Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Detroit Techno City

In prelude to our forthcoming Hip Deep show, 'Midwest Electric: The Story of Chicago House and Detroit Techno,' producers Marlon Bishop and Wills Glasspiegel will be updating periodic posts about their experience. Video and music to come!

An uncontestable truth that is well known among European electronic music fans and (somehow) little known here in the U.S. is that the music style known as techno began in Detroit and its suburbs in the 1980s, invented by African-Americans with drum machines, futurist ideas, and a predilection for weird European synth rock.

And so, intrepid Afropop producers Marlon Bishop (yours truly) and Wills Glasspeigel swung through the Motor City in early May to speak with some of the founding fathers of techno and soak in the post-Industrial vibes. I personally had always been excited to go to Detroit – as big fan of Motown and later D-town musicians like Parliament-Funkadelic, it seemed like a place for a lover of American music to visit.

A display case at Underground Resistance's techno museum.
But nothing quite prepares you for your first time driving through the city. You’ve heard the basic idea: a city built for 2 million people – formerly the 5th biggest city in America – is now housing less than 700,000. Vast neighborhoods almost completely depopulated, abandoned mansions and crumbling factories everywhere. A ten-story beaux arts train station in the center of town empty, reclaimed by foliage. A massive car plant the size of a small town reduced to rubble. There are a lot of Rust Belt cities with boarded up businesses around America, but what makes Detroit different is just the insane scale. One hundred and fifty square miles, complete with a Gothamesque sky-scraping downtown. For someone with a mildly sick fascination with post apocalyptic imagery, its quite beautiful.  But it’s also heartbreakingly sad. Detroit has been left for dead.

There’s been a flurry of reporting lately about renewal projects – urban farms springing up in empty lots, the improving-quality-of-life-via-giant-polka-dots initiative of the Heidelberg Project, and there’s been the same influx of young and idealistic kids drawn to urban challenges and cheap rent that has happened in cities all around the country. Yet, as many people pointed out to us, Detroit has a very deep problem that can’t be helped by a few farms: there’s just no jobs.

Rubble at the ruined Packard auto plant, a popular rave site in the 1990s.

But the other truth that revealed itself to us as we spent time in the city was that Detroit was full of secrets. Just out of sight, there’s a lot going on. The warehouse you thought was abandoned is filled with colorful artist’s lofts. Another hides one of the country’s largest independent record presses, Archer Pressing. A little bar hosts a blistering live soul band on Wednesday nights. And in squat, non-descript buildings along desolate boulevards, techno luminaries like Carl Craig, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May are still making global dance hits in state-of-the-art studios.

Techno came up around in the 80s as a brainier, more instrumental-focused variant on Chicago house. Where Chicago house came from a soul and disco-oriented, largely gay scene, Techno was a Black, middle-class teen phenomenon, more influenced by Parliament-style funk and Kraftwerk than disco. It had its moment as a popular style in Detroit – played on the radio and danced to at clubs like the Music Institute. Ultimately, Black Detroit moved on to hip-hop and so-called “booty” music, and techno’s real audience developed overseas, to places like London and Berlin.

Juan Atkins, widely regarded as techno's founder
Now, on any given week in Detroit, the city’s two dozen techno stars are likely to be spinning at festivals in Australia, Goa, Ibiza, London, Paris… anywhere but in Detroit. Yet for some reason, almost all of them come home to the blasted out American city that made them. Some of them have been very successful and could easily leave, yet they don’t.

We heard a bunch of reasons from people we interviewed about why that is. Some cited the cheap rent, allowing for creative freedoms not possible for those running a studio in New York or LA. Others talked about a loyalty to the city, a commitment not to go overseas like the car companies did, to stay and work to beautify their broken city, to help nurture it’s much-prognosticated comeback. A mandate to not give up on Detroit.

Techno wonderkid and Planet E label founder Carl Craig, with his giant monitors.
One of the few impacts techno viscerally has on the hometown is the yearly Detroit Electronic Music Festival, drawing ravers and Euros and beat-scene hipsters from across the country to the normally vacant downtown for a weekend of electronic music that ranges from the crassly commercial to the cutting edge. For that one weekend, hotels fill up, restaurants sell burgers, and techno very actively stimulates businesses in downtown. For the techno DJs, it means their families can come to see them do their thing. Call it techno’s way of giving back.

Then there’s the techno tourists - techno-obsessed kids from Germany and England who come to Detroit to experience some of their beloved music’s history first hand. They crash on couches and visit Underground Resistance’s secret record store, and visit closed up techno clubs of yore. Rumor has it that UR’s famously illusive “Mad” Mike Banks sometimes will give a free tour of the city if asked nicely.

"Coney Islands" - a hot dog with everything on it - is a Detroit delicacy.

In conversations I had with techno people over that week, I often asked people why they stayed in Detroit despite the challenges, to articulate what loved about the city. The answer I kept getting was “the people.” Pretty standard response. But in a city where the physical structures that make the city are disappearing into vacant lots one by one, it seemed to me to have an extra level of poignancy.

I was taken by the idea that this uniquely American place, touched by soul music and car culture and made by machines, created a unique sort of person - person that thrived in the city’s bleakness. A person primed to create futuristic, utopian music that used machines in order to reclaim humanity, through dance.

Anthony "Shake" Shakir, techno DJ and producer in his Detroit home
Coming up in mid June, Afropop Worldwide will tell the House and Techno story in a glorious hour of radio. Stay tuned.

Here on the blog: check back for uncut interview by techno founder Juan Atkins, a tour of the Underground Resistance compound, and lots of videos and music.

 -Marlon Bishop
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