written by Mike Rubin. Photos by Tafari Stevenson-Howard. Cover/magazine design Blair French (May, 2019)
John “Jammin” Collins is one of the Detroit electronic music community’s most familiar faces, and not simply because of his very public role as tour guide at Submerge’s Exhibit 3000, the world’s only techno museum. For nearly four decades he’s been a constant presence on the decks at Motor City clubs, most famously during his days as resident DJ at the legendary Detroit nightspot Cheeks, as well as gigs at the Warehouse, the Parabox, and Times Square. He’s also a longtime radio mix-show veteran dating back to the early 1990s on WJLB FM 98 (where he picked up his “Jammin” nickname from on-air personality “Captain” Kris McClendon) and later WDRQ FM 93.1 to his show “Live From Detroit: John Collins Presents The Soul of Detroit,” which streamed online at Red Bull Radio.
He’s been a player behind the scenes as well: he worked with Joy Santiago at the Moshi Company, the very first techno booking agency, that later evolved into Premier Entertainment. He founded the Detroit Regional Music Conference in 1994, a homegrown version of New York’s New Music Seminar and Miami’s Winter Music Conference, and oversaw it during its five-year existence. In the early 2000s he joined the administrative staff at Submerge as a booking agent and manager, where he’s still a key member of the organization.
Collins was born in Detroit but moved with his family to Hamtramck, where he attended elementary schools, before they resettled in northwest Detroit. He pursued a Chem/Bio curriculum at Cass Tech High, attended Ferris State University before transferring to Wilberforce University in Ohio, America’s first historically Black college, with a major in Biology. Moving back to Detroit in 1979, he began spinning records at night as a supplement to his day job as an oncology researcher, but the demand for his DJ skills eventually led him to abandon his scientific pursuits. He was almost exclusively a DJ for the first 25 years of his musical career, but working at Submerge led him to finally begin releasing his own productions, beginning with 2009’s “Yeah” EP on UR that included “All You Need” (highlighted by the title track, an uplifting gospel-influenced stomper featuring Mike Banks on keyboards). Since then he oversaw all the edits for three volumes of 12” compilations of 1990s Detroit house labels Happy Records and Soul City, released on Sweat Records in 2011; issued a Detroit house mix CD on UR in 2013; and more recently, contributed an edit of Jon Dixon’s “Fly Free” on Dixon’s 4EVR 4WRD label in 2017.
In addition to mentoring young artists and acting as a consultant to several community groups, he’s become one of UR’s most popular DJ ambassadors, utilizing his expansive knowledge of dance music and Detroit history to represent the city around the world. But when he’s not performing somewhere else on the globe, you might still find him downstairs at Submerge’s Somewhere in Detroit store, if you’re lucky.
MR: How are you doing?
JC: I just got back in town yesterday. I performed at Carnaval de Bahidorá, in Las Estacas, Mexico. It was wonderful. The festival had stages with different genres of music: Detroit techno, house, hip-hop, reggae, everything. It was great. The UR stage opened the festival with several thousand people in attendance. I must say we rocked the crowd. Louie Vega, Larry Heard and others were also on the lineup.
MR: How is it playing at a festival like that versus playing in a small club gig?
JC: A club gig may be a little more intimate, but the goal is to take your crowd on a musical journey, so it doesn’t matter the size of the crowd. When you’re playing for thousands of people you can still connect, though it’s hard to see everybody. At our stage, the size of our crowd never dwindled. The UR stage ended at 5:30am and was packed throughout the entire night. It’s amazing to see that many people having a great time. Connecting with them is a very emotional, uplifting, and spiritual experience for me.
MR: Do you remember when you really started getting into music?
JC: I come from a musical family. I sang in our church and school choirs. I played cornet, trumpet, and flute in school. All my brothers and sisters played instruments and sang in the choir at church. My parents played all types of music from R&B to Motown to jazz to pop—everything. I think it was just in my blood even though I didn’t have a career goal of getting into music, because I wanted to be a doctor or astronaut. That was my goal, that’s what I wanted, that was my dream.
MR: When did your career goals change?
JC: They didn’t really change until after I got out of college. I always bought records and loved all types of music. While at Wilberforce, I was a member of student government with the position of activities coordinator. If a band didn’t show up at a school dance/party, one of my duties was to play records for the event. Notice I said, “play records,” I didn’t say “DJ.” They had this portable mobile sound system with two turntables. I don’t even know if there was a mixer; there probably was. I always loved music.
After college I returned to Detroit and was employed by the Michigan Cancer Foundation as a researcher. I went to a club and saw a young lady DJing. I thought, ‘Hmm, if she can do this, I can do it.’ I was only interested in getting a job as DJ to supplement my income. So, I purchased two turntables, a mixer, started buying records, and began to practice. Some of my friends thought I was crazy when I told them about my plan to become a DJ. I was told that my personality didn’t fit that type of job. I was too reserved and quiet and consequently proved all my naysayers wrong.
I got hired at a club, and my goal was to DJ for five years and get out; I had a plan. DJing at that point in time was never a career goal. I also worked in endocrinology, oncology, epidemiology, and zoology. I’ve been a science fanatic forever, but music is sort of scientific as well. It does crossover into that. That’s why I wanted to be an astronaut, to explore the stars and planets, discover new forms of life.
Eventually, I got more opportunities and performed at some of the most popular clubs in Detroit. By this time Mike Banks was aware of me, though I didn’t really know him. He and other Detroit artists knew me from DJing at many clubs as well as my mix show, (a live broadcast from a club called the Warehouse in Detroit) on WJLB-FM. As things began to happen, I decided to DJ full time. After leaving WJLB I was given a mix show on WDRQ FM 93.1.
In 1993, I founded the Detroit Regional Music Conference, which existed from 1993-98. I was a booking agent with Joy Santiago of the Moshi Company, and we represented Detroit’s top techno and house artists. Joy started the first techno booking agency in the world. Our roster included Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, Richie Hawtin, Underground Resistance, James Pennington, Octave One, and Aux 88. I really enjoyed that aspect of the business as well while still DJing in Detroit at the same time. I wasn’t doing that much traveling at that point in time.
A few years later Joy decided to change careers. When she left, I kept the company and changed the name from Moshi to Premier Entertainment. I retained the roster, which included Underground Resistance. When Mike Banks found out that Joy was leaving, he said, ‘Hey, I want John to come and work for me.’ I didn’t want to work with Mike Banks and Underground Resistance artists only as I had other artists from different labels on the roster. Eventually things worked out. I was given an office and ran my agency out of Submerge. It was during this period when I began releasing a few tracks and then traveling a bit more, but I was doing a little bit of everything. So, in this industry I’ve had many jobs.
MR: When did you start spinning in Detroit?
JC: Professionally in 1979.
MR: What was that first club you got booked in?
JC: Lafayette Orleans with the Duncan Sound DJ collective. Ed Duncan built and provided sound systems for different clubs in Detroit as well as mobile sound systems. He employed a roster of mobile DJs. When I started at Lafayette Orleans in the early ‘80s, I had to audition. Dale Willis, the head DJ, would assign us to different clubs around the city. Detroit had several clubs during that time period and we often had three to four gigs per week. Promoters were throwing a whole lot of parties back then, so in addition to clubs, there were also these one-off parties. It was like a booking agency before agencies existed (in electronic music).
MR: What kind of music were you playing?
JC: Everything: disco, progressive, funk. A lot of New York tracks, but funk for Detroit. Of course there was Parliament-Funkadelic and then later Kraftwerk. We played primarily for African-American crowds with an eclectic type of programming, which made me a versatile DJ.
MR: At what point did you transition from “playing records” to becoming an actual DJ?
JC: When I was hired at Cheeks around 1982, which was located on 8 Mile and Schaefer on the outskirts of Detroit. Most of the patrons were white and from the suburbs; there weren’t many Black people patronizing the club even though it was in the city of Detroit. Cheeks was very popular and upscale, like Studio 54 in New York, where one of the owners would select who could come in and refuse admittance to others. I remember Doris Biscoe, a very popular African-American Channel 7 news anchor, was denied entrance to the club by one of the owners.
A few years later, two African-American men, Larry Harrison and Marshall Jackson, took ownership of Cheeks. For a period, Gary Koral (an owner of Melodies & Memories) and I DJ’ed together at Cheeks. Gary played a lot of Hi-NRG music. My music was more soulful. One thing I learned from that experience was how to play Hi-NRG music from listening to him.
When Larry and Marshall became the primary owners, more Black people started patronizing the club. Cheeks previously had a reputation as being very selective, so that turned a lot of people off. It eventually became a club for everybody: Black, white, straight, and gay. I was the first DJ hired, followed by Stacey Hale, Jeff Mills, Al Ester, and a lot of DJs after that. We programmed house music from Chicago, techno, Kraftwerk, progressive music from New York. It was really an eclectic crowd of people, and that made me more versatile. I learned to read crowds better and we played music that a lot of other clubs would not. We were very selective. We had a gay night as well, and I remember one time the bartender asked me, ‘How come you don’t play music like this on straight nights?’ and I was like, ‘Really, I don’t think they can take it.’ In the gay clubs at that time, the music was so far advanced compared to what straight clubs were playing. The way gay people partied was a little different than straight people. We were able to educate people in music. People talked about Cheeks like they talked about Studio 54 in New York.
MR: How long were you at Cheeks?
JC: I was at Cheeks from maybe 1982 to 1988, until I got fired. I can’t remember what I did, all I remember was security escorted me out of the club. I forgot the rest.
MR: What happened after Cheeks?
JC: I got hired at the Warehouse, a very large club on Jos Campau and Woodbridge in what was called the Warehouse District. That neighborhood was destroyed to build the casinos (which never happened). The Warehouse District had lots of nice restaurants and several clubs and was a unique area for Detroit at the time. The same two guys that owned Cheeks eventually became owners of the Warehouse, so I was working for them again.
A lot of people think that the club scene started with techno, but Detroit has always had a very vibrant scene with many clubs. Every Friday for the WJLB nights, we’d have over 2,000 people there. You could go to four or five different clubs in a night, and that club scene had a profound influence on the founders of techno. I remember Derrick May would hang out at Cheeks every Friday night.
Stacey Hale, Al Ester, and I always ended up working at the same clubs. Together we became a powerhouse. They were also hired at the Warehouse. As guest DJs over the years, Rick Wilhite, Mike Huckaby, and Norm Talley all played there. I was there until maybe 1994 and then I was fired again. When WJLB found out, they said ‘We want John back,’ so they brought me back. I was there for another year or so, and then I accidentally played the explicit lyric version of a record by Heavy D & the Boyz. I was usually careful, but I put on the wrong version, and WJLB said, ‘You’re fired.’
After the Warehouse, I was hired at the Lansdowne, which was a restaurant on a boat, docked on the Detroit River by Cobo Hall (the club was on the second floor). When I started there the crowd was very commercial. They only wanted to hear and dance to music that was programmed on radio, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I began adding more progressive sounds like house music and the people who wanted to hear R&B stopped coming to the Lansdowne. I eventually turned over that entire crowd to a progressive crowd, to the point there was a long line all night to get on the boat to hear house, techno, and New York music. I did that myself. DJs have a lot of power. It’s all about educating your audience and introducing new music.
I played at the Lansdowne for a few years, 1997-98. I also had residencies at Times Square, Regine’s Off the Park, the Parabox, and the Palladium. I played parties all over the city for all kinds of people, including politicians like John Conyers. I DJ’ed Aretha Franklin’s birthday party at Cheeks; she danced a lot and she wanted to hear Luther Vandross, who I think was producing her at the time, so whatever the Queen wanted, I played. There was another club called Joey’s on Jefferson—it used to be a white gay club called My Fair Lady, then it was a Black straight club called The Lady—and I DJ’ed there for a Detroit Pistons world championship after-party. The whole team was there: Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson, John Salley, Bill Laimbeer, the Bad Boys. Being a DJ in Detroit and trying to make a living, you find yourself playing for all kinds of people, so you must learn all types of music. I think that’s one thing that makes Detroit DJs stand out from other DJs: we can play for anybody.
MR: Do you have a preference in what you play now?
JC: Right now, my preference is techno and house. At this point I’ve paid my dues and I can turn down gigs I don’t want to play. I also enjoy hip-hop and R&B, but I prefer underground music. If you give people what they want when you DJ, you can take them where you want them to go. Before you know it, the crowd will dance to music they’ve never danced to in their lives. It’s all about programming and connecting with your crowd. I’ve been a DJ for a long time. I know what people want to hear and I know how to move the crowd. Not bragging, just facts.
MR: How many records do you have?
JC: Oh God, thousands. In the early 2000s, I lost about 500 records in a gay club called Regine’s Off the Park which caught fire. I often kept my records at the club because I was playing there three or four nights a week. I remember sitting in the parking lot with the owner watching the building burn down. I had some gems in there. I did get some insurance money, but not enough to cover the loss of the records. I can still feel the pain to this day.
MR: How has Detroit’s club scene changed over the years?
JC: Well first, we don’t have as many clubs as we used to. It’s different times and different people: different generations party differently than previous generations. I can remember playing at parties where people came in the door dancing and they never sat down. But things changed because of the prominence of music videos and the music video shows in the 1980s: people were watching those so much that they wanted to hear what they were watching on TV. The same thing when hip-hop became extremely popular, people wanted to hear that genre in the club. Social media and phones have impacted the club environment too. It’s not to say people aren’t having a good time, it’s just different. I think you can still get a great club experience today just like you did back in the day.
MR: You’ve primarily been a DJ rather than a producer. When did you decide to begin producing?
JC: When I first got into DJing, it wasn’t really my ambition to produce music. I was just DJing. Back in the day, we always played with two copies of each record. The records had vocal, acapella, instrumental, and dub versions – we utilized them all and I was remixing or editing while performing. When I started working at Underground Resistance, that’s when I got into actual production. Prior to that, Mike Banks would seek my advice on how to make UR releases more DJ and club friendly. Mike Banks is a musician and not a DJ. A musician’s approach to making music is different than a club DJ with regards to how long a break or an intro should be. I did that for a lot of UR records before I started producing.
MR: Was the 2009 UR EP “Yeah” (UR-080) your first production?
JC: On Underground Resistance, yes. I also did several edits: Sweat Records 2, 3, and 4, an edit of Galaxy 2 Galaxy’s “Hi-Tech Jazz,” Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” Sylvester’s “Find a Friend,” and Jon Dixon’s “Fly Free.” I’ve done a couple remixes for my brother, vocalist Dennis Collins, that are being released soon.
I’ve got a couple other things I’m working on. I’m doing a remix for Chez Damier’s upcoming album, and a new single coming out soon on UR. Which should be out by Movement.
MR: What do you look for in music?
JC: I’m into vocals. I love house music where the person can sing, preferably a female vocalist. House is inspirational, positive, and borderline gospel music. I love percussion, breaks, keyboards, and a mean bass line. For me the music was more consistent back in the day.
MR: Was the church a big influence on you?
JC: Yes. Church was an outlet where many family activities occurred. We all sang in the choir. I don’t go to church like I used to. Some people go to church for the minister’s message, but for me it was always about the music. I could care less about the minister’s sermon. All I wanted to do was hear the choir sing. I was mesmerized by the organ. I used to sit close to the pipe organ and watch the organist move her feet on the pedals while playing the keyboard and wonder how she did all that at the same time.
MR: Are there R&B tracks or artists that inspired you?
JC: Aretha Franklin’s “Never Grow Old” took me right out. The whole album Amazing Grace is outstanding. My mother played that record every Sunday before we went to church. I still play that album every week. I think that it’s probably the greatest gospel album and I wish I could have been in that church to experience it live.
There are so many artists that have been influential to me: Motown, the Clark Sisters, my brother Dennis Collins, Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Sylvester, Dan Hartman, Loleatta Holloway, Cerrone, Gino Soccio, Giorgio Moroder, Basement Boys out of New York, Masters At Work, Kevin Saunderson, Underground Resistance, Aaron-Carl, Jocelyn Brown.
MR: Tell me about the Backpack Music Festival you’ve been involved with.
JC: Judy Shelton founded the Backpack Music Festival. She was driving to work one day and saw some kids carrying their school books in paper bags, and that’s what started her thinking of what she could do to help these kids. It was called the House Music Picnic originally when it started. Later it became a fundraiser where people attending donated backpacks for kids. I became the program director and booked the DJs. Derrick May sponsored the very first House Music Picnic. People are unaware that a lot of DJs give back to the African-American community in Detroit. It was always at Belle Isle, and DJs donated their time because it was a worthy cause. We received lots of backpacks and school supplies which were donated to adoption agencies, homeless shelters, and Detroit area schools. We also started a literacy program working with Homes for Black Children, which is an adoption agency that aids young people. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, we provide turkey dinner baskets for people in need. We haven’t done a festival in a few years though. We decided to take a break. We’ve consistently continued our involvement in schools and the community.
MR: When did you start working at Submerge and what are your roles there?
JC: In 2003, I joined the team as a booking agent. Now my role has expanded greatly. “I wear many hats: I’m on the administrative team, help run the Somewhere In Detroit store in the basement of Submerge, and provide tours of the techno museum. Not only are the tours about the history of Detroit techno, they’re about Detroit itself and the city’s ups and downs. Over the years, many people have visited the museum, and we change a lot of people’s minds about Detroit, reversing perceptions, debunking myths. So many people from overseas, this country, and the suburbs still are under the misconception that Detroit is one vast wasteland.
Submerge also sponsors panel discussions and other events. Cornelius Harris and I recently curated the Exhibit 3000: Detroit House Music Exhibit at Red Bull Radio in downtown Detroit.
MR: How has your health been?
JC: I just celebrated the five-year anniversary of my successful kidney transplant. I’m a whole new person. It gave my life back and that’s why I cut off my dreadlocks: I had to release them because I had a new life. Everything I went through was in my hair. It’s really a second chance, because I almost died. It made me realize that tomorrow is not promised, and that we must live each day to the fullest.
Aside from my duties at Submerge, I’m on the board of the West Village Association, recently elected Vice President of the Villages Community Development Corporation, appointed to the Detroit Entertainment Commission, and Treasurer of the Detroit-Berlin Connection. I consult with groups internationally putting together exhibits or panel discussions on Detroit music and history. I have my Red Bull Radio show. It’s a lot, but I love what I’m doing. People ask me if I ever get tired, and I don’t. I feel blessed. They call me the “Ambassador,” “Detroit’s Night Mayor,” Commissioner,” all kinds of things. I feel honored to be part of this community, helping up-and-coming DJs as well. We must bring up the next generation to continue what we started.
MR: What do you think makes Detroit music distinct?
JC: I think it’s timeless. You can play techno music created 30 years ago today and it will hold up to music that is currently being produced, or maybe even better. Any time that you can play a record that is 20 to 30 years old and it can still pack a dancefloor, that’s really saying something. There’s a lot of DJs or producers that have one hit and you never hear from them again, and that record only works for that moment in time and gets forgotten. You think about the music by Juan, Derrick, Eddie, Kevin, UR, Carl—that music can be played forever. Motown is the same way. I think it’s in our genes, it’s who we are in Detroit. There are so many creative people in Detroit who make so much good music, and sometimes the music is ahead of its time, that all adds to why the music is so special. It comes from our soul. It comes from our experiences.