His fans include Carl Craig, Derrick May, and the late Frankie Knuckles—why isn't Al Ester a household name?
His DJing and unconventional dance moves have won him praise from the likes of Detroit and Chicago's biggest techno names, including Carl Craig, Derrick May, and Frankie Knuckles. He's been performing for three decades, including a residency at famed Detroit nightclub Cheeks from late 1983 to 1990.
So why's Al Ester fixing lightbulbs and mopping floors at a nursing home today instead of touring the world as an internationally famous artist?
To hear the soon-to-be 51-year-old tell it, the answer's simple.
"Honestly, I've never released anything I've done," he says over the phone from his Detroit home. "I can hear it in my head all day, but I don't have the patience to do it. I'm not that studio savvy. I've had people help put it together, and when they would play back I'd say to myself, 'if this was playing in a record store, I wouldn't buy it.' That's a lot of the stuff I've done. That's why I haven't really released anything."
Ester's DJ career started when he was 12, playing with a battery-operated mixer in a junior high school gym. The next few years were spent accumulating records and listening to mixtapes from Detroit's biggest DJ at the time, Ken Collier. Ester would sneak into clubs where Collier was playing and take notes, eventually being taken under his wing.
After an initial break playing a high school dance, Ester started performing at clubs, even though he was still underage. At the Downstairs Club in Detroit, he would order fries in the restaurant upstairs, then disappear into the bathroom that both businesses shared, hiding out until the coast was clear. "I would put my feet up on the toilet and wait till the music started, which was around a two hour wait," Ester recalls.
The young DJ would later replace Jeff Mills as Cheeks' Wednesday night resident DJ. He remembers the shock of that event clearly: "I was playing Saturday night at Cheeks, and I saw these two guys that looked like cops at the bar gawking at me. They weren't bopping or moving, so I thought I was getting arrested for being underage. I cut the set short, before I could get to the bottom of the stairs there's a bang on the door. John Collins opened it and it was the two guys. Instead, they offered me a night at Cheeks. That's how I got on the Detroit mainstream."
Competition was tight back then and Cheeks was known as the place to be on Wednesday. "It was set up like a club in Miami. It had a swimming pool, but no one swam," says the DJ. "The mirrors in the bathroom were super clean, there was a VIP room and the sound system was good for the time." Ester says other club owners would send emissaries to Cheeks to offer him residencies at their clubs, but more often than not would be spotted by security and thrown out.
Over time, Ester would become known for two things: his musical style, which he says is "digging up classics and putting a twist on them to make them new again," and the fact that he dances as he performs. It's the product of his time in a dance crew—TNT Incorporated Dancers—and being inspired after seeing NYC DJ Joe Claussell perform at a club in 1993.
A number of his famous friends and peers have told him to get over his aversion to the studio and get something out there. Eddie Fowlkes remarked to Ester that he's his own worst critic; Stacey Pullen lauded one of his original tracks—a "jazzy house, groovy track"—that he overheard at a gig, but Ester never pursued it further; one night outside [Detroit venue] The Music Institute, Ester asked Derrick May if he could join him on an overseas tour. "Al, you have so much talent and energy. You don't need me to go overseas, just make a record and you're outta here," Ester recalls May saying.
"Before he passed away, Frankie Knuckles told me, 'If you're going to stay relevant in the game, it's not enough to be a good DJ anymore. You have to take it to the next level,'" he says.
But his life eventually moved on. Ester's full-time "maintenance" job keeps him busy, and he still performs, but mostly at bigger events like Detroit's Movement Festival. Carl Craig, who Ester first met as a shy lad at The Music Institute—where he was jokingly dubbed "Derrick May's son"—eventually offered Ester his first European tour in 2010. Ester also has some recorded music in the works at last, including a collaborative effort with Delano Smith, but he's not entirely thrilled about it.
"I'm not as passionate about it as I am about playing it for the people," he admits. "I want to have a "Big Fun" or "Strings Of Life." They're still classics. If I have a record, I want it to have that kind of effect. Maybe that's too much pressure to put on myself."
Even if that track never comes though, Ester has become, at least somewhat, content with remaining one of Detroit's best kept secrets.
"I used to sulk about it, because I'm just as talented and have as much to say as the next guy, but why am I not booked like that? As you get older you aim a little lower, and at this point if I don't ever make it big time, I'll be cool with that because I made a mark, I changed the game here in Detroit. I raised the bar, I'm the one to watch. If it's on a grand scale or here at home, I'm okay with that. I'm still striving. When I finally put out that right record, it's going to propel me a little more."
Al Ester plays Montreal's Igloofest with Carl Craig Jan. 29.
Erik is on Twitter.