Cynthia “DJ Cent” Travis, club and radio DJ, discusses her relationship to Detroit music, her musical mentors, and the importance of preservation.
I GOT MUSIC, WE GOT PEOPLE, LET’S DO THE BEST WE CAN
Cynthia “DJ Cent” Travis details her beginnings as a clubber, her wide ranging career in music, and the Detroit figures that paved her way. Travis’ story is uplifting, inspiring, and as deep as the music she plays and curates. The interview was conducted as part of the #RecordDET series in 2014.
Interview conducted by Carleton Gholz
December 15, 2014 at the Urban Bean Coffee Co.
Gholz: DJ Cent, briefly describe who you are and your relationship to Detroit music.
Cent: Well, my real name is Cynthia Travis, aka DJ Cent. I’ve actually been around the dance scene, the club scene, forever. First off being a dancer, a clubber, so that actually gave me the chance to want to learn how to become a DJ. Just a quick short story, Kelli Hand was playing at Zipper’s on a Tuesday. I walked in and I have all these albums and I was like, “How are you putting this stuff together? How are you playing these records without any stoppage, like I do at home?” She was really cool, she was like, “If you think you want to get some equipment, and you do, so I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll actually come by and help you set it up.” And I just thought, “Oh, she’s trying to just get me out of the DJ booth “‘cause I’m just being a groupie.” True enough, when I got my equipment in 1991, she came by the house and showed me how to put all my equipment together and actually got sound out of it. Which was amazing. And she looks and says, “You have all these records, what are you doing with all this music? Most people that I come and help set up have nothing. You have all kinds of records!”
So she puts two records on the turntables and says, “This is what you have to do, you have to keep those two records together.” I thought to myself this is gonna be a breeze, that’s all you have to do? Put one on one needle, one on the other, and there we go! Eight months later I came out of the basement and was actually able to DJ. It took me that long to be able to figure out how to put those records together smoothly. What made me start doing house parties is, I did some stuff in my basement which was called the “Philadelphia Street Parties.” I’d have friends over. We would drink, eat, and party a little. That was my way of doing live music in front of people. I had been practicing so long by myself I thought I would be a little nervous playing in front of other people. So I brought some friends over to see if we can get some parties going. Well that started to grow and next thing you know it went from maybe ten people, to twenty, to thirty. I was a little short on income and eventually I thought I better start maybe charging a little something for coming in here. And that’s what we did!
A few of my friends cooked chicken, you know, served some drinks. We get in the basement, I had a four-level home, we would use two of those levels and party. It was crazy. My neighbors never mentioned it, we would get sometimes a hundred or a hundred and fifty people into a house. After 2:30 it was like a convoy coming down my street. We would come in and dance until 6 or 7 in the morning. That’s one of the ways I started becoming a DJ and getting out here. My main and biggest party I was able to get involved in was the Ken Collier Memorial Foundation. Someone, I would love to know who it was, submitted a cassette tape that I used to sell in my basement, to a contest they were doing inside of that party. And I was one of the three that was picked. I wasn’t really prepared for the competition side of DJing, I just wanted to go play records. So I got the opportunity to go down. It was at the Serengeti Ballroom in 1997. We get there and this party was crazy. I walked in and I was like, “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into!” I wasn’t really mentally prepared for this but I said I’m going to show myself. Initially I thought I was going to be the first to play and then she booted me to the back and I was third. We were gonna do thirty minute sets, but then it got cut down to fifteen minutes sets so I wasn’t really prepared for that. But I said, “Hey, I got music, we got people, let’s do the best we can.” Crazy thing is I won it! From there my career started and has been flourishing ever since.
Gholz: What’s the first Detroit record you remember hearing? What was it, how’d you hear it and what’d you think?
Cent: Man the first I can’t even tell you there’s so much music in my home. My parents grew up with music. My mom was a huge disco person. I’d just watch them dancing in the basement. Music was just all around, I really couldn’t tell you what was the first thing. I can’t even tell you the first record I bought myself. My record collection came from my brother, with Parliament and Diana Ross. We even had Barbra Streisand. My favorite growing up was actually Barry Manilow, a lot of people don’t know that.
Gholz: What Barry Manilow?
Cent: Oh, “Copacabana.” I had Barry Manilow on 8-track tape. Just to show you how far back my music collection was.
Gholz: My dad saw Bette Midler when Barry Manilow was the guy who ran the orchestra, at the Masonic [Temple] in ‘70 something! Anyway, go on.
Cent: I grew up with music for so long. My first club experience was with a friend called Barry Menace, rest in peace, at the Famous Door, right down the way. I remember getting off the bus and I’m like “Where are we going?” He said “We’re going to go to a club.” I said “A club? I’m not even old enough to go into a club!” We go in and I don’t know how we got in, we snuck in! I look around and it’s a small smoky venue and all the sudden, I just hear this bass hit me. I had never heard anything quite like it. It turns out Melvin Hill was the DJ down there playing and from that point on I wanted to find that music in the city. Fortunately, I had a lot of friends who were gay, we hung out in the gay clubs. That was the thing, the music when I went to different venues was so different than when you went to a gay venue. The music was just crazy. I got an opportunity to hear Melvin [Hill] and my next exposure to that was Duane ‘The Mix’ Bradley coming off 97.9 [FM]. One of my biggest dreams was eventually to get to radio. Just to hear all these guys get together Greg Collier, John Collins, Stacy “HotWaxx” Hale, Allan Ester; their musical sounds were so different. I wanted to be a part of that but I didn’t want to be just like them I always wanted to bring my own little spice into what was happening. Thank God I was able to.
Gholz: I want to go back to that night in 1987 at the Serengeti. Just tell me one track you played that night.
Cent: Kim English’s “Nightlife.” Oh, man. I can tell you the first track I dropped. “Inspiration” by Arnold Jarvis was the gentleman who made it. It was a huge anthem at [Club] Heavens and I was a huge Ken Collier fan. I supported Heavens, I had a time clock sheet because I was there every weekend, faithfully, listening to what he did. I remember because it was really in honor of his passing in 1996 that this party came about in 1997. And I wanted to make sure when I came out that in my own way I would tribute him by playing this as the first record. Who knew that the crowd understood it and knew it. I probably could have played nothing else and would have won for that record alone. It went crazy, it was so funny.
Quick story, a lot of people when I came out of my home thought I was a boy. They only went by that because of the type of sound they heard. They never really heard a female, come as hard as I came. But I grew up hanging with the guys, they danced hard, they played hard, and I didn’t particularly care for hanging out with the females ‘cause everything was a little soft and that wasn’t me. I wanted to dance and I wanted to sweat! So you had to hang out with the men and I wanted to play for the males if I was going to play for anyone. So I knew I had to come with a lot of energy, a lot of hard-hitting stuff. Thank God I was able to do that.
Gholz: Motown is known the world over, what is one aspect of Detroit music history that you wish got more attention?
Cent: Oh there’s so much. Really some of the lost DJ’s, especially in the gay community, who really was the influence of a lot of the DJ’s that get credit now. One of the things that disturbs me about the way Detroit archives things, is people don’t really give those that came before them any credit. They automatically take it as if they were the beginner or the founder or the starter of things. There were so many people before you that need to get that type of credit for what they were doing. That’s some of the things I do on my page. Writing about different artists, just putting a face to the name. A lot of people who support the music have no idea what people look like or any of their information outside of them just being a singer. It was just something I wanted to do, which I thought was interesting. Just to find out some information. Who knows, it just took off. Those are the things that I think, you know. Like you guys were speaking before, just the history. Speaking about it, bringing together. The things you’re doing right now. The things just like interviewing me, this is going to be archived and be around when I’m gone. People like yourself and the Detroit [Sound] Conservancy, bringing in the information giving people a chance to come in and speak about who they are. It’s a beautiful thing. I thank you for that.
Gholz: Zipper’s, I never got to go. It was already closed when I wanted to. Can you just tell me a little bit about that club? The crowd, that sound, anything about that club and that area?
Cent: That was just one of many, Todd’s was probably one of the most influential clubs I ever experienced. On Seven Mile and VanDyke. Greg Collier, Duane ‘The Mix’ Bradley, Ken Collier, there might have been a few others. Stacey Hale probably even played there. It was a mixture of everybody. It was considered to be a gay party but not everybody in the room was. We came to support the music no matter what your sexuality was. But those different experiences, those different clubs we were able to see, amazing. Bookies, Heaven of course, on 7 Mile and Woodward. It’s no longer. I remember going to Heavens the night it closed. Amazing! It was sort of a sad yet happy feeling. You knew that when you experienced Todd’s closing you knew that it was something important that was probably never going to happen again. A lot of us took that for granted. You just thought oh, Heavens will be opened again we’ll go back to it. Once clubs close and DJs lose their main home It’s never the same. Sometimes those DJs never capture that glory of being a superstar at that location, which is one of the things Ken was able to understand. When he left Heavens and went to Times Square it never became like it was before. He had built up such a momentum at Club Heavens, that was such a global phenomenon and we expected that when we went to Times Square, we would get that same vibe, that same feeling, that same huge excitement. Once you take something out of a room it’s gone forever.
Same thing with my party. I did a party, an after hours, for ten years called “Time for the Post,” fondly known as “The Post”, right across the street from the Better Made potato chip factory. I opened up in ‘96, every two weeks I wasn’t able to get every Friday. You know I said, “I got a little money, I’ve worked hard all my life, I’ll start trying to do parties.” This is me stepping out of my home, cause it got so crazy in there, and trying to get into a club. I get there and I think all the people in my house, the people who’ve been killing my basement and tearing up my stairs are going to flock to this place. Little did I know it took three months to actually build a crowd. I actually got down to my last $225 that I could spend. And my partner at the time says, “If we don’t do it tonight, if more than a hundred people don’t show up you got to stop coming out of your pocket to pay your people. You got to let it go.” Sure enough, that night we got a hundred and five people which allowed me to pay everybody and have a little money to pay for the hall next week and convince the gentleman that had the hall to do it every week so I can keep the momentum going. Sure enough, that jumped off and we were there for 10 years. Probably one of the longest after hours here in Detroit. It was a mix of everybody, black, white, gay, straight. Queen Latifah has been there, so has Aaron Hall. Some of the celebrities who had heard about what we did. Little known there’s a little bitty girl sitting there playing music in front of people. And it’s so amazing because a lot of people had no idea who I was. I wasn’t on a big stage, didn’t have a big spotlight. I just wanted to have my drinks and play my records you know. Until my friends came up and said “If you don’t turn that record off! It’s time to go home, it’s 6 o’clock in the morning!” And those are some of the experiences that I want archived, and have those experiences captured. I unfortunately never videotaped one party, never took pictures, so all this history is off the top of my head.
Gholz: What do you remember Ken playing that last night at Heaven?
Cent: No. His music was so all over the place. He would play Bjork, he would play Celine Dion. Ken was just one of those type of guys that was just a musical genius. He doesn’t get a lot of the credit he deserves nor does his brother Greg [Collier]. We often overlooked Greg. Greg was just as instrumental, not as big worldwide as Ken became, but they both were instrumental in how the house music scene became what it is today.
Gholz: What’s your most prized possession in terms of cassette tapes that you have?
Cent: I have twenty-six Ken Collier tapes. I have about six Greg Collier, about six Melvin Hill. Couple Sarena Tyler, couple Kelli Hand’s. The biggest ones I would say was Duayne ‘The Mix’ Bradley. The “Midday Cuisine.” I worked at that time doing security and I had a little cassette tape that I brought to work. I didn’t care if I had to do a round, every time at noon I would run in at twelve and hit record! I’ll be back in a half an hour, take anything you want, I’ll be back! Those things I still have a case crate full of cassette tapes. I’m slowly but surely transferring myself over to CD. But just the history of that [dj mixes]. Friends of mine would travel all over the world and bring me stuff from Italy, New York, Jamaica, I was such a huge fan of music and they knew it. I always did a tit-for-tat if you want something, bring me something. If you want a Ken, bring me a Ken. So that’s how my collection got so vast.
Gholz: Was Club Insomnia the only time you did radio or have you done radio otherwise?
Cent: I actually got a chance to do radio through Theresa Hill. She was on WDTR 90.9 FM doing the after-school work show. I think it was five to six. Then she eventually started doing Friday’s as an old school. And Felton Howard, who had been a huge supporter of me and what I was going through trying to make my way in the DJ world, submitted a CD to her and wanted her to listen to it. Come to find out a few I won’t name them already knew who I was but they were not willing, at that time, to put me out there to her. So he was the stepping stone to her. She invited me to come down and listen to the set and of course was recorded on CD prior. It was already a pre-recorded show so the only thing we did was talk live. So I got home and I got this really good mix from the show and at that point I was able to come down and see her music about one thing once a month until she came off air. That kind of gave me the introduction to get me heard by Kim James, who at that time had Mike Huckaby, who at that time was one of the people who would bring people in. He gave me a call and said, “Cent, why don’t you come down and do a guest spot on WJLB.” This was in ‘98 I want to say. I was nervous but I said sure I’ll come down and play. At that time we are playing vinyl, which I do miss the actual records themselves. I got my crate together and went down. I thought I did a great job and Kim said “You sounded fantastic!” That became an every other couple of months type of thing. I became a regular in 2010 doing the “Club Insomnia” late night show with Kim James, Reggie Harrell, DaNeil Mitchell and myself and I’ve been there ever since and I enjoy it.
Gholz: I remember when I was growing up a little younger that some of the diva vocals and things that we would think of as house-ier type of sounds were more of the standard fare. You heard it at other times during the day. I just wonder if you could talk about when you hear the sounds on the radio these days?
Cent: I think the biggest thing is that for hip-hop it’s all about money now. It’s all based upon what brings numbers. When the numbers game became the most important part of the music industry, not the music. Not what the record labels or industry was pushing. They were pushing what makes them money. House was not the biggest prevalence, even though we’re in a house-loving community it’s just not what brings radio money. It’s based upon what’s bringing in money, what’s gonna bring sponsorships, what’s gonna bring money to the clubs, to the parties that the radio stations want to promote. It’s really based on not the love of the people but about the money. It’s really a sad thing because when we grew up you could hear Donna Summer, Donna Blakely, you could hear Jeff Mills, you could hear Kevin Saunderson‘s “Good Life” or “Big Fun” at noon or at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It would just be in the rotation. I have to really applaud WJLB for sticking their neck out. Even though it’s late night, they could have quickly said we’re not going to do it anymore we’re going to play hip-hop all day and all night, just the constant rotation of the same 20 songs, but somebody stuck their neck out and said let’s let this happen, let’s see what goes with this, let’s push this particular show. Now what’s going to happen, I do believe this as the music continues to change, it seems like there’s a movement that’s going back to soulful house and if that does take precedence, it seems like there’s going to be a couple of clubs open up that are based on house and techno. And as long as you have movement in the city that produces more of a house or dance feel you’re going to hear that on radio and it’s going to make a change. So I’m hoping that as time progresses with me doing things and putting music out. We put music out on the internet that you can hear. That’s going to be one of the things that will push house music back into the mainstream.
Gholz: Give us some advice for the next year or two, what should we be focusing on do you think?
DJ Cent: Exactly what you’re doing, having more people get together and talk about and making a difference. People either writing about it, blogging, posting, it’s got to become more, in a sense, global. Yet in some type of way get back on the radio and just into your car. People have a choice what you want to play. How do you make it to something where people say “I’ve got a house CD lemme put that in instead.” So just what you’re doing, archiving music. Hopefully radio becomes more of a foothold to be able to bring new things. I don’t know what’s going to change that. As long as we have shows like mine. A lot of the other stations are starting to now put house shows together and doing 15 minute mixes. I’ll take 15 minutes over nothing. Whatever it takes to get it out here Let’s do it.
Gholz: What’s the last great Detroit house track for you?
Cent: Wow that’s a hard one there! So much great music right now. There’s so many new artists that are coming out with the soulful, and the Afro, and the deep, which I love. I couldn’t name just one. It’s hard because I love so many things, I love so much music. I love tribal, you don’t have to say anything. But I also love gospel house, where I want you to uplift me and bring me out of my storms. I can’t even name just one. Who’s one of my favorite artists? Ralphi Rosario, he’s so diverse. Too many to think of!
Gholz: Cent, thanks so much for joining us.
Cent: Thanks for having me!
Transcription by Keaton Soto-Olson, Spring 2020