Today the SSGs crew and one respected guest are beginning a 'conversation' (of sorts) about Detroit: the techno, the myth, the love, the hate. The immediate beginning of this back and forth began in the wake of this year's DEMF, but Chris and I have been flinging around all kinds of ideas and sentiments for a while now. What we did was this: both of us decided we'd write a piece explaining the position and function of myth in Detroit, and how it's affected people's perception of place, music and innovator. Chris then went off and wrote his, and sent it to me as a word document. Then, without reading Chris' piece, I sat down and wrote my version (the first reason for my bracketing of the word conversation), partly so I we could get my thoughts out and down, and partly as a pseudo-scientific experiment... and, indeed, the results were surprising, as you'll see.
Having done that, we then sent both our docs to Thomas 'Pipecock' Cox, who read and responded. Here's where you come in... there's a lot of text to get through here, which is why we've split the post up into three. What follows today is Chris' post. Tomorrow I will post my (Pete's) response. And the day after, Thomas' response to both of us. As we feel these are kind of the three necessary pieces of the puzzle, we'd prefer if you commented once all three are up. I for one won't be engaging in the comments section until that time. Anyway, 'no more words' - on with the show!
Chris's piece (Part I of III)
I have long been deeply ambivalent about Detroit techno and the myth that surrounds it. Like presumably most people reading this, I was strongly influenced by Detroit sounds, but at the same stage, this was generally towards the harder side of things. Jeff Mills was my man in Motown. I quickly gravitated towards the sounds emerging from Berlin (Tresor), Birmingham (Downwards) and New York (Synewave). Detroit undoubtedly had its place, but it was not as determinative or central as these other sounds. Over the years, I have found myself feeling increasingly frustrated, if not negative, towards Detroit and the never-ending claims that this is where techno was invented. For me, this statement has always sounded incredibly facile and ridiculous, and if anything, the constant chest beating and myth repeating was to cover up for the fact that Detroit simply isn’t the same creative force or centre that it used to be.
Over the last few months a number of things have forced me to question these increasingly entrenched prejudices of mine. First, fellow ssg Pete strongly encouraged me to go back to Juan. And for the first time in ages, I did. And Juan is indeed the man. He may now be a shadow of his former self, but that former self did some pretty amazing stuff. Second, I got hold of Subculture’s fantastic mix CD, which has some serious Detroit cuts (including Mayday’s insanely good ‘Wiggin’). While listening to these classics it really hit me that I had got so caught up in hating the Detroit myth, I had started to forget how good the original music that started the myth actually was. So basically, this made me start to think more about this myth of origin and how it functions.
When people tell me that Detroit ‘invented’ techno, the question I ask myself (as a pseudo-social scientist) is: ‘Would there be techno today if there was no Detroit?’ My answer is most definitely: ‘Yes’. There were clearly enough influences, ideas and sounds coming out of Germany, the UK, other parts of Europe, Japan and even Australia (thank you Severed Heads) for something like what we now call ‘techno’ to emerge. Would it have developed in the same manner and shape as it actually did? Of course not. Clearly Detroit played an incredibly strong and influential role in how the music emerged and changed over the last couple of decades. But this is not the same thing as Detroit ‘inventing’ techno. No one – not Juan, or the Belleville 3 or whoever – and no place – not Detroit, Berlin or wherever – could ‘invent’ techno. It is too diverse and multifaceted a phenomenon.
So the question is: why the myth? Why must people keep on shouting and shouting ‘put your hands up for Detroit?’. Well, I can understand why people in Detroit may need the legacy. With no disrespect to the city or to the sound, Detroit ain’t what it used to be. Detroit simply isn’t the same creative force that it was in the 80s and 90s. The centre of gravity has shifted. So in this sense perhaps the myth operates to make sure Detroit stays central and stays relevant. But I am not sure that even this explains it. Because those that hold onto and propagate the Detroit myth most strongly tend not to be those from Detroit, but are – for lack of a better term – outsiders: people from all parts of the world who build Detroit up as the epicentre, the only place where soul and feel in techno is possible. And it is this part of the myth that I really don’t understand.
I am now firmly of the feeling, based partly on my own experience, that the Detroit myth of origin actually detracts from, and ultimately is a great disservice to, the music that has come from Detroit. If you go back to much of the early stuff, Juan Atkins and Jeff Mills especially, what you see is an almost obsession with the future, with looking beyond, with pushing and expanding boundaries. The Detroit myth, however, is completely antithetical to this kind of thinking, as it is totally backward looking and regressive. It creates a past that never existed and wants the future to replicate and revisit this nonexistent past.
Where does this leave us? I think what we need is a break from the myth making and myth hating; moving beyond the polemics and trying to appreciate Detroit in perspective. As Pete recently observed elsewhere (and I really think he is on point here) is that so much of the discussion in techno is binary. The Detroit myth is the perfect example of that. If you don’t worship Detroit as the origin of our music, you are a techno infidel! (Ok, well that is a bit extreme.). And I think trying to move beyond this myth would also be good for Detroit. Why keep highfiving Derrick May, who hasn’t done anything for 20 years, when you’ve got guys like Omar S and Luke Hess making amazing music right now?