offer a glimpse at a mission deeper than contractual obligation. Even the project’s name, Two Lone Swordsmen, hints at a serious yet cartoonish approach, somewhere between messianic and mercenary. And titles such as “Death to all Culture Snitches” makes me feel not so in the dark about TLS’s angry, fuck-the-yuppies ’tude.

But what really makes this record worth four stars is TLS’s ability to conjure short and enduring tracks that turn knee-jerk reaction into awed admiration. In “It’s Not the Worst I’ve Looked … Just the Most I’ve Cared,” and “Constant Reminder,” the last two cuts on the record, TLS opts out of the electro it spent the last 17 tracks creating. It offers instead a low-fi, humanoid ending, with real acoustic and steel drums and a desolate guitar. Here, melody and release seep out of the album’s earlier bouncy coolness, tipping TLS’s hand and giving the album’s seemingly electrephemeral nature a new dimension. In the recording’s last breaths, the two men heave a collective sigh after an electronic workout. Finally, we hear what we should have been hearing all along.

Originally published for Metro Times under the title “Object petit a,” Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Everything But the Girl, Temperamental
 (1999)

What’s with Watt?

Confident that they were still songwriters and not beat junkies, singer Tracey Thorn and multi-instrumentalist-arranger Ben Watt let dance floor artists Todd Terry and Spring Heel Jack take them into the middle-’90s. They aided and abetting the duo on Walking Wounded (1996) – a record that utilized rather than aped house music and gave the humble-looking pair a sleek, gorgeous sheen. The triumph, though, was all Watt’s – his song arrangements stood solid among the new, sophisticated sounds escaping from the clubs, successfully sidestepping comparisons to existing cutting-edge dance music by favoring songs, not tracks.

But three years after being labeled “sophisticated” rather than “shameless,” EBTG has lost its good judgement. With Temperamental, Watt and Thorn give up too much in order to swing with the Jennifer Lopezes and Madonnas of the world.
EBTG’s lyrical focus is still strong, though. Thorn sings sweetly of the banality of modern life in “Low Tide of the Night” (“London in the low tide of the night/not a taxi cab in sight/anaesthetized I start the journey home”). Later, she brings its shocking realities home with the heartbeat trip-hop quiet of “Hatfield 1980” (“I’m seeing my first knife/my first ambulance ride/I hold your hand the whole way/crying”).

But Tracey Thorn, the one-time Massive Attack chanteuse, has never been – and never should be – a house diva. The beats are too quick and thick now, forcing Thorn’s voice underneath and between the mix, marginalizing the power and delivery she had achieved on Walking Wounded. Now, instead of concentrating on Thorn’s stories about personal trials, breakups and end-of-the-earth living, the listener is forced to engage Watt’s beats – an unfortunate result. As if to prove the point, the best dance track here isn’t Watt’s, it’s Deep Dish’s “The Future of the Future,” which saves the record from hip-house-irrelevance but leaves EBTG looking more like cynical opportunists than sophisticated troubadours.