While at Movement this year, I also got to catch up with Detroit-based producer, singer, and percussionist Alton Miller, who has been playing a role in Detroit house Music for over two decades. He talked a lot about the process of opening a club, the challenges of operating, and how it (unfortunately) transitioned to a close.
So you’re from Detroit. What do you recommend I do while here?
► I’m sure you’ve been to the Motown Museum.
► You need to go to the Motown Museum. Go to Belle Isle. You like pizza? You need to go to Buddy’s Pizza on Conant. Coney Island; there are so many around the city. Greektown; we have about three or four casinos you could to go to.
All sounds good. So I was reading an article the other day about the club you opened way back.
► The Music Institute in 1988.
Yeah, that must have been huge, opening up a club. Tell me more about that process.
► I think about it more now that people people are asking about it. When we started the whole venture, we were all probably 21, really young. It was all based on traveling and lots of clubbing and experiencing the best dance music ever — Twilight Zone in Toronto, Paradise Garage in New York, other clubs in New York, Chicago Music Box— we saw the best sound systems at that time. To take it even further back, I went to my first cub in 1980 when I was probably about 16, to a place called L’uomo Detroit. It changed my life. I figured out, “This is what I want to do.” I had done other things in between that. I’m just a natural lover of music, so I knew I could be doing something with the arts, especially music. So fast forward to high school, I met George Baker who was one of the cofounders. During the time we were traveling a lot, we created a fashion line, but as we got serious about what we were gonna do and eventually say, “Yes let’s create a club in Detroit based on what we’ve seen and experiences,” we got away from the line and left it alone. There were four of us first, and we embarked on a space but something happened with the building that was out of our control so we had to abandon that project. Between the time of abandoning that project and finding a space for The Music Institute, we purchased a system. so we had a system but no place to do it. So, we did two parties at a dance place in Harmony Park in Downtown Detroit and they were amazing and put the stamp of approval on it. We found an old shoe store/office with three floors, each floor was the same size for the most part. It wasn’t very big, but the capacity of the main floor was probably 250. We stripped it, did construction, dry wall, bathrooms, totally gutted it, sanded three floors. We opened sometime in May 1988. It was amazing, had beautiful sound, and the crowd was into it. I would have to say the majority of the people that came there had never experienced anything like it ever. We were in operation for almost two years and that was it.
What were some of the challenges operating it?
► Population density. There were just not enough people to keep the numbers up. We had die hards, people who came every weekend and didn’t miss a day. There was a lady I’m still really good friends with to this day. When we were preparing music — I’d say in about 1985 — I was living in an apartment and we would have not parties but they would become parties. This lady, who was an agent, lived above me. One day she came downstairs and knocked on the door and said, “I’m taking all you to jail, what are you doing, what’s going on?” I said, “We’re working on a club, I’m sorry about the noise, I’m going to give you a private membership to make it up to you.” When we opened, she was there every night. That’s probably the best story that related to the club I had. She’s still an avid fan of the music and still goes out; a true supporter of the music and aesthetic and clubbing and communing in the spirit of dance and music. We ran a private membership just to make sure we were able to control the tone of the crowd and it worked. Creating a family affair, for the most part, you know everybody coming through the door. But again, population density. We just didn’t have the numbers to keep feeding that. You only have a handful of die hards, and the fact we didn’t serve alcohol. We were a private afterhours juice bar. For the most part, we ran out of money, maybe some bad decisions, notably being the fact there was some cosmetic construction that probably could’ve waited to be done after the first year of operation. I remember it taking a long time and when we did shut down to do these changes, it took us a long time to open up again. That hurt us. Also, we had a silent partner who was more so the business guy making [creative] decisions on our behalf. They say if you go into business with someone, it’s like having a wife. In a partnership, people start to have different ideas, different ways they think things should be. Sometimes it becomes a whole lot of difficult and sometimes it gets really ugly. With those three or four things, we decided to just let it go. I wouldn’t say the love for it was lost, but it was difficult to get things done.
Jumping forward to now, it seems like you’ve been doing more traveling. I just saw you’ve recently been to Amsterdam, Paris, and Italy.
► When we closed the club, I moved to Toronto for a year, DJ’ing and doing more producing. Being a lover of music, I wanted to do everything. I’ve been on the label side of things as well. i did some tours with Aretha Franklin, which was a beautiful experience, as part of her percussion troop. I did two years in Paris. I lived in Brussels for a couple years. Now I spend a lot of time in South Africa.
Have any of these places been particularly difficult to adjust to?
► No. I’ve been traveling by myself since I was 13 because I used to go to Boston; my mom would put me on a plane to send me to Boston for the summer. The east coast is a melting pot; there are different ethnicities here in Detroit but not like in the east coast. I started traveling at such a young age, and then the whole club thing, it’s what i do. I can pretty much be anywhere. but at the same time, which is funny now that i think about it, I take Detroit everywhere I go and that helps for some reason.