CultureWhen your biggest fans are an ocean away
When it comes to the idea of local creatives getting more respect abroad, local artist Glenn Barr is no stranger. The internationally respected artist, who coincidentally did the cover art for Zadoorian's Lost Tiki Palaces of Detroit, had experiences very similar to the author's when he went to Italy a few years ago. Hired as a consultant for an Italian clothing line, Barr flew out for creative meetings and was blown away by his reception.
"Those Italians love art and they love Americans," Barr says. "Meeting Italians in an art setting is quite exciting. As an artist, you're treated like a king out there. It's a lot different from having a show in town here or in the States, where the culture is a lot different — because out there they're raised on art, whereas here we're raised on sports and cartoons. They thought I was a big art star! Over there if you're an artist, you're just one up on everybody already. It's just a very respected profession."
But Barr says he's calloused to metro Detroiters' often-blasé reactions, though people do react when he admits to creating the gross-out close-ups in The Ren & Stimpy Show cartoons from the 1990s. "When I say I did the 'glory shots' — you know, those close-ups with bloodshot eyes and boogers in nose — suddenly they go, 'I love that stuff!' But I don't bring that up all the time." —Michael Jackman
Marcus Belgrave and Wendell Harrison aren't exactly obscure in Detroit. Last year, Belgrave was feted as an eminent artist in the Kresge Arts in Detroit program, and both Belgrave and Harrison have played, for instance, before their share of packed Hart Plaza crowds over the 30 years of the Detroit Jazz Fest (in its various incarnations).
But in 2008, with help from Carl Craig, they resurrected their late 1970s-early '80s outfit Tribe — with a sound that was both avant and funky in a Detroit sort of way — and played big venues during jazz festivals in New York and Paris. And when was their last big Detroit show? Strictly speaking, the group has never played Detroit. Back in the day, Tribe was a record label with a loosely associated magazine. Although overlapping lineups appear on the records recorded under the leadership of Belgrave, Harrison, Phil Ranelin (now based in California), the late Harold McKinney and others, there was no group "Tribe" as such.
Nonetheless, as the years have passed, the label discs have become coveted club-spin material for DJs; they've been rediscovered, sampled, praised, anthologized and ultimately reissued abroad. New York-based producers from Ropeadope records tapped Belgrave and re-created some of the Tribe vibe for the 2003 The Detroit Experiment disc. That chronicle of advanced crate-digger scholarship, Wax Poetics, gave Tribe and its era the in-depth historical treatment.
And another Tribal admirer, Carl Craig, reunited Harrison, Belgrave, Ranelin and other vets with younger players (including Craig himself) as the first actual disc by Tribe (Rebirth in his Planet E label), setting in motion the large ensemble New York and Paris gigs. "Street and chic and spacey, but always concerned with straight-ahead entertainment," went the description in a laudatory New York Times review of the JVC appearance.
"New York was great, and Paris was even greater," Belgrave enthused the other day. "People were ecstatic, they wanted to get up and dance."
And will the group ever play Detroit? With economies in the tank both here and abroad, Belgrave observes it's hard to get producers behind the kind of big (and pricey) show that Tribe has become. "I just want to play the music that makes me happy in the moment," Harrison added, noting how far his typical repertoire with its swing-era evergreens has drifted from Tribe's funk. Not that another reunion couldn't happen — even here — if the planets align. —W. Kim Heron
Back home Downriver (after living in Macomb County for a couple of years), Aaron-Carl Ragland is just another parent and homemaker — with a music career on the side that few of his neighbors will ever understand. For a solid 15 years, A-C has been producing booty, ghetto-tech and electro-house-techno hybrid tracks that have made him a star in Iceland, big in France and a welcome recent presence on Cologne's Kompakt (which included a Gus Gus with Ada remake of his classic break-up jam "Hateful" on the label's forthcoming Total 11 comp).
A scheduled September appearance at Berlin's Berghain/Panorama bar already has central European fans salivating. He'll also be performing — he sings (his voice is one of the most distinctive in all electronica) while he spins — as part of the Warmth/313 tour in Austria, Italy and the U.K. A-C's discography has more than 100 entries, beginning with his 1996 debut Crucified on Mike Banks' Soul City imprint (reissued in 2008 on Germany's Millions of Moments with dubby remixes by Quantec and Rod Modell). Would he be recognized in the checkout line at Southgate's Toys 'R' Us? Nope. It just gives him room to live and breathe the funk however the hell he wants to. —Walter Wasacz
Did Britain's love for Detroit soul music ever stop? We all know how much Motown inspired the young British Invasion and how, years later, England's Northern Soul scene did a better job of unearthing Detroit's lost soul than the Motor City did itself. It seems for every timeless Motown single there were a dozen equally brilliant soul singles from Detroit that vanished. Now, with America (re)discovering the joy of Detroit's prolific soul, many rediscoveries from the '60s and '70s have been reissued. Some stars have been resurrected. Case in point: Melvin Davis.
For years, the soul singer-composer-drummer did most of his gigs overseas, where he enjoys a rather "legendary" status. Back home, he worked anonymously delivering Detroit mail.
"I call England the soul angels," Davis says, "they're the curators. They kept the flame alive for 40 years."
Granted, Davis has many overseas shows on tap (along with three record deals and a new record in the near future), but America is finally getting hip. Davis will perform soon in California, and he just returned from the Detroit Breakdown show at New York's Lincoln Center. Joined by fellow Detroit heavyweights, such as the Velvelettes, Dennis Coffey, Spyder Turner and the Gories, Davis found the love for Detroit overwhelming. "We had 4,000 screaming fans! We couldn't shut 'em up!" —Doug Coombe
Back in December 2002, Chris Pottinger was just a long, tall, hairy kid with unusual potential. Aaron Dilloway, then still a member of Wolf Eyes, collaborated with Pottinger's mensch-machine project Cotton Museum in a debut performance at Detroit's Buddha Bar and — crash, boom, pow! — a dark star of the Michigan noise underground began rising.
He's been ascending since, recording and performing live as CM, with Heath Moerland (Sick Llama, Fag Tapes) as Slither, and with post-rock jam band Odd Clouds. He's played from coast to coast in moldy basements and grimy toilets, biker bars and houses filled with meth freaks. With Slither, Pottinger performs in Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Zurich, and has released sought-after records on Italian and Egyptian labels.
"In Europe I get more fan support and sell more records, but in Detroit the first thing I think about when I wake up is making art and music," Pottinger says. "You can be a creative recluse and produce whatever experimental stuff you want here. That's what keeps me from going insane."
It should be noted that other works have been released on his own Tasty Soil label, where he also doubles as an illustrator of what he calls "disgusting artwork." Don't believe it. Pottinger's visual grotesques are as mind bending as his sonic furies, and eerily complementary.
Don't fear this talented dude should you bump into him over coffee at Hamtramck's Cafe 1923 — which you might, unknowingly, of course. He's one of the nicest lords of the dark arts you'll ever meet, and he couldn't get arrested here. —Walter Wasacz
Europe's love affair with Detroit techno is well known. In fact, it's pretty safe to say that all Detroit techno artists earn most, if not all, of their money overseas. And though Europe still loves Detroit DJs, the younger European crowds aren't looking to hear classic techno like they used to. It's funny how seminal tracks of the most futuristic genre of music have now become "old school," but it's not so surprising when you consider that Juan Atkin's MetroPlex label just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Just ask Ghostly Records artist Tadd Mullinix (aka Dabrye, James T. Cotton, SK-1). He's spent summers in Berlin, and recently returned from a European tour where he was hosted by German electronic musician Thomas Fehlmann. Mullinix is famous there and plays in front of huge crowds.
"It used to be that the Chicago, Detroit, Berlin and Dusseldorf scenes were more closely related, Mullinix says. "Nowadays there's an Ibizafication of techno going on in Europe. Techno parties in Europe used to be more about dancing. Now it's more about hanging out and drinking beer to ambient techno, either that or a series of climaxes like Daft Punk. There isn't as much of an appetite for underground techno." Some DJs have adjusted their sets accordingly, though give it a few years and the neo-techno revival should be in full swing.
For that reason Tadd is thrilled to come home, breathe and play a hole-in-the-wall Ann Arbor venue such as Ashley's Underground or the Black Elks Lounge to a small crowd of enthusiastic heads. "I love it, there's a bunch of young kids out there who are passionate about discovering classic techno." —Doug Coombe
He's a spindly and confident 18-year-old, he wears braces, and he's famous in many places, but not in Detroit. He's a DJ (and producer and label owner) who wrapped his head around Detroit house music when he was a sprightly kid of 11, learning how to mix and playing records. He began producing at 13, "getting his beats together," and would bring his keyboard and laptop to school to do it wherever "it was necessary," even if it meant getting mocked by fellow students. The Mike Huckaby-mentored Hall often tested his tracks at a local record shop.
Lately the vinylphile has been called the future of Detroit, a "boy wonder" and a "genius" by a few in a position to say such things. His love is huge in URB, Fader and XLR8R. He has been called a wunderkind and Detroit's electronic future in Euro and Japanese magazines. Hall's an intelligent guy, articulate, and it shows in his records — which often reveal a kind of soulful aural poeticism — remixes and his work. He's also self-effacing and modest.
And though electronic music has waned stateside since in the early 2000s, it's still a force overseas, where Hall is in demand.
"Lots of commercialization and money surrounds the electronic scene in Europe, so it's naturally the easier place. ... So that's the reason what I do is more popular in Europe than in my hometown."
Hall's often touring Europe or Asia, but when he's home ("I reside on the west side of the D. West side for life!") he's not exactly a star, but there's no flippin' burgers or sweeping floors either; he's doing too well for that.
At home he has friends and family, and he's been known to teach kids music and beats at Youthville. He likes to lay low and "work on music. ... I go dine at local restaurants, go record shopping at the local shops, and go out to the local events and venues.
"Also, I run and maintain a label, Wild Oats," he says, "so I do my e-mailing, accounting, shipping and handle my other responsibilities that are generally associated with running a business."
What's true is there are not many DJs his age doing what he's doing, and there aren't many at all at his level. —Brian Smith