Whodat DJing in Detroit
Throughout her life, in times of sickness and in health, the Detroit producer and DJ Whodat’s guiding light has always been music – even when she lost most of her memory of it. Crystal Mioner tells Terri McQueen’s story.
In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded live on television, viewed by students around the world who were tuned in to see Christa McAuffile, an American teacher, touch the stars. 73 seconds after take off, the pieces of the ship touched down to earth and so did 12 year old Terri Mcqueen’s dreams. Until that moment, she had wanted to be an astronaut.
“Because the teacher was on the ship, all the schools watched it in class. I remember my friend was like, ‘oh they probably just fell in the water’ and I was like ‘no, they all died’. My mom said ‘when you got home that day you took all your space stuff off the wall’. After that, I never made any decision about anything I want to do. I just need to do whatever I’m told and whatever I need to do. You just become a teenager and everyone starts shifting to where they wanna go. During this time, I’m into music and records but that’s just my thing, my hobby. I never thought about DJing or anything like that.”
I met Terri McQueen, aka Whodat, for the first time at a Red Bull Music Academy mixer during Movement weekend in 2019. I was new to the city and my friend Ethan offered to introduce me to anyone in the room. Whodat and her mom, known simply as Momma Whodat, reminded me of my cousins down in Ohio. Simple clothing, Midwestern politeness. From that first introduction, I found her mixes and grew to admire her pragmatic approach to musicing and to life, unpretentious, just good. When approaching the prompt of presenting a local perspective of Detroit, I knew viewing the city through her story would give a seasoned take.
Around the same time as the aforementioned crash landing, Whodat signed up for a woodwork class. In the basics, her teacher noticed a natural talent for drafting, a field blending art and technical skill, and insisted she stay behind and sharpen her skills, much to her annoyance. By the end of middle school, she was effortlessly sketching with both hands at once, oudrawing everyone in her class. She continued in the field when she went on to Cass Technical High School, whose halls have birthed music savants like John Collins, Mike Banks, and Reggie Dokes. Even with those legacies in place, DJing still wasn’t on Whodat’s radar, who still preferred to spend her time by herself, reading or listening to records at home, rather than sneaking out and chasing boys in the youth clubs.
“Even to this day, when he sees my face, he just starts crying. I’m like dude, ‘I’m ok,’ and he’s like, ‘it’s not ok. How do you deal with that?,’ When you’re raised a certain way, you learn how to deal with certain things.”Whodat
Upon graduation, her drafting teacher, Mr. Green told her about an exciting offer. He had a friend who owned a fabrication company in need of interns. He was told to send his best student in what was surely a pathway to an upwardly mobile career. Terri showed up and was all but turned away from the door. Later, she recalls running into Mr. Ameel who asked how her new job was going and having to tell him about her experiences. A white man with a Black wife in a Black city, he was shocked to learn about the discrimination. “Even to this day, when he sees my face, he just starts crying. I’m like dude, ‘I’m ok’, and he’s like, ‘it’s not ok. How do you deal with that?,’ When you’re raised a certain way, you learn how to deal with certain things.”
After that, despite promising letters from several universities, the money just wasn’t there. So in the tradition of the Motor City, Whodat went to work at Chrysler. Omar-S famously funded the start of his FXHE record label with money from his job at Ford; Whodat was looking to find a sense of financial relief and stability. In 2001, she bought a house with her mother, navigating a system that seemed to be intentionally mysterious for those without generational knowledge. “They make it intentionally hard, both to find a house and to keep it.”
Stepping into a Portal: An unexpected Path into Detroit’s Underground
One day in 2003, she woke up feeling off. No stranger to illness, Whodat, who had her first surgery at 6, and a slew of other maladies in her childhood, decided to go to work and just power through. After a few hours, floating in and out of lucidity, her co-workers covered for her when the shift manager was hesitant to let her go home. By the end of the day, she went to the medical unit at the plant with instructions to go home and call her doctor. The usual 15 minute drive took 40, and she made it home, losing the ability to walk by herself on the way. After hours of waiting for a return call, her mom made the executive decision to drive Terri directly to the hospital.
“I could see my leg was bruised really bad. I don’t remember falling so why is my leg all bruised? (…) My mom is there and one of my cousins is there and then he pulled back the cover and just started screaming.”Whodat
“I think I asked before you guys start hooking me up, before I lose my freedom, let me go to the bathroom as a free woman. I went to the bathroom and there’s a huge mirror. I could see my leg was bruised really bad. I don’t remember falling so why is my leg all bruised? I came out and told the nurse but I don’t recall falling. My mom is there and one of my cousins is there and then he pulled back the cover and just started screaming.”
While trying to rule out flesh eating bacteria and infestation of poison, the doctors kept her in quarantine. They marked the area with a sharpie and watched the rash spread rapidly. During her stay in the hospital, with an unsatisfactory diagnosis of cellulitis and something else, Whodat adamantly refused strong pain medication, stating that she liked to have as much control over her body as possible. This theme of self ownership, while at odds with the abjection of her body, exemplifies Whodat’s steady agency over her mind. After she was discharged, she found out she was let go of her job that she held for ten years. This unfortunate decision would eventually lead to her foreclosing on her house during the mid 2000’s housing crisis. It too, would lead her to seeking work in 2004 at a Macy’s shipping deck and ultimately to a club called Half Past 3, now named TV Lounge, with a coworker who was into house music.
“We worked 5 to 1, sometimes we would get out early, around 12. We went to Half Past 3, that’s now TV Lounge. Norm [Talley], Craig Huckaby, Todd Weston, Delano [Smith] were all there. I think Wilhite was battling someone. Somebody took me to Vibes and that’s how I ended up meeting Wilhite in the daylight hours. I met Marcellus [Pittman] there, he was working.”
She describes this entry into Detroit’s underground like stepping into a portal. Anyone who spends an extensive amount of time in Detroit understands the parallel of folks in the dance music community. Parties are scattered throughout the city and the good ones are hard to find. Partially, this is due to nature of the underground and partially, due to inaccessibility of building club spaces comparable because prospecting of rich white investors. The two major landowners in Detroit, Rock Ventures and Illitch Holdings, have been buying property in the city since the late 80’s, waiting for the market to favor expanding their investments. Credited with the revitalization of Detroit, that is to say gentrification efforts, these housing practices have cut out access to Black business owners.
In a city with such a robust music legacy, it would seem a given to have more Black owned clubs and event spaces. There are a handful – Bert’s Warehouse in Eastern Market, Friend’s Cocktail Lounge on 8 Mile, Mix Bricktown in Downtown – but they often lack the sound systems you find in other cities. Whodat points to the famed Music Institute, which closed in 1989, as an example of an ideal club space.
She says regarding the status quo in Detroit, “We got some of the best DJs and we can have a nice party, but we can’t have a nice space, completely, in whole. It’s one of those missing pieces.” Moving her love of music from the bedroom to the turntables, Whodat began her DJ career in earnest in 2005 at the age of 30, when many DJ’s are already well into their careers. Her love of tinkering with technology and propensity for using her brain quickly revealed her purpose and natural talent.
“To women who want to DJ: don’t be scared, just go for it. Be serious about it. Stand up to it and own it.”Whodat
“When it got to a certain point where I was trying to understand it [her DJing career], I just looked at the things I enjoyed and what I wanted to share. I had to learn not to be afraid, because it can be difficult to navigate and intimidating, especially with the crowd I was in [referencing friends such as Marcellus Pittman, Theo Parrish, Raybone Jones, and Rick Wilhite]. To women who want to DJ: don’t be scared, just go for it. Be serious about it. Stand up to it and own it.”
From there, as things tend to do when a person finds their path, her career moved quickly. She started an internet show at a time when most DJ’s looked down on the format called Turning Points on the now defunct Netmusique 2006. She premiered in Europe in 2007 and later that same year purchased her first piece of producing gear, an MPC 3000, made famous by the late J Dilla.
“I borrowed money from a friend and bought it in a coffee shop, Caribou Coffee on Woodward Ave. An MPC 3000, which I still have. He was so shocked I was a woman buying an MPC. He was like, “You know how to work it? I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman producer before.” In 2007. Which was so weird [to me]. I just laughed.”
In April of 2010, she took a leap of faith and opened her own record store inside of the Russell Industrial Complex, a building essential to techno culture in Detroit. Ya Digg was a space that catered to “Crate Diggers, Collectors, and Cool People.”
“Detroit doesn’t have a real record store, not since Vibes [Rick Wilhite’s now shuttered record store]. When you go overseas, you gotta put your money up. Mess around and spend a grand. Here, you’re searching. Especially when you get to a certain point. A lot of stores I go in, I got all of it. Most people who have been DJing for a while are like that.
Memory Loss and a Painful Quest to Find it Again
Later that same year, another health crisis caused her to shutter the shop. A routine visit to the doctors found a tumor in her abdomen. For the next 8 months, Whodat and her mom navigated the bureaucratic hellscape that is American healthcare, complicated even further by the racial and gender bias faced by black women. Appointments lead to dead ends, and a change in insurance restarted the process. When she returned home from the 10 hour long procedure, the life she had been shaping for herself was gone from her memories.
“She [her mom] brought me home and my equipment was set up in the living room. When she brought me in the door, I was like ‘all of that is really nice. Whose is that?'”Whodat
“She [her mom] brought me home and my equipment was set up in the living room. When she brought me in the door, I was like ‘all of that is really nice. Whose is that?'”
Slowly, Whodat retaught herself how to DJ, how to produce, how to intuit, rather than feel the heat from the handle of a pan. Still, she struggles with recalling old friends and old skills, like the amount of weight needed to stop the vinyl from spinning. She utilizes a system of “patterns” to accomplish her day to day routines and an Apple watch to keep appointments, answer calls, and respond to emails. Her field of vision occasionally includes dark spots and her tactile abilities are limited.
“I just realized when you put on hand sanitizer, it gets sticky. I didn’t have that last week. I would put it on and it would feel slippery but this week I’m like it’s sticky. I can also do this again”, she says, snapping her fingers. “It’s taken me nine years.”
She’s archived her illness with Medical Beat Tape, the cover featuring her laying in a hospital bed, gazing off into the distance. Like many musicians, she reckons with a lot of moments in her life through her songs, wrangling with the aftermath of an attempted robbery with her Recovery EP on Berlin’s Uzuri and dealing with close familial loss on Heavy Thoughts. She doesn’t limit her creative process to strictly pain however, there’s joy too, mirroring the duality of life. Her frequent collaborator Viola Klein of Germany titled Whodat’s track for their Workshop split ‘Funeral’, not because it dealt with death, but because Klein wants it to be played at her funeral, a celebration of life.
“Music is my gift and I’m learning how to use it to take care of me. It can be difficult sharing it and understanding it. To share it with other people so they can learn from something they’re dealing with or struggling with or learning about.” She’s adapting to changes with her body and mind. The track that she produced for Workshop was made entirely on her iPad, which she likes because of the accessibility features. When I asked her about how her health scares have impacted her life and ability to make a living from DJing, Whodat says the two are intertwined. The music has been her way of coping, her creative practice giving her life purpose. Still, while she has adapted, the settings and people around her still complicate things.
“People ignore it, when you don’t look like you have a disability. When you’re not able to get around or go out when you’re not feeling well, they’ll say, ‘well I seen you here or you were doing this for this person’, well I just didn’t have the energy to do it. Because people see you physically and it doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong with you. They feel like you need to prove it to them.”
Traveling overseas is easier for her than playing in the city. When she tours, people are more willing to be of assistance and getting around is easier, be it being shuttled by promoters or the transit systems. Detroit has a notoriously undependable bus system. A millage was proposed in 2016 that would have seen $150 million go into the public transit system. While approved by Wayne and Washtenaw counties, which make up Detroit proper, Oakland and Macomb counties, which cover the surrounding suburbs, killed the initiative.
Despite the lack of infrastructure in the city, both in terms of accessibility and music culture, Whodat has optimism for how individuals are working to change things. “Waajeed is putting together an educational component [Underground Music Academy] and Underground Resistance has always been big on the political component. You have other people who’ve seen things missing but haven’t had the money or the know how to put it together. I’m still figuring it out myself, what gap I want to fill, what’s important to me.
There’s been a big realization that there’s a huge generation gap. What do we need to fill it? The thing with women, and Black women specifically, what do we need to do to introduce them to it and make them feel comfortable and also accepted? What are we going to do about it? There are so many holes in our structure and our foundation that can be filled. There’s plenty of room for us to get things together, besides parties. Documenting and learning and talking to people.”
When asked about the definition of soul, to neatly sum up the elusive element that gives Black music its deeper meaning, Genea Smitherman said it is “the essence of life; feeling, passion, emotional depth – all of which are believed to be derived from struggle, suffering and having participated in the Black Experience. Having risen above the suffering, the person gains ‘soul’.” Whodat, in the intersection of her identities, Black, woman, disabled, working class, has steadily proven her tenacity for soul, self determination, and a commitment to honor the legacies set in place by DJs before her. “When I step up to the plate for Detroit, I’m not going to embarrass Detroit.”
This article is part of the Global GROOVE: Electronic Music Journalism series, hosted by GROOVE in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut. Read all other articles here.
Crystal Mioner is a music lover and writer based in Detroit. Since her arrival in the city, she has noticed a lack of coverage of the rich legacy of music in the birthplace of techno. Hoping to bridge that gap, she has been independently working on pieces that push past music coverage and into the culture that the music comes from. Crystal focusses on more in-depth work around the black women in Detroit who are integral to the advancement of techno and house music, but oftentimes overlooked in the historiography of the genres.