Cornelius Harris “I decided that I was gonna not be an artist and instead I was going to try to help push other artists”
Cornelius Harris is essentially the spokesperson for Submerge and Underground Resistance, two of the most influential institutions of Detroit’s techno community. Today, however, he is in their conference room with us for a different reason. We have deliberately sought Harris out to talk with him about Detroit’s revitalisation and to explore how hipsterdom, gentrification and a healthy neighbourhood philosophy can get along.
After the interview Harris was so kind to give as a tour through the Submerge / Underground Resistance headquarters, including their mighty museum.
This interview is an outtake of “Talking to Americans”, a book by Kaput co-editor-in-chief Thomas Venker (interviews) and Jonathan Forsythe (photos) documenting a journey through the United States of America.
[Cornelius, looks at the recording device on the table]
Cornelius: Ok… (exhales) I didn’t do it. I swear, I didn’t do it. (laughing)
Thomas: That’s what they all say – at the start. At the end their hands are in cuffs…
Thomas: Were you born in Detroit?
Cornelius: No. Very close, about 30 minutes away. In a town called Ann Arbor. And I ended up going to the University of Michigan there. And, when it was time to leave, I ah, actually wanted to go anywhere but Detroit – because I wanted to get out of Michigan. And I went to a lot of other cities, and the more I was away, the more I appreciated Detroit. Because there are a lot of things I didn’t understand, that were unique to Detroit. You know, I kind of understood what I was missing, once I started leaving. And so I said: “You know what, I’m moving to Detroit“ and that’s it.
Thomas: So you were actually living in other cities? Or you were traveling to them?
Cornelius: It was more traveling though, I did spend a lot of time in certain cities. Ahm, just trying to get a feeling for what it was like to live there.
Thomas: All in America… or?
Cornelius: Yeah, yeah, all in the US. But, ah, like I said, once I had decided that it was Detroit, I was very, very definite about it, and very sure about it. You know my thinking was: Why should I go to some other city and have to start at zero, when here’s a place that I know a lot about. And I’m from here and there’s a lot of great things happening. Some really amazing things happening – and I was like: “I wanna be a part of that“. So that’s what brought me to Detroit.
Thomas: What were those special things about Detroit you realised by not being here?
Cornelius: I think that in Detroit you get spoiled by musical talent.
A funny example: I had a friend from London and he had a layover in Detroit, and so he wanted to go out. He said, “Hey, I’m in Detroit only for a few hours, I wanna go to some clubs“. I said okay, me and another guy got him. And we went to an after hours club and the woman who was djing was incredible, her name was DJ Cent. And, the guy says to me: “Man, this is great. Where does she play at when she’s in London?” And I said, she doesn’t go to London. He was like okay, well, where does she play in Europe? And I said, no she doesn’t go to Europe. And he was like, “What do you mean?“ And I said, no, she just plays here, that’s it. And he didn’t believe me. He was like, “are you serious?” I said yeah, I said she’s just part of, you know what makes this city, you know, Detroit. And I told him, I said…I had talked to her about this before. Cause I told her how fantastic she was. And she was like: “No, no, I’m not that good. You just trying to be nice.” So I thought, this will do it, you know, here’s somebody who’s not from Detroit talking about how great she is. Now she’ll understand. And ah, I introduced them, and he told her how much he was just impressed by what she was doing and how much he was just loving it. And after he walked away, she said: “That was really nice of you to tell him to say that to me.“
So, that’s the thing. We have a lot of really talented people. The musical standards are very high. And what happens is, a mediocre DJ, or a mediocre musician from Detroit would be a top level musician in Las Vegas or Los Angeles or some of these other cities. And I think what happens is, we were around it so much that we take it for granted. And we think every place is like this…
A label like Motown and the number of musicians that came out of that and the history of that, you know I would understand it a bit more that that’s kind of special to what we have here. But, you know when you’re from a place you just think every place is like that. I had never been away from this area, so I assumed that every city had these kind of musicians and that you could go out and see jazz or rock or hiphop every night and it would be good. It wouldn’t just be just whatever. And I didn’t find that. I didn’t find that as much, i didn’t find the kind of passion for the music that I saw here. And so I was a bit disappointed. Because when you’re from a place, and you’ve grown up there, and you’re old enough to leave. You’re just like I just want to get out. I don’t want to be home. And you think there’s going to be better out there, and then you go out and your like no actually there isn’t. (laughing)
I was in Japan once, I was trying to book a DJ there. And I remember one of the promoters said, “well, you know, you have to wait maybe six months, nine months before we can talk about this. And I said “Whoa, whoa. You guys are booked?” And he said, “No, the problem is: there are too many people from Detroit here. And you know, we need a break before we bring more people from Detroit back to Japan.” And I thought that’s really funny that this guy would tell me that the whole country of Japan has too many people from Detroit. But that happens!
And then we had played at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. And I was talking to a photographer and she said, “well, where are you guys from?” I said Detroit. And she said, And what is it with you people?“ And I said what do you mean? Then she said, every one of these groups – at the time Prince was there, Seal, Eric Clapton, Pet Shop Boys, all these different groups – but she said every one of these groups has somebody from Detroit in the band. And she was like, “how is this even possible?“. And I said. well you know, yeah, we have a lot of people. And because of that a lot of people can’t get work, because it’s just too crowded. And so they leave because they feel like, “I’m not appreciated in Detroit.” But then they go to some other city and people are like “oh my gosh, you’re fantastic!” So, I started to understand that better, because I was one of those people that took it for granted and didn’t give people credit for what they were doing. And again, the more I was away from Detroit, the more I was seeing that and the more I appreciated it and the more proud I got of that. And so, I was very happy to relocate here.
Thomas: So how would you describe your role in all this?
Cornelius: Well, I mean the thing is: I was always into music. My family is deep into music, my mother played, you know, we always had a baby grand piano in the house, my father would mess around with the flute. So, I grew up around music. I actually played trombone and bassoon. So, when I was in high school I ended up working at a record shop. And the manager there had said: “Well look, I don’t know anything about this dance music and this hiphop stuff. I’m gonna give you the stuff and you can say what we need to get.” Man, here’s this manager of this record shop and he’s basically making me a buyer – and I’m still in high school! And you know, he really kind of saw some great things in what I was doing on that side. And my love of the music and supported me in that. So, I had a lot of support for music, I was always around music, I loved music. I was in it as much as I could be in it.
Actually I was for a short time an artist myself, that’s what got me in New York and while I was in New York I really started thinking more and more about Detroit. And eventually I decided that I was gonna not be an artist and instead I was going to try to help push other artists and do what I could to support the talent that I saw here. Because there was so much. I wanted to… to help. I wanted to try to find a way to make it easier for them to stay. So, that was kind of my motivation. But I had been in this for awhile, and actually I had been doing a lot of writing as a journalist. And that’s what brought me to the attention…
I had known Mike Banks earlier, when I was doing music actually. That’s how I met him, because I was doing music. But nothing happened with that and when I was writing, Mike had asked about doing press releases and bios for artists at Submerge. And I eventually said “yes”. So I was approached – but I was already in it, you know? So, that’s the thing. It’s kind of a little bit of both. I guess you don’t get approached if you’re not already doing something with it. So, it came together, it came together in a really good way.
Also, when I was at Submerge, I learned a lot about the history of the music that I didn’t know as somebody working at a record shop. Because when a lot of the stuff started happening in Europe, people would sign these contracts where the European label was in control of what happened with the music. And I remember, all the DJs were coming to the shop to get these records. And I remember a record came out – I can’t remember who’s record it was, but it was an important one and of course they were much more expensive, and so, I said: well, give it some time, it will be released domestically. But that never happened. And a lot of DJs got very upset about that: because it was like, well man, we built these guys up, we supported these guys music – and now that they’re in Europe, they think they’re better than us? They think they don’t have to let us have the music and only Europeans can have the music?“ And so there were a lot of DJs who really had a bad reaction to that. It wasn’t until again years later when I was at Submerge, that Mike Banks had explained to me about the fact that these guys were in contracts and they couldn’t release their stuff domestically. That the labels were responsible for that. But again, at my level, we didn’t know that. And the DJs that I worked with didn’t know that. And so, all we knew that was we couldn’t get this music that was being made by people who are from here. And we thought this is really wrong, this is really obnoxious. And there was a bit of a backlash here. And again, as I got older and I learned more. I’m like okay, it’s not the fault of these producers, these are just bad deals. But we didn’t know that. And so it was very educational for me, coming into this and learning about some of the things that we couldn’t see.
Thomas: Cornelius, I want to talk with you about your community here. Because from what I know, all the local artists care a lot about the community around them, right? Like you guys help the neighbourhood with their houses, like renovating and stuff like that.
Cornelius: You know, Europe was pretty attractive to people here. You have to remember, when the music was starting, the crime was being out of control, but also around that time was when crack was introduced into the inner cities. And AIDS was devastating communities and the country was in an economic recession. There all these really horrible things happening here. And so there were a lot of people who just wanted to escape and get away from this.
At the same time, there was another group of people who were like, you know, I want to try and help. And I want to try to find a way to make things better. And so there were a lot of people who set up businesses here and kind of made this their base. Part of the idea behind the museum here at Submerge is, we got like, you know, school kids, school classes come in, the young kids – the hope is that they’ll be inspired. And not necessarily even from music, but if they can see that here are some people from here who did something that was different. And they were able to make it work. Then maybe you’ll have some inspirations to do whatever your dream or vision might be and know that this is something that is possible because other people have done it. And so, you are not the first person to have some crazy idea and pursue it.
You know there’s a lot of other people before you who have done this. And yeah, maybe we can be an inspiration. Sometimes it’s hard to be an inspiration if you are on the other side of the ocean. So it becomes important that there’s people here.
And so, what you seen in the neighbourhoods with the renovation of buildings and things like that, that’s all part of it, but it’s stuff that’s been going on for a long time. Again, this building is a really good example of it. But you know, people have been really fighting for Detroit for a long time. I think that there are a lot of political factors that played into why things were bad, you know, the mayor that we had, he was a… very strong willed. And I know that he had got into an argument with President Reagan and told Reagan to go to hell or something like that. And so the government cut a lot of funding support for Detroit to punish the city for the mayor. You know, Detroit was punished in a lot of different ways. A lot of things were done very deliberately to sabotage progress in Detroit.
What I like about Detroit is that people fight and people have been fighting for a long time and now there is more media attention to it. And now it’s kind of trendy, and so, you know, there’s that part of it. But there’s still people who are here, who have been here, and there’s always the concern about them getting left behind, or getting cut out. Detroit as a city, can hold another… I mean you could bring two million people into Detroit and the city wouldn’t be full, I mean, it’s a large physical space.
And so, there’s this narrative where, for there to be development people have to get people put out of the city or put out of their homes and that’s not true. You know again: two million people can come in and we still wouldn’t be full. So nobody has to move. Nobody should be forced out of their homes. You’ve got people who’ve bought their homes and they’re retired and they’re just living off of their social security. And you know, some developer comes in and puts some fancy building somewhere and the property tax goes up higher and now this person can’t afford to live in their home because of this. They’ve paid for this, spent their life paying for. They can’t work. And you’re telling them now at 87 years old, they need to move? It’s horrible.
So, you know, a lot what we’ve been doing has been talking within the community within the city about those kind of issues. Because it’s great we’re bringing music in, that we’re doing all these cool cultural things, but these things shouldn’t be a reason to kick people out of their homes. If anything, it should be something for them to be able to enjoy and participate in and be a part of, and that’s what we are always thinking about: how do we make things more accessible to everybody? How do we create a situation where anybody who wants to come can come? There shouldn’t be any kind of barrier to people like that. So, you know, sometimes people say that’s kind of political work – but on the other side, well, it’s not really political. It’s just more what a decent person should do. Is to not take advantage of people because they don’t have money. Or because they’re older, or because you know they have kids or whatever… you know that’s just wrong. We wanna be on the side of right.
Thomas: When you say Detroit is getting more hip, are you also skeptical?
Yeah. Well, I’m cynical because of, again, the attitude that people have to be put out and that’s what come with that. There is a very stereotypical, you know, hip look: it’s young and it’s white and that’s pretty much it. And so what happens for a lot of people who were here, you know, basically you are looking at people talking about Detroit and it’s like for Detroit to be successful you can’t be here. That’s the message that gets put out. And, again: I think it’s wrong. I think it’s completely wrong.
One of the great things about Detroit is that Detroit does have a particular kind of blend of people. But it tends to be working class. So you’ve got the Irish community in Corktown, you got the Mexicans who came in to southwest, they’ve actually got an Irish-Mexican festival there now, probably the only Irish-Mexican festival in the world (laughs). We got the largest Arab community in the United States. We got more Chaldeans, than anywhere else in the world, which are Catholic Iraqis.
The black community and the culture and music that comes with that, is of course is a major part of the city. And the French and the German and all the stuff, this is all of what makes Detroit cool. And that history of these people who came here and built this place over and over and over again. That’s what makes the city cool, not you know Starbucks. No one wants to go to a city for Starbucks. (laughs)
And these people who come in, a lot of times they don’t understand that. Their vision is to get rid of everybody and put all this other stuff in there. It’s a really bad set of decisions. It’s a really bad way to go about things. And you look at a city like New York, Manhattan, where you know they’ve destroyed the cultural life there, the village, those places down there, no one can afford to be there anymore. So all the creative culture which made that part of New York cool is gone. You know, we don’t have to be like that. We have a chance to keep what makes this place cool. It’s the young people and the old people, the polish folks here and the Lithuanians… you go to Hamtramck, you got everything. The Bangladesch, you know you name it and it’s there. That’s what makes this place cool. I always say: one of the best places to be, one of the places that I used to love here more than anything, were the flea markets. In the flea markets, you go there, and it’s every religion, every culture. And everyone just trying to sell their stuff. They are all next to each other and they are all hustling and everyone is working and there is no fighting…. everyone is just making a living. And that to me is… I always used to love going to the flea markets because I was like this is the world to me. This is how the world should be. Where people can do their thing and not have to worry. Not have to, you know have these other things get in the way of being able to live.
Some of these people coming in have really good ideas and really want to do some good things. But you’ve also got these other people and they just wanna destroy all of it. They look at those people and they’re like: “Oh, flea markets. they are all poor. We don’t want poor people in Detroit. We want Detroit to be a wealthy city. That way Detroit can have a comeback.“ You know, and it’s all about money. That’s all they are thinking about is money, they are not thinking about the people. I am like, yeah: if whatever you do, you have to also keep those people here. You gotta make sure that everyday people can live in Detroit. Because that’s what makes Detroit cool.
Thomas: Cornelius, thanks for your time here.
Cornelius: Well, I appreciated it.