Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Belle Isle

3rd Annual Detroit House Music Picnic
Backpack and School Supplies Drive
Belle Isle (Shed 19, NW corner of island, near river)

So many festivals this summer. And free festivals with great music! This past weekend on Saturday, August 9th, was the 3rd Annual Detroit House Music Picnic and Backpack & School Supplies Drive for a few Detroit public elementary schools. My Mom & her husband were also visiting this weekend, so we had to work out cars and kids and family time as well. It really worked out well because I was able to spend a lot of time at the house music picnic while my mother took the boys to the playground and then headed back home for dinner and a bath and bed. Otherwise, I would have probably been back and forth between home and the picnic, which was on Belle Isle, trying to take care of the kids. Plus, James and I would not have gotten to spend as much time together at the picnic as we did. It was great! So we headed on down to Belle Isle at about 1pm – I wanted to get there sooner because it was supposed to start at 10AM and I wanted to see some of the DJs who were "scheduled" to play early in the day, like DJ Cent and Bruce Bailey. The schedule was posted on the event's website about a week in advance and I knew that I shouldn't expect it to go according to plan completely, but I did not expect that the posted schedule would become almost non-existent as the day unfolded. It's interesting to me that even though I have been a fan of electronic music since the early 1990s and have been going to various types of DJ performances since that time, I am still surprised at issues of time at these events. It often seems like everyone except me, knows how late to arrive. Everyone else knows the rules except me. Definitely not supposed to arrive right when the event begins. And no matter who is scheduled to spin first, whether it is 10AM, noon, or 9PM, there is hardly anyone in the crowd. So when we were still eating lunch at home at 12:30PM on Saturday, I was trying not to feel too much stress about what and who I was missing. As it turned out, nothing even got started until 11:30AM, an hour and a half later than was scheduled and posted on websites and on the flier. Now, is that concept of time something from African American culture, is it just an element of electronic dance music culture, is it a mixture of things? I don't really know, but it's definitely something to explore.

So we drove around most of Belle Isle trying to find Shed 19 where the picnic was. It's a pretty big island, so you can't really just "follow the beats" to get to the picnic. We finally found Shed 19 and then happened on a gravel parking lot just past the lot where the picnic was happening. We were close to the water on the NW corner of the island. There were sailboats docked nearby and two other picnics going on nearby. The island was actually really busy with all kinds of gatherings – family reunions, picnics, parties. There is a whole corridor down the middle of the island part of which was just packed with cars and people, especially near the big playground and giant slide. It's really giant – we haven't gone on it yet, but it seems like fun. A vast majority of the people there were African American.

It felt funny coming up over the dry, grassy hill with my two little boys in a double stroller, big boy walking, husband, my mother, and her husband (who is 77). It felt like we should be out of place, but I knew we weren't. We set up a blanket and got some food out for the kids. My mom and I walked over to the table set up with t-shirts and CDs for sale and I delivered my school supplies donation and my mom bought a CD and made a donation. The crowd there was pretty tiny and spread out. Saw a few familiar faces. My mom's husband, eventually walked over past the DJ tent to the river and set up his chair to sit and read under a willow tree. It was so nice outside, sometimes a bit sunny, but really cool and breezy. Being by the river was really nice. There was a little inlet and pond nearby as well. He was pretty bored and anxious to get to the playground.

I just remembered this conversation I had with my mother the day after the festival. She commented on being the only white people at the playground area when she took the three boys over there and James and I stayed over at the picnic. She said a few people talked to her and were friendly, although she did get some strange looks, especially from younger girls. There was a group of girls, about 11 or 12 I think she said, who were really checking her out. My mom said she didn't know what to expect, if "they" felt that she shouldn't be there because it's "their" space. They and their meaning all the Black people there – it was really busy and crowded, so I'm sure it was really different for my mom who lives in northwest Indiana in a town with a largely white population. That's what I grew up around as well, mainly white people, and a lot of racism, in small town Indiana. It was interesting that my mom described the situation as being "them" and "their," it was clear, to me, that she did not really intend any kind of racial lumping together of all Black people. But with her word choice, that is was happened – and I think that this is the automatic interpretation of social interaction and social groups for a lot of white Americans. Because of the history of racism and segregation in the US, there has been an "us against them" for both Black and white sides for decades, maybe even centuries. Racist oppression against people of African decent created an atmosphere of cultural survival for African Americans – Black people had to fight hard to maintain and continue to create and innovate cultural heritage. At some point, white people began to interpret that impetus as an exclusion of white people from Black cultural events and expressions. This exclusion, however, was fueled by "white flight" when white people gradually moved out of neighborhoods, and eventually whole towns and cities that became increasingly occupied by African Americans. So, the current situation is one of assumed exclusion and separation from both white and Black sides, even though when white people and Black people get together in social situations, it is often not a struggle for power or control. What I have found in my field experiences so far is that I am often the only white person or one of few at the events that I am going to, and although I sometimes feel out of place, it's not like I am invading "their" space with my whiteness. I don't get that feeling from anyone. And most importantly, when talking about they and their, we need to remember that not all Black people think alike, act alike, talk alike, not all Black people hate all white people. Like any socially or culturally defined group of people, even though there is something linking a group together, there remains a wide diversity of perspective and experience from which people act.

Okay, back to the picnic. Eventually, my mom took the boys over to the playground and James and I hung out at the picnic. I was feeling tired and winy for the first while, even though the music was good – Craig Alexander was one of the early DJs playing. He is from Chicago and played a great set. I didn't realize they would have people from outside of Detroit coming to the picnic. I don't imagine any of the DJs made much, if any, money from this event. As the wind picked up, Shake went on and had a frustrating set. I think the wind was blowing the needles around on the records, so he couldn't really play properly. Then someone moved the truck that carried the DJ equipment and tent setup over behind and to the left of the DJ tent to block the wind. That worked, then Shake's legs gave out – he has MS. So he decided to stop playing. Then, a huge rain storm came through and we drove over to check on my mom and the kids. After it stopped pouring, we walked to the cars, got the boys ready to go back with Nana and Gramp, and they drove back home while James and I stayed for the rest of the picnic.

When we got back, we hung out with WhoDat for a bit. And then it got fun – Rick Wilhite started to spin, and he was fantastic. James played softball. And I started meeting people. WhoDat was introducing me to people, I started to see more folks that I knew, and my shirt actually helped me meet Piranhahead. I had on a Women on Wax shirt – that's Minx's label and Piranhahead is on it also. I was dancing under the tent and Piranhahead walked over to me and thanked me for representing. I introduced myself to him not realizing who he was. He really doesn't look like he does in photos. I told him what I was doing here in Detroit and he was really interested. We walked away from the tent to get away from the noise and talked for a while. I can't wait to interview him. He seems really knowledgeable about Detroit music and history in general, beyond house and techno. He plays multiple instruments in addition to DJ/producer equipment. We exchanged numbers right away and planned to meet up soon for an interview. He asked me what kinds of questions I am interested in. It was a really great conversation. Oh yeah, and he was talking about Art Blakey's music, and Detroit's musical sound – that there's something underlying it all, uniting the various forms of music that are produced in Detroit in foundational ways.

I also met Angela Slate, promoter for Strictly House, a label that Bruce Bailey and Reggie "Hotmix" Harrell are a part of. WhoDat introduced us and Angela gave me her number so that we can set up an interview. Then, WhoDat introduced me to Martine, she described herself as being a fan of house music since before it was house music. I like that. So Martine and I exchanged numbers as well. It was so great – WhoDat, my advocate and sponsor! It's great to have that kind of help because just going up to people and explaining what I am doing here has not worked for me so far. Emailing a DJ or sending a MySpace or Facebook message to a DJ has been a successful approach when it's someone I don't yet know. But just going up to people, especially fans, not DJs, I am usually met with distrust and suspicion.

Another highlight of the day was Kenny Dixon, Jr. He was scheduled to play at 3pm – I knew that would not happen, but I hoped that he would show up and play. And he did! Some time around 5PM or so, I noticed him up on the grassy hill playing football with a boy. Then, when I was talking to Piranhahead, Kenny walked up to the DJ tent with his record bag. Piranhahead called out hello to him, and I thought for a moment that I was going to meet him, but he didn't come over. He just said something to Piranhahead and kept walking. Then Piranhahead said that some people would think they had just seen God walking across the grass (referring to Kenny Dixon), but he has known Kenny for years and he's just a regular guy. I often have these kinds of conversations with DJs about fame and it being such a weird experience for them.

So finally, Kenny went up to play and it was great. When I have see him play in Chicago, he plays an educational set – trying to teach those in the crowd about Detroit's musical history, and the history of techno and house, through the music. He sometimes has an angry, aggressive way of doing that. Like, one show at Smart Bar in Chicago, he was playing with the 3Chairs (Theo Parrish, Rick Wilhite, and Marcellus Pittman). KDJ wore a black mask covering his face below his eyes. He played the same disco track for about 15 minutes and then let it finish completely in silence – it is funny to think about it now. I think there was some sort of disagreement about money or location or something, and it was coming out in the music. But he plays other tracks and in other ways that make the event seem like school. But seeing him play in Detroit, it's home for him. He clearly knows everyone. People love him – the tent was full for most of his set. He played classic funk songs and most people recognized the songs and screamed out when it came on. He also played Wanderer – which has always been a rave track from my past experiences – it was interesting to hear him play that. And fun to dance to – I did not expect it. During Rick's set, he almost completely cleared the tent at one point. The music got really dark and deep – he adjusted the mixer so that he could use the single headphone as a microphone. As he plugged the cord in, it made a high pitched sound, he seemed to like it and as he was adjusting the mixer, he kept plugging the cord in halfway to make the sound. Then he plugged it in all the way and started talking on the mic (even though there was a regular mic back there). He said something about this being deep underground house (?). I'm not sure if he called it house, but I am certain about the deep underground part. Then he said something about how most of the people there didn't understand what they were hearing, but a few got it. Then he said "If you had been in my basement back in 1983…" It is cool to hear what DJs say when they get on a mic. I just have to say, I really love everything Rick does when he's up there.

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