Detroit Electronic Music Festival
May 21, 2000
BY BRIAN McCOLLUM
If everything goes right, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, which launches next weekend, could become an international stamp of cosmopolitan cool for the Motor City. Aiming to stake its claim in techno's city of birth, the festival is a coming-out party for an art long overshadowed by the city's hefty legacy of Motown, rock and jazz. But there's some tricky navigating ahead for the inaugural three-day event, which lands at Hart Plaza with a four-stage roster of cutting-edge electronic artists and hip-hop musicians, many from Detroit.
Fans will be traveling from around the world, lured by the A-list lineup and Detroit's reputation as the Mississippi Delta of electronic music. Produced by Detroit events veteran Carol Marvin and techno legend Carl Craig, it's got official sanction from the City of Detroit and a $500,000 budget provided by several corporate sponsors. That kind of mainstream endorsement is rare in the world of electronic dance music, which typically attracts the attention of civic leaders for more dubious reasons: namely, the drugs and decadence attributed to all-night rave parties. This month, Chicago and Toronto passed laws banning or regulating raves, spurred by police concerns about drugs and unsafe conditions.
Fans play down such worries for the Detroit event, noting that it's in a busy public park -- much of it during daylight hours -- and geared to a savvy audience primarily interested in the sounds. "This will be an incredible new way to take in the music," says Jamison Guest, 19, a sophomore at Michigan State University. "It's outdoors during the day -- not in a dark, dingy place infested with drugs."
Festival organizers envision a bristling, bustling scenario for Memorial Weekend: three colorful days of hip music and dancing on the riverfront, punctuated by lively late-night parties at some of the city's hottest nightspots. But Guest raises a point on the minds of many onlookers, who question the festival's meager promotion and publicity: "I just hope enough people show up."
Since techno stealthily emerged from Detroit's music scene in the 1980s, the genre has remained relatively obscure on this side of the Atlantic. Despite its enormous success in Europe and Asia, where its status is equal to or even greater than traditional guitar pop, in America the fan base is devoted but much smaller in number.
Tony Hage and his girlfriend will journey more than 1,300 miles to get to Detroit. Their trip from Halifax, Nova Scotia, will take nearly two days by train and rental car. When they clear the Ambassador Bridge later this week, the couple will be in Mecca. "It's a mythological place," says Hage, 26, who DJs at parties in the Halifax area and who got turned on to Detroit techno while living in Europe in the late '80s. "It's kind of overwhelming. To see just one of those (Detroit artists) is a dream -- to meet the whole community is amazing. This is something you wish for once in a decade."
Fans will be flying into Detroit from across the globe: Belgium, Japan, Israel. Festival staffers say at least 50 international journalists have been credentialed for the event. In the American entertainment epicenters of New York and Los Angeles, the festival enjoys a growing buzz in hipster circles.
That's a welcome show of support for a first-time event -- particularly when you consider that festival details were announced just three weeks ago. But what kind of turnout will it take to call DEMF a success? How many electronic music fans are really out there? For a barometer, consider the Detroit International Jazz Festival (formerly the Montreux Jazz Festival) and Downtown Hoedown. Those established fests are among the biggest of their kind in the United States, each drawing more than half a million attendees to Hart Plaza annually.
DEMF organizers, who signed a three-year contract with the city, insist that for now they'll take what they can get. The mission, says Craig, is getting the festival up and running, focusing on musical integrity and building a solid name for 2001. "Being the first year, anything we get is going to be a fluke," he says. "If we get a million people a day, it'll be great. If we get 100,000 over the entire weekend, it'll be great."
Officials with the Detroit Parks & Recreation Department, which oversees Hart Plaza, anticipate a weekend crowd of about 200,000. Music observers are watching with cautious enthusiasm. Among them is Spin magazine's Mike Rubin, a New York resident and former Detroiter.
"If this festival were in Europe, it would be an absolutely enormous thing," says Rubin, who penned a high-profile piece on Detroit techno for Spin in 1998. "I'm really curious to see, given the fact that these guys are unknown in their own land, what's going to happen."
Craig says he felt empowered to experiment this year, sketching out an artist lineup guided by his own eclectic tastes and the model set by Barcelona's annual SONAR fest. While he won't divulge names, he concedes he had to suspend some bookings -- presumably high-profile acts -- because of budget considerations. Friends say they've got their fingers crossed.
"I'll be honest with you: My biggest concern is that I don't want to see him stick his neck out too far," says DJ Derrick May, Craig's musical mentor. "He's taken on a whale, and he doesn't have a lot of time to pull this off." Playing on hip-hop
There's one audience whose participation is less certain than any other -- but possibly more desired: Detroit's black community. Whatever grand dreams the DEMF has conceived for itself, the bottom line is that 200,000 fans aren't flying in from Europe. In many eyes, a thumbs-up from the heart of Detroit is needed for the festival to qualify as a well-rounded success.
And that digs right into a longtime irony for Detroit's techno artists, black musicians who have traditionally performed for white audiences. It's a sticking point for musicians such as May, who has long lamented his lack of hometown celebrity. Whatever the common lineage of techno and hip-hop -- they share the same influences -- the two genres have taken asymmetrical paths.
"This festival is an opportunity to open a door that's been closed for many a year," says May. "I'm talking since the days of Motown. Most of the young black community simply have no awareness of the contribution we've made, all of us, in the area of electronic music. They don't realize the power we carry and the influence and respect we've commanded all over the world for the last 15 years."
Much has changed since the 1980s, when freewheeling radio personalities such as Electrifying Mojo filled local airwaves with party mixes that included techno, house music and hip-hop. "A lot of kids around Detroit just don't have the chance to hear this music anymore," says Craig. "I want the same people who now listen to rap to understand where drum-n-bass comes from, where techno comes from."
To attract what Craig calls the "Master P kids" -- young rap fans who get their music from mainstream urban radio -- he's booked several hip-hop acts, including the Roots, Mos Def and Detroit's Slum Village. But whether those fans will stick around once the electronic beeps resume onstage -- that's another question. At any rate, the Roots aren't Puff Daddy. The Philadelphia group, known for its organic, instrumental approach, is a hip-hop purist, lying well outside the mainstream. Roots bassist Hub says his band shares a spiritual affinity with techno's artists, having found its best reception in Europe. The group even spent a year in London in the mid-'90s.
"All the major festivals we played in Europe, hip-hop was right in there with techno and acid jazz," says Hub. "The same people digging the fresh live beats of the Roots were into Massive Attack. It's just not that way in the States." Veteran hip-hop party promoter Dave Meadows has doubts. He's excited about the DEMF concept, but he's not convinced black Detroiters will descend on Hart Plaza next weekend.
"They aren't going to come," says Meadows, who is black. "'For the most part, African Americans do not listen to techno music. That's not to say you won't have some African Americans there just to see what's happening. But because they're interested in the music? No."
DEMF producer Carol Marvin, who manages corporate sponsorships for the Detroit International Jazz Festival, wants to convince everyone they're invited. She points to herself as a prime example of techno's mainstream potential. "I'm the bridge. I'm the 38-year-old mom with four kids," she says. "This festival will attract anyone who's interested in growing new perspectives. It doesn't matter if you're young in mind, body or spirit -- you'll experience what Detroit is really about creatively."
And for devotees like Tony Hage, the fan from Nova Scotia, the weekend holds great promise. "Detroit was instrumental in changing the way I think about music," he says. "Throughout the years, Detroit has always maintained its integrity and not cashed in on the latest craze or fad. The quality has always remained great. It's probably the only city that hasn't sold out."
Contact BRIAN MCCOLLUM at 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org