Living in an era in which the practice of DJing, producing and listening to electronic music (or EDM as it is now commonly and regrettably abbreviated to) is constantly devalued and commodified by the likes of hotel heiresses, bizarrely coiffured former screamo vocalists and the impersonal influence of major record label politics, one could be forgiven for forgetting the revolutionary cultural power of the medium. Mention the term ‘revolutionary’ in association with music and people would naturally think of the punk rock of the 1970′s or the protest music associated with the Vietnam war long before their minds drift to the ‘party’ music churned by any number of faceless electronic music producers. However to do this would bypass the essential and uncompromising work of a whole generation of artists from Detroit, Michigan (the ‘Detroit Series’ headlining trio of May, Saunderson and Atkins amongst them) who crafted and developed a sound which not only expressed the anxiety of modern living but also was sonically adventurous and original in a way which was breathtaking. From the post-industrial wasteland of urban Detroit, what started as an alien subculture rapidly became a global phenomenon which has endured for nearly thirty years have become an international language, but at its heart is its origins in the ruins of the Motor City.
As teenagers growing up alongside the rapidly disintegrating remnants of Detroit’s former industrialist hub, Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson managed to immerse themselves in a disparate but essential mix of music from outside the mainstream which would come to inform their eventual work. Known as the Belleville Three, due to their shared attendance of the same West Detroit high school, the trio were avid listeners of Charles ‘The Electrifying Mojo’s’ Johnson’s eclectic midnight radio show which found room for the nascent electronic music of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, funk music and more guitar based, ‘new wave’ bands. Eventually contributing mixes to this show, having been inspired by it to take up DJing, this wide variety of musical influences provided the open framework upon which the genre continues to be built. Atkins through his initial work as part of Cybotron in the early 80′s earned his tag as ‘The Originator’ with his explorations in home-made ‘synthesised funk’; indebted to the technical precision of Europeans such as the aforementioned Kraftwerk and Italian pioneer Giorgio Moroder as well as the more local Black Music which formed much of his cultural background. By the time of 1985′s ‘No UFO’s', released under his Model 500 pseudonym on his own Metroplex label, Atkins had crafted a sound which went beyond the sum of its influences and into groundbreaking new territory. Considered the first definitively ‘techno’ record-’No UFO’s’ swirls with futuristic menace and personality drastically at odds with the good time pop finding favour in the cultural mainstream of the Western world at the time-whilst still remaining hugely danceable.
With the sonic aesthetic of what was now known definitively as ‘Techno’ firmly in place a scene of underground parties and record shops began to thrive. Clubs such as Chez Damier & co’s Music Institute gave techno a spiritual home in the same way the Paradise Garage and The Music Box had done for house; a place to hear the music and meet like-minded people riding the crest of this new wave of creativity. In this newly forged Mecca of Techno, Derrick ‘The Innovator’ May was the king, spinning a mix of Acid, Chicago House and Techno to an enraptured audience. For two years from 1988 to 1990 May and co. created an atmosphere of total dedication to the music free from pretension or prejudice, an atmosphere which attracted discerning partygoers from Europe and further afield, Depeche Mode amongst them. However, unlike the Music Box and the Garage, the Institute was no hedonists playground. With alcohol banned and the ecstasy fuelled rave scene of Britain yet to touch the Motor City, this was for a brief moment purely about the love of the music. Eventually in 1990, as all good thing must do, the Music Institute came to an end and arguably with it the first wave of Detroit Techno. The Belleville Three went on to enjoy varying degrees of international success and renown, most notably Saunderson with the colossal sales of singles released under his ‘Inner City’ moniker, as a second generation of artists began to expand upon the template they had set whilst dealing with the repercussions of the genre’s global explosion in popularity.
The initially localised nature of the scene allowed for the music to take on a controlled kind of evolution at a pace which seemed to suit Detroit, however once it came into contact with the veritable explosion of dance music in Britain and on the continent, this all changed. The once cerebral outlook of Detroit was drastically changed when confronted with the maximalist histrionics of UK rave culture. Influenced by the strains of early hardcore, jungle and acid prevalent abroad Detroit techno took on a harder tone. One collective who exemplified this newly prominent hardness, as well as being an extension of the artistry, revolution and invention which had initially defined the scene, was Underground Resistance. Begun by the trio of Jeff Mills, ‘Mad’ Mike Banks (former bass player in funk group Parliament) and Robert Hood, their commitment to activism marked them out as the techno equivalent of hip-hop’s Public Enemy, at once as abrasive as they were intelligent. Often clad in balaclavas with their faces obscured this was a defiant expression of Detroit values of techno that many felt had been tainted by drug-addled and frivolous European interpretations. Where techno music had now come for many a leisure pursuit or a hobby, Underground Resistance’s aggressively ideological approach was confirmation of its continuing vitality as a force for change as an integral part of peoples lives. Whilst Mills and Hood left in 1992 to pursue different but equally uncompromising approaches, ‘Mad’ Mike continues to helm the Underground Resistance movement – a diminishing but enduring bastion of defiance in the face of overwhelming passiveness.
Mills has gone on to establish himself as one of the most incendiary DJ’s in the world, frequently incorporating 3 decks, drum machines and up to seventy records over the course of an hour, stretching the limits of techno in a live sense with quite thrilling results, and in doing so truly earning his moniker,’The Wizard’. An obsessive futurist, ultimately the relentless activism of Underground Resistance went against Mills’ desire to ‘transcend’ superficial concerns and lose himself in the music. A purist and a pragmatist, Jeff Mills is arguably the finest representative of Detroit Techno. His soundscapes evoke the bleak desolation of urban Detroit, but rather than stay stuck in the past his music constantly looks to the future, embracing technology yet always sounding organic and intriguing.
Of course I have neglected to mention the contribution of innumerable artists, legends like Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Moodymann, Kenny Larkin, Octave One, Drexciya and Rolando to name but a few. Each has made their own unique contribution to one of the most universal art forms of the modern age with an authenticity brought about by the inimitable environment of Detroit which they all share. The techno genre may swell to stadium proportions but it will always be indebted to the legacy of these artists, this period in history and the place from whence they came.
You can experience a slice of that history as The Belleville Three come to London to play as part of Dollop’s ongoing Detroit Series, playing sets that will span their 25+ years of experience and dedication to the core ethos of techno.