Soul survival

Sep 14, 2005 at 12:00 am

Detroit has long been a hub for many styles of music. With jazz, basement funk, blues, hip hop and Motown all tugging at local music lovers’ heartstrings, it’s no wonder the Motor City would also harness its fair share of soul music addicts. Whether it’s local acts like Dwele and Amp Fiddler, or Jill Scott and Leela James on the national circuit, metro Detroiters want to be there.

But as life grows more hectic and free time dwindles, stumbling across a proper soul-funk showcase can be hard — especially when people aren’t plugged into the proper circles.

So when entrepreneur-hipster Drake Phifer pieced together his promotions firm, Urban Organic, it was easy for him to find a niche. Set up in 2001 as an eclectic lifestyles marketing and promotions company, Urban Organic brought the soul music scene into sharp focus. As a result, it’s developed a reputation for throwing some of the funkiest soirees in recent history. By bringing together creative minds and pushing the artistic envelope forward, Urban Organic not only put the spotlight on local soul champs like Ayro and Kem, but was also the first to bring popular underground acts like Goapele, Omar, and Kindred the Family Soul to the Detroit market.

Phifer, an often bubbly, sometimes flummoxed Detroiter, spent nearly 10 years in Atlanta. He says the main reason he started Urban Organic was to help create synergy between all of the diverse people he kept meeting in separate circles upon returning to Detroit.

“I knew there were people here who weren’t getting the cultural and entertainment excitement that they needed on a consistent basis,” Phifer says. “I wanted to shake up some of the staleness that I saw. So Urban Organic basically became a way for more culturally aware people to meet and join forces — and enjoy good music together at the same time.”

By catering to soul music-lovers, Urban Organic gained a core following of both city dwellers and suburbanites willing to support the movement. It also earned the respect of those in the artistic community. Singers, MCs, poets and DJs alike are starting to feel they have more of a platform to showcase their music, and network with other artists.

“It brings something that we would not normally get here in Detroit — more eclectic music from the outside world,” says 87 of rap group Wasted Youth. “Whether it’s Eric Robeson, Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson or KRS-One, Urban Organic is an alternative. We definitely don’t hear that type of music on WJLB.”

This week, the folks at Urban Organic are ready to take things to a higher level. Billed as a three-day celebration of underground soul music, the event will be spread across several venues in downtown Detroit. The festivities begin Friday, Sept. 16, at Fifth Avenue Downtown (2100 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-471-2555). Scheduled performers include local acts Gorilla Funk Mob, Fluent and vocal virtuoso Mayaeni, along with special guests Melanie Rutherford, Zo! and 87.

The same night, there’s also a killer American soul music/Afro-beat-themed afterparty, “Afro Funk vs. Afro Pick,” at Club Escape (2999 Woodbridge, Detroit).

On Saturday, there will be an all-day block party in Detroit’s Cultural Center with vendors and music to keep the festival atmosphere bumping. Later that evening, sultry chanteuse Leela James will take the stage at Club Escape. James made a special request to play Detroit and support the folks at Urban Organic.

“We had such a good time when they brought us to Detroit the first time, why wouldn’t I want to come back?” James says. “The first event was so soulful that I’m looking forward to coming back again and again.”

There will be a second afterparty Saturday at the SereNgeti Ballroom and Gallery (2957 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-3010) as a benefit for local promoter Laura Gavoor, who died suddenly in 2002 of a brain aneurysm. Gavoor, who was a well-respected Jane-of-all-trades within the electronic music community, has a fund set up in her name to support youth dance programs. All of the proceeds from the evening will go to the fund.

And a Sunday brunch is planned at Atlas Global Bistro (3111 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-2241) with DJ Edwin Fabre (rocking at 75 decibels and below due to restaurant regulations), and an evening party at Agave (4265 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-1120) with DJs Mike Clark, Norm Talley and Delano Smith. It’s a packed weekend, one Phifer hopes will become a beloved annual tradition.


The Urban Organic Festival takes place Friday, Sept. 16, to Sunday, Sept. 18, at various locations. Tickets can be purchased at Ticketmaster (248-655-6666) or visit

Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]