Ken Collier was born in Detroit, Michigan on January 9th, 1949. He was black, gay and one of the biggest DJs of his time. Largely unheralded, Collier bridged the musical gap between the Motown sound and what is now considered house and techno music. From his foundation in the gay community, Collier participated in an underground web of clubs and parties that expose him to and allowed him to influence generations of future DJs, producers, promoters and entertainers.
Ken Collier belongs on a single mantel that keeps Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, David Mancuso, Grooverider, and Kool Herc esteemed as the real fathers of contemporary digital dance music. He was the DJ that inspired many young people in Detroit in the late ’70s. Some of those he inspired to begin spinning records were soon-to-be techno innovators such as Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, and Mike Gant, to begin spinning records and rotating information. After he formed True (Accurate) Disco Productions in 1977, Detroit saw its first serious dance club, Chessmate, where Collier was before becoming the resident at the Electric Motor City’s famed Studio room 54 Detroit in 1979. By the mid-’80s, Collier still reigned as the city’s most-recognized DJ with his appearances at the notorious Heaven club. Eventually, he was out shined by his followers, ambitious young DJs such as Jeff Mills and Derrick Mary. Although he lost his clout to his followers and the equally influential Electrifying Mojo, he continued to spin in the mid-90’s until he passed away. Be his 47th birthday, Collier has DJ’d professionally for a quarter of a century. He passed away at the age of 47 from diabetic complications on February 19, 1996.
There were several artists who contributed to the movement of mixing progressive post-disco. Outside of Collier, other DJs who are given credit include New York’s Tee Scott and Chicago’s Frankie Knuckles — two instrumental figures who undoubtedly spread the DJ vernacular to Detroit. However, the movement toward mixed music was far bigger than any one person so there is not a single person who can get credit for it. A whole generation of future DJs and producers heard mixers like Collier, Jimmy Lockhart, Duane Bradley, Tony Hunter, Morris Mitchell, Elton Weathers, Felton Howard, Darryl Shannon, Stacey Hale, John Collins and Ken’s brother Greg Collier. They proved that there was a musical message — a true underground dance club alternative to the mainstream — worth spreading.
Here is an excerpt from Aaron Carl, “Ken Collier is the man who turned me onto House music. He is the man who taught me (both directly and indirectly) what it is to feel the music. He brought us together in a way that nobody else could. Black, white, straight, gay, whatever… We were all his “children,” and when he worked those decks, he ruled us all. Detroit will never be the same without him. All of us who are in the Detroit scene today; we are who we are because of Ken. I am grateful to have known him. I am grateful to have been influenced by him. I will continue to honor him, because if it were not for him and Heaven, I would not be who I am today. Thank you Ken. Rest in peace. I love you..”
Collier’s friends and devotees formed the now-defunct Ken Collier Memorial Fund (KCMF) in 1997; throwing parties and raising money and awareness for diabetes, the disease that finally killed Collier. For reasons still unclear, the KCMF was recently asked by Collier’s family to cease its work and its parties.
Collier’s death left a hole in an already tattered scene. Though dance music was just taking off in the mainstream, with techno DJs traveling the world and raves blowing up in warehouses in Detroit, the progressive/house music and its DJs had fallen by the wayside. The new music picked up fast, had fewer vocals, and, for many, had lost the original soul that fans had originally sought. A mixed scene, which had come so far so quickly, desegregated. Collier’s death closed the door on a Detroit era.
Former radio and St. Andrew’s Shelter jock Scott “Go-Go” Gordon recalls Collier’s impact on the scene and was struck by his soulfulness. In the midst of a “cutting-edge” crowd, with a “wall-of-sound” music system, and after waiting in a long line outside at 3 a.m., Gordon remembers Collier nights at Heaven as “the place to be.” He says Collier would, “walk a tightrope between gay anthems and house without offending anybody and pleasing everybody.”