The Musical Wanderings of Don Was

From the DJ History archives: the Blue Note president talks Detroit, dance music and Was (Not Was)

Don Was Mathieu Bitton

Is Don Was the definitive musical journeyman of the late 20th century? Born Don Fagenson in Detroit in 1952, he co-founded the funk/pop band Was (Not Was), of “Walk the Dinosaur” fame; won four Grammys in the far-flung genres of country, children’s music and blues; serves as president of the jazz powerhouse Blue Note Records; made documentary films about The Beatles and Brian Wilson; and has produced albums for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John and Willie Nelson. It’s exhausting to think about.

DJ History

Central to this freewheeling interview with Bill Brewster of DJ History, recorded in 2008, is the setting of postindustrial Detroit. Was, a consummate collaborator, credits the radio DJ The Electrifying Mojo, club DJ Ken Collier and Nat Morris, host of the TV dance competition The Scene, with establishing the vibrant cultural groundwork for his own adventures in pop music, from house music to the dawn of hip-hop and beyond.

How did growing up in Detroit impact your life?

The Detroit I grew up in doesn’t necessarily exist anymore. It was a factory town. After World War II, the disenfranchised from all over the country came up the highway from the cotton fields, basically. It was an ethnic jambalaya: Everything was there. You could earn a good living, but it was a bit hopeless. Work didn’t go much past making cars on an assembly line. And even people who didn’t necessarily manufacture cars had their incomes tied to the auto industry. So my parents were both teachers, and if the factory laid off workers, the teachers would get laid off because there would be fewer kids in the school when the people moved away to find other jobs.

There’s a kind of bleak hopelessness that actually made people… everyone was in the same boat, and everyone got along until the country got polarized in the late ’60s. You had this incredible situation where you had white people from the south, you had black people from the south, everyone congregating in this place where there were all these jobs after the war. It was a wonderful place. It was culturally vibrant and free of the kind of pretense you may find in the fashion centers of the world. Growing up I never saw a limousine. There was one limousine, and it was parked at the airport. There was no point in putting on any airs. It was a great place.

At that particular time – and I don’t think this was just part of Detroit – the general mood in the ’60s was that it was a noble thing to come up with something new. Today, you’re kind of punished for that. The record company won’t sign ya unless they can say, “Well, it’s a cross between Green Day and Nelly.” It’s too risky if they can’t find some bag to put you in. But in those days, it was an insult to say it was a cross between the Beatles and Pharaoh Sanders. They’d say, “Fuck you!” You could start a fight over that kind of shit.

Speaking of Pharaoh Sanders, I once saw the MC5 playing an afterhours thing playing with Pharaoh Sanders. That was Detroit.

I guess that sensibility informed your early productions.

I think it’s back on our new record. Have you heard it yet?

Was (Not Was) - Walk The Dinosaur

Once earlier.

I think we lost the thread. That’s why we stopped. We had a lot of well-intentioned people around us, and I don’t criticize anybody. They were just trying to make us more popular, but we made some conservative choices, and you make two or three of those moves, and you lose the thread. They’d say, “I don’t hear the next ‘Walk the Dinosaur.’” I don’t know how we did it. I don’t know how we did any of them.

The worst moment for us came when a guy, well-intentioned guy and a benefactor, he said, “If you just do a cover of ‘Listen Like Thieves’ you’ll have a number one record.” And we said, “Really?” He said, “I don’t want the band playin’ on it, go to a keyboard guy who makes hit records.” So we did it, handed it in and said, “Is this it?” Of course, it wasn’t a hit, but it represented a loss of confidence and vision on our part. It took a decade to get it back.

I wanna ask you about The Electrifying Mojo. Did you listen to him? He was another guy who unified Detroit by playing white bands to a black audience.

You’re absolutely right. I’m amazed you know about him. How do you know about him?

I co-wrote a book about the history of the DJ called Last Night A DJ Saved My Life and interviewed a lot of people from that scene.

I’d go a step further about Mojo. Not only did he change the musical sound of Detroit, but he had a huge impact nationally, and I’ll tell you why. We were kind of contemporaries. We were making our first record when he started broadcasting. He created a friendly environment. He was a big booster for Was (Not Was). He played “Wheel Me Out” and “Out Come the Freaks” to death, you know.

The B-52s - Mesopotamia

Our first album came out on ZE, who had a deal with Island, who were distributed by Warner Bros in the US. So they flew us out there for the obligatory meeting. And of course we were considered an R&B group, and we went to the meeting at the Warner Bros R&B department, and they were mortified to see two white guys walk in. The first thing the guy said was, “No pictures of these guys for six months!” Then he took us into his office and put on a Michael McDonald record. Michael is a great singer and friend of mine, but it’s not what we do. And he said, “Listen to this, this is how white people do R&B at Warner Bros.” That was our second message from him. Then the third thing was they called in the guy from R&B promotion and sat there chuckling listening to Prince’s Controversy album. And they were saying, “What we are supposed to be doing with this shit?” And they were about to drop Prince. If you’d have told them that the Kraftwerk album was gonna give rise to hip-hop and Arthur Baker, John Robie and Afrika Bambaataa were gonna sample that — that was their record, and it never occurred to them that black kids would like Kraftwerk. Or Talking Heads.

Mojo played Mesopotamia by The B-52s, he played Talking Heads, and he opened all of that stuff. When it started working in Detroit, the attitude of Warner Bros changed immediately. They were really about to drop Prince after the Dirty Mind album. And then all of a sudden because this guy hit the stuff so hard, it changed everything. He broke Prince. He broke Kraftwerk as dance music. He opened up a whole new mindset for R&B listeners. And he broke Was (Not Was).

I guess the music he played was also a big influence on the high school parties happening in Detroit, like Charivari, Plush, Funtime Society, etc.

I’m amazed you know all this stuff, but you’re absolutely right.

How did you meet Ken Collier?

Before we did Was (Not Was), I was trying to make dance records, but I didn’t like all the things with the strings. That’s what dance records were at the time. There’d be an instrumental, and they’d take the vocal out and edit that in to make a club mix. The record that blew my mind was “You’re the One for Me,” which François Kevorkian mixed, and he did stuff that I was trying to do with Was (Not Was). We tried to do it with “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming.” So it was synchronicity, and that was putting dub things on dance records. If you’re gonna do a dance mix, don’t just boost the bass drum and put the record on, but make it for dancing. So I started asking around Detroit who the best DJ was, and it kept coming back to Ken Collier. So I started going to his clubs, which were gay black clubs.

If you’re gonna do a dance mix, don’t just boost the bass drum and put the record on, but make it for dancing. – Don Was

Do you remember the names of the clubs?

Menjo’s was one of them. And then there was one downtown that was awesome, too. I’d go down there and get pretty stoned and dance, and I got hip to the fact that what he was doing was taking you on a little trip, the way he would mix in and out of the records and just sections that were really graphic and really impressionistic.

So I thought, “Well, that’s what the 12" mix has to be.” And “Wheel Me Out” was designed to be like a little journey. That’s what dance music does, and when I’m saying it to you now it sounds stupid because that’s what everybody does, but at the time that’s not what everybody was doing.

So we tried to do this trippy stuff. I’d bring Ken Collier in with me. Even though he was very inventive, he was very conservative. He hated electric guitars! So I’d have him come in and play him something and say, “At what point would you take this record off?” I’d be sitting there dubbin’ out, and he’d go, “Ewww, what is that?” I’d say, “That’s a guitar.” “Get that out of there!” There was also this guy Duane Bradley.

He was part of the Wasmopolitan Mixing Squad wasn’t he?

Jesus, man I can’t believe you know this stuff, it’s incredible. I’m thrilled that someone is hip to that, yeah! We’d sit up all night and do these mixes. We had a lot of fun. It was contentious in a fun way because they hated a lot of the stuff I was trying to make [laughs].

It’s good to have grit in the ointment, no?

It enabled us to get our records played in clubs. The dub side of “Tell Me That I’m Dreaming,” and certainly the long version of "Wheel Me Out” and the dub version of “Out Come the Freaks.” Those mixes really hold up today, I think, and there wasn’t anything quite like them. They were really popular all over the world, and it’s because those guys were there. There’s stuff I didn’t understand about the bass drum, and if you’re not from clubs, you think you gotta put a big thunderous bass drum on the record. But, in fact, if you do that, it washes out in the club, which adds the thunder. So you’ve actually gotta put a clean sounding bass drum and let the club add the boom to it. As a neophyte, I didn’t know that. I’m proud of those records.

How did the Orbit project come about?

The guy who did all the instruments in that was a guy named Luis Resto, who became Eminem’s collaborator. He won an Oscar for writing “Lose Yourself,” but was one of the original members of Was (Not Was). He was just a teenager. He was my friend’s piano student. He played the violin on “Wheel Me Out.” On the first album, he was the only guy I knew who had an Oberheim, but he was a teenager. He was the first generation – older guys than him had been piano players, then they bought a synthesizer, and they said, “Oh look, I can get an oboe sound,” but they still played it like piano players. He was the first guy I ever met who was a real synthesizer player. He understood the electronics. He didn’t even screw on the top because he was always adjusting stuff inside. His family is Puerto Rican, and I was telling them we should do something where we take Kraftwerk with salsa beats but get electronic sounds. So I was pushing him toward that, and it was very John Robie influenced.

Orbit - The Beat Goes On

Were you inspired by the Afrika Bambaataa thing?

Well, John Robie and I were good friends. We used to hang out a lot in New York. We did a 12" together for Jules Shear, “When Love Surges.” I was always in awe of John. He had quite a presence. And he is singularly the most unsung hero of hip-hop. He didn’t have the idea of rapping on music, but he executed the music. He played everything on those tracks. He programmed all of it. It was fun watching him work. Very creative guy. The thing that makes them all a little different is Luis Resto just got different sounds than John did. We were just fuckin’ with a groove, and we just started singing on the top of it. It was one night.

It was a big local hit wasn’t it?

Yeah. Absolutely was. In that same period of time, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a TV show called The Scene in Detroit?

Yeah, local dance show?

The guy who used to host was a good friend of mine, Nat Morris, and he had two nephews from South Carolina called Felix & Jarvis, and they were rappers. For the same company out of Canada that we did Orbit, we cut a version of “Flamethrower,” the J. Geils song. It was the exact same setup, Luis and I doing it and these guys rapping. It was a really early rap hit record. One of the first in the R&B charts. I saw one of the guys from DMC, and he said they used to open for Felix & Jarvis. It was right around the time of the first Was (Not Was) album. Then they called for an album, and we talked about, “A whole album with people rapping? It’s never been done, why would you do it?” So we didn’t pursue it.

Then they called for an album, and we talked about, “A whole album with people rapping? It’s never been done, why would you do it?”

How did the ZE deal come about?

David and I had done “Wheel Me Out.” We knew it made no sense taking it to Columbia, and ZE, we just dug what they were doing. I loved all the James White stuff and Kid Creole and Coati Mundi. I just liked the whole vibe. They were just way off. So David and I decided we wanted to be on that label, but we didn’t know anything about Michael Zilkha. David was a freelance jazz critic, so he called up Michael Zilkha under the pretense of doing an interview which he wasn’t even recording. During the interview, he said, “By the way, there’s a band from Detroit you gotta hear!” And Michael said, “That sounds wonderful! Have them call me.” I brought it to New York, and August Darnell happened to be in the office, and I think it struck a note with him. “Wheel Me Out,” he got it. And he said, “You gotta put this out.” We scammed our way into that.

How did you put “Wheel Me Out” together?

That’s a drum loop. The Linn drum hadn’t been made yet. There were 808s, but they didn’t sound like drums. It was a real guy that came in and played. I can’t remember his name. I should check it. I played a gig in Detroit, and he played drums, so I asked if he’d come in and do it. We played on little glasses to get that little rhythm. We did it on a 16 track and cut a tape loop that ran all around the room. Ten feet in diameter. You held the tension with mic stands and bounced it over to the 24 track. The first album was done like that. We had a live drummer come in and play. Then we’d find the best measure. Then, when it was all done, we’d have him come in and play live on top of it. Common today, but not then.

One of the things we did on purpose: the musicians on the first album came in one at a time. And sometimes I wouldn’t let them hear what the others had played. So the trumpet player didn’t hear Wayne Kramer on “Wheel Me Out.” So when you put them both together, there’s this wild dissonance going on. At the time, just to put Marcus Belgrave and Wayne Kramer on the same record: That was a big deal.

Was (Not Was) - Wheel Me Out

What was it like playing at the Paradise Garage?

It was awesome! Paradise Garage was the greatest place I’ve ever been to. The sound system there – especially if you spiced up the cocktail a little bit! – it seemed like it was 20 stories high. And you had this beautiful wizard up there, Larry Levan. He could be moody, but he was great. I used to go there a lot before we played there, and I’d sit in the booth, and I’d never seen anything like it. Just these writhing bodies, I don’t know how many people fitted in there, maybe 2,000, but the music was awesome. He was just great. He knew how to work that room. He was great on every level. If you just wanted to be stoned and dancing, there’s nothing like it. But if you wanted to sit and listen to it, it was dance music, basic stuff, that shouldn’t have merited sitting and closing your eyes to listen to, but he was musical, and it worked. There was a whole sound to it. That D Train, to me, and Peech Boys "Don’t Make Me Wait,” those are the ones I think of immediately. Do you know Bernard Fowler?

Yeah, Peech Boys singer?

He sings with the Rolling Stones. I’ve known him for years and years because of the Stones. I was driving around in the San Fernando Valley, and I was blasting the Peech Boys, and I stopped at a light and Bernard walked across the street right in front of my car. I put the shade down so he couldn’t see me, but I turned it up so he got to hear it. It’s a great thing to blow somebody’s mind!

When we played at Paradise Garage, it was the first time Sweet Pea Atkinson had been to New York. No one told him anything about the club, and we go on at about 6 o’clock in the morning, and I don’t know if there was a curtain or it was dark, but all of a sudden the audience were revealed. And it’s all guys. It totally blew his mind. When we finished the set, he came off shaking his head. “I’m sick of this Manhattan shit, when are we getting to New York City?”

Born To Laugh was one of the weirdest albums on a big label. Were you seeing what you could get away with?

I wish I could say we had that kind of a master plan. In general, we were operating by that notion that we didn’t want to sound like anybody else. What can we do that hasn’t been done? For the most part, it was just song by song. What’s a cool thing to do with that song? Everything was a little different journey, and none of it made a whole lot of sense when we put it together. It was like an anthology record. I think there’s a sensibility in David’s lyrics that united the thing.

It reminds me a bit of Slim Gaillard.

Really? I think he’d really like that. We became aware of the culture in between the beatniks and hippies. And we’re too young to be beatniks, but those were our heroes. We were into that at a very early age, and we missed out on a whole lot of stuff. We went to school with Doug Fieger from the Knack. And I remember going to him in 9th grade, and I’d missed Cream and Hendrix, and Doug was like the Anglophile of the school dressed like he was in the Small Faces. He educated me to that stuff because we were still caught up in that Allen Ginsberg and Coltrane when there was all this other stuff.

PJ Harvey - Zaz Turned Blue

You’ve never had many covers of your songs. Why do you think that is?

Well, PJ Harvey did “Zaz Turned Blue,” and George Michael. They’re hard songs to sing. If you’re gonna sing those songs, you gotta get in them to do them well. You gotta be David, in a way, or really have one of us there explaining them to ya! The one thing I came to be aware of during our hiatus was we were not writing with the singers in mind. David writes lyrics first. Then I’m singing on top of grooves, and I’m not taking into account phrasing that rolls off the lips.

When you were with Phonogram, was there a pressure to make big hits? Especially once you’d made “Walk the Dinosaur”?

Yeah, sure there was. I gotta contextualize all that. There was a guy named David Bates who – and Zilkha before him – went way out on a limb and signed a band who he knew was going to be esoteric but yet was determined to bring it to the mainstream. He had a really good ear. In his A&R department, they had Pyromania, Songs from the Big Chair and Brothers in Arms. They were flush with money, and they were like, “Fuck this, I’m gonna do something cool that I wanna do.” And he signed Was (Not Was), Tom Verlaine and Pere Ubu, three of the most impossible artists to break. He wanted to make records representative of us but get it out to people. And he did. We were willing participants in the experiment. There came the point where I was a little resentful.

Paul O’Duffy was the producer on our biggest hit singles. If I was a producer and I had a client like me… I was terrible. We’d already done our record, and they said, “You know, someone’s gotta come in here and make this a little easier for people to listen to. Not re-write your songs, but just put some candy on it for people.” I said, “I don’t know how to do that.” So Paul came in, and I said, “Here’s everything, the tapes, etc. I can’t sit here while you tear ‘em up, do whatever you want, you’re welcome to use whatever you want, musicians,” and I’m grateful to this guy for not telling me to fuck off, and I don’t think he compromised us at all. I think he did a really good job of making Was (Not Was) palatable to large numbers of people. It would be unfair and easy to say, “Yeah, they wanted hit records,” but I’ve yet to meet an artist yet who doesn’t want hit records!

I’ve yet to meet an artist yet who doesn’t want hit records!

Where do you think the natural milieu of Was (Not Was) is?

We’ve got a weird audience. We don’t get fringe people. We get some of them. They’re not pop audiences. We get a lot of people who read and stuff! When we started doing Boo! everyone was using loops and machines, and it was uncool as you could be having real drums. To some degree, it’s come full circle. There aren’t a whole lot of people playing soul music anymore. So I think over the next five or ten years, we’ll be the last doing that. I think people like to hear that.

In that’s all the Carl Jung archetypes. We’re not the heroes – that’s Bruce Springsteen. We decided we’re the fools. Not fools like court jesters. In the old days, the king would invite a provocateur to each table who would say anything to keep a lively conversation going. I don’t mind being that! We’re fools.

Is this a start of a series of albums?

We’re on a roll. We’re coming up with stuff now. It’s the best album we ever made. We should be better. We’ve made a lot of records since the last one. It’s got more fluid playing. A song like “We Fell into a Big Black Hole,” that’s just everyone playing, a bunch of different large personalities merging together. If you’re playing with someone for 30 years, it’s really a cool thing. I play bass with the Stones a little bit, and there’s a whole thing going on with the Stones that no one is aware of. The interplay with the musicians, they’re having fun even when you think there’s a clash between personalities.

How did you come to work with Bob Dylan on the song?

David and I were producing a Bob Dylan record. He’s my hero, right? I can think of so many times I was stoned at high school listening to Bob Dylan. I’m sat in the studio with Bob and David, and we’re watching a re-run of Bewitched. My wife was A&Ring the Paula Abdul record. I said, “Let’s write a song for her, she sells 10 million records.” And Bob says, “Come on, let’s turn the TV off.” It was originally called “Shirley Temple Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” And Paula didn’t dig it. She passed on it, so we re-worked it for ourselves.

This interview was conducted in 2008. ©

By Bill Brewster on January 22, 2019

On a different note