The State of the 313: Detroit Music After the Bankruptcy

“The city is always rebuilding itself from the ashes, this time as an arts mecca."

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May 29 2014, 8:55pm

The word on everyone's lips graces a wall while the TV Lounge beckons across the street early Sunday morning. All photos by Seth Archambault.

Read the news these days and it's all doom and gloom out of Detroit. Last October's municipal bankruptcy, the largest in American history, ignited a firestorm of bad press. Just this week, the Blight Removal Task Force, convened by Barack Obama after the bankruptcy, reported that the city has 40,000 vacant buildings in need of demolition to a tune of $2 billion. Meanwhile, GM, one of the "big three" automakers that made Detroit the industrial powerhouse of the 20th century, is on the hook for a manufacturing defect that has claimed 13 lives.

The Renaissance Center, a fortress-like complex of glass towers and Big Brother-ish LED displays designed by an architect who clearly watched Blade Runner too many times, is GM's world headquarters. It towers over Hart Plaza, a gem of a park featuring avant-garde sculpture and design along the downtown waterfront. While GM execs spent the Memorial Day long weekend fretting in their corner offices, 30,000-plus thronged Hart Plaza daily from Saturday through Monday for the 14th edition of Movement, originally the Detroit Electronic Music Festival.

Over 130 artists—a healthy dose of them locals—paid homage across six stages to the city that gave the world techno. Outside the festival grounds, every club was booked for after-parties and every bar that could begged, borrowed, or stole to rig up a sound system so DJs could ply their trade. Movement weekend was a buffet for lovers of electronic music in all its stripes, from big room bass to obscure subgenres. It was also a prime opportunity to check in with local DJs, producers, promoters, and label heads, as well as the out-of-towners making their pilgrimage, about the state of affairs in the Motor City. Is the city still a viable place to make it in the electronic music world?


The sun rises over the Motor City on day two of Movement.

"Absolutely" was the resounding answer from DJ Seoul and T.Linder, who perform as a duo under the Detroit Techno Militia banner. "The city is always rebuilding itself from the ashes, this time as an arts mecca. Musicians, artists, and craftspeople, all with a DIY spirit," they said. The sense of creative spark in Detroit was definitely palpable in the wild street art, urban exploration on two wheels à la Slow Roll, and the quality handmade wares, all local, for sale at Movement's merch aisle.

"It was the '80s techno scene that led to today's artists," the duo continued. "They created future music and saw that even in the bleakest of times you can make great art." DJ Psycho, fresh off a surprisingly diverse set that ranged from hip-hop to house to dancehall ("I've got a lot of records and I want to play them all out at some point," he quipped), also chimed in: "The music infrastructure has always been here, it was laid way before with Motown, funk, and jazz."

One of those '80s originators, Eddie Fowlkes, has run a record label continuously out of the city since 1990, first City Boy Records and then as of 2004, Detroit Wax. "It's still viable here," Eddie explained, "because with the Internet you can export your shit to the rest of the world." And the world comes to Detroit, he pointed out, giving as an example Archer, the city's only remaining vinyl pressing plant, that thrives on European imprints looking for the mastering and lacquering that only the Detroit mainstay can provide.

Speaking of those techno mad fans across the pond, Swiss promoter and DJ Gichou Jakober gushed, "Detroit is my second hometown." But even as he acknowledged, "Everybody knows Detroit is bankrupt," he keeps coming back. This was his 11th trip to Movement and his crew, Njoy Music, has brought 20 Detroit DJs to Europe over the years. 

We met on the rooftop terrace of Bookie's Bar and Grille, a sports bar repurposed for the occasion to host Stomp the House 6, the annual house jam organized by Stacey "Hotwaxx" Hale and Dee Jones as a Sunday night after party. Hale performed with her newest project, Nyumba Muziki, which means "house music" in Swahili. While she plays more stripped-down house beats, a live flautist and cellist provide the treble notes. 

The Made in Detroit stage was a crowd favorite all weekend.

For her, this kind of collaboration is typical of Detroit. "The heart and soul of us is music in all genres. We're just as strong in jazz, classical, and hip-hop as we are in techno," she told me earlier in the day. "For a classically trained musician to be interested shows just how supportive the community is."

However, there is some concern about the city's electronic music legacy getting passed on to the next generation. Hale teaches an afterschool program to middle schoolers called "How To Be a DJ." When she walks into the classroom, she said, "All they know is hip-hop, they don't know house and techno. But I reawaken them to other types of music." Fowlkes echoed her, "Kids in the D only know what's being spoon fed from MTV and BET." As if to counter that notion, later that evening he laid down a set on the Made in Detroit stage that was at turns funky, booming, and atmospheric, all while his teenage daughter and friends partied on stage, proof positive that dad's music was way cooler than the latest Drake single.

At the same time, while music has migrated to the Internet, some of Detroit's traditional music outlets are not as strong as they used to be. WJLB, the city's hip-hop station, still hosts Insomniac Club every Saturday night (aka Sunday morning) from 3 to 5 AM, providing a much needed dose of house music as the club crowd finds its way home. But in the city's techno heyday of the late '80s and '90s, The Electrifying Mojo and his Midnight Funk Association dominated the nightly airwaves. Dwayne "In-The-Mix" Bradley live mixed local tracks on WJLB's lunchtime show, something inconceivable in today's corporatized radio world. Thankfully, the lower end of the dial still holds it down, with WDET one of the only public radio stations in the U.S. to have a regular electronic music broadcast, Alpha, nightly at midnight.

As for club culture, looks can be deceiving. "Detroit never had a huge club scene, it was more bedroom producers, listening to tracks in people's houses," argued T.Linder, himself a proud native who says he will never leave. While the city seriously cuts loose for Movement weekend, where the truly dedicated raver could roll straight through from Friday night to Tuesday morning with an uninterrupted supply of parties, the event is a special occasion to which authorities turn a blind eye—nor, necessarily, could the city as is sustain that kind of intensity outside the influx of Movement.

The chance for a 96-hour run of non-stop techno quickly conjures comparisons to Berlin. I accosted Seth Troxler at his annual Need I Say More party, a Monday daytime affair at the Old Miami, and asked the Michigan native and frequent Berlin visitor about the two. He was remarkably awake after a Sunday night primetime set followed by an after party headlining slot at TV Lounge's OK Cool, with a back-to-back set alongside the legendary Kevin Saunderson. "Both are archetypes of the post-apocalyptic city," he mused, "But Berlin gentrified while Detroit has stayed there."

A fair assessment, as a panhandler asking strung out sunglassed partiers for spare change outside the Old Miami is something that would never happen in the German capital. The reasons why are complex and relate to deep-rooted issues in the U.S. about race and poverty, but suffice to say, Detroit is still plenty raw—if changing—while Berlin has been rather polished since the Wall fell. Troxler for his part is "extremely optimistic, not just about Detroit dance music but about Detroit as a city, more now than ever."

Troxler's been coming back to the Old Miami for nine years because of its off-kilter vibe, a uniquely Detroit brand of Americana. The bar caters to veterans and there's Vietnam War paraphernalia plastered all over the joint. In honour of Memorial Day, the sound is cut and everyone stands at attention while the vets raise the American flag and salute missing POWs. First responders get in free too, and on my way out a contingent of Windsor firefighters, two-dozen deep with matching "Axemen" t-shirts, were filing in for the festivities.

Closer to home, Detroit is also unfairly forced to compete with the other birthplaces of dance music, Chicago and New York City. But if Chicago and Detroit still engage in some cross-lake rivalry, the New Yorkers were glad to pay their respects. Louie Vega, a New York house legend, headlined Saturday night's breathtakingly diverse Soul Skate party at the invitation of Moodymann, and told me, "DJ culture is just as big here, what with all the greats that we still look up to. In NYC, we were playing their music back in the day." Eli Goldstein (formerly Elyte), one-half of Soul Clap, said, "If I were a young kid growing up in the Midwest, I wouldn't move to New York. I'd move to Detroit."

A blissful morning crowd at the TV Lounge's House of E Funk party.

And the city embraces its electronic music mavens in turn. While the City of Miami is trying to banish Ultra forever, "Movement and Detroit have a very symbiotic relationship," according to Jason Huvaere, Festival Director for Paxahau, the event company that throws the Hart Plaza extravaganza. The event oozes civic pride, from the t-shirts proclaiming "Detroit Hustles Harder" to the proud locals at Made in Detroit. "This is the biggest I've seen this stage," Kevin Saunderson told a capacity crowd on the final night after a nostalgic set entitled Origins that heard remixes of Arrested Development's "Everyday People," a touching tribute to Frankie Knuckles with "The Whistle Song," the new-yet-vintage "Look Right Through" by Storm Queen, and the artist's own "Good Life" produced under his Inner City moniker. "This is the first of many Origins," he assured.

As the dust settles on yet another Movement, a weekend baptism in Detroit's music scene reveals an uplifting portrait lost in the Debbie Downer mainstream media's bankruptcy story. The artists interviewed here are just the tip of the iceberg (an apt metaphor after the city's brutal winter that everyone is still talking about, as if 27ºC summer days are a mirage that might disappear) that didn't even cover the thriving ghettotech scene I caught a glimpse of at DJ Godfather's Bang the Box party on the roof of the historic Music Hall, which has helped rear the next generation of talent, like native son Kyle Hall. 

As one local pointed out to me, Movement and the Auto Show are the only large-scale events that routinely happen year in, year out in downtown Detroit, reflecting the city's two leading exports. Given the state of the auto industry, my bet is on techno—it's never needed a bailout.