Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Despite the title Detroit Techno, the guys who innovated techno as we know it weren’t actually from Detroit. The early producers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson all came from Belleville, a small quasi-rural town on the outskirts of the Detroit Metro area – far enough from downtown to be insulated from inner-city problems but close enough to hear the Electrifying Mojo every night. The trio are known as “the Bellville Three.” Mojo and Kraftwerk were the inspiration, Juan Atkins was the originator, Derrick May was the innovator, and Kevin Saunderson was the pop-minded one who pushed the music towards more commercial sensibilities.
Of course, all music history contains a good deal of mythmaking, and its never as simple as the narrative suggests. For one, there was a fourth innovator that for some reason often gets left out of the conversation – Eddie Fowlkes, who DJed at the famous Music Institute and produced for Juan Atkins’ Metroplex Records. And Detroit Techno and Chicago House had a complex interplay, with producers and musical influences moving between the two.
Either way, an introduction to techno wouldn’t be complete without a few seminal tracks from the Belleville Three
Cybotron - “Alleys of Your Mind”
“Alleys of Your Mind” was the first song released by, Cybotron, Juan Atkins’ first band that he formed with Rick Davis. The track was recorded in 1982 with a DR-55 – the TR-808 that would later dominate dance music wasn’t even invented yet. Juan Atkins says he made this track under the influence of Kraftwerk’s Computer World, and you can tell. Many in Detroit point to this record as the track that started it all, but its also very different sounding from the techno that came later on, which was more heavily influenced by Chicago house. After all – “Alleys of Your Mind” was released three years before Jesse Saunders “On and On,” regarded as the first house record.
Rhythim Is Rhythim - “Strings of Life”
Derrick May’s first great hit, “Strings of Life” came out in 1987, recorded under the Moniker Rhythim Is Rhythim. Derrick had family in Chicago, and had spent summers there experiencing the wild psychedelic scene at the Music Box with Ron Hardy. He brought Chicago’s disco-influenced sound back to Detroit, as well as some tricks from Ron Hardy’s evolved mixing style. For many techno people we spoke with, this record was a big moment in the music’s development.
Inner City - “Big Fun”
Kevin Saunderson – who made up Inner City with singer Paris Grey – took techno music out of Detroit’s underground and into the global mainstream. The definitive moment was the release of his single “Big Fun,” a Top 10 hit in the U.S. and the U.K. There’s no doubt a more commercial, less experimental vibe to this song. You’ve probably heard it whether you know it or not.