Motor City’s Spinning
DJ Brad Hales
by Eric Davidson

By now, we all know about those celebrity DJs who command thousands of dollars to get flown to Ibiza to plug in their iPad and go do lines for the next seven hours. But there are still DJs out there who do things like lug their vinyl discs to a bar and actually jockey them. Like Detroit’s Brad Hales. As a lifelong collector, owner of a record store (People’s Records), and even a band dude (he is currently the bassist in Detroit space-punk band Human Eye), he has slowly but surely built a following as one of the top ’60s soul and R&B steel wheelers in the world (though his ear canals go off on many sonic byways). People fly him around every once in a while too, only it’s usually in coach on Spirit Airlines. He was recently in New York for four throwdowns, pairing up with pals like Jonathan Toubin, Mick Collins, and your’s truly. Before that, I caught him on the phone behind the counter of his shop, no doubt interrupting the more important activity of deep cleaning a Bunker Hill single or something.

So, a detailed history of Brad Hales’ DJing life please...

Brad Hales: Well, first of all, I turned 38 on the day before my first NY gig this week, but the music helps to keep me young, I think. My parents were ’70s working class, suburban Detroit, hard rockers. I heard both classic rock and the beginnings of rap, electro, and house on the radio, thanks to infamous DJs at the time, like Electrifying Mojo and the Wizard, Jeff Mills. Also, you couldn’t grow up in Detroit in the 70s and 80s without hearing tons of Motown and oldies along with rock on the radio. Skateboarding, which I enjoyed since I was a child, led me to punk, which will lead you to everything else. Also, I’ve been playing music on guitar, bass, and drums since an early age, and four years in jazz band on bass gave me a great curiosity about R&B, that and the classic samples I heard in rap growing up. I’ve collected 45s and LPs since I was a child, and DJing seemed like a logical progression to me. The DIY ethic that comes along with punk and years of living in houses that were also venues for live music made throwing my own parties feel very natural, and I wanted to spread awareness of the soul and R&B 45s I started collecting heavily in the late 1990s.

For nearly ten years in Detroit, starting in 1999, I did a monthly afterhours funk party at an art gallery called Detroit Contemporary. We would get 300 people into this relatively small building, and they would be dancing, drunk, until daylight without ever having any fights or problems from the police—just good times. Then, the party got too big for me, and the scene in Detroit changed. By the end of that time, I’d gotten more interested in the broad spectrum of rare soul music on 45s, from early-60s black rockers all the way through to what is known in the UK as Northern Soul, and even 70s and 80s disco and vocal groups.

In the past few years, I’ve been to Germany four times to DJ, Mexico twice, and all over the United States wherever there is a scene for what I do. The scene in the States right now is at a great point. It reminds me of reading of the early hardcore punk scene around 1980–82, where things are still very underground, but beginning to blossom and connect together, and the major people from all the different cities are knowing each other and visiting and traveling to support one another’s nights. The places I go most frequently to DJ in the US are Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Ann Arbor. Seattle even hosts its own yearly UK-style weekender at this point, which is no small feat. It’s interesting that 70% of what I play is from the region where I grew up, but when I travel anywhere else in the world, they’re all playing tons of Detroit records anyway!

What bands have you been in? Any recordings coming out that you’re on?

BH: Oh man, tons! I started out in punk and indie bands in the late-80s, but some of the more notable names I’ve played bass with are Rodriguez, Easy Action, Nathaniel Mayer, the Ultimate Ovation, and currently, Human Eye. That group has an album that is finished and waiting to be released.

How do you think actually playing in a band has influenced your DJing?

BH: It hasn’t changed it much. It’s more like having a double-life. When I go on tour with Human Eye, I bring a box of soul 45s just in case any of the venues have turntables, and sometimes it works out okay.

And you’ve released mix CDs and such?

BH: I am always putting up new mixes for people to hear for free, so they become familiar with the records I’m playing. (You can find Hales’ mixes on Soundcloud, 100 Limousines and Podomatic.)

So we know about those techno DJs that get $20,000 for a fancy gig in France or something. What’s the going rate for an R&B 45 spinner these days?

BH: It’s definitely more a labor of love! In Detroit, I might go home with a few hundred dollars, but money isn’t much of a motivation. Sometimes, I don’t even cover my travel expenses. But I do feel like it’s my job to go and to represent where I come from and what was accomplished here.

I have been stopped numerous times at airports, with the x-ray screeners opening my metal 45 boxes and asking, “What are these?” Do you have any stories of having to explain DJing actual vinyl records to squares?

BH: I get searched at the airport every single time. They want to make sure it’s not a bomb of any kind, I guess. It’s infuriating. I was traveling home from Germany once with about 150 45s or so. The customs guard asked, “How much are the contents of this box worth?” Scared of what they might do, I said, “Oh, I don’t know, about $500?” To which he replied, “What’s the matter, you don’t have any rare ones?”

Is it getting hard to find clubs that offer a full, fine turntable set-up, as laptops and iPads increasingly become the norm? What is your take on the laptop DJing concept? Have you ever DJed with a laptop?

BH: In most cities, the serious 45 DJs prefer to bring their own gear, just so you can be assured that it will work. In the rare soul scene, it’s unthinkable to use a laptop or even a reissue of a rare record, so computers really aren’t a part of what my peers or I would do. It has to be the original artifact.

In other types of scenes this may not be the case, but when it comes to rare soul spinning, the States is behind. We’re playing catch-up with something that has been known around the world for a long time—and it came from our own backyards! If they are playing the “real” version in the UK, Germany, Mexico, or Spain, it is American music they are using. Shouldn’t we be held to the same standard of dedication or “seriousness” about it here? It weeds out the Johnny-come-lately types so only the big dogs are left on the porch.

As you tour more and get invited to more parties and such, I assume you have to expand your collection and what kinds of music you might need to spin. Are there any genres you’d refuse to ever delve into?

BH: I think a lot about what I call “Pan-musicality,” the idea that there are two types of music: good and bad. I think maybe Louis Armstrong said that? So I listen to a little bit of everything. I don’t refuse to get into opera, but it’s one of the only things I haven’t been drawn to yet. I guess black metal makes me uncomfortable.

How did that mini New York City tour come about?

BH: I’ve been missing New York since the demise of the great Bump Shop night at APT, where a very broad and impressive range of rare soul was the norm. So these four days of gigs were a good way to visit old friends and see what was happening out there and hopefully bridge together a few different scenes between what Jonathan (Toubin) does and my friends that I know through rock & roll and punk. And then also the Wax Poetics crowd of beatdigging and rare groove and what not, and then the traditional soul fans, of which New York and Brooklyn have many.

Please explain the “In the Modern Room” moniker.

BH: That was me having a bit of a laugh. In England, the 60s has always been the thing that was played since the 70s. Then they started adding 70s new releases to the mix and upsetting older traditionalists who didn’t want to hear these “modern” sounds. Many larger venues would have a separate room for modern, which is a sound I am quite fond of. When I started doing these mixes, I’d never even actually been in a real modern room. Now I have, and I feel quite at home there. The word “modern” doesn’t mean that it’s contemporary, it means that it’s not 60s, but it’s still a soulful dance record that stands up to the quality of the 60s golden era of soul. I’ve done eight different hour-long mixes called “In The Modern Room,” which are well-loved and circulated among fans of these styles. Josh Dunn, who runs the 100 Limousines website, and Asaf Segal are world class when it comes to this stuff, so I wanted to have a night where we would focus on just this particular era, instead of having it be kind of an afterthought.

Tell us about your record store in the Motor City.

BH: I opened my own shop, Peoples Records, in Detroit in 2003 after working in other shops since the mid-90s. I’m here six days a week trying to find new stuff to play. I have been in three different locations, including an apartment building that burned down, flooding my shop in the basement and forcing me to almost start over. Now I’m next to the Magic Stick, a famous rock venue near downtown, which has great foot traffic with curious people always coming and going. I probably buy records from 30 different people a day, Monday through Saturday.

Name your top five favorite clubs to DJ at.

BH: Soulshakers Weekender in Bamberg, Germany; Detroit Contemporary in Detroit; Ann Arbor Soul Club at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Windy City Soul Club at the Empty Bottle in Chicago; and Emerald City Soul Club at Lo-Fi Gallery in Seattle.

Top five favorite Detroit bands of all-time?

BH: Impossible to pick just five, but how about five favorite producers? Dave Hamilton, Popcorn Wylie, Ollie McLaughlin, Johnnie Mae Matthews, and Mike Hanks. For bands, maybe The Brothers of Soul, The Tomangoes, The Keggs, The Stooges, and The MC5. Two of those bands only did one single. That’s why it’s hard.

Who are your top five favorite DJs?

BH: Soul Sam (UK), Butch (UK), Breck T Bunce (Detroit), Keb Darge (UK/Asia), and Dez (Detroit).