Otto Buj

Power, Community, Timeless

The history of Detroit is storied and complicated, as deep as it is problematic. But for the better part of the last century, the history of Detroit can be told in part through the story of its music. Though often people will point to Motown, techno and house, and the modern vanguard of rappers and producers coming out of Detroit, the city's urban areas were the spawning grounds of some of the grungiest, nastiest sounds in rock music, a movement that came to be known as Punk or punk rock. Alongside the New York and British scenes, the Hardcore Punks of Detroit developed an ethos that would go on to change the sound of rock music permanently.

Born in the early 80s in Cass Corridor, a section of west Detroit running between I-75 and I-94, with a reputation for drugs, prostitution and poverty, the Punk scene was about "trying to feel alive" as documentarian Otto Buj puts it in his film, "Dope, Hookers and Pavement: The Real and Imagined History of Detroit Hardcore".

The suffocating boredom of white suburbia pulled a small group of restless kids together in what was considered one of the most dangerous parts of the city, just to listen to underground bands and mosh.

At first everything was word of mouth. You had to know someone to know what was going on when, but as the scene began to evolve and found some semi-permanent venues like the infamous "Freezer Theater", the community began to organize it. For example, Buj's documentary chronicles the way that fans came together to design and distribute fan zines both as advertising for events and as ways to distribute information on bands. These zines featured raw and rough art, skeletons and bodies, spikes and blood all common motifs for a scene that was about music as much as it was about expression through the body. But above all the most important aspect of the scene was its authenticity. It required both a dedication and a genuine involvement that was a prerequisite of having to create for yourself something which was not provided.

The violence of punks is pure, it isn't about harming others or exercising power but about releasing energy, giving a means of expression to a pent-up creativity and vigor.

But when the authentic desire for that communal ritual is lost, that's when it can no longer exist. Buj describes the ways that eventually, the scene and its violent means of expression attracted "the wrong crowd", like skinheads, leading to its downfall. But it left its mark, not only on the sound of rock but also through labels like Touch and Go Records, whose DIY spirit influenced and inspired Sub Pop records. The power of a movement born of itself, something which isn’t co-opted for the benefit of the industry or used for the wealth of the artists, is impossible to overestimate, and something which Buj believes may never exist again.
Statement by Omar El-Sabrout

A conversation with:

Otto Buj