The Dummy Guide to Detroit techno part I: origins to explosion

The Dummy Guide to Detroit techno part I: origins to explosion

A brief guide to Detroit techno's beginnings.

When we started the Dummy Guides back in 2009, we did so to illuminate a a scene, genre or artist crucial but lacking clarity, an interesting subject that few have cleared and concisely explained in a way relevant to readers of this website. This next guide, however, focuses on a genre so vast and talked about that its writing presented a challenge: Detroit techno. This sublime, incredibly influential music has been discussed and memorialised hundreds of times – just last month, London promoters Dollop ran a series of events hosting the Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May – that it resisted a clear, simple story, much less one that would fit on one page.

For this reason, our guide is split into two parts. The first, below, details what was later known as the first wave – the birth of the revolutionary machine funk that became known as Detroit Techno. The second, out next week, will follow the explosion overseas and the changing shape of the form in its hometown. We hope you enjoy the feature.

“The Techno Rebels are, whether they recognise it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead. For they are as much a part of the advance to a new stage of civilisation as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths.” The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler.

Detroit is the final frontier; a post-industrial melting pot where harsh winters, riot-fuelled segregation, and once resplendent buildings stand gutted and boarded up hint at the well-documented and staggering level of decay that’s ravaged the city since World War II. Interestingly, this time period through to the present has seen an equally staggering amount of musical creativity bursting forth from the crumbling foundations of this wounded metropolis. Motown, gospel, rock and blues were the Motor City’s proud exports in its heyday, but this two part guide is concerned with a certain type music that came out after the bubble burst: Detroit techno. The first part of the guide concentrates on what has become known as the first wave – its beginnings in late 70s electro-funk, the Belleville Three and the nation-wide recognition that set the stage for the second wave’s global explosion in the late 80s.

The Detroit of The First Wave

Detroit, a decade on from the riots, had begun its de-population process, falling from the mid-century highpoint of nearly 2 million to its current, paltry 700,000 and earned its title as “America’s Homicide Capital.” The worst area of the city was the poverty-stricken centre, while the suburbs remained solidly middle class. This was due in part to a government led de-centralisation process that started after the second World War II and was dubbed “The White Flight” after the mass exodus that followed in the wake of the unrest during the late 60s. Even amongst the growing number factories and companies closing, almost all families in the greater Detroit area were still somehow tied to the automobile industry in some way. The kids of this generation grew up listening to their parents tell them about the robots that were being shipped into replace them and how they aided in mass production. Technology was an omnipresent, mythological force that was greeted both with suspicion and the hope that it might provide a road towards salvation.

Even amongst the growing number factories and companies closing, almost all families were still somehow tied to the automobile industry in some way. The kids of this generation would listen to their parents tell them about the robots that were being shipped into replace them

The Importance Of Radio

Radio was central in bringing the world to the city’s youths, and there was one particular DJ that was transfixing the population with Parliament Funkadelic and the underground electro sounds of New York’s harsh funk alongside italo-disco sounds and robot music of Kraftwerk from Europe. The Electrifying Mojo, whose eclectic shows embraced Prince, Klein & MBO, YMO, and all other forms of mechanical soul and mixed them up with sense of foreboding and edge which captured the current state of The Motor City perfectly. The masses may have been dancing to disco in New York City, and the underground of Chicago was embracing the warmth within its burgeoning house movement, but there was nothing to celebrate here in a city fraught with decay and corruption. It was songs about automobiles from Kraftwerk, the twisted and manipulated vocals of Yello, and the caustic rhythms uniting all of these genres that came purely from machines that resonated and caught on amongst the city’s clubs and young creatives.

Mojo WGPR Circa 1980 by xmondj

The Belleville Three

Three teenagers, attending the same high school in the suburb of Belleville, had caught the bug from The Electrifying Mojo and started playing records at parties while exploring the primitive synthesizers of the time. The oldest, Juan ‘The Originator’ Atkins, was the first to get turntables and taught his friends how to DJ as well as being the first to dabble with music creation. One of his university class-mates, Richard Davies, turned him onto the writings of futurist Alvin Toffler which inspired the two to release reverential, futuristic music that, like Kraftwerk, celebrated the link between the man and the machine. In 1981 they released Alleys Of Your Mind as Cybotron;) full of Funkadelic-inspired rhythms, but with the hypnotic bleakness of underground music from Europe. Cybotron released a few more seminal records until Juan Atkins started on his own as Model 500, which saw the electro side of Cybotron give way to an entirely new sound that still fused the same influences together, but in an altogether different way. Sung vocal lines and silky chords gave way to snarling synth leads and simplistic percussive motifs that was still rooted in boogie, but had been relegated from its stance as a forefront sonic mascot in Cybotron to a whispered influence. Model 500 dug darker and deeper; the playfulness of Atkins and Davies’ joint output gave way to a more focused, honed sound that wielded a much sharper and refined blade emotionally, thematically, and musically. Another member of the Belleville Three, Derrick May) famously wrote in the liner notes of a 1988 compilation: “The music is just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

Derrick “The Innovator” May had been watching Atkins make the transition from Cybotron to Model 500, and finessed the sound within in his own productions into what most people often associate as being Detroit techno. If Juan had built the foundations, then Derrick designed and built the house. He designed the final template that solidified the first wave through early tracks like Strings Of Life, It Is What It Is, and _The Dance. May’s productions were all but stripped of electro-funk and focused on hypnotic, pulsing beats that ebbed and flowed via slow and subtle changes in a way more akin to classical music’s minimalism movement than anything else. He also introduced the wistful string-like pads outlining minor seventh chords that became a staple of the genre’s sound; forgoing aggression for a haunting sadness that sounds as otherworldly as it does deep and almost spiritual.

Kevin “The Elevator” Saunderson, the youngest of the group, found a way to get the first wave out to the masses. He started producing after the other two and fused pop-style productions with the sounds that Derrick and Juan had created. This happened most notably with the group Inner City) and their absolute, stone cold hits like Good Thing and Big Fun._ His productions, full of humanism and warmth, were also a hint of the inclusion of house music that was to come in the second wave since they didn’t, and still don’t, fit neatly under the techno sound. A fourth attendee of Belleville High, though not considered part of the three that launched the genre was Eddie Fowlkes who came back to music after finishing a business degree and was instrumental to the scene at the time.

Detroit hustles harder: the rise of the independent label

Besides the sound coming out of Detroit at the time, the other striking difference in this new musical culture was born out of two pillars that sum up the Motor City: the need for independence and the hustle. The American Dream had failed the population so they looked to new self-reliant ways to overcome their realities, and with a slippery line between the middle class and the abject poverty that was corroding the city from the inside out, you had to hustle hard in order to keep from falling in. This is where the rise of independent record labels and distribution came in. It wasn’t just one small dance music label that had sprung up, everyone making music at the time had their own label. Juan Atkins’ Metroplex label was the first of the bunch and set an example to his Belleville Three colleagues and fellow creatives that they didn’t need support from anyone else anymore if they were willing to do this side of the music industry themselves. Thus Derrick May’s Transmat (which the sublime strings Of Life, below, was released on) and Kevin Saunderson’s KMS record labels soon sprung up afterwards, and just about every single producer of every wave of Detroit Electronic Music has carried the notions independence and the hustle forward by releasing on and owning their own record labels.

Treading Dangerous Ground: The Club Scene At The Time

The hustle also spread into scene at the time and into the way that the youths got involved with this new music coming out of their hometown. Local TV programmes like The Scene and The New Dance Show aired afterschool on weekdays and provided a place for all to participate in dance-offs to the latest beats. In the early days, most of the music on these two shows was funk and R&B, but by 1982 the machines started to take over as the show started playing another local proto-techno track that popped up around the same time as early Cybotron: ShareVari by A Number Of Names. It wasn’t long before Juan Atkins, under his Channel One moniker, was getting his tracks aired on The Scene as well. The style of dance at the time was called the Jit, short for Jitterbug, and was used on the streets by rival gangs to differentiate the parts of the city they came from and sometimes even declare a murder. These moves were appropriated by professional dancers on these television shows in a safe environment.

Clubbing on the other hand was a bit more shambolic as any and every venue was used as a place to set up turntables and soundsystems: churches, vacant car parks, YMCAs, underage nights at the local High School, and more. Alcohol was often not present at these events since they couldn’t legally serve it, and people from both the inner city and suburbs came together to showcase their own take on the Jit, fueled only by sugary fruit juices and soda pops. These dance-offs by the mostly black crowd were some of the few moments when the middle class suburban kids and various gangs tried to mix and would quite often erupt in violence and shootings. On a good night the various groups would be showcasing their best moves and learning from each other. However, if the gangs started Stacking, their battle-call appropriation of Jitting that flashed their rival’s signs in the air and mimed shooting them down, the party was over. Gone were the Motown times of consistently peaceful and integrated nightlife; those days came from a prosperous era that had ended a long time ago and the nightlife, just like the music, echoed the struggles and suffering that plagued the Detroit’s youth.

The drive to keep holding these parties, and even setting up DJ and dancing competitions to serve as positive outlets of expression, is also a testament to the hustle and future-facing tunnel-vision the Belleville Three and co had at the time with the music they were trying to make. Looking forward was their only means of escaping the post-industrial wasteland they lived in, but they wanted to do so while retaining a fierce sense of pride for their city. Perhaps technology had aided in the destruction of their home, but it was also their saviour; their only crack at social movement or their car in which they could drive through the city at night and feel the empowering sense of escapism that most Detroit natives still refer to when talking about their automobiles. Instead of fearing the possibility of a 1984 or Brave New World, they attempted to avoid it by creating a harmony between themselves and their machines in the only way they knew how: through music.

Of course no guide can be definitive or absolute (especially in so few words,) but we hope there was something in the above that resonated in the same way Detroit’s beautiful electronic music still does today. We’ll look at the how these experiments in technological dance music exploded into the world in the next part of this guide, but for now close your eyes and feel The Motor City’s extreme highs and lows channelled via Derrick May’s sublime Strings Of Life.

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