The Evolution of Detroit Techno

Today, hear the word ‘Techno’ and most instantly think of Europe. Ask any self-confessed fan of the genre where the international centres of Techno are to be found you’ll usually hear the same two or three European cities: Berlin, Warsaw, Barcelona etc. A quick glance at the website Techno Tourists, reveals that apparently, the ‘Best 10 Rave Destinations’ are, in fact, all in Europe. All this, quite understandably, creates the impression that Techno is a distinctly European phenomenon, quite possibly native to the continent. However, as the title of the article makes obvious, this is a mistake. Techno is not native to a continent, not even a country, but one city in the upper mid-western United States: Detroit. At first this appears slightly incongruous, a genre enjoyed by mostly middle-class, white Europeans originating in a working class, predominantly African American city. However, this starts to make a bit more sense when you consider how much popular music has followed this basic trajectory over the last 100 years.

Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes

The City of Detroit

Before Techno, Detroit already had a rich musical history producing everything from Gospel and Motown to Hardcore Punk. Like everything in Detroit, these movements were intimately connected with the city’s motor industry. At its peak in 1950, the city produced virtually 100% of all cars driven in the USA making Detroit the wealthiest city in America. This provided a relatively decent standard of living and quality of life for the city’s residents which was somewhat reflected in much of the music coming out of the city at the time. Though not an exclusively jovial genre, a faint thread of humanistic optimism seemed to run through much of Detroit’s musical output (Motown especially) during this period, as the city basked in the “Golden Age” of western capitalism. However, this was brought to an abrupt end at the beginning of the 1980’s with the ushering in of the neoliberal world system. Deindustrialisation decimated the auto industry and saw the standard of living for the city’s residents plummet. The population began to steadily decrease whilst poverty and all its symptoms (crime, drug abuse etc.) skyrocketed. It was under these conditions that Techno emerged. 

Downtown Detroit by Marie Staggat

The Belleville Three

Of course, there is no universally agreed beginning of Detroit Techno. Like any genre it is a product of so many converging artistic trends and environmental influences that teasing any one out is nigh on impossible. Having said that, The Electric Mojo radio show does not seem like a bad place to start. 

Beginning in 1977, the show exposed Detroit to the sounds Italo-disco, Kraftwerk and New York City funk for possibly the first time; sounds from which techno would eventually spring. DJ Mark Flash recently recalled a time when he was so entranced by the show: “I turned the washer off and went and just stood there because it felt so good I couldn’t even move”. However, the show’s most profound legacy is the impact it had on three kids in the suburb of Belleville, widely recognised as the inventors of Detroit Techno, “The Belleville Three”: Juan “the originator” Atkins, Derrick “the innovator” May and Kevin “the elevator” Saunderson. 

Atkins began the epochal shift towards Techno releasing projects under the moniker, Cybortron, with fellow college attendee Rick Davis. In tracks like the 1981 release, ‘Alley of Your Mind’ you can hear the beginnings of the futurist, almost eschatological, foundations of what would soon become Detroit Techno. It took the efforts of May however, to truly consolidate Techno as its own distinct genre; building the house on the foundations Atkins laid, so to speak. Tracks such as ‘String of Life’, ‘It Is What It Is’ and ‘The Dance’ are the platonic ideal of Detroit Techno and songs May once described as: “just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company”. Saunderson, youngest of the three, was appropriately the first to enjoy a modicum of commercial success as part of the group, Inner City, producing a more pop-style of music that could be almost be considered proto Tech-House. 

Although Detroit Techno has faded in popularity over the last few decades its legacy can be seen everywhere. And for this, the world should be eternally grateful. 

Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Juan Atkins