the new dance sound of detroit


by stuart cosgrove, 1988
from liner notes to virgin's compilation "techno! - the new dance sound of detroit"
transcribed by stuart@4th world
stolen and re-formatted by eluna
originally posted on the 313 list, 14 jul 1997

think of detroit and you automatically think of motown, but be careful not to think too loud because the new grandmasters of detroit techno hate history.

juan atkins, 26 years old, and the self proclaimed captain of the techno sound is an articulate enemy of motown's supreme being. "berry gordy built the motown sound on the same principle as the conveyor belt at the ford plant. today the automobile plants use robots and computers to make their cars and i'm more interested in fords robots than gordy's music."

techno music is unashamedly modern in it's out-look. it is a mesmerising underground of new music which looks to the future, breaks with the past and blends european industrial pop with black american garage funk. according to derrick may, the immensely gifted young producer who works under the pseudonyms rhythim is rhythim and mayday, his music goes "beyond the beat". it is not simply dance music but a series of sound experiments that often defy the logic of more uncomplicated dance sounds like chicago house.

the origins of techno date back to the late 70's to the supressed identity of european synthesiser groups like kraftwerk and yello and to british electronic funk groups like heaven 17, new order and the human league. their music established the synthesiser as the creative core of new music, encouraging a whole generation of young musicians to turn their basements into makeshift studios. unknown to europe the ears of black america were listening with increasing facsination reversing the age-old flow of musical influence.

in west detroit, juan atkins a student at the city's belleville high school and an obsessive fan of kraftwerk, began to compose basic drum patterns on an old roland d115 eventually graduating to more complex synthesiser tracks which borrowed heavily from europe.

juan's first group cybotron released several records at the height of the electro-funk boom in the early 80's, the most succesful being a truly progressive homage to the city of detroit simply entitled 'techno city'. at the time he believed the record was a unique and adventurous piece of synthesiser funk, more in tune with germany than the rest of black america, but on a dispiriting visit to new york, juan heard afrika bambaataa's 'planet rock' and realised that his vision of a spartan electronic dance sound had been upstaged.

he returned to detroit to renew his friendship with 2 younger students from belleville high, kevin saunderson and derrick may, and quietly over the next few years the three of them became the creative backbone of detroit techno.

most of the tracks on this lp are the work of the belleville 3, juan's 'techno music' and the kevin saunderson experience's 'electronic dance' reflect the basic studio beat of techno, whilst derrick may's rhythim is rhtyhim track takes the music into the most unlikely areas turning new age ambience and film-soundtrack instrumentation into complex dance music.

derrick may is undoubtedly the philosopher of techno! he sees the music as post-soul and believes it marks a deliberate break with previous traditions of black american music. "the music is just like detroit" he claims, "a complete mistake, it's like george clinton and kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company."

amidst the experimental strangeness of this album are other more obviously commercial dance records. 'share this house' by members of the house which actually features george clinton as an uncredited visiting producer, takes its main influences from the chicago jack virus.

inevitably the detroit techno sound will be compared to the music of the nearby city of chicago,a problem that neither angers nor concerns the producers of techno! blake baxter, detroit's soft spoken sex symbol, and the whispered mind behind the promiscous 'ride em boys', has already had several hits in the chicago area, and derrick may's best known records to date - 'nude photo' & 'strings' - were instrumental in taking chicago's music into the abstract and lysergic mood now described as 'acid house.'

but derrick believes there's a huge differance between chicago house and detroit techno! "it's a question of respect, house still has it's heart in 70's disco, we don't have any of that respect for the past, it's strictly future music. we have a much greater aptitude for experimentation."

techno is undoubtedly the music of detroit but it has none of the latter day optimism of motown. the city is reflected in the music in an unsettling way. "factories are closing and people are drifting away" says derrick, "the old industrial detroit is falling apart, the structures have collapsed. it's the murder capital of america. six year olds carry guns and thousands of black people have stopped caring if they ever work again. if you make music in that environment it can't be straight music. in britain you have new order, well our music is the new disorder."

techno's sudden shift of tempo and relentless war on familiarity makes it sound like free form jazz for the computer era. it may well be the music of the new disorder but it promises to join george clinton's funkadelia and prince's minneaplois sound as one of the most experimental forms of music black america has ever produced.