Detroit techno

Detroit techno is a type of techno music that generally includes the first techno productions by Detroit-based artists during the 1980s and early 1990s. Detroit has been cited as the birthplace of techno.[1][2] Prominent Detroit techno artists include Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, Jeff Mills, Kevin Saunderson, Blake Baxter, Santonio Echols and Mike Banks.

The Belleville Three

Rhythim is Rhythim - "Strings of Life" (1987)
"Strings of Life" (1987) by Rhythim is Rhythim (Derrick May) was a seminal techno track.

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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".[3] The three, who were high school friends from Belleville, Michigan, created electronic music tracks in their basement(s). Ironically, Derrick May once described Detroit techno music as being a "complete George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company."[4]

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, Kevin Saunderson, and Robert Hood also recorded on Metroplex. May said that the suburban setting 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.[5]

The three teenage friends bonded while listening to an eclectic mix of music: Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, Bootsy, Parliament, Prince, Depeche Mode, and The B-52's. Juan Atkins was inspired to buy a synthesizer after hearing Parliament.[5] Atkins was also the first in the group to take up turntablism, teaching May and Saunderson how to DJ.[6]

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.[7] The trio traveled to Chicago to investigate the house music scene there, particularly the legendary Chicago DJs Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles.[6] 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.[8]

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"[9][10]


What distinguishes Detroit Techno from its European variants is the way it more directly works the interface of funk and futurism...but the desire to play up the genre's futuristic side often means the second half of the equation gets dropped.
 Mike Shallcross, "From Detroit To Deep Space". The Wire (161). July 1997. p. 21. 

These early Detroit techno artists employed science fiction imagery to articulate their visions of a transformed society.[11] A notable exception to this trend was a single by Derrick May under his pseudonym Rhythim Is Rhythim, called "Strings of Life" (1987). This vibrant dancefloor anthem was filled with rich synthetic string arrangements and took the underground music scene by storm in May 1987. It "hit Britain in an especially big way during the country's 1987-1988 house explosion."[12] It became May's best known track, which, according to Frankie Knuckles, "just exploded. It was like something you can't imagine, the kind of power and energy people got off that record when it was first heard. "[13]

The club scene created by techno in Detroit was a way for suburban blacks in Detroit to distance themselves from “jits,” slang for lower class African Americans living in the inner-city. “Prep parties” were obsessed with flaunting wealth and incorporated many aspects of European culture including club names like Plush, Charivari, and GQ Productions, reflecting European fashion and luxury, because Europe signified high class. In addition prep parties were run as private clubs and restricted who could enter based on dress and appearance. Party flyers were also an attempt to restrict and distance lower class individuals from the middle class club scene.[14]


The three artists all contribute to the discourse of Afrofuturism through their re-purposing of technology to create a new form of music that appealed to a marginalized underground population. Especially within the context of Detroit, where the rise of robotics led to a massive loss of jobs around the time these three were growing up, technology is very relevant. The three friends put together tracks in their basements, making music without access to studios or top-line equipment, manipulating machines and sounds in a unique and experimental way. The process "took technology, and made it a black secret."[15]

The sound is both futuristic and extraterrestrial, touching on the 'otherness' central to Afrofuturist content. According to one critic, it was a "deprived sound trying to get out."[15] Tukufu Zuberi explains that electronic music can be multiracial and that critics should pay attention to "not just sound aesthetics but the production process and institutions created by black musicians."[15]

The Music Institute

Inspired by Chicago's house clubs, Chez Damier, Alton Miller and George Baker started a club of their own in downtown Detroit, named The Music Institute.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

Success abroad

Inner City - "Big Fun" (1988)
"Big Fun" (1988) was the debut hit single by techno group Inner City (Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey).

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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).[19] 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.[20]

Recent work

Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May remain active in the 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."[21] 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,[22] when it was again called Movement. Saunderson returned to perform at the 2007 Movement as well.[23]

The New Dance Sound of Detroit

Main article: Techno
Juan Atkins - "Techno Music" (1988)
"Techno Music" by Juan Atkins was the title track of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988).

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The explosion of interest in electronic dance music during the late 1980s provided a context for the development of techno as an identifiable genre. The mid-1988 UK release of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit,[24][25] an album compiled by ex-Northern Soul DJ and Kool Kat Records boss Neil Rushton (at the time an A&R scout for Virgin's "10 Records" imprint) and Derrick May, was an important milestone and marked the introduction of the word techno in reference to a specific genre of music.[26][27] Although the compilation put techno into the lexicon of music journalism, the music was, for a time, sometimes characterized as Detroit's high-tech interpretation of Chicago house rather than a relatively pure genre unto itself.[27][28] In fact, the compilation's working title had been The House Sound of Detroit until the addition of Atkins' song "Techno Music" prompted reconsideration.[24][29] Rushton was later quoted as saying he, Atkins, May, and Saunderson came up with the compilation's final name together, and that the Belleville Three voted down calling the music some kind of regional brand of house; they instead favored a term they were already using, techno.[27][29][30]

Second wave

The first wave of Detroit techno had peaked in 1988-89, with the popularity of artists like Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Blake Baxter, and Chez Damier, and clubs like Majestic Theater, The Shelter, and the Music Institute. At the same time, the European rave scene embraced the Detroit sound, thanks to Kool Kat Records' release of a number of Detroit records. May's Strings of Life achieved "anthemic" status in 1989,[31] 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, Carl Craig, and Octave One[32] 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 was, ironically, transformed by early 90s British and European techno into a "vulgar uproar for E'd-up mobs: anthemic, cheesily sentimental, unabashedly drug-crazed.",[33] as British journalist Simon Reynolds puts it. Detroit embraced this maximalism and created 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 1980s 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 Acquaviva 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.

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, takes course over a period of three days, and is considered to be the best underground electronic music festival in the United States. There are also many events outside of the festival, and the most popular takes that place at The Old Miami with a surprise line-up.

Notable Detroit area producers

Notable Detroit area record labels

Other notable Detroit techno styled producers and acts

See also



  2. Woodford, Arthur M. (2001). This is Detroit 1701–2001. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-2914-4.
  3. Hanf, Mathias Kilian. Detroit Techno: Transfer of the Soul through the Machine VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2010.
  4. "Music Feature: Who Likes Techno? [2nd October 2007]". BBC Radio4. Retrieved 2007-10-05.
  5. 1 2 Reynolds, Simon. Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture Routledge, 1999.
  6. 1 2
  7. Juan Atkins
  8. Jeeon (5 December 2007). "Universal Techno Pt.1 - Juan Atkins & Derrick May" via YouTube.
  9. "Wolfgang Gartner Interview by DJ Ron Slomowicz".
  10. Derrick May interview: Godfather of Techno ::
  11. Schaub, Christoph. "Beyond the Hood? Detroit Techno, Underground Resistance, and African American Metropolitan Identity Politics".
  12. Bush, John. "Derrick May". AllMusic. Retrieved 25 July 2012.
  13. "Interview: Derrick May - The Secret of Techno". Mixmag. 1997. Retrieved 25 July 2012.
  14. Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton (1999). Last Night the DJ Saved My Life: Story of the Disc Jockey. Headline Book Publishing. p 254-255
  15. 1 2 3 High Tech Soul: Detroit Techno
  16. Brewster, Bill; Broughton, Frank (2011). The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries. Black Cat. p. 315. ISBN 978-0-8021-7089-7.
  17. "".
  18. Pitchfork Feature: From the Autobahn to I-94
  19. "Derrick May - THE SECRET OF TECHNO". Archived from the original on 14 February 2004.
  20. "Derrick May: High Tech Soul". 4 October 2006.
  21. "Movement".
  23. 1 2 Sicko 1999:98
  24. "Various - Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit".
  25. Brewster 2006:354
  26. 1 2 3 Reynolds 1999:71. Detroit's music had hitherto reached British ears as a subset of Chicago house; [Neil] Rushton and the Belleville Three decided to fasten on the word techno – a term that had been bandied about but never stressed – in order to define Detroit as a distinct genre.
  27. Chin, Brian (March 1990). House Music All Night Long – Best of House Music Vol. 3 (liner notes). Profile Records, Inc. Detroit's "techno" ... and many more stylistic outgrowths have occurred since the word "house" gained national currency in 1985.
  28. 1 2 Bishop, Marlon; Glasspiegel, Wills (2011-06-14). "Juan Atkins [interview for Afropop Worldwide]". World Music Productions. Retrieved 2011-06-17.
  29. Savage, Jon (1993). "Machine Soul: A History Of Techno". The Village Voice. ...Derrick, Kevin, and Juan kept on using the word techno. They had it in their heads without articulating it; it was already part of their language.
  30. Reynolds, p. 219
  31. "365 MAG - Electronic Music Review".
  32. Reynolds, Simon Reynolds, "Generation Ecstasy." pg.114.
  33. Generation Ecstasy is based on Energy Flash, but is a unique edition significantly rewritten for the North American market. Its copyright date is 1998 but it was first published July 1999.
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