Omar S' Sister Directed a Play About the Secret History of Detroit Techno
Robbie Taylor grew up with techno greats when they were teens and it was still called "progressive music."
I can't remember the last time I've actually taken a flyer from one of the glazed-eyed people lurking the exits of shows, pushing various shitty afterparties and upcoming festivals at everyone surging out the doors. But last month, while in Detroit for Movement festival, a friend handed me a postcard-sized ad that he'd picked up from a woman standing outside Submerge—the iconic record store and techno museum that serves as Underground Resistance's official headquarters.
The flyer immediately caught my attention, not because it was anything flashy, but rather, the opposite: just a blurred image of a disco diva against softly bleeding rainbow colors, with a few lines of text. It read: The Stage Play—Stories of Detroit Techno.
On the back side of the flyer, there was a list of performers (none of whom I recognized), a phone number, email, and a cryptic address for "Kirby International Institute"—a mysterious venue that confusingly showed up on Google Maps under a different name. (The building turned out to be non-profit organization offering immigration services to low-income families, and a de-facto community center.)
There were few other clues as to what the play was about, or what to expect if you showed up. But that didn't really matter. Someone was staging a play about Detroit techno, and somehow, Omar S—the don of Motor City's stripped-back, minimal house sound—and his label FXHE Records were involved, along with fellow Detroit OGs Eddie Fowlkes, Al Ester, and Luke Hess.
So on Sunday at sunset, I took a quick, ten-minute cab from Movement and arrived at a nondescript grey building. The block was completely deserted save for a few actors in the show, who gave us surprised smiles, stubbed out their cigarettes, and welcomed us inside. A young woman, who turned out to be the director's daughter, stood behind a makeshift table piled with bags of chips and candy for sale.
After paying her $15 each for a ticket, my friends and I shuffled into the auditorium, which was bizarrely lined with international flags and shelves of dolls from around the world. Swiveling in my seat, I noticed that most of the few dozen people in the audience seemed to be middle-aged and local—perhaps friends and family of the cast. Aside from the crew I'd come with, only two other groups looked like rave kids in town for Movement festival.
Over the next hour and a half, I learned the extent of Omar S and the other producers' involvement: Eddie Flashin Fowlkes' early Detroit techno banger "Goodbye Kiss," numerous groovy, grit-speckled tracks by Luke Hess, and original productions by Al Ester wafted in and out of earshot on the soundtrack, along with classics like Evelyn Champagne King's "I'm In Love"—and a rousing intermission performance by local house singer Simon Black.
With endearingly low-budget props and backdrops, local actors, plucked from an open-casting ad, painted an intimate portrait of Detroit techno's formative years—when it was called "progressive music," DJ mixers were subject to battery failure, and European radio was just catching on to the machine-made rumbles coming across the Atlantic.
Woven into the stories of how Detroit's electronic music scene came to be were fascinating flashes of insights into the lives of Eddie Fowlkes, Al Ester, Omar S., and Luke Hess—details that rarely make it into the history books. In one scene, we learn that Omar S fell upon his sound after receiving a keyboard in the mail from his sister in New York City, sparking a lifetime of musical experimentation.
Themes of substance abuse, marital problems, and family conflicts were often explored with a splash of campy humor. In another climactic episode, a fictional DJ struggling with substance abuse issues—who I later learn is based on a well-known techno veteran—slumped in a chair, slurred on the phone to his daughter, and eventually passed out. In a club-appropriate flurry of strobe lights and fog, a towering actor in a black robe playing a Grim Reaper-like role burst on stage, growling, "Looook at this mess. You had it made in the shade!"
When the curtains went down, the director, a warmly charismatic woman named Robbie Taylor, gave a speech thanking everyone involved—and revealed that she was Omar S' sister, the one who'd given him his first keyboard. After several rounds of heartfelt hoots and cheers from the audience, the cast exited the stage, and I chased her down. Seated on a narrow bench in a fluorescent-lit hallway near the bathrooms, as various friends and actors came by to congratulate her, she explained to me how the play came together—and why these stories needed to be told.
THUMP: Why did you choose to run this play at the same time as Movement?
Robbie Taylor: To get the story out there, and let folks know there's a backstory to techno. It doesn't stop at [Derrick] May or Eddie Fowlkes. Those guys were at the same parties in high school as I was, listening to progressive music. My brother was only eight, listening to cassette tapes out of Chicago, which my cousin, Big Strick, who was also a DJ, would get. Progressive music, to me, that's where techno started.
So you felt like it was important to tell these stories that maybe are not included in the popular accounts of Detroit techno history—including DJs who might've been forgotten.
People don't know these behind-the-scenes stories. Kerri in the play—the one who was taking drugs—represents those DJs that didn't quite make it, or they didn't really want to tell their stories. He's a fictional character but is based on somebody real—the real dirt.
Earlier on stage, you said you bought Omar his first keyboard—how did that happen?
I was living in New York, [and was at] Macy's on 34th Street. I was like "Ah! There's this cool keyboard!" Because I knew [Omar] was interested in music, I sent it to him, and here he is, all these years later.
Omar is a pretty mysterious person—he doesn't do many interviews.
He's really shy.
Which is why it was so cool to see this really personal side of his life. The play also centered on stuff like family tensions and substance abuse struggles. Why did you feel like it was important to tell these behind-the-scenes stories?
Because I lived them. Now you have this big "to-do" techno, but where'd it start from? When I was 14, I went to my first progressive party at the Rooster Tail in 1980. Teenagers would meet up at different spots—like hundreds of us—and play this music. We called it progressive music, and it turned into "club" or "house" music, then into techno music. Derrick May and Eddie Fowlkes were at those parties. Al Esters, Juan Atkins... the list goes on.
Where would these parties take place?
There were little high school groups back then that wanted to make money by throwing parties. So they would rent out a facility, pass out flyers, and we all knew where to be. The parties cost like $2 to get in, and we'd hang out until 2 AM.
How did this community of actors and singers come together? You seem like one big family—did you know each other from before?
I studied in New York at the Lee Strasberg school at NYU and the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center uptown. That's where I learned how to write—like, really write. I put on plays for a few years in New York, then I had kids, so I took time off for motherhood. Then I was an acting coach. I found a lot of the actors [for this play] through a casting ad. They're friends now, because that's the type of spirit I have. If I don't act like I'm a diva, then you don't have a right to either. As you go along, you find people with familiar spirits that are easy to work with.
What was the main message the play was trying to convey?
Perseverance. If you stay focused on your purpose—your calling—whatever obstacle comes your way, you can move past it. My brother was working at the Ford Motor Company plant and he had two kids. Music was his calling, that's all he wanted to do—so he kept on at it. You do what you've gotta do, but you stay committed to your passion.
For more information about Stories of Detroit Techno, call 917-415-0039 or email storiesofDT@gmail.com
Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor. Follow her on Twitter.