The rebirth of Detroit and the metro area is a shock but not a surprise. Decades after the city was given up for dead, small pockets of creativity and resistance have thrived, grown large and joined together like cells stretching from the heart of the city to the stations on the outskirts.
It’s a reinvention to some, a renaissance to others, and you can see one aspect of it at the Grasshopper Underground in Ferndale, Michigan, a modestly-sized venue outside the city limits that some nights feels like it’s the center of the world.
“Detroit is in a really good place right now as far as unity is concerned,” says Hugh Cleal, co-founder of Golf Clap and of the Grasshopper’s Country Club Disco residency. “I’ve never been one to be mad about competition. It only helps the community.”
Cleal has been throwing events in Detroit “off-and-on” for nearly two decades, from warehouses to clubs like Motor and Vain. Two and a half years ago, when he was originally booked to play a small Wednesday night weekly at the Grasshopper, it was mostly “off”. This was the only electronic night the club booked at the time, but he saw an opportunity at the Grasshopper to get back into buying shows.
“I met the owner and realized he was a friend of mine from a different bar a few years before that,” he says. The owner was skeptical at first, but “after we got the ball rolling on that about two years ago, he has never looked back.”
Meanwhile, Hugh had been working with Bryan Jones on a DJ/production project soon to be known as Golf Clap. Previously known for playing Jacking House, Hugh and Bryan found their musical style changing – which framed the deeper shade of House Music they were playing at Country Club Disco down at the Grasshopper.
“As Golf Clap was formed our musical taste was shifting and that has been reflected on the bookings I make,” Hugh says. With full creative freedom from the Grasshopper, he’s been free to craft a night in step with the music he and Bryan have been creating and playing. “We like to mix it up quite a bit, but the majority of the acts we bring in to Country Club Disco are artists that play a similar style to ours,” he says.
Developing a night can be challenging enough without club management breathing down their neck about making numbers right away. “Working with a great club owner is very rare these days,” Hugh says. “One of the main things I told to Troy, the owner, was that we can never focus on the money. Let’s just throw a packed party and everything else will work itself out. If we bring in a newer act that isn’t as well known, we have the capability to make the door charge very little, if not free. This is probably the biggest advantage I have over other traditional promoters that have to cover the costs strictly from ticket sales.
“Another thing is just being relentless and willing to do things your competition isn’t. I’ve had many other talent buyers from around the country ask how we are able to keep things going with such low cover and in a club that only holds about 150 people. My response is that when you do a club three nights a week all year you don’t need to hit a home run every night. Making a little off each event and keeping it going is just as good.”
This sort of long-term thinking by the promoters with an owner’s backing has made the Grasshopper one of the hottest tickets in the American Underground. Country Club Disco has a reputation for having debuted numerous international artists – Sonny Fodera and Detroit Swindle are two of many – but also for having brought in a number of big room headliners to Grasshopper’s intimate setting. Dennis Ferrer, Eats Everything and Steve Lawler rarely play rooms this size – and almost never outside of their home towns – but all of them have made it to Country Club Disco.
“In addition we are very lucky to be able to call most of the Detroit godfathers residents of the club,” Hugh says, among them Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen, and John Acquaviva. “Kevin Saunderson is also now doing a monthly weekday residency, with great success.”
Country Club Disco also has a “small but strong group” of local talent used as support acts. “This is one of the biggest things that helped Golf Clap get off the ground,” he says. “Now that we’re touring a lot more, we’re opening those spots up to the next generation.”
Hugh tries to mix it up but admits it’s “quite tough” to get booked at Country Club Disco. “Even one of my roommates didn’t booked for anything for the first year he lived with us,” he says. “I don’t do favors or gig trades – you gotta be able to play your ass off to get in here. The bar is set very high.” (That roommate, Jay Biggs, is now part of the Country Club Disco crew.)
From a sleepy Wednesday night, Country Club Disco (which now lends its name to a label as well) has taken off, elevating a piece of Detroit with it by proxy. And so has Hugh’s career with Golf Clap. Over time, he hopes to foster and develop new talent to take Golf Clap’s place at the club so the latter can focus on touring and starting Country Club Disco events elsewhere in the country. “I’ve just never been one to settle with any amount of success,” he says. “I always want to expand and push forward.”