Lessons from emerging culture: A quick look at three music movements and future cities

All cultures should have a value for a city, but not all have our attention…just yet. Rapid Growth's Publisher Tommy Allen looks back over time at three Michigan groups whose contributions, like so many other artists and creators, have impacted the culture of our state for the better.
Through oral and observational history, I have enjoyed my many conversations with folks from within our urban centers who are seeking to learn lessons from the many emerging cultures within our state. 

I sat down with Argos Book Shop’s James Bleeker, Grand Rapids Hip Hop Coalition’s Victor Williams, and Paxahau’s Sam Fotias to discuss the lessons learned over years of interaction with our state’s underground music culture.

The one question across the board from most modern day culture creators is often, “How does one grow a scene?”

While there is no right answer, the folks I spoke with all shared a variation of the same answer. James Bleeker of Argos Book Shop and former founding member of Grand Rapids’ New Beat Club (NBC)—an underground live music series from the ‘80s—suggested quite possibly the most essential element for any movement is the root desire of the locals to recognize and then organize around a genre as they did.

James Bleeker

“Our motivation was to get together with other punk and new wave music lovers,” said Bleecker of those first moments of the popular traveling pop-up club music series, “We didn’t know a lot of people but we knew others who liked punk and so we set out to host events devoted to this style of music.”

Bleeker recalls in those days when seeking out local music options, finding a bar or club playing punk, new wave, or even ska was difficult since, quite frankly, there just weren’t enough switched-on folks to support the booking of such an act on the stage.

Just as we are seeing within our emerging genres of culture in the present, our past NBC punk music scene still faced the old riddle of how to find the space…and one affordable so culture has room to breathe. 

This is something that Grand Rapids Hip Hop Coalition’s Victor Williams reflected on as we talked about his earliest memories of our city’s hip hop scene.

Williams, whose organization is helming an impressively ambitious Hip Hop Appreciation Week (something most cities only celebrate for a single day), reflected back to the day when he was a student at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Riverside Middle in the ‘80s. He shared how he and his friends would pack their cardboard in their backpacks. This way, these kids, when the time and space were just right, could unfold the cardboard to create a platform from which to practice.

“From the bus stop to street corners to even our school playgrounds, we took and used our cardboard everywhere,” said Williams (aka MC Spicey V) who along with Chris Cross aka I.R.O.C.C. formed the Grand Rapids music act The New Concept. “There were no clubs for us, so ours was in the streets.” 

GRHHC The New Concept

This year as a nod to that period of time, the 2018 Hip Hop Appreciation Week will host a parkjam at Martin Luther King (MLK) Park as a commemoration to that time period in Hip Hop’s past. Williams fondly recalled times spent with friends enjoying the music from that era of Hip Hop every Saturday and Sunday at places like MLK or Garfield Park. 

We often forget that Hip Hop appreciation celebrations are only about 20 years old for a music genre that, according to Williams, is just over 40 years old, and yet with numerous roots and influences that reach even further back in time.

Another question on everyone’s mind who works in this area of the culture is: how do we enable spaces for something to emerge?

Easily again a key factor that came up from all the folks I spoke with was the importance and role affordable options can play in allowing room for a culture to grow.

Director of Operations for Paxahau Sam Fotias has produced Movement at Detroit’s Hart Plaza since 2006. On a phone call in April, he shared that during the birth of techno waves of activity stretched over decades from underground circuit parties to neighborhood halls. It produced activity in Detroit from the release of new recordings; they launched streaming techno music well ahead of the ease of platforms we have today like Spotify or AppleMusic, and produced music conferences on Detroit’s soil and around the world. This expansive activity laid the groundwork for a scene to solidify but also be canonized a new genre of music. 

These large, cultural lightning strikes are something rare for any a city to experience. Maybe you get one in a lifetime (if you’re lucky). But Detroit has multiple contributions.

According to Fotias, Detroit has experienced many of these flashpoint moments over its history with genres of jazz, garage rock, Motown, and techno.

And while Fotias is quick to point out the many stops and starts of Detroit’s underground clubs where techno has inhabited for decades in various forms—and now appreciated the world over—the city’s many established bars and clubs often absorb or welcome growing culture as other factors like police raids underground parties and noise ordinance violations begin to cut into the scene. I think these might be best described as growing pains for any scene or joint experiencing a height in popularity. 

But much has changed since those early days for Paxahau according to Fotias, as this entertainment business has done much over the years to educate the public on the techno genre through the cataloging and archiving of more than 20,000 hours of music and available via their site. Paxahau's team have also participated in a three-part oral history on DetroitTechno.org’s site. 

This documenting of history is something underway in Grand Rapids as well, said Williams via a new project from Art Peers as they seek to create a documentary on the history of our city’s hip hop movement. Here is a clip from last year's hip hop panel discussion featuring Tony Tate (Dancer), Chris Cross of (New Concept), Atricia Banks of (Rhun Girl Run), Robert S, Governor Slugwell (GRHHC), and moderator Jonathan Jelks (GR USA). 

But Williams is also quick to point out that a popular misconception is that hip hop is just about the music, when it is really a culture unto itself with a lens firmly planted within many areas of society.

At this point, Williams gets reflective about his past as he recalls that another aspect to consider for emerging culture is not just access to affordable spaces but having places that reflect the people being served.

“In the early days we had free community spaces like Myka’s Boutique. It was beauty shop where they’d open up the back for area youth to get off the streets and provide them space to perfect their dances and raps,” said Williams, who also shared that we had other free spaces like the Baxter Community Center and as well as the Sheldon Complex on Franklin at Jefferson SE.

But according to Williams, we had a lot more of these kinds of free spaces because we had a lot of more black-owned businesses than we do today. 

And it is not just free spaces from area businesses that we have lost locally as many of the arts centers or small cultural incubator institutions of our city like the Division Avenue Arts Collective (or The DAAC to locals) have all but disappeared from our landscape under the race to raise rental rates. The lack of affordable spaces is not much of an option for the emerging arts of today. 

As Bleeker and I reminisced over the many New Beat Club shows they had produced over the years, we discovered that while we did not know each other at the time, we were both at the same Black Flag show that happened their pop-up Division Avenue at Burton space. 

“Did you know that the New Beat Club’s 1986 Black Flag concert is why [then local KCAD student] Maynard James Keenan would go on to form Tool,” said Bleeker.  Maynard—as the locals refer to him today—described that this locally produced Black Flag concert as a "revelatory and life-changing" experience for the emerging talent.

This shifts our talk in economics. 

Yes, Maynard would leave our area returning only to perform on the stage as Tool, but also to keep in contact with his former KCAD mates. Sometimes they leave the state to become who they were meant to be. That is a hard place to land with some folks.

But Michigan firms like Paxahau have found ways to keep the focus on their local history by welcoming the world to visit year round and not just on the occasion of their annual international techno event. 

When asked if Paxahau has an economic study, Fotias laughs. I know this laugh since it is the reaction of a man about to launch one of Detroit’s biggest annual events. 

“Economic studies are very expensive so maybe a college or an university will want this project. But for 10 years now we have sold out every hotel in the entire city over Memorial Day Weekend,” said Fotias, “On an average we had 30 after parties booked for the weekend all around our event, then there were 75 in 2017. That is a massive economic injection into Detroit’s economy.” 

Model D Media, Rapid Growth's Detroit sister publication, released a 10-year anniversary profile in 2016 on Paxahau titled, "Constant 'Movement': 10 years managing one of the world's largest electronic music festivals" by Walter Wasacz.

Movement Detroit 2017

Williams cited how our local hip hop culture syncs up with an international movement summing up the need to continue to press for our own local evolution in advancing more space and venues that are black owned and operated. He cited that the Hip Hop Declaration of Peace that was presented to the United Nations Organization on May 16, 2001 as a model to dispel any myths. 

“Ideally, we need to get our own venues where we can be authentically a hip hop venue and one catering to our culture,” said Williams, “It is not about their vision, but our vision. We used to have places locally where we could build the culture. And we need these spaces so we can tell our stories so that people can understand our culture.”

And for Bleeker? 

“My friends from that time are mostly still my friends,” said Bleeker.

Some movements in the culture rise quickly. Some burn brightly for a space in time serving their purpose before they exit. And then there are others that take many hits in an attempt to just stay alive. And human interaction with each other through sharing of space is still the key and something I hope we never lose in the future as we grow. 

All cultures should have a value for a city, but not all will have our attention…just yet. That is the beauty of the new; it is often too tiny to see unless you start looking. The trick is to be a place that embraces the counterculture, honors their spaces, and dream alongside of all of us as to what could emerge. 

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Rapid Growth Media

Signup for Email Alerts