Scott Zacharias Interview: written by Falco EQ’s and photos by Suki Gershenhorn
The music gods blessed DJ Scott Zacharias with a pair of golden ears. He’s humble and shy, but he’s a monster on the decks and is known for rocking the funkiest, eclectic sets you’ve ever heard wee into the early mornings. He’s also deeply and organically rooted in the underground scene from the 90s on. From the 2030 Loft Parties to poetry nights at Café Mahogany to Zoot’s, to raves of all kinds, to Oslo Detroit (sushi, techno club in the 2000s) to closing out the famous No Way Back parties (with Interdimensional Transmissions, Brendan and Amber Gillen) he’s a superhero, but deep down a regular guy.
SZ: I don’t know what you are coming at me with, but I’m sure there is something you can pull out of my brain…
FE: These Instagram stories with pictures of your dog (Squo) overlayed with Steely Dan and a Whispers track over it. Is this the future of DJing?
SZ: (laughter) I’m not so sure about that, but if it is you can count me out. To be present in this current model of society it involves a certain amount of digital outreach. I’ve peeped content from a lot of people that I would not have been able to because of that digital landscape. I do enjoy it in a lot of ways.
FE: Café Mahogany (mid-90s in Detroit’s Harmonie Park.) Tell me about that…
SZ: I met Zana Smith (Spectacles shop owner, event promoter) and Korie Enyard (DJ, event promoter) at some point in the nineties. They were pillars of the scene and I had done some parties with them. It was a Tuesday Poetry Night, which at the time, was a pretty progressive and definitely inclusive scene. Some of it was corny and at the same time you never knew who was gonna come through. I was cheap, but it was much appreciated. The run was at least a year or so. Alvin Hill (DJ ‘munk) was doing it and I knew him. He was part of pulling me in and I met a lot of people there. I think that was the first place I met Dez (DJ Dez/Andres), a lot of musicians, writers and DJs. DJ Houseshoes and Jay Dee would be down there sometimes. I befriended the two managers there. We would drink a bit, put our feet up after the poetry gig. I met a lot of people that would later on become pretty serious musical forces…
FE: Parties around that time…what were they like?
SZ: I was working at Record Time for a second (Roseville location.) DJs Mike Huckaby and Rick Wade were pretty much running the show in the dance room. Korie Enyard worked there on weekends and we hit it off pretty well. I started listening to a lot more house stuff. It spoke more to me than a lot of the techno stuff that was happening at that time. I started going out to the parties and dancing. I took my girlfriend at the time out. I got into it. Some of my favorite DJs at the time were guys like Billeebob (John Williams), Mack (Paris the Black Fu, Detroit Grand Pubahs) of Heckle and Jeckle, D Wynn (Music Institute DJ.) I met DJ Brian Gillespie (Twilight 76, Databass) and at that time Wade (Kergan of Hello Records in Corktown) worked there.
SZ: That was a bit earlier. An old friend from high school, his flat was what Zoot’s became. He lived in the back of the first floor of Dave Monroe’s house. My band at the time, pre Monaural, had started playing jazz. Jason Scofield, Bryan Cole and I, we had a trio. We played the opening night at Zoot’s when Dan Solomon opened the doors. It was originally an after hours for the after hours Red Door, which was in the old spot that would later become Avalon (bakery.) My friend Mike, who was also my drug dealer, had lived there and said they needed music for this coffee house, so he set it up. That’s what we started doing. It got rocking. Michael Cooper started working there and booking more indie type stuff. I saw Roy Brooks perform there, Harold McKinney. It was a great thing…this is really reaching into the memory banks…
FE: I think this is as far back as we are going. I had been planning to ask about Monaural. Beyond that band tell us about any other Z bands.
SZ: It was a pretty loose thing, you know, basement jams. You’d try and find someone that played guitar, etc. I got my first drum kit in the sixth grade(?), or maybe sometime in middle school… My first official kit, my dad got at a garage sale up the street. I never really played out too much, but you know…
FE: Did you play with mallets or just with sticks and a light touch?
SZ: (laughter) I played all that. I had mallets that had sticks on the other end so I could go back and forth. It was a style thing for sure and that was only because of my love for Elvin Jones. That was me being a fan boy pretty much (laughter.) In doing that I may have gotten close to creating my own thing a little bit I guess.
FE: Let’s jump to Sharif (Sharif Laffrey, promoter, DJ)…
SZ: He was bigger into the rave scene then I was. He left Detroit for a while for China and Australia. When he came back was when he got the bike courier job and that was when I would start to see him around everywhere downtown. We started kicking it and not too much later is when we started doing the 2030 (Grand River) loft parties. Those were the first ones. Rent a sound system, buy a keg.
FE: Because of Sharif we were blessed with a certain level of access to Mike Banks (Underground Resistance.) Any favorite stories about that guy?
SZ: There are a million, man. He was just, more or less, like a mentor. He held that building down pretty much by himself. It’s not there anymore. He had his guys living in there. Juan Atkins lived there for a time. Mike had kept that going. He took time to let us know about the history of how UR got started with a fax machine. How he hooked up with Mark (Ernestus) and Maurizio (of Basic Channel) across the pond (Berlin) and that kind of cross talk helped to get Detroit techno on the map so to speak. Just learning more about the trajectory of his development and the ins and outs of the music biz was, of course, inspirational to us.
FE: Let’s jump to Oslo (highly influential Detroit club, 1456 Woodward Ave).
SZ: Ahh. I started hanging out with Sharif sometime in the late 90s. I had a New Year’s Eve party in 1999. Theo Parrish and I played at my old apartment up above Niki’s (lofts above Greektown pizza place.) You were there for that one. That night Brook (Campbell) mentioned to Sharif that he had purchased a space on Woodward and was thinking of converting it into a restaurant or club or something. He asked Sharif and I to be the residents. We didn’t think much about it. Five years later, I think it was 2005, Oslo opened and we started promoting on a more official scale more than the after party thing that ran for a couple years.
FE: During that insane period there were many magical moments. In your mind give me the highlights.
SZ: Maybe the opening night, we had Mike Kearns and Sam Consiglio. That was something… having Alexander Robotnik and Carl Craig play. Having Derrick May’s manager yell at me for two hours before he played at 4 am. I had to play my same fifteen warm up records for two hours while being yelled at on a Nokia. We had DJ Dez on a weekly. There were two sold out Joe Louis Arena Prince shows where Kenny Dixon Jr. did Prince parties both nights. Nuts.
FE: Working for the Detroit News? Tell me about that.
SZ: I worked there a long time and I got hired in working on the internet (the early days.) Now it is such a common practice. We were the guys behind the green curtain. I learned a lot. I never really thought I would end up there, but working there I was paid to read all day. It was probably the best job I will ever have. I appreciated it. I learned a lot about technology. I had the T1 connection (which was a really big deal.) I was able to discover a lot of music that way. My internet connection at home was so terrible that I would stay late after work checking out Ebay clips and what not. My world of music expanded in a major way because of that job.
FE: Ron Morelli (L.I.E.S)?
SZ: Ron had been around. He did this thing where he was married to someone (I had never met them) and left New York and was on this f**k New York thing which he would laugh about now. He was in Philly. There he started a night with DJ Mike Trombley called Macho City. Mike was also living in Philly and he had opened a record store. I think it was during the ‘05 festival (Fuse-In), Ron came up with his buddy Justin and they stayed at the house. I think with Doug Lee and Jeremy Campbell, a dude I had been doing New York parties with. That was kind of the East Coast connection. Ron’s friend’s band was playing at the Bohemian House. We hit it off and Ron ended back in New York living with a couple of other freaks, namely Will Burnett (WT Records) and Jeremy Rodriguez. So that’s how we met. We’ve been buds ever since.
FE: Back to Woodbridge (historic neighborhood of Detroit), there was a massive number of producers in that zone at that time. When I recall those days, I always felt like you and Matt Chicoine (DJ Recloose) were very close.
SZ: We first hooked up in our college days of which mine were very limited. We met in Ann Arbor DJ’ing at the Bird of Paradise. After he finished college he ended up moving into Woodbridge with Josef and I. Our other roommates had left and he slid in. Vague memories. Matt got a sampler and a computer. That was our introduction to making stuff on the computer. Purchased Cubase. Got a Linn Drum. It was fun at that point. Matt definitely took it to the next level. He was obviously more motivated than us to finish things up. His career speaks for itself. He’s brilliant. I had a more relaxed nature in terms of dealing with music.
I was scared of treating music like a job. I didn’t want to make a living from something that I cared so much about. This was a common theme throughout my life, and eh, at this point now that has definitely changed (laughter.)
FE: Omoa music?
SZ: We were trying to branch out and do some different type stuff. It was short lived, but we tried to pull in the jazz guys we knew and do some parties. It was a good idea, but it dissolved. This is around the time where I was getting a bit bored with dance stuff. I was getting more into live music and was not taking the DJ thing so seriously. I shifted into just collecting records and getting more into soundtracks, easy listening, library stuff.
FE: From the Woodbridge years something that really sticks out to me and always sort of reverberates, early aughts, It seems to me this was the list: Jay Dee, Moodymann, Theo Parrish. It seemed like when you would bring a new 12” home from any of those guys, the world would stop and we had to check the record. Is this list the same for you?
SZ: It was. You have to put it into context, in terms of what else was coming out at that time, how shitty the rest of music was. I mean, to be honest, I was not into garage rock, I could give a shit about that. Techno stuff was really getting generic and shitty especially around that time. Minimal took over and I was never a part of that…so, yeah, that music really stood out at that time. I would put Madlib on that list too. That’s what I was listening to at that time. To this day that stuff still stands up. The other stuff coming out at that time…you might have it but you probably are not listening to it…
FE: 2019. Is there an artist that when they have a new release you have that same feeling?
SZ: That’s hard to say. Some folks have moments, but most times these days I’m just pretty disappointed. It’s hard to put out a good record these days. I’m more into things like any edit record that Chuck (Hampton, Gay Marvine, Bath House Etiquette) does or any edit that Soundstream does, but I guess that stuff has more of a retro flavor. I guess that’s where I am at the moment.
FE: So tell me about the Fantasy edits.
SZ: Those are things that Brendan Gillen (Interdimensional Transmissions) and I just dug kind of selfishly. The first few were ones that we wanted to play as DJs. Then at some point we were like, let’s put out a 12” and see what happens. The response has been pretty good. I think we are due for another one pretty soon. It’s just a way I think about music, a representation of how I play music and how I think about music. There are a lot of different mindsets and many genres, but we thread the needle. You just gotta figure out the right time and place to play them.
FE: Beyond the edits, any plan to release any original music anytime soon?
SZ: That’s the plan. I got myself a shed out back here that I am working on soundproofing. That might happen sooner than later.
FE: On that note, having been spending more time out in Los Angeles, what is the wackest shit you’ve seen so far?
SZ: It’s endless (laughter.) I was walking up Sunset. I had gone to a chain salad place (I won’t name names). There are a lot of different chain salad places out here. I’m trying to be my L.A. best healthy self. Coming back I noticed a lot of dads hanging out with the chain wallet, the Ray Bans, with the Vans on, all black with their kids with the chain wallets, the Ray Bans, the Vans on, all black. Behind them was more of the same…It was like a casting call that went half of a mile around the block. I followed the line and it was for a Green Day concert. That stuff still exists out here, but there’s also really cool stuff.
FE: What’s the hottest shit out there right now?
SZ: Oh man, just hanging out with friends. Nicky Benedek comes to mind, a real shredder and a real ripper. He and Jamma-Dee have a nice night together with open minded music. Alex Ho and Damon Palermo are doing good parties. Andrew “Lovefingers” Hogge and Heidi Lawden are killing it as well as Zernell Gillie of Grimy fame. John Juan Mendez aka Silent Servant. It’s on and on.
FE: Has there been any DJ Harvey in Speedo sightings?
SZ: Ah, no sightings so far (laughter.) He is definitely a big inspiration to all of us…to a lot of us that have experienced the horrible stuff that can happen in this incestuous dance music scene. He is like a ray of light. I just hope to be doing my thing the same way he is. We are right behind him in age so let’s hope we make it into the future.
FE: Most criminally underrated artist?
SZ: Bill Converse…down there in Texas….Sam Consiglio…uhh….
FE: Most criminally overrated artist?
SZ: You’re pulling it out (laughter.) All these big room mfs. You can spot them by their corny ass DJ aliases. They just don’t get it. Here is a whole bizarro kaleidoscope of internet bullshit that just keeps regurgitating itself and spitting it back out and consuming it. You look at anybody playing a lot of big room stuff these days…they don’t even like it. It’s a billion dollar meat grinder now, so let’s get on board this EDM Titanic. It goes on and on man. It is just stupid. (laughter)
FE: We talk a lot about that vicious feedback loop these days that goes beyond any particular industry or medium. It seems like all of culture. Literally.
SZ: There is a need for content because you have this platform and they are just filling all these holes to monetize it. It’s that simple.
FE: On that note, advice for aspiring young DJs…
SZ: Don’t do it. (laughter)
FE: Your hobbies outside of DJing?
SZ: I’m a beach bum. I love cooking, eating and all the stuff that everyone else likes. Music is this part of me that I keep private more or less, except for the times that it is entirely opposite, when I am playing for people. Music takes up a lot of time, but not all my time. Keep it fresh and let your mind wander.
Time away from stuff is good. People don’t necessarily have the sensibility or luxury to unplug and be lazy. Sitting around and letting your mind rest can be seen as being lazy or whatever, but a lot of the best ideas come from that time spent doing jack shit. Maybe that would be my advice going back to your last question.
FE: Jumping back to the 2030 parties.
SZ: A lot of fun. The energy was great. Love for Sharif and everyone, all you guys. That was it. One of the things I would never want to revisit is the night two crack head jerks from downriver stole our sound system. They pulled a gun out and put it to my head when I demanded it back. I’m good on all that type of street shit, but, yeah, some very real memories there.
FE: Whatever happened to the Relaxer tag?
SZ: Ah, someone else has it these days. They took off with it. Obviously, that was a bit tongue in cheek. Sharif and I would bill ourselves as ‘Activator and Relaxer.’ Yeah, it has just gone dormant i guess.
FE: Billing these days as Scott Zacharias?
SZ: You can call me whatever you like, DJ Scotty Psoriasis, Scott Z, DJ Khaled, whatever. I don’t care. (laughter)
FE: What are some places you have yet to visit that you might like to see in the future?
SZ: Oh man, I go anywhere. It’s about the people and friends. But mainly getting the chance to see people that are not around here anymore.
FE: Well, as you continue to jam parties, your old pals here in Detroit hope you keep doing that very singular yet very universal thing you do.
SZ: Will do. Thanks for reaching out man, It has been a pleasure. I appreciate it, it means a lot.
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 current show “Live From Detroit: John Collins Presents The Soul of Detroit,” which streams 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.
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