Behind the Scenes with Mike Clark, written by Diviniti, art by Blair French.
It’s funny how you think you know someone. You talk with them, party and laugh with them — and you think you know them. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll discover that you don’t know a thing. Knowing what makes them laugh, what things or people you have in common, barely gets you over the threshold of really knowing someone. Why am I saying this? Because I thought I knew Mike Clark. In real life I knew nothing.
Like many others of African-American descent, Clark’s family moved to Detroit from the Southern states. Although they came for the promise of a comfortable life in the booming Northern industries, they had entrepreneurial blood pumping through their veins. His maternal grandfather opened and managed a boxing gym on the North End/Black Bottom area of the city. He was very well-known in the community where he lived and conducted business. Knowing his grandfather had managed and ran a boxing gym helped to instill the importance of discipline in Clark at a very early age. It also further sparked a love for contact sports and martial arts. One of Clark’s other relatives was an accomplished musician who was involved in the recording of Elvis Presley’s last album. His paternal grandfather was a jazz fanatic. He frequented the clubs where live music was played and kept his home stocked with the latest albums. His father loved and listened to R&B and funk. Surrounded with music, contact sports and discipline, Clark’s life path was basically predetermined.
But nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. Clark had some treacherous times during his childhood. Growing up in an area plagued with rival gangs as a young African-American male, it was virtually impossible to steer completely clear of trouble. But when you’re “a straight-up troublemaker” as Clark admits he was, it’s easy to find yourself in the center of the storm. After being transferred from one school to another due to a gang fight, he found himself in the middle of enemy territory.
“At that time I was involved in a gang which was 7 Mile RHKs,” Clark said. “They had beef or rivalry with the gang here (Coffey), which was called the KKs or the Killer Ks, which became the 8 Miles. There was a fight that took place at my original junior high school, Coffey, that involved me and several other people. One of my friends actually got killed in the incident. That fight led to the suspension and expulsion of a lot of people. They sent me to the school that the rival gang went to — Beaubien.” Once he began attending Beaubien, life changed for Clark. He went from feeling supported by his gang family to feeling like a fish out of water, constantly flipping here and there to avoid being caught in the net of the rival gang members. He went from knowing everyone to knowing no one in school, but because of the notoriety of the gang fight, everyone knew who Clark was. He recalled a time that a classmate gave him safe passage from a place where numerous gang members were waiting to even the score with Clark to her house where her mother gave him a ride home. “She saved my life,” he said.
Unfortunately, you can only run from trouble for so long, and eventually Clark found himself cornered by the gang members who were eager to settle the score and let him know that he was indeed out of his element. “All of these guys circled me while I was waiting at the bus stop. I just remember there were so many of them,” Clark said. “I just knew they were on their way to another school to start another gang fight with somebody. I mean, there were about 20 of them. They surrounded me and the leader came up to me like ‘What’s up, man?’. I looked around and then put my head down as if to say ‘here we go’, and as soon as I did, the leader cold-cocked me so hard that he actually knocked me out while I was standing up. The only thing I remember was waking up, standing up, and I could feel my body going like this,” he said, mimicking the way his body was being jerked in all directions from the blows with which he was being pummeled.
That’s when he realized that he was being jumped. He tried defending himself, but he was outnumbered and unable to stop the inevitable. His next memory is waking up and realizing that he was on the sidewalk near Seven Mile and Wyoming. As if in a daze, Clark pulled himself up and began to walk toward a nearby drugstore. It was not until he recognized how people reacted to seeing him that he knew how badly he was hurt. He caught a glimpse of his swollen and bloody face in the store window and the whole incident flooded back into his memory. Unsure of what to do next, he made his way home to where he knew he was safe. A police report was filed and all. But what impacted Clark the most was the fact that his actions had involved his whole family. His gang activity was no longer just his business; many of his loved ones were now being impacted.
“For me, that was a pinnacle in my life because I never had my family get involved in my dumb shit,” Clark said. It had been just little gang shit, just me and my boys. But now I got my mother talking about killing somebody for jumping her baby and my brothers involved and stuff. There were too many people involved. It was too much attention. But here’s where the blessing kicks in. “I’m at a family reunion that summer and my grandfather introduces me to one of my first cousins. I told him I went to Beaubien and how I had gotten jumped by this gang and the whole spiel. He gets this weird look on his face while I’m telling the story. I’m like ‘it’s all about this guy named Dollbaby. The leader of the 8 Miles.’ He looks at me and says, ‘I’m Dollbaby.’ So I’m at my reunion looking at the person who was trying to kill me: my own cousin. I mean, we never met personally. And now we find out that we are first cousins.” From that point forward the last thing Clark had to fear was a gang. Word spread like wildfire that Clark was indeed Dollbaby’s cousin and that made him untouchable.
The conclusion of that chapter in Clark’s life marked a turning point for him. He changed his path and instead of getting into trouble he got into sports. It wasn’t until this violent encounter that Clark’s parents allowed him to take martial arts lessons. In high school he played football, was on the swimming and cross country teams, and was involved in gymnastics. He also got into pop locking and, of course, music.
His brother had been throwing parties with a group of his friends who called themselves Gentlemen of the 80s and then Courtier, which eventually came to be known as Charivari. Clark helped them with setting up speakers and other equipment for their parties. In high school Clark met Al Ester, who belonged to a dance group called the TNT Dancers while Clark belonged to the 4th Encounters. He recalled watching Ester dance and then go behind the turntables to DJ. Both Clark and Ester seamlessly made the transition from dancer to DJ in part because of the neighborhood parties of the time. After suffering a major injury to his leg playing football, Clark dropped sports and landed full force into the music. He began playing basement, high school and backyard parties, earning a reputation for himself. Initially he played funk music like Cameo and One Way and what he called “that out there stuff,” which was more disco or progressive styled music. But with his leg injury, Clark said, “I knew I couldn’t be Bruce Lee like I wanted to, so I said I want to be the baddest DJ in the world.”
So he went to the parties and he listened and studied. He watched the DJs and paid attention to their style and what made them successful. One of the people he followed the most was the legendary Electrifying Mojo. He tuned in to each one of Mojo’s shows and loved his selection of cutting edge music. Mojo came to speak at an event at his school and Clark had the chance to meet him. They forged a friendship of sorts and spoke by phone from time to time. Once Clark finally felt confident enough in his DJ skills to share his mixtape with Mojo, who promised to play it on the air — and he did. However, due to FCC regulations, Clark was not able to say anything during the mix to confirm that it was indeed his mix. He had to let the music speak for itself. And it did.
Mentored by Ken Collier and following in the footsteps of DJs like Delano Smith and Darryl Shannon, Clark felt like he was ready to move toward the front of the pack and make his presence known. Still determined to learn all that he could and better his skills, Clark became intrigued by the Hot Mix 5 DJ collective from Chicago. This innovative collective of DJs (Mickey “Mixin” Oliver, Farley ”Jackmaster Funk,” Ralphi “Rockin” Rosario, Kenny “Jammin” Jason and Scott “Smokin” Silz) revolutionized the airwaves in Chicago and eventually the world by introducing house music. And Clark took notice of it early on.
Clark traveled between Chicago and Detroit, introducing the sounds of each city to each other while melding both worlds in his own DJ sets. As he continues his eagerness to study and earn different DJing techniques, he became intrigued with the styles of New York DJs Tony Humphries and Larry Levan. Using all of his knowledge to propel his skills toward perfection, Clark continued to play and impress established DJs in Detroit, Chicago, New York and beyond. Many of his Detroit peers did in fact take notice. Clark was a part of Direct Drive, a popular collection of DJs who were in demand to play at clubs and parties alike. He also teamed up with Mike Banks when he became a part of Members of the House. “He (Banks) had a lot of musicians in the group,” Clark said. “And they didn’t really like me because I was not a musician. At that time it was a sensitive subject for a DJ to be in a group full of musicians. Because the musicians felt that the DJ was somehow taking the musician’s job. There was a lot of that going on. I found that out late in the game. Here I was, happy to be a part of the program and they’re looking at me like the enemy. There was a lot of animosity toward me. Not because of who I was as a person, but just because I was not a musician. I mean I could see it. You have the musicians make the music and the DJ adds the beat and mixes it to be dance floor-friendly. I saw (the vision), Mike (Banks) saw it, and those who didn’t see it,” Clark said, making a motion toward the door, they had to go,” he said, laughing. “With Members of the House our goal was to be like the new Motown. Mike had all these singers and musicians. We had a bunch of male and female artists that we were recording. And we were making all of these tracks. Mike had talked about bringing Jeff (Mills) into the group. And when the opportunity came for Jeff to join the group it was a done deal.” Eventually this conglomerate of singers, musicians and producers morphed into the mega-power Underground Resistance. This is when Clark picked up the alter ego of Agent X.
While UR was immensely successful and traveled overseas, Clark missed out on many of the early gigs because of his commitment to his clients. Somewhere between martial arts, DJing and producing, Clark had established himself as one of the more in demand hairstylists in the city. “Eventually, I had to make a decision. And my customers did not like it. Not one bit,” he said, laughing. It’s an understatement to say that Clark made the right decision. But the sweetness of that success soon turned sour. Eventually Clark left UR and he says a big reason for him leaving was reflection. As he looked back on his many years of DJing and producing, he realized that in many situations he had been taken advantage of in various ways. The final straw for him was his equipment been stolen after loaning it to people he felt “had his back.” They had used some of his studio equipment for a workshop and it was nowhere to be found afterward. “Basically when I went to see what I was going to do about getting my stuff back, there was no one batting an eye or even looking at me like they’re really concerned. And that brought to the forefront what I was dealing with. Regardless of all of the music we made and everything, -at the end of the day no one had my back. And when I recognized that I felt so used I just quit everything and everybody,” Clark said.
So Clark went back to hair and martial arts. For years he wanted nothing else to do with DJing or the party scene. And then a realization: “Why am I allowing other people to affect how I feel about my music? I always loved music. I never stopped,” Clark said. “But then I fuck with a couple of people and they fuck me over and now I just quit the music? Just don’t deal with them. So I had to exclude a few people from life for a while so I could get my head back into what I love, which is the music.”
After that epiphany, Clark decided to go back to the grind and work as hard as ever — solo. He began making beats again, but this time using computer software. As hard as he tried to keep his music to himself, another music-lover in the lofts where he lived one day inquired about the music Clark was making. Just like that his cover was blown, and he was considering getting back into the game. While many people asked him to join various groups of DJs Clark remained adamant about doing things by himself and his way. He linked up with a friend who wanted Clark to check out this up-and-coming party place called Motor Lounge. He went and enjoyed himself and was eventually offered the chance to do a guest spot there. He also had been invited to play more old-school fare at parties at the now defunct Alvin’s near Midtown Detroit. Those guest spots turned into a complete reintroduction to the music and party scene in the city. After a disagreement with the current resident of Motor, the owner gave Clark a chance to grab a residency there with techno on Fridays and house music on Saturdays. Clark’s residence there gave him the opportunity to reconnect with some of the DJs from Chicago and have them play and further expose them to the city.
Clark maintained his residency at Motor all the while reaching back to show appreciation to those who influenced him when he was an up-and-coming DJ. He would often ask Delano Smith or Norm Talley to play a guest spot or to fill in for him at the club. He carried these friends along with him once the Motor residency faded and he secured a DJ slot at Club OneX. Shortly thereafter, during the Detroit Electronic Music Festival one year, a friend from Switzerland continued to ask about what Clark, Talley and Smith meant when they spoke about giving people a “beatdown” at a recent party. Clark found it difficult to explain this slang term to a non-English speaker, but then it dawned on him. “This would be a good name for our style of playing!” And that was the birth of Beatdown Sounds. The term’s original purpose was to speak about Detroit’s urban electronic musical sound without pigeonholing the music as either house or techno. The team — Clark, Smith and Talley — prided themselves on giving Detroit partygoers a figurative beatdown with music every time they played at Club OneX to their extended legendary stint at the now defunct Agave in Midtown Detroit.
In the early 2000s, Beatdown Sounds let their sound lead them around the globe leaving each crowd understanding what was hard for Clark to articulate initially. Each attendee at a Beatdown Sounds event could tell you in no uncertain terms what Beatdown meant. The trio travelled extensively and also released two wildly successful Beatdown Sounds compilations via Third Ear Recordings. Each volume of music contained productions from the members of Beatdown and other established producers and artists. While the three gentlemen rarely play under the name Beatdown Sounds now, the name remains synonymous with impeccable selections and DJ skills.
Clark has clearly experienced many peaks and valleys during his lifetime, but he is clear that there are several goals he has in his sights. He wants to complete an album with live musicians in the future. He has worked with other bands, but he is looking forward to producing his own live project. And what else? “Well after being in the business 35 or 40 years I’m just trying to stay in it and on it. I’m back to making tracks again. I’m trying to get back on a regular production schedule,” he said.
Clark has learned several lessons from the life experiences he’s had. “The (main) lesson I learned is that you cannot allow other people to step on who you are or what you are. You can’t allow them to dictate your outcome,” he said. “I wasted eight years being bitter about what some people did to me. But it wasn’t about what they did. It was about the way I handled it.” With that lesson in mind, coupled with the fact that Clark describes himself as innovative, artistic, left-brained and open-minded there is no telling where the musical tides will guide him in the future. But one thing is certain: He is not willing to let anyone or anything stand in the way of his success ever again