FROM ACROSS A WIDE, GRASS-BANKED BOULEVARD, Kenny Dixon Jr., better known as the DJ and producer Moodymann, sidles over. It’s a warm, sticky Thursday afternoon, but for a light breeze, which causes the Prince-purple curtains obscuring the windows of the two story house in front of us to twist and billow.
Inside is where Dixon Jr. records, amid stacks of Prince memorabilia, across the street from Submerge Records, the appointment-only record store-slash-museum, which also acts as a base for techno collective, Underground Resistance. Travel west, down the same boulevard, and you’ll eventually hit the Motown museum on the same site Berry Gordy Jr. founded the Motown Records label, and where Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder all recorded. Kenny Dixon Jr. fits within this Detroit canon. Since releasing a number of mysterious, hard-to-find 12-inch records in the early 1990s (which The Face magazine described as “fueling a cult of ownership”), he’s gone on to craft some of the most woozy, seductive house records of the past twenty years, under the name Moodymann. As well as captivating crowds of party-goers across Europe and America.
Those familiar with Dixon Jr.’s work perhaps wouldn’t recognize him. Today, his hair is braided into cornrows, instead of the blown-out afro and large round sunglasses that he wears on his 1997 Silentintroduction LP cover (an idiosyncratic black and white graphic that, somehow, allows him to maintain anonymity). Up until 2007 he carried out live performances behind a curtain, and even today, his DJ sets see him attempt to obscure his identity in some way, by either wearing huge glasses or a mask.
This weekend, however, anonymity isn’t something he needs to worry about. Not for Soul Skate, the high-energy, semi-surreal skate party he’s hosted in Detroit since 2007 (a biennial since 2008). “Most people here don’t know him as Moodymann; they just know him as Kenny from Soul Skate,” Flo Real, a Viennese DJ and part of his touring crew, explains later. Most of the two thousand-odd attendees of this four-day festival are here for one thing: to skate. Community trumps celebrity around here; those looping rings around the rink each night see faces circle into a blur, as they rapidly swim past each other, weaving in and out of groups from all over the country. That suits Dixon Jr. just fine. Because this is about subculture–skating and his hometown. Forget ego and personal gain. “I do this for Detroit. We make a loss on it, but that doesn’t matter,” he says proudly, before excusing himself. The Soul Skate 2018 opener is only a matter of hours away. But he’s promised his grandmother he’d mow her lawn first.
THURSDAY, May 24th. THE WARM-UP: 9:00pm—1:00am
“FIRE IN THE HOOOOOOLE.”
It’s about 10.15pm at the Detroit Roller Wheels rink, little over an hour after opening, and about the fourth time I’ve heard this bellowed. The culprit is a man called CeCee, his mouth obscured by a white folded bandana, matching his white basketball jersey and shorts. With each circuit, just as he hits the mouth of the rink, where arrivals lace up their skates and people greet old friends, the chant from CeCee and his skating-partner, Big Al, goes up. Big Al is wearing a Zorro-like mask, and they look like a roller derby Bonnie and Clyde (albeit both guys). Each drawn-out “fire in the hooooooooole” is followed up by a guttural, sputum-hocking “YAH!”, like a grunt as if their throats need clearing.
Tonight is merely the “warm up” (or so I’m told), a chance for amateur skaters who have travelled from all over the US – and further afield, with Germans and Londoners joining in – to blow off the cobwebs. It’s meant to be low-key, easing everyone in before a weekend of going hard at it. Shooting around the rink, filling the air with war-cries as he goes, it's evident nobody has told CeCee.
About an hour later, he takes a break. With a stocky build that belies his skating finesse, he sits on a bench in a recess area filled with arcade games, and a place where you can buy pizza by the slice and large cups of soda. He’s removed the bandana from his face, now lacquered with sweat under the harsh arcade lighting. He smiles, “It’s like a signature,” before again calling out “Fire in the hooooole. Yarghh!,” but a little quieter this time. His jersey, and those of the rest of his crew, is emblazoned with the same slogan – both of which, to anyone familiar with this scene in the US, tell you he’s from Baltimore.
CeCee is a founding member of the Baltimore Low Riderz, established in 1988. They regularly travel the US to attend events like this. Back home, he is a psychiatric nurse, but he switched shifts this weekend just to be here. “I’ve been skating for 53 years,” he says. “I started skating in the street when I was six or seven years old, then I started skating indoors when I was 11 years old. I’ve been rolling ever since. I’m 63 years old now.” Which, with a rally-cry that deep, and arms as powerful as his, seems unbelievable. As is the fact that he’s currently recovering from a torn ligament in his knee (but he says he’ll be back with a brand new one). Any other year, a break this early in the evening would have been unthinkable, he adds. He’d have been gliding across that hardwood until 1am.
CG: How many of your crew have come to Detroit for this?
CC: Let me see... About 1-2-3-4-5, here and now. There’s 4 more coming tomorrow.
CG: Tell me a bit about your crew.
CC: We don’t just skate and host parties, we’re also a very big part of our community. Every year, for the last nine years, we do a toy drive where we send over a 100 children at least six to eight toys apiece. We also feed the community on Thanksgiving, and we try to deliver at least 200 plates of food to the homeless shelters. But we do it between midday and 3pm, so we can go and spend the rest of the evening with our family. You know, we are all family people.
We also try to give out between 200 to 500 book bags, as school starts up. I had one of my club members die three years ago of cancer. Something we recently started was a scholarship fund in her name. So far we’ve only been able to honor two children, but we’re gonna pick up the pace this year with a couple of new fundraisers, so we can try to enrol more children.
CG: That’s amazing.
CC: We give them anywhere between 200 to 500 dollars towards their college. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.
“Excuse me, how are you all doing?” interjects a slender man. He stands over six feet, with square-rimmed glasses and a silver chain around his neck. As I later learn, he is one of the fiercest skaters going. (He also appears to have a new female skate partner each evening, guiding them around the rink gently, in a way that’s sort of canoodling in constant motion.) The next morning, I see him at one of the daytime Soul Skate events dressed in silk-looking pajama pants, adorned with a Playboy motif, and a pair of pool slides.
“This is one of my domino buddies from Atlanta,” explains CeCee. His name’s Paul. They’ve know each other at least 10 years. “We knew each other from the rink but we met personally over the domino table. That’s how we do it,” Paul laughs. “You will see us playing tomorrow,” adds CeCee. “Hey Paul! I got my dominos. My wife put them in my skate bag!”
SATURDAY, May 26th. SOCIAL/DAY PARTY: 1:00pm—6:00pm
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN THEY FIRST TOOK THE STABILIZERS OFF? Or when your first tentative, bambi-ankled steps on an ice-rink became fuller, confident strides? That moment, on the precipice of disaster, when you’re suddenly steady, and the momentum propels you, faster and faster forward. You’re doing it. Quicker you go. Do you remember the exhilaration? You’ve navigated danger, harnessed it for your own enjoyment, hurtling down the street, or along a track, or, in this case, around a parquet-floored rink.
Bending your knees, that’s the trick to staying upright. Then, with a little practise, you’re flying, shooting through alleyways between slower skaters, and overtaking them fearlessly from the outside. It’s that feeling, untethered to adult concerns, recalling the adrenalin of your youth, that keeps you coming back.
Nashid Muhammad, 66, remembers that feeling. He’s older and slower now, but still limber, still slick, prowling around the rink, slipping past people in one easy motion. He describes his style as “old school,” also joking that some of the “youngsters can’t keep up... Skating like they skate, their knees won’t last till my age,” he adds, avuncular not condescending.
Nashid pulled on his first pair of skates at the age of ten, back when skating took hold in the 1960s, largely in African American communities. The disco era in the latter half of the decade and early 70s propelled it further, with people skating around rinks across the country, a disco ball overhead refracting strobe lights. But the scene and the community has evolved beyond that. Today, it’s a melange of styles – of fashion and dancing – with several generations sharing the same rink, from those just old enough to sip liquor (although Soul Skate is alcohol-free) to veterans of the scene like Nashid and his wife Denise. They’ve been skating together for twelve years. Between them, they cover most of the skate events across the country, selling their home-made merch, including sleeveless leather jackets and towels featuring slogans like “Let’s Roll.”
CG: You’re from Atlanta originally?
NM: I live in Atlanta, but I’m from New York.
CG: New York! Right. Was skating a big part of youth culture growing up?
NM: Yeah. It has always been. We have been skating for the last 70 years. I don’t know how it originated, but in almost all the major cities, here in the United States, in the black communities, we were skating. I mean, Soul Skate is 90 percent African American. But you have skate music that is a mix of cultures. We have been doing it in every city and every state. Most states got something like 15 to 20 rinks. In Atlanta, we got about a dozen rinks down there.
CG: Is it a culture that is growing?
CG: It seems huge...
NM: Were you at the rink last night? It will be almost twice that tonight. The rink that it’s going to be held in tonight, that holds 5,000 people. I would say there was about 1,200 in here last night. And it is going to be double that. This is the main event.
CG: Do you remember your first pair of skates?
NM: Chicago's, with wooden wheels. I bought them myself. I’m 66 now. People won’t believe me because of how young I act when I skate.
CG: What is the best track to skate to? Is there one particular song?
NM: As long as there is a steady flow, I don’t care what you play. You can play organ. So as long as it has that beat. The only time I listen to Hip-Hop is on skates. If it’s got a beat, it don’t matter. It can be The Beatles, it can be The Temptations, it doesn’t matter.
SATURDAY, May 26th. THE MAIN EVENT: 11:00pm—5:00am
THE TRACK MOMENTS IN LOVE, by the esoteric British synth-pop group Art Of Noise, first appeared on the group’s debut EP, Into The Battle with Art of Noise in 1983. It was then released a year later as an extended 10-minute track on the album Who's Afraid of the Art of Noise?, before being released again, shortened, as a commercial single five years later.
It’s ambient, brooding in places, like industrial elevator music in others, engineered off-the-back of their view of what the future might sound like. It turns out they weren’t far off. Oddly, Moments In Love is played regularly at Soul Skate, mixed into a melange of funk, disco and trap music. I say oddly, because it doesn’t sound out-of-place here in 2018. For one DJ to have it in his set might be the sign of an accomplished crate-digger, but for four to drop it nightly suggests it’s surreptitiously snuck its way into the skating community’s collective soundtrack.
“The skate world is a funny thing when it comes to music,” explains Coochie, part of Detroit’s Soul Skate team, who has dyed her hair purple for the weekend, in line with the team’s Prince-inspired colors. “We look for a certain style. Certain music makes you skate a certain way.” As does, it turns out, where you’re from. “In DC, they skate a certain way. [On the] East Coast they snap, so they look for a certain boom-bap snapping,” she says. “Chicago, of course, is ‘JB’, James Brown, because of the funky style they have. And they skate to that beat; as soon as you hear that music, your body follows. As soon as I hear a JB, I go off to that mode.” As for her home-team, Detroit: “we roll and we slide, so we do a faster pace skating. We like a lot of old school funk.”
Good skate DJs and disco DJs are immiscible. They’re the same thing, playing music to the mood. Whatever genre, as long as it has that bounce, that beat, if you can skate to it, they’ll play it. DJ Big Bob is widely considered one of the best on the scene, a figure whose legendary status isn’t so much based on his track selection, but his ability to control the room with an on-the-money bpm. “I make it 120-122 [beats per minute] at most,” he says. “You can’t make them race too fast, you gotta keep it a little funky. If you go too fast, they won’t last long.”
VIEWED FROM ABOVE, THE RINK SWELLS with the peristalsis motion of a living organism. There’s an ebb-and-flow, groups edging forwards and back again at different speeds, with different styles, yet still appearing as one. DJs like Big Bob drive this, shifting the tempo to near fever-pitch, at the tipping point of well-oiled chaos, then quickly bringing it back down to prevent a pile-up.
Saturday evening is the main event – a six-hour marathon that finishes at 5am, held at the Northland Skating Rink on Eight Mile road. It’s a cavernous aircraft hangar of a rink, rows and rows of disco balls hanging from the rafters. It’s packed and hot as hell. The air conditioning is apparently broken, but it’s not slowing the steady stream of people filing in; the skaters come prepped, with a hand-towel tucked into their waistband. I’ve managed to strategically place myself behind a woman with a fan as she watches from the side, catching a second-hand breeze.
Sweat and dehydration won’t stop anyone tonight (there are no breaks save for fifteen minutes for a special guest performance by Rudolph Isley, of The Isley Brothers). Late arrivals hover at the edge of the rink, waiting for a chink in the flow to slip into the circling masses. In the center of the rink, a crowd gathers to watch the smoothest and slickest on eight wheels, twisting and popping in a quasi-dance-off. This is called “working in the middle,” Coochie tells me. “It is when you express your skate-style.”
There’s a steady hum throughout, the sounds of hundreds of skates whirring over polished wood, and it’s hypnotic watching the blur of bodies shoot by. Remarkably, there’s only a handful of trips and tumbles (when they happen, bypassing skaters are quick to pick them up and push them back into the moving crowd). Only at a couple of points do tonight’s DJs – DJ Narsistic and DJ Arson – need to cut the music altogether to stem the crowd’s flow.
To an outsider, it’d be easy for Soul Skate come off as kitsch – a large-scale roller-disco. But it’s not. It is four days devoid of cynicism or affectation. It’s hard not to get caught up in it, swept into the skating maelstrom, considering going home to practise, and come back two years later to step onto the rink. Or at least, I did...
You sense that there’s something that allows the participants, whoever they are – 45-year-old single mothers or former NBA stars (both were in attendance) – to let everything else go. And there’s something in the borderline-chaos, people skating in different styles at breakneck speed, that seems to focus the mind. You are in your own slipstream, free to lose your inhibitions and skate however the hell you want to.
SUNDAY, May 27th. ADULT PROM: 3:00pm—7:00pm
EVEN IF YOU KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT OF DETROIT, the number of abandoned houses punctuating the city’s landscape can still shock you. Boarded up and burnt-out, you know that socially and economically, it’s a city struggling with its internal politics. That doesn’t define the city, but you can’t ignore it: ads tied to lampposts querying, ‘Struggling to pay bills or rent?’, or declaring ‘Houses bought for cash’ in bold lettering. Looking around, a seemingly innocuous hook from Detroit rapper Danny Brown is brought into sharp focus:
AND WHERE I LIVE IT WAS HOUSE, FIELD, FIELD
FIELD, FIELD, HOUSE,
ABANDONED HOUSE, FIELD, FIELD
It’s the voice of experience that, seven years after the track was released, still rings true. In some parts, the vacant lots do outweigh the occupied houses.
An industrial city with a once-booming automotive industry and, as a result, wealth, Detroit was the city that other American cities looked to as an example of excellence. And then, in the face of industrial decline, shifting technologies and cheaper labor elsewhere, it was quickly left to fend for itself by its own government. It’s not controversial to comment that racial disparity has something to do with it – Detroit’s population is 90% African American, and as of 2015, its Congress was 80% white.
In 2008, the recession hit, and in 2013 the city filed for bankruptcy with the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in US history, its debt estimated at $18-20 billion. Coochie, born and raised in Detroit, is one of many who lost her job.
“I’ve always worked, since I was 14. I had to remember, ‘What is it that I love to do when I’m not working? What do I wish I had time for?’ I’d worked so much that I didn’t know what my life consisted of anymore,” she says. “I was getting unemployment [benefits] and I had enough. I lived up the street from the skating rink, so my sister and I decided, let’s go back skating. This was in 2008, and I don’t think we’d skated since 1992-93. When we had that
downtime, we skated and we’ve never looked back.”
CG: How long does it take you and the Detroit team to organize this whole weekend?
C: Normal skate parties are once a year, but we do ours every two years so we can get the turnout and the effect that we have. It takes a lot of time and planning. We wanted the turnout [to be] right, we don’t want anything thrown together. We don't want to rush and just do anything. We try to do our best; our hospitality [is] what people want.
CG: Does that come from Kenny [Dixon Jr.]? He seems like a bit of a perfectionist?
C: He is, he is. He is a very structured man, a very idealistic man. He is very strategic, but he has this intuition and is always thinking, always improving, improving, improving.
I remember we were all skating, but once he put a group [that eventually became the Soul Skate Detroit team] together, he was picking people based on how he wanted to make this weekend come into fruition. He decided he wanted something big, he wanted something – how can I say... We would travel a lot and you can see different skate styles, and I guess he wanted to do something better than what he had seen out there.
CG: And he skates too?
C: Oh yes.
CG: I’ve not seen him skate all weekend!
C: He’s working. I don’t have my skates now – this is work for us. But we travel, we go to other states, we have fun. But we have to make sure we work and take
care of everything that’s needing taken care of, and service the people. So we really don’t have the time to skate. This is a busy weekend for us, so yeah, you probably won’t see him skate right now. But wow!
CG: Is he a good skater?
C: He is like Fred Astaire on roller skates.
We’re sat in the refrigerated air of The Magic Stick, a three-storey music venue in the heart of Detroit, as the pavements outside simmer under the Sunday afternoon sun. Coochie is dressed in the team’s characteristic purple – a long flowing dress, as today’s afternoon event has been dubbed “The Adult Prom.” It provides a little non-skating respite from the high energy of the previous nights, with people dancing and drinking on the roof-terrace, and uploading group-selfies to Facebook. She stops to sip water, losing her voice as we hit the final stretch. This is when her and her fellow Soul Skate organizers finally get to hit the rink.
She’s excited – exhausted, but excited. “People are serious. But there's never harsh competition. It’s always friendly competition where you’re just showing your skill set.”
“They’re all like professional skaters,” Coochie adds, describing the skills of those she’ll share a rink with on the final night. “You would think these people get paid to skate. But this is our release; this is our sanctuary. This is our church.”
Photography by Joshua Woods
Words by Calum Gordon