"The Techno Rebels are, whether they recognise it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead. For they are as much a part of the advance to a new stage of civilisation as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths." The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler.
"We're not really interested in tearing you up with the scratches and cuts tonight. We're more interested in...educating you for the future..." Derrick May, WJLB Radio Mix
It's 3am and the streets of America's seventh city are deserted as Derrick May pilots his car through a crumbling monument to the Second Wave - the age of industry and mass production - the age of Ford and Gordy who both ran their second wave empires from here. "This place is fucked man. It's finished," he says shaking his head incredulously. We pass a gutted building filled with holes that were once windows. Detroit is winding down the past and isn't sure if it wants to be part of the future.
Driving down Woodward Avenue, we pass the wooden house that was home to the carefully-honed pop soul of Motown. Motown was the musical backdrop to the Second Wave. Motown means nothing to Derrick May.
Via systems dance records like 'Nude Photo' and together with fellow artists Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, Derrick has invested his time, money and energy in the future.
Detroit rolls by like a discarded set from Robocop, a film set in the city's fictional future. "Now you understand why we make this music," he says, "We can do nothing but look forward..."
Alvin Toffler's book is a kind of bible to Detroit's new musical revolutionaries. This future shock manifesto sees the Third Wave technological future not as a cocktail of 1984 Numanoid nightmares and Robocop lawlessness, but as a place where man still controls. The nightmare of a brave new world where machines and robots call the shots has no place in this book. Alvin Toffler, like Kraftwerk, is not afraid of the pocket calculator and if he knew of them, it's likely the academic would approve of Model 500, Rhythim Is Rhythim and their positive futurism.
The music they both make is not afraid of the future and the view they project is as complex, as contradictory and as plausible as the world of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Detroit's electronic music community don't fear the robot. Unlike Gary Numan they look forward.
And unlike the ironic acid casualties of Chicago or the scratch fanatics of New York, they have no interest in old records, or scratch science. They are the Techno Rebels-musical agents of the Third Wave who see the fusion of man and machine as the only future.
If Alvin Toffler hadn't learned to use a word processor, it's likely that he would be connecting sequencer to drum machine and releasing records on Metroplex, KMS or Transmat, three of Detroit's most active dance labels.
Names like Metroplex and Transmat are now bywords for a sound which has hi-jacked dancefloors across the world and diverted the spotlight from Chicago - despite the fact that Detroit's new age electro sound has only a tenuous connection with House. Only House clubs and DJs are open-minded enough to deal with a hi-tech sound which can find no other home. Like House, it is a machine-driven dance music. And like House it has an idealised notion of Europe and European electronic music borne of a love for Kraftwerk.
But despite American dance music's long standing obsession with Europe - from the Munich Machine and Italian Disco to the popularity of records from artists like Telex and Klein And MBO - the new music of Detroit is the first to truly incorporate the European sound - a mixture of technology, detachment and neo-classicism (mirrored in the synthetic strings of Rhythim is Rhythim) so that it seems like something more than a strange metal leg on the wrong body.
From D Train and The System to Bambaata and Arthur Baker, this obsession has plotted its way through US clubland. Every US producer shocked by the starkness of Kraftwerk has since dreamed of Europe and the Trans-Europe Express.
The reasons why the most vibrant musical community in the world should want to embrace Ralf and Florian's Robo pop are unclear. European music isn't intrinsically better than the sound of America. In most cases it is uncategorically inferior. "Perhaps I have an idealised image of Europe and its music," says Derrick May. "I have a certain way I see it in my mind. I feel I should be there, I know I'd feel right there."
Techno is the sound of America's final and complete assimilation of the European sound and the climax of a fascination. On Bambaata's brave 'Planet Rock' the joins are not hard to find. Model 500's 'Techno Music' is flawless Eurobeat which draws on its influences without tracing over them, Juan Atkins floats somewhere over Dusseldorf and an integration process which has taken almost ten years is complete.
In this sense Detroit's new music is not a break with the black tradition (it's acknowledgement of the influence of the Parliament/Funkadelic axis; the futuristic funkiness of most of its output and Mayday's hissing hi-hat patterns bear this out) but more importantly, the point at which America has successfully integrated the European idea that sparked the experiment that was electro.
Patrick Cowley's Hi-Energy Sylvester productions of the early '80s show the roots of black music's fascination with continental electronics. The direct descendants of that sound are the Deep House records made in Chicago - a crossbreed of gospel influenced vocals and hard synthesised trax. Detroit goes one step further.
Records like Blake Baxter's 'When We Used To Play' or Reese and Santonio's 'Rock To The Beat' only use the human voice out of context so it's strangeness is exaggerated and its coldness becomes somehow machine-like.
These sounds are as sublime, as ridiculous, as effective and as European as Kraftwerk intoning 'Showroom Dummies' or New Order coldly inquiring, "How does it feel?"
The traditional understanding of black music and the accepted concept of soul become useless. Techno, black music with a soul which refers rather to the passionate commitment of its protagonists, has upturned these things in a way that House with its allegiance to the Philly Sound never could. Detroit has declared itself a satellite state of Germany.
The roots of The Sound, can be traced back to Alvin Tofller's book, first published in 1980 and a Vietnam veteran called Richard Davies who Derrick May describes as, "unique and extremely intelligent".
Juan Atkins met Richard Davies at Washtehaw Community College, Michigan. Juan was already making primitive electro records limited by the equipment available. Davies who is also known as 3070 (a futuristic name he devised for himself) introduced Juan to the book and the concept of Techno.
Together they formed Cybotron, a seminal Third Wave pop group whose first record 'Alley's Of Your Mind' on the Deep Space label went on to sell 15,000 copies. 3070's futurism spread as Juan introduced him to Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May - old friends from Bellville High School who were DJ-ing in the city while dabbling with synthesisers inspired by Juan's home recorded tracks.
This was 1981, a time when the world outside would only deal with Cybotron in terms of New York's electro scene - hence the appearance of the group's fourth release, 'Techno City' on an early electro compilation. An album 'Enter' made clear that Cybotron came too soon to be fully understood, 3070 disappeared ultimately "fucked up" by his tour of duty in Vietnam and Juan went on to work as Model 500 releasing records on his own Metroplex label.
Eddie Fowlkes refers to him as 'Godfather Techno' though Juan, a thoughtful figurehead, seems thoroughly embarrassed by the title. The Techno tag doesn't fit all Detroit's Third Wave musicians as neatly as it fits Juan. His is the purest Techno sound despite the inclusion of sinister whispered vocals, drawing most obviously on European influences. 'No UF0s', an underground dance classic since its release in 1985, is perhaps the scene's most important record.
"Detroit has always been a little strange", says Juan. "In Chicago, the House sound is based largely on the music of Philly International. Detroit never really took to disco. We were always more interested in European music and funk has always been popular."
This is borne out in the DOR (Dance Orientated Rock) clubs where Blake Baxter used to DJ. The European fascination is intense with records by Depeche Mode, Nitzer Ebb, Bauhaus and New Order easily the most requested. The Funk finds its focus in the fact that most of the Parliament/Funkadelic/Bootsy records of the late '70s were recorded at 'The P Funk Lab' of Detroit's United Sound Studio on Second Avenue in central Detroit. Juan describes Clinton's keyboard genius Bernie Worrell as, "the real Godfather of Techno.'
Eddie Fowlkes, who now records with Juan at Metroplex studios and whose 1986 release "Goodbye Kiss" is one of the scene's most sought after records elaborates; "The whole essence of Detroit is working class. The people are working, working, to get to the top. Disco came in and it was soft but Clinton's funk was hardcore and it suited the attitude of the people and the environment. The origin of the hardness in Techno is funk."
Perhaps it's the city's status as the murder capital of America that accounts for that legacy of toughness "There is a lot of aggression in the music. And despite what you might think the synthesises can be the most aggressive instrument."
"And you have to remember that this is Detroit," Eddie continues. "You could be walking along the street and someone could wind down the window of a car and shoot you. That tension, that sense of aggression is reflected in the music."
The past few years have brought at least 50 records from Detroit's Techno innovators and it's a measure of the strength of the city's Third Wave that the combinations of mixers, producers and editors are limitless. Kevin Saunderson was born in New York and moved to Detroit as a child. Despite his friendship with Derrick and Juan, only two years ago his mind was set on a career in football. But as a DJ working college parties at East Michigan University, he eventually got the bug. Now with his own label KMS, he is the scone's most prolific creator, turning out seminal Techno like 'The Sound'.
Blake Baxter, an offbeat vocal stylist with songs called 'Ride Em Boy' and 'Get Laid' is often compared to Chicago's Jamie Principle. But unlike Jamie, he seems to have little time for the tension between sex and The Holy Sacraments. And Blake has no time for self denial. "My music is about looking at things in a sexual way, I like passionate things and I love sex. Sometimes I don't think my songs go far enough. I wish they could be deeper but I'm not sure if people are ready for that yet."
On the American dance scene Derrick May is the best known producer of Techno despite the fact that that Juan is the acknowledged originator. But Mayday has taken Techno somewhere else and the term no longer describes accurately what he does.
His is a hard uncompromising sound and his commitment is intense. I mention classic disco and he seizes the opportunity to talk about classical music. Having just moved to a new house, Derrick tells me he can't make music there, "I need a window, something to look at, something to think about." Driving slowly around the city, he considers the impact his music has had. "It surprises me. People always thought I was crazy to do it. Some people still do. Why do people connect with my music? I think it's because the world has made them bitter. They have deep emotional feelings and no way of expressing them. I think the music brings those feelings out. They're out on the floor dancing, but in their heads they see themselves walking on clouds or they see themselves crossing that finishing line. My music makes me cry sometimes, I think of things I was trying to express."
"Sometimes I think about my grandfather, my mother, my childhood or my idols. 'Strings' was about Martin Luther King. When they killed him, they destroyed the hopes and dreams of a generation. It was about the hope in his message."
We drive to his old address, a flat on Second Avenue where all of the 110 tracks he has on disc were created. From a window on the top floor he talks through the view that was the inspiration for his music.
"I could work through the night and I would see the city waking up - the face without the make-up. At night you would see the heat rising in the air from the stacks of old factory buildings. Now, when I listen to those tracks I see that view, I see the confusion of a city lost in transition from one age to another. The city is dying but Juan and the rest of us are all part of the third wave, the future."
In the new music of Detroit the future is already here.
July 1988 Re-edit 1991
Kevin Saunderson Date Of Birth 5.9.64 Born Brooklyn, New York Education Bellville High School. Eastern Michigan University What is life? Living, thinking, moving. Favourite Soda? Blue Cream Soda Kevin Saunderson is.. A human being trying to be better Derrick May is.. A very helpful brother who hip people like Juan Atkins is.. A man in another world What is music? Emotion expressed through sound What is Techno? Using old and new technology to create a futuristic sound What have you done with your money? I bought a lovely house in a great area and made an investment by owning my own recording studio Why is technology perceived as being cold? Because people are scared of progress Have you ever ridden the Trans Europe Express? No Would you die if you lost the ability to hear? No. I have a lot to live for Do you like robots? Yes Do you like Gary Numan? No, but I loved Cars Favourite machine? Roland SD 8000 Who is the originator? Juan Atkins Who Is the innovator? Kevin Saunderson Who is the elevator? Mr May Is there a future for the world? If there's a tomorrow there's a future, good or bad Juan Atkins Date Of Birth 12.9.62 Education Bellville High. Washentaw Community College, Recording Institute Of Detroit What is Techno? Music that sounds like technology Where would Techno be without England? Where would England be without Techno? Greatest Techno record? Home Computer - Kraftwerk Does It still exist? Does the space shuttle still exist? Do you love machines? I don't love anything that can't love me back Favourite machine? Roland R-8 What would you do if you had a chance to make a record with Kraftwerk? Take plenty of notes Why has Techno inspired some of the most pretentious music journalism of the last decade? Because there is nothing else to talk about except so called new music trends that happened ten or twenty years ago Kevin Saunderson is... A go getter Derrick May is... Creative Juan Atkins is... A man with a vision Who is the originator? Juan Atkins Who Is the innovator? Derrick May Who is the elevator? Kevin Saunderson Will you ever stop making music? No What is music? Sound painting Is there a future for this world? Yes. But not as we know it now Derrick May Date Of Birth 6.4.63 Education School Of Hard Knox Current yearly salary? None of your fucking business First record bought? 'Tommy The Who What does the phrase Bellville Three mean to you? Nothing Does George Clinton have anything to do with Techno? No What is Techno? Bullshit Hype Favourite Drum machine? Roland TR 808 Preferred keyboard? Trade secret What inspires you to make music? Nothing at the moment Will you ever stop making music? Maybe yes, maybe no Ambition To score films Kevin Saunderson is.. Extremely energetic Juan Atkins is... A thoroughbred that doesn't want to run Derrick May is.. (No response) Who Is the innovator? Kraftwerk Who is the originator? Cybotron Who is the elevator Otis What is the Third Wave? A progressive state of mind What makes you happy? Anything that doesn't ask me questions Is there a future for this world? There had better be