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Detroit’s Early Dance Music Days

by Movement Correspondent Reisa Shanaman

When Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale and Bruce Bailey got their start on the Detroit DJ circuit the term “electronic music” had yet to even be introduced. In fact, the phrase didn’t come about until the following decade. “We’re talking about the ’80s here,” Hale reminds me. “I think it was called electronic music [starting in] the ’90s . . . Not until well after they invented the MIDI standard did the concept of electronic music start to be relevant,” she informs. Up until that point it was all pretty much lumped under the general and ungenrefied umbrella of dance music.

Raised on the city’s West side—near Grand River and Livernois—Hale grew up with her older brother’s reel to reel and records in the house. “But I couldn’t touch it!” she laughs. Through his musical influence she found her way to local club Chessmate, where she caught legendary jocks Ken Collier, Morris Mitchell and Duane Bradley behind the decks. Her curiosity piqued at the mixing techniques she heard, Hale made her way to the booth. “I was like ‘How did they do that?’ All I did was go take a look and see what they had. I didn’t say anything to any of them, I just looked. And I went ‘Oh, ok.’” Intensely inspired by the experience, she immediately purchased belt-driven Technics turntables and a mixer.

By this time, however, Hale had already been making mixes at home—she just didn’t know it. “I would do it by recording music on reel to reel and then I would record it. I would never want any silence so I would just make the next song come on,” she explains. “I had no idea that I was ahead of my time in thought, but I knew I didn’t want no talking and I knew I didn’t want the music to stop,” she goes on. They were largely made up of funk and disco sounds like Ohio Players and Earth, Wind & Fire. “I remember playing Prince and different stuff—Quartz’s ‘Beyond the Clouds’—and I would just practice, practice, practice to myself and then listen back and go ‘Oh god, really?’ she recalls, rocking a Prince t-shirt as we talk.

After she had a couple mixes together, she moseyed down the street to Casbah Bar, where she offered to give the DJ on duty a smoke break. “I remember that first time I mixed. They all turned around and looked and, you know, it was well received, but it was all still very new to everybody.” She was approximately 18 at the time. Her uncle first owned a club called The Circus where he paid her to spin, followed by the after hours destination Club Hollywood. She became the resident DJ there, spinning every Saturday night for hundreds of people. “The word had [gotten] out around the city . . . and I’m still terrified, really, because I’m kind of new at this. People would come and see me–all kind of folks, basketball players and stuff—I would lock myself in the booth ’cause I was scared to talk to them!”

She became incredibly influential in her own right, holding down radio shows on WLBS and later WJLB. “I actually [entered] a contest in ’85 competing against 600 DJs and took first place…that was for WJLB and so hence they put me on the radio six months or so after that,” she recounts. She had a short stint as the DJ on CBS’ The New Dance Show—including an episode with Bobby Brown—and fed records to The Electrifying Mojo for his now-immortalized nightly takeover of the Motor City’s airwaves. “I would give Mojo music. I would do remixes and give them to Mojo and he would play them,” she tells me matter-of-factly. A Billboard reporter at one time, she remembers being handed the white label pressing of Kevin Saunderson’s breakthrough Inner City tune “Big Fun.”

In order to slowly ease audiences into sounds they might not otherwise have been open to yet—like Lil Louis’ “Lonely People” before it became a hit—Hale conceived what she calls the “Sneak Mix.” A true tastemaker, she would spin these tracks in such a way that they were still unrecognizable to the crowd, ostensibly tricking them into continuing to dance by layering them under songs they were more familiar with. “I would do that all the time with Detroit records,” she admits.

 

One venue she likely utilized this cunning method with was Cheeks. Another major club in Motown’s initial dance music days, Hale held court as a resident there alongside John Collins, and regulars Jeff Mills and Al Ester. On the promotion side of the prominent nightspot sat Bruce Bailey. Having grown up in Midtown and attended Cass Tech High School, he was a student at Western Michigan University at the time. Bailey had recently invested in his first set of turntables—also belt-driven Technics—and referred to himself as a “double threat” since he was both a promoter and a DJ. “I started collecting [records] in high school. That’s when the DJs really fascinated me and made me want to collect and perform. There were social clubs [like GQ and Charivari] . . . Those parties got you girls back in the day, so everybody wanted to be cool and down with those type of groups,” he shares. New Order and Alisha’s “All Night Passion” 12-inch were a couple of the first pieces of wax he ever picked up.

Western’s proximity to the Windy City—and the sounds pumping out of it—left a lasting impression on the budding jock. “Western is kind of halfway in between Detroit and Chicago,” Bailey points out. “My buddy Booker bought this antenna. With [it] we could get WBMX and WGCI in our dorm room. That’s where they [Chicago] dropped all their hits when we were in school—Farley [‘Jackmaster’ Funk] and the Hot Mix 5 and all of them.”

He began producing and selling over 300 cassette mixtapes a month, building up a fanbase and a committed clientele. “People would be listening to me every day in their car,” he states. He was called back home to promote at Cheeks for the summer while still in college; he describes the club, which included a pool, as having a very upscale feel. Both Inner City hits “Big Fun” and “Good Life” were debuted there. “Al [Ester] got the copies somehow. I think Stacey played them, too, that night. They both probably played them that night. It was brand new. It was just electrifying. There are some tunes you can play the first time and people just vibe to,” he details.

After Cheeks shuttered, Bailey opened Club 246 and enjoyed a seven-year run there as Resident DJ, from ’91 to ’98. “Everyone played for me there,” he says with a smile. “Delano Smith came out of retirement there. I started out DJ Minx at 246. I believe Al [Ester] and Norm [Talley] played for me a couple of times. Moodymann, he was playing for me, and Terrence Parker. They dropped some of their biggest hits there.” He fondly recounts personally giving Moodymann’s “I’m the Baddest Bitch” and Terrence Parker’s “Love’s Got Me High” their first spins ever on those decks. “When I dropped those, immediately it was just mayhem,” Bailey conjures.

Club 246 was far less posh than its predecessor. “You didn’t know if the needles were going to be working that week, you didn’t know if the men’s restroom was going to overflow,” he rehashes. Despite that, Detroiters flocked to its dance floor. “[It] was in this giant abandoned hotel. [It was] the last thing left standing in there. I remember one night there was a fire upstairs in one of the abandoned [rooms]. The water came down on a Monday and we just got it back together for the Thursday night. You could still smell the smoke in there. But it was just the aura of the building. People didn’t care. They still came and danced their ass off.”

With Techno on the rise at this time, Detroit’s dance music scene began to break apart like Pangea as the concept of “electronic music” and its many classifications infiltrated the landscape. “There was a soulful house scene, but then there was this underground scene that started with raves and places like the Bankle Building,” Bailey acknowledges.

When Club 246 closed, the full-time DJ relocated yet again, this time to Lola’s, where he loyally remained for another six years, from 2002-’08. “Lola’s was actually built on the music from the early ’80s. There was no techno being played there. It was very rare ’90s stuff or early 2000s stuff. It was like going to a party in ’79-’85,” he describes.

Serendipitously, the same year that Lola’s shut down TV Lounge opened, welcoming Bailey as their Friday night regular. A venue that has undeniably helped usher in a new era and bring Detroit’s dance music scene full circle, it has been instrumental in reuniting the disparate factions under one literal and metaphorical mirror ball. “It’s just a happy environment down there. They’ve merged the soulful and the techno and made it one scene,” he gushes. As Hale would proclaim, “I don’t pick that record up and call it [‘house’ or] ‘techno.’ It’s dance music . . . What’s good is good!”