Tajh Morris, the DJ also known as Turtle Bugg, documents an overlooked chapter of Detroit's musical history.
Many of the people who like to partake in electronic music are focused on the future. There is an inevitable disconnect between the new generation and the founders. This led me to formulate a question that has grown in importance the longer I've been involved in this world: "How can you know where you're going, if you don't know where you’ve been?"
Although I started this months ago, now more than ever the history must be available to whomever may be interested in this music. The African American community is being ravaged in the United States due to Covid-19 and no one knows what the state of things will look like once this is all over. My aim is to uncover and bring to the forefront the untold and overlooked stories that are imperative in telling the entire history of house and techno. Even though it is still debated, this is a story of jazz, a continuation in the progression of the blue note. By the time society deemed jazz as art, Storyville (the red light district of New Orleans where jazz came to fruition in the early 20th century), was long destroyed by the US government. Many of it's innovators were deceased, with their contributions only to be documented by those who were carrying on their legacy. It is unfathomable to think of how many facts have been lost due to the lack of urgency by the mainstream. We cannot let that happen again, right now while the stories and people are still here to pass on knowledge and experience.
Dedicated to Mike Huckaby and all the black people who will once again bear the brunt of America's misguided deeds. Gone but never forgotten.
Not long ago there were two major music industry events in the US that showcased what was ready to spring from the underground. The Winter Music Conference (WMC), in Miami, and the New Music Seminar (NMS), in NYC, were annual events that gave a glimpse into what was happening in the post-disco American scene. These events had showcases that could make relative unknowns the next hot thing. Songs were premiered at satellite parties throughout the respective cities, musicians and music lovers would make pilgrimages to take part in whatever capacity they could. The NMS was integral in the development of hip-hop from the '80s through the '90s, while WMC was the epicenter of upcoming trends and ground zero for breaking songs in electronic music.
Although it is not well known outside of the city, Detroit had its own version of these events. It was known as the Detroit Regional Music Conference, or DRMC, and it ran for five editions in the early to mid 1990s. The DRMC was the brainchild of John 'Jammin' Collins and Stacey 'Hotwaxx' Hale. Stacey and John have been deeply involved in the proliferation of dance music culture in Detroit since its inception. Both were DJs before techno was a thing, existing at the forefront of the late '70s and early '80s "progressive" scene. Progressive was the term Detroiters gave to the style, music and culture that birthed techno and house.
Stacey started her career at an underground joint called Club Hollywood while John began at the long runnning Lafayette Orleans Club, which catered to a more mainstream but hip Detroit crowd. Neither can remember how they first met, but both agree it must have happened when they became members of Duncan Sound in the early '80s. Duncan Sound was a collective run by Ed Duncan that assembled soundsystems, provided DJs and promoted events for businesses and private parties. Most clubs or event halls did not have any kind of permanent audio system designed for the emerging clubbing scene, so entrepreneurs like Duncan were an essential part of the party economy.
By the '90s, these two DJs were well established and highly respected in Detroit's music community. They were staples in straight and gay clubs alike, sharing residencies at spots like Cheeks & the Warehouse, which came with a live radio broadcast on WJLB.
"We've had a lot of influence in the city of Detroit in terms of the club scene," John said. "Not necessarily just for black or white [straight/techno] people but for gay culture [as well]."
Front From Left: Stacey Hale, Joi Santiago Clark, Martha Washington, Leppel Payne
Back: Derwin Hall, John Collins
Over the previous decade the two had become great friends, eventually living in the same building, the Lafayette Lofts. With countless parties played, records broken in the local scene (Stacey recalls playing "Gypsy Woman" and pumping dance floors with the track before it hit the airwaves), and club residencies under their belts, they were at the top of their game. Techno was in full swing at this point, with the earliest artists just getting international acclaim. The Belleville 3 were crossing the Atlantic to play in Europe, Jeff Mills was starting his meteoric rise with a residency at the Limelight in NYC and a certain group called Underground Resistance were pushing forward a new strain of techno that would soon change the landscape. Many artists such as these and others would come to both DJs with their works in progress to see what would work on the dance floor.
John and Stacey achieved national recognition as Billboard music reporters. Since the birth of disco, being a Billboard reporter had been a mark of being an established working DJ in your region. Both were reporters for the Detroit metro area, along with the legendary Ken Collier and others. However, Stacey and John were some of the only African American reporters from Detroit going to music industry events such as WMC and NMS. It was on a flight back from New York that a light went off in John's head.
"I knew that we had a lot of talent in Detroit," he said, "and I thought that Detroit could benefit from a conference like this." As soon as he was home he ran his ideas by Stacey, who shared his viewpoint from their shared experiences.
John thought it would be good to include Eastside Detroit DJ and promoter Tyrone Bradley as well. Bradley ran United Record Pool, one of the major record pools in Detroit at the time. Long before digital files and the internet, most career DJs in major American cities belonged to a record pool. These pools gave its members access to the latest records before the general public could purchase them from the stores. Bradley and his associates catered to a much more heterosexual audience that preferred traditional R&B. With the core team assembled, others who were major players at the time, or would go on to become in the years to follow, came aboard to make the event happen.
DRMC's first edition happened at the Hotel Pontchartrain, now the Crowne Plaza Detroit, before moving to the Atheneum Suite Hotel for two years, followed by the River Place Hotel for the fourth and fifth editions. Activities were abundant and broad in scope at the DRMC, with an inevitable slant towards DJs and club culture. Besides the panels, workshops, awards and other industry activities, there were nightclub and artist-driven events as well. There were divisions for the overarching genres of music that were represented at the conference. They fluctuated through the years but always maintained some forms of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, dance (house and techno) and alternative (rock, new wave, industrial, etc.). Each division had at least one nighttime event. There were DJ battles and special live performances from artists such as Inner City, Crystal Waters and Martha Wash.
Many of the major players in electronic music in Detroit from this period were involved in some capacity in at least one of the conferences. Panel discussions had speakers such as Moodymann, Carl Craig, Scott Grooves, K-Hand and Eddie Fowlkes. Ken Collier was head of the dance division in the early years. The conference’s advisory board included at different points Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Mike Huckaby and John Acquaviva, to name a few. There were also large contingents of Chicago house artists throughout the years, such as Lil Louis, Steve Hurley and Green Velvet. From the beginning the conference attracted an international audience, with attendees coming from Japan, the UK and Canada.
These demographics are interesting, because these are the places with the most investment in dance music culture at the time. This focus on dance music would ultimately be one of the things that ended the event. Stacey has always been one to push house and techno. She proclaims that she has always been progressive, never fully giving into crowd-pleasing. "I was just real hard on showing off Detroit [dance music]," she said. "I guess I still am kind of…"
There was even a monthly newsletter created to keep up hype throughout the year. Zine culture was another strong part of the '90s dance culture, so they created the Movement newsletter, which became the publication arm of the DRMC. This not only kept people up to date on any DRMC related happenings but also generated ad revenue to fund the operation. Skimming through the magazine, there are music reviews from a young Brendan Gillen (BMG of Ectomorph, years before the first Interdimensional Transmissions record or No Way Back party). There are ads from many of the top electronic labels of the day, including KMS, Metroplex and Underground Resistance.
Both Stacey and John mention that the goal was to grow to a size large enough to host at Hart Plaza, now the site of Movement, the Paxahau-produced event formerly known as Detroit Electronic Music Festival, or DEMF. Movement is one of the largest electronic music events in the United States, growing in popularity on the world stage every year since its inception. It is safe to say that a good portion of the native Detroiters involved in DEMF and subsequent events had to have attended and been influenced by DRMC. If the directors of DRMC had maintained their momentum, this would have preceded the first DEMF by several years.
John tells me that alternative/grunge band Verve Pipe secured a record deal after their performance at a DRMC showcase. Cornelius Harris met "Mad" Mike Banks at one of the events, ultimately becoming a major force in Underground Resistance on both an artistic and business level. Esther Gordy Edwards, sister of Berry Gordy and former vice president and CEO of Motown, was a keynote speaker at the DRMC Music Awards Banquet. This was a high point of recognition that also came as a surprise to DRMC, which did not expect to even be on the radar of someone of that calibre.
DRMC had a strong sense of community in the first few years. At some point the Detroit Music Awards reached out with an interest in collaborating. They declined at the time, but John expresses a tinge of regret at not pursuing that inquiry further. The DMAs were for a long time very white, rock and pop-oriented with little input from the significant African American progressive influence on the city. In recent years it has become more open, even adding an electronic section, but John thinks that things would have diversified quicker if they had gotten involved.
Neither John nor Stacey can give a definitive answer as to why they did not try to continue after the fifth year. There does not seem to be a single moment that ended the DRMC. John recalls overall attendance taking a dive after the height of year three. At some point Tyrone Bradley left the project, which had an impact on support from the more mainstream demographic.
Some of the staff and volunteer feedback forms have people questioning whether it was a "gay event" or not. Actually, a majority of the negative comments I came across are aimed at the level of queerness on display. In my interviews with them, John and Stacey each seperately mentioned how homophobic tendencies crept in. Stacey went on a tangent about how some people who today play disco and house were calling it "gay music" back then. Both alluded to some people involved in the organization being uncomfortable with the proximity to LBTGQ culture that inevitably comes when the lead organizers of the event are from that culture.
Financial responsibilities also proved to be a major hurdle. Any money made was put right back into making it happen the following year. There were never any profits that the top took away—Stacey laughed at how some people thought they were appropriating money for themselves. From the looks of the staff list over the years, more personnel were not added at a necessary rate to keep the organization running smoothly. It is pretty astounding to think that such a grand undertaking could be pulled off for as long as it did on a shoestring budget and the good name of the founders. This was compounded with the fact that John had taken a step back from the project in the final two years.
Personal matters such as the passing of his partner, Tyrone Davis, took a toll on the productive side of John's life. Davis is mentioned in the same obituary as Ken Collier in the back of the pamphlet for DRMC '96. John also felt some dissatisfaction on the trajectory of the event as a whole, effectively checking out of the process. Even though John was less involved for years four and five, he was not taken off any official documentation as a director. No one could fill the void that John's absence left. This meant that Stacey was trying to balance the entirety of the organization while keeping up with her own DJ career. She was ultimately the one who decided to end things, stating, "Some things I can't keep pushing on my own because it may be too much."
The DRMC was ahead of its time in many ways. '90s Detroit was not a desirable travel location to the mainstream population. Couple this with America's difficult relationship with dance music. It seems that some of the staff and volunteers felt that dance music was given too much prominence at the event. The cost of such an event in a city on a steady decline meant the average citizen was not interested. People were leaving the city in droves, the crack cocaine epidemic was ravaging inner cities across the US and Detroit was one of the hardest hit. Although Stacey and John were never short on work, in some ways they were in a progressive bubble. To them it was normal to showcase the black gay and lesbian underground that shaped their sound. Today such things are championed openly. It is a shame that it could not pull through.
This story, although brief, is important. It speaks to the heart of the city, to the soul of the people who have given techno and so much more to American culture. No complaints, no feeling sorry for one's self, just doing the work and getting stuff done. Making things happen when others will not. The story of the DRMC is proof that there was always something going on in Detroit. It was never a cultural wasteland even in the darkest times, and the people that stayed were always trying to better the community. If nothing else, this is a glimpse into what America could have if it cared more for art, cared more about culture than war. In that America, maybe DRMC would still be running today.