When we used to play

Aug 10, 2005 at 12:00 am

The Majestic Complex (Garden Bowl, Magic Stick, Majestic Theatre and Café) in Detroit has been known as a rock ’n’ roll hangout for a long time now. This is where Jack beat up Jason, Italy Record’s Dave Buick and members of the Hentchmen spin records, and a variety of other would-be hipsters got their “start.”

But there’s another, submerged Majestic personality, a more cosmopolitan, interracial and beat-friendly crowd; it has its own set of rites and privileges, its own beliefs and histories. That crowd — now reaching into its 30s and beyond — includes the ones who used to play dress-up at Todd’s on Seven Mile, dance at the Shelter, mope at the City Club when Peter Murphy was still relevant, and clap their hands at the Music Institute when there were still people more interested in dancing than drinking.

In the late ’80s, they started off their nights at the Majestic Theatre with Blake Baxter. At least as much as any other hometown DJ, Baxter was the guy who brought new house and techno sounds to Detroit.

For a young John “Bileebob” Williams — a character who later helped build the early rave scene at the infamous 1217 Griswold loft — Baxter’s Majestic residence was an epiphany. Hearing tracks like “Situation” by Yaz, and Depeche Mode’s “Strangelove,” as well as the pounding sounds of acid house and Detroit techno, on a big sound system, changed the way Williams and others thought about participatory music culture.

“Everything about Majestic was big,” Williams says. “Raves had not hit the U.S. yet. This was the club. This was my Techno 101.”

At that time, Baxter was a key music producer in Detroit. His unique connection to the cutting-edge records of the time opened up possibilities that would resonate for years to come.

His DJ nights worked because they catered to a youth audience that had yet to be overburdened with consumable culture. This was a pre-Internet, pre-Amazon.com and pre-iTunes era — if you wanted to experience new music, you had to participate.

Fifteen years later, all those “kids,” and hopefully some new faces, are going to have a chance to sign up for a new class. Starting Wednesday, Aug. 17, Blake Baxter will kick off a new weekly DJ night at the Majestic Theatre called Play. He’ll be accompanied by fellow old-schoolers Anthony “Shake” Shakir and Eddie “Flashin’” Fowlkes. The event jumps off this week and is to run well into the fall. Promoters have already scheduled international talent (and many local hotshots) such as John Arnold and Kevin Reynolds (Aug. 24), Osborne and Dykehouse (Aug. 31) and others.

Baxter, who continues to make startling new music with such international artists as Abe Duque, says, “I will play something old, something new, something classic and something true to the techno collage.”

But within Detroit’s shrinking city environment, participation is often hard to come by. Event organizers Lauren Hood and Joseph Salerno, who call themselves PlayCo, will have to encourage the entire Majestic complex — not to mention the city — to update itself.

Now the question is, who will want to accept this invitation to the dance floor? Can the “first-wave” techno producers remind the “second-wave” party kids how invigorating it can be to engage the night? Or have the bar stools at the Café become too safe and comfortable? Will the old crowd be able to find baby sitters on a Wednesday night? What will it take to prove naysayers wrong?

Engagement. Promoters must take cues from successful hometown party organizers like Dorkwave and Soft-Curls, who demand presence not purchase. The event must also link up with other events and places. PlayCo might even consider implementing a “frequent dancer” card that would get participants into Tigers games for free, or even discounts at the downtown Borders.

It may, with the White Stripes buzz dying down and Stollsteimer’s eye healed, be time for Majestic management to re-engage its other audience.


Play kicks off Wednesday, Aug. 17, at the Majestic Theatre, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700.

Carleton S. Gholz is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]