From Motown to Eminem, Detroit has long been a music city. For a certain, electronically minded type of music lover, though, Detroit will forever mean techno, a genre that (with apologies to Kraftwerk) originated in the Motor City around the turn of the ‘80s. Even now, seeing “Detroit” alongside a DJ’s name on a club line-up is like a guarantee of quality for techno fans, who recognize the city’s unparalleled history in tough, danceable electronic music.
For all its panoply of talent, Detroit techno will always be associated with the Belleville Three, a.k.a. the three Belleville High School friends—Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May—who helped give birth to techno with their groundbreaking electronic productions and DJ skills. Today, all three are still among the most respected DJs and producers in the global electronic-music community and, in 2017, formally began working together officially under the Belleville Three moniker, playing at the Movement festival in Detroit.
And yet the history of Detroit techno goes back even further—Derrick May once compared the music to “George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator.” Another key influence could be found closer to home: Richard Davis, a Vietnam vet from Detroit who produced the stunning electronic soundscape “Methane Sea” in 1978.
Atkins met Davis in 1980 and the duo formed Cybotron, whose 1981 debut single “Alleys of Your Mind” is sometimes referred to as the first techno record, in one of those late-night arguments that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. (“Shari Vari” by Detroit electro group A Number of Names is another popular contender.) Cybotron’s third single, 1983’s “Clear,” is their classic cut and has been widely sampled, most notably by Missy Elliott on “Lose Control.” Atkins left Cybotron in 1985 over musical differences: Davis wanted to pursue a rock direction, while Atkins wanted to further develop Cybotron’s electro sound, a direction that was evident on Atkins’ first solo release, the brilliantly dark drive-time thrust of “No UFO’s” under the Model 500 name.
Atkins may have been the first of the Belleville Three to release a record but it was (arguably) Derrick May who first produced something we would recognize as techno today, with Atkins’ productions hewing closer to electro. May’s debut as Rhythim Is Rhythim, “Nude Photo” (a collaboration with Thomas Barnett), was a hugely sophisticated record that sounded a step removed from anything else coming out of Detroit thanks to its jazzy syncopation. But it was Rhythim Is Rhythim’s second record, the yearning, iconic “Strings of Life,” that really lifted the lid on Detroit techno internationally. “Strings of Life” is still regarded by many as one of the greatest techno tracks of all time.
Saunderson, meanwhile, is known for two very different aspects of his productions: The classic sound of Inner City, which married techno-influenced production to house vocals, and the harder-edged sound of his various Reese/E-Dancer/Tronik House productions, whose tough bassline style influenced the nascent jungle and rave scenes in the UK.
THE SECOND WAVE
The Belleville Three (alongside Blake Baxter, Eddie “Flashin'” Fowlkes, and Chez Damier) were the key names in the first wave of Detroit techno, which ruled the late 1980s. The new decade then saw the emergence of the second wave of Detroit techno, which would be dominated by Underground Resistance (and its various constituent members) and Derrick May protege Carl Craig. Suburban Knight, a.k.a. James Pennington, was the link between the two waves. His first record, 1987’s “The Groove,” was released on Derrick May’s Transmat label, as was his classic “The Art of Stalking,” a lurching, rock-hard extraterrestrial groove still capable of slaying dance floors to this day. He later joined Underground Resistance.
Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen, and Octave One aside, the Underground Resistance collective would at one time play host to pretty much all the key artists and DJs of Detroit’s second wave. UR was formed in the late 1980s by Jeff Mills and former studio musician “Mad” Mike Banks, and its members included James Stinson and Gerald Donald (later of Drexciya and, respectively, The Other People Place and Dopplereffekt), Robert Hood, DJ Rolando, and Claude Young.
UR’s own music, released largely on the Underground Resistance and Red Planet labels under a variety of names, manages to mix seat-of-your pants insurrectionary techno (see: “The Seawolf”) with sky-scraping electronics (“Inspiration,” or The Martian’s “Star Dancer”), barn-storming gospel house (Galaxy 2 Galaxy’s “First Galactic Baptist Church”), and jazz (Galaxy 2 Galaxy’s “Hi-Tech Jazz,” a song that does more than any other in the history of electronic music to rehabilitate the saxophone solo). In a neat squaring of the circle, Underground Resistance would later remix Kraftwerk’s 1999 single “Expo 2000,” which evolved into “Planet of Visions,” a song that would be a staple of Kraftwerk’s live set in years to come.
UR’s former members’ work also demands to be explored. Jeff Mills remains one of the biggest names in techno thanks to his thundering, loop-based productions and occasional excursions into theoretical ambience, as well as his exhilarating chop-and-change DJ skills. (He would also work with Mike Banks and Robert Hood as X-101.) Drexciya’s mixture of aquatic electro, vocal hooks, and Afrofuturist mythology has made them one of the most revered names in electronic music (with their career tragically curtailed in 2002 when James Stinson died). Robert Hood essentially invented minimal techno with his ground-breaking 1994 release Minimal Nation, a record that still sounds menacingly futuristic over two decades later. And DJ Rolando (as The Aztec Mystic) would give UR a global hit record in 1999 with the I’m-not-crying-it’s-just-dry-ice-under-my-contact-lenses, string-led revelry of “Knights Of The Jaguar.”
For all that, if there is one artist that sums up the brilliant, emotive technological innovation of second-wave Detroit it is probably Carl Craig, an artist, DJ, and label boss who has produced everything from Kraftwerk-ian synth classics (“Science Fiction”) to chilling ambience (Psyche’s “Neurotic Behavior”) to screaming house bangers (Paperclip People’s “Throw”) to breakbeat elegance (69’s “Desire”) to proto drum ‘n’ bass (Innerzone Orchestra’s “Bug in the Bass Bin”).
THE NEXT GENERATION
Detroit’s influence is such that its classic artists continue to dominate the techno landscape today. But this hasn’t stopped a new generation of local producers coming through, post-second wave. The best known of these are probably Moodymann and Theo Parrish, although neither are exactly new, having debuted in the ’90s, while much of their work nods more towards deep house, disco, and jazz than straight-up techno.
New generations of talent continue to emerge from Detroit, sometimes springing, quite literally, from the loins of the pioneers: Robert Hood is now working with his daughter, Lyric, in the wonderful Floorplan, while Kevin Saunderson’s sons Dantiez and DaMarii Saunderson DJ as The Saunderson Brothers, alongside their solo careers. Elsewhere, the raw, funked-up techno of Omar-S, the UK bass-leaning Kyle Hall, and the wonky jazz productions of Jay Daniel give further proof of the incredible wellspring of electronic-music talent in the Motor City.