Ghetto Recorders Marks 15 Years of Capturing Detroit Sounds

Photo from Facebook

When people think of Detroit recording studios that created a unique sound, the best example is Motown’s Studio A. Known as the “snake pit”, the Motown studio is really the garage of a home on West Grand Boulevard. This fall, another Detroit studio hidden in plain sight is celebrating 15 years of creating its own unique rock sounds. WDET’s Rob St. Mary takes us to Ghetto Recorders.

(click the audio link above to hear the story)

The front door is black. There’s no sign. No hint that beyond this non-descript threshold music continues to burst forth.

In fact, this studio in Foxtown has captured the tone of an era in Detroit music - the so-called garage revival. This is where early records by groups like the White Stripes, the Dirtbombs and others were created.

"Stop Breaking Down" by the White Stripes

This is Ghetto Recorders.

Although he’s happy about the accolades and attention, owner and engineer Jim Diamond says his work goes deeper than just one genre.

“Now people are like… “oh, your that Detroit garage rock…” “No, I’ve done a lot more than Detroit garage rock…” and I’ve always hated that name is well. I always thought garage rock was like the Standells or the Seeds or the Chocolate Watch Band... those bands from the 60s… what I was doing, that was just rock music.”

Diamond has played music since he was a kid but never really planned to own a studio. He says in 1995 he was working at a Lansing recording studio producing car commercials and jingles. As Diamond describes it… the job was an uninspired chore. So, he decided to head home to Detroit. The Trenton native says his friend John Linardos offered him a place to stay. That space happened to have a large room, a mixing board and a few pieces of recording gear. At the time, Linardos was getting set up running his new mirco brewery in Detroit - the Motor City Brewing Works. Diamond says after a few months Linardos gave him permission to use the recording equipment to capture a few bands.

"In the Manner Which I'm Accustom" by Bantam Rooster

The first record cut in the studio was Bantam Rooster’s “Deal Me In” in in 1996.

Diamond says after those sessions… friends and other musicians started to talk to him about recoding their music.

“And then Mick says… he I got this… the Dirtbombs… this band called the Dirtbombs. You want to record something down at your little eight-track space? I said OK.”

"I Can't Stop Thinking About It" by the Dirtbombs

Diamond says Mick Collins of the Dirtbombs dubbed his low-rent studio “Ghetto Recorders” as a parody of a high-end state of the art facility in Los Angeles called Village Recorders.

Since then, Diamond has cobbled together vintage equipment, old amps and recorders. He says the history and architecture of the space also adds to its unique sound. Diamond says about a hundred years ago… the building was slaughterhouse.

“Right now, we are sitting in the freezer where they kept all the poultry after they slaughtered it. The killing floor is on the other side… that’s where the bands record and the floor is uneven and there drains everywhere… and there are drains for a reason. After you are killing a bunch of chickens all day you gotta have a drain.”

"Studio Sounds"

One day this summer a bluesy rock band from Toronto called CATL came in to record. Noodling with his guitar, singer Jamie Fleming says he’s a big fan of the music created at Ghetto Recorders.

“Toronto and Detroit have a bit of a connection and they are quite close and a lot of Detroit bands have played a lot of shows in Toronto over the years, so people in Toronto know is studio and know that sound, so I think they appreciate the fact that we came here to work with Jim.”

Another musician who has recorded with Diamond is Troy Gregory. Since the mid-80s, Gregory has worked, toured and recorded internationally with a variety of groups. Gregory says Diamond understands how to capture the immediacy of music.

“When I’m in the studio I want to work quickly and I wanna work… not quickly in a sense of rushing it but it’s there, so catch it. You know what I mean? Quick in a sense of I’m going to photograph is this firecracker blowing up.”

Gregory says that’s different from the usual recording experience today. Most bands record instruments separately and then the final song is stitched together. Sometimes line by line, and even syllable by syllable in a computer. Gregory says Diamond’s method is more direct with the bands usually playing together as if it was a live show, how classic blues records were made years ago.

“You really think on all those Muddy Waters records that they really spent weeks on this thing? NO! They spent probably about a good year on a Damn Yankees record. But… Screaming Jay Hawkins go on the studio he would be like “I don’t know, man... let me try that scream for the next week.”

Because of that immediate and intimate idea, Ghetto Recorders soon earned a reputation as bands like the White Stripes, Bantam Rooster, the Dirtbombs, the Sights, Outrageous Cherry and others were dubbed “garage rock” by critics and started to garner international attention about ten years ago. Diamond says he’s glad for the work that came from the attention… but he wasn’t trying to create anything but a space where bands could be free to do what they do.

“I don’t think the other studios in town where, I don’t know, getting it. I guess, because this is kind of music I like. I like pretty stripped down organic rock music and I don’t think other people were really doing that or knew how to approach that.”

And Troy Gregory says it might even be simpler than that. He says Diamond was always hanging around the Gold Dollar, a bar on the south end of the Cass Corridor, where many of these bands started in the 1990s.

Bantam Rooster with special guest Jim Diamond at the Gold Dollar in 1999.

“I think that’s why everyone kind of converged. It wasn’t so much a gotta go there for the sound or this is going to be a hip place, no, no. It was just like Jim’s got a great room over there and his a good guy and good to record with.”

Looking back on 15 years, Diamond says he doesn’t know how many records have come out of Ghetto Recorders – he figures it might be about 200. Looking to the future, he admits some concern as Foxtown continues to redevelop. Someday Diamond says he might have to find a new place… before his studio home in the former slaughterhouse becomes history.

“I’ve been thinking about moving at some point and I’ve worried about the sound of the next room that I get.”

If that ever happens, Ghetto Recorders may change locations but its sound will always be connected to Detroit. About half of Diamond’s business is out of town musicians traveling here to capture a little bit of the sound he’s helped to produce over the past 15 years.

I’m Rob St. Mary – WDET News.

For more information about Ghetto Recorders: