Detroit techno comes to Newcastle : A brief history of The Motor City.

Newcastle is being infiltrated by the Detroit greats this term, from Robert Hood at Ape-X (20/10) to Juan Atkins at Foreplay  (19/10) this week alone.  We also have DJ Bone at Quest 808 (6/12) – a new and very exciting party at Cosmic Ballroom, while Octave One bring their “Mothership” live show to World Headquarters with Foreplay again next week (26/10).  Here at Backdrop, we wanted to share a brief history of Detroit, both as a city and as the birthplace of techno.  Without these Detroit greats, techno as we know it would not exist. Like Detroit DJ Derrick May famously said, Detroit techno “is just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.” In order to fully understand and appreciate each artists performance it’s important to get to grips with the roots of this genre, so here’s a little Detroit history.

Detroit techno was born of a city left in ruin after the devastation left over from the racially fuelled riots, as well as the decline of the car production business. What once was a rich hub of mechanical production and a corner stone of the american dream was, and is still struggling economically. Yet from these harsh conditions has come some of the most influential electronic music to date. We can’t understand the birth of this genre of music without knowing the cause from Detroit’s social and economical decline. Without this decline there would be no breeding ground for such mechanical, experimental and new music. The Detroit riots represent the pinnacle of social and economical decline, a truly violent and terrifying time in American history. The 1967’s Detroit riots, known also as ‘The 12th Street Riot’ left 43 people dead, 342 injured and nearly 1,400 building burnt. Due to the decline in the automobile industry, an industry that defined Detroit for many years, the middle-classes began moving out towards the suburbs, leaving behind a poverty stricken urban centre. The tension between the economically struggling inner city citizens and the police began to rise, the Detroit Police Department were viewed as a white occupied army, creating an us vs them atmosphere.

The combination of segregation as well as this sudden social-economic decline lead to a widespread crises of unemployment, poverty and anger. ‘The 12th Street Riot’ was the third worst riot in U.S history which happening in a time of racial strife, the New York Draft Riots of 1863 and the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 were also some of the most violent of all time. In response to all the rioting The Kerner Commission of 1967 was established by President Johnson, and this was written while the race riots were still occurring. Eleven members were appointed to the commission which was created to uncover the cause of the riots and how to prevent them in the future. The report stated that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The report outlined the ever growing split between the urban inner city and the surrounding ring of white middle class suburbs. Just one month after the release of this report, rioting broke out in more than 100 cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

You can’t talk about the birth of Detroit techno without also mentioning The Belleville Three in the same sentence. The Belleville Three consisted of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Sanderson. Sanderson met May and Atkins at school in Belleville when they were just nine, being amongst the only black students at their school. The three teenagers were obsessed with the German collective Kraftwerk, as well as Parliament, Prince and the B-52s. The trio started playing around the party circuit under the name Deep Space Soundworks. They travelled to Chicago to check out the ever growing house scene and were inspired by it’s evolution away from disco and towards a more mechanical sound.

Each member of the Belleville Three branched off and crated their own record labels in their early careers, Sanderson created KMS, May founded Transmat which was a sub-label off Atkins record label Metroplex. They also started their own club in downtown Detroit called the Music Institute, which was a hub for underground music and new artists within the scene to play out to crowds. Juan Atkins recorded No UFO’s under his Model 500 moniker in 1985, two years before “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit” was released in the UK on Virgin Records, further bolstering both the sound and the name abroad. In 1988 Neil Rushton, a British music entrepreneur approached them to release further work in the UK. In order to define this new Detroit sound from the famous Chicago house, Rushton and the Belleville Three decided on the word “techno” to describe their tracks. Thus the Detroit techno genre was born and introduced to the rest of the world. This year, The Belleville Three have begun working on an official collaborative effort and have toured together once again. 

The sounds I came up with, I just naturally called it Techno music. So when London came calling to Chicago, when they came looking at Chicago, they discovered Detroit because our records were playing on their radio remix shows. Therefore, we got noticed by companies like Cool Cat and, subsequently, that led to a deal with Virgin Records. We were just kids having fun. The technology allowed us to make this music. It just happened.” (Juan Atkins to Magnetic Mag).

Yet Detroit techno is not just about the Belleville Three. After 1988 techno exploded globally, finding it’s way to Europe and the UK with the help from Rushton’s musical influence. The 90s saw a huge increase in illegal acid raves and parties in the Uk and Europe, and once Neil Rushton’s compilation album for Virgin Uk – ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit’ hit the shelves it changed the type of music DJs were playing out to the crowds. As the sound moved around the globe it started becoming more and more popular, specifically in Germany, Berlin. There was a huge amount of free warehouse space and mechanical settings after the post-industrial collapse, which created a space for the music to come into the clubbing mainstream. Tresor opened in March 1991 giving a home to this new genre of music in Berlin. Tresor was now not only a place for people to come together and listen to this Detroit sound but a place where it was being created. In the early 1990s the parent label of Tresor, Interfisch, started producing tracks, releasing music and curating collaborations. One of these important collaborations was the trio, Mad Mike Banks, Robert Hood and Jeff Mills, who all worked on Tresor’s debut album, X – 101. These three DJs were producing a harder, heavier more minimal sound than the first wave techno artists like the Belleville Three. They all were part of the collective Underground Resistance, which is still alive to this day. The Underground Resistance collective used the decline in Detroit’s socio-economic state to inspire their music. Although all going their separate ways they originally aimed to show Detroit’s dirty and violent roots to the world and to use their music to stand up for justice.

Robert Hood went on to forge a path at the forefront of “minimal” techno, not the minimal later associated with Romania, but a more stripped down version of the early Detroit sound. His album “Minimal Nation” pioneered this sound and he has since gone on to be one of the most prolific producers and DJ’s in electronic music. Below he discussed the seminal “Minimal Nation” album, from which Rhythm Of Vision was taken. He was a founding member of Underground Resistance alongside Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks.

“Nobody seems to get that [the record]. Techno was becoming one huge sample and the raves were becoming all about drugs… Minimalism is not going to stop, because it’s a direct reflection of the way the world is going. We’re stripping down and realising that we need to focus on what’s essential in our lives.”

The history of Detroit techno is vast, with hundreds of different artists, moments, DJs included in it’s narrative. Thousands and thousands of words, pages of criticism and many discussions have been written on this topic, and in far greater detail than this article. Yet this brief outline of the story is useful to keep in mind when looking at the new talent to be emerging for the streets of Detroit. It is a place still teaming with talent, with the likes of Omar-S who has also appeared in Newcastle this winter. It’s clear that the birth place of the genre of techno is still a creative melting pot for sounds and structures that have a huge influence on the electronic music world of today.

Ahead of supporting Juan Atkins this Friday, one of our resident Dr. Joseph did a Detroit tribute show on his KMAH Radio Residency before an electro guest mix from Shinra.