Sounds of Creativity and Development: Music Culture in Flint


Courtesy of DJ Tommy Choo

DJ Tommy Choo spinning some records.

Music has an affect on all of us. It can be the soundtrack to our lives or kindling wood that starts the flame of nostalgia. In Flint, a city which has been the birthplace of greats, ranging from Betty Carter to Grand Funk Railroad, music is one of the many staples binding the community together. I spoke with local artists, some established, and some still growing, about the importance of the music scene in the city.

The first person I spoke with was Brett Darago, also known as DJ ChaChi. His extensive resume all started in Flint Public Schools.

“I went to Flint Central and I loved it, the diversity was awesome, the music was what we all had in common,” said Darago. “I was just a little white guy in the east side of Flint that enjoyed music and wanted to learn more.”

He also shared his struggles in college and how music was always there to comfort him through his transitional period as a DJ.

“I always was the one to volunteer to play music at parties, and I learned so much then. I put it to use and worked weddings and it helped me network and expand. I was broadcasting in college and I used to DJ for less than seven dollars an hour–I worked for over a thousand weddings,” said Darago, who started deejaying in 1995.

Darago now owns his own DJ/entertainment company, Liquid Entertainment, and although it was a hard and tumultuous journey to get there, he believes it was worth it.

“After I got certified to teach, I taught at Flint Central, still deejayed at bars, and on top of that weddings on the weekend, so I was working seven days a week to be the best I could be. I wanted money, of course, but I loved to DJ…” said Darago.

When I asked Darago about the city’s music culture, he talked about it thriving and seeing growth in both genre and collaborations.

“The music culture in Flint has so much but it is in the background of what the media shows you…Flint is developing its own special vibe. Everyone is enjoying each other and enjoying the music and growing closer. The criticism is more constructive than tearing another artist down,” said Darago.

DJ ChaChi still spins records locally at Kickers in Grand Blanc, and The Loft in downtown Flint from time to time.

Another DJ, Thomas Kladis, also known as DJ Tommy Choo, has also been a huge motivating force in Flint’s music scene. With an open-arms approach and a helping hand always extended toward other artists, Kladis acts like a long time professional despite only recently breaking into the scene himself.

“I didn’t grow up in a very musical environment and I have never had a mentor or any formal training. My experience creating music began with freestyle rapping and rhyming in high school. I recorded my first raps when I was 18 in the winter of 2011/12 and put out my first rap project in April of 2012. I put out another project in the fall of 2014.

“After that, I sort of stepped back in the field of making original creations and I turned my focus back to exploring and discovering new music which lead to me deejaying. I started collecting vinyl records and digging through records anywhere I could find them. After building a small record collection, I got my first pair of turntables. I still DJ all vinyl and I’ve been deejaying events for two and a half years now,” said Kladis.

Kladis has a history of community service and sees Flint going upward with the music scene not far behind. When asked about the state of the music scene and culture, this is what he had to say:

“When I look at the music scene and the larger cultural landscape in Flint, I see lots of opportunity. There is a strong history of music in Flint and there are lots of individuals that respect and are trying to continue that rich musical legacy in the Flint area. However, to be honest, I think the music scene in Flint is very segregated right now.

“I have friends who throw hip hop/trap shows and friends who play in folk, punk, and rock and roll bands that rarely ever mix. I would like to see more shows that hosted acts from multiple genres and challenged that divide…Also, in order for the music scene in Flint to grow, it will take more participation and investment from everyday Flint and Genesee County residents,” said Kladis.

While Kladis sees music as a bonding element in the community, he believes little else can be done to move forward until people, natives and visitors alike, drop the stigma regarding Flint’s crime rates. Upon further discussion, Kladis mentioned the lack of paid gigs in the city, in some part due to the increase of free events hosted by the many non-profits in the area.

“Without a cover charge, it makes it nearly impossible for private event planners/promoters to bring out and compensate out-of-town acts, which is key to building a music scene in a city,” said Kladis.

The music culture in Flint is, simply put, diverse. It houses genres on all ends of the spectrum and sees many different practices being applied.

“On a more positive note, there are plenty of avenues for artists to get themselves in front of an audience and share their work with the larger community in Flint. There is a strong DIY (do it yourself) ethic in Flint, which often provides a platform that inspires and encourages amateur/local musicians to hone their skills and share their talents/passions,” said Kladis.

DJ Tommy Choo has his own event called Music Time with Friends every Wednesday night at The Loft. At these events, he showcases all the talent in Flint and in Michigan as a whole.

Talking to Kladis showed me how, right under our noses, there is an abundance of  talent that lies in this city. Unfortunately for years, this talent has been living under the shadow of crime, civil unrest, and misinformation.

“From here, I see the music scene trending upward in terms of community involvement and excitement. In the wake of the water crisis there is more money being invested in downtown Flint, which will make it feel more safe as well as more exciting for Flint area residents,” said Kladis. “Also, for better or worse, I think the water crisis and the national media attention it generated has given a renewed sense of pride to many Flint residents and a political relevance that is somewhat attractive to outsiders. I see this translating into more public involvement in the Flint music scene.”

The last question I asked Kladis was if he had any personal goals for Flint and the music scene, and I was given a response that I think resonates through Flint and even the world.

“My personal goals for what I want to see with music in Flint is more integration as far as blending different genres of music which also correlates to racial and ethnic integration, which will be essential in the growth of downtown Flint as it will make it a more diverse and exciting place to be. As I mentioned before, I host an event every Wednesday at The Loft that is dedicated to creating space in Flint for DJs, music lovers, and party people. A place where these folks can discover new music, celebrate music, and ultimately feel loved in a positive environment,” said Kladis.

“At music Time with Friends, I play music of many different genres and different eras, creating a musical journey that expands beyond pop and beyond contemporary. As someone who raps and plays drums as well as deejaying, I am in a stage in my musical career where I’m very into collaboration and community involvement in my music and in events that I plan,” said Kladis.

The third and last artist I spoke to was Benjamin Aurand, also known as The Aura. Aurand is president of Doubletree Music Group, producer, and songwriter in duo group, PhZD with his partner and friend, Phillip Walker II, also known as Phill.

Aurand has been around music his whole life, leading him to eventually build a studio with a couple friends. He has worked with upward of 35 artists coming out of Flint and wants to work with more. Aurand loves making music and has put in hours to make each song perfect to his liking. When I asked him about his love for music, he did not disappoint when it came to his response.

“Everyone should be their own biggest fan and when it comes to music, I love what I put out and if no one else likes it I don’t care. That just simply means I need to adjust for others listening. I love when I make something and I just think about all the things me and Phill can do with it. There is something about it I just enjoy and its been in my blood since I was young,” said Aurand.

Aurand had a different stance on the subject of how Flint is more close knit. He instead sees a disconnect among the artists and thinks it needs to change.

“I think Flint is awesome, I love Flint but the music culture is a mess. People don’t pay creatives for their work and the music scene has a lot of cliques and it is a SoundCloud heavy scene,” said Aurand.

SoundCloud, an online audio sharing service, has helped spawn a plethora of new garage band artists in Flint, and throughout the world.

Aurand mentions the benefits of critiquing music and how, often, friends can prove to be more forgiving than he’d like. He values criticism, and believes it to be more important than praise when it comes to growing as a musician.

“Friends are friends and fans are fans. Simple as that. I would rather have someone give me constructive criticism on my music than just nod and lie to my face. If I need to work on those chords or change this tempo I will, but don’t lie about my flaws. Point them out to me so I can make the song more listenable and make it work,” said Aurand.

When asked about his personal feelings on Flint’s music culture and what artists can do to change it, he laid out some solid truths applicable to both Flint and life.

“Through listening to what’s going on around Flint, the sound just shows how there isn’t that much unity and how there isn’t any specific sound for Flint yet. We need to change that atmosphere and see how great we all could be if we weren’t fake to each other and got creative with each other,” said Aurand.

The Aura sells his beats and is always ready to produce with any talent that is serious about making music.

And although at different stages of their careers, in different scenes, and with different outlooks, these artists have made Flint their homes and all see the chance for growth and development.