Detroit Techno: The Sound House of Mirrors

After R'n'B, soul, funk, and hip-hop, Detroit techno is probably the last major stylistic invention in African-American pop music.

GROOVE Magazin Berlin

The dancefloor of the Vanity Ballroom where Duke Ellington and other greats of big band jazz performed during the 1930s by Albert DuceGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Human voices are only present in this electronic sound as an exception—Detroit techno is bass-driven music to move your body to. Detroit techno has wonderful melodies, but they never become full songs.

Aux 88 by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Detroit tracks don't tell stories. They are emotional moments in time, snapshots. Detroit techno adopts the futuristic superficial sound of Kraftwerk, and the drive of its groove stems from the funk of African-American music styles that came before. Different to countless soul or R&B numbers, Detroit techno doesn't tell any love stories or tales of emancipation.

Northern part of the Packard Motors Plant in Detroit in 2006 by Yves Marchand & Romain MeffreGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Instead, the sounds refer purely to themselves. Like how rays of light are captured in a hall of mirrors or crystal, the music creates its own space. In contrast to hip-hop, Detroit techno isn't an ongoing narrative about social struggles, but more a narrative of the absence of social spaces in the abandoned city of Detroit in the 1980s.

The Belleville Three: Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May & Juan Atkins by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

There is often talk about different generations of Detroit techno. The first is the innovators: Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and especially Juan Atkins. As they all came from the suburban district of Belleville, they were dubbed the Belleville Three.

Juan Atkins in De:Bug #91 from 2005 by Bettina BluemnerGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Juan Atkins is the actual inventor of techno. He combined the futuristic electro hip-hop of the early eighties with the fast house groove from Chicago, which was often stigmatized in the Detroit African-American community as being gay house music.

Inner City by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

While Kraftwerk samples were often more of a novelty in electro hip-hop, Atkins recognized the potential of Afrofuturistic music. Kevin Saunderson's shift to pop music was much greater than the other two. With his band project Inner City he had his only Detroit sound chart hit with Big Fun.

Derrick May by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Derrick May was often labeled the Andy Warhol of the clique. He was the DJ star of the three of them. He was a conceptualist and figurehead. He knew about and commented on the artistic brilliance of the music. 

Mural in the Brewster Wheeler Recreational Centre Detroit in 2008 by Yves Marchand & Romain MeffreGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The Afrofuturism of Atkins, Saunderson, and May recognized the uprooted status of African Americans due to slavery as an opportunity for an ultra-modern, technicist culture. Techno became elitist the moment it emerged: techno separated itself from the model of the community whose voices are heard in other pop styles. Instead, the acoustic space is designed as architecture. Juan Atkins once explained this as the result of the abandoned city not having any habitable locations to offer, and for this reason, the music has to create these locations.

Inner City by Groove ArchivGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The Belleville Three had little contact with the inner-city community. Their input was records and especially the radio. Although they did organize parties in the now legendary Music Institute, these had to be very withdrawn and almost intellectual. In Detroit itself, techno only gained a lot of attention in the late eighties and early nineties. This was also expressed through the number of musicians who continued to build on the sound.

Robert Hood by Franziska SinnGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Important artists of the second generation include Mike Banks, Jeff Mills, and Robert Hood who founded the label Underground Resistance. Jeff Mills' fusion of Detroit techno and the European rave sound made him one of the most successful DJs of the nineties.

Underground Resistance by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The Underground Resistance label developed action models that reached well beyond music: the group is modeled on the military and derives its sound strategies from complex media analysis.

Tresor (1994)GROOVE Magazin Berlin

UR based its style on European industrial and EBM records in particular, with the melodic parts taken out of the music. It was darker and explosive.

Carl Craig in der GROOVE #59 von 1999 by Igmar KurthGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Alongside known names, Carl Craig is one of the most important artists of the second generation of Detroit techno. The producer who actively worked with Derrick May to begin with is an exceptional figure. He is the most advanced musician of the scene and was intensively involved in jazz and specialist African-American and European music.

Funkadelic by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

A few of his references include Funkadelic and Throbbing Gristle, the B52s, and A Number of Names. Carl Craig still hasn't stopped influencing the club scene today. His remixes in particular have regularly topped the DJ charts for a number of years.

K.Hand by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The exploding party scene in the city in the early nineties has had a similar success story to the second generation of Detroit techno. Countless semi-legal events were held in abandoned buildings that were larger than club events but smaller than raves and visited by approximately 1,000 to 2,000 people. There was a succession of local DJ stars who never produced records and have now been forgotten. Luckily, K-Hand isn't one of them.

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This scene grinded in from the mid nineties, and almost none of the producers of the third generation were from the ranks of their predecessors. The tragedy of Detroit techno lies in the total failure of the music in the US. The spark, however, spread just as little in African-American communities in other major cities as in the American mainstream. The music industry also wagered on hip-hop, and digital radio destroyed the US-wide network of small radio stations where DJs like The Electrifying Mojo, a key figure of the scene, played records.

Amnesia Ibiza by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Instead, this music arrived in a wholly different location: European metropoles and party locations, first in London and on Ibiza and later in Rotterdam, Frankfurt, and Berlin. Detroit techno pushed European youth into a frenzied inferno of parties, music, and drugs, even though it wasn't originally intended to be party music.

Jeff Mills by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Detroit musicians were overwhelmed by the success of their music in Europe, and this created issues within the scene. Internationally sought-after DJ superstars lost contact with their own community. Many Detroit artists still have a certain degree of discontent with European party culture. Jeff Mills highlighted the issue in his track Condor to Mallorca.

Newworldaquarium by Groove ArchiveGROOVE Magazin Berlin

Today, all possible kinds of electronic music are produced in Detroit. Detroit techno is often cultivated out of a certain regionalism. On the flipside, the classic Detroit sound of the first generation has gone international, especially since the new millennium. A global network of labels has since emerged which further builds on the Detroit sound and even takes it to extremes, like Delsin from Amsterdam.

Dillinja by Dominik GiglerGROOVE Magazin Berlin

The political implications of Detroit techno were taken very differently in the UK: hardcore, jungle, drum & bass, and bass music create a connection between Detroit techno and Jamaican reggae. Carl Craig's Bugs in the Bassbin is considered a guidebook for this music's breakbeat groove. One of the producers, Dillinja, immediately adopted one of Juan Atkins' pseudonyms: Cybotron. African Americans and Black British people whose African forefathers were captured as slaves and exploited during colonialism discovered something that was unexpectedly familiar.

Credits: Story

Text: Alexis Waltz

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