Thursday, June 19, 2008

Detroit: Myth Hating, Myth Creating [Part II of III]

And here's part two, folks, this time from me (Pete).

In 1995 I was a noise rock kid, proudly listening to Fugazi, Shellac, Slint, June of 44 and the like, guiltily listening to Tool, Primus, Pantera, Nine Inch Nails and Prince, and covertly listening to different kinds electronic music: the single of the Prodigy’s ‘Voodoo People’ that I’d bought behind my friends’ back, and a cassette of Rotterdam hardcore that I purloined from a friend whose older brother was a ‘raver’. In a way I’d grown up with electronic music: be it the 8-bit themes of PC classics like Captain Comic, the endless series of Sierra’s ‘Quest’ games, the rap music of Public Enemy, Run DMC, NWA and Tone Loc that had been my first cassette purchases, or the Stock Aitken and Waterman hits of Kylie et. al. that I would dub off the radio each week. During this period of pop awakening that occurred via FM radio countdown shows and ABC’s Rage, I was also introduced to my first explicit understanding of ‘techno’: Technotronic, Black Box, Snap, Dr Alban, M People, and even Prince. I mention the wee purple fella because, retrospectively, I think the ‘Batdance’ medley was the track that had the single greatest impact on my musical development. Yes, really. But I enjoyed them all indiscriminately, until I realised – approximately with the onset of pubes, puberty and the first rising boils of seething self-consciousness – that ‘Mr Vain’, ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Spin that Wheel’ just weren’t cool. At that time, it was all about flanelletes, undercuts and long hair, earrings, and grunge… egad.

1996 marked the turning point at which my musical development curved back into techno, or, at the very least, drum machine music. Somehow, the grunge and pimple-induced stigma attached to listening to machine-generated beats (excepting Big Black, Ministry and even Nine Inch Nails) had lifted, thanks, not doubt to the general crossover success of the Chemical Brothers (and their fantastic albums Exit Planet Dust and Leave Home). On a more personal level, I also became confident of expressing a more strident, less fearful assertion of my own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. The album that clinched it for me was Tortoise’s first (and still amazing) self-titled album. Hearing it as a teenager, stoned out of my gourd as it played loud on my father’s high-end hi-fi during a short parental absence, I realised that something entirely different was possible. Dance music in its pop forms had been with me for years, but what Tortoise were doing completely blew my mind. Then came Don Caballero, Six Finger Satellite, Trans Am, Rome – thanks mostly to my trust in Thrill Jockey and its associated others. There followed the second epiphanic listening: Mouse on Mars’ Autoditacker. The same friend who had dubbed me copies of the Chemical Brothers (one album each side) had it playing round at his place when I arrived for a coffee. ‘What the fuck is this!?’ I demanded. I bought it the next day, then quickly discovered Oval, Autechre, Aphex Twin, 2 Lone Swordsmen, and so on… Armed with pocket money from working graveyard shifts at a service station, a non-skip discman, a voracious curiosity and the earlier (and much, much better) incarnation of All Music Guide as my rough map, I plunged in. I’ve been happily lost ever since.

I mention all this at length to make a short but (for me at least) fundamental point: this was all techno to me. Public Enemy, Technotronic, Rotterdam hardcore, the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, Tortoise, Mouse on Mars – I filed all these cassettes (then later CDs) together in a cluster beside my speaker that was always understood, though never named, as the techno group. I listened to ‘I’ve got the Power’ with the same ears as I listened to ‘Batdance’, ‘Pump Up the Jam’, ‘Fight the Power’, ‘Spin that Wheel’, Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’ and even the Outthere Brothers ‘I like to Move It’. For my ears, what Warp, Sonig and Mille Plateaux were doing with these ideas in the second half of the 90s was just blowing the first half through a transdimensional psychedelic particle accelerator. In other words, it was like somehow, using computers, they’d figured out how to feed drugs directly into the music.

Having left high school, I plunged into the world of 18+ venues in Melbourne: pubs, bars, live venues and, of course, clubs. The egotism and stagnant formulas of every group of Steve Albini wannabe noise rock motherfuckers had me cheesed right off that whole scene. Incidentally, they’re still at it ten years later – check My Disco, if you don’t believe me. Obviously this is a very compeling formula for some people. Hey, I guess I’ve been listening to minimal techno for ten years now, so who am I to talk? But meanwhile, away from the Travis Bean guitars, the Big Muff pedals and the Rickenbacker basses, it was the dance kids that were having all the fun. I thought, ‘I know techno, techno is fun, let’s do some techno.’ So of I went to a whole bunch of different big box raves with the same ‘everything’s techno’ mindset: Eat Static’s goa trance, that was techno. CJ Bolland was techno. Speedy J, the Speedy J of A Shocking Hobby, that was techno. Even drum’n’bass as various as Aphrodite, Storm, Krust, and LTJ Bukem? Yup, all techno to me. House? House I disavowed. House I repudiated. To me at this stage, house was beyond the pail. It was too feminine, too disco, too camp, too cheesy, too gay – although all the while I nursed a secret, raging love of Crystal Waters’ 100% ‘Pure Love’, and if you’d have asked me to distinguish between house and techno, I probably would have come up with something as profound as ‘techno is like house, but good! House is like techno, only cheesy and camp.’ Etc…

While all these things were percolating through my head and filling my weekend hours, techno in Melbourne was going gangbusters. And chief among these parties, at least in terms of perceived prestige, were the Innovator parties. At about this time, I’d just got my hands on a CD-R copy of Derrick May’s Innovator double CD, with all his classic tracks on it. Who was this guy, and why was he so innovative? Was he as good as Autechre? As weird and talented as Aphex? So I went to a few of these parties, and began to sense that something different was afoot. Gradually, as my exposure to this whole scene and sound increased, I was given to understand that my personal, inclusive, idiosyncratic soundmap of techno was wrong. The strong sense was (a la Crocodile dundee’s knife scene), ‘That’s not techno. This is techno.’ The sense was like ‘they’ had tried to tell you that techno was something white, something cheesy, something commercial. Something soulless. But here, so the counter-narrative would have it, was ‘high tech soul’, made by real, oppressed black people (dreaming of space from a post-industrial ghetto). It was, so the riddle ran, a music so unquestionably authentic that to present an opinion to the contrary would invoke an accusation of ignorance, or even heresy, followed by a lecture on the Belleville Three. For white kids from the Melbourne suburbs, this allowed them to be righteously proud of aligning themselves with a noble tradition, which, in turn, allowed them to make peace with the fact that they all grew up listening to…. Technotronic, Snap, and M People, of course. Is it any different to the quiet joy of the Vanilla Ice fan who discovers Ice T and Ice Cube? He who ended up in Wu Wear often began with Twelve Inches of Snow. Never, ever underestimate the power of guilty pleasures in shaping musical taste.

Six months later I was finally coming to terms with a guilty pleasure of my own. I had started listening to house, after a triple conversion: the first was thanks to the house section on Juan Atkins’ still fabulous Master Mix. The second came from a CD copy of Carl Craig’s collection of Paperclip People singles The Secret Tapes of Dr Eich – five dollars in a bargain bin that changed my life. Thirdly, and perhaps most consequentially, was Herbert, whose Lets All Make Mistakes mix introduced me to Perlon, DBX, to Theo Parrish, to IsolĂ©e and to Green Velvet. Herbert, I owe you buddy. Anyway, around about this time I began to get the inkling that the history of Detroit was far, far more fraught and entangled a history than the hagiography that had been presented to me. I realised that both Innovator and Hi Tech Soul were brands of Derrick May, and that maybe, just maybe, he (and perhaps even Mad Mike) had some pretty kooky, probably self-serving, and maybe or even totally bogus ideas about who had the right to say who and what techno was. I stopped feeling bashful about ‘my techno’, and started feeling pissed off. I began to get the impression that if Derrick had his way, he would even have trademarked techno, along with innovator and high tech soul. I got the impression that Derrick May was a dick.

With this scuttlebutt in mind, I kept working into the catalogues, back in time. The further and deeper my retrospective colouring and shading of the histories went (and this is still and will always be a work in progress), the more I realised that everyone who’d bought into this whole Innovator thing had been sold a pup: having discovered P-funk, early electro, Kraftwerk, YMO, the Talking Heads, Eno, David Bowie and others, I realised that all the parts were there, lying around. Techno was an invention of Korg and Roland Corp, if anything. I became sure that, although it would never have emerged in the shape it did without Detroit, it would have emerged nonetheless. While the best of the early Detroit records were wonderful creations, no doubt, there was no ‘moment of creation’ – there was no formula in them that you wouldn’t end up arriving at if you had been listening to electro, Italo, krautrock and disco and you owned a synth and a couple of drum machines. The creative, mimetic feedback loops had been in active motion since the early 70s, and it was knowledge that was there for anyone who cared to check. In fact, it would take (and it does take) concerted, repeated acts of active forgetting in order to not acknowledge that. I also realised from this that my own personal mutant genealogy, my map of ‘techno’ was no less biased and discriminatory, not less selective and ordering than theirs – the difference was that I wasn’t insisting that mine become the orthodox account that everyone else had to swallow and regurgitate (without chewing).

So why do it? Why the need not only to claim being an innovator, but to have invented a whole kind of music? This is hubris in the mouth of anyone but Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Little Richard, or Jimi Hendrix. So why? Well, because you need to, and you need to because you’ve become deeply invested in your myth. The anthropologist Mary Douglas said it best, so I’ll quote her here verbatim: “Institutions create shadowed places in which nothing can be seen and no questions asked. They make other areas show finely discriminated detail, which is closely scrutinised and ordered. History emerges in an unintended shape as a result of practices directed to immediate, practical ends. To watch these practices is to establish selective principles that highlight some kinds of events and obscure others is to inspect the social order operating on individual minds. Public memory is the storage system for the social order.” I felt, and I still feel, that just such a thing had happened in the creation myth that has become Detroit techno, and that continual investment in this has strangled the creativity and dynamism out of the style, turning its proponents into a bunch of cantankerous, conservative has-beens who demand dues and respect on behalf of things that happened twenty years ago. Innovator becomes necessary because of an absence of innovation.

At this point, you can’t avoid talking about America in a much larger, broader way, and I say, (as an outsider who’s never been, and who doesn’t know what it’s like), that if I’d grown up black in Detroit and seen suffered discrimination, neglect, a lack of opportunities and been left vulnerable to arbitrary acts of harassment and even violence (often by the police who are supposed to be there to serve and protect me) I’d probably be pissed and bitter as well. It seems to me that the another reason the bitterness has become entrenched is because Detroit techno has always been seen as a minor music in the US, made by a group of producers who never got the respect, sales and money that others working hip-hop and r&b received. Like their city, they feel discriminated against, they feel like they’re not recognised and respected (to the point of abandonment) and because of that some of the key players have become defensive and antagonistic. But what of the shithead fans in Switzerland, Sweden and Australia who have insisted on spitting bile in the name of their prophets? Interestingly, no, perhaps crucially, this kind of defensive, antagonistic, toxic bitterness has not affected producers like Carl Craig, and from my distant point of view this seems like it’s for two reasons. The first is because CC was never so invested in the myth – he never needed it. And this connects to the second reason, namely, that CC is still relevant, and he’s still relevant because he’s growing, changing, and creatively developing, something that cannot be said of May, who (in an act of monumental irony) is re-releasing Innovator. The distinction between the two artists might offer an object lesson in two possible ways, two different struggles: May’s path of closure (seal the myth and man the barricades), or Craig’s path of continual development and openness. I know which path I’d take.


  1. Wow, amazing post. I think that you make some great points.

    However you kinda lose me when you put it as though there is some great opposition in practice between Derrick May and Carl Craig.

    If anything people look unfairly to Carl Craig for things (authenticity, narrative, certainty) that they used to look to Derrick May in the past.

    The Carl Craig myth is becoming just as bad. It's a great position to be in to sell records but really he's just a very good producer with a helpful history who puts out less turkeys on average than the rest.

    The Electronic music world needs Detroit just like Hip-Hop needs Public Enemy and NWA just like Rock needs Robert Johnson and all those other people you mentioned.

    All this stuff lays down points of reference, establishes values and most importantly give consumers valid reasons to spend their money.

    The funny thing is the more I realize how much of this myth-making is just society at work, the more I enjoy the music of Derrick May and find him funny.

    It would be interesting if "techno" didn't emerge out of Detroit, but the music would still be a good laugh.

  2. Heh, I love that Mary Douglas quote; haven't thought about her in a while!

    Not quite sure how to respond to this, on the personal or theoretical (and what's the difference?), because at once I was immediately pulled into your musical progression as I followed, well, pretty much the same damn one (my holy trinity still consists of Talking Heads, Don Cab, and Silver Jews; all bands that in some way or another have pushed me in the direction of total electrophilia). And my Tortoise moment came with Standards in the Ohio countryside.

    But anyhoo, enough waxing nostalgic; those first few paragraphs were like a cold shower of memory. Probably not alone on that front.

    Let me see if I can change the direction a bit, because while I am a student and admirer of history, I am a strident disbeliever in myths (in the sense that they can bring in a metaphysical dimension that I find dangerous, but alluring at the same time). Like nofriends, I got a bit lost at the end, so why not create a new beginning? (haven't read the first post yet; will check that after I actually do some work).

    Not to state the obvious, but I feel so much of this boils down to rhizomatic provincialism. Speaking as a resident/artist in rural Ohio working with other very creative, very bored electronic fanatics, music is plug-ins; creating music is plugging in and being plugged into. I mean, you can probably identify with growing up in macho, hick environment, and being a music lover who at once was too chicken shit and not quite rid of a latent homophobia to listen to 'cheesy house.' But you mix, you mash, you combinate and consolidate and you come up with your own 'bag', your mix, your innovation. Everyone is an innovator and there are quite a few Innovators, just some have to try harder than others due to facticity (ugh, can't believe I just used that).

    And who doesn't like to tell a fucking story? Chest-beating, perhaps, but certainly deserved!

    By the by, in the course of spewing this contradictory nonsense out, my tunes went from the Shed mix to "KILL HIM, FUCKING KILL HIM." Appropriate, no?

  3. Have to agree with the comment about a cold shower of memeory, that was very well put.

    As a melbourne boy of similar vintage reading through the first few paragraphs the smile on my face grew bigger and bigger.

    Techno as i called it then, smashed me in the face when a few of my friends and I turned up to Dream Nightclub in North Melbourne expecting a Brit Pop night, "We want Morrissey"......

    Get to the door and we were duly informed that the regular night was off and Oliver Lieb was playing live. Who the hell was Oliver Lieb??? We were also informed that this was going to be like nothing we'd ever heard before amnd would blow our minds, stoned, we were up for that.

    My friends didn't get it, to this day they never have. But I sure did.

    Naturally tastes evolve over time and that Germanic Trance is perhaps not my cup of tea any more but I still look forweard to any releases by Herr Lieb.

    Back in the day "Bump" was the place to be in melbourne in my circle.

    Great post, super enjoyable read. Looking forward to part III


  4. whats with all this bullshit eh? what the hell is wrong with these people? fuck

  5. Re most recent anonymous: we really want to keep the comments section open, but this requires some good faith on your part.

    If you are the muppet man (I'm assuming), so far you've switched between being boring, nameless and insulting – a minor irritant who can't punctuate and won't engage. Why bother?

  6. very interesting articles, both part 1 and 2. thanks.

  7. Great read, especially for the open heart dissection of your musical lineage. Much like others, I had a big smile on my face tracing the tracks of your journey into techno. Many parallels on my behalf. With respect to Detroit, every genre of music has its pantheon, its mythology and its genealogy. Rightly or wrongly, for many people this is Detroit. Whether this has been gleaned through genuine research or word of mouth is at the behest of each individual to do their own research and decide for themselves. It's very much in line with the recent discussion around the homogeneity of taste - do you like it because you like it or because your supposed to like it? On my behalf, I am interested in tracing the roots of my musical tastes as far back as I can, however ultimately the decision on whether I enjoy said exploration of roots is based on whether the music fits into or expands my musical horizon - no more, no less. It's nice to have something bigger than you to believe in, it's even nicer to find your own way there.

  8. Whether or not is a myth of the legendary start of electronic music is one thing but after reading these posts it seems like people are forming concensus that detroit is not really all that special, who have pushed their wares with the invovator tone and shouldn't have. What is the myth? Is it they are not inovators, is it they are not up to their own hype, is it they are not worth the energy of their worldwide advertising through May and others constantly are touring around in different forms and slogans.

    While i've never been a total Detroit head, I give them total respect for the community they formed and the creative outlet they produced and influnce they had on the outside world. Not that ive been to detroit but having read and seen many reports of the state of that town it is worthy of hype. They should be proud to have created such a culture. In the same way though if another town did the same thing such as Berlin, Chicago, The Haige, Jamaica even smaller random towns... i would give them just as much respect, and do in some of those mentioned, for the culture and creative outlet and their presence not only in their own town but the pollination on the world's music scene.

    If every town had electronic music communities like this it would be amazing, even if they were not there in those days.

  9. "In the same way though if another town did the same thing such as Berlin, Chicago, The Haige, Jamaica even smaller random towns... i would give them just as much respect, and do in some of those mentioned, for the culture and creative outlet and their presence not only in their own town but the pollination on the world's music scene.

    If every town had electronic music communities like this it would be amazing, even if they were not there in those days."

    i couldn't agree more. in fact, i think most major musical developments happen in a small setting like that. i think the internet is helping to kill that off a little bit, before any music has a chance to really develop to reflect the culture from which it comes, it is being thrown across the world for free via the web. i think this is one of the reasons that so much music seems so homogenous.

  10. @ Pcock: a kind of 'Galapagos Island' theory of stylistic development... perhaps true, but then again, broadband allows people all over the world to hear a more diverse range of sounds, and to incorporate them into their own musical imaginaries... and I don't see how it could/would lead to homogeneity. It's not like people just swallow/regurgitate sounds... I dunno, look at the speed with which baile funk, dubstep, dirty south etc have caught on... and each place produces its own interpretation...

  11. Posted in article 1...posting again for those who only read this one...

    Allthough I want to add my take on derrick and carl. Derrick, of the original 3 is in my opinion the best DJ of the group. Carl is an AMAZING producer and musician, but is not the best DJ.
    Although Derrick might be a "dick" some times, both are capable of creating memories and playing with emotion very fluently. Both knows how to "speak" as a DJ(derrick) and a producer/live technician(carl).

    zak aka theDEVIOUSone said...

    From a detroit FAN and music lover from Minneapolis...

    I have many opinions and views on detroit, mostly admiration for what it has given to me musically and emotionally. In recent years, just as everywhere else in America, the music scene is changing...

    I used to write for a local zine in minneapolis. Below is an excerpt from an article after DEMF the year Saunderson did the festival. there are a couple points about what was changing all over and what Detroit was giving me on that specific trip...

    This is a magazine I write the Electronic section for every 2 months. Industry Magazine is a local Zine for Minneapolis, MN.

    Industry Article #7

    Rhythm Section

    It feels like we have suddenly lost a lot of good electronic music outlets in the last month or so: First Ave dumped Saturdays (Ba-Sik) for a Top-40 format; attendance at the Quest has seen an all time low on Fridays for Plush; and for the most part, summer has been kind of slow. It felt like we had a strong beginning, but now it seems pretty vacant around town for our music. What happened to the dance music revolution?

    By definition, a revolution is described as a drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving. The dictionary calls it an activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation. I choose to reinterpret revolution: It is caused by a need or desire for change, an upheaval of sorts intended to displace trends created in the surrounding environment.

    Keeping all this in mind, I ended up having a discussion with some folks about the state of music and what's happening to it now. As far back as my knowledge goes, musical revolutions have been happening every 5-8 years on average; this includes everything from the early swing era to rock, blues, jazz, disco, punk, hip-hop, and more. Take, for example, our parents (most in their 50s or 60s now): They had a chance to witness and be a part of the hippie era. I had a chance to grow up in the electronic music era. If I were ten years older, I probably would have been a part of the disco era, or maybe the real beginning of the hip-hop era. If the time line is correct and electronic music had its revolutionary period in the mid-'90s, then the time for the next musical revolution has already passed. Do you think it already happened? Did we miss it? Is it about to happen?

    Is the next revolution a re-visit of sorts to the roots? It's definitely time to search for the soul again. In a recent trip to Detroit during the electronic music festival, I decided to search out a DJ/producer, whom I had heard a few times in the past and whose records I had been buying for a few years, named Theo Parrish. In the process I came across another artist named Omar S. After hear-ing of a loft party where these guys were supposed to play, I ventured out with a few friends away from the bigger parties and ended up spending the night observing these guys and waiting to hear the music they were presenting. After seeking out Omar S. and sneaking in a short conversation with him, I continued my ascent up the stairs into the party. The atmosphere was so thick and raw that I could feel my excitement gaining momentum every couple of minutes. Watching these guys, the way they carried themselves and the energy that they put off, was refreshing. I felt like their world still had that struggle and definitely had the soul that I had been searching for. Although some technical difficulties at the party hindered the delivery of the music, the feeling that I walked away with was inspiring. During the cab ride home, the three of us didn't have anything to say each other—we were stunned. What I realized was that these artists were not the older generation of Detroit icons that I had been listening to for years that came up in the time of revolution: These guys were my peers. They were around my age, maybe three to five years older. What was it about their lives or their environment that produced that raw soul that I was feeling?

    I have written about this before, about where the passion and attitude has gone in our music. Are we out of new things to create? Are the music skeptics right in assuming that every musical note has already been played and that everything created from here on in is just a regurgitation of what we have already heard? The thing that was so great to me about electronic music was that it used the raw elements of beats and rhythms to get the attention of the listener. It allowed the listener to create his or her own mental image, thought, feeling, and sensations based on the vibration and soul of the music.

    Taking this nostalgia to heart, I thought back to my conversation with friends about the state of electronic music. We were all feeling that the passion and the attitude was not there anymore for many people. The need for change had been stifled. It seemed the problem was we have everything: food, water, shelter, and too many options in our lives with different paths to choose. People are way too accepting of what's out there and are either being complacent or just simply lazy or tired and too comfortable in their lives to want change. So here we are with many choices in front of us for music, entertainment, places where we hang out, things we support, and what challenges us as people. How do we decipher what is garbage and what is real? We can sit around all day thinking about change, but how many of us are willing to sacrifice something for that change? Are you truly happy with what you are experiencing? Do you want change? Is there a need for revolution?

    Till next time…theDEVIOUSone

  12. WOW. I thought the first dude was a douchebag,

    Keep 'DETROIT' out of your fucking mouth, K?

  13. It's so funny to read Australians talk about Detroit.

    It becomes very evident very quickly that they lack sufficient understanding about the socio-economic conditions surrounding Detroit.

  14. I was about to not even read your post (I probably shouldn't have) when I saw what your first "explicit understanding of techno" was:

    --“ Technotronic, Black Box, Snap, Dr Alban, M People, and even Prince."--

    That’s what you identify as your introduction to Techno? I think it's safe to say that you probably shouldn't be spouting theories of music history where Detroit and Techno are concerned.

    Opinions are certainly free, but you are talking about something that is very deeply felt, understood, and LIVED by many. I really think you should just leave this topic alone. Go back to Rock. You are really gonna piss somebody off with this bullshit. Please read my response to your partners post, it definitely applies here as well.

    You wrote:
    -- “ I realised that all the parts were there, lying around. Techno was an invention of Korg and Roland Corp, if anything. I became sure that, although it would never have emerged in the shape it did without Detroit, it would have emerged nonetheless.”--

    So your whole argument against Detroit origin is that the pieces were already laying around? So inventions shouldn’t be credited to the inventor because the pieces are already there? Because someone else would have eventually invented it? Can you smell your own bullshit yet?

    I can’t believe I’m responding to this crap. I obviously had too much time to waste today.

  15. Detroit deserves more credit than the writer gives it, but the Detroit mafia posts here are hysterical. "Keep Detroit out of your mouth, K?" Wow. Funny how an artistic expression that can at times be more forward thinking than anything on the planet can generate such backwards thinking.

  16. they (i refer "the mafia") should get their fingers outta their asses and put dem into their mouths. asap. what backwards bshit.

    we dont see (for instance) Gerald Donald (also Stinson r.i.p) bragging around inventing stuff. No credit gived in these posts also anyway... But he (they) really should be credited cuz this sht is way more inventive and awesome music than the "great 3" put together (though a bit "newer"). imho.


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