Mike takes me on a nearly 6 hour trip through his Detroit and shows me the city’s East-Side by night, as I become part of an interactive, site specific lecture. With us is a young guy who grew up in Detroit, moved out, and now returned back to town. I saw him hanging out at Submerge in the past. He is driving the car.
Banks is guiding him through the city, giving him directions. Sometimes Banks is addressing him and sometime me. He refers a lot to what his father taught him about life, the city and the US society. I feel a little bit caught in a similar situation: like this ride is a certain type of a father-son initiation into life and its tough reality. Like an O.G. or a godfather, he unfolds in his role in teaching us things, which can’t be found in books or newspapers. Maybe only in the lyrics of some Mobb Deep tracks.
Mike Banks is showing us all the places where Detroit failed: streets on which you can only find churches, liquor stores and funeral homes. Poorly secured trash disposals and trash incinerators, which, with yellow smoke and pungent stench, are polluting the surrounding neighborhoods. Places where weapons are being sold, burned out schools, methadone clinics, abandoned churches. Where illegal car races are taking place.
Those races are not motherfucking stupid, Banks mentions, but the city wants to put motherfucking farms, instead of legalizing those races. Banks feels deeply connected with and is loyal to the world where he comes from; all his identity is build upon it. He feels close to all those people living on the dark side of the American dream, miles away from all the recent transformations in Detroit.
Whether those people are doing wrong or not, he still feels for them and explains to me their background and I dive into Banks’ hardboiled, nihilistic world. He is worried of gentrification and that it might roll over him and over the city he lives in. He sounds bitter when he talks about urban farmers and new art colonies in the city. Childish, naïve art is what it represents for him, without any connection to harsh reality, as he knows it. Mike appreciates dark art that deals with urban struggle for survival. Sports, music and art are for Banks the only ways out from this dark side of American society.
During my four meetings with Mike, I tried to understand what is his resistance aiming at today. Those who turned their back on Detroit? Those who were eagerly ready to sell out the Techno sound of the city to some European music labels who were only interested in profit? Those who were only interested in the hype of Detroit Techno instead of the city and its problems? Or is his resistance aiming at all those hippie urban farmers and childish out-door-sculpture-garden-artists that are coming to the city today and who don’t understand anything about the city? Who are so far away from the harsh reality of Detroit’s East Side? Can he expect from those new Detroiters to follow and understand his mindset and the world he is coming from?
Banks is a fan of bands like Alice In Chains and Black Sabbath. He says: listen to their lyrics they are really deep and dark, really fucked up. Banks reveals to me the real meaning behind some Underground Resistance track titles, like “The Sea Wolf”. He explains how he tried to put himself in the scenario of a WWII sea battle: being inside of a submarine ship with one finger on the trigger loaded with a torpedo, ready to shoot at a vessel of the enemy full with human lives of other soldiers and knowing that shortly everybody on board will die. Banks describes the dark desire and pleasure of this moment, he compares it with gangbanging. In desolate, urban ghettos young African Americans make easy money by selling drugs and where killing is become a life’s purpose, turning it into an addiction to an adrenaline driven real-time strategy game and as a form of escapism from the hopelessness and depression that reality brings for those guys. For Banks, this is the fabric that the deep, dark art of urban survival should be made of. Like this one Detroit artist that was drawing tally marks in public space for each person that died in town of a homicide. Mike tells me that a girl from Berlin came to warn him about this thing called gentrification and told him that he should be on guard to all those so called creative people who now eagerly move to towns like Detroit. “Watch out, Mike”, she said, “those creative people with their laptops, as quick as they opened the lids of their laptops, as quick they will close them again, when they find a new, cooler and hipper city to move to.” I reply, “Mike, it’s even worse than that. When such a huge parts of the automobile industry were able to be moved out of town, then anything can and will be moved by the forces of the market. ” Mike says, “If this New Detroit thing doesn’t work then we are in big trouble” and hopes that when Dimitri Hegemann comes to town that he will have some answers ready on how to escape gentrification. He is curious to hear how Dimitri wants to pay off his debts to Detroit and return something back to the city. It sounds like Mike is waiting for the man with a master plan; waiting for a savior, like Scott Kurashige mentioned to me previously. “Mike, why don’t you register Submerge as the official techno museum in town? You would surely be able to receive some financial support from one place or another and it would put you on the official map of Detroit and make you visible to people who would be drawn into your art, buy your products, support you”, I say. Yes, good idea, Mike returns. But he would also need to do all this paperwork and he would need to build a wheel chair ramp or an elevator, and he doesn’t have the money for that. No, that’s out of sight. Why is he not reaching out to other people to make such moves possible, I ask. Well, maybe, one day. NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, moved out of the Submerge neighborhood, on East Grand Boulevard, because they thought it too rough and too dangerous. It was the largest NAACP building in the US, but they preferred a building in a gentrified area. Things like that hit and hurt Mike quite a lot.
Mike thinks that in the same manner how black blues musicians in the South have been ripped off and exploited by white record industry and white musicians, this pattern get repeated at the end of the 80s and early 90s. At that time, when Techno was just ready to set off, when white Europeans were standing in line in Detroit waiting to exploit the then fresh sounds of young urban Afro-Americans and turn it around for their benefit. To copycat and to make empty promises to young, inexperienced Detroit producers, who eagerly left the city, one by one.
When a huge part of local industry fails and falls, what do you do with all those workers that you brought up? This city lives from misery and pain. Drugs, weapons, liquor stores, bad food: those are evolution processes created to thin out the population of neighborhoods, Mike says to me. And whoever can make it through that, will be the survivor, this one is gonna be some bad motherfucker. But when you give them welfare then they are not so mad anymore.
Church, liquor store, church, liquor store, funeral home, liquor store: that’s the pattern on some streets on Detroit’s East Side. They are sucking the blood out of the community, Mike says. We pass the Genesis House on Mack Avenue, a Christian Rescue Mission and rehab place where Mike’s girlfriend works. “This shit’s gonna fuck you up, what I’m gonna show you,” those are sentences that I hear quiet often on this trip from Mike. There! A burned down school. So where are the urban farmers kids gonna go to school? There ain’t no motherfucking schools here. When you motherfuckas gonna have a baby you will not send your kids where my god damn kids go because they are too god damn violent and the school curriculum is not good enough for you. Those farmers are kids, but this shit is real.
Banks describes his mother as a religious person. But he got into trouble with her when she discovered that he was secretly listening and playing guitar to Black Sabbath songs. His mother, who actually loved music, made him go to church for another 5 years. In the midst of some parts of the East Side, we pass some houses which are in good shape. Those are the types of houses Banks used to live in. Even if you live in the hood, a house can look straight. No lights on these streets, but who gives a fuck about those mutherfuckas – no taxes, no lights. “I’m gonna show you some shit, Sebastian.” Here in the hood, there is the survival way of life and there is the American way of life. That shit is deep. “I’m glad that you gonna see this shit, Sebastian”. Everybody here in the hood, they all go to Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the white, rich kids’ neighborhood, none of them go. Banks’ father said to him: don’t ever fight for these mutherfuckas. They send them poor mutherfuckas, let those Arabs tell who Jesus is, because our Jesus says you have to fight Arabs, just because they don’t believe in Jesus. Army recruiters are not allowed at white, rich schools. What the fuck do we have to do in Afghanistan? Because they don’t believe in Jesus and they don’t buy anything we make? These folks are not consumers. Because once they turn you into a consumer, they can make a dollar with you. This is capitalism. Banks admits that he hated those rich white kids, from those neighborhoods with huge American flags waving on long poles above them. He hated them, until his mother came along and said: there are also some rich people who do good things too. You can’t judge people by what they have, but by who they are. We arrive at Grosse Pointe, a rich suburb on the riverfront, northeast of the East Side. A police car rolls very slowly ahead of us, like they are just waiting for us to make the tiniest mistake in order to pull us over. In situations like these, and when the cops actually really do pull the car over, Banks would tell them, “Officer, we are just showing those European journalists the opportunities of America and what can be your reward when you only work hard.” And then they tell you, “Great” while pointing you to the houses of other rich people. This is where he came to steal bikes and then give the same bike back to his neighborhood. “But you ain’t seen shit, Sebastian.” When he was in the gang, they were collecting protection money from stores. $100 that ain’t much. Pay, or otherwise we will burn your store down, mutherfuckas. That’s how money is made. He was a genius in making money, Banks admits. You know how you can get around bulletproof glass in the stores? It’s easy. You just take a can of gas and a tube, you stick it up under the door and pour the gas to their side. That’s how you do it with the bulletproof glass, cuz this is how they are trapped inside their own shit. And then you say, hey man, I need a little bit of money.
What the fuck are all those fancy artists spraying on the walls? That’s all bullshit. We wrote gang shit on buildings, warning signs, who we killed, when we killed, who’s territory it is. Gangbang spray paint. This is our artwork. What the fuck you’re talking about art? And for all the white sprayers: it’s just exciting to spray paint in the hood. This shit is retarded. You heard about those two white boys who got killed? They killed them probably because they looked like some rich mutherfuckas. But that ain’t right, maybe they were just 2 good guys. Maybe they wanted to buy some dope and I know some niggas hard enough to say: fuck these mutherfuckas. Let’s kill them just for fun. But instead of gangbanging, I started to beat them up with techno music. We are now at Cadieux Road, it goes through Grosse Pointe and Detroit. Here lives the good American life. Looks like downtown Santa Barbara, California. Fresh food, sushi, and all we got to eat is greasy ass chicken. So when you see all that shit now, now you understand where Underground Resistance is coming from. It was a great outlet for my aggression. Because I was fucking up, I was on the way to prison, where I would end up being even more frustrated and hurting even more people. Jeff Mills definitely saved me, he saw my talent because through music you can find out who you really are. When I started to do music, it was just another hustle for me, I didn’t give a shit about music, it was just about the fact that I could do it. That UR shit worked, cause that shit was designed to inspire resistance, so mutherfuckas see the truth.
Too many dumb kids got caught doing what they were doing. Too many dumb kids wanna be somebody, if you are really smart they are never gonna catch you. It’s very very bad to be dumb in this city, cause guys will take advantage of your stupidity and they will let you do dumb shit that will get you caught and incarcerated. My dad gave me the first lesson in that. He said: “There is a lot of dog shit in my yard, I need that shit cleaned up.” And I got a shovel and was picking shit up. And he comes and smacks me and tells me what the fuck is wrong with you? You said I should pick shit up. No, wrong, I said I need the shit picked up. Don’t you got better shit to do, picking up shit? So find some dumb fuck and give him a piece of candy and let him pick up shit. That was my first lesson in that shit.
Banks brings me over to a place where numerous bodies of murdered women were found some years ago. It was a serial killer, and he used to dump the bodies over here. They never caught that motherfucker. Over there, this is a big prostitution area. Mike likes the empty, vacant spaces of Detroit. I like when it’s empty, I am used to it, that’s why I can’t handle Europe. It’s too many people. There is a cycle to gentrification, Mike explains to me: first come the artists, and then come the farmers, then come the hipsters, then come the yuppies. Nobody can stop that. But once the yuppies come, it looks like the suburbs. So to me, all those people prior to yuppies just function to clear it up and make it safe. You wanna put a farm in the hood of some niggers who are not interested in that farm? First of all, mutherfucka get a Detroit address and become a citizen. Same with the guy who did this Shrinking Cities project: he built all those farms, got everybody excited, and then he made a report in Berlin and people here didn’t get anything from that. This is rich people’s experiments with poor people’s lives. And now you coming with that urban farmers they think that they are helping. Once they made it a cool place, then their ass had to move too. But still, I like them, they are kids, they don’t understand the big picture, they are living in a cartoon. They are consumers too. “What I’m gonna show you now that’s gonna fuck you up, really hard”. German company Thyssen built a parking lot on top of the baseball field, where Banks used to play once. The city sold the land and fucked them, didn’t give a shit. There he played his first games. And over here, the rock star Jack White of the White Stripes, used to play baseball there, he paid money to fix up that baseball field. It was Jack White, not the city. Jack White is alright. I know all these shortcuts through the city from the days when I was running from the police while doing car racing, Banks confesses. Here I use to hide my race car, I had a trailer and nobody could see it. They never caught me. Over here, they were racing. I knew a girl, she was just a bystander and she got killed. Here they keep a little tombstone for her. The guy got killed too. I’ll show you where he ended up dying. Here you still see some signs. I use to bribe the cops so we could continue with the races: 600 bucks and more. Usually, Banks would build the engines and the car bodies and send out some other motherfuckas inside of it to the races. His car was the Punisher, with a big skull on the engine cover. That’s what the Underground Resistance track is named after. He had to sell it in order to pay off the Submerge building. The car earned the building. But you can’t make money out of records. You can make like 5000 with a record, but with car races you can make 50.000 in just one night. So it was kind of a joke to him when the Europeans started to offer him money for a record. He never needed their advance money for an EP. This was the Highwaymen Motorcycle Club and that’s where you could buy all that Soviet, Israeli military weapons. From the Aryan nation, that’s why they been selling to niggas. They don’t give a fuck if we kill ourselves.
But to be fair, you have to get a 2nd opinion from somebody from the suburbs and how they look at Detroit.
Was everything what Banks told me for real? Did he experience all that stuff himself? Or was this the residue of collective memory of the people he met in his life from all those places that he showed me? Or was it just a good story to tell to a journalist from Europe? A good story which gives you an entertaining chill while listening to it. “… and we like to listen to Mike Banks stories …” John Collins words come back to my mind.
Text, Bilder, Audio: Sebastian Meissner