Techno beats at the heart of Motown's latest sound, culture
By Jason Birchmeier
Detroit and techno go way back.
The eloquent and outlandish rhythms and transcendent themes of techno began in the nearby urban decay of Detroit - thanks to the imaginative use of technology by a small camp of artists of diverse backgrounds.
But Motown's techno tradition has been largely overlooked due to a combination of artistic secrecy and the techno scene's wild popularity outside of the United States. While many Detroit artists are considered legends overseas - back home the city is most often perceived as a contemporary Gotham City.
Even as much of the nation and even local media often focus on all that's bad about Detroit, those in techno circles have more positive things to say. Music journalist Scott Sterling has described Detroit as "a poetic Mecca for electronic music. The sensual wash of synthesized strings, the tribal syncopations of intricate hi-hat patterns, the impossibly complex sense of melody within the rhythm - these aesthetics have turned 'Detroit' into an adjective, used not only to describe genuine techno, but the facsimiles as well," he said.
The often-told tale of techno's birth began about ten minutes outside Ann Arbor in Belleville, Mich. While attending Washtenaw Community College, Belleville native Juan Atkins began producing a primitive form of techno - dubbed electro - back in 1982 with his group, Cybotron. By 1986 he had moved to Detroit, began a record label called Metroplex and released techno's now seminal classic, "No UFOs."
Soon, two of Atkins' DJ friends from Belleville, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, both began producing techno music, releasing it on their own record labels under various monikers. May's label, Transmat, released a total of 21 now-classic 12-inch records, launching the careers of fellow Detroit artists such as Carl Craig. Saunderson began his label, KMS, while attending Eastern Michigan University. Within a few years, he scored two smash hits that went top 10 around the world: "Big Fun" and "Good Life."
By the late '80s, Detroit's techno scene was thriving. A compilation released overseas, "Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit," introduced masses of ravers and producers to the innovative sounds of Detroit while simultaneously influencing Europe's growing dance revolution. In Detroit, a club called The Music Institute became a temple for those seeking enlightenment through music and dance with DJs such as May and Saunderson acting as shamen.
At the turn of the decade Detroit's techno scene quickly entered a state of flux. A burgeoning rave scene replaced The Music Institute and Detroit's superstar DJs had abandoned their hometown for more welcoming overseas crowds. The remaining vacuum in Detroit soon underwent a second wave of techno music.
This second wave, consisting of three new techno camps, established itself with a splash at the dawn of the '90s. Each of these camps took the basic elements of techno and pushed them even farther. The innovative sounds being produced by this second wave of Detroit artists were released through each of the camps' record labels: Plus 8, Underground Resistance and Planet E. The Windsor, Ont.-based Plus 8 records was formed in 1989 by Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva. "It was a time in the history of Detroit techno when it was a little quiet and then the people who were working were working on their own things so it was either do it yourself or don't do it," Hawtin has been quoted as saying.
"To some people there's a classic Detroit sound which they tried to continue on with, but we were never really interested in that," Hawtin said. "We were interested in taking this sound that inspired us, this so called Detroit techno which to us, I guess, meant future music and continuing on, holding that flag saying that we're continuing on producing this futuristic, electronic techno music."
A second camp of Detroit techno artists, Underground Resistance, achieved similar acclaim simultaneously. Headed by "Mad" Mike Banks, Rob Hood and Jeff Mills UR shrouded themselves in secrecy and contributed heavily to the mythological perception of Detroit as a glamorized ghetto. The group portrayed themselves as black militants, releasing records such as "Riot" and "Electronic Warfare."
Just as Plus 8 and UR were achieving global success, Carl Craig entered the techno scene with his record label in 1991, Planet E, after parting ways with Transmat. "We weren't doing music to be part of the scene," he said. "We were doing music to change the scene. Whenever you try to change the scene, most of the concept behind doing it is to make classic material. That should be our motto: there will be no fine music before its time."
"It comes down to the way the records are selected for the label," Craig said. "The mentality of selecting the records is just that it's got to be something that sounds great. It's got to be something that hits me in the heart as well as in my head as well as in my legs. There's also the concept that it doesn't have to be a club track. It just has to be a good track."
Unlike Planet E which has consistently released music since their inception, many of Detroit's important techno camps entered stages of dormancy in the early '90s. Transmat ceased operations in 1991, Plus 8 stopped releasing records once Hawtin reached superstar status as Plastikman and UR parted ways with two of its founding members.
"When we decided to really slow it down in the company, putting closure to what we always termed phase one, it was at a time when we'd really kind of met the goals that we wanted to with the company," Hawtin said. "We had broken the label, we had established a group of interesting artists, and we had pushed music forward a little bit."
Just as Craig had left Transmat to start his own labels Hawtin went on to form his own, Minus, and the two former members of UR did the same. For the majority of this past decade, Detroit has been characterized not by large labels such as Plus 8 or Transmat but instead by small individually operated labels focusing on one particular artist.
Dan Sicko, author of "Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk," finds this restructuring of the techno scene inherent to the innovative nature of the music. "Techno has been democratized to the point where anyone with the drive to record and release music can get noticed if he or she has talent and is bringing something new to the game," he said.
The advent of artist-based labels such as Hawtin's Minus and Craig's Planet E have proved successful over the past few years, but once again things are changing in Detroit. Planet E has recently focused on developing a roster of younger techno artist, as has UR. Along with these two camps, May's Transmat label has once again begun releasing records by various artists after nearly a decade of dormancy. Even Hawtin, who plans to still focus on Minus, will soon resurrect Plus 8 from its state of hibernation.
"Minus is a much smaller community and a much more technology-based label," Hawtin said. "We're looking at a way of reintroducing some things with Plus 8, kind of repackaged and remastered. Really reintroduce the whole idea, the whole mentality, the whole mentality of what Plus 8 was and will continue to be."
For the past two decades Detroit's techno scene has continued to produce innovative forms of electronic music. Even the original Detroit classics of Atkins, May and Saunderson from the '80s have failed to age, many of them getting re-released in the past year or two. The longevity of the music along with its forward-thinking ideology has prevented Detroit techno from becoming a fad like the majority of contemporary music.
Detroit's techno legacy looks to glow even more brightly than in the past as Detroit's once mighty techno empires such as Plus 8 and Transmat return. The innovative concepts of artists such as Hawtin, who has began dabbling with the possibilities of producing music utilizing the Dolby 5.1 surround sound of DVD, compliment this rise in productivity. In an epoch where musicians more likely to be respected for marketing than their art have dominated American music, it's refreshing to know that somewhere music remains a poetic craft.