If you haven’t heard of United Sound Systems in Detroit, you’re not alone. The recording studio, occupying a modest residential building on the edge of the Wayne State University campus for the past 74 years, doesn’t have the same worldwide brand recognition as Motown’s legendary “Hitsville U.S.A.” headquarters, now a museum, nor has it been active for at least the last six years. If a proposed federal highway reconstruction plan is executed, the building itself will be moved, if not demolished.
Should that occur, more than just brick and mortar would crumble along with it; within its walls, United has witnessed some of the seminal moments in Detroit music history. It’s where John Lee Hooker recorded “Boogie Chillin” and Berry Gordy learned production, where Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers cut records, and where Funkadelic promised “Free Your Mind . . . and Your Ass Will Follow.” It’s also just one of many pieces of the city’s rich musical heritage that needs protection to endure, a responsibility that Carleton Gholz has accepted through his nonprofit organization the Detroit Sound Conservancy.
“All of it is an opportunity to organize people,” says Gholz of DSC, whose mission is to “increase awareness of and support to Detroit’s imaginative musical heritage through advocacy and education.” Gholz will return to the Motor City to run the Sound Conservancy full time after completing his three-year tenure as a Postdoctoral Teaching Associate in Communication Studies at Northeastern this spring. “If we care about Detroit music so much, then why did we tear down the second biggest Motown studio in 2006 to build a Super Bowl parking lot? If we love Funkadelic so much, then why are we tearing down the studio where Bootsy Collins created that bass sound? It’s about provoking that kind of questioning.”
There are no easy answers, particularly after a prolonged economic downturn culminated with Detroit becoming the largest city by population in US history to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy last year. It’s a different city from the one Gholz knew growing up in the northern suburb of Troy, where he attended symphony concerts at the now-demolished Ford Auditorium and stalked the many record stores up and down the “Mile Roads” that cross from one side of the city to the other. Years later, while working as a music journalist for the Detroit Metro-Times, Gholz realized that effectively documenting the scene required a more substantial and lasting platform.
“In 2004, I wrote a piece about Ken Collier,” a pioneering techno-house DJ in the 1970s who remained active until his death in 1996, says Gholz. “Ken was black and gay and played music and was loved by all, and there’s no history of him. That piece I wrote 10 years ago is still the best on Ken, which is disappointing. That’s the moment when I realized that the journalistic writing I was doing was going to hit a limit, because the story that could be told and the amount of money I was being paid and the amount of space I was being given, these things didn’t connect. To really understand what was going on, nobody was paying for you to go think about that.”
That approach has come into focus at DSC, to which all proceeds from Saturday’s “Boston Loves Detroit” event at The Good Life will be directed. The Conservancy’s broad approach mixes traditional archival practices, like the Kickstarter-funded Oral History Project launched last year, with educational and historical preservation efforts, including advocating on behalf of United Sound Systems.
“It’s not all a Motown story,” says LaVell Williams, vice president of DSC. “Motown is wonderful, but there’s a lot more out there that’s dying off that no one knows anything about. We want to preserve that stuff and get it so people can access it, whether they’re doing research or they just love music. You’re missing out on a major part of musical history by not knowing what’s going on and by people dying everyday who have a story to tell.”
Thanks to DSC’s work, those stories are beginning to be heard. The aforementioned Oral History Project has begun transcribing and digitizing interviews from the personal collections of Detroit music journalists that will be hosted online. In conjunction with its fiduciary the Detroit Public Library, the Conservancy will host the first Conference on Detroit Sound in May.
But outside of academic pursuits, the best way of preserving Detroit’s musical heritage is to keep on playing it.
“I don’t really see myself as an ambassador for Detroit music necessarily,” says the native-born DJ Mike Servito, who will spin Detroit and Detroit-inspired house and techno as the headliner for Saturday’s event. “I do however get wonderful responses from Detroit records that get thrown into the mix on a regular basis. There is a high level of appreciation for those sounds from both a DJ and audience perspective.”
When Gholz returns home, he’ll be greeted by at least one encouraging development: with support from DSC, United Sound Systems reopened its doors last month for recording and tours, while awaiting reply on their application for designation as a protected historic district.
“Somebody has to be an advocate,” says Gholz. “Unless you are doing it full time, you can’t possibly be at the meeting at 2 p.m. and at 2 a.m. be at the club making the connection with the artist. That’s a full-time job, but that’s what I want to do. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also deeply pleasurable.”Martín Caballero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had incorrect information on Gholz’s tenure at Northeastern.