People from Detroit will find a way to tell you well before it would occur to you to ask. We’re proud as all hell, and while you may suspect that this ferocious hometown loyalty is merely a defence mechanism against all the negative press on the D, it comes primarily from a genuine love for the richly creative and complex community that’s recently been reduced to a bunch of sensationalised news sound bites.
Detroit – the spectacular widow of a fallen manufacturing dynasty – isn’t some hopeless, postapocalyptic wasteland where the American dream went to die. The government, systems and services may currently be in a shambles, but people still live there. A lot of them. Folks who work and plan for a prosperous future. Many of them innovators making the most of possibilities that arise from the ashes of the former industrial powerhouse.
Here’s another thing you probably haven’t heard about Detroit: it’s a fucking awesome place to be young and weird. Think about it. You’ve got 140 square miles – enough space to fit Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco, with room to spare – and a dwindling population, leaving thousands of buildings empty. Vast, raw space up for sale or rent for practically nothing. Vacancy in its most literal form; endless room to fill with any sort of identity that a kid could dream up for himself, unmonitored by authorities or an oppressive norm. Grand mansions, sprawling defunct automotive plants and shuttered theatres serve as macabre hosts to dance parties, art openings, shows and benefits. In the magical years before the world turned its eyes on and nose up at Detroit, the city truly felt like ours.
Beyond past and present guerrilla activities, music can be found everywhere in the city. Summers are packed with riverfront festivals of all genres, jazz and reggae bands play at the farmers’ market on Saturday afternoons and a solid rotation of local and touring indie acts can be found shooting pool and drinking beer in the historic Garden Bowl after playing a set at one of the numerous intimate venues that dot Mid and Downtown.
Famous for cultural behemoths such as Motown and Madonna, as well as punk-rock legends MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Detroit’s place in music history may already be secured, but yet another misconception is that the city’s contribution to the musical zeitgeist is a mostly past-tense situation, with the exception of a few well-known artists such as Eminem and The White Stripes. Think again, pal! Rather than coast by on Motown’s good looks, Detroit musicians continue to evolve those sounds into a host of newer genres, including hip-hop and the innovation of techno.
From the late 1980s into the early 2000s, electronic music permeated Detroit after dark. A vibrant rave scene blossomed in support of a growing roster of house and techno artists and DJs. Motown became Techno City, its futuristic beats spreading like wildfire through the globe’s underground dance culture. The techno pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson were gods, and going out wasn’t just about getting fucked up and hooking up – we were having the tops of our heads blown off by this new sound.
The Brooklyn-based house and techno DJ Mike Servito may not live in the D any more, but his style and musical tastes are rooted in his hometown. Born downtown and steeped from an early age in Motown acts – “My mother singing Supremes songs in the car” – and Prince, “First concert – it was his birthday”, Servito recalls running home after school to catch The New Dance Show (Detroit’s late-1980s version of Soul Train, with the sickest Detroit techno, Chicago house, electro and rap soundtrack) and recording Jeff “The Wizard” Mills’s DJ sets and the Electrifying Mojo show off the radio, all contributing to a rock-solid foundation in innovative dance music. Servito’s fate as a lifelong collector and advocate was probably sealed around the time he took up roller-skating to disco records in his parents’ basement…
Throughout the early to mid-1990s the underground dance music landscape swelled with new artists and sounds. While the rest of the world lined their home-entertainment centres with CD jewel cases, vinyl was king in Detroit. Practically everyone tried their hand at being a DJ, purchasing turntables or lobbying for practice time on any set of decks they could find. Servito began collecting records as a fan, attending parties and going out to clubs. In 1995, he decided to give DJ-ing a go: “No one ever gave me any real lessons on how to DJ. I had no hands-on concept of mixing two records together – only ideas – despite buying them, and hearing music being mixed on the radio. I didn’t own turntables – to this day, I still don’t have a set-up at home. My first gig was a Poor Boy party. I never practised. I just took my records and played – a lot of Dance Mania and Direct Beat stuff. I think my exposure to hearing mixes on the radio as a kid really left an impression. It was just set in my head on how things should sound and be pieced together. I felt like I just knew what to do. Pretty much how I still operate today.”
The only requirement to get into, or in front of, the DJ booth was a genuine appreciation for the music. In this setting, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomics, race and sexual orientation were, inexplicably, a nonissue in an otherwise culturally divisive city. It wasn’t all Kumbaya all the time – plenty of posturing, politicking, shit-talking and clique forming took place but, for all intents and purposes, these parties and clubs were a place of solace for those who made the pilgrimage into the city – some people driving in from as far as Ohio on a weekly basis – to dance on that even playing field.
In the late 1990s the rave scene started to devolve into sloppy drugs orgies that were poorly produced and attended by unsavoury characters with little to no interest in the music itself. Techno diehards had matured a bit and their extracurricular activities followed suit. In 2000, after nearly two decades of underground global success, Detroit techno had its coming-out party with the first annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival, a massive, multi-stage, weekend-long event on the city’s riverfront, showcasing all facets of electronic dance music. While Europe has been known for throwing giant festivals such as Germany’s Love Parade since the late 1980s, the United States had yet to host an event of that magnitude. The first DEMF saw a staggering estimated 1.1 million attendees from all over the world. News outlets all over turned their lenses on the Motor City, and it was a damn good look.
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While techno is a defining genre for Detroit’s underground, it is by no means the only exceptional music coming out of the city. Hip-hop, punk rock, garage rock, just plain rock, experimental-noise shit, gospel, that signature Motown sound and countless other styles can be heard all over the city. Despite its diversity and formidable geographic span, the musical community in Detroit remains relatively small. There simply aren’t enough people for there to be sharply defined lines between subcultures or scenes. The life of a purist of any sort in a city like Detroit would be a sad one indeed.
Servito’s subsequent career ultimately helped to inform the trajectory of Detroit dance music. Along with some DJ friends, he contributed to a growing number of events that drew party animals of all ilks together – most notably a now-infamous free monthly series of parties known as Dorkwave. Starting in the back room of Untitled, an earlier incarnation of the group’s debauched scheming, Dorkwave evolved from the brainchild of friend Michael Doyle into a two-floor, party-’til-you-puke rager, packed with kids who wanted to go all night and dance to anything and everything.
“Dorkwave wasn’t about the DJ,” says Servito. “It was about the energy and taking cues from Detroit’s underground, and completely flipping it with genres ranging from techno to punk and new wave. Anything goes. Sometimes good mixing, sometimes total train-wreck disasters. Although, personally, I can’t speak for the train-wrecks part, of course… I hate that cliché statement of ‘You had to be there’, but you really can’t fully explain the feeling and the energy of that time and of these parties. Every one was an ‘OH SHIT!’ moment. I felt like I was really making a contribution.”
Dorkwave went on to spawn Sass, another monthly and a pet project of Servito: “We wanted to cater to a more homo-driven audience, fuelled by the same late-night, debauched mentality. There was no queer-specific outlet for the kind of music we wanted to play. It was about adding another option to Detroit’s gay nightlife.”
And so, he made that happen, too – not only creating an opportunity for him and his friends to dance to all their favourite music, but yet another space for people who didn’t necessarily fit into the area designated for them by cultural norms. With these parties, Servito and his crew had broken ground on a new, all-inclusive style of subculture and truly made their mark on Detroit nightlife, solidifying Servito’s reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the dance-music community. Everybody knew his name and wanted to be his friend. Party-goers emulated his dance moves and incorporated his infamous sarcasm and personal lingo into their own vernacular.
In 2007, Servito packed up his records and did what so many, present company included, ultimately do: he left. Moved to New York City. I know what you’re thinking – if Detroit’s so great, why leave? Well, for pretty much the same reasons anyone opts to move away from their hometown: “To challenge myself, to just live my life and start over. I wanted change, to be excited, to be scared and feel something new. I felt like it was time to start a new chapter and change direction in my own life.” Sound familiar? Nothing about the job market, crime rates, the housing market, literacy stats or bankruptcies. People leave Detroit because leaving is a thing that people do everywhere.
Since the move to NYC, Servito’s DJ career has steadily grown and he currently juggles a residency at the cult monthly dance party The Bunker in Brooklyn with a full roster of gigs in virtually ever major US city and overseas. “Detroit music is always represented in my sets,” he says, “and I find myself constantly referencing bits and pieces from my past via the music I play, the way I mix and the energy I’m trying to achieve.” Meanwhile, many of the friends who he cut his early techno teeth alongside back in the D have moved on and seen success in other cities such as Berlin and San Francisco.
No matter where they live, Detroit artists are prolific in their versatility, often staying under the radar of the mainstream because that’s where they come from. In that small but powerful creative community that exports them to all corners of the globe, there’s no room or reason for grandstanding and no such thing as conventional. Musicians, visual artists, writers, art directors, designers, dancers and curators are influencing trends and tastes far beyond the city limits with an uncommon work ethic, signature wry sense of humour and innovation as a second nature. Think about the way Madonna got her start in New York City way back in the early 1980s. A little money, a lot of style and balls for days.
While Servito and other artists may not hold the answer to how to fix what’s wrong with Detroit, they will continue to showcase so much of what’s special about it. “It’s my hometown,” says Servito. “It’s where I was born. It’s part of my DNA, my history. Detroit’s economic, political and racial climates have always had a strong impact on what artists were doing – from Motown to techno and beyond in 2014. People tend to be more creative during trying times – art often emerges from a lack of something. Detroit has hit its bottom in a lot of ways, but creative energy and an ever-growing and changing community always fuels a rebirth.”
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Words by Malina Bickford
Art direction by Josh Hight