What does it take to promote for thirty years in Detroit? Promotion, wherever you are, is a tough gig, but when it’s in Detroit is it any harder? We spoke with Adriel Thornton, promoter of many nights including Family which happens again on December 28th.

Attack: Adriel, shall we start with who you are and where you come from?

Adriel: Sure, I’m Adriel Thornton and I just celebrated my 30th-anniversary producing electronic music events in Detroit. I’m a native Detroiter but I also grew up between here and Virginia.

What was it like growing up in Detroit?

Well, it was different from my time in Virginia! Where I was in Virginia was much “whiter” and I hate to say that but it’s kind of important as it helped heighten my fascination with Detroit.

People say a lot of negatives about Detroit but I saw a magical, big city, with great radio, and just a lot to absorb.

How did you fall into the Detroit music scene?

I had friends in the city who were involved in the music scene and one of those was my friend Damon. We were just 18 at this point and he was connected to the techno scene. His cousin was in a band called Final Cut.

Damon took me to my first underground party at a place called the Alley. It was in the NW Goldberg neighborhood in Detroit. After that, I never looked back.

Adriel Thornton with Ron Trent & Moodymann

What was it like?

It blew my mind! I can’t remember why but there was a tonne of people there who had just come from a wedding. They were next to some black kids in baggy jeans and tees, “house dancing” which was the first time I’d seen that.

It was just very abstract and no one cared what anyone else was doing there. No one cared where people were from, and how much money they had if they were black, white, straight, or gay.

How did that make you feel?

It really struck me. We met the owner, Carlos Oxholm and it was with him that I started promoting by flyering. For me, the night was the realization of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream whereby in society everybody really was equal.

So you felt compelled to promote nights to help society come together?

Yes definitely. After that first party, seeing the diversity of people come together on the dance floor and no one giving a fuck, was everything.

No one had any kind of hangup about anybody else there, which allowed everybody there to have a certain amount of freedom and express themselves.  I thought that was, again, a realization of Dr. King’s dream.

After that first party, seeing the diversity of people come together on the dance floor and no one giving a fuck, was everything..

Do you think perhaps some discussions around race have perhaps gone backward?

Yes, in some ways. You now have politicians like Donald Trump who made it ok to belittle and dehumanize people publicly.

Before Trump, we had Obama who despite being mixed race, was “just black” at least in America. As he was elected twice, a subset of this country went crazy.

The Republicans in response to his presidency really pushed the idea “we’re losing our country”. From their side, a black guy is president and gay marriage became legal. All that opened the door to Trump and legitimized all the things anti-Obama.

In short, whenever America advances, there is pushback.

What about a female president? What’s the prognosis?

It can happen. But ultimately, Make America Great Again really is about taking us back to an era where black and brown people did not have the same rights as whites, that women didn’t have the same rights as men, and that you could, as a business, do whatever you wanted to with no consequence or repercussions for damage to the environment or treating your workers bad and so on.

That doesn’t sound forward-thinking to me.

What type of resistance did you have as a black promoter in the 90s in Detroit?

Mostly it was difficult getting the venues. I remember this large venue called Backstreet. The older white guy owner wouldn’t give us the night as he said “I don’t think it’s right for you here and your crowd. We really don’t want to turn this into an ‘urban’ night.”

“Urban” is a code word for “black”. That stuff went on all the time.

detroit house and techno

What about now? Is it any different?

Culturally we’ve come quite a long way, specifically in the gay community, which is hugely important to the story as house has its roots in the gay community.

These days you’ve got a black lesbian bar, a more mainstream lesbian bar, you’ve got mainstream gay bars, but you also have black gay bars. There’s far more choice.

I actually have people who want me to do something at their venue. People even get mad when I take my night elsewhere other than their club.

Are all the nights you promote house and techno?

Yeah but I’ve done some stuff that was outside of that and slightly more mainstream.

Which artists have you seen work their way up having been booked by you? 

Claude Young. I didn’t make him famous but he does say that I definitely helped him with his path. He played quite a few of my really early parties when I was just starting.

Another more recent example is the brilliant Lauren Flax. She’s also headlining Family on Dec 28th.

These days you've got a black lesbian bar, a more mainstream lesbian bar, you've got mainstream gay bars, but you also have black gay bars. There’s far more choice

Famous Detroiters include Eminem, J Dilla and in electronic music, there is a tonne of huge names. Detroit has so much to celebrate…

There’s plenty more – Dwele, Big Sean, Moodymann for example. l We all sort of came up together, to be honest, and then we went different ways.

Techno was really heady at first. The early adopters were mostly progressive queer people. It was sort of a high-brow thing where you were mostly into high fashion, high art, and stuff like that to really get techno and get down. Everyone was welcome but that was mostly the crowd.

I don’t think it’s the same now. It’s changed and become broader. Hip-hop became broader much earlier on.

Do Detroiters care about Eminem?

They absolutely care about him, partly because it is broadly known that he’s from here. For a variety of reasons, electronic acts did not get recognized in the same way. At least not then. 

I think people found electronic music inaccessible – no pics on album covers, Underground Resistance would wear masks in public, etc. It was not as accessible.

You once mentioned The “D” in Detroit is for drama! Is that specific to electronic music? Why is that?

I think it’s to do with the creative class. I believe part of the reason is that there are so few resources here compared to New York or London where there’s more infrastructure. 

That makes it easier for the creative class to actually go from point A to point B. To really sort of make it happen here is a lot tougher to do. And our media doesn’t necessarily support us in the same way too.

We speak of Eminem and even Kid Rock but the reality is that they actually left Detroit and then came back. Then it was like they were media darlings and everyone loved it.

It’s just like that here that opportunity is so rare. When folks are so intertwined playing the same parties etc and one gets big and the other doesn’t, it can create drama. Where there is a lack of abundance, these things can happen.

detroit house and techno

There’s always some drama around Movement?

Every year there is some issue with who they have or have not booked!

Drama is just par for the course! You can’t please everybody.

Have you booked live techno nights?

Definitely but live artists as part of a night rather than a live night specifically. A good example is Kevin Reynolds. He’s no joke! I’ve also booked Matthew Dear and so many more.

How would you advise someone looking to start promoting nights?

Number one – because of the dynamics of this market, be mindful that it’s hard to make a lot of money. Be sure to have that passion as you’re going to need it. If you don’t want to advance the culture, it’s not for you.

Number two – be prepared to lose. Not every single party is going to be successful. The earlier you get that the better!

detroit house and techno

What’s next for you then?

I have Family coming up on December 28th. I’m doing it as its legacy but also as there’s still a market for it. It’s important to the culture of the city.

As I have a separate job I don’t worry so much about ticket sales, I can still pay my rent. I can enjoy promoting more as a result. All I want is to make sure people have a good time and that it impacts them positively.

Family takes place on 28th December. Click the image below for tickets. Follow Adriel Thornton on Instagram.

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Author Eric Brünjes
20th December, 2022

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