Thursday, 21 May 2009

1315 Broadway, 1988

Neil Ollivierra grew up in Detroit. In the late 80s and early 90s he managed Derrick May’s Transmat label; subsequently (among many other projects in various media) he produced several classic records under the name of The Detroit Escalator Company. Musik Line asked him for his reminiscences about the early days of Detroit techno. Here’s what he said:

I was first introduced to the Detroit Techno scene in 1988, by a female friend of mine named Michelle Warner. I'd asked her what her plans were one Friday night, and she responded: "Dunno; thinking about going to the Institute..."

I didn't know what she was talking about. "You never been to The Music Institute?" she asked. No, I'd never even heard of it...

She gave me an address, 1315 Broadway, and told me to meet her there around 2:30 am, with the caveat that the place didn't really get jumping until around 3 a.m. Now the thing about Detroit, Michigan circa 1988 is that there wasn't shit going on in that city at 3 am. The place still hadn't recovered from the 1967 riots. This was before the word "loft" was even a blip on the radar. At 2 am, you could literally lie down in the middle of Gratiot Avenue and take a nap without fear of being run over by a car...

So I got the surprise of my young life when I arrived at this storefront at 2:30 am and saw a queue around the block; about a hundred young black people were trying to get into a place that held around 150-200 people. I couldn't believe it.

An interesting aspect of this crowd is that none of them were geared up for what I then understood to be a night at a club. There were no dresses, skirts, slick shoes or pampered hairdos. There were no gold chains, fancy watches, earrings, or any other such trappings hanging off anybody's asses. These people were dressed to sweat. It was all about tennis shoes, sweat pants and t-shirts.

When I finally got to the front of the line, the tall, light-skinned bouncer working the door asked if I was a "member."

"Member?" I asked him, incredulous.

"Membership. You got a membership card?"

"No, I'm afraid not..." I replied.

"S'aright. Eighteen dollars."

At this point, it was as if I'd fallen down the rabbit hole. In Detroit, Michigan, circa 1988, there were maybe 2-3 proper "clubs," and none of them charged more than $4. And if you got there on the right night, you'd get $2 drafts all night long. Where was I? What the fuck was this place?

I paid the dough and went inside.

I got searched, and immediately checked in my jacket because it was over a hundred degrees fahrenheit in that place. It was literally packed with black people. There were no chairs. There were no couches. There was no resting place of any kind, though you could make your way over to the "bar," where a couple people were selling bottled water and soda for a buck a pop, and where the dancing decelerated to something more like a shuffle.

The place was one square room with a 30-foot high ceiling, an overhanging strobe light or two, and stacks of massive custom built speaker cabinets stationed in the corners. There were, I remember, one or two gel lights, but they were rarely used; I later learned they were turned on mainly at the end of the night to indicate that it was time for everybody to get out and go home. The DJ booth was a secluded box poised high above the dancefloor, with a rectangle cut out in the front. It looked like the supervisor's booth in an assembly shop of some kind, and at one point in time years ago that may have been exactly what it was. You could barely see the outline of the DJ's head through the rectangle opening. The DJ wasn't on a stage, there weren't any lights poised on him, and nobody was really paying attention to him anyway; it was what he was generating out of the sound system that was important. I later learned that you could only get up to the DJ booth by taking a staircase at the back of the building, which was blocked off by a locked door and a firm but friendly bouncer.

The sound system was loud as fuck. You couldn't talk to anyone, even if they wanted to listen to what you had to say; you'd have to holler dead in their ears at point black range for them to hear anything at all. A few noobs like myself were hanging on the sidelines, allowing ourselves to get crammed up against the wall. Everybody else was bouncing up and down, the strobe lights making them look like they were moving in slow motion syncopated fits and starts...

You have to understand the culture of Detroit at that time to be able to appreciate the wonder of this place. Detroit at that time was a very destitute place to try to make a living. It was renowned as the murder capital of the United States around that time, and prided itself on that fact. Unemployment and poverty were high, and for this reason so was crime. The very few people who lived there were generally unhappy, and there was a lot of brutal masculine energy to the city, especially at night, in the bars and clubs. It was a bad idea to look another man in the eye; god help you if you got caught staring at his girl. And a bunch of black people crammed together in a place like this was – I can tell you as a black man born and raised there – a fucking recipe for disaster. Fights, shootings, and cold-blooded murder were common occurrences in bars and clubs of that era.

Yet here I was, in the middle of a bunch of screaming, dancing black folk, all recklessly throwing limbs and elbows this way and that, bumping and grinding into each other, some dancing together, some dancing alone, some of them (holy fuck) clearly and openly gay, some of them straight... And without the exception of a single soul, they were literally having the time of their lives. They were switching dance partners, arbitrarily it seemed, with no thought whatsoever, much less jealous rancor. When certain key and familiar songs were introduced – stealthily it seemed – by the DJ, complete strangers would meet eyes and whoop, yell, and pound each other on the shoulders before biting their bottom lips, scrunching up their brows and flinging their limbs out and around in some of the most acrobatic and contagious joy expressed in dance that I'd ever seen in my life. It was literally beyond belief. I counted only three bouncers, and they weren't trying to make their presence felt. One was working the door outside, one was working the cash box inside the entrance, and the other was casually watching the door to the DJ booth staircase and chatting up some sweat-drenched girl gulping a warm bottle of soda.

I never even saw Michelle that night. The shit went on until after 6 am, and I walked out of there utterly flabbergasted...

Neil also selected a few tracks which were, as he put it, ‘considered seminal at The Music Institute at the time’. Here they are:

Mr Fingers : Can You Feel It
Suburban Knight : The Art Of Stalking
K Alexi Shelby : My Medusa
Baby Ford : Fordtrax
Tyree : Hard Core - Hip House

"There's also this one remix of 'Welcome to the Pleasure Dome' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood: the fruitness mix. At the time, I think, it was a bootleg. It was consistently the very last song that Derrick May would play at the end of the night at the old MI. It's the track that he'd play when they turned on all the lights and told everybody to get out. It wasn't a dance mix, exactly; it was very dynamic, and had a fast tempo, but key was the fact that it had rather a thoughtful and slightly melancholic vibe to it that was perfect to cool everybody out and calm everybody down after a night of thrashing and jumping around."

The Music Institute closed in 1990; the address is now occupied by Burt's, "an upscale downtown club [which] caters to the urban night lifers". Another interesting account of it can be found here.