is an early style of electronic music beginning in 1980s. Detroit has been cited as the birthplace of techno
music. Prominent Detroit Techno artists include Juan Atkins
, Derrick May
, and Kevin Saunderson.. A distinguishing trait of Detroit techno is the use of analog synthesizers
and early drum machines
, particularly the Roland TR-909
, or, in later releases, the use of digital emulation to create the characteristic sounds of those machines.
music was originally thought of as a subset to Chicago's early style of house
. However, some critics believe that the Detroit techno movement was an adjunct to house
music, named for the new style of music played at a Chicago nightclub called "The Warehouse". Although producers in both cities used the same hardware and even collaborated on projects and remixes together, Detroiters traded the choir-friendly vocals of House with metallic clicks, robotic voices and repetitive hooks reminiscent of an automotive assembly line. Many of the early techno tracks had futuristic or robotic themes, although a notable exception to this trend was a single by Derrick May
under his pseudonym Rhythim Is Rhythim, called Strings of Life
. This vibrant dancefloor anthem was filled with rich synthetic string arrangements and took the underground music scene by storm in May of 1987. With subtle differences between the genres, clubs in both cities included Detroit techno and Chicago house tracks in their playlists without objection (or much notice by non-audiophiles) from patrons.
The Belleville Three
The three individuals most closely associated with the birth of Detroit techno as a genre are Juan Atkins
, Kevin Saunderson
and Derrick May
, also known as the "Belleville Three
". These three high school friends from a Detroit suburb would soon find their basement tracks in dancefloor demand, thanks in part to seminal Detroit radio personality The Electrifying Mojo
. Ironically, Derrick May once described Detroit techno music as being a "complete mistake…like George Clinton
caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company.
Kevin Saunderson was born in Brooklyn
, New York
. At the age of nine he moved to Michigan
, where he attended Belleville High School
, a town some 30 miles from Detroit. In school he befriended Derrick May and Juan Atkins, both of whom had been born in Detroit but later moved to rural Belleville. The three were among the few black students in their high school.
The location of Belleville was key to the formation of the Belleville Three as musicians. Because the town was still “pretty racial at the time,” according to Saunderson, “we three kind of gelled right away.” The rural setting also afforded a different setting in which to experience the music. “We perceived the music differently than you would if you encountered it in dance clubs. We'd sit back with the lights off and listen to records by Bootsy
and Yellow Magic Orchestra
. We never took it as just entertainment, we took it as a serious philosophy,” recalls May. Belleville was located near several automobile factories, which provided well-paying jobs to a racially integrated workforce. “Everybody was equal,” Atkins explained in an interview. “So what happened is that you’ve got this environment with kids that come up somewhat snobby, ‘cos hey, their parents are making money working at Ford
, been elevated to a foreman, maybe even a white-collar job.” European acts like Kraftwerk
were popular among middle-class black youth.
Geographically in a Detroit sense, the "Eight Mile" concept, like the segretory stigmata of Watts, The Bronx or South Chicago is still true in southeast Michigan. Even the Belleville Three
lived outside the city limits, yet their influence and magnetism in loft apartment parties, after hours and high school clubs, and late night radio united the listeners of progressive dance music from above and below Eight Mile Road
. Even infamous, Techno-friendly regular hours clubs like The Shelter, The Music Institute and The Majestic among many others were the incubators for progressing the Techno movement from basements and late night radio onto the dancefloors of the world.
During the first wave of Detroit techno scene of the 80s, huge parties were held with upwards to fifty or more competing DJs. Most of the early party-goers were made up of middle-class black youths. However, as Detroit experienced heavy economic downfall, many of the middle-class white families fled to the suburbs in what is called the "white flight" of the early 70s while middle-class black families were displaced by the degentrification of once securely middle-class black districts. Socially and geographically, it is important to note on a local level, that Detroit Techno as a genre created a newfound, integrated club scene in Detroit that had not been felt in a general sense after the Motown label moved to Los Angeles. Television programs like TV62 -- WGPR's "The Scene" featured a racially and ethnically very mixed selection of dancers every weekday after school, but the playlist was typically jammed with the R&B and Funk tracks of the day, like Prince or the Gap Band. Breakouts like Juan Atkins Technicolor
under his Model 500 moniker eventually found their way onto The Scene, and helped to explode the burgeoning local Techno underground with validity for the urban high school set, college radio programmers and DJs from Chicago to London, and beyond. Also, the advent of huge circuit of local parties in Detroit spawned a number of DJs to compete on such an intense level requiring week long preparation for a party event. As a result of its popularity, these club parties had an impact on the social scene of the city's youth and demographic.
The club scene was as much in transition as the city they were in. From "industrial boomtown to post-Fordist wasteland", the decline of the auto industry brought forth Detroit's economic downfall and with it came the degentrification of the middle-class black areas. The wide-spread popularity of techno across socio-economic and racial lines also led to a mixing between West Side and elite high school youths with ghetto and gangster "jits" (abbreviation for "jitterbug"). Unfortunately, the economic problems of Detroit and the prevalent social apathy and desolation led to a proliferation of gun violence within clubs and by 1986, the techno club scenes were wrought with gun shootings, fights, and acts of violence further compounding the sociological and economic recovery of Detroit.
This wave of violence, economic collapse, and socio-communal atrophy extensively affected the Detroit techno themes. Still influenced by the same Euro sounds, Juan Atkins and Rick Davis formed Cybotron producing Detroit hits like Alleys of Your Mind, Techno City, Cosmic Cars, and Clear before signing onto the Fantasy label. However, Cybotron's dominant mood of tech-noir and desolation played into describing the city's decline. "But for all their futuristic mise-en-scene, the vision underlying Cybotron songs was Detroit-specific... from industrial boomtown to post-Fordist wasteland, from US capital of auto manufacturing to US capital of homicide. By the end of the first successful wave of Detroit techno, the city's center had become a ghost town and the techno landscape was evolving into a more hardcore, militaristic frenzy of drug-infused rave and trance scene.
The three teenage friends bonded while listening to an eclectic mix of music: Kraftwerk
, and the B-52s
. The electronic and funk sounds that influenced the Belleville Three came primarily from a 5-hour late-night radio show called The Midnight Funk Association, broadcast in Detroit by DJ Charles "Electrifyin' Mojo
" Johnson on WGPR
. Juan Atkins was inspired to buy a synthesizer
after hearing Parliament. Atkins was also the first in the group to take up turntablism, teaching May and Saunderson how to DJ
Under the name Deep Space Soundworks, Atkins and May began to DJ on Detroit’s party circuit. By 1981, Mojo was playing the record mixes recorded by the Belleville Three, who were also branching out to work with other musicians. The trio traveled to Chicago
to investigate the house music
scene there, particularly the legendary Chicago DJs Ron Hardy
and Frankie Knuckles
. House was a natural progression from disco music, so that the trio began to formulate the synthesis of this dance music with the mechanical sounds of groups like Kraftwerk, in a way that reflected post-industrialist Detroit. An obsession with the future and its machines is reflected in much of their music, because, according to Atkins, Detroit is the most advanced in the transition away from industrialism.
First Wave of Detroit Techno
While attending Washtenaw Community College
, Atkins met Rick Davis
and formed Cybotron
with him. Their first single “Alleys of Your Mind”—recorded on their Deep Space label in 1981—sold 15,000 copies, and the success of two follow-up singles, “Cosmic Cars” and “Clear,” led the California-based label Fantasy to sign the duo and release their album, Clear.
After Cybotron split due to creative differences, Atkins began recording as Model 500 on his own label, Metroplex, in 1985. His landmark single, “No UFOs,” soon arrived. Eddie Fowlkes
, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson also recorded on Metroplex.
Although the Detroit musicians—the Belleville Three and other early pioneers like Eddie Fowlkes
, and James Pennington
—were a close-knit group who shared equipment and studio space, and who helped each other with projects, friction developed. Each member of the Belleville Three branched off on his own record label. May's Transmat
began as a sublabel imprint of Metroplex. Saunderson founded KMS based on his own initials. They set up shop in close proximity to one another, in Detroit’s Eastern Market
All of the Belleville Three have worked under many different names and titles. Derrick May saw great success under the name Rhythim is Rhythim, his moniker when he released his landmark “Strings of Life
.” Kevin Saunderson’s most commercially recognized projects was Inner City
with vocalist Paris Grey
. Juan Atkins has been lauded as the "Godfather of Techno" while Derrick May is thought of as the "Innovator" and Kevin Saunderson is often referred to as the "Elevator
The Music Institute
Inspired by Chicago's house clubs, May, Atkins, and Saunderson started a club of their own in downtown Detroit, named the Music Institute. The club helped unite a previously scattered scene into an underground "family," where May, Atkins, and Saunderson DJed with fellow pioneers like Eddie "Flashin" Fowlkes and Blake Baxter
. It allowed for collaboration, and helped inspire what would become the second wave of Detroit-area techno, which included artists whom the Belleville Three had influenced and mentored.
In 1988, due to the immense popularity of American electronic music in Great Britain, dance music entrepreneur Neil Rushton approached the Belleville Three to license their work for release in the UK. To define the Detroit sound as being distinct from Chicago house, Rushton and the Belleville Three chose the word "techno" for their tracks, a term that Atkins had been using since his Cybotron days ("Techno City" was an early single). However, the trio from Belleville had some reservations about the culture that surrounded the drug-filled techno subculture abroad. Derrick May in particular continues to advocate that drugs are not necessary to participate in good music.
Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May remain active in the global music scene today. In 2000, the first annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival
was held, and in 2004 May assumed control of the festival, renamed Movement. He invested his own funds into the festival, and "got severely wounded financially. Kevin Saunderson helmed the festival, renamed FUSE IN, the following year. Saunderson, May, and Craig all performed but did not produce the festival in 2006
, when it was again called Movement. Saunderson returned to perform at the 2007 Movement as well.
The Belleville Three continue to tour internationally. All three maintain popular MySpace pages promoting their music and performances. Derrick May says that his mission continues to be "to save the world from bad music.
The first wave of Detroit techno had peaked in 1988-89, with the popularity of artists like Derrick May
, Kevin Saunderson
and Chez Damier
, and clubs like the Shelter
and the Music Institute
. At the same time, the European rave scene embraced the Detroit sound, thanks to Kool Kat Records
's release of a number of Detroit records. May's Strings of Life
achieved "anthemic" status in 1989, several years after its recording.
Once Detroit Techno became a full-fledged musical genre, a second generation of regional artists developed into techno icons themselves; Jeff Mills, Richie Hawtin (aka Plastikman) and Carl Craig to name just a few. Mills began his career as "The Wizard" on Mojo's nightly broadcast, showcasing his turntablist skills with quick cuts of the latest underground tracks and unreleased music from local labels. What began as a Europhile fantasy of elegance and refinement, ironically, by the early 90s, British and European techno transformed into a "vulgar uproar for E'd-up mobs: anthemic, cheesily sentimental, unabashedly drug-crazed. Detroit turned Teutonic electronic music into its own variant of acid house and techno. The result was a harsh Detroit hardcore full of riffs and industrial bleakness. Two major labels of this sound were Underground Resistance and +8, both of which mixed 80s electro, UK synth-pop and industrial paralleling the brutalism of rave music of Europe.
Underground Resistance's music embodied a kind of abstract militancy by presenting themselves as a paramilitary group fighting against commercial mainstream entertainment industry who they called "the programmers" in their tracks such as Predator, Elimination, Riot or Death Star. Similarly, the label +8 was formed by Richie Hawtin and John Aquaviva which evolved from industrial hardcore to a minimalist progressive techno sound. As friendly rivals to Underground Resistance, +8 pushed up the speed of their songs faster and fiercer in tracks like Vortex. However, it was the drug-fueled dynamic of Ecstacy and amphetamine abuse that drove Detroit's hardcore techno scene to the extremes of "brain-dead brutalism". What had started as a value system of elegance over energy, restraint over abandon shared by "purists" of traditional Detroit techno evolved through mutation into a mind-spinning, hardcore mix of trance, jungle, and bleep-and-bass.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, Detroit Techno producers experimented with extended aural soundscapes featuring sparse, ambient underscores punctuated with sporadic, cyclical periods of percussion. Extended length vinyl projects like those under Hawtin's Plastikman facade are particularly clear examples of this period. Atkins Sonic Sunset CD in 1994 also delivered this new tradition of Detroit techno. This new variant also included new connections to African percussions. The racial politics of Detroit Techno gave rise to a new form of African-American expression, "the link to African drumming and its emphasis on polyrhythms can't be ignored. One such example by a white artist, Richie Hawtin, is "Afrika" which produced a connection between African drums and percussion with Techno minimalistic programming.
On Memorial Day weekend of 2000, electronic music fans from around the globe made a pilgrimage to Hart Plaza on the banks of the Detroit River and experienced the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival. In 2003 the festival management changed the name to Movement, then Fuse-In (2005), and most recently, Movement: Detroit's Electronic Music Festival (2007). The festival is a showcase for DJs and performers across all genres of electronic music.
Presently Detroit has a genuine techno/rave scene with a varied cast of dedicated Djs, producers, promoters, fans, and dancers. No other city in the United States has an underground techno party scene as vibrant and fiercely protected and respected as the techno party scene/community in Detroit.
Detroit area producers
Detroit area record labels
Other notable Detroit techno styled producers