Still with us? As a quick recap, this is the third part of a three part series on Detroit: the music, the myth, and, in Thomas' case, the place itself first and foremost. For this third post, Chris and I sent Thomas (Pipecock) Cox our draft posts in order to elicit a reply. The result is less a response and more of an affirmation of love. In any case, here it is, the Detroit of a Detroit lover...
When I was first introduced to techno music, it was during the heyday of hard, banging techno in the early summer of 1998, almost exactly 10 years ago. I went to an all techno party in my hometown of Pittsburgh to hand out flyers for an event I was throwing with the intention of sticking around for just a short while and then checking out some other things going on that night. As I wandered outside into the already bright day around 8am the next day, I realised that techno music was not what I had previously thought. Seeing artists like Vapourspace, Christian Smith, John Selway, Alexi Delano and others made me realise how ridiculously diverse a night of one genre of music could be. Techno never really took hold in Pittsburgh in the 80s, so there was no independent scene based around it. It was always in the context of raving that it was presented. Seeing a party based around the genre alone, it became obvious to me that this style was beyond simple rave music. I began buying mixes and a few vinyls here and there from artists like Thomas Krome, Ben Sims, Chris Liebing, and Surgeon. This variety of techno was right up my alley as I was mainly into harder dance music like drum and bass, hardcore, and early breakcore. Due to my new affinity for techno, I volunteered to drive up to Cleveland a few months later to hand out flyers at an event called "Phunktion" which featured deejays Adam Beyer, Cari Lekebusch, Joel Mull, and Christian Smith over two nights. Little did I know that they would all pale in comparison to one of the greatest deejay sets I have ever seen. On the first night around 3am, a black man dressed in all white hit the decks like a whirling dervish, playing music like I had never heard and mixing it fast and furious. The music was not techno like I was used to, the sounds were electronic but far more elegant and beautiful than hard and pounding. I swear he never let a single record play for more than 30 seconds. The man was Derrick May.
After watching him play for hours with smooth intensity like I had not previously witnessed, my idea of techno changed. I still liked the harder stuff, but I began seeking out records like Derrick played. This led me to "Nude Photo", Basic Channel, Shake, Laurent Garnier, Drexciya, Underground Resistance, Recloose, Dan Bell, and Aril Brikha. As I grew increasingly disillusioned with the constant "progression" of UK dance music, I found comfort in the references to all the other music I liked in techno. Jazz, reggae, soul, funk, pop, it was all in there but twisted up into a cohesive sound that still sounded more fresh than the music that sold itself as being "futuristic". I began exploring other sounds like broken beats and house, and I continually noticed many references to Detroit music. My mind was being twisted by Marc Mac, Titonton, John Tejada, and many others all of whom were clear about the influence of Detroit music on their own. The discovery of Theo Parrish in particular really helped me to understand the importance of Detroit as he played music from all over the map, much of which came from the 313.
I missed the first three because of my crappy job that required working weekends, but when the opportunity finally arose for me to attend DEMF in 2003 I jumped on it despite being almost completely broke. This was my first chance to witness a celebration of the music I was increasingly in love with in the place where it came from, and it affected me deeply. Seeing the reaction of the hometown crowd to the 3 Chairs set in the tent on Sunday night was especially intense, it was not anything like what I was used to seeing. Every subsequent trip to Detroit has revealed more and more about the city and the people who live there, each bit another piece of the puzzle of techno music. At some point I realized why Detroit was so important to dance music: techno culture IS Detroit culture.
If you read mainstream dance music media, it will tell you that techno is about hedonistic Berlin nights, hyper-intellectual futurism, wild drug binges on Ibiza, glowing blue cubes, the newest production software, and a plethora of other scenarios. None of this is true in the least. Techno is DIY electronic punk soul music, nothing more and nothing less. It is made mostly by black people living inside the city of Detroit, people who have been influenced by the culture that exists in that forgotten void.
The stories about Electrifyin' Mojo are almost stereotypical at this point, but to truly understand what that means to the music one needs only to visit the city. One Sunday morning while I was eating breakfast at the Clique restaurant on Jefferson Ave. downtown (the best breakfast spot I've ever been to!), I found myself tapping my foot along to an odd choice of Muzak. It took a second to recognize due to the lack of context: it was Paul Hardcastle's "Rainforest"! This was followed up by choice disco-funk jams by Rick James and others. This constant influence can even be heard in the music of hip-hop producers like Jay Dee whose tracks were chosen by Laurent Garnier for his "Detroit Perspective" mix for the Kings of Techno compilation and Waajeed whose mix CD for 555 Soul included "techno-influenced geek music" as he calls it in the liner notes. Regarding the famous Derrick May quote about techno's origins "it's like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company", people forget that it is as much George Clinton as it is Kraftwerk. Each was equally important to techno music, the electronics without the funk is not techno music. The history of Detroit music before Mojo is no less important, some of the most intense jazz, funk, soul, and even rock music recorded has its roots in the seventh city and can be heard in the music of musicians like Carl Craig, Moodymann, and Anthony Shakir.
Mojo certainly influenced the selection of music, but it was Jeff Mills aka the Wizard whose mixing style has defined techno deejaying techniques. His quick mixing and cutting on the radio in the 80s influenced nearly every producer and deejay who would go on to invent techno music. Mills' style is also what influenced many deejays outside of Detroit like Richie Hawtin and Surgeon. This has been a constant through over 20 years of techno no matter what the subgenre of the week is. The futurism of Juan Atkins and Jeff Mills, while different even from each other, is often confused with being the essence of techno music. In reality, those are just the distinct visions of two of the most prolific and popular Detroit artists which have been ripped off and
Car culture is techno culture. Detroit is huge, due to it being home of the US auto industry. The factory jobs and pride in their own work led to everyone owning a car. This is reflected in the earliest Detroit records, from the catalogue number on "Sharevari", Cybotron's "Cosmic Cars", Model 500's "Night Drive Through Babylon" to Mad Mike financing Underground Resistance through his street racing and Omar-S' well publicised love of racing. Derrick May, DJ Assault, Theo Parrish, and many more have a widely known love of automobiles, which influences them and also their music. Driving in Detroit is not like driving anywhere else, possibly the only comparable place I have driven are Germany's Autobahns which were influential to Kraftwerk, yet another connection between the 313 and the robots.
Detroit's economic conditions since the race riots in the late 60s have a huge impact on the sound of techno. Aside from the auto factories obvious influence, the exodus of businesses and white people to the suburbs left the inner city to fend for itself. A drive through Detroit's business districts reveals countless thousands of independent black owned businsses. Combined with the musical legacy, the founding of labels, distributors, clubs, and record shops by the techno artists themselves had a fertile ground in which to grow. In Detroit, it is never expected that someone else will do something for you. No wonder the artists from the city have such a fiercely independent streak! It is also obvious why Detroit artists take offense to the watering down of their music: in a city where you have to fend for yourself to make ends meet, seeing people cashing in on a weaker version of your creation is seeing people take food out of your family's mouths.
To assume that techno could have been created anywhere else on the planet is erroneous. It almost seems like techno exploded out of nowhere in the mid-80s, years after the records by Cybotron and A Number of Names that predicted the sound. What really happened was that the artists involved simply distilled their experiences and influences of living in Detroit into music, and not surprisingly it came out sounding like a cohesive whole. The personalities of each artist gave them a special sound, while the overall culture made those sounds work together. Sure, a debt is owed to many artists outside of the city, especially Kraftwerk and the early Chicago house producers, but props and respect is always given to those who deserve it. Sadly, those props are not always returned by those who should! Notably though, Kraftwerk performs the Underground Resistance mix of their song "Expo 2000" in their live sets, giving love to Detroit even though it was they who influenced Detroit, not the other way around.
Techno no longer belongs exclusively to Detroit, but the people who make real techno music all have some understanding of how to properly combine funk and electronics. From popular artists like 4 Hero through to the underground cats at Delsin, the Detroit aesthetic lives many places. A huge number of artists rip off the sounds, but miss the feeling. I know some people look down so-called "ghetto tech", but really it is techno music much more so than 99% of what is out there calling itself techno.
Every trend in techno has roots in Detroit music, even acts such as BT and Deep Dish were involved with Carl Craig before setting off down the progressive house and trance paths. The harder end of techno was all based on the music of Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. Electroclash leaned heavily on Detroit artists like Adult and Dopplereffekt because Detroit is one place where electro never went away. Whether you attribute the current trend of mnml to Basic Channel, Richie Hawtin, or whomever else, they all owe their sounds to Detroit. These fads come and go, but there is always Detroit right smack in the middle of each one. And when they go away, Detroit remains. Just like it always does.