4 / 2 / 2022

In preparation for this years Movement Festival we decide to ask writer Mike Abu to give us a history lesson about just how deeply rooted Detroit is in electronic music.

The Birthplace of Techno

If you ask random people where "Techno" music originated from, nine out of ten would probably guess Europe. Afterall, it’s a sound that conjures up images of all night dance parties in the heart of Berlin, throbbing beats and flashing lights. With that picture intact, who would guess it came from Detroit?

But why not? It’s a metropolis with a reputation for music that rivals any city. Take Motown for instance. Detroit took soul and gave it the type of backbeat that encouraged universal dancing, creating a sound in the process that still resonates today. The city has a long history of industrialism too, and the decline the city once felt produced a reactionary urge to look forward to the future.

If you think about it, where could Techno come from other than Detroit?

The history of techno is tied to the history of the city, but like all art, it didn’t develop in a vacuum. Electronic music was not new in the 80s, and Kraftwerk in particular had been critical for laying the groundwork for what was to come. Their use of synthesizers and automated drums helped drive futuristic rhythms with repetition and style, and as DJs and record stores pushed their music, intercity kids became familiar with their work. Their fingerprints are everywhere, from hip hop to electro. (One only has to listen to Africa Bambaataa’s Planet Rock next to Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express once to see their influence.) It’s no surprise that Kraftwerk would make its way into the hands of kids in the suburbs and have a similar effect there too.

The city of Belleville is a small community less than thirty miles from Detroit. It was in this setting that a young Juan Atkins started experimenting with electronic music on a Korg MS-10 synthesizer his grandmother bought him. Widely considered to be the originator of techno, Atkins spent time listening to a mixed tape filled with a broad spectrum of music, and over time his style began coalescing into something unique.

Atkins often credits artists like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Telex, and the B-52’s for shaping his sound, but he also found inspiration in Alvin Toffler’s books The Third Wave and Future Shock. The futuristic novels revolved around the transformation from an industrial society to a technological one, where alienation and outdated automation would be replaced with energy and life, and they had a big impact on his interest in technology and progression.

“If you can picture or imagine what a UFO would sound like landing in your backyard or something,” Atkins explained, “these synthesizers made those sounds.” –Juan Atkins

As his techniques developed, Atkins shared what he was doing with his high school friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. The trio would come to be known as The Belleville Three, and their music hit downtown Detroit like a tour de force. They would share equipment alongside other legends like Eddie Fowlkes, vibing off each other and changing the dance scene one show after another.

Atkins started collaborating in 1980 with Richard Davis under the name Cybotron, and by 1985, Atkins was releasing songs independently as Model 500. He launched his own record label Metroplex and released the split No UFO’s/Future, a song that would prove to be groundbreaking in Detroit and beyond.

At the time, DJs were extremely influential as the main avenues for exposing the sounds of the underground. Local stations were fragmented and differed between cities, which both encouraged scenes to grow organically and stymied distribution of records.

“Back then you had more personality style DJs and radio would sound different from city to city,” Atkins said. “It was hard to distribute or market a record across the country because a record that was popular in Detroit might not necessarily even be heard in Chicago or Cleveland and vice versa.” - Juan Atkins

The main funk DJ in Detroit was Electrifying Mojo, a sci-fi radio personality who played an eclectic array of music including top artists like George Clinton, Prince, and the B-52’s. The Belleville Three consider his show as one of the main catalysts for expanding their musical horizons. Mojo was the first DJ to put Cybotron on the radio, and that encouraged other DJs to do the same. After Model 500’s No UFO's came out, the song was put into heavy rotation, and once DJ Farley Jackmaster Funk in Chicago started airing the song, it became the biggest hit in the region.

The growth of techno accelerated when journalist/DJ Neil Rushton came to Chicago to investigate the city’s dance scene. He followed the music down the rabbit hole and came to realize that the new music had its origins in Detroit. Rushton compiled a collection of songs and reached out to Virgin UK, who said they’d release the comp. The album was originally slated to be called The House Sound of Detroit but after discussing the title with the Belleville Three, they decided that the music should stand as something independent. They opted to call the sound “Techno,” after Cybotron’s song Techno City, and in 1988, the compilation was released as Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit.

By 1989, Techno had been embraced, incorporated, and emulated by electronic artists in London, and the sound soon skipped the channel and had a parallel impact on the rest of Europe. Electronic music was already thriving on the continent, and they took the sound of Detroit and made it their own.

Ironically enough, the fact that the compilation was released in the UK instead of the states meant that Techno became vastly more popular overseas than it did in America. The longstanding racial and class divisions in America further compounded the problem, as there are less opportunities in the art world for marginalized communities than there are in wealthier ones.

“Not surprised, really. Disappointed is the word,” Atkins described as his initial reaction. “I was more surprised when I first went to Europe and found that white kids could enjoy dance music. In this country it's very hard for creative thought to escape capitalism.”

Music is inherently a product of culture, and it’s not surprising that the evolution of music is impacted by everything that surrounds artists, including socioeconomics and how a community reacts to them. No place embodies this combination quite like the Motor City.

There’s a mystique about Detroit that’s different than other cities. Outsiders often incorrectly think of it as an abandoned city. The 1967 riots helped create an impression of the city as a rundown urban slum predominantly inhabited by impoverished African-Americans. The crumbling relics from Detroit’s industrial greatness once littered the city like ruins from a civilization lost in the past, the death of a mechanized engine that powered America’s progress.

Although aspects of that perception have some validity, it also conceals the vibrance of a community that took inspiration from the decay and brought it into the city’s grand revival.

The resiliency of Detroit helped give rise to Techno as the soundtrack of a better tomorrow. When put into perspective, it’s remarkable to think of how relevant Techno still is and how large of an impact it’s had on the current culture of EDM and music culture in general. The resiliency of Detroit has spread worldwide, yet Techno remains as a nod to the Motor City itself. It’s a reminder that the city hasn’t gone anywhere, that it’s just been in the process of transforming.

It’s electric-spirit and high-tech soul.

It’s the sound of Detroit.

Written By:

Mike Abu