With Detroit native DJ Mike Servito coming to Good Life Saturday for an epic Boston Loves Detroit hoedown–one that benefits the Detroit Public Library, no less–we asked the incredibly learned Carleton S. Gholz of the Detroit Sound Conservancy to school us on the history of a music scene that we should definitely know much more about.
With Detroit’s ups and downs, its noted industrial triumphs and years of economic turbulence, there seems to be a lot of media generated on Detroit, from books to documentaries. Does the city’s musical history get overlooked amidst all that attention?
CSG: This is a good question considering the amount of “ink” spilled on Detroit since the “Great Recession.” My argument would not be that Detroit music is completely overlooked, even if specific artists, like Rodriguez, or specific genres, like country, have been largely missed by a larger US public as connected to Detroit. Instead, my group, the Detroit Sound Conservancy, is arguing that though we know Detroit sound is important, lovers of Detroit music could do a lot more to preserve and protect that legacy. I don’t know if your audience is aware, but in 2006, the City of Detroit tore down the second major Motown Studio in Detroit for a Super Bowl parking lot.
Influential Detroit rock bands, like the Stooges and the MC5, are rarely, if ever, played on Detroit radio. Dedicated, public, emergency and bulk vault space for analog master tapes, the tapes that hold Detroit’s musical heritage from the 20th century, is just not available in the city. We–both Detroiters and the rest of the world–claim to love Detroit music, but I am sorry to report that we do not act that way.
In what ways does the Detroit Sound Conservancy work to connect the musical past with everything that’s happening right now?
CSG: The DSC is not a nostalgia trip. We care about the past because we want to know how we got where we are and where we are going in the future. How did we get to the point where we would even contemplate tearing down one of the oldest, independent recording studios, United Sound Systems, for a potential highway service drive? That’s a very good question and to answer it is not to sit on our sonic laurels but instead to take stock of our cultural values. Does Detroit music history matter to us? If so, how do we show that moving forward?
What would be the quintessential stops on a weekend music tour through Detroit, both for live music and a bit of history?
CSG: We are currently developing a Detroit music tour for the spring. My instinct for live music would be to send you to Bert’s Marketplace in Eastern Market. For touring, not going to the Motown Museum is like going to Memphis and not visiting Sun Studios. If you have more time, get into the neighborhoods and check out the Blue Bird Inn and then do some reading. It’s abandoned but it’s still beautiful. It was the home of bebop in Detroit.
What’s the biggest misconception about Detroit music?
CSG: That we make music like we make cars. It’s an oft-used metaphor but the DSC is bored with it. In the day, you could show up at Ford with absolutely no skills, not even be able to speak the same language as the guy next to you, and, if jobs were available, you could be trained in working in minutes. I strongly recommend your audience read Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn’s “Before Motown.” When Berry Gordy needed musicians for his “assembly line” he got some of the finest jazz musicians in Detroit to play on his cuts. They became the Funk Brothers. They all spoke the same sonic language.
Any favorite little-known Detroit artists who had more of an influence than people realize?
CSG: There has been a documentary about the Funk Brothers called “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” I would feel a lot better about Detroit’s musical legacy if everyone I met who said they loved Detroit music could name at least three Funk Brothers. My favorite unknown Detroit rock band is Majesty Crush. They always get left out of histories of Detroit music but are crucial to understanding the 1990s freak scene that was downtown Detroit. Listen to Love 15 and thank me later.
I understand you were studying for your postdoc in Boston. Is the work related to Detroit music?
CSG: I was and am not studying. I have a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in Communication from 2011. I’m Dr. Gholz. I’ve been teaching media and communication classes here at Northeastern and writing during my time in Boston since graduation. My book is tentatively titled Out Come the Freaks: Detroit Music After Motown, and I am currently working on getting a book contract.
With a benefit like this, where most people in the house are probably from East Coast backgrounds, how might a DJ go about delivering a uniquely Detroit vibe?
CSG: Detroit is Boston. Boston is Detroit. We are all part of the same nation–”House Nation.” We are all in the same sonic country. Detroit’s quintessential radio jock, the Electrifying Mojo, played cuts by electro outfits from Boston back in the day, the same cuts that Boston hip hop historian Pacey Foster recently played on my radio show on WRBB, and DJ Bruno, who is respect by all beat-focused heads in the Hub, knows Detroit house music backwards and forwards. In fact, Bruno is bringing Detroit techno and house legend Kevin Saunderson to Boston on April 5th. So, honestly, Servito and our crew are going to bring sounds that the East Coast already knows deep in their sonic chakras. The crowd may not know the exact tracks — though some will — but I can guarantee their lower bodies will recognize the soundscape.
[28 KINGSTON ST. BOSTON. SAT 3.22 AT 8PM/21+/$10. GOODLIFEBAR.COM]