The Roots of Techno - Juan Atkins Interview

By Dan Sicko  

Juan Atkins was playing techno when most of its current practitioners were playing in the schoolyard.

Berry Gordy's Motown may no longer rule the airwaves, but Detroit has found a new beat. Since 1981, the compositions of techno visionary Juan Atkins have sent shock waves through contemporary music. On the heels of the German group Kraftwerk, he and partner Rick Davis formed Cybotron, fusing austere European techno-pop with street-level funk. In 1985, Atkins formed Metroplex Records, not knowing that his unique brand of techno would soon inspire the anthems and soundtracks of the digital age -- the latest world music.

Wired spoke with Atkins about his early inspirations and how they may bring about musical metamorphosis on a wider scale. His current projects include the 12-inch single "I See the Light" (Metroplex, Detroit) and the LP Sonic Sunset (R&S Records, Belgium), both under the moniker "Model 500."

Wired: What is your definition of techno? Is it essentially a combination of technology and funk?

Atkins: Yes. It's interesting, because I met Karl Bartos (formerly of Kraftwerk) and he told me that one of his influences was James Brown. Today, I think "techno" is a term to describe and introduce all kinds of electronic music. In fact, there were a lot of electronic musicians around when Cybotron started, and I think maybe half of them referred to their music as "techno." However, the public really wasn't ready for it until about '85 or '86. It just so happened that Detroit was there when people really got into it.

Wired: What separates Detroit techno from other music, like Chicago's house movement?

Atkins: It's always been about insight and forward thinking. It goes as far as the science fiction I was into early on and the class I took in high school called "Future Studies." One of the textbooks I had to read was Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. Also, Detroit is unlike any other city in the transitions it has endured. When your surroundings change, you go through change.

Wired:  You've said elsewhere that the term "techno" was partially taken from Toffler's term "techno-rebels" in The Third Wave -- those who didn't see the need for technology to be overwhelming or alienating. Does this concept have anything to do with techno's use of older analog synthesizers or keeping the production of vinyl alive?

Atkins: We never tried to apply any of those principles. The Third Wave was only inspirational, although we did use hybrid words like "cybotron" and "metroplex," and Toffler spoke of these futuristic combinations.

Wired:  Techno-rebels notwithstanding, some technologies are absorbed very quickly into our culture. Does it surprise you how slowly the United States has embraced electronic music, dance-oriented or otherwise?

Atkins: Not surprised, really. Disappointed is the word. I was more surprised when I first went to Europe and found that white kids could enjoy dance music. In this country it's very hard for creative thought to escape capitalism.

Wired:  How then do you explain the emergence of Detroit as an aesthetic Mecca for electronic dance music, as opposed to larger cities like New York and LA?

Atkins:  Let's remember Detroit is representative of the whole Industrial Revolution. When that came to a close, it was the first place hit. And because of its lack of status, it's a lot more depressed than other areas. That forces people to be creative.

This creativity and work ethic, although a social requirement of sorts, hasn't led to real status in the American music industry. Why is it that you and other Detroit techno artists aren't officially recognized as high-caliber musicians and producers?

You have to wonder how, with as much press as we have received worldwide, why we still don't have a proper record deal. (Pauses.) Maybe in the marketing departments out there, there really are people who think that a white techno act is more marketable than a black one.... I don't know.