Ann Arbor's DJ scene may not receive the same amount of international attention as Detroit's pioneering techno and hip-hop scenes, but the city has boasted a strong DJ culture for decades. Numerous internationally known DJs come from Ann Arbor or still call it home – many of them associated with the influential Ghostly International electronic record label, started in Ann Arbor 20 years ago.
Accordingly, it's pretty easy to walk into a small Ann Arbor venue on any given night and catch a major DJ whose last performance was at a festival in Europe, New York, L.A., or Miami. So we decided to take a look at some of the best DJ nights currently happening in Ann Arbor.
And to be clear, we're not talking about DJs in the sense of someone spinning the latest club hits and taking your requests. In Detroit techno, house, and hip-hop the DJ is a curator using their passion and knowledge to introduce new music to an audience while presenting well-known classics in a new context. The goal is transcendence on the dance floor and in your head.
Ghostly artists Shigeto and Kenjiro (Portage Garage Sounds label owners Zach and Ben Saginaw, sons of Zingerman's co-founder Paul Saginaw) curate the four-month-old Ann Arbor Trax Authority night on Thursdays at The Circ Bar, 210 S. First St. in Ann Arbor. The Saginaws also hold a three-year-old residency, called Monday is the New Monday, at Motor City Wine in Detroit.
"We' re trying to go off what we're doing at Motor City Wine – something for free that would be a destination in other cities," Ben Saginaw says. "We realized a love for the history and power of dance music while living in Detroit and we wanted to bring that back with us to the place we grew up in."
Zach Saginaw says he hopes the night might also "rekindle the connection between Ann Arbor and Detroit."
"When I was growing up the scenes felt like one," he says. "A lot of stuff has changed in terms of places to see DJs. What hasn't changed is there's still the culture and people who listen to this music."
Saginaw credits people like Jordan Stanton for keeping an old-school DJ mentality alive in Ann Arbor. Stanton, a University of Michigan (U-M) student, is vice president of the U-M student organization MEMCO (Michigan Electronic Music Collective). Many MEMCO members are part of the rotating crew of DJs on the WCBN radio show Crush Collision. In addition to hosting events, MEMCO also holds regular DJ trainings for students.
MEMCO started out in 2005 as MEDMA (Michigan Electronic Dance Music Association). Stanton says the group was initially "a bunch of friends throwing basement parties," but DJs from the group now play numerous events in Ann Arbor and Detroit, including hosting a monthly party called Impulse at Club Above, 215 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor.
This month's Impulse, featuring Detroit electronic duo Ectomorph and a closing set by Stanton, harkened back to early Ann Arbor techno parties and raves. The line to get in was out the door, the packed dance floor was ecstatic, and there was literally sweat dripping off the walls. Stanton says MEMCO has "really grown in an unprecedented way."
"The president of MEDMA taught me how to DJ," he says. "And now I'm teaching people how to DJ every week. It's a cool tradition of teaching and learning that's fundamental to how much we've grown."
Down the street from Circ on Thursdays, you can catch local techno scene veteran Todd Osborn video DJing at Nightcap, 220 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor. Osborn owns Ypsilanti's Technical Equipment Supply store and the record label of the same name. He also owned the influential Ann Arbor record store Dubplate Pressure, has released records on Ghostly's Spectral Sounds label, and frequently works with a number of musical luminaries at Red Bull music events.
Osborn switched to video DJing four months ago (and wrote some of his own software to do so). But it makes perfect sense given his long-running passions as a cultural archivist and a technology enthusiast. The result is a fun mix of the awesome and offbeat – everything from rare performance clips to found vintage footage Osborn has synched to a musical obscurity.
"It's more fun this way," Osborn says. "I've always had a huge collection of rare videos. I like playing a lot of these weird, interesting things that would just be archived in my collection otherwise."
Another scene veteran is Martin Smith, known as DJ Graffiti, who has a nine-year-old Wednesday night residency at Alley Bar, 112 W. Liberty in Ann Arbor. He cut his teeth at the Firefly Club's Elevation Night in the early 2000s alongside Ann Arbor hip-hop supergroup Athletic Mic League, which included a young Mayer Hawthorne (then DJ Haircut), Jamall Bufford, and 14KT. Smith says he grew up listening to Detroit DJs, but when he began attending business school at U-M he was "surprised to hear the DJs at parties weren't as good."
"My friends said, 'Why don't you do it yourself then?'" Smith says. "I just started DJing in my dorm room and it just grew from there to me playing larger parties and putting out my own mixtapes."
Smith started his Alley Bar residency a year after Elevation ended. He says his Wednesday night sets allow him "creative freedom," with a music mix rooted in hip-hop but also including jazz, reggae, and house.
"There's no boundaries, no barriers," he says. "I'm a marketing agency owner by day, but I'm also DJ Graffiti and I'm not going to give that up."
One of the newest DJs on the Ann Arbor scene is Nicole Myint, also known as DJ FreshMyint. Myint has been spinning at Aut Bar, 315 Braun Court in Ann Arbor, on Saturday nights for three years. Her atypical journey into DJing started when she was project managing and hosting events.
"It was always my dream to be the DJ instead of being the host," Myint says. "In 2014 I decided I needed to learn. My first gig was at The Blind Pig and it just went on from there."
Myint's event management experience has resulted in major gigs like DJing U-M athletics events at Michigan Stadium and the Crisler Center. But Aut Bar holds a special place in her heart.
"I don't usually DJ at bars or clubs," she says. "But at Aut Bar I really enjoy everyone that walks in the door. It's a gay bar, but everybody comes out and they come to dance. It's just fun."
Another Ann Arbor hip-hop fixture, Dante LaSalle, says he's seen some major changes in Ann Arbor's DJ scene. He started focusing on DJing in 2009 after 10 years as primarily a hip-hop MC. LaSalle says the scene was "more together" at the turn of the century, but today "there's a lot more niche things happening," in part because technology has made DJing a more accessible pursuit.
"It's more democratized but it's also more disjointed," he says. "But maybe it's just more diverse now."
LaSalle's DJ resume includes everything from Detroit's Slow Roll to the Blind Pig's annual Prince birthday party to Detroit's longest running hip-hop showcase (the now-defunct Detroit BlueCollar Gentlemen). He now hosts a notable Ann Arbor residency of his own at The Last Word on Tuesday nights, emphasizing classic hip-hop and what he calls "weird stuff" ranging from "chilled-out rock" to deep techno.
"I think the whole idea of 'everyone's a DJ' is great," LaSalle says. "It's like a meditation, being in there while you're mixing and making those choices. To have so much intention and attention is a great experience as a music lover."
Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer.
All photos by Doug Coombe.