There is no way to overstate the contrast between Servito and the world just beyond the booth—"loose" certainly doesn't capture Panorama Bar at that time. For hours, Ron Trent had been pumping lush house riffs into the room, whose thickening air was already soupy with cigarette smoke and smoke machine blasts. The crowd, covered in everyone else's sweat and spilled drinks, probably didn't think it was tired, but its focus was undeniably flagging.
One strategy might have been to add fuel to the fire—rave cuts, singalongs, massive genre-flips—or go farther into mind-bending afterhours territory. Servito, though, plays the late shift a bit differently. At Panorama Bar, he came out of Trent's set with "The Wanderer," but by the next transition he was ripping the classic house template to bits. What came out of the system was hard-edged in a way that felt distinctly American, but with a ruthless funkiness aimed at bringing Sunday night warriors back to life whether they liked it or not. Servito's whole person was consumed in the task of digging through the bins, reading the room and slamming in tracks. Standing off to the side of the floor, I caught his eye at one point and gave a wave; he returned with a little salute in my general direction, not much more than a pause as his arm moved from one deck to another. He was working, and so were we.
Servito doesn't produce, and out of habit he only plays vinyl. His story overlaps with artists like Matthew Dear and Richie Hawtin, but he's relatively unknown beyond the tight network of US parties—Honey Soundsystem in San Francisco and Hugo Ball in Chicago, to name two—where he's become a kind of luminary. His home base since 2012 is The Bunker, the prestigious Brooklyn techno night where he holds a residency and is known for his closing sets. Every DJ I spoke to about Mike Servito told me they don't know anyone who plays quite like him.
"A fat slap in your jackin' face!" said Magda, a friend of Servito's since the mid-'90s who describes herself as "most definitely his number-one fan."
"When he's mixing, he isn't asking you to dance," said Brendan Gillen, the Ectomorph member, Interdimensional Transmissions cofounder and Detroit lifer best known as BMG. "He is giving you a massive bitch slap."
Derek Plaslaiko, another old friend from Detroit and fellow resident at The Bunker, called him a "'hit-and-run' DJ: he comes out swinging and usually doesn't even come close to letting up until he's done. And when it's over, you're usually left wondering, 'What the fuck just happened?'"
You can't crack how Servito plays without understanding the rich musical environment he grew up in. "He is a pure product of the Detroit scene, its cultural wealth and its diversity," said Gillen. "His inspirations are largely '90s Midwestern DJs that were already responding to some of the greatest DJs in history, and trying to one-up them—like Derrick Carter trying to take it further than Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles combined, or D-Wynn or Claude Young trying to outdo Derrick May or Jeff Mills."
When Servito was a teenager in Detroit in the late '80s, these DJs weren't obscurities or cult acts but relatively mainstream parts of the city's cultural fabric. "You would turn on the TV," he said, explaining the New Dance Show, "and you see these guys and girls going off and just dancing their ass off basically, and you were like, 'Oh my god, that's DBX. They're playing techno on Detroit TV." By '88 or '89, he was buying dance records for the reasons kids elsewhere bought pop music: he'd heard them on the radio. "Mojo would play the B52s, and then he would play Kraftwerk, and then he would play Prince," Servito remembered. "All this exposure to all these different sounds—you know, it's exciting to a kid that doesn't really know. Most kids who grow up listening to Michael Jackson listen to all of that. But I feel like I heard 'Planet Rock' before I heard Michael Jackson.
"I remember hearing [Channel One's] 'Technicolor' really young," he continued. "I remember kids breakdancing to this stuff at birthday parties. All that music just kind of snuck into my brain early on. And I was fascinated by it."
Servito started going out to parties and clubs almost as soon as he could get in. He remembers Detroit's scene being diverse in sound and crowd. At places like Industry in downtown Pontiac and Saint Andrews Hall in Detroit (which he described as "crappy Numark mixer, two turntables and Mike Huckaby"), the crowd would be a mix of kids who grew up downtown and kids from the suburbs. "I was kind of a wallflower, and I would go to the dance floor maybe after an hour and a half or two. I didn't really meet a lot of people for like a good year."
Huckaby was a buyer at Record Time, so Servito would go into the store and buy records he'd trainspotted in Huckaby's sets right from the man himself. He'd also pick apart the mixtapes he'd buy at parties, teasing out the techniques of DJs like Claude Young, Mark Farina and especially Derrick Carter, from whom he'd learn the art of blurring genres through epic transitions. "I mean, I learned to mix listening to all these," he said. "No one ever showed any of us how to play."
Servito got his first bookings from Dat Duong, a good friend who was involved in a party called Poorboy, one of a constellation of Detroit events that would take over parts of the city's epic postindustrial spaces. He wasn't sure if he liked the attention. "I mean, I liked playing the music," he said, "and I liked sharing these tracks that people danced to, but I always—even today, being this kind of focal point that people pay attention to really trips me out a little bit." Speaking to those who saw him back then, I got the sense the attention was well deserved. "I didn't really know him 'til I saw him rock so many Poorboy parties at the Packard," Gillen said. "He was usually better than the out-of-town DJs."
There were others who, like Servito, grew up around the same time, internalized Detroit and contributed to a uniquely powerful style of party DJing—"a very special yet temporary and partially lost fertile crescent of techno / house / party DJing," as Gillen put it in a bio he wrote for Servito some years back. Plaslaiko, Carlos Souffront and Patrick Russell are the names, along with Servito's, best associated with the style; Servito remains in awe of all three. "We weren't, like, a crew or anything," he said, "but we all shared a deep, deep passion for tracks and for records. We were obsessed."
As they were coming up, the rave scene was thriving around the Midwest. (Michaelangelo Matos's oral history of Daft Punk's appearance at a Drop Bass Network rave is required reading on this era.) But by the late '90s it was starting to morph into something Servito wasn't all that interested in. "I don't want to be a snob about it, but these people were awful"—the crowd was younger and flush with drugs, and the music wasn't sounding so good anymore. After 1999, he stopped DJing and buying dance records, and he probably thought he'd moved on entirely.
Then his biggest fan stepped in. Magda had been working for Richie Hawtin in Windsor, making edits and digitizing his vinyl collection, so she'd been immersed with techno during Servito's few years in the woods. Sometime in 2001, she had him by her studio to play records. When I asked Magda whether she remembered the session, she said: "Oh, when we drank a bottle of vodka, made ghetto tomato soup and recorded a mixtape?" Servito said they'd always had the same ear for music, and the stuff they played together got him inspired for the first time in ages. "Everything sounded different," he said. "Basement Jaxx is like the cut off of it—like, 'I'm done, I don't wanna listen to this music anymore.' Forward to 2001, when I started buying records again, it's like Perlon and all these minimal records and Kompakt, and it's starting all over again."
Before long, Servito was back in it. In Detroit, he'd open bigger gigs set up by Paxahau. Scene fixture Jon Ozias and Ghostly International founder Sam Valenti IV made Servito a resident at their weekly Untitled party at The Shelter, along with Plaslaiko, Matthew Dear and Tadd Mullinix. Magda, who like much of the Minus crew had decamped to New York, would bring him to the city to play her Gel & Weave residency at Openair, a little bar in the East Village, and on one occasion a big downtown rave with Hawtin and Sven Väth. Servito deeply impressed Openair booker Bryan Kasenic, who'd go on to start The Bunker as a weekly at SubTonic not long after. "Servito, of course, crushed it," Kasenic said, "as always."
Things were good in Detroit, but not perfect. Out of Untitled came Dorkwave, another weekly party, where punk, new wave and electro formed an unholy combination with a pinch of house and techno. "It was Untitled's bad brother, basically," Servito said. "I feel like that's when there was kind of a shift in the Detroit crowd. People had started to move to other cities, and there was also a younger crowd bubbling up underneath and starting to go out and experiencing this night life." Dorkwave was free, and from the sound of it, the party could get pretty twisted, with debauchery overshadowing the music. Servito said he has no regrets about getting involved, but I could sense his ambivalence about presenting music that way. "It was youth-driven, and it was kind of careless and wreckless, and that's what Dorkwave was. Every city had one"—a 2000s hipster dance party—"and that's what Dorkwave was."
In 2007, Servito wound up in Astoria, Queens, with most of his records back in a basement in Detroit and no clear DJ work on the horizon. His Ghostly affiliation, though, landed him a gig at the Natural History Museum opening for Simian Mobile Disco in 2008, and Magda asked him to tour Europe with her soon after. He also became a regular guest at The Bunker and Kiss & Tell, the party run by Kasenic's wife Seze Devres. Right after he got back from some Minus dates in Europe, he flew to Detroit to play No Way Back, an annual Movement afterparty hosted by The Bunker and Interdimensional Transmissions. "I was really burned out of all my records," he said, meaning the limited supply he'd had to pull from in New York. "I still had all my records at my parents' house in Detroit—like all of them. So I'm digging and digging for a new bag, all these records that I hadn't seen or played in years. I wasn't sure how it was going to go, because I hadn't touched any of them in forever. So I played No Way Back, and it kind of became this thing—I kind of came back to this jack-zone of, like, Chicago, like really tracky, jack-oriented acid house. That's kind of how I played that night, and since then it feels like it's just kind of stuck. I can't get out of it."
If he never did, it might not be a bad thing—it's a sound that brings together every stage of Servito's musical life, from Wizard tracks through to the minimal aesthetic that brought him back from the edge. How he's played since has been an extension of it, and it's only grown fiercer since the gig. "Since Plaslaiko and [third Bunker resident Eric] Cloutier left us for Berlin, Mike has basically been playing at every edition of The Bunker," Kasenic said. "I think just being in front of crowds playing all the time like that really keeps any DJ on their toes, and all that practice has just made him an even better DJ." He's also voracious about new music. "I don't look at reviews," Servito said. "I really just kind of dive in and listen." (Kasenic put it another way: "I swear he spends most of his DJ fees buying more records from Clone.")
Moreover, as he jets to Pittsburgh or Miami, he seems to be embracing life as a DJ in a way he hasn't before. For the crew who'd been seeing Servito for years, it's beyond encouraging. "Many of us have seen him as a force to be reckoned with for years," Plaslaiko said, "and there were times when it seemed pretty obvious that he didn't really want to DJ all that much, and we all felt that was a shame. I think his views on the subject are a little different now, though."
On the afternoon I spent at his apartment, records from new labels like L.I.E.S. were spilling off his shelves. The records in his bags, though—the ones he's sure to take just about everywhere—tended to be of an earlier vintage, their black sleeves creased and the wax itself scuffed. Servito certainly has classics—Baby Ford, Dan Bell and Basic Channel each came up frequently as he pulled records that afternoon—but he also spends ages in this room revisiting tracks as he sorts himself out for a gig. If it's a big opening or closing slot at The Bunker, he'll research the headliners, digging into the sinews of their mixes like he would with Derrick Carter mixtapes back in the day. "It takes all day, sometimes all week," he said, more with pride than resignation.
"I'd love to get the rest of it here someday," he said, surveying his records. It's a daunting collection as it is, but there's still hordes at his parents'. "But it depends on if I stay here or not."
He meant staying in his current apartment, but the way I heard it, I thought he was already thinking of his next steps. When we chatted earlier, I'd gotten the sense Servito had a pretty good thing going—he was sharing a bill with Legowelt and Moritz Von Oswald at Output the very next night. I asked him if he was really contemplating his next big move. "No," he clarified. "I think I'll be in New York for a minute."