Alton Miller is a pioneer of Detroit house music. After many trips in Chicago with Derrick May, he founded the legendary Music Institute with Chez Damier and George Baker in 1988 in Detroit. We had a chance to meet the artist to talk about this almost surreal period, the Philly sound that he was raised on, his life in Paris and South Africa and his musical news among other things.
See the French version here.
Growing up in the 70’s, you witnessed the emergence and the development of progressive dance music, how was it? Specifically here in Detroit.
In the 80’s here in Detroit you’re right, that was the beginning of progressive dance music, I was young, less grey hair (laughs), more memory. It was a beautiful and incredible time, I was listening to dance music in its very, very early stages (from the mid 70’s to the late 70’s). I would label it as the post-disco area. In 1980 I experienced my first club, underground club, and that was the L’Uomo in Detroit on East 7 Miles, right off the freeway. It was an amazing time, lots of music. It was pretty interesting to be able to see the change and the progression. Major artists who at a certain point had dibbled and dabbled into disco, they evolved and either kept with the change, adapted, and moved into that area or they did other things. There was a lot of stuff coming from Europe as well. During the late 70’s until the mid 80’s, I would have to say that was the most productive time for dance music.
You were also very influenced by Chicago house legends such as Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy etc – what would you say is the main difference between Chicago House and Detroit House music? Have you ever had the pleasure to hear Frankie play?
I think the main difference between Chicago House, Detroit House and even New York House is that here in Detroit, we never had a true underground culture, there was no late night club to go to, there were no clubs you could go to at 4 in the morning and leave at 2 in the afternoon. Gay people and straight people didn’t mix also. You know house music comes from black and hispanic gay culture and there was never that in Detroit, never ever. I don’t even think we came close. The only thing that came close again was probably L’Uomo with Ken Collier and I’m sure there were things going on in Detroit in the gay community in the 70’s that we just didn’t know about. Unlike Chicago, where I was going to hear Frankie [Knuckles] in a lot of parties of his heyday, and everybody was there. Gang members were there, Black, White, Hetero, Gay etc and that was the big difference. Now sonically here in Detroit as far as house music, we picked up from that and did our own thing – and techno is founded on that as well, it’s such a stand alone, a thing onto an island. So when you’re saying House, that’s a subgenre of a subgenre here in Detroit. Before there was techno, there were house – or let’s not say house, let’s say progressive dance music or disco if you want to go further back. So disco is the mother of all these fragments. But sonically Detroit house is more of an experiment based on funk and fragments of disco. Chicago house is disco heavily influenced but with funk as well.
You were involved in the creation of the Music Institute alongside Chez Damier and George Baker, how did it happen? Could you describe the atmosphere of this legendary Detroit nightclub?
George Baker and I were actually high school buddies, we even started a fashion line somewhere around 1986. At the same time, we were starting to get into music and we were travelling alot to places like Chicago, New York, Toronto – we did the Paradise Garage, the Twilight Zone in Toronto, we did Frankie Knuckles private’ loft parties, of course Ron Hardy parties too. Then we met Chez Damier in 1986, he is from Chicago but moved to Detroit during this time and there was another guy that I really admired. He is not with us anymore and his name was Tony Hunter. We both went to the Western Michigan University together for one year and he was really, really into clubbing, he knew alot about Frankie and Ron Hardy. Tony Hunter was our key introduction as far as clubbing in Chicago along with Derrick [May]. So we just started hanging out and travelling extensively from city to city, and it just hits us, “let’s do a club”. So we started with a private party in a loft in Harmonie Park [Downtown Detroit] in 1987. We knew we wanted to open a club. We actually already had purchased the soundsystem but it took us a minute to find the right place. The first place was on Wayne State campus [in the heart of Detroit] It was a building and it had a ramp, like the Paradise Garage, so we worked on it but we had to vacate because there was just some things that we could not afford to get the building to code. A couple of months after that, we found the 1315 Broadway building, Downtown Detroit. It took us about a year to get it up and running. It was put together and based on the spirit of everything that we had done and seen, and all our travels to other clubs. That was it! We wanted to make sure we were true to what we had experienced, a soundsystem blessed by the gods, a nice room with a wooden floor. Very simple. Opening from midnight to the last person left. It was Derrick May and D Wayne as residents on Friday night, and myself and Chez Damier on Saturday night. During the week it was our job to create and inspire and prepare for the weekend and when I say preparation, we were doing édits and making sure the system was in top form. Derrick would come down to the club and test things on the soundsystem because he was starting Transmat then also. It was a good time to be in the city the beginning of techno and about 3 years after the birth of House music! The atmosphere was just incredible, lines around the block. It was a private club so you had to be a member to get in.
And how were you becoming a member?
One or twice during the year you would come down to the club and sign up and pay a fee, and you were issued the membership card. That’s funny because I ran into a guy last year who still walks around with his membership card in his wallet, incredible! But our most important goal was to stay true to what our experience was as clubbers and dancers and I think we came pretty down close to doing that. It was phenomenal!
Man, I wish I was old enough to have witness this…
You know, I say the same thing (laughs), I wish I older back then. I mean I was old enough but not probably to see the inception. By the time I was going to the Paradise Garage it was 1986 the and they closed in 1987 [in September]. And it was the same thing with Frankie and the Warehouse! The Music Box was an exception actually…
Can you tell us a bit more about the Music Box?
The Music Box… I also tell people even if you went to the Music Box only one time in your life, it will forever change the way you think about dance music. It was ran by Robert Williams and Ron Hardy in Chicago. Oh my god, it was incredible! If the world was coming to an end (laughs), that’s the place you wanted to be. All you needed was one time, just one time! I mean obviously we went back several times. So now that I am thinking about it I was very lucky to catch the Music Box in his heyday, very lucky! It was an energy that could only be experienced there. True underground !!! Nothing but loading docks around it, It was below the street because of the water and how the city of Chicago was built.
And then you started to travel, live on other parts of the globe. How was it? What did it bring you in terms of music?
So we closed the Music Institute in 1989 because we couldn’t maintain overhead.Not a strong and deep enough club culture in the city. Those worlds that i was talking about earlier did not mix. People in Detroit were not use to that, the dance culture was not strong, it worked but was not implanted because people did not grow up with that type of culture. They didn’t have older brothers and sisters and uncles coming home on a Sunday at 2 in the afternoon talking about there evening . Also the radio was a big factor! We didn’t have strong support system here in Detroit for dance or house music. They didn’t play the music so if you do not know the music you do not know the culture. Let’s not forget population density. People had begun to leave the city around this time as well.
Mojo is a lifelong very integral part of my musical history and is big reason as to how I listen to and understand music and also programming as far as being a DJ. He played everything! He introduced Detroit if not the world to people like Prince, B52, Parliament Funkadelic, all day every day! I don’t think anybody was doing that in the country. It was just good music. Jazz, funk, disco, progressive, eve-ry-thing! So to translate that into club culture, it’s precisely where it stops. We didn’t have any big DJs like Timmy Regisford on WBLS and holding down residencys. The only time that ever happens was during the early 80’s when Ken Collier had a show on WLBS. But again, it was before the beginning of house and of what we were doing and it stopped, everything went underground, but like really underground here in Detroit. You didn’t hear about it, you didn’t know about it. That was one of the factors that ultimately led to the end of the Music Institute. It was ahead of it’s time Then people began to travel, Derrick was here less and less, I moved away to Toronto for one year and did a radio show. I started to get more into production so by the time I came back – 1991, 1992 – I was really into producing and that’s when it’s really started for me. Chez was still here in the city. He was working at KMS [Kevin Saunderson’ record label founded in 1987] so I started to record a lot on KMS, releasing music under sub-labels of KMS. Chez and Ron were already off and running so we became more and more about production. During that period, I also made my first transatlantic trip, did a tour in Italy with Derrick. At that time I was working at Transmat [Derrick May’s record label founded in 1986] and was responsible for signing some early hits for the label, it was just after Stings Of Life and Nude Photo . Joey Beltram’s, Energy Flash!
Really? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Yeah, crazy story, I remember taking it to Ken Collier. He just had opened a club uptown on 7 Mile and Woordward, called Heaven which was a black gay club. If you knew about it, you knew about it. I was there because it was one of the very few places where you could go and hear house music and dance music on a proper sound system. So I would take him records. And this one, Energy Flash, he played it, he played it, he played it so much he broke the record! Made it a hit at the club. Then I started to record more and Derrick I think moved to Amsterdam. I started DJing more. I call this one of my growing periods. Then I moved to Paris in 1996 and that was it! I became one of those earlier jazz artists, musicians, writers, photographs and dancers who moved to Paris to be accepted and to create unconditionally. I was in such a heavy growin period. I played all over Europe and recorded music. I met some incredible people that I am still friends with to this day. Paris definitely has this big place in my heart. Then I came back. Became a family man and started my own label so we’re talking 1999. I released my first album that i recorded in Paris and Amsterdam just before that in 1998. Being in Europe made me see the world differently. You can be objective and you can step outside of what you know and what you’re used. It forced me to get outside my comfort level.
You lived in South Africa for a while, how was the life there and the electronic music scene?
It was great! I went over there to do a tour which was only supposed to be a month then ended up living there for 6 months between 2011 and 2012… Wine, women and sound you know, and food (laughs). I love to go to other places and experience the culture for a long period of time. To go as far as Africa, you know and that’s the place where I come from and where my people come from. I have to stay for a while to soak up the culture and get down with the people. I’ve been to Tunisia too but I don’t like to say North Africa and South Africa. I just say Africa. I’ve been hearing about djs going to South Africa since the mid-2000’s and expressing their thoughts on how the music scene is, and house music being bigger than hip-hop which I thought it was not possible you know but it’s true! Well now I think the audience is really getting into hip-hop and it has started to level out. Last time I was there after I would do my set a hip-hop DJ would come on but not playing ofKRS1, EPMD and Gang Starr or RUN DMC. I’m talking like – and I’m being politically correct (laughs) – but what people call hip-hop today and I’ll leave you with that. But the music scene in South Africa is huge. It drives a culture, it’s everything. You can hear house music in a taxi, in a grocery market, every TV station, radio, station. It’s incredible! But you know South Africa is not too far away from apartheid so you still have that element there. People are still living in shanties and some parts of the townships are extremely poor with no electricity and all. Every time I’m riding through the city I’m thinking ‘why are people still living like this, what’s going on’. But it’s also beautiful. Africa in itself is beautiful. Once you get outside the city and you start to drive between the different provinces it’s just incredible! And it’s Africa, the Motherland! Right now, it’s probably one of the very, very few places where music is driving everything. But it doesn’t drive the diamond mines that’s for sure (laughs).
What were you parents used to listen to where you were growing up, your familial influences?
My mom and my aunt – another one of my heroes – used to throw these parties in the 70’s in my aunt’s house. So she would prepare all week, making the sets on cassette tapes so she didn’t have to play each record. Her parties were phenomenal! Saturday night the entire street from the top of East Jefferson down to the water would be lined with cars. She was also cooking and they would go to Chicago to buy alcohol because they were no taxes on it. She was playing RNB and disco. Well disco and RNB was one in the same back then and everything that came out on Philly International records were major hits. Artists like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, The O’Jays, etc were the backdrop for everything. I grew up on the Philly sound. I would get up in the morning to go to kindergarten and there was only AM radio, mono radio, not stereo and this was the first time I was hearing The Love I Lost from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and other things. That’s straight disco but RNB you know what I mean. So she would make tapes and Saturday night I’d be laying in bed and she lives next door to my mom. So all I can hear was music, bass, Philly sound and other things for like hours straight. The next day I would go to her house and see all the remnants left over from a great great house party (laughs).
During the later part of her life, she gave me a lot of her records which were 12 inches. I remember specifically she gave me her 12inch of The Rolling Stones « Miss You ». In my earlier years before my aunts parties on Saturdays we would dance in the living room. We would play records and everybody would dance. There was a lot of James Brown going down !!!! Lots of sound of Philadelphia. She really loved music. So like I said she’s one of my heroes and she was truly a DJ and promoter (laughs). I think I growing up in the 70’s was really cool and the best era for music because everything was danceable. Everything was funky, rock was funky, jazz was funky, everything had a backbeat. Even if it was 108 bpm, it was still…like Peter Brown, Do You Want to Get Funky With Me which has very slow tempo but still four on a floor and funky as shit. That beat, that constant beat. That was a good time for music to me! Ask a seventy year old and they’re going to say “no, no Motown was the best”, but for me the 70’s were incredible. Maybe it’s because of what I do as it relates to House music so it plays an essential part, but it was great. And let’s not forget Salsa music and Afro Cuban. It’s not my culture directly but those rhythms are African . It’s the drum, I’m heavy on the percussions and drums (laughs) so anything ; afrobeat, Fela Kuti, Fania All Stars, from Hector Lavoe to the magnificient drummers and bass players from Parliment Funkadelic, Jaco Pastorious, Idris Muhammad, all the great percussion players! You know they did a percussion day at the Charles Wright Museum, and I missed it!
You seem close to Derrick how did you meet each other and how you could describe his music, his artistic personality?
I met Derrick during high school in my junior year so we’re talking 82-83. I think he might have been already out of high school, I’ve met him at a video arcade actually he was like working, selling tokens (laughs), I don’t know if he remembers this! But we really didn’t connect until the summer of 84 that was like our Summer of Love (laughs), which was when everything came together actually. We met the people that would take us in that direction, myself and George. We started hanging out with Derrick a lot, with Eddie Fowlkes also. We were really heavy into fashion so we bought a couple of machines, started our own line and being into fashion it opened the doors to that world out there that we knew existed.We met people who doing parties here in Detroit that were more progressive and avant garde, more free thinking. Derrick was going to Chicago before we were. He had family there. I was born in Chicago but grew up here in Detroit. I claim both worlds !!!! We started to make a lot of trips to Chicago and mainly to see Ron Hardy. During this time we were on the same mission. We had definitely separated ourselves from what was going on in Detroit in terms of normalcy. We knew there was something else, we knew that there was this culture that existed in another cities and we wanted to be a part of it. So together we founded the Music Institute and Derrick was a key to that, his energy and where he comes from in regards to DJing is definitely in the spirit of Ron Hardy, for sure. Along with whatever he’s experienced growing up, because I think that’s what art is, it’s a representation of how you proceed, what your experiences are, what’s your story, your DNA. He had been making music with Juan and I took a couple trips with him in the very early years up to Ypsilanti. Juan was living between Belleville and Ypsilanti so we were going to his studio for some sessions. I know Juan is a big influence on Derrick musically. You learn from your mentor and you put your own spin on it and it becomes your own thing. You tell your story with your music and when you dj. When we were hanging out and really started to make music I remember just driving around the city. Derrick, George and myself and we would listen to a tape, something Derrick did, for like 2 hours straight. We’re talking before Strings of Life, Nude Photo. It was some very early stuff when it was just 808, maybe a keyboard and a sequencer and that was it.Sometimes just drum loops for hours. Minimal in its truest form (laughs). We lost so much stuff along the way, I’m sure if Derrick had been able to keep all that stuff, I mean from the very beginning it would be…wow (laughs). Strings of Life is a masterpiece but there’s some stuff I heard that was even better!
Some new releases soon?
Well, Kai Alce through a Music Institute party last May during Movement week in Detroit. It was the first time that Chez Damier and myself had played together since we closed the club in 89. It was a great party. Kai does an EP on NDATL a for each party. I also shared the decks with Theo Parrish and Joe Claussell this summer and got some gigs and tours lined up for the latter part of the year. I released an EP called More Positive Things on the new Adeen Record label at the beginning of August and just released The Vault EP on Neroli, the brillant record label from Italian DJ, Volcov. Lots of things happening. New Alton Miller album out on Sound Signature early 2017.
Warmest thanks to Alton for his kindness and his honest & funky words, thank you for sharing music history.