A good DJ is a teacher. A great DJ is a student.
Marvin Prather is Eternal Student. Before he had the name, he had the vibe, growing up in the germinal era of Detroit’s dance music scene and social clubs. A teenager in the early ’80s, Prather and several friends formed the social club “Comrades” (mentioned in many accounts from the early days of the Detroit techno scene).
“I took on the role of lead promoter and graphic artist for flyers,” he says. But he DJing was never far from his mind. After a stint in the Navy, he returned to Detroit, started a family and got back into it in his early 30s.
The story might have ended there, and a good story it would be. But this is the Eternal Student. He never stops. At the age of 51 Prather began producing music for the first time, and a year ago released “Hear Me Though,” an amazing deep house cut on legendary Detroit label Moods & Grooves (presided over by another figure from the early days of the Detroit scene whose path wound around his military service, Mike Grant). The EP was brilliant — a pure distillation of the deep house sound of Detroit. The city and the scene’s history flows through this record, because Marvin Prather had been there absorbing it all along.
A story like Marvin’s requires a story like this in 5 Mag and I’m glad he granted us the opportunity not just to hear him DJ in this issue’s cover mix but to sit down and learn some of the eyewitness history of growing up in Detroit’s electronic music scene from the Eternal Student.
Photo: Mike Grant
🔴 Listen: Eternal Student 🔥 The Cover Mix
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I’m going to start with the question the people want answered first. What does “Eternal Student” mean and why did you pick that name?
Eternal Student means always seeking knowledge. A never-ending student of music. I picked the name with the help of a life-long friend who had been the editor of the hip hop magazine The Source (being the wordsmith that she is)
I want to get into your early life a little bit. Were you born in Detroit? What was your life like when you were growing up?
I was born and raised in Detroit. My life was always full of music. I had an older brother who had what I’ve been told was one of the best record collections in the city. He had been buying records since the early ’70s. He had everything from ’60s Blue Note jazz, to ’70s funk, to early fusion jazz like Chick Corea, Return To Forever, Herbie Hancocks’ Head Hunter, everything Motown, to Led Zepplin, to Pat Metheny, Jean Luc Ponty, Norman Connors, Lenny White, Edgar Winter to Run DMC and all the ’80s rap and early hip hop to Thomas Dolby, to Cherrelle, to the Emotions, to D-Train, to Africa Bambaataa, to Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. I grew up on a variety of music and loved it all.
When did DJing enter the picture?
I was introduced to mixing at the age of 13 (early 1980s). It was the beginning of what we called progressive music, disco 12 inches, and early dance tracks coming out of New York (Madonna “Holiday” long plays, Hashim’s “Al-Naafiysh”, Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It” and the likes). I had taken a trip with my parents to New York in 1980 to visit family. It was then that I heard WBLS mixing records…and I was hooked. In Detroit I had a neighborhood friend named John Spears who was a few years older than me and he was already mixing with 1200s and a Gemini mixer. Me and my best friend from high school, David Spivey fought (we were freshmen and didn’t like each other at first LOL), found that we shared a mutual passion for music, and the rest is history. With John being an upperclassmen he was always home before us. We would leave school (early if necessary) to go to his house and mix records all day. David convinced his parents to buy him two turntables and a Radio Shack mixer that Christmas and by the following Spring he was quite good at spinning.
By the turn of the following year, our sights were set on hosting parties, like all the other popular kids of that era. We set out to form our own social club, and by the fall of that year, “Comrades” was formed. (see Wikipedia Techno). David took on the role of DJ and DJ Spivey was born. I took on the role of lead promoter and graphic artist for fliers. But since David and I were attached at the hip, I stayed spinning and practicing just as a hobby.
I found solitude in producing. At first it was hard to get going. For a few months, I would just open up my DAW and stare at it. Then one day, after doing that routine repeatedly, things just started to click.
It wasn’t until many years later that I came into my own as a DJ. I was in my early 30s. I had done a stint in the Navy after high school, came home, grew up for a few years, got married, and started a family. But once I decided to play seriously, it was fairly easy to get opportunities to play out because of my lifelong affiliation with just about every house and techno music DJ in the city. We all grew up together through those early social club days. And there was a brief period in the early days of our annual electronic music festival here that Raybone Jones and I promoted events which reacquainted me with a lot of old DJs and party promoters as well as new ones.
Was there a DJ then who inspired you? Is there one that inspires you now? Who is the last one you saw that you were really inspired by?
Local DJs like Delano Smith, Kevin Dysard, Ray Berry, Ron Scott, Darryl Shannon were all inspirations. Then there was the Music Institute era Alton Miller, Derrick May, and Chez Damier. Then, as I got older and started DJing myself and buying more music I discovered others like Ron Trent, Kerri Chandler, Joe Claussell. These guys are still inspiring as both DJs and producers.
Can you tell me, to you, what was it that made the Music Institute special?
It was special to me because in hindsight, I got to experience it. I was a young man 21, 22 years of age. Full of energy. I thrived on going on Fridays and Saturdays and dancing all night. Friday was house with Alton Miller, Saturday was more experimental and techno with Derrick May. The institute’s run was short-lived, but the intensity of what was happening musically was to last forever. It was nothing else like it in Detroit before or after. I guess the other special thing about it was looking back…it was run by our friends. It’s where I met Alton, Marc and Scott Kinchen, Derrick, and Carl Craig.
You started producing late in life. How old were you? How did you get started? Was it hard to get going?
I was actually 51 years old. I had done the family thing for another decade after getting divorced just before 40. It was going through another breakup of a family that I found solitude in producing. At first it was hard to get going. For a few months, I would just open up my DAW and stare at it and give up after a little while due to the learning curve. I would just make beats on my drum machine. Then one day, after doing that routine repeatedly, things just started to click. The first track I called myself making I was told by a producer “that’s not a track!” The second track was released on Beaty Boy Reords by Steve Crawford. The next track to be released was done just a few months later… “Hear Me Though.” But keep in mind, I worked at producing tirelessly everyday in addition to my job and my role of full-time dad.
Tell me about “Hear Me Though,” which was an incredible record when I got to it. That was a hell of a debut. How did you get it out of you, and how did you get it to Mike Grant and into the rest of the world?
“Hear Me Though” (pronounced Hear Me ‘Doe’ or ‘Tho’) was built around it’s drum track and bassline. Once I added the sweeping chords, the rest just kind of came to me as an expression of a feeling, and the vox was a sample that to me sounded like it said “hear me doe”.
Let it be a passion. Then the music itself will never disappoint whether you sell it or not.
At the time I was exchanging musical ideas with Domenique Xander in Berlin via Facebook. He asked me if he could remix it and I said sure. When he sent it back to me I loved his remix, and the idea for the EP was born. I sent Domenique’s version to my boy from Detroit, Brian Neal (who was now living out west.) Brian heard both versions and asked to put some stank on it with his partner Avalon Kalin. I knew once I presented all 3 versions to Mike Grant, he wouldn’t be able to refuse it. He worked us all to make them the best versions each could be. The other track, “Transpose Deep” was added, and the deal was sealed.
Paul Johnson used to talk about showing up to DJ battles with no records and beating people by playing records from their own crate, because his skills were next level. In your opinion, what is the best skill a DJ can have?
Absolutely knowing your music. I’m not a trickster DJ either. I kinda share the David Mancuso philosophy of DJing where you play the whole song. You never know what part of a song is a person’s jam. I just like to play the music, as close to the one as possible, so that you hear it the way it’s supposed to sound. And yes, Paul was an amazing DJ and producer — RIP.
I’m continually amazed at how vibrant Detroit nightlife is compared to other cities. If I’ve got a guest and we just landed at Detroit Metro, where would you take us on a Friday or Saturday night?
I’d have to take you to Spot Lite Detroit. Perhaps to the “wine bar” MotorCity Wine. These two places host some of the best local and visiting house music DJs Detroit has to offer on any given weekend.
What are we looking out for from you next?
I’m not sure. I have a digital album project in works for Moods & Grooves (about 12 tracks). I also have a few EPs I personally plan to release on my own label, Inner Frequency Recordings. A few other labels are taking notice and have some tracks from me as well.
I think you’re an inspiring person, I get the sense of a guy who has never given up and that is inspiring whether it’s in life or sports or the arts. What advice would you have to someone bummed out that music isn’t taking them where they think they need to be? Someone disappointed or discouraged?
First off I’d say let it be a passion. Then the music itself will never disappoint whether you sell it or not. I often freely share tracks with friends and family on social media. Not worried about who will like it. Someone always does. And sometimes it garners the attention of labels interested in releasing it. Selling your music and making a living off of it can be tough. Especially if you try to stay true to your sound. I suggest just keep making it and putting it out there. With sites like Bandcamp now…anyone can put out their own music.
On a personal note: I would like to say thanks to the 5 Mag crew for giving me this wonderful opportunity to share my voice, my music, and some of my vision.
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