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Cheat Sheet: Detroit Techno

by Philip Sherburne

Cheat Sheet: Detroit Techno


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The origins of electronic dance music are as complicated as those of any genre -- maybe more so, given its vast geographical spread and the way the music's evolution moved in lockstep with technological developments.

Do you begin with Kraftwerk? Giorgio Moroder? Were Funkadelic "dance" music? How electronic is electronic enough? Putting a start date on it is a little like trying to pin a butterfly before you've caught it. But there's no dispute that Detroit, like Chicago, is ground zero for a significant swath of what we have been boogying to for the past two decades. Sounds pioneered in Detroit in the early '80s influenced rave culture and pop music across Europe and the U.K.; Detroit served a beacon to sonic futurists worldwide, even as the music largely failed to take root at home.

Who knows why: too "intellectual," too European, too abstract, too bereft of vocals? For whatever reason, the sound -- created mostly by African American artists with a deep love for their city and an even greater curiosity about the world (or worlds) beyond -- got steamrolled on its home turf by hip-hop. Kevin Saunderson may have named his group Inner City, but in the actual inner city, techno's lofty aspirations were no match for hip-hop's swagger and realpolitik.

Detroit techno may have been a historical accident, but if you believe in destiny, that explanation is just as plausible. We can run down the basic factors that helped spark it: There were the race riots of 1967, which set the city on a downward spiral of depopulation and urban decay. There was, at the same time, the motor industry and the black middle class it helped foster, creating a generation of bright, ambitious kids who wanted more than vacant lots and burned-out storefronts. There was Detroit's long history of funk and soul, which intersected with the advent of affordable, Japanese-made synthesizers and drum machines.

Furthermore, no small amount of credit is owed to the Electrifying Mojo, a local radio DJ who saw nothing wrong with mixing up Funkadelic, Devo, Run-D.M.C., Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Tom Club, The B-52's, Yazoo -- even The J. Geils Band. His Midnight Funk Association, complete with membership cards, offered a different kind of community; it proposed a new nation that cut across racial, geographical and temporal lines. When the Mothership made its dramatic landing in the opening minutes of his nightly show, accompanied by sound effects, it reinforced the idea that Mojo had tapped into some kind of intergalactic frequency, and countless local fans were eager to beam up. (If you were driving around the city at midnight, when his show began, you might see passing cars flashing their headlights in a show of solidarity.)

Mojo's eclectic approach to the funk helped dictate the sound of Detroit's high school party scene, whose members adopted their fashion sense from the high-end styles epitomized by GQ magazine and boutiques like New York's Charivari. A local party crew took their name from the latter, and the scene's founding hit was titled "Share Vari" in homage.

Detroit's unique "scenius" first took root in the late 1980s with the "Belleville Three" -- Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, three high-school friends from suburban Belleville who translated Mojo's space music on their own terms: sleek, elegantly mechanical, and bursting with emotion. Those parameters set the tone for much of what would be recognized as Detroit techno for years to come, as artists like Blake Baxter, Chez Damier, Carl Craig, Jeff Mills, Mad Mike Banks and the Underground Resistance label collective, Robert Hood, Anthony "Shake" Shakir, Octave One, Eddie "Flashin'" Fowlkes, Sherard Ingram's Urban Tribe, Drexciya and Richie Hawtin (from neighboring Windsor, Ontario) took the baton and ran with it. One thing that is notable about Detroit techno is how wildly diverse it would prove, branching off into Richie Hawtin's minimal acid; Theo Parrish and Moodymann's oblique, sample-heavy soul; Drexciya's Afro-futurist electro; DJ Godfather's lascivious ghetto-tech; Recloose's squishy electronic funk; and a thousand further directions.

For all that variety, or maybe because of it, Detroit techno remains as animating an idea as ever, so much so that garage rockers The Dirtbombs devoted their 2011 album Party Store to covering Detroit techno classics. And you know what? It sounded pretty amazing. As much as the trappings had changed -- a battered rock kit in place of 808s and 909s, squealing Humbuckers instead of streamlined Junos and Moogs -- the songs were instantly recognizable to anyone who knew the source material. Who would have guessed that "Share Vari" might eventually become a part of the great American songbook?

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