Now in middle age and devoted to family and work, I’m not surrounded by Detroit's music scene, as I was years ago. Though I still have musician friends who perform around town and out of town, I don’t see enough of their performances. I long to be immersed in Detroit music life as I was during the 1990s, while, as a twenty-something, single hipster professional, living in Hamtramck — the closest thing Detroit had to a Greenwich Village or West Hollywood. Below is an essay I wrote in 2005 that expressed my passion for Detroit and the music it plays.
One particular D-word captures Detroit’s history and culture best – drama. Life in Detroit, the good and the bad, is rich in the emotion that rides struggle and achievement, yearning and hope, making it fertile for creativity. It’s no coincidence then that Detroit is known internationally as an important music city. It’s as if Detroiters seek to discover a soundtrack for the drama they live daily, gathering the city’s physical and spiritual sounds and building them into a decorative backdrop like glorious graffiti.
A Detroiter, I imagine the soundtrack of my life. My birth into an autoworker family in 1967 was surrounded by the social anthems of Seger’s “Heavy Music” and Franklin’s “Respect.” As a child, I frolicked to Wonder’s “Superstition” and Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band.” My earliest memories of fear include watching in confused horror televised news images from Vietnam, and the protest ballads of Marvin Gaye were in the air.
Various Detroit musicians accompanied my discovery of drama as a teen and young woman. Rocking with Seger, Ryder, and Nugent or praising our maker with the Winans, the Commissioned, and Thomas Whitfield, I let myself move to the city’s pulse. Witnessing the great experiments of May, Atkins, and Saunderson or grooving to the smooth cries of Baker or Was and Was, I understood the blessings inherent in a culturally rich city like Detroit. In the 90s I whooped it up with the Detroit Cobras, Demolition Dollrods, Gangster Fun, and Bootsy X and the Love Masters and let my mind wander with the emotional compositions of Breech, Discipline, and Majesty Crush. Of course, in my Detroit-life soundtrack I hear, with the masses of fans around the world, the latest famous descriptive musical renderings of Detroit’s drama, that of Dombroski, White, Ritchie, Mathers, and Craig. The soundtrack to my Detroit life continues to grow from artists on the Detroit scene today who are ripe with the hope of breaking their sound throughout and beyond Detroit, up-and-coming talent like the Von Bondies, Aquarius Void, Bantam Rooster, Blanche, and dozens more working from Detroit’s heritage.
Though Detroit is freely tagged as America’s music city, most of Detroit’s finest musical artists are taken for granted locally and overlooked nationally. Today, as I continue to follow Detroit’s rookie and veteran talent, I am well familiar with the many accounts of spectacular Detroit artists who could not break out of a small urban clique. As a seasoned music patron on the Detroit music scene, I fight back cynicism of the earnest artistic efforts I encounter and wonder at the disappointing hit-or-miss reality of success or failure Detroit musicians must acknowledge. I’ve witnessed scores of hugely talented musical artists vanish from the stage – artists with more or equal talent to the relatively few Detroit artists who have made it to the limelight.
A feature article in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of the Detroit Metro Times entitled “Where the Hell Are They Now?” reported on Detroit’s legendary local musical artists of the 80s and 90s who had dropped out from public view. Speaking to the general project of developing the article, the writers explained, “We [sic] learned one not-so-obvious absolute. The artists [presented] here – some whose music might not have aged as well as others – had at least some odd, Detroit-specific purity in their craft, whose phrases and images construct their own time and place but with the eerie timelessness and unchanging scent of factory exhale, scorched motor oil and blue collar fret.”
As a patron, I can speculate on the base factors for this hit-or-miss reality. As a writer, I too face elusive success. Based on my own artistic experience and what I’ve observed over the years about the career challenges of Detroit’s musicians, I have organized my thoughts in two D-word lists: one summarizing the factors behind the commercial success and mass-popularity of a few; the other summarizing the factors behind the obscurity and commercial failure of most.
Let’s first look at my D-word list of failure factors:
Disastrous Distribution – The local labels, as well as the indie labels that Detroit artists sign with out-of-town, have monumental distribution hurdles, even in the Amazon age. Publicity continues to drive distribution realities. Outside the automotive industry, Detroiters are really bad at delivering a lucrative sales pitch for their goods. What’s more, artists are notorious as poor salespeople. Most devastating to music distribution, however, is the frustrating reality that labels are prone to become defunct, taking any visible opportunity for their signed artists out with them.
Discord – The following is a typical experience for the Detroit music fan: You follow a talented musical group in Detroit. You follow this new-found listening pleasure venue to venue for months or years, the venues becoming progressively more crowded with fans. One night, you find yourself close to the stage; so at the end of the performance you take the playlist as a souvenir, certain that this group will make it to the big stage one day soon. After all, their recent CD-release party was fabulous. Then, sadly, you discover an article in the Detroit Metro Times reporting the group’s breakup, often due to a root D-word factor – inter-group relational dysfunction.
Dependency – Like many creative people, many of Detroit’s talented folk become trapped in dependency – dependency on drugs or alcohol, dependency on a bad romantic relationship, dependency on peer and media reviews, dependency on a poor manager or label. For many artists, dependency blocks the path of creative freedom toward the goal of artistic success.
Detention – Unfortunately, several locally celebrated, Detroit-based musicians have landed in prison, usually due to one of the first two dependency problems listed above. Others have anger issues. Obviously, prison time breaks the momentum of building a music career.
Danger – Detroit’s real and perceived danger threatens the promotion of Detroit’s rising musical artists. Up-and-coming musicians are, for the most part, struggling financially. Musicians often find themselves on dark streets after club hours toting expensive equipment; they’re a vulnerable group in America’s second most-dangerous city. If their equipment is hijacked, they could be out of the music business for a while.
As far as perceived danger, many potential fans in the suburbs are overly fearful of venturing into Detroit’s bustling venue districts, such as Woodward Village, the Cass Corridor, the Warehouse District, Hamtramck, and the Michigan and Trumbull area. Danger-hype should not deter music lovers from smartly and safely visiting the scene’s mainstay venues.
Next, is my D-word list of success factors:
Drive – Paradoxically, the artist must possess an acute sensibility to emotion and passion while donning a thick skin to deflect the darts of criticism and hard luck. Any artist striving to break out of America’s poorest city to reach the national stage must remain driven and dedicated, despite criticism thrown from local reviewers and curses cast from miserable, green-eyed peers.
Destiny/Dumb Luck – Depending on your spiritual viewpoint, the reader may cite the being-at-the-right-place-at-the-right-place factor as either “destiny” or “dumb luck.” Though plenty of talented Detroit musicians have remained driven and hard working for years, even decades, most have not managed to deliver their sound to the particular audience that can hoist them into the limelight. Reaching the right audience – namely, suits from big labels or an active and powerful fan-base – depend upon a fate-force beyond the realm of an artist’s effort.
Dollars – Rumored throughout the music scene is speculation that certain Detroit musicians with minor or major success were born with the silver spoon. Accordingly, some perhaps funded their daily living and music-recording expenses with a family trust-fund. It goes without saying that money finances opportunity. When money’s no problem, a musician can study his craft privately under a master, he can spend more hours in the studio tweaking his sound, he can hire an experienced producer, he can purchase marketing schemes and tools, and he can get his name on event V.I.P. lists and network with the privileged and powerful. I am not suggesting that Detroit’s well-off artists who realized their commercial dreams are not talented. Nonetheless, what impresses me most in the Detroit music scene are the rags-to-riches, seemingly providential developments of loyal, underdog, hard-working Detroit musicians who climb to artistic and commercial success without a financial boost from the family stock dividends.
DJs – Getting a DJ to like you is a coup for a struggling Detroit musician with little-to-no money for publicity. Naturally, many area DJs are excited about Detroit’s music scene, and several offer forums for local artists to promote their work. For example, 88.7-FM (89X) DJ Vince Cannova’s “Homeboy Show,” broadcast each Sunday from 10 to 11 pm, is one important and sought-after outlet for area musicians to play to a rock audience that may not come to the downtown and midtown clubs to see them perform live. The radio personalities of WDET-FM, Wayne State University’s public broadcasting station, regularly feature local artists, interviewing them live or programming their songs into their comprehensive national playlists. “Detroit’s First-Lady of Rap,” Smiley has a radio show on WHTD-FM that gives airplay to local rap and hip-hop artists.
Discipleship – A dictionary definition of “disciple” is “an active adherent, as of a movement or philosophy.” Musicians with disciples have a better chance of getting noticed outside their local fan-base than those who do not. The legendary Iggy Pop and the MC5 grew from a revolutionary base and later drew a popular following. Bob Seger has maintained a baby-boomer working-class base. Alexander Zonjic plays to an aging yuppie base. The Winans minister to an evangelical base. Kid Rock developed a north-of eight-mile, young gen-X base. White Stripes impressed a back-to-basics rock/ blues, hipster base. Eminem captured an angry-young-poet base. And Detroit Techno’s Derrick May, et al., as well as Detroit industrial-punk’s legendary Shock Therapy collected a huge German-national base. I could go on and on. Interestingly, some of these trailblazing artists found themselves in a position, decades after their peak-performance heyday, to license their works to advertising companies for commercials and movie studios for soundtracks. They can thank their loyal following for these lucrative residual ripples that enable them to retire more comfortably.
Scores of talented musicians playing the venues and festivals of the Detroit music scene are little-known, even locally, outside of their peer crowd. Yet, despite all the little-knowns who ought to be well-knowns, Detroit itself is internationally known as a great music city in several genres, including rock, blues, jazz, and gospel. Consider, for example, the Music Institute, which birthed the genre of Detroit Techno; the Hip-Hop Shop clothier, which supported the rapping calesthetics of Eminem, Slum Village, and Jay Dee; or Detroit’s famous St. Andrew’s Hall, which is recognized as a must-play American venue for any rock band on its rookie national tour.
Not only have many Detroit musicians gone from the floors of crowded Detroit dives to the national stage and international spotlight, but Detroit’s many concert venues, large and small are critical stops on musical artist tours of all genres. Detroit’s musical grassroots are esteemed by fans from around the world. And from time-to-time the scene is dotted with art-loving celebrities working, playing, and listening shoulder-to-shoulder with Detroit’s unknown and little-known creative people. Detroit’s gospel artists are arguably the finest in the world. Music experts hail Detroit blues, jazz, and rock creations as perfecting the blending of the revolutionary with the familiar. In addition, Detroit’s opera and classical music base is thriving, healthy enough to support the expansion of Detroit Symphony Hall to the Ford Symphony Plaza and Michigan Opera Theater’s newly reconstructed home, Detroit Opera House, which is the cornerstone of downtown’s sophisticated Harmonie Park. (Note the D-essence of MOT’s 2005-06 season moniker, “Desperate Divas.”)
How appropriate it is that Detroit’s main music export of the past ten years runs with an industrial heartbeat, reflecting the city’s history of attracting émigré industrial workers from abroad and the American South. A vast array of musical style and tradition was, as a result, threaded through Detroit’s social experience. Take the popular Detroit rock group Immigrant Suns, which celebrates ethnic heritage in rock anthems that include rearranged melodies from European national music. Or consider the decades-long fun, Yankovic-style rockers the Polish Muslims, who, even before Weird Al Yankovic, parodied rock lyrics accompanied with Polka revised riffs. The innovation of Detroit’s freethinking musicians in all genres is directly linked to Detroit’s sizeable immigrant heritage and the great influx of Southern whites and blacks to Detroit’s factories over the span of the twentieth century. These influences pervade everything about Detroit society today. Detroit’s skilled musicians are both nostalgic and trailblazing, a delicate chemistry that stirs the listener’s emotions and nurtures sensibilities on social issues. Detroit’s musicians are eager to showcase the city’s struggle-shadowed beauty and pain. The Detroit music scene is where they freely run to a stage to blast what they know to be true. They all are inspired by another D-word –dream. Like education, creativity and faith, a dream cannot be stolen.
The central reason for my writing this essay is a D-word – discovery. Success for Detroit artists can only follow the discovery of listeners. Yet I know anecdotally that the music lover traveling to Detroit’s venues encounters a paramount obstacle – it is extremely difficult for the outsider to navigate Detroit’s music scene. The result is that Detroit’s diamonds remain underexposed in the rough of Detroit’s urban terrain. Publicity campaigns for Detroit’s cultural opportunities fall far short of being comprehensive and useful for the music-lover traveler. The only way for a music pilgrim to find his or her way through Detroit’s music scene satisfactorily is with the guiding assistance of a native Detroiter familiar with the city’s dives and hotspots off the narrow, underdeveloped path of Detroit tourism.
Though the world has embraced the genres this great music city has manufactured, many music lovers remain ignorant of the who and where behind the construction of these genres. With new industry in Detroit, then the aim ought to include getting Detroit artists, and the dedicated venues that feature them, fixed in the radar of music lovers everywhere. Non-Detroiters are aware of Detroit’s musical genre-manufacturing history. But what they should have available to them is community and information leading them on a musical field trip of a one-of-a-kind American city whose current political head is widely dubbed as “the hip-hop mayor *.” Music lovers from around the world require a virtual guide through Detroit’s dynamic music scene and all the D-words it includes – desire, deliverance, dread, desperation, discernment, demolition, déjà vu, delight, dazzle, diversity, and of course doo wop.
* A reference to Kwame Kilpatrick, Mayor of Detroit at the time of writing this essay in 2005.