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Defining Detroit Techno: The Retrospectives And Reissues Of 2013

Juan Atkins, whose 1983 debut album was reissued this year.
Courtesy of the artist
Juan Atkins, whose 1983 debut album was reissued this year.

On Nov. 1, New York dance-music promoters Verboten put on a party in a warehouse space in Brooklyn. Even with a ridiculous $40 cover charge (welcome to Nü-Brooklyn, a.k.a. Manhattan minus bottle service), the powerhouse lineup of all-Detroit house and techno veterans was difficult to resist for long-time DJ-music followers. In the front room, Kenny Larkin mixed techno — glossy, gleaming, thumping, proudly synthetic but shot through with vocal snippets and rolling piano, the human touch surfacing in the space-age mist. But the real draw was in back, where Moodymann, born Kenny Dixon Jr., held court.

Dixon wore a blue bandanna across his face and had three bored-looking young women behind him who occasionally went to the bar en masse and retrieved a bottle of clear alcohol, from which he poured shots for the appreciative crowd. As you can imagine, his mind wasn't necessarily on micromanaging every second of the mix — instead, he was creating a mood, and while the records were integral, they weren't everything. In fact, Dixon was only too happy to interrupt them — at one point, he took Dajae and Cajmere's 1992 Chicago house classic "Brighter Days" off the turntable in the middle so he could hold it up and declare into a microphone that he'd "flown out here, and carried this, so I could play it for you," before starting it again — damn near on the spot where he'd stopped it. (Maybe he's a better micromanager than it first looks.)

This was theater — a basement-party vibe with a larger-than-life figure at the center. It worked partly because rather than building, peaking and subsiding the way a big-room DJ set tends to, the grooves Dixon played tended to grind on and on, like Stargard's "Which Way Is Up?" and Booker T. & the MG's "Melting Pot," which Dixon took off before the breakbeat kicked in; the tension was eased largely by the interruptions.

In some ways, this is par for the course. Detroit techno is not only one of the key building blocks of electronic dance music; for many dance lifers, "Detroit" is a byword for high-minded purism, a bulwark against "commercial" dance music. And 2013 has been a year full of overviews and retrospectives of the city's dance music. In January, the London club night and label We Love issued We Love ... Detroit, each of its two CDs selected (but not mixed) by Detroit natives Derrick May and Jimmy Edgar. In June, Ministry of Sound issued Masterpiece: Created by Carl Craig, a triple-CD featuring a mix of newer tracks, a collection of older ones and a disc of somnambulant new material by Craig. And in October, Still Music took a break from reissuing obscure early Chicago house to put out a double CD of new tracks, In the Dark: Detroit Is Back.

This November, Fantasy Records reissued Enter, the 1983 debut of Cybotron, with bonus tracks and a liner-note essay by Dave Tompkins. (You can read it at SPIN as well.) This is the Detroit duo that laid techno's blueprint — and after Rik Davis and Juan Atkins parted ways in 1984, the latter went solo as Model 500 (many other aliases followed), and both codified and named techno music. The album isn't techno yet, but the best tracks are within kissing distance, notably "Clear," a solo Atkins recording whose pure machine funk was smooth as his heroes Kraftwerk. If there's a "first techno record," it's probably this one. (Enterwas in print for years under the title Clear.) The big news, though, isn't the reissue, but the announcement that Cybotron will be performing onstage for the first time next year.

What's most surprising about that is the venue: the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, which is returning to action. For many, this was puzzling, since we didn't think it had gone anywhere, though its name did change once over its 13-year history. The reason is simple legalese. It first went up in 2000, and after three years — including the tumultuous 2001 edition, when festival founder and veteran Detroit events coordinator Carol Marvin fired Carl Craig weeks before the party began (Todd L. Burns' extensive oral history of the festival for Resident Advisor recounts the story in detail) — Hart Plaza, its downtown site, was handed over to Derrick May, one of Detroit techno's founding fathers, along with Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. May produced the festival in 2003 and 2004 before local promoters Paxahau took over in 2005. Since then, with minor alterations, it's had the name Movement.

When Marvin's contract with the city ended in 2002, she took the name DEMF with her. Now she's reclaiming it, stating that the city can handle another giant party. For all too familiar reasons, the city can use the extra revenue. It's likely they'll get it, too — many of the people who make the trek to the festival each Memorial Day weekend come from Europe, where since the late '80s Detroit techno has cultivated a large, knowledgeable cult audience; for many the prospect of seeing a Cybotron reunion over the Fourth of July will be irresistible, even if many of those same fans will never forgive Marvin for firing Craig, one of techno's most universally revered producers.

In England, Holland and Germany, techno is seen as kin with R&B and hip-hop and jazz. This is a very different view than Americans tend to have. Here, dance music is seen as a largely white phenomenon, despite the fact that its first practitioners, DJs and producers and dancers alike, were, in the main, people of color from inner cities. In the U.S., the rave scene of the '90s picked up not on '80s Chicago house or Detroit techno but the later parties in London, and the later music coming from there, Germany and middle Europe. In a storyline reminiscent of the Beatles' trajectory, techno was a great African-American music that locked in mainstream traction in its home country years after the fact, following whatever white Europeans did to ratify it and turn it into something quite different from what it had been.

It's worth noting here that, unlike jazz and R&B, techno never registered with the wider African-American listening audience, either — its biggest early crossover hit, Inner City's "Good Life," in 1989 a Number 4 hit in England, struggled to Number 73 on the Hot 100 and — more telling — Number 50 on the R&B chart. Detroit purism, in that sense, is doubly poignant — an argument about the primacy of the experiences of the people who make it to a musical style that, in the U.S., typically has to be made to white andblack audiences if anybody's going to make any money. Unless, that is, you're working in Detroit.

Detroit techno's sensibility is distinct in large part because it's the music of African-American Europhiles of a certain age, and because it derives in large part from one person. Every history of Detroit techno spends quality time revisiting the legend of radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo, whose playlists were the style's lodestone. On Afropop Worldwide's 2011 "Midwest Electric" episode, you can hear Mojo's famous nightly set-piece, the P-Funk-inspired "landing of the Mothership." Broadcasting overnight on a black-owned AOR station, Mojo — like Sly Stone years before in the Bay Area — played rock as well as R&B, Peter Frampton and the J. Geils Band alongside Prince and the Isley Brothers. When Derrick May called Detroit techno "like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company" in the liner notes of the 1988 compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, he was boiling Mojo down to his essence, as well.

The bustling dance-music production of late '80s and early '90s Detroit was heady and competitive, from "Techno Boulevard" — the building complex on Gratiot Avenue in downtown Detroit where Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May headquartered their record labels and recording studios — to a large number of other imprints in and near the city, from Craig's Planet E to Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva's +8 (minutes away in Windsor, Ontario) to the uncompromising Underground Resistance, still run by "Mad" Mike Banks. Plenty of good dance music still comes out of the city, but when people say "Detroit" with a far-away look in their eyes, this golden period is frequently what they mean.

The U.S. rave scene kicked into gear after first stirring on the coasts in the early '90s. The music that powered it was often called "hardcore," and was typically either breakbeat-led, as in England, or anchored by a stomping boot, a la Germany and Holland and Belgium. When a Dutch duo called L.A. Style dented the Hot 100 in 1992 with the cartoonish stomp "James Brown Is Dead," and an L.A. radio station called MARS-FM began programming tracks like Eon's "Spice" and Moby's "Go" alongside New Order and Madonna, the music industry started pushing such stuff as a new sound, conveniently brushing aside a decade's worth of Detroit music.

In October 1992, the Brooklyn techno zine Under One Sky ran an irate letter from the owner of a Detroit label startup, taking issue with a piece in the previous issue on the English label Suburban Base, one of the primary purveyors of the U.K. hardcore sound — brazenly hooky rave anthems full of giddy synth and piano riffs and gibbering vocal samples sometimes swiped from children's television over the breakbeats. That "toytown techno" sound, kicked off by the Prodigy's "Charly" (1991) — which sampled a PSA featuring a life-lesson-imparting cat and reached Number 3 in the British chart — included Shaft's "Roobarb & Custard" (1991), Urban Hype's "A Trip to Trumpton" and, most notoriously, Smart E's "Sesame's Treet" (both 1992), all Top 40 U.K. hits.

"This ain't Schoolhouse Rock!" fumed the letter: "Suburban Base could never produce realtechno music — hardcore or otherwise — because it takes heartalong with the art ... Even if we were sleeping, we could produce a better record than that primary regression set to wax. Suburban Base in the name of true techno — go back to the drawing board. Oh! Excuse me, the blackboard." Emphasis, clearly, on "black."

Ironically, Euro-hardcore, which had none of the hip-hop influence of U.K. hardcore, was modeled quite closely on one black Detroit group in particular: Underground Resistance, formed by Jeff Mills and "Mad" Mike Banks and later joined by Robert Hood. Harsh and swarming releases like the RiotEP (1991) and Mad Mike's solo "Death Star" (1992) helped set the template (along with early tracks by Brooklyn producer Joey Beltram, among others) for Euro-hardcore's sharp, buzzing riffs and frantic air. What was offensive to the Detroit sensiblity about "James Brown Is Dead" isn't that it wasn't black; it was that it was sloppy in a way Underground Resistance would never allow: When they titled a track "Sonic Destroyer," they weren't joking.

"When we saw techno go south — really south — we watched it become something else. We just didn't want to be part of it," Derrick May told the 2006 Red Bull Music Academy in Melbourne, Australia. "We couldn't just walk away from what we created, right? We didn't create it alone. It took everybody to make this thing happen. So we fought — hard — to keep some credibility and respect in it ... The cause has been to take it back to where it originally was from — the soul of the music." Hence, the crystallization of the Detroit-purist sensibility, where the fans inherited the musicians' hyper-awareness of the music's roots — and a leeriness of anything that deviated too much from its template.

Such classicism — even caution — is a large part of Detroit dance music's appeal, proof to staunch dance subculturalists that the music's roots are bedrock. Early on, the watchword of Detroit dance music was innovation. "I feel that there is only one law in underground music, especially in experimental music, and that's to 'go where no man has gone before,'" Banks told the rave zine Quadrasonicin 1993. "Captain Kirk laid down the law and motherf---ers ought to follow it." But the innovations were pretty much exhausted by the time the '90s ended.

Since then what's mattered most is quality. Theo Parrish or Moodymann may not be doing anything unheard of when they chop and edit old disco and funk records into new tracks, but they do it too effectively to dismiss. The way they chop those tracks nods to Detroit musical history as well: abrupt, on-beat, audible edits that nod back to the wound up radio sessions Jeff Mills did in the late '80s as the Wizard, while the use of backward edits (a bar or two of reversed drums, say) is a Derrick May technique. The house-party atmosphere of Moodymann's Brooklyn appearance was another version of the same impulse — of bringing roots proudly to the fore, maybe even embellishing them for effect, the way any performer does.

Those roots, or any roots, are beside the point in a U.S. mainstream that's embraced dance music of a very different sort. Though the Vegas EDM-club boom was one of the most over-reported stories of 2013, electronic dance music still receives little serious press coverage in America. Despite having been around nearly three decades, it's only beginning to become part of the establishment on the order of rock or hip-hop. Daft Punk's innovative ad campaign for Random Access Memoriesdoubled as an entrée into the hearts of the big pop biz, as its Album of the Year Grammy nomination demonstrates.

In some ways, EDM is the most Year Zero pop phenomenon going. Daft Punk's early records are about as far back as many of these new fans are interested in exploring — that is, if we're not talking about the Etta James sample utilized by both Pretty Lights and Avicii. But make no mistake — it's a popphenomenon, not just because 15 percent of 2013's year-end BillboardHot 100 were dance records but because at the festivals the DJs play the most blatantly obvious hits. It's based on shared memory and common denominators, but it's also faceless.

By contrast, Detroit techno's cleaving to its roots, its insistence that new listeners pay their respects to the old school, is as hidebound as garage rock and as culturally African-American as jazz. (In fact, Detroit dance producer-DJ Theo Parrish also issued a compilation this year: Theo Parrish's Black Jazz Signature: Black Jazz Records 1971-1976 mixes of tracks from the cult-favorite Oakland label.) It's one reason that Detroit techno offers the illusion, against all sorts of perceptions, of timelessness.

Of course, that deep-thinking myth can be off-putting for pop fans that like their thrills cheap and unaccompanied by lectures — and are right to feel that way. (The problem with most festival EDM isn't that it's full of cheap thrills, but that listening to it is a chore — it isn't thrilling enough. We were better off with "James Brown Is Dead.") But break the crust of myth and it's not difficult to hear what Detroit partisans are talking about. Jazz chords, R&B melancholy, snatches of old soul and plenty of cosmic-mindedness are part and parcel of what dance people mean when they use "Detroit" as a signifier, and there's lots of it all over In the Darkand We Love Detroit, in ways that take little grounding to appreciate. (The disc-one mix of Craig's Masterpieceis closer to a pan-global tech-house style than Detroit techno, proper, though it's still marked by those touches.)

In the Dark is more of a grab bag — compilations are like that — but cuts such as Todd Modes' "I'd Rather Be With You" and Mike "Agent X" Clark's "Free Your Mind" have a disco swirl enticing in any era. We Love Detroit is tighter and more of a piece, or rather, two pieces. Each disc carries its compiler's flavor — May's ethereal, grandiose and soulful, capped by Andres' glistening instant classic, "New For U" (2012); Edgar's more clipped and jerky, a la his own electro-funky "Semierotic" and Magda's blipping "Late Night Woodward," a nod to the heavily filtered '90s Detroit electro of Ectomorph and Drexciya. And both halves of We Love Detroitseem complete unto themselves while enhancing the other. It offers Detroit techno — or house, or electro, or "dance music," whatever you prefer — as a musical continuum whose allure refuses to fade, whatever may happen to the city itself.

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