Understanding high tech soul: why Detroit techno matters for the EDM generation
The word “techno” has certainly taken on its fair share of interpretations in the course of its history. It is undeniably culturally significant not only to devotees of electronic music, but also to understanding the trajectory of the world’s sonic history as we know it. As the new generation of dance music lovers, we owe it to ourselves to understand the places from which we came. When considering techno, the first thing to grasp is just how closely the city of Detroit must be tied to this music’s beginnings and although techno may have rocketed into European sensibilities much more quickly than it ever could in the US, the heart and soul of the music has always lay in America’s Motor City, Detroit.
Understanding the influence
Disco was dead and the world of music was, in many ways, up for grabs. In 1974, Kraftwerk released Autobahn and single handedly placed the concept of electronic instrumentation on the map. Their music was clean and syncopated, using the influence of Detroit’s own Motown sound of yesteryear for rhythmic cues while still maintaining a quite defined European structure. The back and forth between American sentiments and its European counterparts proved to be capricious — pre-techno Detroit molded Kraftwerk but in return, Kraftwerk gave young Detroit upstarts inspiration outside of their R&B-heavy past. In a 1988 interview, Derrick May, one of techno’s most important figures, made the connection directly: “the music is just like Detroit — a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator.” It is certainly not as simple to trace a direct line from Kraftwerk’s post-industrial production to Detroit techno and back again, but it serves as an honest springboard for what would come next in the Midwestern American city.
The tough question to answer is: why did techno happen in Detroit? What was it about the milieu of the city that spurred the development of this genre in an almost exponential fashion? In the fall out from the 1967 riots, which is now considered one of the most devastating riots in our country’s history, Detroit was a city in distress, but also a city flying under the radar. Compared to the larger coastal meccas of New York or Los Angeles, the impact of European developments in electronic sounds perhaps held a greater weight for the artists hanging on in Detroit. In Dan Sicko’s book, Techno Rebels, he posits his own cultural theory behind the birth of techno in Detroit:
Techno “happened” in Detroit — perhaps because the new musical genre needed quiet environs to grow and develop. In a larger metropolis, the danger of a fickle populace latching onto another trend the following week, or of it being burned under critics’ magnifying lenses, would have kept techno from becoming the global phenomenon it is today. By becoming an entity unto itself, techno avoided being pinned as simply an extension of Chicago house music.
In some ways, techno serves as a part of an untold American musical heritage. The audience did a lot of the work, there was less of a cult of personality compared to rock’s deities, and in general, Detroit was a hard place to define for outsiders. The teenagers that first dove into techno were part of a generation disassociated with their own city. The golden era of industrialization was long over, the automobile plants that ran through the life blood of the residents’ bank accounts were quickly losing steam, and the heyday of Motown seemed stale at best. When it came time for this new generation to take control of their fate, the answer for many lay in electronic sounds rather than The Temptations.
Due largely to a series of lackluster revitalization projects in Detroit’s downtown, the pre-techno development took place in the suburbs. The refraction of Detroit sounds to Europe and back again happened not only with Kraftwerk, but also with what we’d regrettably now coin as “new wave” — artists like Human League, Depeche Mode, and the B-52’s. The high school scene in Detroit was giving life to all these teenage grassroots parties, and just as teenagers were using disco, Eurodisco, and new wave sounds, mutations began to form into the earliest techno. These kids were turning their backs on the fate of their city’s decentralized, post-industrial entropy and escaping into their own grassroots forms of nightlife. Now, they just needed the talent to fill these rooms.
Understanding Juan, Derrick, and Kevin
In this country, it’s very hard for creative thought to escape capitalism. – Juan Atkins
While social clubs, DJs, and parties were popping all over the city, something a little different was happening in Belleville. Although there were many Detroit DJs laying the groundwork for techno, names like Was (Not Was), Electrifying Mojo, and Ken Collier to start, it is hard to argue against the assertion that Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson were the ones to ignite the fires of techno in the mid and late 80s. As part of the same aforementioned party scene, Derrick and Juan started DJing together as Deep Space and Juan began his work with Rik Davis as Cybotron, producing “Alleys of your Mind,” “Clear,” and later in 1984 “Techno City” — all tracks that would later be pinned down as some of the very first sounds of techno, some of the first sounds that would draw a new line in electronic sounds.
Stimulus for techno was firmly tied to the city of Detroit. It was still about escapism to some extent, but also the ideas of a kind of urban utopia. As Juan Atkins himself aptly explained, the contrast between new and old was a driving force between the music’s creativity:
I was smack in the middle of downtown, on Griswold. I was looking at [the side of] this building and I see the faded imprint of [an] American Airlines [corporate logo], the shadow [that was left] after they took the sign down. It just brought home to me the thing about Detroit — in any other city you have a buzzing, thriving downtown.
After the end of Cybotron, Atkins continued along in the studio with other projects like Model 500 and launched his label Metroplex, but Derrick May was the one to venture off and push harder towards the possibilities for the music. He was less focused on serious production, choosing instead to visit Chicago (and his mother), where he was exposed to Trax records, saw Frankie Knuckles for the first time, and returned to his hometown with new sounds and ideas. As Rhythim Is Rhythim he released “Nude Photo” and “Strings of Life,” one of the most recognizable records from the era. He explored the sounds of techno in dozens of different ways, and paid homage to his not-so-distance musical cousins in Chicago. Juan was the originator, Derrick was the innovator, and Kevin Saunderson was the elevator, as it’s often described. Unlike the other two, Kevin has enjoyed a fair amount of commercial success in the course of his career. While he produced some of the most brutal Detroit techno of the late 80s, he also reached several number one stops on Billboard charts with Inner City’s “Big Fun” and “Good Life.”
Understanding Detroit techno in Europe
Although techno was not acid house, the bursting UK rave scene in the late 80s and early 90s transformed Detroit’s music. Neil Rushton of Kool Kat Records compiled the first-ever record that named techno — Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit was released in 1988. With a second wave of Detroit techno talent coming in 1990, names like Carl Craig, Octave One and others, these DJs were becoming increasingly bankable across the pond. Mike Pickering was playing techno at Hacienda in Manchester before anyone knew what it was, and in general the former fans of Northern Soul probably just digested the music more easily because of ties on both sides to American soul music.
With its three years in the UK, many Detroiters felt their music had been co-opted and repurposed for a rave culture, something that was never part of the original formula in Michigan. If the music was losing its soul, Detroit reacted by moving further underground. By the early 90s, Richie Hawtin, John Acquaviva, and Daniel Bell were involved in the scene, establishing Plus 8 in an attempt to buoy the Belleville Three, rather than detract from their cause. Carl Craig kept innovating with Retroactive, Jeff Mills and Mike Banks were tackling political issues through Underground Resistance, and a generation of promoters (including Paxahau’s Jason Huvaere) were sticking to Detroit’s grassroots origins.
Techno continued to expand and take off in the Netherlands, Belgium, and especially Berlin (after the fall of the Berlin Wall in particular), with the concept of the techno lifestyle following closely behind. These cities and people were doing it like they did in Detroit — injecting life into run-down buildings and forgotten spaces, establishing respectable record labels, and creating collectives for artists and other creative types to freely interact. Before Detroit could blink twice, the international population was obsessing over its culture and its music.
Understanding Movement and techno in 2013
At a certain point, Europeans engrossed in techno couldn’t help but to visit Detroit. They were the techno tourists, and in 2000, the city created a means for which outsiders could experience the city’s cultural history in a more formal fashion. Detroit Electronic Music Festival, now simply called Movement Electronic Music Festival, was for the next generation of techno fans, but it was also for the city’s own techno prodigies — a reunion to some, a pilgrimage to others. The festival made it easier for international visitors to come to Detroit and see, listen, and take in the place techno has and will always call home. Once Paxahau, an already well-respected local promoter, took over in 2006, the festival only continued to spread its wings — both by hammering down attendance issues and exercising the necessary capital on sound design.
The eclecticism of the genre has continued to birth more and more derivations of the core sound, with labels like Ghostly International and artists like Matthew Dear in the forefront of the newer side of Detroit and its surrounding cities. Historically, however, the United States has been the biggest monkey wrench to a techno’s true seat at the table in the world of genre allegiances. Detroit may still deal with harsh interpretations of its past, present, and future, but it is up to the newest generation, what is often begrudgingly referred to as the EDM generation, to dictate the terms of techno’s future in the United States. Understanding and respecting the core tenets and ideology of techno is, of course, going to be the first step. As Dan Sicko explains:
“Techno has grown up with a sense of optimism and future possibilities.” But at the core, “there lies the struggle to retain the human element in its music. Whether this comes through unlocking the ‘warmth’ of old analog gear, chord progressions, or the tactile connection to vinyl, techno has always struck the best and most interesting balance.”
If techno is founded in technology, and technology progresses in the way we’ve seen it in the last several decades, experimentation and creativity won’t ever be squelched. If we can build a real audience for Detroit’s music in its home country, if we carry on the torch of this genuine techno lifestyle, where ingenuity is valued over frivolity — there is no telling how many different and wonderful directions the music will continue to grow.
Join us at this year’s Movement Electronic Music Festival, taking place Saturday, May 25th through Monday, May 27th. You’ll find five stages smack in the middle of downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza. Lineup and tickets can be found over at Movement’s website.
Dan Sicko, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010).
Heiko Hoffmann, “From the Autobahn to I-94,” Pitchfork.com (2005), http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/6204-from-the-autobahn-to-i-94/.
Juan Atkins, “The Roots of Techno,” Wired, No. 2.07.
Tony Marcus, “Derrick May — The Secret of Techno,” Mixmag.com (1997), http://www.techno.de/mixmag/interviews/DerrickMay1.html.
Stuart Cosgrove, “Seventh City Techno,” The Face, no. 97 (May 1988): 86.