The Spirit Of This Detroiter – Detroit’s 21st Century Possibilities
By Allee Willis
April 7, 2011
Rust Belt To Arts Belt III
The A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education
Detroit, Michigan

Growing up in Detroit in the 1950's and 60's, it never dawned on me that any city was better. Automobiles were at the core of American culture, and the design aesthetic coming out of Detroit for cars and anything else that revolved around them was mind-boggling. It was a time of wild experimentation as well as the rise of the middle class. It was the Atomic Age and the city was right in the center of everything, with a mindset of style, convenience, and innovation. That mindset became my formula in living my life, most specifically as an artist—style, convenience, innovation with a massive hit of soul.

When my mother died suddenly in the summer before my senior year at Mumford and my father almost immediately married a woman who didn't like his kids, Detroit provided me with two unbelievable escapes: music and a car. I can't even tell you what Motown did for me, and Martha Jean The Queen, my favorite DJ of all time, and driving for hours and hours listening to WCHB, WJ LB, CKLW, so much of the music made right here. To this day, despite songs I've written selling over 50M records, I've never learned how to play or read music. The only teacher I needed was Detroit. A serious mix of old-school culture and hip design, of hi and lo sensibilities, of treasures salvaged from the past and futuristic Atomic wonders, all with the funkiest conceivable happy pop beat underneath as score. How many cities have their own soundtrack?!

Detroit was also home to the best intersection of black and white pop culture on the planet.

I know I experienced Detroit in its prime years, but the memories can never be erased, and they color my enthusiasm for the city that I still think not only is among the best in the world but in perfect position to be THE city of the 21st century as it's forced to deal with massive changes in the economy, technology and interpersonal relationships that face all humans today. All of which comes down to redefining what "community" is.

In its former glory, I think Detroit did more to define 'community' than anywhere else because the quintessential invention of the 20th century, the automobile, was invented here. Just like the printing press, electricity, the airplane and other seminal inventions did, extending the reach of human beings, allowing people's ideas and personalities to spread out over wider areas, changing the very definition of community.

I was on the Internet in 1991, and started conceptualizing a social network in 1992, before most people even knew what the Internet was let alone understanding what a social network or portal was. Try looking for money to fund it back then. I was screaming to anyone who would listen that the Internet would bring a whole new way of life to people. It was a very real space where folks would be empowered with information, new relationships and new economies never before possible. This would inevitably affect life here on earth. Couple that with redefining the way that people relate to each other, get and exchange knowledge, use the Earth's natural resources, monetize what they're doing, experience new kinds of entertainment, basically everything would change because the most quantum change thrust upon humankind since Adam and Eve was upon us.

I literally changed my career overnight. I wasn't interested in writing linear, non-interactive music or creating art whose only interaction was if someone popped down coin to buy it. By going after something I believed in - social communities in an entirely different space, yet as fully a living space as what we knew on the physical plane - I put everything I had ever done or ever earned at risk because I so believed that most of the institutions we had come to rely on had become too big, too corrupt, too focused on the bottom line to care about people. I.E. Soul had left the building. In my case, it was the record companies, TV networks and movie studios, more and more becoming one company and run by people whose mission it was to make money, not to make things more pleasant and comfortable for the people who partook of their products and services.

Risking everything you've ever done is very scary place to be. You stand to lose everything if it doesn't work. You get very used to operating on nothing because you're so far out on a limb you don’t get the kind of mental or financial support you deserve. People outside of your immediate circle, just like many of those looking at Detroit from the outside or even those living here who think the city's best days have passed, tend to think it's a hopeless cause.

But if you look at it from an artist's point of view - and I mean a true artist, one who must create despite any obstacle in front of them because they believe so much in what they're doing and know that life is a complete bore unless they go for it - these people understand that the challenge is incredibly exciting because there are no boundaries, less rules, you're almost existing in a vacuum because no one cares about what you're doing because they just don't understand it or they have pity for the circumstances that have befallen you or, in this case, your city. But these are the very conditions under which new ideas and new ways of doing things thrive.

I look at rebuilding Detroit now the same way I thought about building cyberspace in 1991. It seemed to me that if people all over the world could link into a space that at that time was just a big black hole, and something that most people didn't believe had a chance of taking off, that the best thing that someone could do for human kind was to design a space that made it fun, interesting and economically feasible to live there. I wanted to art and social direct cyberspace. In redesigning a city today, art and social direction are imperative.

I can tell you that as an artist who's had more different lives than a cat, that those times when everyone thinks you're down and no one is paying attention to you, if you embrace it from an artist's point of view, no, an artist with balls' point of view, that's the time to take incredibly bold chances and create something that becomes a model for everyone else to follow. Starting from the bottom provides very fertile soil with which to create magnificent things.

I view myself as a social artist. Yes, I write music, and paint, and make videos, and build sets, linear art forms that I also present and interpret non linearly on the web. But I do all of this to create artistic environments in which people feel comfortable and inspired enough to bring things out of themselves and interact with people around them to create whole new ideas, communities and power sources.

Detroit has no choice but to reinvent itself and change the definition of community again, just like it did in through a major chunk of the 20th century. The city is in prime position to be the true community of the 21st-century, of the digital age, evolved and designed by artists in all fields who understand the era they're living in and who design a community based around not just the services the city needs to provide but the art and social directing it needs to inspire the people living there.

It's a new world with shared interests and responsibilities. It's not the dog eat dog, my house is bigger than your house world of the 20th century. It's a global community in the truest sense of the word. And the communities within that global community, whether they're showing signs of cracks or not, are all in need of reinvention. Detroiters can seize the opportunity that has been forced on them by the collapse of the economy and dare to dream! The world needs help, not just Detroit, and we can be the candystripers of the century!

It's an age of networks, not just production and distribution networks, but networks between and of the people. The power structure has truly changed. This is the biggest revolution that has ever hit mankind.

Artists see the future first—their way is to dream and paint that picture for everyone else. Reinvention and constantly shifting one’s perspective to stay inspired is at the heart of my philosophy of creativity. It’s as vital for places as it is for people.

This city, as exemplified by this conference, has nothing to risk by believing that artists can lead the way.  Let this be the city that people flock to because they have brilliant ideas they want to try. When it's perceived that you have nothing left to lose why not try anything?

My big break in the record industry came in 1978 when I co-wrote "September" for Earth, Wind & Fire. I started getting over 100 songs cut a year. I was a machine, the perfect assembly line, the Henry Ford of songwriting. But I started hating the songs I was writing because everyone wanted "Boogie Wonderland" over and over again. If I stretched outside the norm to the degree I did to write that song I was immediately reeled back in to create something that sounded like other hits of the day. How stupid were these people? Why not create something outrageous rather than trying to fit in? That would only lead to something becoming so stale it would eventually choke itself to death.

The arrogance of the record companies paralleled the arrogance of the automobile industry, coasting on the once great giant they had created, blind to the fact that human beings' needs had changed, the earth had limited resources and other people, not the ones in the news but the ones who were hidden in little rooms chasing their fantasies about bettering the world, were creating the roots of revolution. I knew almost as soon as I started having hits that doing things according to the status quo would make me absolutely miserable. And, as music had seriously nurtured me when I had nothing, especially during my last year of high school here in Detroit, I knew I couldn't risk that happening. So, in 1983, I essentially walked away from my songwriting career.

I still wrote songs but my heart wasn't in it. I was too much of an artist to do nothing though so I started painting. This was very innocent, just to try and do something where I didn't know the rules so I'd take chances that the industry had made me too scared to take in music. My first paintings were very collage like, a combination of figurative painting and things ripped from magazines and found objects glued in. It brought me back to my childhood in Detroit.

My father had a scrapyard on Mt. Elliot. It was a couple blocks long with a tiny railroad running through it. I spent Saturdays climbing up piles of cars and every other kind of scrap metal imaginable, grabbing comic books out of the huge paper baler and bringing home treasures other people threw away. His whole business was connected to automobiles, and all these relics of the past were the future for me.

By nature I'm someone who likes to link together everything I'm interested in to create a multi leveled experience. It's far more interesting for me to create combining my music, art, love of technology, lifestyle, and skill at throwing parties - what I consider to be my #1 artform. Just painting felt stillborn, and the art openings, with people standing around gazing, eating grapes and cheese, didn't have the life of everything I loved about the music industry. So I realized that my paintings needed music. And that meant they needed to be motorized. I was from the Motor City so this made ultimate sense to me. So I added gears and bicycle chains and started making all the little people and buildings and cars I drew move.

I had absolutely no idea what I was doing but, running on sheer passion, all of a sudden I had created a truly unique form of art. More and more my art took on aspects of Detroit. Pieces started getting bigger and bigger. I branched out into designing bars, tables, beds, desks and bureaus out of old car parts, emblems, hood ornaments, fenders and door handles. This eventually led to me designing sets where I hand built everything from the walls to every piece of furniture and prop inside of them. Incorporating car parts and other vestiges from the past was my hook. When I first started designing for cyberspace I wanted to bring this aesthetic there because everything being designed in cyberspace was so cold and digital. Not only was this scrapyard esthetic - hi meets lo and vintage meets modern - present in my art, I went on to assemble one of the largest collections of Atomic Age, soul and kitsch artifacts in the world. In 2009 I even built a social network around the crazy things that people collect and their soulful connections to them, The Allee Willis Museum Of Kitsch at I feel my roots to Detroit every day.

This may sound like it was all one big glorious progressive ride but for every step forward there were two steps back. Oftentimes I thought I had ruined a great career because of my quest to be artistically satisfied.

Throughout my evolution as an artist, I've realized that my biggest goal was just keeping myself interested and if I could do that I could feed my soul. And soul was what was missing from so many other things that were trends of the moment. Without soul, culture and civilization itself can't survive. We live in a city whose very definition is soul. That's what we have to bring to the world, a soul transplant.

The message I have for myself is the same message I have for Detroit. I know how great it felt to be recognized as great. I know I’ve slid down often but I always believed in myself, even when I knew other people who I wish saw that didn't. This conference is about a big city and people with big ideas for it. To people outside it might look like a fruitless task. They say the city's gone already. But to the dreamers, the artists, the inventors, the entrepreneurs who don't just want to make a buck but, rather, make a difference, there's no better place to be than Detroit. Other than I wish it were warm and sunny all year round like it is in Los Angeles.

We all know Detroit has no choice but to reinvent itself. And, as I've said before, there's no better time to do that than when you're so far down people think you couldn't possibly climb up. I've had enough peaks and valleys in my career that I know some of my biggest successes have been created in very down periods. In fact, one thing in my career stands above the rest as an example of this and it ties me to Detroit and very specifically, to my high school, Mumford, and it happened when I thought my career was completely dead.

From the time “September” came out at the tail end of 1978, I was writing songs like I was flipping hamburgers, one after another. But by 1981, my brain and heart were cooked. I was still writing - I've never stopped - but I was definitely looking for something to reenergize my soul. When I started painting in 1983 I felt much better, but I can't tell you how great it is to have a hit song that's on the tip of everyone's tongue and my spirit had totally left me thinking that my songwriting career was something of the past.

My publisher asked me if I would write with a young writer they had just signed. His brother had had a huge hit, “Maniac”, the year before. So here I was, after writing for everyone under the sun - Aretha, Diana Ross, Earth, Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock, Bonnie Raitt, Patti LaBelle, Tina Turner, Jimmy Cliff, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Bette Midler, Chaka Kahn, Ray Charles, there are a lot of these so I'll stop now - and now I'm stuck with the brother of someone who had one hit. Could I have sunk any lower??

The first thing I said to Danny Sembello when I opened the door was, “I only have an hour so we have to write fast.” We were supposed to be writing a song for a movie called “Streets of Fire”, producer Joel Silver's first movie. It was a typical post-apocalyptic idiotic story. The bomb goes off, hardly anyone is left except for the handsome man and the gorgeous girl from different parts of town who somehow make it on to the one bus racing out of town, with a 1950s type Black doo-wop group who survived and are singing in, of course, the back of the bus. Our assignment was to write the song for that band. I knew Danny was a great keyboard player because despite only being 19 he had been in Stevie Wonder's band for a couple of years already. So I told him to start playing the most common 1950s bass riff he could think of. Right out of the box he starts.... doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom doom (bassline of what became “Neutron Dance”). I can write a melody to anything, spoons falling on the floor, crickets chirping, car engines, so I just started singing the most immediate melody I could think of and starting spouting lyrics about exactly how I was feeling. "I don't want to stay here anymore. I'll just stay here locked behind the door. Just now time to stop and get away because I work so hard to make it every day. Whoo hoo… ".

At this point in my life I had a really hideous business manager who drove me into the ground so I started writing more lyrics about being broke. “There's no money falling from the sky, blah blah blah blah blah (those words escaped me) robbed me blind. At that second, I looked out my window and saw someone trying to jimmy the lock on my 1962 pink Chevy Corvair. I raced out of the studio and as I'm opening my front door I yell back to Danny "someone stole my brand-new Chevrolet". I'm running to my car, I scare the kid off and without losing a beat I circle round and back into the house, finishing it with, "And I work so hard to make it every day whoo hoo..".

The words kept rolling out of my mouth: "And it's hard to say just how some things never change. And it's hard to find any strength to draw the line, oh oh oh..." and then the words stopped. This was where the hook went and these were the most important words in the song. The movie was called "Streets Of Fire" so I figured it should have something to do with burning. All we could come up with in order to finish in the one hour deadline I set was “I'm just burning on the barbecue." I knew that wasn't the line but nothing else was coming so we stopped.

Even in the case of someone who survived a nuclear holocaust, the task was going to be about reinvention. Reinvention, keeping the faith and believing in yourself so that no odds seem insurmountable. I know that nothing cures the blahs faster than having a good time. And I know that a lot of people have a good time and forget themselves dancing. So three days later it hits me, “I'm just burnin’ doin’ the Neutron Dance." I had no idea what that really meant but it felt good and ultimately that's what you want art to do, make people feel good.

The song went on a Pointer Sisters album but was never released as a single. One day I get a package in the mail with a copy of “Neutron Dance” and a note that says they're looking for music for a film that's coming out called Beverly Hills Cop and it should sound like the enclosed song. This was sent to hundreds of songwriters. It's a common practice in the film and music business. You slot in what's called a temp track that contains the ideal music for that scene except for the fact that the song has already been released and therefore someone else owns the publishing so there's less money for the film company to make. After hearing from every songwriter in the city how much fun they had ripping me off I finally called Danny and said that the least we owed ourselves was to rip ourselves off. So we wrote a Neutron Dance-like song, same basic feel and parallel lyric - If “Neutron Dance” had a roof caving in, the other song had cracks in the bedroom wall - and we came up with something called “Stir It Up”.

We never heard anything after we handed the song in until three weeks before the premiere of Beverly Hills Cop. As I heard it, Jerry Bruckheimer, whose second film this was, needed a cassette to tape over and reached into his wastebasket, pulling out the tape of “Stir It Up”, which had been thrown in there by the person screening the songs for the film. He played it to make sure it was something he could tape over and not only loved what he heard so much that he put it into the film, but insisted that “Neutron Dance” stay in too.

I had no idea what the film was about. The movie opens and boom, its “Neutron Dance”. There's a big 20 wheeler reeling through a city, what city,,. oh no, it can't be, it's Detroit! I start to tear up. And then right on the line, “Someone stole my brand-new Chevrolet”, the truck smashes into a Chevy. And on the line, “I'm just burnin’ doin’ the Neutron Dance” the truck reels into a line of cars and the whole block explodes into fire. I'm already reeling that this movie that I've ended up with two songs in after thinking I was permanently dead is taking place in Detroit, but then what are the odds of a song that was written for one movie fitting so perfectly the action of a completely different movie?? The second the song ends the back of this truck opens up and out walks Eddie Murphy wearing a Mumford Phys Ed T-shirt. Now I burst into tears. I'm a big believer in following your heart, keep on keepin’ on no matter what if you have a vision and a passion to do something, and now in the most synchronistic way possible, all my ends were being tied up. Bruckheimer told me he went to Mumford.

My whole Neutron Dance experience not only tied me to my beloved Detroit but it showed me that you never know what's going to happen. Just work hard, put it out there and then wait for miracles to happen.  

Everything I've done, when I have any control of the content, is about believing in yourself, knowing that the slow times are when you create what reinvents you for better times, and that change is not only inevitable but an opportunity to spread your wings like maintaining the status quo could never have afforded.

I've always viewed my life as paralleling Detroit's. At times I've had some incredibly great things happen and at other times I’ve slid down the tubes, crashing to the ground and breaking into a trillion little pieces, and have had to reinvent myself. In my case, because I financed my entire career - with a few exceptions, The Color Purple, the musical I co-wrote at the Fox this weekend, being one notable one – everything I do is done on pennies. Yes I sold over 50 million records, yes I've address Congress on cyberspace, yes I have my little Grammy for Beverly Hills Cop, but every dime I make gets reinvested in reinventing myself, and for every one thing I do that you've heard of there are about 50 others that you haven't.

I only got into Glee Club one year despite trying out for it every year in both elementary and high school, but that never stopped me from humming to myself. I realized long ago that if I was going to sit around and think that I was less than everyone else because I didn't know how to do something I was going to live a very miserable life. So I decided to turn my weaknesses into my strengths. They would cause me to do things differently than everyone else and I could create things that people who did know what they were doing never would have had the balls or even notion to do.

I like to think that my work has an incredibly happy, positive spirit. Growing up in Detroit was definitely the breeding ground for that spirit.

This coming Saturday morning I'm doing my dream event at the Fox. For any of you who would like to witness a quintessential Pop meets Kitsch happening, I'm conducting the Mumford marching band playing a medley of seven of my greatest hits in the lobby before a performance of The Color Purple, with the cast and I leading a sing-along.

This event itself is typical of the way I do things. Here I am conducting the marching band that I never could have made while I was in high school, and doing it now without reading music. All phases of my life coming together in one spot, right in the theater I spent so much time in as a kid, my absolute love of music that came from growing up with Motown and now a musical which I had no idea how to write as I never went to musicals, that took almost 5 years of my life to do, about Celie, who starts with less than nothing but learns to appreciate herself in a way that not only transforms her life but that of those around her. The Color Purple chronicles someone's life journey who must rise from the ashes, the journey that faces Detroit, to become someone and something that changes the life of everyone around them. Allee, Celie, Detroit. The journey's all the same.

Cities of great influence have always been cities filled with great people. Clever and fearless because they have a passion to do what it is they enjoy doing, with a grander purpose that parallels their own needs. They're so far ahead, the average person can't even imagine what they're seeing. But when the ball is finally slammed out of the park everyone wants to be part of the game.

Now I'm here to rediscover the city as an artist who's always looking for creative freedom and environments that will nurture it. I believe in reinvention as opportunity. You're forced to have balls that you might not have had in a city that's more stable. Detroit right now is the wild West.

As an artist, I'm always looking for ways to design a space - be it musical, physical, whatever, for ultimate convenience, comfort, intelligence and fun - i.e. ultimate soul fulfilling living. That's the kind of thinking that I hope graces the brain of every person who rises to power here, to change life as they change the reputation of the city.

My fellow Detroiter and frequent collaborator, Lily Tomlin and I are really trying to get ideas about things to do in Detroit together. If anyone has any thoughts my ears are completely open.

I think the times we’re living in provide the opportunity for a kind of glorious hi meets lo, past meets future, familiar meets innovative environment to exist. It’s about fostering new attitudes, new world businesses, new ways of financing those businesses, all done with the mind of an artist. It’s no surprise to me that so many artists are drawn to Detroit and feel this opportunity because they feed on inspiration. Real artists create because that’s all they know how to do, and they do it whether they get paid or not. That’s the kind of passion and artistry that will allow Detroit to bloom. It’s so not about bringing the city back—it’s about realizing that we have a chance to create a new world.

Detroit is ahead of the curve in the type of radical transformation that other cities will also ultimately have to make to remain viable. That’s both painful and exciting, a dichotomy artists have long learned to live with. And that’s a perfect recipe for Soul, something the whole world needs a massive dose of now. So, I hope that all plans for reconstructing Detroit are as artistically minded as they are business and technologically minded.

Just as a tuna fish sandwich on toasted white and a hot fudge sundae at Sanders remains my favorite meal ever, my belief in Detroit as the city of the future is alive and well indeed!