Friday, February 27, 2009

Welcoming...

"I notice the majority of your posts mention race. Is it the topic of your thesis? From my experience in Chicago and Detroit, most clubs that play old-school underground house or techno are fairly welcoming no matter your race or sexuality. While I'm sure race and economics and a variety of other factors inform the music (and especially affect music sales in America) it must be hard to draw general conclusions."

This is a comment from Jacob Arnold, editor and writer of Gridface. He commented on Ethnography and Interviewing. Jacob, I appreciate you reading and appreciate the dialog. The sentiments in this comment about race and generalizing are really important, so this is going to be the basis of this post. I'm not a big proponent of the whole music is universal, it unites everybody, one love, Saves the Day, PLUR business. I definitly understand that perspective and sometimes swing that way when I am moved by a piece of music or at a party that is particularly hot. But, the whole Peace Love Unity Respect business really doesn't apply to a lot of people. It usually applies to primarily white middle class ravers who like to sit in massage circles, shove something in their mouths so they don't grind their teeth, and have an adventure at a rave. And even if that rave happens to take place at the Packard Plant, or some other wherehouse/abandoned space in Detroit, lots of African American Detroiters were often turned away at the door or couldn't afford the $15, $20, or $25 ticket price. I'm not making this up, Terrence Parker and Cornelius Harris (Atlantis) of Submerge talked at length about this at a one-day conference that I organized at Indiana University, October 2006. It was called Roots of Techno: Black DJs and the Detroit Scene. Cornelius referred to it as a safari - white kids coming in from the suburbs and going to raves in poor Black neighborhoods with ticket prices that were obviously out of range for residents of those neighborhoods. There is not much of a rave scene in Detroit now and the crowds at many of the electronic music events here are usually older, like a lot of the events with primarly African American crowds where the househeads go, most are at least in their 30s, and many in their 40s and 50s. People who were in high school when Rick Wilhite was throwing roller skating parties in his basement!

Now I just have to say this...my entry to electronic music was through raves. I went to my first rave in the Chicago area when I was 17. It was called Submerge (ha!) and Lady Miss Kier of DeeLite sang, and I cannot remember the DJs! I'm sure my brother remembers, I'll have to ask him. I knew almost nothing about Detroit music at that time, I probably had heard of Juan and Derrick, but that's about it. Then I went to college in NYC and listened to tapes of Terry Mullan and Nigel Richards and DJ Adam and went to raves and clubs in the NY area. And before all that, I grew up in a small, very white, and really racist, farming town in northwest Indiana. I'm saying this because this is my background, this is the perspective and experience that I came to Detroit with. I'm not a Detroiter, I don't know all there is to know about race and "the Black people." However, my mind and my heart are open to learning about what I don't understand and that means that I can see racism all around me here in Detroit, the suburbs and throughout this country in many systematic and subtle forms! Additionally, I have a strong grounding in African American history (yes, American history) and so that is constantly impacting my experiences in Detroit.

If I based all my understanding of Detroit on going out to clubs and parties all over the city and just listening to music on my own, I would basically have a pretty detailed understanding of my own experiences and perspectives of Detroit music. There's a lovely term for that and it's called "navel gazing!" And that's just not going to produce a worthwhile collection of research that I would feel good about turning in to my dissertation committee, it wouldn't help me become a very good ethnomusicologist or university professor, and who would want to read a book based on that? Admittedly, there is a bit of navelyness in this blog - but that's okay, it's a blog...and my name is in the damn title! What?!

Now to address the welcoming feeling of going out in Detroit...yes, I have always felt welcome and sometimes even embraced at places in Detroit. Going out to places like Lola's on Friday and Saturday nights is a lot of fun. Lola's is a restaurant/bar downtown with lovely paintings on the walls, lots of friendly people, and house music two nights a week. Bruce Bailey plays every Friday night with guest DJs, and he hosts a Saturday night there with Rick Wilhite, Raybone, and Norm Talley. The Friday nights are always packed, it's mainly a Black crowd, and it has been described as having an energy that almost matches that of the Music Institute. I don't feel unwelcome there and I don't feel out of place there even though I might be one of two or three white folks in a very crowded club. But that's not really at issue here. One of the issues is, why don't more white people go to Lola's?

Here's another example: Buzz Goree's Jive Turkey party at The Works, November 2008. It's the fifth Jive Turkey party he has hosted. (I didn't write a post about that night...sorry. I'll have to look at my notes later at home and see if there is anything I want to put up about it later...) Terrence Parker, James Pennington, Jit Wiggins, and John Johr played. There are two rooms at The Works, so everyone got a nice long set. And, it's an 18+ club, so lots of younger kids come out to parties there alot. TP is great at bringing out the younger crowds, which is something that is important to him. Usually, it's a young white crowd, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that, except that he would really like to be able to reach young African Americans in Detroit. But because of lack of spaces for parties where people under 21, and even under 18, can come, and lack of access to radio programming that includes time slots better than 3AM on Sunday morning (!), people who produce electronic music in Detroit really struggle reaching young Black kids in the area, and probably around the country as well. Anyway, at the Jive Turkey party, Terrence Parker was in the front room playing a great set, like always! That room has the bar, a movie screen, couches, a pool table and a small dance space. It was pretty crowded most of the night, and it was a diverse crowd, but most of the white kids were in that room. John Johr (who is white, Paxahau resident DJ) and James Pennington (who is Black, of UR, Submerge, co-wrote "Big Fun" with Kevin Saunderson and Art Forrest) played in the back room, which is down a narrow hall from the front room. It is a much darker space with brick walls, benches along one wall, big industrial fans up in the ceiling and hanging down the walls of one side, a support pole in the center of the room, and the DJ booth is elevated higher up above the dance floor than in the front room. I got there toward the end of John Johr's set, so I can't say who all was in that room during his set. But it was not very crowded in there and he was playing some intense techno. When James Pennington came on the decks, the room stayed pretty sparse for most of the night. He played a great set - really funky techno, pretty diverse, I danced alot. Abdul Qadim Haqq set up an easle and was painting to the music. And this is the weird part...the hallway was lined with white people, mainly young, white men looking on at the scene going on in the back room while James Pennington played. And I don't know if this is what they were thinking, but they really looked scared to go in. I'm serious, they looked aprehensive, like, 'Do we belong in there? Should we go in?' Something made those white boys decide to hang out in the hallway, by the stinky bathrooms, and hear James Pennington's set bounce, and trainwreck, with Terrence Parker's set! And it definitely wasn't any kind of animosity that was being projected by anyone in the back room. The vibe was great in the back room. I think Darkcube was there, maybe T. Linder, but I don't remember for sure. Mike Clark and Mike Banks were there. It was a lot of fun.

This is one reason why I say there is isolation and separation in techno and house music in Detroit.

7 comments:

Nigel said...

Glad you enjoyed the Nigel Richards tapes! :) I blog too at nigelrichards.com
Keep up the good work!

Nigel said...

Hey... glad you enjoyed the mixed tapes! :) THANKS! Now I podcast... on itunes or nigelrichards.podomatic.com.
Nigelrichards.com

Keep it up, dear! :)

Jacob said...

Thanks for the dialogue! I didn't mean to put you on the defensive, and I appreciate that you are candid about your background. Even though I'm in my thirties, I am not at all familiar with the old rave scene.

I think you're right. We have a long way to go, and it's too bad it takes a white DJ for white people to feel comfortable going out to dance. On the other hand, I say enjoy the scene for what it is. It seems odd to go into a club and say, "I wish there were more white/Hispanic/asian/whatever people here."

Cornelius said...

First off, this isn't meant as anything negative towards Jacob, he makes an honest comment, and this is just my reply to something I wasn't asked!

"It seems odd to go into a club and say, "I wish there were more white/Hispanic/asian/whatever people here." "

Here is a not so odd situation where that's the thought. Say you're a black guy who came up at a time when the music was pretty much an African American phenomena, watched guys make bad deals with European labels who never marketed them back home, but put advertising dollars behind their white counterparts and now there's a noticeable shift where before someone was DJing a party, it becomes an uncomfortable shadow of the past - black people being brought in to entertain whites.

There's nothing wrong with being black and playing music for a white crowd. But there's often an air of exclusion in relation to the promoters themselves, who are too scared to put flyers in black businesses, who at one point hid behind PLUR. Some of us would joke (and there were many variations):
P-peace as long as we make sure everyone is like us
L-love to get high with our friends
U-unity with people just like us
R-respect is ok, but black people scare me

That being said, the other not so odd thing would be for someone who might've legitimately believed in PLUR to question why there wasn't more of a mix of people and whether PLUR was meant only for the people who get through the door.

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Anonymous said...

I was at the Submerge party in Chicago so many years ago, too :)

Denise said...

Wow, hi! That's so cool!

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