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Electronic

The search for Heaven

How Ken Collier, a gay black DJ, influenced a generation

MT illustration/Justin Rose
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Published 7/14/2004

This story is the fifth part of our Century of Sound series, tracing Detroit’s musical heritage over the last hundred years.

 

 

“When the sun goes down they hit the streets,
to the bars to try and meet,
some other stranger,
to ease the pain of living alone,
till it drives them insane,
the woodwork squeaks and out come from the freaks.”

— “Out Come The Freaks” by Was (Not Was)

 

Ken Collier was black, gay and one of the best DJs of his time. Largely unheralded, Collier bridged the musical gap between the Motown sound and what is now considered house and techno music.

From his base within the gay community, Collier pioneered a style of mixing and participated in an underground network of clubs and parties that would eventually expose him to (and influence) generations of future DJs, producers, promoters and entertainers.

Though he had high blood pressure — and is rumored to have taken a bullet in the 1990s — he was unaware of the diabetic condition that put him in a coma and eventually killed him in February 1996. By his 47th birthday, Collier had DJed professionally for a quarter of a century.

“Ken was a music man. He was made for music,” says famed Detroit techno producer Kevin Saunderson in a recent interview. Catching him at Heaven — an after-hours club at Seven Mile and Woodward where Collier ruled Saturday night after-hours from the late 1980s until within a year of his death — Saunderson remembers Collier as Detroit’s passionate Godfather DJ, towel draped over his shoulder, working the box and dropping tracks like Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and Saunderson’s own Inner City track “Big Fun.” Saunderson talks of a passionate DJ who had an adoring crowd eating from his hands. To Saunderson, and others from his techno-pioneer generation, Collier is a legend.

Collier’s smiling face at Detroit Historical Museum’s exhibit, “Techno: Detroit’s Gift to the World,” hardly betrays the man’s complex and pioneering lifestyle. Instead, Collier’s commemoration is shortened to showing him as one of the original inspirations behind the techno sound, an old-school DJ who learned how to up the ante at his parties by playing the coolest records by the younger artists of the day; those considered by the historical museum the “Godfathers of Techno” — Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins.

Simon Reynolds’ 1998 book, Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, references Collier as a techno inspiration, quoting Derrick May’s famous account of a 1981 high school party in which Collier blew an early version of his and Juan Atkins’ “Deep Space” off the decks. The account ends with May saying, “It was the most embarrassing, humbling experience of our lives.”

Collier played cross-over parties for the young, straight, black prep scene. Collier and a myriad of other disc jocks, both male and female — a predominantly black and gay set — had been developing a mixing vocabulary in a post-disco era.

Their full stories, and Collier’s in particular, have been all but drowned out by techno’s overpowering historical din.

Collier was born in 1949 to a family that had arrived in Detroit years earlier in search of work. He attended local schools and would often stroll over to the nearby Motown studios to see who was playing, to see who the stars were. By the time he graduated from Southwestern High — the closer-to-home Central High had gotten “too rough” according to mom Irene — the young Collier had moved from music fan to a kind of music creator, mixing records in his parents’ basement.

He moved out of the family house in his early 20s after informing his parents of his sexual preferences (no mean feat for a young black man at the time) and began his professional career as a DJ.

Throughout his years, Collier would appear on disco station WLBS (102.7 FM) and at various straight cabarets, prep parties and clubs. He would also dabble in record production, co-mixing a handful of tracks with Don Was and Duane Bradley (the “Wasmopolitan Mixing Squad”) like Was (Not Was)’s “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming” and “Out Come the Freaks” in the early ’80s. (The mixes, which became hits in places like Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage in New York, were recently re-released by Ze Records.) But if clubbers wanted to hear (and see) Collier regularly, they didn’t turn to their record collections. Instead they had to see him with his audience, in local gay clubs, from the Chessmate to Heaven.

Disco (Not Disco)

Disco died famously at a 1979 Tigers vs. White Sox baseball game at Comiskey Park in Chicago. In an oft-told tale, a local radio jock asked fans to bring disco records to blow up before the game. The resulting riot — and cancellation of the game — underscored the reactionary fervor of the times and set the stage for a new kind of scene.

In Detroit, the scene that had benefited from the cultural freedoms of disco retreated into the shadows. One of these places was The Factory on Jefferson. It is now an empty lot. Club regular and house-music head Robert Troutman remembers when Collier DJed after-hours there, after hot-spot Studio 54 (now the City Club’s basement) closed at 2 a.m.

“Hey. Look at this,” Troutman says. He produces a tape with a label that reads “Ken Collier 82-83-84.” He throws it on and the Collier he’s been talking about for the last hour unravels rather starkly. Listening intently to the syncopated hand claps, accented high-hats and four-on-the-floor tempos pounding from the speaker behind him, he adds, “Hear that? See how he just mixed that record in? That was difficult.” The effect is subtle, even seamless.

As great as the mix sounds, the importance of it lies in the openness of the music itself. What’s on the tape is not disco, though disco’s spirit pervades it. It’s not house either; it’s too early for that. The cut-up rhythm tracks that would eventually become known as “house” and wind their way along I-94 from Chicago didn’t exist yet. Instead, the music is what Troutman and others refer to as “progressive,” a mix of disco flavor with new, thoroughly synthesized energy. Songs like Alexander Robotnick’s “Problemes D’Amour,” and Quest’s “Mind Games,” along with tracks from Europe and New York — all unavailable just a few years before and not necessarily meant to be mixed — are included in this early non-genre.

The music is soulful and terribly funky despite — or perhaps because of — its mysterious, in-between origins. The way the music is presented is telling.

Collier wasn’t alone in mixing progressive post-disco. Other histories give credit to DJs like New York’s Tee Scott and Chicago’s Frankie Knuckles — two instrumental figures who undoubtedly spread the DJ vernacular to Detroit. Indeed, these were just two of the many DJs that Troutman and others traveled hours and hours practically every weekend to see.

But aside from who gets credit for what, the movement toward mixed music was far bigger than any one person. A whole generation of future DJs and producers heard mixers like Collier, Jimmy Lockhart, Duane Bradley, Tony Hunter, Morris Mitchell, Elton Weathers, Felton Howard, Darryl Shannon, Stacey Hale, John Collins and Ken’s brother Greg Collier. These were but a few of the people that proved that there was a musical message — a true underground dance club alternative to the mainstream — worth spreading.

Second wave

Detroiters Al Ester and Delano Smith are smiling, laughing and egging each other on. On the back patio of Woodward bistro Agave, between cigarettes and frequent interruptions by friends and admirers, the DJs ruminate on their collective and individual histories and the genesis of progressive music in Detroit. They both cite Collier as a huge part of their musical upbringing.

Ester describes sneaking into downtown’s Downstairs Pub in the early ’80s to catch Collier. “There was a restaurant upstairs and I would order something and then go downstairs to supposedly use the bathroom,” Ester says. “Then I would stand up on one of the toilet seats until the music started and slip out into the crowd.” Ester was 16 at the time.

Smith remembers hearing late-night guest appearances by Collier on WLBS — Detroit’s version of New York’s disco WBLS —in the very early ’80s, and seeing him mix records at prep parties near the University of Detroit in the late ’70s. Smith himself eventually became a resident DJ at L’uomo, promoter Michael Neal’s traveling party that started at Studio 54 in the 1970s.

Smith laughingly acknowledges (though Ester shuns the idea) that they “were horrible back then!” Perhaps they were. But the two were young and the craft of mixing was less than a decade old. But they were hooked. The lineage of who hooked whom into the new style of music and presentation, however, remains unclear.

Longtime DJ Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale, a spiritual older sister to the aforementioned DJs, remembers seeing Duane Bradley in 1975 behind two turntables at the Chessmate, a one-time beatnik coffeehouse in the 1960s (now a coin laundry on Livernois near Six Mile). The Chessmate had become a private gay club where Bradley, Collier and others played. She had sneaked into bars before — Mardi Gras, the Twenty Grand, the Argyle — but had never seen anyone mix records. “There was no mixing in straight clubs,” Hale says. “The DJs that mixed were gay.” But it crossed over.

By the mid-’80s, the center of underground club music had shifted from the gay, black, “progressive” scene of the Chessmate, Studio 54 and L’uomo to the straight-black prep scene written about in Dan Sicko’s seminal 1999 book Techno Rebels. Said scene was expanding despite Detroit’s larger socioeconomic decline. But for DJs like Collier there were still setbacks.

Collier had another residency at Bookie’s Club 870 — or just “Bookie’s” — for years. Bookie’s was a place where new wave and punk rock shows bookended with underground dance nights with DJs like Collier. The venue, now an empty parking lot just east of Menjo’s — another gay club that has seen more than 20 years in Detroit — was torched early one morning in 1991. Many of Collier’s records were inside the club at the time of the blaze.

Trina Brooks, an old friend of Collier’s, remembers when the club burned down. She lived in the area and saw the fire. Someone had called Collier, and when he arrived Brooks says he began “crying like a baby.” Collier, Brooks and others stood by watching in disbelief and sadness.

The scene was symptomatic of the city’s reaction to the underground culture itself, a movement that was forced to conceal itself in heavily secretive, invite-only places just to exist.

But the musical and cultural message — a manifesto of freedom to dance and be oneself while doing so — was already out, and clubs like Todd’s on Seven Mile and Van Dyke had already risen to embrace it. The club, where Collier also appeared with his younger brother (and longtime Todd’s resident DJ) Greg, had two types of nights. On alternative nights Charles English would play everything from new wave to hardcore and everything in-between, and on the house nights, the younger Collier would present a large-scale, overground version of the developing dance-mix sound.

There were distinct differences between the two crowds — one young, suburban and freakish and the other black, gay and soulful — though they sometimes cross-pollinated. Still, whether it was “Every Day is Halloween” by Ministry on an alt-night or “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice on a house night, Todd’s was an incredible and subversive mix of underground style, culture and substance.

The creativity and freedom of the crowd that Ken Collier saw at Todd’s flowed directly into what he would do for almost eight years at Heaven for a predominantly black and gay crowd. He transformed the place into an underground dance mecca.

Paradise lost

DeAngela “Show” Shannon (aka Miss D., aka Miss Heaven 1991) remembers Collier’s night at Heaven as a place where an entire community felt safe to be stars. Now a “female illusionist” Shannon recalls that she and others would lip-synch to Collier-spun songs. From atop the speakers, these essential-to-the-show performers would work with Collier to present a whole environment that would peak with huge “kick circles.” To tracks like Lil’ Louis’ “Blow Your House Down,” these Heaven “stretchers,” or “kickers” would practically battle-dance to the music, throwing their legs above their heads, as hundreds looked on.

Former radio and St. Andrew’s Shelter jock Scott “Go-Go” Gordon recalls Collier’s impact on the scene and was struck by his soulfulness. In the midst of a “cutting-edge” crowd, with a “wall-of-sound” music system, and after waiting in a long line outside at 3 a.m., Gordon remembers Collier nights at Heaven as “the place to be.” He says Collier would, “walk a tightrope between gay anthems and house without offending anybody and pleasing everybody.”

Heaven’s sound system was remarkable and Collier worked it. The treble speakers jutted from the club’s ceiling and the bass bins — the famous “earthquakes” — were situated at floor level. The results, according to longtime Detroit DJ Norm Talley, were “ferocious,” as Collier would tweak the highs, and drop the bass out completely before kicking them in at peak moments.

Label-head, vinyl junkie and Todd’s regular Alvin Munk remembers a night when he was so overpowered by the experience of dancing — in a club so hot that the walls sweated — that he simply blacked out. He does remember walking out hours later, soaking in sweat and hoping that when he got older he would be able to get a club gig like Collier’s. “To have a home base like that. It sounds like a cliché now, but it really was magic. Heaven was special.”

But not everything was ideal at Heaven.

A live recording from the era has Collier demanding, “Security to the dance floor! Security!” Though just a random moment from years of DJing at the club, it’s clear from interviews that the line between “edgy” and “dangerous” was blurred at Heaven as the crowd — which peaked around 3 a.m. — mixed with the economically depressed area surrounding it.

Parallel to all of this was the gradual disintegration of the underground scene itself. Shannon remembers Collier playing “The Pressure” by the Sounds of Blackness when he heard that one of Heaven’s tight-knit community had died. Going to funerals, sending flowers, and sharing a few words about dead friends became semi-regular occurrences for Heaven regulars. AIDS, drugs and violence took their toll on both the club and Detroit in the 1990s.

When Heaven closed to make way for a McDonald’s, Collier moved to Times Square downtown and Off Broadway East off I-94. But the venues were not Heaven.

“Things started to go down for him after Heaven closed,” says Stacey Hale.

Collier had obviously found a home at Heaven, a place where his was a marquee name.

Though he played a handful of tour dates in the United States and a few shows abroad near the end of his life, Collier rarely strayed far from home. The DJ was a Detroiter who stayed here his whole life.

Collier’s friends and devotees formed the now-defunct Ken Collier Memorial Fund (KCMF) in 1997; throwing parties and raising money and awareness for diabetes, the disease that finally killed Collier. For reasons still unclear, the KCMF was recently asked by Collier’s family to cease its work and its parties.

Collier’s death left a hole in an already tattered scene. Though dance music was just taking off in the mainstream, with techno DJs traveling the world and raves blowing up in warehouses in Detroit, the progressive/house music and its DJs had fallen by the wayside. The new music picked up fast, had fewer vocals, and, for many, had lost the original soul that fans had originally sought. A mixed scene, which had come so far so quickly, resegregated. Collier’s death closed the door on a Detroit era.

Clubs like Todd’s and Heaven, as well as the older, mostly forgotten stops in Collier’s DJ travels, stretched Detroit to the limit. You’d be hard-pressed to find stories about these places in the annals of techno history. Collier and the clubs he played explored how loud, beautiful, ugly and racially and sexually mixed Detroit could be. Complex, contradictory, hazy, utopian and even cautionary, the stories still echo Ken Collier’s name.

Kevin Saunderson arrived on the scene in the late ’80s, but was still able to hear and see the phenomenon that Collier represented. Recalls Saunderson: “When I did go to Heaven to drop off my records for Ken to play … I just didn’t realize he could play that way.”

Carleton S. Gholz is a freelance writer and DJ with his own online zine. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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