Music is universal. It is the one language that has the power to excite young and old alike, unite during celebration and hard times, and soothe the savage beast as it lulls baby to sleep. But could there be one style of music that captures all the possible facets of this art form’s capacity for emotion? Perhaps we’ll never know, but this year, I had the exciting opportunity to speak with two of Detroit’s house music legends: Darryl G and DJ Tone.
These DJs have delivered us 25 years of chest-pumping, booty-shaking, heel-kicking bops via the Hotter than July stage and have been described as producing a “one-of-a-kind sound, absolutely like no other.” The way this group of peers gleamed as they spoke of house music and its influence on the annual Black Gay Pride festival, certainly made a compelling argument for house to take its title as music king.
When asked to examine his influence on Hotter Than July’s music-driven attraction, longtime disc jockey Darryl G showed impressive modesty as he contemplated his more than three-decade career and the unconventional path led the house-focused DJ from Port Huron to Detroit. He began work for a popular radio station, WDRQ-93.1, in the late ’80s, with his own radio mix segment and immersion into music culture. House music was ever-present during that time he said, recalling the days when Detroit mixes would play on the radio on a Friday or Saturday night.
It seemed like this was what people loved and wanted until, one day, they didn’t. Fixated on where it went and how so quickly, my curiosity was piqued, so I asked the panel of two DJs: Why did it disappear from radio? I was politely checked. As it were, the genre did not disappear. In fact, it went underground and boomed into a phenomenon.
To the majority of Hotter Than July-goers, details of the event include raucous music, vivacious dancing and laughter and showing Pride in all that we hold dear in the LGBTQ community. Good times. Times that have become cherished. However, there was a time when the event almost did not include a repetitive four-on-the-floor beat, a tempo of a 120 beats per minute and sickening lady vocals ringing out to the gods.
Darryl G witnessed this shift. He said that through a combination of the rise of hip-hop, the media and a need to cater to the most current generation, no mainstream place was left for this music that he says “was for everyone.”
“I saw it draw people in. The feel of it touched more than the gay community even,” he said.
Still, in a place destined to be null of house, the genre persevered. To understand more, the DJ Tone offered his story.
As a preteen of the late ’80s, music for DJ Tone — then known as just Tone, a hobbyist of music and distributor of mixtapes for his family and friends — was all that he lived and breathed. Inherently, he embraced the death of the disco era and rolled the wave of a new form of underground disco called house.
“It wasn’t Top 40s,” he said. “It wasn’t gay music.”
As Tone acquired his professional musical moniker, he began working with DJ Tony Peoples. Through his collaboration, Tone’s popularity grew and requests stacked up for his appearances at house parties, ball events and clubs.
He described listening to house as “listening with all your senses.”
“Every part of you wants more of the music,” he said.
It was liberation from the stress of work and family life, and all one’s stress went away because the reverberating baseline in the genre captured all focus. That baseline can be heard at HTJ today, and DJ Tone attributes this regular sound at HTJ being salvaged by none other than Darryl G in 2003.
In tandem, the influx of hip-hop began taking over sound waves, including Pride events. As it went, more and more focus was being placed on what radio dictated to be jam-worthiness, stepping away from disc jockeys, whose main aim was to move the people to the music less heard.
The Legacy of Detroit’s DJs
History shows us that once upon a time, in a land pre-Spotify, Apple Music and Soundcloud, DJs were the driving force behind what was heard on the radio. Of course, today’s music streaming prowess has monopolized influence over what’s available at our fingertips. Darryl G detailed how radio programmers would go out to nightclubs to hear what DJs were spinning in order to make their playlists for local radio broadcasts. The antiquated practice all but vanished as the social media and instant-gratification era dawned. Yet the essence of the disc jockey continues to light the flame of unadulterated experiences. Perhaps the likes of Darryl G, Tone and others took their cue from The Wizard — a pioneering DJ reaching his height of fame in the mid-to-late ’80s for his techno/house setlists.
“You are probably a lot younger than us, so you won’t know who The Wizard was,” DJ Tone said with a laugh. “Jeff Mills. I was a kid when I would hear him playing techno, he was playing house, he was playing everything that the mainstream Black DJs were not playing on the radio. He was introducing us to a lot of stuff. And that was in ’85. I was 10 years old and I was drawn to music. I’ve always been drawn to that music.”
Musical Change at Hotter Than July
The notion that something was being overlooked at HTJ was brewing amongst these leaders because they answered an ask that was never truly verbalized. Tone revisited his memory of watching Darryl G setting up his equipment in an unofficial spot at the park at the start of HTJ one year. Hauling all his loudspeakers and microphones he embodied being the change he wanted to see.
“No one asked me to do it, I chose to play music that I missed from previous Prides I attended,” he said.
Bit by bit, the crowd moved closer tapping into songs he was blasting like “Extravaganza” or “The Bells.” And he was delighted as the appreciation for it started to blossom within an unfamiliar generation.
The members of the panel attribute this sudden “it-factor” to the blend of other genres that started happening with the house sound.
“When I was growing up there was the Top 40 influence. I was into Madonna and other alternative stuff. I used to love a band called The Cure and they all touched on it [House],” he said. “I’d see a band upstairs at St. Andrews and I hear a remix to house music of their song downstairs at the Shelter.”
This dynamic beast of house music created numerous subgenres from tropical to futuristic.
When asked how it’s managed to maintain competitive relevancy, at the world’s second-oldest and longest-running Black Gay Pride event, DJ tone said the answer is simple.
“You were listening to Jeff Mills and you were hearing him introduce you to all this music,” DJ Tone said. “He was playing the B-52s, he was playing Prince, he was playing house music, he was playing techno, he was playing everything. And that’s what’s missing — why kids are so closed-minded now. When it comes to music, we were fed everything.”
The Link Between LGBTQ and House
The DJs began to talk amongst themselves about changes in peoples’ musical tastes, but there was still a question that bothered me about LGBTQ people and house music: Why us? Why has it been so synonymous with this specific community when it is clear that it was created for everyone? Darryl G offered his thoughts on the genre being king at the moment.
“In the beginning, when I started going to Hotter Than July, a lot of the time I didn’t know these DJs. I just heard the music and came running. You had Allen Ester, you had Melvin Hill, Stacy Hale, Kelly Hand — you had all these DJs going out there and banging this incredible music. That evolved, and, at some point, I began spinning out there, Tone and Tony Peoples came later, but we were all able to get in there on the box. We all played house music. We’ve always all been a little different from each other. We often played some music in common — but it was all house music, like hip-hop is now, that is what house music was to us, when we were the main generation.”
However, it was also during that period, the mid-to-late ’90s, that the music at Hotter Than July was being swayed by the increasingly popular genre of hip-hop. The DJs at the time answered this by dubbing hip-hop lyrics to house beats.
“The people of the LGBTQ community took it and ran with it,” Darryl G said.
DJ Tone chimed in agreement, noting that emcees at gay bars started rephrasing the hip-hop house songs with lyrics that catered to gay culture. Catchy hooks combined with a hip-hop-flavored house beat went on to become actual records that later joined the house music arsenal. Thus, a new wave of attention was being placed on house in the gay scene.
The Start of a Shift
“Club promoters wanted to eradicate it altogether,” DJ Tone said.
He believes the more palatable genre of hip-hop ushered in masculine-themed narratives, placing gay bars and clubs on an equal, “less gay” playing field.
“I noticed a shift. In my opinion, the change in the music made them want to promote something different. That shift of House music being removed and hip-hop being implanted, it was to say that house was for the flamboyantly, feminine gay male and hip-hop is to promote a DL masculine [male].”
Before house faded too far into the background, the men on my panel made a choice: they were inspired by the genre, so they chose to keep inspiring others. And that’s still seen today: Darryl G’s old-school pioneering and Tone’s new-school way of upholding traditions has, without doubt, shaped musical memories for the Hotter Than July masses. One thing is clear: the all-encompassing sounds that make your heart sing and body move aren’t going anywhere. As I continue to look forward to the HTJ in years to come, I know that the allegiance of fans of house music will save a place for it in our music kingdom as royalty.