How a 4-hour drive between Midwestern cities transformed electronic beat music.
It’s no coincidence that two of electronic beat music’s most important subgenres, house and techno, were born simultaneously in the early 1980s. After all, DJs could hop on I-90 in downtown Chicago after work on a Friday and, after merging onto I-94, be in front of two turntables by 10 p.m. – and vice versa.
Last week we explored the rise of Chicago house and the documentarians who captured the sights and sounds in real time. As a way to further a conversation on how seemingly inconsequential regional differences can influence a music’s character, we’re going to roll down the American autobahn eastward toward Detroit. It’s 1982 and the U.S. auto industry, the city’s main employer, has virtually collapsed as inexpensive Japanese imports have cut into sales, prompting plant closures and massive layoffs.
Amid this economic depression, Detroit itself implodes as thousands of once-employed workers, finding themselves minus income, bail on the city. The DJ, producer and Planet E label founder Carl Craig tells of this mass exodus better than we could in the opening to “Detroit Techno City.” The half-hour documentary showcases the birth and rise of the so-called Belleville Three – Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May – and the ways in which they and second-generation producers including Craig, Richie Hawtin, and Underground Resistance transformed that blueprint into a bustling factory of sound.
One driver of this sound was radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo, whose nightly mix shows starting in the late 1970s and peaking in the 1980s highlighted genre-hopping dance songs that mixed European post-disco, electronic R&B, new wave and funk. His sets were so popular that WJLB billboards advertised the nightly “Landing of the Mothership” that was his show.
Unlike Chicago house, whose style was defined in part by diva vocalists expressing exuberant emotions, the sound of Detroit was defined by the absence of human utterances in favor of synthetics, Vocoders, and controlled chaos. That difference, say producers in “Detroit Techno City,” is the direct result of long days spent working assembly-lines. “We put a soul in the machine, and that’s how techno became what it is today,” Craig says in the doc.
Unfortunately, no one documentary fully captures the story of Detroit techno, but after watching “Detroit Techno City,” we suggest you turn to the 20-minute segment from the late 1990s called “Detroit: The Blueprint of Techno.” It features astounding footage of Atkins and others touring the neighborhood where many producers and techno labels had set up shop. “The Blueprint of Techno” includes conversations with and footage of producer-DJs including Atkins, Hawtin, May, Saunderson, Craig, Mike Huckaby, DJ Rolando (Underground Resistance) and others.
Interested in delving further into the sublime sounds of Detroit techno? A few excellent books have been written about it. The late Dan Sicko’s Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk presents a ton of first-hand information and interviews. Michelangelo Matos’ The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America contains brilliant prose on the topic; and Simon Reynolds’ Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture outlines the ways in which Detroit producers helped define global beat music.
Here’s DJ Rolando’s Knights of the Jaguar 12-inch.
With his passing, celebrating the great drummer, singer and composer through video footage With his metronomic timing, calm vocal delivery, and movie-star good looks, musician Yukihiro Takahashi left […]