One of Detroit's local legends shares his story with Ash Lauryn.
Al got hip to the music scene via his older brother, who would come home at night and tell him about parties, DJ Ken Collier and the music he played. Collier was a pivotal figure in Detroit DJ culture. Between the influences of Collier and local radio, Al started mixing two records in his head. When he reached his teenage years, he was DJing school dances, where playing music with two record players was a completely new concept.
By the time Al was 19, a chance opportunity had made him a resident DJ at Cheeks. As he tells it, Cheeks reigned supreme over the other clubs and hosted a clientele of Detroit's most famous movers and shakers. This is where Al built his name as one of Detroit's best DJs. Since that time, he's played countless shows in the city, including multiple appearances at Movement Festival, and even spent some time on Detroit's WJZZ radio, which he says opened many doors for him and allowed him to play different kinds of music. While his career may not have reached international acclaim like some of his peers, he undoubtedly plays an essential role in the story of Detroit's dance music evolution. After all, Cheeks is known for being one of the first places to play Detroit techno.
"His energetic style and vast knowledge of disco classics made him a crowd favorite," says Delano Smith, who notes that Ester is important because he came up in Detroit before the house and techno era. Of his residency at Cheeks, Smith says Ester "filled the slot very well and made his night there legendary."
On a muggy July afternoon in Detroit, I met with Al at an acquaintance's stunning Victorian home on Woodbridge's Commonwealth Street. We sipped champagne at the living room table, and he began to tell me about a musical journey that started when he was just a kid in middle school.
What are some of the challenges you've faced as a DJ? Have you had to make any personal sacrifices for your career?
My biggest challenge right now is I don't... How can I put this? I don't care about producing music. People are like, "Al, you need to make records. With your musical knowledge, you could make..." But I'm not a real technical person, studio-wise. I've sat in sessions and watched Derrick [May] create records. I've watched Kevin [Saunderson] and Juan create music. I've watched Eddie Fowlkes create, and I'm like, "That's a process. That's a lot." And it's not that I wasn't interested in learning, but I just ...When I hear it in my head, I want it that way right now. So I don't have the patience to produce.
So that can be kind of a downfall. Frankie Knuckles, rest his soul, the last conversation I had with him before he passed away, he said, "Al, you are a good DJ, but it's no longer enough these days to have a nice little two or three-hour set." He said, "You've got to remain relevant, and on top of the game, you might want to look into producing." And I'm like, "Frankie, I just don't have the patience for it. My heart's not in it." Too many records from Detroit artists in the dollar bin, you know? But then again, Norm Talley told me, "Look, Frank Sinatra got records in the dollar bin, so it's better to do it and say you've at least tried." And I have tried it. There are a couple of projects with my name.
I like the Jon Dixon "Fly Free" edit you did.
Thank you. But I'm more so like, "OK, Jon. Let's drop the drums here, let's..." etc. Jon does the hands-on. He's the arranger, and I kind of feel like, because I'm not doing the technical or hands-on, that it's not my piece. And they're like, "Al, that's not how it works. If it comes from your mind, then it's your arrangement." I know people to this day, and I'm not going to name names, but people who will let someone do all the work and then slap their name on it and ride the wave like they produced it.
Do you think it's easier to gain popularity and tour internationally without putting any tracks out in the current era?
It's already been done. You had to have real talent back then, and it was more underground. There wasn't an influx of DJs back then the way you have now. Any kid with a PlayStation can be a DJ these days. You have these laptop DJs that are doing it not because they love the music, but because it's a part of mainstream pop culture. These same DJs are getting more gigs, five, six, $7000 a night, and here I am, poured my heart and soul into this, and got to sit around and wait for $300 at the end of the night. DJs today are a dime a dozen. Back then, they weren't, especially if you wanted to have a name. It's just different now.
The culture has changed.
The culture has definitely changed.
Do you consider yourself an unsung DJ?
Definitely, but it's not anyone's fault but my own. It's probably because of what Frankie told me, and Derrick told me, "Al, you don't need me to go overseas. You don't need me to blow up. Just make a record." But I don't, I just ... That's not me. Not to get back to that point, but that's probably why I'm not as far along as I am.
The music I would want to make, there's not a big market for anymore. Soulful house records, if they don't come from Louie Vega, Karizma, Terry Hunter, Glenn Underground or artists like that, people don't really care about them. It seems like it's easier to make techno, it's kind of mindless.
Did you ever get the opportunity to tour internationally?
I did, with Carl Craig. Carl Craig has taken me to the other side of the globe on more than one occasion. So yeah, I got to see what it's like to play in Switzerland and Amsterdam.
How was that compared to playing in the US?
I loved it except I couldn't be me. I had to be them. If I went and were me, I would've kind of got lost in what they were doing. Everyone was playing harder, and then for me to go up there with soulful vocals and stuff, it wouldn't have translated well.
So you felt like you kind of had to play for them?
Yeah, I did. But I had a good time, and I learned my lesson with that after returning from Europe.
Tell us about the Sonic Natives collective you're a part of and how it came about.
That was the brainchild of Earl McKinney; he got the idea one night at a party that Angie Slate threw. There was a guy called Chris Habbibian. Chris lived in Detroit at the time, and we thought the guy was phenomenal after hearing him play. It was just so soulful. Earl was like, "You know, Al, this is the start of something right here. You, me, and him." That's what Sonic Natives started as. We've been together for about five, six years. When I asked Earl how he arrived at the name Sonic Natives, he said, "well, Sonic, meaning sound and hearing, and Natives because we're all Detroit." It made perfect sense. So, that's how it came about. It was us three, then Chris moved away. He's still a member. Then I eventually took a short residency at Baker's Keyboard Lounge. Do you know where that is?
Yes, I'm familiar. I didn't know they had DJs there.
They did for a brief time. They wanted me to play jazzy house because Baker's Keyboard Lounge is a jazz place. The concept was great. But the manager was a jerk, he said, "I don't like it when you come in here and play booty music." I said, "Sir, do you even know what booty music is?" I'm playing jazzy house—Mr. Fingers, Tortured Soul, the nice early Inner City stuff, and we just clashed.
Anyway, on one of those Friday nights, DJ Magic came in to check me out. He and I got to talking, and I was thinking he'd be a perfect fit for the group. I took it to Earl. It turns out that he and Earl knew each other from the radio. Between the conversation we had, his talent, and his excellent production skills, I knew he'd be a fit. So he came in next. There's a few of us now—New York, Chicago, Detroit.
What would you say is the collective's overall sound?
Just soulful. Soulful sonic, but we can run the gamut.
I read that you worked in radio back in the day. How did working in radio influence your DJ style?
Working in radio opened a lot of doors for me as far as playing other styles of music. I made some very good friends in radio who all happened to be A&R people and representatives of major labels, Atlantic Records, Mercury Records, RCA, Columbia. I got to know all these people. So it got to the point where music was coming to my house via UPS. That was the biggest feather in my cap for radio, and I got the hands-on experience of radio production and seeing how radio works. Once WJZZ changed their format, I did a show every Friday and Saturday from midnight to like four in the morning, and they would say, "Al, just play what you want to play, as long as there's no cursing." So yeah, radio was a pivotal point in my DJing career, it enhanced things.
Any tips or words of advice to DJs just getting started?
Do it because you have a genuine love for the music and not because it's cool or fashionable right now. The real ones always know when you're faking the funk. They always know.