Detroit's Global Vibe 2: Spreading the Sounds

There is a good chance that, while you are reading this, someone in England, France or Japan is reading a newsletter sent over the Web by a tiny store on Fourth Street in Royal Oak. That reader is probably ready to make a decision. Should they order the new record by mysterious Canadian techno producers Konrad Black & Ghost Man or the new release by Genders, a glammy cosmosexual electro-rock band from Detroit?

Similarly weird and wonderful decisions are made each day inside Royal Oak’s Neptune Records, where every day is international music exchange day. The store on Fourth sells vinyl to walk-in customers seeking the hottest dance-floor scorchers from Berlin, Cologne or London; or to others looking for CDs by Australian, Norwegian and Swedish psychedelic rock bands. Increasingly, however, Neptune also fills orders online from music fans around the world enticed by the shop’s eclectic selection of anything avant, beautiful and strange that you’ll never find at Wal-Mart or its big box equivalents in Asia or Europe.

What international record buyers won’t find at Neptune that they will find at other area specialty record stores — most notably Record Time in Ferndale and Roseville and Detroit’s Submerge Recordings —is a comprehensive catalog of music made in Detroit. Sure, some White Stripes singles are there, as is a section devoted to Richie Hawtin’s Windsor-based Minus/Plus 8 label. A club track by Ryan Crosson, a metro Detroiter who records for labels in Cologne and Paris, can be found at the store. But the global vibe generated at Neptune comes from a much different angle than that generated from stores that stand proudly on Detroit’s musical heritage.

Inspirations and new directions

So what is that vibe? Neptune owner Brett Marion says that the store’s relationship to Detroit is “more subtle … coming from a place that’s not easily defined.” But then he thinks about it a bit more and nails it. Marion says that the store, which opened in 1997, offers a selective range of music, that “put together in a new way, can inspire different directions in music. Sam Valenti IV (the head of Ghostly International) once told me that the records he found here helped him with his concept of how he wanted his label to be, and that he wanted it to include a variety of musical styles.”

Indeed, when Ghostly's Valenti was still a teenager, his musical palette was deepened by his frequent visits to Neptune, where he found a heady mix of indie-rock, Euro-club pop, minimal techno and house and edgy experimental sounds. From Neptune, the founder of the Ann Arbor-based label apparently learned that to burn a new commercial path in the over-crowded music business the best road traveled is one you have to pave yourself.

Valenti says lessons learned at Neptune were an important part of the success of Ghostly International, which is known worldwide for its wide-ranging roster of talent from Detroit and around the globe. Now beginning its seventh year, Ghostly and Spectral Sounds (a subsidiary label devoted to music made for the dance floor) export music that often defies ready-made classification, except to say that it is smart, fun and easy to dance to.

“I was at the store the second day after it opened,” says Valenti, who was then a high school student at Cranbrook. “What I found there foreshadowed what not only happened with Ghostly, but what happened with music everywhere. I learned a lot about how a carefully curated selection can work, and it helped the label become (as eclectic) as it is.”

At Neptune, one of the thickest sections in the store is devoted to releases by Ghostly International. Artists on the label include electronic musicians like Detroit’s Matthew Dear, who has also released records under the name Audion for the label, and the multi-dimensional Tadd Mullinix (who records under various names, including Dabrye and James T. Cotton); and more conventional though still quirky rock bands like Skeletons and the Girl-Faced Boys and the Mobius Band.

“We’ve become known as a place where you can get everything released on Sam’s label,” Neptune’s Marion says. “I think it’s important that people make that association between Neptune and the product Ghostly puts out.”

History travels fast

Several miles south of Neptune, in two neighborhoods east and west of Detroit’s New Center, two historic names in music — one in soul, the other in techno — continue to cast a more traditional spell on fans around the world.

Although the Motown sound is mostly associated with the 1960s and 1970s, the music is still alive in songs that can be heard on the radio, movie soundtracks, at sporting events or as a centerpiece of music collections everywhere.

The Motown Historical Museum (2648 W. Grand Blvd.) has information galore on chart-topping artists like the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, the Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Go to motownmuseum.com and be greeted by the Jackson 5, featuring vocals by a pre-teenage Michael Jackson.

But is the vibe still alive? Judge for yourself by visiting the recording studios inside the museum, housed in the building where classic tunes like “My Girl” and “Stop in the Name of Love” were recorded. Likely you’ll find that Detroit soul still lingers in the air in those rooms, and stays with you long after exiting the exhibits.

Travel east about two miles to find Submerge, where Detroit Techno is fully alive and still pumping. It’s to this non-descript building at 3000 E. Grand Blvd. (there is no name on the flat, two story facade) that electronic dance music fans across the globe come to see where music by groups like Underground Resistance, Galaxy 2 Galaxy and Los Hermanos is created and distributed.

The building has studios, offices and a small shop stocked with music and related merchandise. Check out the label’s online gallery devoted to techno history and culture, or order music on labels it distributes like Black Nation, Electrofunk, Motech, Red Planet and about two dozen others.

During Detroit’s electronic music festival, held the last six years over the Memorial Day weekend, “techno tourists” from Germany, France, Japan and elsewhere shopped at Submerge’s basement store filled with highly-coveted vinyl gems and clothing items.

“Detroitish” community

But how the vibe is measured comes from how it is received from outside the city. One of the best measuring sticks comes from Holland’s technotourist.org, a Web site dedicated to the world’s underground dance scene. Go to the site and see how much play Detroit is given on the home page, which contains links to reports on an Underground Resistance performance in France, downriver house producer Aaron-Carl’s new album "Detrevolution" and a new label called Cratesavers being introduced by Detroit techno group SCAN 7.

Four guys from the Netherlands started the Web project after visiting Detroit in 1999. The city’s unique vibe won them over. They returned the following year to attend the first electronic music festival and began building a “Detroitish” community abroad, adding new members from Belgium, France and elsewhere.

The site is filled with photos of Detroit landmarks, the city’s ruins — which enjoy a special global vibe all their own — and people dancing to music performed by some of the world’s best DJs. The pictures are accented by Detroit attitude and energy, two exportable qualities that have become a common language for so many, no matter where they call home.



Walter Wasacz is editor at large for Model D and metromode.



All photographs copyright Dave Krieger


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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