This an older interview about the origins of Detroit House and Techno with Mike Clark, Norm Talley,and Delano Smith. It talks about how things got started back in the day, and discusses how instrumental Mojo was in breaking a lot of Detroit’s Dance Music to the world and how influential he was to the DJ’s that helped start it all.
DETROIT BEATDOWN By Dan Bean, Posted on DJ History
Ask music lovers what Detroit means to them and you’ll probably hear mention of Berry Gordy or Norman Whitfield, perhaps George Clinton or Yusef Lateef. Were you to point out that there’s a direct link between these styles and the pared down machine funk of the city’s latter day sound (known by some as techno), you could safely expect puzzled looks from all but the most dedicated fans.
Yet there is a link, forged in the high school social parties of the 70s and the clubs and radio shows of the 80s by a few key figures. These musical visionaries led their dancers and listeners from disco, via hi-nrg and italo through to the earliest drum machine tracks; all the while introducing a dose of the left field influences that help to give Detroit its unique sound.
This sound, or maybe this ‘feeling’, is known as Beatdown and owes a great deal to the eclectic, boundary defying styles of DJs such as Ken Collier and the radio presenter Electrifyin’ Mojo.
The modern inheritors of this style are the present day Beatdown DJs of Detroit. Three in particular have channelled the vision of the godfathers of Beatdown, both through their DJing and the release of documents such as the Detroit Beatdown Volume 1 compilation.
They are Mike Clark, Norm Talley and Delano Smith.
The day after Detroit’s annual electronic music festival we met to talk about the origins of their music, the advent of drum machines and the story of DJing in an era that pre-dated labels such as house and techno.
Did you grow up in Detroit?
Mike Clark: Yeah, I was raised on Seven Mile, Greenfield Southfield area. A lot of the people that are part of our set grew up in Seven Mile, Six Mile, a little further in and out. I guess everybody had their own thing going on, but mostly a lot of Detroiters grew up on Mojo, listening to that eclectic radio show that was really grabbing ears. We had another radio station called WJZZ that was at the time the most celebrated jazz radio station and they played all different forms of jazz. My influences came from listening to JZZ because those were the days when they played early Herbie Hancock and Azymuth.
A lot of those jazz classics that we dance to today they were playing on the radio station on a daily basis. Mojo came out during that era and he was another free spirit that pretty much played anything he wanted to. On any given night he’d do what you call Michael Jackson versus Prince and he’d just play Michael Jackson all night then he’d start playing Prince all night and he’d tell the voters to call to see who won. Or he’d just play some rock or he’d play Parliament all night. He’d just play some cool stuff and he had Detroit right where he wanted us.
So do you think he’s one of the reasons all this groundbreaking music came out of this city?
MC: He’s definitely one of the ones that helped catapult it because the radio was very fixed back then. I was doing radio early on, doing stuff with him, but at that time we couldn’t speak, we really couldn’t enter the radio sometimes. We would give them the cassettes, they’d grab them and go in. We couldn’t talk on the radio, they couldn’t use our names on there, so you were just kinda caught up in that.
Outside of his radio show, he used to have different nights in different spots. I first hooked up with him at this place called Studio 54, which was a place a lot of people used to hang out, I had a residency there. By the time he had moved his night to the Cotton Club, I can’t remember whether he called it the Midnight Funk Association or something but he hired me and several other special guest DJs, including Terrance Parker, to do these shows for him and that was one of the places we did it at.
When were you first aware of Mojo?
MC: I actually first met him in Junior High School, he came to my Junior High School and the girl that I was dating at the time, her Mother worked on the radio show that he worked on and I met him a few times from that. Then a few years down the road, as I started DJing I met him. I went down to the radio station and used to see him there. We used to talk when he’d do his shows and every now and then I’d participate unannounced, nothing specific, but back then he’d talk, do mixes and record stuff and I’d just be there, doing stuff and talking to him. Nothing real big, just doing stuff, anything from mixing to talking, I learned about edits and things of that nature.
So you got your basic DJ training from Mojo in the radio station?
MC: I guess you could say that, because I was really young and back then there was a lot of stuff, professionally speaking, that I didn’t really pay attention to as much as the simple fact that I loved spinning and I didn’t have a problem spinning anywhere, be it the radio station or at the club. While he was doing his thing I was going down there just doing different things, like I might show him some scratches. Me and my DJ partner at the time, her name was Karen Mac, we would just go down there. I couldn’t really make a true account of what we were doing always on the radio but the thing I remember the most was that we would have these conversations pretty much while he was doing his show and after he was doing his show.
We would talk ‘til six, seven in the morning, we were drinking coffee, talking about life, about the book he did. I was an absorbent sponge at that time. I would go to his place, I don’t remember what I would say but I would just listen to him talk for hours. Just like Ken Collier, I would talk to Ken on the phone, aside from spinning with him at certain clubs we would talk on the phone for hours.
I would love to do stuff like connect him. There was a time when I connected him with Ron Hardy in Chicago in a three way telephone call. I just sat there listening to him talking. It was a beautiful thing for me to hear him talk. I did that with him and a lot of different people. At the time there were a lot of new and wonderful things to learn as a DJ coming up and I just loved to connect people together so I would listen to these guys talk and learn stuff from them about the industry.
You mentioned the Cotton Club, what year where you doing that?
MC: I’m going to give you a year range because I’m going to have to look on the flyer to get a specific date, but it was definitely somewhere between the mid to late eighties, maybe eighty five through eighty nine or something like that, or eighty eight even.
Would you say it was an underground thing or more like a mainstream thing?
MC: Well for me I would call it kind of mainstream at the time because the music was new and everyone was on it. We had two or three radio stations that were playing house music and techno. Almost every club that was spinning was doing it, that was before the whole hip hop and r&b thing took over. You even had certain records that were being played on normal radio so it was a fine line figuring out what you actually want to call underground as opposed to what’s above ground now. Back then you would play an underground house record, followed by an Italian disco record, followed by a Prince record, followed by Michael Jackson or just whatever that was hot at that time, that was danceable, Teena Marie, Rick James, whoever. It just all fitted in a whole mesh of mixing, it wasn’t separated, like you could play techno or house only, it was before that time. It was a different time as far as that goes.
What about the crowds, what sort of people where coming?
MC: You know we had massive crowds, keep in mind I was just a teenager myself at that time and I was spinning at these clubs, hanging at these clubs. A lot of people were older, but you did have the whole gamut of people in there. And the thing I remember is that a lot of the clubs we went to, it didn’t matter how big the capacity was, it was filled. I think we had a regular crowd of at least 150 to 500 people, you know depending on the event and how big it was, and this was on a weekly scale. A lot of them were turned since then to r&b and hip hop, but before that happened everybody was into dance music and everybody was dancing. Clubs didn’t have the r&b or hip hop thing that was separate, we even used to play Run DMC at the clubs, it was that type of thing.
Do you remember any of the names of the clubs apart from the Cotton Club, were there any places that were key for that kind of music?
MC: The very first club I went to was called the Fairlane Manor and it was in Dearborn in an area called Fairlane Village. That was one of the places we went to. There was another place called the Lansdowne, another famous place that we hung out at. There was a place called the Bonny Brook Country Club. We had a YMCA on Eight Mile and also another place called Chic, which is a place where me, Jeff Mills and Al Ester all played together. Downtown you had a place called the Downstairs Pub, you also had studio 54 which I mentioned earlier. The Park Avenue Club, which was a very strong place for me because the group that I belong with pretty much gave parties there, a two floor space.
Another spot you had was L’Uomo’s. L’Uomo’s started on Six Mile, then it moved onto Seven Mile, then the owner eventually moved downtown and named that spot The Rich And Famous. It’s called club Network now, but that was another spot we had back in the day. Ken Collier spun in this place called Time Square and another place called the Steampit, we all spun at St Andrew’s Hall. We had a lot places that were strong landmarks when the music scene was doing things. Even the State Theatre, that was probably one of the biggest nights that we landed and that was probably the last night before it switched its format to hip hop and r&b.
We had a full on house crowd on that night that I think we called Soul Night. Then they switched the format of Soul Night to more r&b and hip hop related stuff which changed a lot of listeners and our crowd. I guess that was the beginning of the division of a lot of our crowd to different nights and clubs and things like that.
When did that actually happen?
MC: Towards the late eighties we felt a strong change. A lot of that was due to the fact that Chicago and Detroit were really out here trying to get their music out, to join major labels as well as push their independent labels to become like major labels. You had a strong division of power, you had a lot of separateness between producers and between record labels. You had division of the community side itself, which was strongly due to a lot of magazines round the world trying to figure out what the difference in sound was.
Once it was already established that the word techno came out of Detroit and the word house came out of Chicago it wasn’t enough. They had to figure out what sounds are different. Even though technically there wasn’t a difference in sound, there was only a regional name difference. The world chose to give techno which comes out of Detroit a name strictly for a particular type of sound, which is mostly minus a lot of the melodic chords of vocal singing or blues, jazz and gospel styles.
Those types of things affected our world greatly. When you separate a city by the name of a sound and you give it a sound that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what the city is really all about, which is what you want to call gospel, house, funk, Motown, blues, all of the above, separatism begins. From techno not necessarily being the sound that came out of Detroit, it’s a sound that came from the suburbs, people started racially giving it this tone, saying that techno’s stuff that white people make.
Once they said a sound came from a specific group they had the say in what it’s all about. You had those kinds of separatisms kick in just before the actual sounds themselves, such as minimal techno, hard techno, deep house, r&b house, vocal house, whatever, started separating. But the first form of separatism started at that point, and that point was the late eighties. It started off with separating house from r&b and hip hop and then calling techno, a specific type of sound that was only listened to by a group of people that weren’t necessarily urban orientated.
You must have seen Ken Collier from quite a young age.
MC: When I first saw Ken play I was a teenager, maybe 13, 14. When I actually met him my brother used to give parties, he had cats like Delano Smith and Darryl Shannon DJing. When I first heard of Ken Collier I thought he was of the same age. I was a competitive DJ and at the time my whole frame of mind was, “I want to be as good as these guys, if not better!” I knew Darryl Shannon and Delano Smith were giving praise to Ken and then I got the chance to meet Ken and hear him play and I realised that he was a real professional, he was older than us. When he played he had a very perfected style, and had the whole thing of being able to play naturally, he wouldn’t have a rehearsed programmed situation, he would just play and let it go.
My impression of him was that he was the first DJ I heard play straight from himself. He even had a saying: whenever you want to know what record to play for the crowd, what record is it that the people are interested to hear, he always had a theory, that you look at the crowd and the crowd will tell you what to play. You can look at them and just go straight to the song and that was one of the hardest lessons to learn. But once you know where he’s coming from it all makes sense.
When you finally get the chance to look at the crowd, when you feel what they’re into and you feel what they’re like you can feel where they’re coming from because you can feel the movement and the motion in the air and the vibes. I used to be a dancer so I can put my foot on the dance floor with my crowd and I can tell from energy levels what I should play to take it to an accelerated level or switch gear into another mode or something like that. It’s not a specific song, it’s a feeling and a mood you give off.
Do you think technical ability comes into it?
MC: The technical skill is always as important, but it’s not as important as if you can know your crowd. Before there was mixing, DJs just used to play records, and that nowadays is hard to explain! But if you know how to work a crowd you can play without mixing and still get a better response. You know how to get the crowd to all become one and everybody’s on the same page, when there’s not a record you can go wrong with. That’s the best way I can describe it, you’re almost on a trancey level with each other.
When you first heard Ken, what kind of music was he playing, were there any key records?
MC: When I first heard Ken he had a kind of down tempo groove that was very close to what our beatdown sound is. You start with the gut, and the whole thing is a funky groove that will take you out on some weird trippy feel. You don’t know what the record is and you don’t know what it’s doing, but it’s doing all this cool stuff. That was the thing I used to love about Ken, because no matter how many records we used to buy, and no matter how many things we would compile on cassettes he would just lose us with his playing and with his record selection.
He had key records, he was the first person we heard play Trance Europe Express, a lot of the early West End and Prelude and things of that nature, he just had a whole array of records. He was a Billboard reporter, a lot of people used to send him promotional records, this was in the early eighties and late seventies. A lot of those records you just didn’t know what they were.
Were there people who were influencing him?
MC: Ken’s peers were people like Ron Hardy, Larry Levan, Tee Scott, all those legends in their own cities. He was a peer to them because I remember one time Ken had Tee Scott come play in Detroit at L’Uomo’s. I remember when I met Ron Hardy in Chicago.
My impression was that he was a kind of stand-offish guy. When I first met him I inquired about getting a cassette while he was mixing and he said that he doesn’t give cassettes out, he doesn’t really sell them you know and we had a little space between us. But he asked me where I play in Detroit, where was I at and whether I know Ken Collier. When I told him that I played with Ken his eyes just opened up and it opened up the whole thing for me. He gave me three or four cassettes, I gave him Ken’s number because he hadn’t talked to him for a while. I might have mentioned earlier that I did a three-way with Ron Hardy and Ken on the phone and they talked for hours. Ken was just one of those people, he knew a lot of people in the industry so my impression as far as where he came from is that he was part of the original crew. There might have been people that he came up through, but that would have been in like 72, 73 because I’m sure he was spinning since 75, 76.
Most people play a single style these days, but from the sounds of it Ken was playing a big mix, is that the case.
MC: To see him perform was just a whole different ballgame, it was amazing, so much fun to see him play. I remember the thing that Ken was know for was always blowing the system at the end of the night. He would always blow the cones of speakers because he always pushed the power to the limit, and that was one of the things he was always known for.
Another thing is that he would blend his records in, you never new exactly when he would play a record, sometimes he would let them blend, sometimes he would just throw the record in there but he would throw it in there in a way that before you know what the record is, before you can even decipher what it is, it gives you another boost of energy. It’s the way he put it in there, and all those things were just treasures because as a DJ I want to learn how to do that because I’m looking at how the crowd responded to the way he did what he did. It used to amaze me, so I would always try to practice that kind of thing, you know you pop the tune in or your EQ it or have a certain amount of energy level when you’re doing that.
Can you describe the atmosphere of those early parties?
MC: You know, if you can look at an album cover of Chic, that’s kind of what it was like (laughs)! Back then everybody used to dress up, everybody used to wear matching outfits, people used to have dance routines. When you went there was always dancing and in the club the guy asked the girl to dance. I’m not trying to say anybody was a Grandfather, but that was what I saw when I came up. To me this was it! You go into a place, everybody having fun, looking nice, enjoying themselves, what’s better than that?.
That was my image as a little 12/13 year old seeing this. It was amazing, seeing Delano up in there, busting tracks out at Park Avenue Club or Sherwood Forest in the back yard, and everybody just coming together, say three or five hundred people. We didn’t have videos back then so you didn’t have that on film. Some people have pictures, but to me you can’t really capture with the pictures, you can just look at the fashion and laugh.
We got some flyers, because the most creative part during that era was the fliers people were making, the names we had and the flyers we was making. If you can get a collection of those fliers it would kind of help, you’d understand where we came from.
In terms of your involvement in playing records and producing, are there any key events or moments?
Norm Talley: Well I had one influence to make tracks and that was Eddie Fowlkes. He encouraged me to make tracks so I did my first on his label.
Why is this city so fertile, musically speaking?
NT: This city is rooted in music so we are just a product of over 40 years of music coming from Motown. I mean we grew up with tonnes of music from when we were babies. When we were in the womb and we were getting music, we was getting beat down by Al Green and we hadn’t even touched the Earth, know what I mean? So that is why we feel deeply about our music and we gravitate towards so much different music.
And to speak on what Mike was saying earlier about Mojo, you know Mojo really broke a lot of records. First of all he didn’t play under a standard format because he blocked his time so that he could play whatever he wanted. He could play a record for as long as he wanted. It wasn’t a formatted radio station like you have to play this, this, this, this, this. He could play a 20 minute version of a record and then just stop it if he wanted to and then talk for 15 minutes. He’d tell you, “turn your lights off,” and you’d see people turn their lights off. “If you’re in your car flash your lights,” and you’d see people down the street flashing their lights.
No DJ really was doing anything like that at that time, so that’s what made him so different. He would communicate with his audience. He had The Midnight Funk Association, you had to be a part of The Midnight Funk Association. He was very cutting edge at that time, he was even playing edits back then. He’d make a long version of a record, of any record that he liked and he would play you know a ten, fifteen minute version.
He was really one of the first people to break Juan [Atkins]. I mean he’d play Juan every night to death. He was one of the people that really put Juan out there on the Detroit level at least back then. He played Cosmic Cars and all that to death. And then he would be saying, when you’re playing Cosmic Cars and you’re in the car: “honk your horn,” and he had a deep voice you know: “honk your horn three times,” and you’d be “barm, barm, barm….” and everybody would be barm, barm, barm.
I think that bred a different style of listener who eventually turned into a producer or a DJ. I don’t know if other areas had DJs similar to that or radio stations similar to that, but I think that alone kind of bred a different style of music producer. As well he would play music across the board. He played New Order, he’d play Rolling Stones, if it was a good record he’d play it. It didn’t matter who it was by, if it was a good record he’d play it…. and make you like it! (laughs) And talk to you while he was playing it. On that level this a real aggressive DJ that was into communicating with the community, so that moulded a lot of people’s thinking.
There seems to be a tradition of Detroit people being very individualistic, doing things their own way.
NT: Sure, yeah, that’s where all that kind of thinking came from.
Do you think he still has a legacy now?
NT: Well yeah, but that’s what I think is the history of DJing in general, that’s where DJing really evolved from. A lot of DJs played a variety of music, back then in the early eighties you’d play a variety of music. I think that’s a good thing, you keep it interesting, not just one style. So I’ve drawn away from putting music into a certain genre, because once you’ve put it in there you’re stuck there. You want to be able to touch all genres of music and just call it music, because music is music and it’s good music.
It doesn’t have to be a certain type of music to sell to a certain type of person, for a certain type of person to listen to it. It should be music and you decide what it is. If you want to call it that fine, as long as you like the record then…
Do you remember what the first homegrown tracks that you started playing were, I mean tracks made in Detroit?
NT: One of those tracks was Sharivari, it was a popular tune in the early eighties, I played it quite a bit and I still enjoy playing it actually. ‘A Number Of Names’ was the name of the group.
Some people point to that as the first techno record.
NT: Well it was most definitely an earlier tune, this was before house, more progressive and it was very popular, so I would touch on that as being one of the first, most definitely. But this is before the techno label was placed on music, this was like ’82 and before the labels of house and techno, all the labels they have now like breakbeat, minimal and all these different categories and genres.
So at the time it was just music for dancing to?
NT: Sure, it was just good music, good dance music. There wasn’t this kind or that kind, just good music.
Was Sharivari one of the first drum machine tracks?
NT: Well actually there were quite a few drum machine tracks back during that time actually. Midi wasn’t around at that time, that’s why a lot of the older tracks were looser. Like when a band plays together they’re not synced together, they’re just playing together and they match tempos naturally, that’s the same way they were doing it [on the early drum machine tracks].
So were those tracks easier to mix?
NT: Drum machine records didn’t really change tempo too much, it would maybe move, but the drum machine would be at the same tempo. Maybe the bassline, depending on if you played it all the way through the track. A lot of times they did because there weren’t multi-timbral keyboards back then either. So you play one sound with one keyboard, you play the whole line the distance of the whole song so you might get tired during the course of playing for the whole song and it might fluctuate.
When tracks like Sharivari came in, did your life get a bit easier?
NT: Oh yeah, most definitely. Once a lot of the drum machine tracks came together, like 909 tracks and things like that and the computer generated tracks, most definitely. These tracks didn’t fluctuate in tempo at all, so once you locked it in… And you know even the equipment, you began to use better turntables. Quartz locking turntables that had stronger pitches and that didn’t fluctuate in pitch compared to the belt driven and semi-automatic turntables that we were using in the early eighties. The 1200s weren’t around so you were using the 1800s, which were good, they were Technics and all that, but they still weren’t the 1200s.
They had a different pitch control?
NT: Yeah, some of them had the knobs on the front of it, they had the knobs for the 33 and the 45 separate so it was most definitely different. None of them had the slider until the 1200s. You had the little wheel that you would use, a little black wheel. The 1200s most definitely made it easier. Then, with the invention of house music, with the drum machines, that made it easier, because a drum machine has a tempo, and it’s not going to move, so if it’s at 120, it’s going to stay at 120 front to the back, so as long as you can match this other record up at 120 you would have a good tight mix. Now all you have to decide is when you intro and outro.
When the first drum machine tracks came in, what was the response of the audience?
NT: Oh it was a big difference because then how we used the drum machines was that we mixed it with disco. I started off with a drum machine before I even advanced to keyboards, a drum machine was part of my DJ set up. I would have the two turntables, then I would have the drum machine. The drum machine would keep the beat constant, you could have a good four to the floor beat under a disco record, even if it didn’t have that strong a beat, because you would have a drum machine behind it, carrying that disco record. You could mix those two together, it was like you were making a remix live. So I would just keep the drum machine going then switch patterns on the drum machine, then switch records. I got two turntables then I got a drum machine so I always got a beat, and then I could just mix the two records back and forth, like a megamix almost.
Do you still do that?
NT: Occasionally, if it needs to be done, rather than just doing it to be doing it. I was doing it on a more… I don’t want to say ‘tricky’, style of DJing. It was more popular in the eighties, the late eighties, to trick around with your records. There weren’t as many records coming out as there are now so a lot of people played the same music. You played the same music but you had to mix it originally, you had to be more creative with the records that you had. You and another DJ may have the same records, but it’s the way that you put them together that makes it you. There were less records coming out, it was more difficult to make a record back then compared to now, you didn’t have tonnes and tonnes of music constantly being released.
You had to go to a studio to make music, or else you had to have a lot of money to get the equipment to make the music because the stuff wasn’t cheap and you had to midi all the stuff up. You had a whole room full of wires, compared to now you can just get a laptop and make a record, press it through a CD and send it to make a master. You can make a record in your bedroom and be done with it. There wasn’t much music coming out at that time. There was a lot of music, a lot of great music, but there wasn’t the big volume that comes out now, so you really had to really be creative in how you would play your records: You would play a different version or you would mix it with something else to sound different, you might do a little slipping or scratching on the front of it to make it your signature style of play, so it was very important to be creative.
In some ways that seems to be lost a bit now, in terms of people creating their own sound.
NT: Sure, you’re right, and I think too that’s just because the invention, you know I have nothing against it, I love computers and laptops, but the invention of making music on a laptop. Essentially I think it made a lot of people more lazy. Nothing against it like I say, I love computers, I use them but they make it all the one machine. Sometimes when you had to rig up three of four machines together it would do things that would make you be creative, and you would wire things differently to be creative. It’s not like you can’t do it with a computer but I think it’s a lot different working with machines compared to just recording with one standalone box, so I kind of like the analog recording feel.
It’s more like a labour of love?
NT: Sure, sure, I can really feel that a lot more, so I still implement that in my production. I may create the track first in analog. It may end up on the tail end being finished up digitally, but I like to come from an analog route. That I think is where my creativity lies, working with machines, it just gives me a different feel just for some reason. Programming a drum machine, compared with making a drum track on a computer with a mouse, is hands on to me it seems. I’ve done it both ways, and I like it both ways, but I prefer analog.
Something I’m interested in coming back to is how the audience reacted when these first electronic tracks came through.
NT: Oh yeah, it was… they lost it! Because this was so constant and steady, and it was the implementation of the drum machine beat that was really heavy. That 909 beat and that 808 kick was…ooof! A lot of the first house records were just drum tracks and then they had jive rhythm tracks, they were on Jive records. This was in 1983, and they had different volumes. And then they had the Jesse Saunders On + On tracks and these are all just drum tracks. I got a good response when I played them, and I think that as far as people even accepting the electronic music goes, they got opened up to it through the drum tracks. The only thing to do next was to add the bassline and the chords to make it a full house track or dance track or whatever you wanted to label it.
So the purpose of these drum tracks was as a DJ tool?
NT: Most definitely, and each one of them would have five tracks on each side with all different types of drums, and some of them would be different versions of another record but just with the drums. You would use them for mixing to keep the crowd going with a good beat. You needed records like that, then you could mix other things with it like acappellas and stuff like that and make a whole other track. Say if you had an acappella track of Love Sensation, everybody likes Love Sensation, so who went to a party to play Love Sensation? Everbody! So now what you do is mix the beat track first, then lace the accappella over the top so now it’s somewhat of a remix of a popular song that everybody knows because they can hear the vocals of their favourite song. But it has these different beats underneath and they’re still dancing to a different version of a song that they know they know.
Giving it a different mix and a different spin on things was needed at that time because like I said there wasn’t a lot of records coming out. A lot of classics, a lot of great music but the volume wasn’t that much, so you would take those records and mix them back, forth, first version, last version, the other side, a little bit of this one, a little bit of that one, you would work it for whatever you could work it for.
We’ve been talking about Ken Collier, do you think he’s a bridge between instrumental music and electronic music?
NT: Well when you say, “is he a bridge”, I would say he was more or less a bridge of bringing all people together to party off good music. He bridged a lot of gaps from that perspective, through music. He brought a lot of different races and ethnic groups, you got your straights, you got your gays, you got all your different groups and he brought them together all under one roof, which a lot of people haven’t been able to do this up until this time, not in Detroit. And big numbers as well.
Can you explain it?
NT: It had part to do with that he was a genuine character, Ken Collier was a genuine man. He was a nice, respectful and he reached out to the younger DJS. I started out buying disco records from Ken Collier so I got my whole initial disco collection from him. I had a paper round and he lived three blocks over from me. I used to take my paper money and go over to his house and he had a turntable, he had an 1800, and I would listen to records and he sold them to me for two dollars each. I got say 80% of my collection at that time from him, and then I expanded out and got a little bit older and I began to ride my bike to the records stores a bit further away. But initially I got my whole record collection from him.
How old were you then?
NT: I would say I was about 12, 13
How did you come to know him?
NT: Actually I came to know some other people that knew him. I got introduced to him and found out that he stayed three blocks down from me because they were getting tunes from him, he was selling tunes to a lot of people during that time. He had a… it’s not like a store, he’d have one turntable and he’d have all the records laid out and he would sell some records to some younger friends. I got introduced to him and I said I wanted to come by and get some records and I did. I continued to do it for quite a few years. He used to keep some good stuff as well, Ken would always get some stuff that would be different, it was really a good relationship between me and him. I had some good times with him and he had some great parties let me tell you!
Detroit has given very special music to the world, whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t really sound like music from elsewhere, why?
NT: I think that is because of its unique musical root. A lot of the producers that are producing now in Detroit have a deep musical root, their parents have been involved in music. Detroit had been a big music city for many years so a lot of that has been passed down to the next generation of music makers in Detroit. I mean from the womb on up, in Detroit there has always been good music being played, so from a baby stepping out of the womb, listening to the radio, you were listening to Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, all of the Motown things, all of the underground Detroit bands, the all of the undiscovered talent that was in Detroit, that still is. It’s a conglomerate of music here. It’s not a conglomerate of corporations, its more an underground music scene still, there’s a lot of untapped music in Detroit that people are enjoying that just doesn’t get the real worldwide mainstream appeal, they don’t get exposed to it.
There’s a lot of underground bands here, underground producers that are still making music that just haven’t had a chance to showcase themselves. I think all that has a lot to do with it. Growing up and hearing good music, the only thing you can produce is good music, that’s all you know. Not to say that there isn’t any bad music coming out of Detroit, but I think that has a lot to do with it. We were exposed to a lot of good music at a young age, so I think that kind of carried on. A lot of people can tell you stories of how their parents had parties.
That was what was motivating them, peeking around the corner aged six and they’re having a good party downstairs in the basement and they’re playing good music and dancing and you’re hearing basslines and things like that at the age of six so that’s beginning to sculpt the beginning of your musical taste at five, six, seven, eight years old. By the time you’re 13 or 14 you’re mimicking these basslines and things from your own creative perspective at that point in you life, all the way up until you’re an adult.
Do you think that also applies to tracks by Jeff Mills, as an example of someone who makes very overtly electronic tracks.
NT: Sure, that’s why Jeff Mill is funky, because he’s got a funk root.
But people who didn’t know the music, if you played them a Motown track and you played them Jeff Mills they might be surprised to hear that they’re from the same tradition.
NT: Sure, it’s a direction that Jeff has taken, but it’s in his soul, he’s funky, he’s a funky DJ, he makes funky minimal tracks and it’s got a good rhythm. His rhythm is intertwined in his soul, even though he’s presenting this style of music it still has his signature style on it
I think people have a preconception that machine music doesn’t have any soul.
NT: Sure, it’s the way whoever you get to programme it programmes it and where their soul lies as far as if they feel funky or not.You know it can be cold if you let it be, but if you approach it in that manner then it can be soulful
Oh, and can I get you to introduce yourself, I know this should normally come at the beginning…
NT: Norm Talley, DJ producer, born and raised in Detroit, born at Kirkwood General.
Delano Smith: That place is now tore down!
NT: Yes, it’s tore down, yeah sure, yes.
Thanks very much. Now Delano, can I get you to introduce yourself?
Delano Smith: I’m Delano Smith, born and raised Detroit Michigan, started DJing about 1978, I’m the old dog of the crew!
NT: Uncle D!
DS: Yeah that’s right! (laughs), I’m the Grandfather of it all, I mean not of it all, but of the crew.
You’ve been doing this for quite some time…
DS: Right, I was actually a witness to the inception of it all. Back in 1977 I saw Ken Collier play at the Rathskeller (sp?), that was the first time I ever saw a DJ mix two records together. And that was during the time that disco music was just everywhere, it was disco fever everywhere and that really inspired me to actually be a DJ. I’m like: “I wanna do THAT!” (laughs)
The way he mixed the records together, I was what 14, 15… even then I could notice the quality of the sound system and the way he programmed his music and everything, it was nothing that anybody there had ever seen. It was a high school club that actually gave the party there. Their name was ‘Pierre La France’. It was at the Rathskeller (sp?) of U of D [University Of Detroit], and I think that was the straight crowd’s introduction to any type of progressive music, because as kids coming up we were listening to Earth Wind & Fire and The Ohio Players, Brass Construction, stuff like that, all the old soul funk stuff which was really good stuff and I think disco was inspired by that music even. When I first heard Ken Collier I think everybody that was in the place, that was their first time experiencing it too.
No one knew who he was. That was the first time I ever saw a DJ spin standing up! Everyone else sat down and they didn’t mix. That’s how we knew DJs, because they all sat down and they went from turntable to cassette or 8 track or they would let the record play and go off, and this is how parties were given back then. We would take the record off, put another record on and let that play.
When I first saw Ken doing that, I thought “This is phenomenal!” It was like the computer to me, it was like inventing the wheel or something. I never saw anybody stand up and DJ, then when I finally saw what he was doing I was like “Oh, he’s blending the two records together.” I think that was new to everybody back then. From that one particular party, that was when Ken actually touched straight people, then he began to get business from all of us, from other high school organisations, including myself and good friends I knew at other high schools, they started booking him and from there it’s history. And that’s how he and I became friends, he gave me his number and I used to call him: “How much would you charge to do a party?”
We’d have a party at the YMCA, this organisation I belonged to called Le Courtier. We hired Ken Collier for our party at the YMCA. He charged $250 dollars back then. We thought that was so fucking expensive. “How the hell are we going to get $250 dollars?” And that was for the sound system and him. I remember he wanted to get into the room early in the morning so that he could do a soundcheck and everything and we were like “What the fuck is a sound check?” There are some many stories about what I’ve learned from him it’s crazy.
Back then I was fifteen, I was in the ninth grade so I was partying with seniors in High School and probably people two or three years after that. That’s when the GQ era hit, the first year that everybody cut off their big ‘fros and with the straight leg jeans and stuff like that. It was that year that set this whole thing off, it really was. When the disco music hit and that beat, that driving beat hit and everything…
NT: High top fades!
DS: …oh and that bass. That’s what really set this whole thing off. And all of us, Norm, Mike, Derrick, Kevin, Theo, Kenny, Darryl Shannon, all the Detroit legends, Dwayne Montgomery, Duane Bradley, all those guys, Alton Weller (sp?), Stacey Hale, Al Ester, all those guys were inspired by Ken Collier. I don’t care what anybody tells you, if it hadn’t been for Ken Collier it would be totally different scene than it is now.
Actually that music was on the gay scene back in the early seventies, it was called Loft music and Ken drew his inspiration from somebody else. The pre-Ken Collier, that’s the guy that I want to find out who that was and what kind of music was he playing that inspired DJs to play disco music and you know stuff like that. That’s what I want to get to, that guy there that was in 74, 73, that’s the guy that really set this off because he inspired Ken, and from Ken spawned all of us in Detroit.
NT: And Ken is passed yet.
DS: Yeah, Ken Collier, he recently passed…well not recently but he passed back in the nineties, rest in peace. We all loved Ken Collier.
NT: A good guy.
DS: He helped us all, Mike, Norm, everybody…
So when Ken Collier started doing his thing, how did people respond initially?
DS: He played on the gay circuit and it wasn’t until that Pierre Lafrance party I mentioned earlier when straight people started to get a whiff of this music and mixing and stuff like that. And that’s how it all came about, when it got to the straight people and they learned the technology of the turntable and the mixer thing and we had record stores here that were selling disco twelve inches and stuff like that, there was Detroit Audio, Professional records….
DS: …no, this was pre-Buyrite, that store on Finkel…
NT: Kendricks Records
DS: …ah Kendricks Records, all those stores were selling these disco twelve inches. Even as a youngster 15 years old I was catching a bus to Professional Records on 7 Mile to buy these twelve inches. I had a record player, not a turntable but a record player, that we would play these records on with the two little speakers with the wires coming out. Old school, didn’t know what a mixer was. Then we started buying, and when I was in the eleventh grade that’s when my buddy bought a mixer and we just started mixing all that stuff together. Well, trying to learn how to mix it all together.
When did you first start spinning in public?
DS: In public I was in the eleventh grade, I was in the high school social club, actually in two high school social clubs, and we gave parties, we rented out halls and we gave parties and we used to DJ at those parties ourselves. But we would call Ken Collier, he’d cost us an arm and a leg, but we’d call him and he’d come in and play with us and that’s how we actually got started. We were kids, I was 16 when I first played in front of people, these were all high school kids, I was probably horrible you know, but that’s when we started actually playing out, this was ’78. And then the New Wave era hit and that’s a whole other story….
What kind of music were you playing?
DS: Well we were playing disco music back then, disco music and progressive R&B, like the Brass Construction, things of that nature, but primarily we were playing disco music when we first started, the most hard to mix shit ever! (laughs) Pre drum machine!
NT: Pre-sync, Pre-midi.
DS: Right, pre-midi yeah. We played a lot of Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone, Suzi Lane, Sylvester, all that kind of stuff, that’s what we rolled.
Shortly after that the electro and techno stuff came though, with Juan’s stuff, how did that impact on you?
DS: I really didn’t feel it until Derrick’s [May] Strings Of Life. The Juan stuff, though I have great respect for Juan and everything, that’s really not my style of music. I can respect it for what it’s done for techno but that really wasn’t my taste ever so I really didn’t embrace techno.
So at that point what route did you follow?
DS: At that point, really when techno hit it was about ’82, right when house first broke. I’d been playing since I was a kid, and all the way up until I was 20 or 21. When house first broke was when I got out of it. I went to school, got a job and stuff like that, because I had been in the game for so long. After I got out everybody I knew was a DJ! It was hard to make money because for so long it was just me and two other guys who were the only DJs mixing in clubs and at parties. Then everybody started sprouting up and everybody had mad skills and different styles and everything and that’s when I got out of it and I didn’t re-emerge until the late nineties. That’s when I got back on the scene.
What inspired that?
DS: I went over to a buddy of mine’s house and he remembered me from back in the day, we were childhood friends, came to a lot of parties I did when we were kids. I guess that inspired him to buy some turntables and the music. He had been over in Germany in the armed forces and they were playing a lot of the house stuff over there and that inspired him. So when he got out of the service he bought some turntables and everything and we were at his house, just drinking and getting buzz, whatever.
We went into his basement and he had some turntables down there. I’m like, “Man I haven’t seen these in years,” and I touched it and it was over! I touched it that one time, I’m like, “give me two records man,” I touched it and it was like… and I tell you I didn’t miss a beat, it was right on! Because you know I was always… you know I’m not trying to brag or anything, but I could really mix when I was younger, beat match, beats cancelling, tight, when I was kid. And I did that on belt drive turntables, pre 1200s, on belt drive turntables, on B1s! The Technics SL B1.
NT: It was a whole other story with those.
DS: Exactly, and before I got out I played at one of the hottest teenage clubs in Detroit called ‘Club L’Uomo’. I started at the one on Six Mile Road in Detroit, then it moved to the Eastside and I started playing there on Saturday nights. I played there for two years and I think that’s what really rose my popularity as far as progressive music went. Then when I got out my name still stayed out there, so when I got back in people who were in the game then or younger still remembered me from back then. So thank god I still had the respect of a lot of the players that were in the game back then and I just got back on again. And these guys here inspired me to make tracks and here I am. (laughs)
You mentioned that your were mixing pre-technics, or pre-direct drive Technics…
DS: We were using belt-drive turntables.
So when the direct drives came in, did that change things?
DS: Well actually direct drive was always around, we just couldn’t afford those kinds of turntables so we were forced to use the belt driven turntables, the cheaper models, before we were able to afford the 1200s or the luxury 1800s or the SL1500s
So when did you actually first get your hands on the 1200s?
DS: Probably the summer of 1982, prior to that we were playing with all the aforementioned turntables but in 1982 and 1983, when everyone came out of high school and got jobs, we were able to get the better equipment
Did it change things at all or did it just make life a bit easier?
DS: Oh it did change things a lot, you could tell in the mixes and blending, because back in the day with a lot of the belt driven turntables you had to hold the platter of the turntable to keep it on beat, to keep it in time. With the direct drive turntables you can just do that with the pitch control and it sounds a lot better than someone holding the platter.
So just to get this straight, you were mixing disco with your fingers?
DS: Exactly, we had pitch control, but the pitch control on the belt drive and cheaper direct drive turntables was not accurate at all.
So it was really crude?
DS: By today’s standards yeah.
So when the 1200s came in you were already super-skilled?
DS: Well yeah, but the point is that actually there were direct drive turntables, we just couldn’t afford them. The DJ culture of the high skilled mixing and blending was just so new back then that you didn’t know about half the things that were out there available to DJs until you started getting old enough to go to the clubs and you’d say “Oh wow, did you see that turntable they had in there?”
But prior to that, we were too young to go to many of the nightclubs that played disco music, let alone the clubs that were gay. We were only 15, 16 years old and we just heard Ken on the radio or maybe saw him once or twice, we didn’t know how to obtain that equipment back then. We could get the music, but the equipment… we weren’t ready for it then anyway.
If there wasn’t the precision equipment available to you, was there more emphasis on programming?
DS: Well you had to turn your sets around who you could mix with what because a lot of the stuff back then wasn’t done with turntables, you couldn’t lie on that beat like you can nowadays, back then it was a four bar mix and you out! Nowadays everything is turned out on drum machines, you can just set it and forget it.
Back then you really had to concentrate on what you were doing, not that you don’t now, but back then you had to really concentrate! Plus the music back then, it was the beginning of it all, everything was just so new and fresh to everyone and I think the whole disco era, when it took the world by storm it took all of us too. Everybody here in Detroit, we weren’t doing anything different from anybody else in the world. New York was still the king of that back then, but it was new to everybody and new to Detroit too.
It must have been different in some way, because the music coming out of Detroit in the eighties was different from the music coming out of New York or Philly.
DS: Well a lot of the music coming out of Detroit in the Eighties was not inspired by disco, but was more inspired by Kraftwerk. Like the techno sounds of the eighties were inspired by electronic groups and Kraftwerk was definitely the one. We ran Kraftwerk into the ground here. From Man Machine… everything, and I think that’s where a lot of the techno founders actually drew their experience from rather than disco, even when Juan was working with…what were those guys that did Cosmic Cars [Cybotron]? You don’t really hear any disco in there, you hear Kraftwerk in that. Kraftwerk, it’s not in a genre of music, you could maybe put it in electronica or in disco depending on the time, but to me it’s really in a genre of it’s own.
What effect did hearing Ken Collier play have on you?
DS: Back then, we didn’t know how to mix very well, and he did. He mixed disco, and he had the tools to do it, like the direct drive turntables. Ken introduced us to this world of DJs and that rubbed off on me and I know it influenced the generation of DJs that came behind me. To hear and see him play, you know he was really into his sets and the music selection. Back then it was really about the sound system and the room and everything. We used to be like: “Why is he such stickler about the sound system. Why is he asking us?”
When we started to hire him to do our high school parties for us he was a real stickler about the dynamics of the room and everything like that, about having an adequate system. All we knew was that it was loud and that it sounded good and we loved Ken, but he actually took care of all the technical aspects of everything, he was the consummate DJ, soundman, whatever. Just to watch him play was incredible, he enjoyed himself more than the dancers did.
So in a sense he played the decks and sound system as an instrument…
DS: Well believe it or not turntables are an instrument and they were his! They were instruments then and they’re instruments now, it’s just a matter of how you use them, how you master that instrument. Everyone has a different way of playing but Ken was totally unique, you’ll never hear anyone play like Ken Collier. He will ride a mix down on you, or he’ll ride for two or three measures then POW, take it out and oh god, send the crowd crazy! He was really everyone’s hero, all the DJs, even back when we were kids we all had respect for him
He also commanded a lot of respect from his peers, people like Ron Hardy, Tee Scott, but he doesn’t seem to achieved the same fame, why is that?
DS: It’s like that with a lot of Detroit artists, to this day. Back then even Tee Scott, Hardy and Levan, those guys were doing disco mixes, they were doing 12 inches back then. The couple of remixes that he [Ken] did do didn’t reach the level of notoriety that the other DJs had. But I believe that he was very well respected in the circle of those gay DJs back then, like Tee Scott, Ron, Levan. The market then was very cliqueish too.
There were always the New York guys doing remixes, nobody else. That’s why Ken didn’t reach that level of success as Tee, Levan and those guys, because he wasn’t exposed like those guys were. Their names were on records, we were playing their records. But he still had respect in the gay community, he brought those guys here. He brought Tee Scott here and I had the pleasure of meeting him when I was a kid, I witnessed his whole entire set, he was phenomenal.
I’d love to have seen that.
DS: Oh man, those days were… you’ll never get those back, I just wish I had a camera man, I don’t have any pictures of Tee Scott or any of those guys back then. But when you’re living in the moment you don’t realise that you’re actually living in the moment, especially when you’re a kid. I just wish I could go back now, I’d be a very rich man now!
You were witness to and participated in something pretty groundbreaking events, did you realise that at the time that you were involved in something that might take over the world?
DS: It was very cliquish back when it started because when we finally heard this music for the first time it was on the radio. But when I finally heard it live, with a DJ actually playing it I was 15, and it was very cliqueish. It was very isolated to one particular side and area of Detroit, Detroit’s west side, Detroit’s North West side actually. And for the longest time it actually stayed there. We had these high school organizations and we gave ourselves different names. We rented halls and spaces just to give parties, charged 3 bucks, hired Ken Collier and we would invite all the other Westside high schools to attend these parties.
That’s actually how it started, from that small tiny amoeba right there, and we didn’t know what we were doing, we didn’t know that it was going to explode to what it is now. Not a lot of people liked disco music. A person that liked funk they’re like “Oh I fuckin’ hate disco,” like now, someone who likes hip hop: “Oh, I fuckin’ hate house!” It was the same thing back then and we got the same type of followers back then.
Was it a straight or mixed crowd?
DS: It was a straight crowd, the way we came up, most of the straight DJs in the city now, it was primarily a straight thing back then, there was a couple of gay things. Actually disco thrived in the gay community back then but we were to young to even go to the clubs that actually had gay people DJ. We weren’t able to witness the other gay DJs that had the same level of skill as Ken Collier.
We weren’t able to hear those guys like Duane Bradley, he played over at Tod’s, and Chad Novak, he played over at a club called Mint Gel’s. Both of those were gay clubs, and I didn’t find out about those clubs until we actually got out of high school and we actually got to spending more time with Ken Collier and learning the music from this guy. Then you actually find out about this whole other world that’s out there. You think you’re being innovative and whatever, and these gay cats have been doing it over here for years. Actually since 76 and 75, back when they were doing it in the lofts and stuff like that.
Were there particular labels or producers back then that Ken favoured?
DS: Well a lot of the stuff that came out of New York back then, a lot of the Shep Pettibone and Larry Levan remixes, like the ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’. Even prior to that a lot of the Giorgio Moroder kind of harder disco was really good. Martin Circus, Disco Circus, Prelude tracks back then, a fucking classic back then that was awesome. Kano, that was one of the really big records back then, we ran that for years man. In fact we ran disco circus for two or three years back in that day.
What’s the Kano track?
DS: Kano, It’s A War, came out on Emergency, back in 80, they did a couple: I’m ready, It’s A War and a couple of others, but their first releases back then did really good in Detroit.
Why is that?
DS: I think the driving beat in them, plus those were some of the easiest tracks to mix because they were the first four four, four on the floor stuff. The Kano and the Martin Circus came through with that hard kick and clap on it, BOOM CLAP BOOM CLAP! That stuff was easy to mix and sounded good on the system and everything, we ran those tracks into the ground.
It sounds like there is a thing in Detroit about the harder tracks or the more computerised ones?
DS: Well yeah, definitely the Kano and the Kraftwerk stuff, you could tell there was drum programming and everything used in those tracks.
So if people nowadays want to hear the modern descendants of Ken Collier and Mojo, I guess they should listen to you guys?
You’re the inheritors right?
DS: Well yes, actually I’m probably one of the last descendants of Ken Collier, along with a couple of other people, Melvin Hill, Stacey Hale. We’re some of the last people that knew him directly. A couple of other people, Mike and Norm, but other than that not too many people knew him, he didn’t let too many people in.
Mojo just did a totally separate thing. His show was more like a TV show, but in audio. It was just an experience. He would talk about he craziest things, then he’d play something, then you’d hear a lot of silence. And he’d always sounds like he was high, so you never knew what you were getting when you listened to Mojo, because he’d play something from Earth Wind and Fire, then the music would go off and he’d play some rock shit. He may go off and play dance, and it was an experience to listen to him because you never knew what bag he was coming out of. And then he had this very very deep surreal voice and he’d talk like: “This Is The Electrifying Mojo”. And a lot of his shows were like he was coming from his spaceship. It was great, really, and to listen to him back then, if I could get some of those shows we would die laughing. But back then we thought it was the coolest thing when we were kids, we all came up on that, I love Mojo, still to this day.
That would be awesome. There’s one more question though. If Ken influenced all these people, who influenced Ken, where was he coming from, who was the ‘pre-Ken’?
DS: That’s a mystery, I would like to meet that guy. But I know back then, I’m pretty sure there was someone out there who influenced Ken Collier. One of those influences was probably Frankie Knuckles. But back then it all started out in these lofts of Detroit here, that’s how it actually started, they called them loft parties and from what I understand they came from the gay community.
Maybe we’ll never know…
DS: Yep, maybe we’ll never know, we need to talk to that one person, the first guy that actually mixed a record in Detroit, we need to talk to someone that knew him personally, because he is the culprit
He’s got a lot to answer for.
DS: Exactly! Yup, he’s the culprit.
(info by midnightfunkassociation)
SD…to feed the soul!