J Dilla. Eminem. Underground Resistance. The Belleville Three. When it comes to breaks and beats, Detroit’s got bragging rights and stories to tell. But there are few spaces where city residents and visitors can really experience hip hop and techno music, says local producer and entrepreneur, the “Electrifyin’ Filthy Rockwell.” That’s why he’s putting down roots amid the artists and creatives on Holden Street in the NW Goldberg neighborhood.
“Hip hop and techno were born together in Detroit. This is going to be us telling a story,” he says, “showing people the history of how we merged together and where the roads cross.”
Filthy Americans Arts & Cultural Preservation Center will open on Nov. 18 at 1313 Holden St. across from the Lincoln Street Art Park and Recycle Here! Owners, business partners, and lifelong Detroiters Rockwell and William “BJ” Smith are veterans in the city’s underground hip hop and techno music scenes looking to inspire the next generation.
In one of two renovated storefronts attached to a historic assembly line for the Lincoln Motor Company, artist (Rockwell) and manager (Smith), partners in the Filthy American brand, have curated a unique space: part streetwear and skate shop, part vinyl record store and intimate show venue, and part music production and brand-making community classroom.
“I want to teach kids the stuff I know,” says Rockwell, who came up in the Dilla days and has contributed to projects alongside Kanye West, Big Sean, Slaughterhouse, and others. “How to sample, how to EQ a drum or snare, how to use music programs, you know, the stuff nobody ever taught us.” He plans to host free classes for youth at the center, calling on his friends in the biz to lend their expertise toward preserving a culture as Detroit as it gets.
A music producer by trade, Rockwell stepped into designing streetwear six or seven years ago. His brand, Filthy Americans, he says, is for those who get their hands dirty: the painters, the skaters, the builders, creators, and innovators. It’s a brand that pays homage to the neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, where hard-working Black and brown Detroiters thrived in business and entertainment before being displaced by systematic racism through urban renewal.
Filthy American streetwear flaunts a range of iconic social and political imagery that includes the commemoration of Mayor Coleman A. Young, the Flag of Detroit with its motto of “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes,” a call to “Free Juan,” otherwise known as Street Lord Juan, a Detroit rapper fighting his imprisonment on drug charges and the Detroit aloha, “Whatupdoe,” which Rockwell trademarked years ago as his signature skate brand.
The musicians' initial venture in establishing a clothing brand was to put Whatupdoe on 50 hats. Expanding on that move has been a journey, he says, at times a grind, and he’s eager to share the knowledge he’s gained through trial and error with folks just starting out. At the arts and culture center, his team plans to offer mentorship programs, consulting budding entrepreneurs on subjects like trademarking, contracts, LLCs, leasing business space, curating events, and more. After having his own monthly pop-ups for a year (2018-2019) inside Detroit Shipping Co., Rockwell wants to showcase newly formed brands as part of his mentorship program.
“I’m really just opening up people to my team,” he says, “that’s what it’s all about.”
That’s what will help cultivate the next generation of Black and brown youth and create generational wealth, says Adrian Tonon, Detroit’s 24-hour economy ambassador, who's known Rockwell through the music community for over 20 years. Tonon is glad to see the “true Detroit brand” secure a brick-and-mortar that will welcome the community on multiple levels in the neighborhood's 24-hour economy. In his 40s, Rockwell, who’s remained in Detroit, is “uniquely connected to the OGs and legends in the music industry,” Tonon says, while still engaging many young men and women who’ll be “the next tastemakers and industry people.”
Making it in the music industry here used to mean moving to L.A, he says, but it doesn't have to be that way. Rockwell is among the few well-known local artists who spend time with young people, “showing them the ropes” and “making sure they have knowledge, opportunity and a seat at the table,” Tonon says.
Continuing to be relevant and helping shape today’s culture is a model, he says, one that displays innovation. He’s asked Rockwell to help curate more businesses in the neighborhood by bringing entrepreneurs into conversation with the city and the major landowner there, Henry Ford Health System. Besides the Art Park and Recycle Here! complex, the area is home to the Marble Bar, and Rebel Nell, York Project and Commonwealth Sewing Company, all co-inhabitants of the Holden Block development where Filthy Americans resides. Rockwell says he’s talking with colleagues about ideas on casual dining and amenities like a 24-hour gym.
“This is good for the city. Detroit’s been missing that late-night Chicago, downtown feel,” says Dilla Delights bakery owner Herman Hayes, a.k.a. “Uncle Herm” to the hip hop community. “I was born in 1955 and I remember Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in the early ’60s. On hot summer nights my dad would drive us downtown where lots of theaters and clothing stores were open,” he says. “It was really exciting.”
Hayes is the uncle of Detroit’s legendary producer J Dilla who died from complications with lupus in 2006 at the age of 32. A chef and baker all his life, Hayes opened Dilla’s Delights downtown in 2016 to pay homage to his nephew and help support Dilla’s two daughters. He’s geeked about this approach to preserving artistic culture, and says he was glad to contribute doughnuts and refreshments at Rockwell’s recent neighborhood cleanup outside the center. He’ll be doing the same on opening day.
Will Smith, Rockwell's partner on Filthy Americans, picks up trash as part of a neighborhood cleanup in October.
“Filthy is a standout, and I’m going to stand next to him, not just support him,” he says. “I’ll be there representing Jay.” It’s important to preserve hip hop and techno culture in positive ways, he says, and he’ll champion every young person trying to do so. Hayes is considering relocating his bakery to the space next door to Filthy Americans, but he can’t commit financially at the moment.
Rockwell and his vision to bring a Black creative collective into the community is a critical part of the neighborhood plan of intentional diversity. The art park and recycle center already attract many kinds of people, Tonon says, and going forward cultivating a like-minded community that works together and celebrates culture will be key in building on that diversity.
Helping set the standard and attract artistic entrepreneurs “who want to give a little and not take so much” is what Smith says drew him to Holden Street. While Filthy Americans offers "cool merch" like streetwear and custom skateboards, he says it's a means to support its true mission of serving artists who preserve hip hop, techno and art in Detroit.
Smith has long been involved in the city’s underground music scene. He’s a member of the electronic band, Aux 88, and works closely with Submerge, the unassuming building that pays homage to Detroit techno down the street from the Motown Museum. Having come up as a local rapper on the hip hop scene, Rockwell says his relationship with techno artists like Smith, Mike Banks, Amp Fiddler, and Juan Atkins have given him the best of both worlds.
“A lot of those guys come from hip hop, and switched over because there was no outlet in Detroit,” he says. “So they started making techno as a rebellion against the industry.” But the genres aren’t far apart, and it was in the sweet spot of their crossroads that Rockwell created his first album and independent project, Filthy America, in 2019.
“I wanted to make something people could put on at the family barbecue or in the car and just ride to.” His “contribution to the culture,” he says, consisted in raising the frequencies from “low tones” that’d become common in Detroit hip hop to the feel-good ones used back in the day.
Filthy America and Rockwell’s label Dope Boys from Outer Space are a few exclusive offerings you’ll find in the center’s handcrafted record bins. As a “mini arm” of Detroit’s Underground Resistance, the owners of Submerge, Rockwell says his place will be the only store where you can purchase their music. But he’ll also have used albums and community record bins as well as listening nights where, if you don’t have a turntable, you can bring in your grandma’s favorite album and find out what’s on it.
This is the feel of "my mama’s basement," he says, you just walk in and hang out. Some days, you may catch him hosting his monthly podcast, Electrifyin’ Radio. With its small stage and room for nearly 100 guests (in a post-COVID-19 world), the center plans to host drop-in DJs as well as intimate concerts, the first of which is scheduled for Dec. 19 and features New York rapper Keith Murray. Opening day will include a visual art component alongside the music and message of Rockwell’s album. During the pandemic, masks, and a hand cleaning station will be supplied at the center, he says.
Rockwell came up in the Dilla days and has contributed to projects alongside Kanye West, Big Sean, Slaughterhouse, and others. Photo Courtesy of Filthy Rockwell.
This is the right time and the right spot for a culture comeback that goes even beyond music, Rockwell says. Since the night years ago, when he walked out of Marble Bar and saw kids skating at 2 a.m. in the Art Park, he knew. It wasn’t a mirage. It was a sign he was heading in the right direction, wanting to create a streetwear and skate brand. He’s had a longtime love of skating since he was a kid.
“I used to go to West Virginia every summer, where we were able to just skate up and down the hills there,” he says. “I just hung onto that.”
As he was getting ready to sign a lease at Detroit Shipping Co. a year ago, Rockwell says Tonon called him to come check out a space on Holden Street. The building had nothing but a dirt floor, but for him, he says, it was a perfect place to build something new. And, crazy enough, it was right in front of where the kids skated that night.
“I didn’t choose this space,” he says, “this space chose me.
Rockwell and Smith and their team plan to continue cleaning up the skate park area in hopes of starting the Filthy Americans skate league and hosting their first big skate event June 21, the official holiday of skateboarding. There may even be a brand-new skate park down the line. That’s the great thing about being a creative, he adds, you don’t have to outgrow your favorite things.
“Our goal is to make this area a destination, something that’s exciting, historic, and educational when you come to Detroit,” says Smith. In a city that’s been steadily gentrifying in certain places, he adds, “It’s also an opportunity to do something that fits the area, gives back, and actually sustains the culture of art.”
All phtoos by Nick Hagen unless other noted.