Alton Miller is someone who doesn’t seem to get the headlines of his Motor City peers. Given that he has amassed a discography full of essential house music and plenty of killer vocal tracks, is a soul infused DJ with a heart swelling sound, and even started celebrated Detroit club The Music Institute with Chez Damier and George Baker, that’s hard to work out why.
He grew up in the seventies inspired by the legendary Ken Collier, and greats like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, before later befriending Derrick May. As well as DJing he had an interest in conga drumming which has always informed the loose limbed, funky style of his house tracks, and by the late 90s was well established locally. Peacefrong, KMS, Planet E, Moods & Grooves… you name any decent and enduring label and Alton has released on it. What’s more, despite the fact he started out 30 years ago, he is currently in a purple patch of releases that continue to bring real musicality to the scene.
As he works on his new album for Sound Signature, we catch up with him to talk gentrification, inspiration and the evolution of Detroit, but also make the mistake of getting a little political.
I understand it was Derrick May who got you into spinning records. What did he teach you?
No it was not Derrick that initially got me into spinning records, but he was influential for sure. I had a friend in grade school who use to throw parties at his house and I would DJ at the parties, this was around 1979, and in 1980 I saw Ken Collier DJing at a club in Detroit called Luomo. I met Derrick in 82 or 83. I liked his energy and his knowledge of music.
Has the art of the DJ evolved and changed since way back then?
I think that technology has allowed us to do things creatively that we could not do before. I am firm believer in it’s not what you have but how you use it. I think the mission is still the same and that is to educate, uplift, move, inspire and spread love through music.
Generally, how has the scene changed? It’s a much more visual lead world now, there is more focus on the artist than the music.
I agree that it is more visually lead. I think that artists must stay true to who they are and all else will take care of itself. Social media is the key to many doors and allows us to be many places at one time. But that also means that the longevity of music and an artist relevancy is very short which means we have to work all the time. Adaptation has always been part of the industry, so I make it work for me.
You famously started the Music Institute – what was that like, what were the challenges, how do you feel about that time now you look back?
We created the Music Institute in the spirit of the Paradise Garage, The Loft, The Music Box and so on. The sound system and the spirit of dance were our canvases to work from. Our intent was to open a club in Detroit that reflected the spirit of those great clubs that mentioned. Luomo was the only one that had come close.
How do you feel about how much club culture has changed and become more visual, showy, and flashy, with LED screens, lights, lasers and so on?
I don’t play a lot of places like that. A good balance of that is great, but sometimes it can be a bit too much. Ultimately, it’s the rapport between the DJ and the floor that makes a good party.
How do you feel about so many white Europeans getting so hugely rich off playing house music? Do you feel originators have been forgotten?
First you have to understand that house music is many things to many people. The DJs that are getting rich don’t play soulful house, Afro, broken beat or anything close to the original essence of house music. I think a lot of the originators made a decision to either push forward or change careers. Once a style of music is accepted by the masses, that usually means that the sound has changed and become more commercial. Some artists changed their sound to adapt. Some of us stayed true. I found my audience and they found me. It’s a beautiful thing.
You seem to be as prolific as ever right now – why is that?
Music is from the heart and the soul. It’s a reflection of one’s life. I have moments when I have nothing to say musically. I got lots to say right now. Many projects to finish and I am finishing my album for Sound Signature.
You have a hugely musical sound – are you formally trained in anyway?
I have been surrounded by music all my life. When I was really young I had a choral class for voice. I played cornet in 4th grade. In Detroit there are many great musicians and vocalists and I have been able to work with some of the best. I listen to all kinds of music and that’s been my biggest education.
What are you most proud of in your life to date?
My kids, they push me to be great.
What’s life under Trump like for you? Do you feel alienated, do you try and disengage, is it possible to ignore it or is it the responsibility of everyone to keep fighting against him?
I disengage. I don’t like to talk politics.
What is life in Detroit like right now? Does it still feel like your city, or has gentrification and the increasing percentage of white people in the inner city changed it?
My friend I used to do the parties with was raised by his step dad and he used to speak about the future of Detroit when we were really young. He saw the future!! Gentrification has changed the city but for the black community it has changed nothing. Crime and unemployment are still very high and there are still some neighbourhoods that don’t have working streetlights. The public-school system is in shambles. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Gentrification is about money. Not about the true needs of the people.
Why do you think the city has been so musically rich over the years? Is there any one-reason do you think that gives the city its spirit?
Detroit and Chicago share the same sector of people who came from a part of the south where, during slavery, it was the most brutal. More pain and struggle means more artistic output. The black experience has spawned some otherworldly gifted people.