The Mothership at Hart Plaza
The Detroit Electronic Music Festival (DEMF) has changed the cultural playing field. Not since the legendary heyday of Electrifying Mojo has electronic music in its myriad forms — house, techno, hip hop, electro — made such an impact in Detroit. And, when it comes to a single event, nothing even comes close to the festival’s reported 1.5 million attendance over three days in Hart Plaza.
But free festivals don’t happen all year round. For years the underground dance scene in Detroit has been fostered by clubs — legal and after-hours, straight and gay, black and white — and the close to 10-year-old rave scene. The lens of how the city views dance music has shifted, creating enough new dreams to satisfy the loftiest of visionaries. But the day-to-day lifeblood of dance culture continues to be regulated by the relationship between dance music and its fostering hubs of industry: clubs and raves.
The future of this environment — who will be welcome, in what type of atmosphere and in the name of what music — will be contested and changed by the masses that found themselves at Hart Plaza this spring. But it may not be guaranteed by them. Indeed, exploring what a true Detroit party can be, in all its diversity, egalitarianism and excitement, is still up for grabs.
It’s approaching midnight on Saturday in Ferndale and resident DJ Mike Servito is starting to bring Temple to its feet. As he moves around the raised DJ stand between three record players, Servito twists, turns and pushes his mixer, creating the kinds of sonic surprises that record producers leave up to the DJs by making claylike tracks instead of readymade songs. And though the club’s speakers are far smaller than the air conditioning bins that flank the DJ stand, the sonic experience on the floor is nearly perfect.
He works in the big back room of Ferndale’s newest club jewel. Featuring three levels — restaurant, patio, lounge area — and plenty of bar space, Temple is setting itself up to be the entertainment venue in the metro area. Resisting standard logic in dance culture — dry ice, darkened corners, nowhere to run — Temple instead favors an upscale environment, somewhere between South Beach and DKNY, with a casual demeanor and a choose-your-own-pleasure attitude.
So far, the result is a club whose crowd is fed by a diverse set of groups: from standard J. Crew types and twentysomething female office workers to 6-inch-stilettoed drag queens and mustached motorcycle barons. Though the emphasis is white and gay, the theory is inclusive. And co-owner Bill Thomas could not feel more proud.
"People either go to a club or they go to a restaurant. We married the two ideas in order to give people an incredible experience. We took a jewel of a building — a building from 1922 that was going to end up being another Walgreens — and retrofit it to be fresh."
From the simple white furniture and candlelit tables to the beautiful wood dance floor and upstairs niche bar, Thomas and his partners have clearly succeeded. But Temple’s emphasis is based on a casual luxury and relaxed atmosphere, not a full-on, sweat-drenched house bacchanal, the kind of atmosphere that normally comes with up-tempo electronic dance music. Thomas, though, doesn’t miss a beat.
"Bacchanalia has been done — we want to create what we call, ‘destination entertainment,’ where great music and good-looking people get together. I think people, if given the choice, would rather drive a Jaguar than an Escort."
But at a place such as Temple — or other new, posh clubs including Detroit’s Pure and Windsor’s Platinum — one can be forgiven for thinking that what Thomas projects as the future of nightlife in Detroit smacks of late-’70s disco malaise. The music is neither the classic high-NRG favored by longtime gay clubs such as Menjo's, nor strictly house, still the dance music of choice for the rave scene and clubs such as Motor. The most significant absence, though, is of the scene’s now-traditional underground, fueled by both kids and adults whose focus on the music is nearly religious.
Jim Stone understands what Temple’s trying to do and knows it will go far — but also thinks it’s all a bit "too slick."
Jim Stone has been in marketing and promotions for years in Detroit, from early days working for techno artists including Kevin Saunderson and Dan Bell, to putting on Family Funktion at Alvin’s in the mid-’90s. Currently he works for KBA Marketing in Royal Oak, using the DIY skills he learned in the early days of Detroit techno to pay his bills.
A spectator at the DEMF, Stone considers himself a bit jaded. But he also appreciates the power of the festival and how it harked back to the club nights that changed his life. As one of the scene’s older veterans — Stone is in his mid-30s — he has experienced some of Detroit’s most intimate and powerful ’90s moments, from Ken Collier’s famous after-hours Woodward club Heaven and the legendary Music Institute, to loft parties at U.N. (Underground Nation) after Heaven’s demise. As both promoter and fan, Stone understands thoroughly that it was the memories of these nights and the commitments of their crowds that lay at the center of the DEMF’s three-day glory.
"The best vibes are when the crowd is mixed and not uptight, in environments where everyone who is there is there for the music — not to be seen, get high or be trashed."
Stone knows that the DEMF was in many ways the fruition of 20 years or more of dance labor. But when it comes to clubs, it’ll always take a very special place to move him. "I’m an old-school party kid. I don’t want to hang out with cracked-out 15 year olds at some rave. I’m still looking for a Heaven."
Promoting the revolution
"The festival was mind-blowing. I had no idea how big it would be." So goes the standard refrain from many of the thousands who gathered in Hart Plaza, from first-time electronic music attendees to the planners of the festival themselves. Johnny O., who books for Detroit’s reigning dance club champ, Motor, is no different.
"From the initial announcement, I was absolutely ecstatic about the whole thing. And later, early in the festival, we knew this thing would be termed a success. By the time Stacey (Pullen) went on Saturday night, though, it was like, 'What the fuck is going on?'"
What was going on, of course, was one of the biggest dance festivals in the world, right in Hart Plaza. "The festival was a huge risk for the city, and even the organizers were worried that it wouldn’t be representative of Detroit. Early on they wanted to make sure everyone was invited, across the board. And, in the end, my mom and aunt came down. It wasn’t just a celebration of youth but also a family vibe."
Johnny O., though, admits that the most important part of the festival, even with its overwhelming diversity and spirit, was just having it out in the open, where everyone — especially city officials — could see it. As a key member of Motor’s staff, Johnny is in a position to move between the two worlds he’s talking about. One is an underground environment that has existed independently for years; and the second, the world outside, which peeks into this first world through clubs such as Motor, Lush and St. Andrew's, places whose programming and atmosphere walk the line between under- and overground.
"People will now hopefully separate the music from the negative aspects of the scene that have been built up over time," says Johnny.
Tim Price, a major organizer in this year’s festival, concurs.
"We have shown the city and many parties involved what we can do and are all about. But we haven't proven ourselves 100 percent. It is time we work with them to show that this can be very good for the city. This could, and should, be another selling point for Detroit."
Price should know. Over the last decade he has worked as a close adviser-organizer for DEMF headliner Richie Hawtin, lending a hand in various labels, parties and productions, as well as running his own management company and label, Out Of The Box. Price states the common wisdom that until the DEMF this city just didn’t know what it had.
"I have been giving ‘techno tours’ for years. Outsiders who are into this music and culture worship the ground below us, and most people who live here just don’t realize it." The future, argues Price, lies in expanding the role that electronic music already plays, as well as upping the ante for the city’s promoters, producers and fans.
"There are a lot of unique clubs and places opening outside the city limits. We have clubs opening here, but every club that opens in the suburbs hurts the city just a little. You even see a trend that the gay clubs have been shifting to the burbs. Let’s get the club and entertainment complexes in Detroit open till 4 a.m. or later. This will clean up the rave scene and bring money into the city."
Though it may sound a little ambitious, Price says wanting to push the dance agenda in a new post-DEMF world is a natural consequence of putting his energy into the underground scene for most of his adult life.
"Just think of it as when you were 13 to 17 years old; would you do the same things you did then, if you know what you know now?"
Raving and raging
Though he shivers at the term "rave," Shane, of PLURkids Productions, is what most of us would call a rave organizer. Though younger than Price, Shane clearly sees the shift in both money and attitude that has effected his ability to throw "parties."
"For two years, I have been telling anyone who would listen that we are going more and more underground, and more and more commercial, all at once. The split between them has become a chasm, and we can’t walk the middle road anymore — it’s just too risky financially, legally and physically."
Shane, like Price, sees a significantly legal future — at least as far as his group is concerned. "All future PLURkids parties will be completely underground or completely commercial and legit in legal insured concert venues, with permits, etc. I just threw my last $25,000 semiunderground event, and as far as I know, there are no ‘underground’ events with a budget of greater than $10,000 scheduled for the foreseeable future by any promoter in Detroit."
But some people aren’t as concerned about legality or illegality or, in most cases, even whether or not the scene will get bigger or more lucrative. Many older electronic veterans, such as manager, promoter and old-school member Laura Gavoor, tend to pepper their exuberance over the festival with a strong sense of ongoing challenges and commitments.
"Yes, I foresee some changes coming, both good and bad. Right now we are going through a global corporatization of our music and scene. ... It is an inevitable thing, but traditionally it has meant the death knell for anything soulful. As has happened in the past with rock and soul music, the true beauty of real, and/or innovative music will find the road to expression increasingly more and more difficult to traverse."
For Gavoor and others who put the present scene together, the post-DEMF emphasis should be on making sure that the community sticks together and grows with the same commitments as before the festival.
"Hopefully respect and integrity will be maintained and not too many will sell out for some fast but not necessarily honorable money."
In a related concern, Lester Kenyatta Spence, a political science professor at Washington University at St. Louis and former Music Institute attendee, is skeptical of the scene’s ability to maintain the festival’s energy throughout the year. Though jazz and techno — both their sounds and political economy — are different in many ways, Spence argues that the comparison between their two representative festivals may be helpful in figuring out what the future may be like.
"Every year at the Montreux (Detroit Jazz Festival) the refrain is something like this: ‘Why can't we get this type of support all year round?’ Which means why can’t Bert’s Marketplace on the east side get the type of turnout every night that they get during the Montreux? I expect that the same thing will occur with the DEMF — with some clubs continuing to do well, but other clubs struggling, with the exception of that one Memorial Day weekend every year."
But Spence, like Gavoor, is more interested in the scene’s long-term power to effect change in Detroit. Arguing that the most promising result of the festival may be in its ability to put Detroit "back into the center of the American political and cultural project — as far as us academics, journalists and cultural critics are concerned," Spence argues that these people want to do "work on the city that moves beyond the ‘whites move out, blacks wreck the city’ paradigm of the last 30 years."
For Spence, the festival gives him hope that, beyond scene politics, Detroit will finally be able to take its history, "back from the rat bastards responsible for trashing it."
"I’m part of a brand-new generation of cats bred on either hip hop or house-techno and the music has shaped how I view the city, and my discipline. We are not alone, and the future is not only here ... it is ours."
As Servito continues to weave the night’s entertainment at Temple, Derrick May, DEMF headliner and walking techno legend, enters the dance room. Sporting shorts, a white short-sleeved shirt and black bag slung across his chest, one of the greatest DJ-producers in the world could be mistaken for a souped-up tourist checking out the local scene and tasting a little weekend magic. And in a sense, he is, drifting from the main dance room into the bar and then down into the restaurant, soaking in the night’s offerings.
May states simply, "I am always happy when anything like this happens in Detroit."
When asked about the club’s slick grasp of pleasure and, despite the sound system, ambivalent relationship to the music itself — May smiles. His eyes project someone content to be clubbing in Detroit, in the year 2000, hearing music in an atmosphere that he helped create.
"I am not even going to analyze it like that now. I’m just here to enjoy it." Carleton S. Gholz writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]