Detroit's Global Vibe

Stand beneath the People Mover track at Broadway and Grand Circus Park on a hot summer night and look up as the tram slithers by. Its two cars are covered with tropical red, green and yellow paint, and contain bold advertisements for the Motor City Casino pasted on either side. It’s a garish combination. But it catches the eye and holds it – as an ad for a casino no doubt should.

Now look even more closely at those ads and read two phrases that speak more about Detroit than their writers could have imagined. The tag on the first car says, “Get plugged in,” and the other reads, “Catch the vibe.” Just more mundane advertising nonsense, you say? Nothing you haven’t already seen or heard thousands of times before, right?

Wrong. This time, the message makers may have stumbled upon matching the right sales pitch to the right product — one that is not, in the conventional sense anyway, even for sale. Detroit, as it quivers and shakes in the international imagination, is all about “getting plugged into a vibe,” something as ungraspable as ether, not gotten … until you get it. It’s a near-mystical experience that can be attained without ever setting foot in the city. It comes from the rhythms and sounds produced here that continue to dance their way into human hearts all over the world.

The Detroit Vibe.

It’s an export that you can’t drive; unlike the automobiles designed and assembled here over the past 90 years, it drives you.

Vibing with Superpitcher & Sienkiewicz
A few blocks away on Woodward and John R., an electronic musician and DJ who calls himself Superpitcher is sitting at a table at Oslo, a swanky sushi restaurant and dance club that books talent from Detroit, Germany, Holland, the UK and other hot spots for techno and house music. The moppy-haired German (real name: Aksel Shaufler) is here to perform for the first time. Like many European electronic artists, he was drawn to Detroit by its iconic status as “techno city,” established in the 1980s by young metro Detroiters and still spinning its sonic magic around the world nearly 25 years later.

“It’s a historical place, yeah?” Schaufler says while waiting for his food to arrive. He’s drinking beer, Kirin Ichiban, straight from the bottle.

“I always thought this is a place I must come to, but … I really don’t know this as a real place. Only as a vibe that you can feel. It’s like Cologne (where I live now), where the vibe is the special thing that helps people be creative and produce things. But it’s nothing you can really see.”

Jacek Sienkiewicz is another European performer who was in Detroit for the first time during this past Memorial Day weekend’s Fuse-In festival. A techno artist, and club and label owner, based in Warsaw, Sienkiewicz said his impressions of Detroit were formed in the early 1990s, when he started listening to electronic beats produced here. His picture of Detroit was shaped by the hard, minimal grooves of producers like Rob Hood and Underground Resistance. 

“When I finally made it here, I was a little surprised that quarters of the city were so empty, for a place that appears so vital (from a distance),” Sienkiewicz said from his home in Poland, where he runs the Recognition label

“But the Detroit vibe was special, I must say …”

So what?

The world plugging into Detroit’s historical audio dream machine has gone on for years, most notably with Motown in the 1960s (“the sound of young America”), Parliament-Funkadelic’s raw dog funk of the 1970s, the machine-beat driven techno developed in the 1980s and ‘90s, and hip-hop and rock mega-stars (Eminem, Kid Rock and Jack White) who broke it wide open at the turn of the century.  

But so what if the city has a vibe that sends tremors across the globe: It doesn’t pay the bills for public safety or help the buses run on time, does it? No. Intangible virtues produce intangible benefits. The capital created is measured in how the seeds of culture are planted, nurtured and harvested, not in dollars or euros.    What Detroit has done, perhaps unwittingly, is to convert inspiration into action. Production is a way of life here. So is it surprising that it can also produce dreams that can be consumed anywhere?

One of Detroit’s most devoted dreamers resides in Berlin. Roman von Contzen runs a weblog that focuses on activities in the two cities that, on the surface, don’t appear to have much in common. Berlin is a European cultural center with 3.5 million people, seven symphonies, seven independent art scenes and urban sophistication to match that of Paris and London. But Berliners share a kinship with Detroiters in ways that can only be explained by … a shared vibe.

“I go for a walk in Berlin and I think about what’s going on in Detroit,” said von Contzen, who has never been here but who knows more about the Majestic and State theaters, clubs like Oslo and The Works, and the origins of Hamtramck, than do many suburban Detroiters. He posts weather reports for both cities on the site, and includes galleries of pictures of Detroit festivals, events and downtown architecture. Why? Because von Contzen, who is in his early 40s and makes a living selling insurance, found Detroit through the techno records he first heard over 20 years ago. Or, rather, the Detroit Vibe found him.

“Wow, wow, wow … Detroit!” is the way von Contzen started his reply to an initial e-mail communication. No more need be said. It might be the best response to a place that so rapturously takes hold of hearts and minds, wherever in the world they may be, and won’t let go. 

Roman von Contzen’s Energylab

Jacek Sienkiewicz’s Recognition label
Aksel Shaufler (aka Superpitcher)
Fuse-In Festival
Underground Resistance
The Works

People Mover photo by Dave Krieger

Superpitcher photo by Walter Wasacz

Contzen photo by Roman von Contzen


Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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