July 11, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Downtown Detroit revival has rocker ready to roll out

Ghetto Recorders studio priced out of downtown loc...
Ghetto Recorders studio priced out of downtown loc...: Producer Jim Diamond talks about the history of his studio that will have to find a new home

Detroit —A big advertising agency that moved downtown and now spins Detroit’s image recently made a video to hype the city’s revival. That led it to interview legendary music producer Jim Diamond.

For 18 years, Diamond and his Ghetto Recorders studio downtown have been among the city’s most prolific ambassadors in indie rock, traveling worldwide and producing hundreds of acts who crave his “Detroit sound.” The White Stripes recorded their first two albums there. The film crew from the ad agency Lowe Campbell Ewald asked Diamond about the rise of Detroit creativity.

“I said something like ‘Yeah, it’s great. I’m being run out of downtown because of all you creative types,’ ” Diamond said. “You know, that cool image about Detroit being a raw, authentic place that I helped create. Well, now I can’t afford it.”

Diamond needs to find a new home and work studio. It is tougher to find one in Detroit than he thought.

It’s a familiar tale in Detroit’s increasingly upscale downtown. Diamond’s landlord has doubled the rent on the 3,000-square-foot former chicken processing plant, near Grand Circus Park, that is his home and recording studio.

His departure is sure to feed the argument that as more businesses sell the image of Detroit as a gritty, creative place, the real creatives like Diamond are getting priced out.

Downtown rents are rising quickly everywhere as more companies set up shop and professionals seek to live in the center city, which for decades struggled with dozens of big empty buildings. So Diamond needs to move elsewhere.

“Authenticity is a commodity just like real estate is a commodity,” said Vince Carducci, dean of undergraduate studies at College for Creative Studies and longtime Detroit cultural critic.

“The brand of Detroit is authenticity. It amounts to resiliency, a kind of validation. You see so many examples of companies using that brand and wrapping it in a nostalgic patina,” said Carducci, who writes a blog called Motown Review of Art.

Lowe Campbell Ewald recently relocated its headquarters from Warren to a $15 million office downtown, bringing 500 workers. It joins a growing list of companies that have added staff or relocated downtown, which has seen more than 12,000 new workers in the past five years. The major investments are needed to revive a downtown that’s struggled with vacancies and big empty buildings for decades. Living downtown is now also on a major upswing. Rents for apartments are constantly climbing as 9 in 10 are filled and more continue to come online.

“All of that comes with a price, things get more expensive and so you have a situation where people get priced out,” Carducci said. “It’s a difference between creative entrepreneurs and creative industries. The former typically take the risks that the latter capitalize on.”

Ghetto goes for grit

Jim Diamond and Ghetto Recorders bleed authenticity. Diamond is known as a creator of the latest version of Detroit garage rock. There were earlier renditions of the raw sound in the 1960s and 1970s played by bands such as MC5 and the Stooges with Iggy Pop.

He started Ghetto Recorders in 1996 because he wanted to tap into an underground music scene based around the Wayne State University and Cass Corridor neighborhoods — two areas now recast as Midtown and going through major gentrification.

He wanted to fuse the punk, blues, country and guitar-based rock that he loves. Ghetto Recorders is a glorious mess of a studio full of vintage amps, analog equipment and all kinds of retro stuff to produce loud, fuzzy rock ‘n’ roll.

“I want (to produce) something that sounds like the honest, brutal representation of what the band is,” Diamond said. “It’s like taking the band’s live performance and condensing it in the studio.”

The style was so out of the mainstream that he never thought it would make him any money. When the unknown White Stripes recorded there, he charged them $35 an hour for studio time, which is all he’s ever earned from the two albums.

“That studio is like a mecca for a lot of musicians,” said John Wenzel, a music writer for the Denver Post and contributor to Rolling Stone, Vice, the Guardian and other publications.

“He’s one of the most influential music producers of the last 20 years,” Wenzel said. “His recordings have a warmness to them because he embraces the impurities, the creaks and cracks of that studio. It’s so refreshing in this age of Auto-Tune,” he said, referring to the popular software that corrects a singer’s pitch.

Suburbs a possibility

Bands record in a room where rows of dead chickens once hung on hooks. The concrete floor has deep grooves, a high ceiling that echoes and layers of peeling paint on the walls. Diamond says those features add to the sound he’s able to capture for bands.

“Even beyond the bands he’s recorded, there’s hundreds, maybe thousands, of bands who try to sound like him. It’s so tied to the image of Detroit,” Wenzel said.

While Diamond enjoys a worldwide cult status among rockers, he’s still a middle-class guy. It’s the price for staying independent.

He’s having trouble finding new Detroit digs.

“If it’s in one of the neighborhoods that are trendy now, people really want a lot of money for the space I need. More money than I have,” Diamond said. “And if it’s the parts of Detroit that are not trendy, it gets kind of dicey. I haven’t found something where I will feel safe to have all my stuff and where you would see bands carrying a bunch of expensive equipment into the building all the time.”

And so Diamond, a Detroit original, is considering moving to the suburbs.

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN

Jim Diamond, known for the 'Detroit sound' he captured on records for the White Stripes, for example, says he no longer can afford downtown rent. / Photos by David Guralnick / The Detroit News
Iggy and the Stooges. (left to right) James Williamson, Iggy Pop, Scott ... (Mick Rock)
A raw, garage rock sound captured by such Michigan groups as Iggy and the ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Jim Diamond, known for the 'Detroit sound' he captures on recordings, says ... (Photos by David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Jim Diamond, known for the 'Detroit sound' he captures on recordings, says ... (Photos by David Guralnick / The Detroit News)