‘Dope, Hookers and Pavement’ Examines Detroit’s Hardcore Punk Scene

The documentary focuses on 10 months spanning 1981-1982 when musical currency was exchanged in dive bars
The documentary makes the case the hardcore punk belongs alongside Detroit’s better-known musical exports. // Film poster courtesy of Otto Buj

Otto Buj’s documentary Dope, Hookers and Pavement: The Real and Imagined History of Detroit Hardcore starts with a series of interviews that all but say the music wasn’t that important. It may seem odd to undercut a core element of the scene you’re documenting — in this case, the speedy, harsh style of punk known as hardcore — but director Buj has a reasonable explanation.

“To me, the relevance of the story is less about the music and more about how these kids pulled together from all over southeast Michigan and Windsor to build their scene/community and an environment to create their music when one didn’t exist for them,” Buj says. “As Ian MacKaye [of Washington, D.C.’s Minor Threat and later Fugazi] says at the conclusion of the film, the ‘music was just a currency.’ ”

“The scene is what happens outside the gig,” MacKaye says in the documentary. “That’s where the real social fabric is being knit. I think there was an enormous amount of really thoughtful people — men and women, boys and girls — who were sitting on the curb making this sort of scene something that was more connected than most people realize. Detroit rock city, right?”

MacKaye describes Detroit at the time as a central energy hub that helped fuel the rest of the country’s hardcore scenes with its DIY spirit. Dope, Hookers and Pavement focuses primarily on 10 months spanning 1981-1982 when that musical currency was exchanged in dive bars such as Windsor’s Coronation Tavern, the Endless Summer Skateboard Park in Roseville, and Detroit’s The Freezer Theater at 3958 Cass Ave.

The Freezer became the clubhouse for early Detroit hardcore because anybody could get in, an important detail since a large share of the audience and the bands themselves were teenagers. The building was a dilapidated, empty box with no plumbing or electricity — an electric cord was run into The Freezer from a nearby business. But people such as Corey Rusk, who initially played bass with Necros and later turned Touch and Go Records into one the greatest American independent music labels, pitched in to build a stage and turned The Freezer into a short-lived hardcore hub. 

Buj’s documentary features reminiscences from Negative Approach’s John Brannon (later of Laughing Hyenas and Easy Action) and The Meatmen’s Tesco Vee, as well as members of Necros, Bored Youth, The Fix, and other people who were part of Detroit’s early hardcore scene, which wasn’t well documented because, Buj says, “I think it all just happened so fast. … Documenting anything for posterity was not top of mind amongst all the kids involved.”

But while digging through old home movies, Buj stumbled across a silent film his older brother had shot of The Fix playing The Freezer, the only known footage inside the venue. That discovery is what prompted Buj, a Windsor-based filmmaker, to begin the two-year process of making Dope, Hookers and Pavement, which is what Brannon jokes in the film were the only things in the Cass Corridor at the time. 

The doc, which premiered at the 2020 Freep Film Festival and is now available to stream at detroithardcoremovie.com ($10), shows the transition of Detroit’s underground music scene from punk to hardcore and its eventual splintering as negative forces such as drugs and Nazi skinheads made things a little more dangerous. With 70-plus interviews, Buj had plenty of talking-head material to work with, as well as show flyers and photos to capture the spirit of the moment even without the benefit of concert footage.

“During that early period,” Buj says, “the Detroit hardcore kids were setting the mold, establishing the template for what was to follow in the city after they had all moved on to other things. It was a scrappy, magical, and intensely creative and resourceful time. … Other than what was happening in California and Washington, D.C., at the time, there really wasn’t much of a precedent for what the Detroit hardcore kids were doing in 1981.”

Dope, Hookers and Pavement helps document an overlooked part of Detroit’s music legacy and helps place it in the company of Motown, The MC5, techno, The White Stripes, and other sonic exports. While Detroit hardcore never achieved the same level of musical influence as groups from D.C., New York City, and Southern California, Buj admits some of those Motor City bands do stand the test of time. 

“Today, there’s absolutely no reason I can’t esteem Negative Approach the same way I esteem The Kinks or Bad Brains,” Buj says. “They’re all just great variants on rock ’n’ roll produced under different circumstances and a range of skill sets, yet wholly authentic, without pretense or polish.”

Sounds a lot like Detroit.