For nearly two decades DJ ’munk (Alvin Hill Jr.) has been one of Detroit’s most eclectic and often overlooked DJs. From his early days alongside techno giants like Derrick May to his work with Family Funktion and the DEMF, ’munk has long done his best to stick up for the dance music underdog, convince the skeptics, and — most importantly — “stretch people’s ears.”
In conversation, the 37-year-old ’munk is composed and soft-spoken. He chooses words carefully, often tapping his gray-stubbled chin with a long, slender finger while he decides what to say. With short dreadlocks, rectangular glasses and a habit of dressing in sober blacks and grays, he looks very much the part of the elder statesman DJ.
His musical roots run deep. His parents ran a Detroit music school, and he began studying violin, piano and voice at age 4. At Dartmouth, he studied music and education — and paid his bills spinning hits at formals and frat parties. It was also a way to introduce people to the new sound of his hometown: techno.
Back in Detroit, after college, ’munk worked alongside techno pioneers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. He helped found Record Time Distribution with Record Time head Mike Himes, which, at its peak, had more than 50 Detroit labels under its wing.
Yet, as a DJ, he didn’t want to spin techno exclusively; his sets were an amalgam of jazz, rock, soul, house — anything beyond the norm.
Unfortunately for ’munk, mid-’90s party kids had discovered the joys of filthy warehouses, booming bass bins and Ecstasy-fueled backrubs. Pickings were slim for DJs who ventured beyond four-on-the floor. Putting acid jazz, for instance, in the mix meant “getting stuck in the chill-out rooms.”
He tried New York for a while, and when his money ran dry, he returned to a more receptive Detroit. A residency at Poure Me Cafe’s acid-jazz night led to a partnership with Ron Olson, Jim Stone and Brian Gillespie, and the founding of the now-legendary Family Funktion.
The group’s Wednesday night house, hip-hop and acid-jazz shows at Alvin’s quickly became a beacon of the Detroit scene. Unfortunately, ’munk wasn’t able to savor that success. His father fell sick, and ’munk left town for an educational research job in Los Angeles. It was a rough period, an attempt at a more mainstream career.
“My father was ill, my mother had already passed away. I wanted to be able to give him a lot of the things that he’d given me,” he says.
After his father’s death in 1996, ’munk dealt with his loss by diving back into music.
He worked at the new Motor Lounge with the Detroit Powertrain, a group of seven jazz instrumentalists. It was an occasionally rocky collaboration: The more conservative members of the group doubted ’munk’s musicianship.
On this topic, his voice rises above its usual murmur: “I challenge anyone to look at how the art has evolved from this primitive kind of ‘wikky-wikky-wikky’ scratching to the beat juggling and manipulations that you see now.” These days DJs “take a single bar from a song and manipulate it to create an entirely new sound.
“Sure,” he adds, chuckling, “there are many different kinds of DJs. Some sound like jukeboxes. But others manipulate the turntables and mixers in ways that are not unlike how someone might press the keys of a piano, or draw a bow across a violin.”
His next project was the lifesoundtrax record shop in Eastern Market. In 2000, after being open only a few months, he was invited to be the official retailer for the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival. But the invite came only two weeks before the festival. To this day he has a hard time believing what he got himself into as he listened to old friend Carl Craig and DEMF partner Carol Marvin. “I was saying to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do this, I’ve only been open for three months!’ But all that came out of my mouth was ‘Yes, sure!’”
The DEMF whirlwind left ’munk breathless and proud of his hometown — but his shop soon became a losing proposition. “I’m not a businessman; I’m someone who loves music and loves sharing it with folks,” he admits with a shrug. Not that he didn’t learn at lot through the shop experience.
Nonetheless, involvement in the DEMF paved the way for “Below the Surface,” a series at Foran’s Pub to promote Detroit’s lesser-known and unaligned talents while fostering connections between musicians; the series hosted both live sets by jazz luminaries like Marcus Belgrave and dance music artists such as Jeremy Ellis and John Briggs. Networking, ’munk reluctantly admits, is as important in music as in any other endeavor — which he admits learning the hard way.
The series went on hiatus last year, and ’munk took 2002 off to “regroup”; as he guardedly puts it he “spent a lot of time wrestling with a lot of demons” — and finally making peace them.
Back at work, ’munk is developing several projects, including nights at Hunter House, the Buddha Lounge and Alvin’s. The latter, a joint venture with Family Funktion comrade Jim Stone and new partners Mike Geiger and Sound Circle Collective, has him excited. “It’s great to be working in the same venue that hosted Family Funktion, on the same night, and with one of the original guys.” But, he adds, “it’s not going to be a Family Funktion carbon copy.”
For ’munk, DJing in Detroit has never been easy. But he doesn’t want to get off the ride.
“I often wonder what’s going to happen as I get older, ‘cause I always say, I don’t want to stop. I don’t ever want to stop,” he says, then pauses and adds, “If I were to die over a pair of turntables, that’d be perfect. It may not be the best for the crowd, but for me it would be perfect.”
DJ ’munk spins Wednesday nights at Alvin’s (5756 Cass Ave., Detroit). For information, call 313-831-4577.Ian M. LeBlanc is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]