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Mayor Michael Nutter: I Could Make a Party Happen.

June 3, 2011

Photo by Rick Kauffman. Interview by G.W. Miller III.

Our mayor knows the lyrics to “Rapper’s Delight” and he’s not afraid to grab the mic and bust into song. G.W. Miller III talks to mayor Michael Nutter about his old DJ days, when he was known as Mix
Master Mike, and how the city can help the creative class.

DJing was a way you broke into politics, wasn’t it?

Yeah, to some extent. I worked at a place called the Impulse Disco at Broad and Germantown. I started working there in the summer of 1976. The owner, his son and I are high school best friends to this day. He’s godfather to my daughter. Robert Bynum. He owns a couple of establishments – Warmdaddy’s,  and he manages Relish up in West Oak Lane. I was working for his father, Ben. Ben Bynum owned a number of bars and clubs. The Impulse, before it was a disco, was more of a club on Germantown Avenue, called the Cadillac Club. Billy Paul recorded an album there. All the great stars of that era in the 70s came through the Cadillac Club. Ben had traveled to Europe where disco was, of course, the craze. He decided to close the Cadillac Club, completely gut it out  and turn it into in essence the first black-owned disco in Philadelphia.

When the Impulse opened a few weeks later, I started working there. I was a sophomore in college. I didn’t start out DJing. I was really kind of cleaning up from the night before, get it ready, stock the bars, deal with the ice and the liquor and sodas and all that. I’m 19 years old an not drinking.

We had house DJs but they didn’t come until later so someone kind of had to get the party started during the early stages. So Robert and I would alternate. We’d play records until the house DJs came. Then I’d go back to what I normally would do, which was walk around and make sure everything was ok, make sure people weren’t doing anything they weren’t supposed to be doing. Guys could not wear hats. Make sure guys weren’t too aggressive with the ladies.

You were the muscle?

A little bit. But I was really more about persuasion. As you can see, I’m not the biggest guy in town. I honed negotiation skills very early on.

I was working about 60 hours per week at the club. It was just a different form of education. I was an early subscriber of never letting your schooling interfere with your education.

Through that, I met a bunch of people involved in politics. One thing led to another. I started getting involved in the neighborhood political and civic scene. This was the early 80s. The I worked on a campaign in 1983 for council at-large John Anderson. That, of course, was the year W. Wilson Goode Sr. was running for mayor and would be the first African-American mayor of the city of Philadelphia. My guy, councilman Anderson, won. He came in first out of 57 at-large candidates that year. W. Wilson Goode Sr. won the Democratic primary and I realized right at that moment, “This is what I want to do.”

But you continued DJing for a while?

That’s where I worked. That was my job. I had started working at Xerox right out of college. I graduated in ‘79 and started working at Xerox in January of ‘80. I worked there for almost two years but while I was working there, I was still working at the nightclubs. I had two full-time jobs. You can do that kind of stuff when you’re 22, 23-years old. I worked at the Impulse for about eight years until 1985 or so.

Did you elevate to the top DJ spot?

We always had house DJs but as time went on, my skills got better. And this was before CDs, before music on computers. This was headphones, two turntables – the workhorse turntables still used today, the Technic SL1200s. Real DJs still use those turntables today. They are absolutely the workhorse turntables of the industry.

As I got better, house DJs, in the middle of the party, sometimes they’d need a break and they’d let us do our thing. I could hold my own. I could make a party happen.

If thing started to die down, did you have a go-to song to get people back out on the dance floor?

In our day, there was slow dancing. If you were coming out of that and you put on Hamilton Bohannon’s “Let’s start the dance,” you’re going to fill the dance floor. Guaranteed. No doubt about it. You just never had to worry about it. You put that on and you’re good to go.

We closed out for about eight months with the last song being Marvin Gaye’s “Got to give it up.” That was for a couple of reasons. First, the song is 17 minutes. If you have stuff that you needed to do, if you had somebody you needed to catch up with, talk to before the night was over, you put that on. Before there was your elevator speech, there was the two-minute drill, the last rap at the end of the night. It’s also a great song. It always got people up and dancing.

That was very considerate of you to buy them that time.

Well, you know, there was a lot of self-interest there.

You’ve been caught doing Rapper’s Delight several times. Do you have other songs you secretly like to perform?

I’m working on a couple at the moment. That one is pretty much ingrained. I heard that a lot. It was a crowd favorite.

I’ve tried one or two others but that’s really the signature song. That’s the one I know the best.

We have a real DJ culture here. A lot of our DJs wind up flying all over the place. They could live anywhere. What can we do to keep the creative folks here in Philadelphia?

Rather than just making their own playlist, putting their MP3 player in and just playing songs for a party, one of the things is, hire a DJ. Bring in the real deal. There is a serious art to making this happen. You build people up a little bit, take them to one place, then ease off. So, it’s a series of peaks and valleys that really makes a great party. No matter how good your playlist is, there is something about mixed music, in the middle of a party, that really just makes it happen. There’s nothing like it.

Is there anything the government can do? Are there arts districts that could be created, for instance along Frankford Ave.?

A part of what we can do is make sure we are promoting these areas. Get as much information on our website,  other websites, inspire, from time to time, folks to write stories about this activity.  I should spend a little more time in some of those communities as well and maybe the press will follow me. There are a lot of things that we can, and more importantly, should do to better promote our music. Philly is a music town. There’s no doubt about it.

Is there a way to support that creative economy aside from having art czar Gary Steuer down there?

Primarily because of the recession, to be honest with you, we’re not able to make as much of an investment in that area. We did though, for the first time in the city’s history, put a half million dollars of community development block grant funds into the creative economy to support a variety of groups and organizations. The city had never done that before. I think we’re doing a better job at promoting many of the artists who come to town.

One of the things we wanted to do was put more economic incentive for artist creative spaces, in terms of tax incentives. But like I said, we weren’t able to do much of that because we had to pull back in a variety of areas because of the economic crisis. But that’s still on our radar screen.

What did Mix Master Mike look like? Were you a Kangol guy?

Back at that time, I was a little bit in Kangol. You might also see me in just a cap, frontwards. I wasn’t much into the backward cap thing. I was always worried my mom was going to see me. In my twenties, I started losing my hair. When you have a hair situation like mine, it’s best to keep it covered, at least in the winter months.

What music do you listen to now?

In the car, it’s all about what’s going on that day. It’s about mood and attitude. If something tragic happens, it’s about trying to come back up. If I’m already kind of up, sometimes I want to go to the next place. Sometimes you want to just chill. I have a playlist that’s called “Driving home.”

What’s on your pick-me-up list?

There’s one playlist called “Jamming.” “Closer” by Ne-yo. Set a drift on Memories Bliss, PM Dawn. Then I go into a set with Black Eyed Peas, followed by The Roots. Got a little Janet Jackson in there. Then I just go all out with Hip Crew, The Power, This is how we do it, Back-to-Back, Going to make you sweat.

A lot of times, I like to come back with different versions of the same song, which really drives my daughter crazy. I’ve got two different versions of Closer and Set adrift on memory bliss. I like to hear different artists interpretations of the same song. My daughter Olivia, it just drives her crazy. ‘Dad, we heard that before.’ ‘No, sweetie, this is a different artist with a whole different treatment.’ ‘No. Skip to the next song.’

We have a big debate about Jennifer Hudson and “I’m telling you.” Big, big argument  in the car. I prefer the original – Jennifer Holiday. I’m an original kind of guy. No disrespect t Jennifer Hudson but I like Jennifer Holiday.

Can music and music education help solve some of the ills of the school district?

It’s a part of the solution. Art and music are critically important to the overall education of young people in this city and any school system. Unfortunately, they end up getting hit early on whenever budgetary channels get cut.

Music, for many young people, that is their expression. That is how they try to get their message out. Every generation has their music. You can communicate across generations, in many instances, through music.

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