“All feeling”: An Interview with Al Ester

Al Ester was where it all started and hasn’t left: in the basement parties where the de facto godfather of Detroit dance music Ken Collier honed his craft, mixing alongside the Electrifying Mojo on WGP and befriending Mojo through TNT Incorporated, sneaking away to New York to catch a glimpse of Larry Levan and his Paradise Garage, taking up a DJ residency previously held by Jeff Mills, and hearing out tough love from Frankie Knuckles before he passed. Beginning as a dancer in TNT Incorporated, Al Ester took to DJing after watching Ken Collier and Delano Smith play and dance to records they mixed at L’uomo. Since then, he has become a necessary piece of the puzzle that is the Detroit House and Techno scene since the mid 80’s.

Al is not only an amazing DJ that you have to hear and see to believe, but is also a kind person, an unsung performer, and happenstance historian by being right in the middle of everything as it happened. Before anyone could put a name to the music Mojo played, before the world came down on and subsequently left Motor City a shell of its former self, Al played a pivotal role in the artistic expression and understanding of the Detroit electronic music scene. This interview centers around a mix received by Kristian Hill (director of God Said Give Em’ Drum Machines) of Al Ester and Amir Stein battling on Electrifying Mojo’s “Mix-a-dome” sometime around 1985.

The mix will be streaming tonight (November 18, 2021 at 7pm EST) on 8Ball Radio as a continuation of the “Lost Tapes” mix series. Dweller sat down with Al Ester on September 23, 2021.

Dweller:

Hey Al, how are you doing today? You’re in Detroit, yeah?

Al Ester:

Yes. It’s cold and clammy here. I do this series called, We’re Out Here, on the patio on TV Lounge, and we had to cancel it yesterday because of rain.

D:

Damn. Well, we just heard one of your previously unheard mixes. One of yours where you were doing a radio battle with The Manic Amir Stein.

AE:

Yeah. That was a very long time ago.

D:

I think it’s ’87. I don’t know if there’s a date attached.

AE:

That was before ’87. That was before the Music Institute here in Detroit. That was the best club we ever had here. That had to be ’85. That was about ’85. I remember working at Cheeks and I remember doing that tape right after I got off of work and I had to leave Cheeks and go straight to the radio station to play that. So yeah, that was ’85.

D:

Well, I know a little bit about your history, you had a residency at Cheeks after Jeff Mills left, yeah?. 

AE:

Cheeks was about, let’s see… I started in the middle of ’83 after high school, and I was there until about maybe three or four years, ’87, ’88. Right around the time the Music Institute, I always said that’s a cage, right around the time that came into existence, Cheeks was about to close, and took over another building in downtown Detroit called, The Warehouse. 

D:

And I know you have a big background with radio. How did that come about? I saw you’re with WJZZ.

AE:

That was by happenstance. A friend of mine who owns TV Lounge, where I play every Wednesday, had a hair show. His name’s Tre and was one of the most sought after hairdressers in Detroit. Him, and his up-and-coming buddies, would get together and throw these hair shows at the Grand Quarters. 

I’m doing the music one day at one of the events, and the CEO of WJZZ just happened to be in the audience. And he was listening to my format, and WJZZ had just changed the format from contemporary jazz, I mean straight ahead jazz to contemporary jazz. And they would play acid jazz, you know, like Mr. Fingers stuff. He came up and offered me a job on the spot. And that’s how I got into radio.

D:

Before that, what was your connection to radio? Were you one of those kids who got excited in the car or anything like that?

AE:

Of course. The Electrifying Mojo was also a friend of mine. We had a dance group back in the seventies called TNT Incorporated. And we would always dance on the show called, “The Sing” in Detroit and Electrified Mojo worked at WGPR at the time.  In between takes on the show, I would run to the studio, and listen to Mojo and watch what he was doing, hear him play and stuff like that. So I became interested in radio when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. But I never thought that I would be playing on one of his radio shows. 

D:

While we’re mentioning all of these contemporaries and mentors, one that I feel like I can’t pass up is Ken Collier. I feel like he was just everywhere at that time. What was your connection with him?

AE:

Ken was the quintessential godfather of dance music in Detroit. He and my brother were good friends. My brother and his girlfriend would throw basement parties in our basement. And they would invite Ken to come to these parties, and I just happened to be the DJ. I’m 16 years old, and my brother would go to the Downstairs Pub, these are places where Ken would play. Downstairs Pub and JB’s. And he would come home every night and tell me the records that Ken would play. So sometimes, I’d go out and buy the records myself. Other times, I come home from school, the records would be on my bed.

I started to plan to put them together. When my brother and his girlfriend ran these parties, Ken would come to the basement parties and stand over me and watch me play. I’d be on my own equipment, on my own desk, shaking, because the master was watching. Ken and I became friends that way. Then as time went on, I would open for him at his different establishments, different residencies. I would be the opening DJ for him.

D:

Tell me more about this radio show. I think you were saying ’85, it was with you and Amir Stein. The Motor Line on the Mix-a-dome and people were voting, but I couldn’t figure out what the whole voting thing was. What was that experience like?

AE:

Mojo called it the Mix-a-dome. And it was basically a DJ popularity contest, in a way. It didn’t matter if your set was good or not. If you had the most calls then you were the winner. You won Mix-a-dome. It wasn’t really a contest– It was just a way Mojo showcased local talent.

D:

Tell me more about “The Master Blaster”. Did that name fall to the wayside as the years went on?

AE:

The Master Blaster, I’m not… Master blaster? I’m not sure what that is.

D:

I think that’s what Mojo called you on the Mix was the-

AE:

I totally forgot about that.

D:

It was the Maniac versus the Master Blaster.

AE:

Yeah. I guess that’s something he called me just on the show. I totally forgot about that until you just mentioned it.

AE:

That’s really funny. I’m from the era where you didn’t hide behind, unless you were a trickster, you didn’t hide behind, what do you call it? What word am I looking for? Not pseudonyms, but you didn’t hide behind-

D:

Like a stage name or something.

AE:

You didn’t hide behind a stage name. Right. You have Frankie Knuckles, Larry LaVange, Danny Kravitz. You just used your name, you truly earned your art.

D:

Yeah. It is who you are. It sounds like it was just a portion of it. We had like a little 45 minute snippet, but how long did these little sessions go for? It felt like it went on for much longer than what we heard.

AE:

Because you made this tape promotion, it had two sides. So he would play side one for the first contestant, side two for the second contestant. Then he plays some music in between. Then he played the flip side, part two. So it was about maybe a good two hours, two or three hour show.

D:

Oh, so it wasn’t a live set?

AE:

Well, the audience didn’t know it wasn’t live. As far as they knew we were down there actually spinning.

D:

That’s how I saw it in my head.

AE:

It was all mixtapes. And then at some point, Mojo did have people come down and play live. For instance, Derrick May used to do a lot of Mojo’s edits that we would hear on the radio, and Derrick would do them live in the studio. One in particular that we loved, B-52’s “Mesopotamia”, Derrick would mix that live in the studio. We’d all tune in. It was great.

D:

I was listening back to the Mix-a-dome, and I love the range of not just songs, but also sounds you play with. You’re picking out sounds like it’s almost like a movie soundtrack, you’re playing Twilight Zone. There’s like James Bond references. I think there’s like a Tony Lee track that you’d then mix into a disco track. All that’s in 30 seconds. 

AE:

Pause button editing. You just had to be really quick with your hands. You had to have your records marked, right where the drop the needle, right where the cue points were. Unlike today, with a CDJ, it shows you where the cue points are. The beginning or the end. We did that on vinyl. The highest technology we had was the pause button, on a cassette player. You had to have a good trigger with that. It had to be a pulled trigger. Things are different now.

D:

When I read back and I hear stories and I listen to people were around when Mojo was on the radio and everyone would listen to his tracks and there’s this one story of James Stinson from Drexciya, and he was saying he was riding a bike when he was a kid and he had to stop because a Juan Atkins track played before he even knew who these guys were. He was like, “Oh, that’s the sound. That’s what I want to do.” It just feels like everybody in the city was just waiting on pins and needles with whatever Mojo was going to drop. What is he going to play? How was the feeling in the city when he was really at his peak?

AE:

There was a feeling of anticipation listening to Mojo. We went to school the next day we talked about it. We couldn’t wait to tune in again the next night, to hear what else was going to drop. For instance, when he first played Cosmic Cars on the radio, he didn’t tell the city what it was. He never said, “Juan Atkins, dah, dah, dah. Cybotron…”, he never said that. He played it and he went off to something else we knew.

Then, another hour later he’d play it again. For about a good month and a half, he never told us what that tune was. And then when he finally told us, “Oh, shit. That’s here in Detroit. Oh, shit.” You’d go crazy. Radio stations followed his lead and they all did the same thing with Planet Rock. Planet Rock came out, JLB, DRQ, CHB, all of them played it, and nobody announced it for maybe a month after they’d been playing it. It was just anticipation. You looked forward to good radio.

D:

Yeah. I feel like everybody, at least at that time, has that story. And it does go back to Cosmic Cars. I feel everyone remembers when they heard that song. That was it. There’s a before. And there’s an after.

AE:

Yeah. It was great, man. As a matter of fact, in the 10th grade talent show, we danced to the other side of Cosmic Cars. I think it was called Cosmic Rain Dance or Cosmic Radiance or something like that. That’s how funky it was.

That was a good time for music, man. And back then, we didn’t know that that was techno. We just all thought, “Hey, this song is pretty good.” It’s what everyone thought, but it really didn’t have a name back then.

D:

Very much so. To get back to your mix, this is ’85, ’86. House is going crazy and techno is starting to pick up. Mojo’s playing and although everyone’s getting out of the disco era, you’re still playing a lot of soul, a lot of disco tracks, at least when connected to Amir, who was playing, really just hard and fast house.

AE:

I used to sneak off from Detroit to New York to the Paradise Garage to hear the band play. And that’s where my style came from. I did it twice. And after that second time, I was convinced how I wanted my sets to sound. House wasn’t really as prevalent as it is now.

There were five or six house records and everyone got them. Larry influenced me heavily on how I wanted my overall sound to play. And not that he was a great mixer, because he was not, but he knew how to tell a story. He knew how to tell a story. So, I followed him a lot, Frankie Knuckles, Ken Collier, of course. Stacey Hale influenced me a great deal. She gave me little tidbits of not to put my finger on the platter when I mix, because you could hear the dragging. She gave me little tips. “Make the records talk, don’t step on words,” stuff like that. Stacey taught me stuff like that.

D:

So you went to the Paradise Garage twice. Did you ever get to meet Larry? Or he was just up in the booth?

AE:

No, no. Way too crowded.  I always admired the DJ booth at The Garage because you couldn’t get to it. It was unattainable. It was unreachable. You just look up and see him, that was it. Sort of like this club that used to be here called, Taboo. No one could access the DJ booth. 

D:

I like that too, it makes you feel like you can’t just stare at the DJ like a spectacle. Just enjoy the space you’re in. Enjoy your friends.

AE:

Right. I don’t even mind the staring. Just don’t come trying to talk to me when I’m playing.

D:

Do you enjoy that sort of isolation when you’re on the radio? No one’s coming up to you for requests. It’s a different environment.

AE:

Right. But here’s the thing about radio. When you’re playing live on radio it’s like playing in your basement because there’s no one around except for you, a host, an engineer, and maybe the station manager if they stuck around. It’s easy to lose yourself and forget that you’re playing for tens of thousands of listeners. Because it’s just like you playing in your bedroom or your basement by yourself. It’s not a big crowd. You have no audience to look– to gauge– the reaction of your music.

D:

Try to put us in that basement. What does your practice look like when you’re about to sit down and either you’re making a mix to send off to somebody, or just for yourself, how do you come to build and craft a story when you’re mixing?

AE:

It’s the same principle I use when I used to DJ contests. I pick the first three tunes and the first three tunes have to make perfect sense. If those do, when those gel, then the rest of them will follow. The rest of it happens. It’s nothing you can plan. “I’m going to play this record, that record, that record.” The first three tunes, I do that. “Okay, I’m going to open this. I’m going to try to do this, then I’m going to start with this. I’m going to then come into this.” After that, you just got to wing it.

D:

Then it’s feeling. It’s all feeling after that.

AE:

Yeah, exactly. And, if your feeling’s on point, then the whole set will make sense. You can’t play a song that says, “I love God. I love God.” Then the next song be, “I want to kick your ass. I want to kick your ass.” It’s got to make sense.

D:

A rule of three.

AE:

But that’s not for everybody. Some people, if [the beat] matches, the beat is there and they’d roll with it. You can listen to someone’s set and see they’re not telling a story. They’re just playing music. I always try to tell a story.

D:

When I was going back, listening to that cassette, it made me think about just those moments where it can feel so intimate. Something about radio can feel so intimate and at the same time knowing you’re with so many other people…but not? I really miss that attention to detail, where those spaces were created. A lot of that’s on internet radio now, but I don’t know how you feel about that. As you see the radio going away from the airwaves and into… the cloud? the web? I don’t know. How do you feel about internet radio these days?

AE:

I can count the times on one hand I’ve listened to internet radio.

D:

Word.

AE:

Yeah. Honestly, I’m just being honest. I don’t.

D:

So what are you listening to these days? You’re locked into records? Are you still on the radio?

AE:

I’ll think about tunes that I loved when I didn’t have a residency. I’ll pull those up and think about how I can put them into my set today. That’s what I listen to. Basically, I go to YouTube and just think about old tunes that when they were out and they were popping, I never really had anywhere to play them. I’ll go and pull those up and piece those into a set. That’s basically what I listen to. Or, if I’m just going to sit back and listen to some music, it’s going to be the Haight-Ashbury, that whole hippie era.

D:

Yeah. 60’s psychedelic. Counterculture.

AE:

Exactly. Grace Slick, Green Tambourine, stuff like that.

D:

Oh man. I have a big soft spot in my heart for that sound.

AE:

And that stuff is so cool, man if you listen to it, you really listen to it. Some of it can really be revamped and would work on today’s dance floors.

D:

So it sounds like you’re crate digging on YouTube. You still make it to a record store every now and then, or how do you approach music these days?

AE:

It all depends on where I have to take it. A lot of times it’s lounging and I’ll play in my backyard like a barbeque or it’s a party and make them scream and stuff like that. It all depends on where I have to take it, basically. It depends on where I have to go with it.

D:

Earlier I spoke with Stacey Hale and she said that quite often she doesn’t really understand how a lot of mixes these days will only be an hour set, or even two hours, to where if you really want to tell the story, it needs to go into the 3, 4, 5-hour territory. And as someone who goes to DJ sets nowadays, it’s usually an hour or two.

AE:

Yeah. That makes sense, because that’s really all the promoters are paying the DJ to play for. “Well, here I have an hour. I want you for an hour.” That’s because of what I call DJ Circus. We come from the era, Stacey and myself and Ken, where we had a DJ open and the main DJ. That was it. These days you have five, six, seven, sometimes eight DJs for a four-hour party. I understand, the time restraint is different. And the promoters, sometimes they’ll only want to pay you for an hour. So you have to do what you can, you get in where you fit in, if you will. Do what you can in the time that allows. 

D:

Looking back, how have you seen this whole space change in front of you? Techno has gone a long way away from Detroit. It goes overseas now.

AE:

It’s already changed. The soulful part, the real heart of it, is stagnant. And now, it’s just about because it’s a part of pop culture. Any kid with an iPhone can be a DJ. It’s been watered down now, if you ask me. The real heart and soul of it to me is what it is. That part of it, the soulful, the real meaning of it, it’s not going to grow anymore because now it’s a whole different ball game, even ballpark. It’s being commercialized, if you will.

D:

Sounds like there’s an issue with democratization or the accessibility of it all. Do you feel like you should put the work in, before you get to get on these stages?

AE:

Yes, you should. You don’t have to pay dues anymore. If you can afford top of line equipment, then you can be a DJ, you can be a top of line DJ. To me, it doesn’t work that way. But, that’s just the social standard where things are now. What are you going to do, sit back and complain to anyone who will listen? It won’t work. Just keep doing what you do and hope people still enjoy you, what you do.

D:

To be honest, I was trying to find a bunch of stuff on you. Going through the internet and there are only a handful of articles about you. That’s a shame because you’re such a pillar in the history and community of this thing.

AE:

I’m just unsung. I’m unsung.

D:

I hate that. I just want to say that. I don’t know how you feel about that, but…

AE:

I understand. What am I going to do? I asked Derrick May a long time ago. This is back in front of the Music Institute, about ’87. I said, “Derrick, take me overseas with you and let me open for you.” He said, “Al, you have so much talent, you don’t need me to go overseas. Just make a record.” It’s what he said. “Just make a record.” I’m going to be honest with you, man, my heart is not in production. I don’t have the patience for it. I tried it to where I hear it in my head, it never translates to my ears, my head down, and I’m frustrated. But then I get frustrated easily. I don’t have the patience for it. I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t have the patience for it.

Frankie Knuckles told me before he passed away, he said, “Al, listen. If you want to stay relevant in this game, you’re going to need more than just to have a cute little two or three hours set. You gotta take it to the next level. You put on some records, put out some…” And I told him the same thing, “Frankie. I just don’t have the patience.” So maybe that’s why I am where I am.

D:

Earlier, we spoke about the accessibility of music now, do you feel like maybe back then, I could feel [the pressure of] “Oh, let me learn an MPC.” Or, you got to go into a studio booth, but now, you have people making platinum selling records, and it’s all on their iPad. You know what I mean?

AE:

Right, exactly. Like what’s his name, Chance the Rapper. He won those Grammys. And he did that on a home computer. But for me, it’s just, I don’t know the production part of it, truthfully, I’m not interested. I’m just not interested.

D:

That’s real.

AE:

You want to make it, and I’ll play it.