Hart Plaza's first electronic music fest tests the genre's mainstream appeal 

May 21, 2000

Free Press Pop Music Critic

Intrigued but intimidated? 

With its abundance of musical categories, unfamiliar artists and hipster cachet, the world of electronic music may appear daunting to a newcomer. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here's a nuts-and-bolts primer to help you gear up for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival.

What is electronic music?

Broadly defined, what we today call electronic music is mostly instrumental, danceable music marked by repetitive beats, samples from existing songs and a progressive mind-set. Relying heavily on digital technology, the music can range from mechanical on one hand to silky and ethereal on the other. 

In the studio, it is carefully crafted using rhythm machines, synthesizers and samplers. Onstage, those same recordings can go in wildly different directions, as the live DJ manipulates the material -- or "mixes" it, in the genre's parlance -- and often incorporates records by other artists. In other words, many electronic musicians play two roles, both composing music and transforming it.

The music has origins in America -- notably, Detroit, Chicago and the Bronx -- but in the last two decades it has primarily thrived in Europe, where much of the creative growth has taken place.

Where have I heard this stuff?

If you've been to a sporting event, watched TV commercials, listened to a recent Madonna song or seen "The Matrix," you've heard shades of electronic music.  British artists such as the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim have struck gold in America, and many pop artists -- Madonna, John Mellencamp, Eric Clapton -- have incorporated the sounds into their recent work.

But why don't I recognize any of the names on this festival bill?

Many techno artists eschew traditional concepts of stardom, but then, maybe that's just because they haven't enjoyed stardom yet. The scarcity of lyrics and 3-minute singles keep the music off American radio playlists; there's a not-unfounded notion that techno is a "faceless" music. The genre's most gifted and influential artists are little known to the general public. Many of them will be in town next weekend.

What should I wear to this festival?

Avoid the leather pants, and stick with loose-fitting clothes. Don't get caught up fretting about trendy styles and such -- at Hart Plaza, you'll get away with whatever you've got on.

Um, do I have to dance?

Rhythm is certainly the foundation of today's electronic music, which is why it's ideal for moving your body. But most of the music is also made for listening, as relevant on a pair of headphones as it is on a crowded dance floor -- or on Detroit's riverfront in the spring. Don't dance if you don't want to. Nobody will notice or think twice.

I thought a DJ was a guy who talks on the radio.

Well, a DJ is someone who jockeys discs -- which is exactly what dance DJs do with finesse. You thought turntables were extinct? That's far from the case in the world of hip-hop and electronic music, where vinyl records -- more specifically, their manipulation -- are crucial elements in the live craft.

Well, how do they entertain people from the stage? What instruments do they play?

Techno performances aren't as personality-driven as traditional pop presentations, such as rock concerts. Indeed, a DJ is often partially hidden by his gear, clustered behind sound equipment and a crate of records. But the experience is far from static. The bond between artist and audience is forged primarily by the music, with occasional help from an accompanying light show or video presentation, and a master DJ can easily sway the mood and vibe of the proceedings.

My rock 'n' roll friends say these guys aren't really musicians.

Judging any art is a subjective exercise. Some listeners prefer their music with loud electric guitars; others like barbershop harmony. If we take the word "musician" to mean someone who creates and manages sound for emotional effect, then today's electronic DJs most certainly fit the bill.

I hear so many different descriptions of electronic music: techno, house, drum-n-bass and so on. What's the deal?

Those are all terms for various styles of electronic dance music. In the spirit of futurism embodied by cyber culture, the music has spawned incalculable niches. Here are a few of the biggies:

Techno: Often used to describe any contemporary electronic music, techno in its pure form has a Detroit lineage: fast, minimalist machine beats with a funky edge -- like "George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator," as DJ Derrick May once described it.

Big beat: Catchy, propulsive music with a pop coating (Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers).

House: The disco side of electronic music. The word is often misused to denote other sonic styles, including techno. House arose in Chicago simultaneous to techno's rise in Detroit in the early '80s.

Drum-n-bass (a.k.a. jungle): Rhythmically complex, hardcore techno with R&B and hip-hop influences.

Booty: The latest incarnation of a longtime sound, rooted in a heavy bass sound and raunchy lyrics. Once the sound of Miami, booty has become the favored musical flavor in urban Detroit.

Trance: Just like the name says, this music lulls listeners into what is often described as a euphoric state via continually looped synthesizer fragments.

Downtempo (a.k.a. trip-hop): Slower electronic music with psychedelic flourishes and a hip-hop aesthetic.

Isn't this music associated with a drug scene? The local TV news programs always show these sensational raids of raves, with underage kids busted for drinking and taking Ecstasy.

Serious electronic-music fans consider rave culture to be their family's awkward adolescent cousin. Musician and festival director Carl Craig has conspicuously avoided booking trance music -- a kind of pop techno associated with raves, those all-night parties typically hosted in fields and warehouses. Remember, this is a city-sponsored event, most of it during daylight hours. That's not to say substances won't pop up during the weekend, but they'll likely be less blatant than, say, the beer consumption going on at today's Downtown Hoedown on the same city site.

It all seems kind of exclusive and mysterious. Am I really going to be welcome at Hart Plaza for this thing?

The music's lack of mainstream exposure lends it a mystique that can be off-putting to newcomers; the culture's healthy underground can make it look like an insiders' affair. But one of the buzzwords in the world of electronic music is "universal." Most of these artists, despite a common distaste for capitalism and the music industry's old guard, will tell you they're looking to reach a global audience. You're not only welcome at Hart Plaza; you're wanted.

"Our music was seen as less of a 'street' music and more of an intellectual music," Craig says. "We've been accused of going over people's heads. But that's not what we tried to do."

Under the tutelage of May, Craig honed his craft. His work has become distinct from the other Detroit producers, weaving jazz, acoustic guitar and disco into the mix. The result: sweeping critical acclaim and a worldwide fan base.

Today he's a globe-trotter. Surrounding his Memorial Day weekend festival are gigs in Malta, Belgium and Australia. "About the only time I get peace of mind is on the plane," he says.

Friends describe Craig as a complicated figure: a stoic guy whose wit is subtle but sharp. A right-brained creative genius and a left-brained business whiz. A cultivated renaissance man who adores his blue-collar hometown.

"He loves Detroit," says May. "For a guy that travels the world and does the things he does, he pretty much could pick anywhere to live his life. But he chooses Detroit. He's sacrificed his young years for his community."

Outside the office of Planet E Records, the label he founded in 1991, Craig parks his green BMW station wagon -- a mark of what friends call his eccentric side.

Those quirky fingerprints will be all over the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. Craig has booked a diverse bill of house, funk and hip-hop music.

First-year jitters

First up, though, is getting folks to the festival. And that has become the pesky question hanging over the proceedings. Busy with work coordinating city departments and mapping production plans, organizers have delayed the festival's announcement several times.

Stacy Osbaum, editorial director with the national electronic-music magazine Urb, is among those watching with cautious enthusiasm.

"We see it as being a potentially landmark event," says Osbaum. "I just hope it turns out as well as it promises to."

Organizers acknowledge they're fighting time. For international visitors, especially, travel deadlines are getting tight. Craig says he's been stopped by fans in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Amsterdam, Netherlands, quizzing him for details.

City officials say they've made a 3-year commitment to the festival. The goal, say all involved, is getting the event off the ground this year, establishing a quality name, and shooting for bigger things in 2001. Marvin says she expects the festival to break even financially this year.

"If this works, it's going to be a really nice beginning to a new cosmopolitan outlook on Detroit," says May, who will jet in from a concert in Copenhagen, Denmark, to perform at Hart Plaza. "It could open the eyes of a lot of black folks in Detroit who don't realize this music has roots here. This holds a lot of value for all of us, but especially Carl. He's putting his name on the line not just locally but internationally."

Contact BRIAN MCCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or