Detroit techno

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Detroit techno is a type of techno music that generally includes the first techno productions by Detroit-based artists during the 1980s and early 1990s. Detroit has been cited as the birthplace of techno.[1][2] Prominent Detroit techno artists include Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. A distinguishing trait of Detroit techno is the use of analog synthesizers and early drum machines, particularly the Roland TR-909, or, in later releases, the use of digital emulation to create the characteristic sounds of those machines.


Main article: Techno
"Strings of Life" (1987) by Rhythim is Rhythim (Derrick May) was a seminal techno track.

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To say that Detroit techno was created as a reflection of the auto-industry as it was growing is false. The auto industry in Detroit had actually been shrinking at this time. The truth is, Techno was born in Detroit, but it had little to do with the auto industry and more to do with a diverse network of artists working in after hours night clubs.

Many early techno tracks had futuristic or robotic themes, although a notable exception to this trend was a single by Derrick May under his pseudonym Rhythim Is Rhythim, called "Strings of Life" (1987). This vibrant dancefloor anthem was filled with rich synthetic string arrangements and took the underground music scene by storm in May 1987. It "hit Britain in an especially big way during the country's 1987-1988 house explosion."[3] It became May's best known track, which, according to Frankie Knuckles, "just exploded. It was like something you can't imagine, the kind of power and energy people got off that record when it was first heard. "[4] With subtle differences between the genres, clubs in both cities included Detroit techno and Chicago house tracks in their playlists without objection from patrons (or much notice by non-audiophiles).[citation needed]

The Belleville Three[edit]

The three individuals most closely associated with the birth of Detroit techno as a genre are Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, also known as the "Belleville Three".[5] The three, who were high school friends from Belleville, Michigan, created electronic music tracks in their basement(s). Eventually, they were in demand at local dance clubs, thanks in part to Detroit radio personality The Electrifying Mojo.[citation needed] Ironically, Derrick May once described Detroit techno music as being a "complete George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company."[6]


Kevin Saunderson was born in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of nine he moved to Michigan, where he attended Belleville High School in Belleville, a town some 30 miles from Detroit.[7] In school he befriended Derrick May and Juan Atkins, both of whom had been born in Detroit but later moved to suburban Belleville.


The location of Belleville was key to the formation of the Belleville Three as musicians. Because the town was still “pretty racially prejudiced at the time,” according to Saunderson, “we three kind of gelled right away.” The suburban setting also afforded a different setting in which to experience the music. “We perceived the music differently than you would if you encountered it in dance clubs. We'd sit back with the lights off and listen to records by Bootsy and Yellow Magic Orchestra. We never took it as just entertainment, we took it as a serious philosophy,” recalls May.[8]

Belleville was located near several automobile factories, which provided well-paying jobs to a racially integrated workforce. “Everybody was equal,” Atkins explained in an interview.[8] “So what happened is that you’ve got this environment with kids that come up somewhat snobby, ‘cos hey, their parents are making money working at Ford or GM or Chrysler, been elevated to a foreman, maybe even a white-collar job.” European acts like Kraftwerk were popular among middle-class black youth.

The segregatory stigma attaching to Eight Mile Road was comparable to that dividing lines around Watts in Los Angeles, The Bronx in New York City, or Chicago's South Side. Although the Belleville Three lived outside the city limits, their influence in loft apartment parties, after hours and high school clubs and late night radio united listeners of progressive dance music from above and below Eight Mile Road.[citation needed] Even Techno-friendly regular hours clubs like The Shelter, The Music Institute and The Majestic were incubators Techno's progress from basements and late night radio onto the dance floors of the world.

Most of the early party-goers were made up of middle-class black youths. However, as Detroit experienced heavy economic downfall, many of the middle-class white families fled to the suburbs in what is called the "white flight" of the early 70s while middle-class black families were displaced by the de-gentrification of once securely middle-class black districts.

There is heavy influence of machinery in Detroit techno, representing the sounds often heard by musicians in their everyday life at work. With Detroit being known as "Motor City", hearing machinery sounds in Detroit Techno should be of no surprise. Additionally, Detroit Techno shares similarities to Chicago House; however, Chicago House does not have as many machinery sounds as Detroit Techno does.

Detroit Techno’s geography is extremely relevant and explains why Detroit Techno sounds the way it does. Detroit Techno eventually became popular for clubbing; however, before it was simply a way everyday Detroit citizens would not only use to express their lives but it was, in a sense, a shared struggle that is heard in Detroit Techno. Detroit Techno ended up becoming a way for middle class Blacks to distance themselves from lower class blacks.

Detroit Techno as a genre created a new-found, integrated club scene in Detroit that had not been felt in a general sense after the Motown label moved to Los Angeles. Television programs like TV62 - WGPR's "The Scene" - featured a racially and ethnically very mixed selection of dancers every weekday after school, but the playlist was typically jammed with the R&B and funk tracks of the day, like Prince or the Gap Band. Breakouts like Juan Atkins's Technicolor, under his Channel One moniker, eventually found their way onto The Scene, and helped to validate the burgeoning local Techno underground with the urban high school set, college radio programmers and DJs from Chicago to London and beyond. In addition, the advent of a huge circuit of local parties in Detroit spawned competition between a number of DJs, with a week's preparation for a party being common.

The club scene created by techno in Detroit was also a way for suburban blacks in Detroit to distance themselves from “jits,” slang for lower class African Americans living in the inner-city .“Prep parties” were obsessed with flaunting wealth and incorporated many aspects of European culture including club names like Plush, Charivari, and GQ Productions, reflecting European fashion and luxury, because Europe signified high class. In addition prep parties were run as private clubs and restricted who could enter based on dress and appearance. Party flyers were also an attempt to restrict and distance lower class individuals from the middle class club scene.[9]

Dance clubs were the few places that white and black youths congregated because of the love of the music, and had little exposure to some of the violence seen in other venues within the city. The Techno and House scenes saw little if no violence and were primarily about dancing and listening to music played by local DJ,s that were rapidly impacting the entire genre of electronic music. To this very day although the city has seen a major spike in crime those scenes are the few that you will still find a complete racially and ethnically mixed crowd peacefully dancing and mingling in 2012 much as they had been in 1988.[citation needed]

Juan Atkins and Rick Davis formed Cybotron producing Detroit hits like Alleys of Your Mind, Techno City, Cosmic Cars, and Clear before signing onto the Fantasy label. However, Cybotron's dominant mood of tech-noir and desolation played into not describing and vacillating on the city's decline, but describing the creativity often not noticed by the surrounding occupants of Detroit's still segregated suburbs but heralded around the planet as the mecca of electronic music.


The three teenage friends bonded while listening to an eclectic mix of music: Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, Bootsy, Parliament, Prince, Depeche Mode, and The B-52's. Juan Atkins was inspired to buy a synthesizer after hearing Parliament.[8] Atkins was also the first in the group to take up turntablism, teaching May and Saunderson how to DJ.[10]

Early careers[edit]

Under the name Deep Space Soundworks, Atkins and May began to DJ on Detroit’s party circuit. By 1981, Mojo was playing the record mixes recorded by the Belleville Three, who were also branching out to work with other musicians.[11] The trio traveled to Chicago to investigate the house music scene there, particularly the legendary Chicago DJs Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles.[10] House was a natural progression from disco music, so that the trio began to formulate the synthesis of this dance music with the mechanical sounds of groups like Kraftwerk, in a way that reflected post-industrialist Detroit. An obsession with the future and its machines is reflected in much of their music, because, according to Atkins, Detroit is the most advanced in the transition away from industrialism.[12]

Detroit Techno and the Machine[edit]

Early Detroit techno artists employed science fiction imagery to articulate their visions of a transformed society.[13] There is a clear distinction between Detroit techno and the other science fiction music at the time. While that music was meant to portray the deviance and "alien-ness" of blackness specifically, Detroit techno leveraged science fiction and the machine to surpass race. By focusing on science fiction and the machine, it disallows its listeners from tying the music to race. It is an "other" that we may have heuristics for, but not in such a way that can clearly be racialized or socialized.The genre was not as digestable to the black working class body and it was not meant to be. Like most art under the New Black Aesthetic, black artists of this time sought to call to attention the tensions between classes in the black community. While there was no focus on gender or sexuality, the middle class were given a voice, and a space to explore music without having to falsely identify with the struggles of the working class.

Foundations of Detroit techno[edit]

While attending Washtenaw Community College, Atkins met Rick Davis and formed Cybotron with him. Their first single “Alleys of Your Mind”, recorded on their Deep Space label in 1981, sold 15,000 copies, and the success of two follow-up singles, “Cosmic Cars” and “Clear,” led the California-based label Fantasy to sign the duo and release their album, Clear. After Cybotron split due to creative differences, Atkins began recording as Model 500 on his own label, Metroplex, in 1985. His landmark single, “No UFOs,” soon arrived. Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Robert Hood also recorded on Metroplex.


Although the Detroit musicians—the Belleville Three and other early pioneers like Eddie Fowlkes, and James Pennington—were a close-knit group who shared equipment and studio space, and who helped each other with projects, friction developed.[citation needed] Each member of the Belleville Three branched off on his own record label. May's Transmat began as a sublabel imprint of Metroplex. Saunderson founded KMS based on his own initials. They set up shop in close proximity to one another, in Detroit’s Eastern Market district.


"Big Fun" (1988) was the debut hit single by techno group Inner City (Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey).

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All of the Belleville Three have worked under many different names and titles. Derrick May saw great success under the name Rhythim is Rhythim, his moniker when he released his landmark “Strings of Life.” Kevin Saunderson’s most commercially recognized projects was Inner City with vocalist Paris Grey,[7] debuting with the hit single "Big Fun" (1988).[14] Juan Atkins has been lauded as the "Godfather of Techno" while Derrick May is thought of as the "Innovator" and Kevin Saunderson is often referred to as the "Elevator"[15][16]

The Music Institute[edit]

Inspired by Chicago's house clubs, Chez Damier, Alton Miller et George Baker started a club of their own in downtown Detroit, named The Music Institute.[17] The club helped unite a previously scattered scene into an underground "family," where May, Atkins, and Saunderson DJed with fellow pioneers like Eddie "Flashin" Fowlkes and Blake Baxter.[18] It allowed for collaboration, and helped inspire what would become the second wave of Detroit-area techno, which included artists whom the Belleville Three had influenced and mentored.[19]


The three artists all contribute to the discourse of Afrofuturism through their re-purposing of technology to create a new form of music that appealed to a marginalized underground population. Especially within the context of Detroit, where the rise of robotics led to a massive loss of jobs around the time these three were growing up, technology is very relevant. The three friends put together tracks in their basements, making music without access to studios or top-line equipment, manipulating machines and sounds in a unique and experimental way. The process "took technology, and made it a black secret."[20]

The sound is both futuristic and extraterrestrial, touching on the 'otherness' central to Afrofuturist content. According to one critic, it was a "deprived sound trying to get out."[20]

Tukufu Zuberi explains that electronic music can be multiracial and that critics should pay attention to "not just sound aesthetics but the production process and institutions created by black musicians."[20]

Success abroad[edit]

In 1988, due to the immense popularity of American electronic music in Great Britain, dance music entrepreneur Neil Rushton approached the Belleville Three to license their work for release in the UK. To define the Detroit sound as being distinct from Chicago house, Rushton and the Belleville Three chose the word "techno" for their tracks, a term that Atkins had been using since his Cybotron days ("Techno City" was an early single).[21] However, the trio from Belleville had some reservations about the culture that surrounded the drug-filled techno subculture abroad. Derrick May in particular continues to advocate that drugs are not necessary to participate in good music.[22]

Recent work[edit]

Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May remain active in the music scene today. In 2000, the first annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival was held, and in 2004 May assumed control of the festival, renamed Movement. He invested his own funds into the festival, and "got severely wounded financially."[23] Kevin Saunderson helmed the festival, renamed FUSE IN, the following year. Saunderson, May, and Craig all performed but did not produce the festival in 2006,[24] when it was again called Movement. Saunderson returned to perform at the 2007 Movement as well.[25]
The Belleville Three continue to tour internationally. All three maintain popular MySpace pages promoting their music and performances. Derrick May says that his mission continues to be "to save the world from bad music."[26]

The New Dance Sound of Detroit[edit]

"Techno Music" by Juan Atkins was the title track of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (1988).

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The explosion of interest in electronic dance music during the late 1980s provided a context for the development of techno as an identifiable genre. The mid-1988 UK release of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit,[27][28] an album compiled by ex-Northern Soul DJ and Kool Kat Records boss Neil Rushton (at the time an A&R scout for Virgin's "10 Records" imprint) and Derrick May, was an important milestone and marked the introduction of the word techno in reference to a specific genre of music.[29][30] Although the compilation put techno into the lexicon of music journalism, the music was, for a time, sometimes characterized as Detroit's high-tech interpretation of Chicago house rather than a relatively pure genre unto itself.[30][31] In fact, the compilation's working title had been The House Sound of Detroit until the addition of Atkins' song "Techno Music" prompted reconsideration.[27][32] Rushton was later quoted as saying he, Atkins, May, and Saunderson came up with the compilation's final name together, and that the Belleville Three voted down calling the music some kind of regional brand of house; they instead favored a term they were already using, techno.[30][32][33]

Second wave[edit]

The first wave of Detroit techno had peaked in 1988-89, with the popularity of artists like Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Blake Baxter, and Chez Damier, and clubs like Majestic Theater, The Shelter, and the Music Institute. At the same time, the European rave scene embraced the Detroit sound, thanks to Kool Kat Records' release of a number of Detroit records. May's Strings of Life achieved "anthemic" status in 1989,[34] several years after its recording.

Once Detroit Techno became a full-fledged musical genre, a second generation of regional artists developed into techno icons themselves; Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, and Octave One[35] to name just a few. Mills began his career as "The Wizard" on Mojo's nightly broadcast, showcasing his turntablist skills with quick cuts of the latest underground tracks and unreleased music from local labels. What began as a Europhile fantasy of elegance and refinement, ironically, by the early 90s, British and European techno transformed into a "vulgar uproar for E'd-up mobs: anthemic, cheesily sentimental, unabashedly drug-crazed.",[36] as British journalist Simon Reynolds puts it. Detroit embraced this maximalism and created its own variant of acid house and techno. The result was a harsh Detroit hardcore full of riffs and industrial bleakness. Two major labels of this sound were Underground Resistance and +8, both of which mixed 1980s electro, UK synth-pop and industrial paralleling the brutalism of rave music of Europe.

Underground Resistance's music embodied a kind of abstract militancy by presenting themselves as a paramilitary group fighting against commercial mainstream entertainment industry who they called "the programmers" in their tracks such as Predator, Elimination, Riot or Death Star. Similarly, the label +8 was formed by Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva which evolved from industrial hardcore to a minimalist progressive techno sound. As friendly rivals to Underground Resistance, +8 pushed up the speed of their songs faster and fiercer in tracks like Vortex.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, Detroit Techno producers experimented with extended aural soundscapes featuring sparse, ambient underscores punctuated with sporadic, cyclical periods of percussion. Extended length vinyl projects like those under Hawtin's Plastikman façade are particularly clear examples of this period. Atkins Sonic Sunset CD in 1994 also delivered this new tradition of Detroit techno. The racial politics of Detroit Techno gave rise to a new form of African-American expression, "the link to African drumming and its emphasis on polyrhythms can't be ignored."[37] One such example by a white artist, Richie Hawtin, is "Afrika" which produced a connection between African drums and percussion with Techno minimalistic programming. Yet this one example may not be enough to make this idealization a reality.

On Memorial Day weekend of 2000, electronic music fans from around the globe made a pilgrimage to Hart Plaza on the banks of the Detroit River and experienced the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival. In 2003, the festival management changed the name to Movement, then Fuse-In (2005), and most recently, Movement: Detroit's Electronic Music Festival (2007). The festival is a showcase for DJs and performers across all genres of electronic music.

Notable Detroit area producers[edit]

Notable Detroit area record labels[edit]

Other notable Detroit techno styled producers and acts[edit]

See also[edit]


  • Brewster B. & Broughton F., Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, Avalon Travel Publishing, 2006, (ISBN 978-0802136886).
  • Reynolds, S., Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, Pan Macmillan, 1998 (ISBN 978-0330350563).
  • Reynolds, S., Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, Routledge, New York 1999 (ISBN 978-0415923736).[38]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Woodford, Arthur M. (2001). This is Detroit 1701–2001. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-2914-4. 
  3. ^ Bush, John. "Derrick May". AllMusic. Retrieved 25 July 2012. 
  4. ^ "Interview: Derrick May - The Secret of Techno". Mixmag. 1997. Retrieved 25 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Hanf, Mathias Kilian. Detroit Techno: Transfer of the Soul through the Machine VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2010.
  6. ^ "Music Feature: Who Likes Techno? [2nd October 2007]". BBC Radio4. Retrieved 2007-10-05. 
  7. ^ a b TECHNO -Derrick May, Kavin Saunderson, Juan Atkins - the Belleville Three
  8. ^ a b c Reynolds, Simon. Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture Routledge, 1999.
  9. ^ Brewster, Bill and Frank Broughton (1999). Last Night the DJ Saved My Life: Story of the Disc Jockey. Headline Book Publishing. p 254-255
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ Juan Atkins
  12. ^ Techno
  13. ^ Schaub, Christoph. "Beyond the Hood? Detroit Techno, Underground Resistance, and African American Metropolitan Identity Politics". 
  14. ^ Bush, John. "Inner City". AllMusic. Retrieved 6 August 2012. 
  15. ^ Juan Atkins Interview - Godfather of Techno Interview
  16. ^ Derrick May interview: Godfather of Techno ::
  17. ^ Brewster, Bill; Broughton, Frank (2011). The Record Players: DJ Revolutionaries. Black Cat. p. 315. ISBN 978-0-8021-7089-7. 
  18. ^ [1]
  19. ^ Derrick May
  20. ^ a b c High Tech Soul: Detroit Techno
  21. ^ Pitchfork Feature: From the Autobahn to I-94
  22. ^ Derrick May
  23. ^ inthemix | Features | Derrick May: High Tech Soul
  24. ^ Movement
  25. ^
  26. ^ Derrick May
  27. ^ a b Sicko 1999:98
  28. ^ Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit info at
  29. ^ Brewster 2006:354
  30. ^ a b c Reynolds 1999:71. Detroit's music had hitherto reached British ears as a subset of Chicago house; [Neil] Rushton and the Belleville Three decided to fasten on the word techno – a term that had been bandied about but never stressed – in order to define Detroit as a distinct genre.
  31. ^ Chin, Brian (March 1990). House Music All Night Long – Best of House Music Vol. 3 (liner notes). Profile Records, Inc.  Detroit's "techno" ... and many more stylistic outgrowths have occurred since the word "house" gained national currency in 1985.
  32. ^ a b Bishop, Marlon; Glasspiegel, Wills (2011-06-14). "Juan Atkins [interview for Afropop Worldwide]". World Music Productions. Retrieved 2011-06-17. 
  33. ^ Savage, Jon (1993). "Machine Soul: A History Of Techno". The Village Voice.  "The U.K. likes discovering trends," Rushton says. "Because of the way that the media works, dance culture happens very quickly. It's not hard to hype something up. ...When the first techno records came in, the early Model 500, Reese, and Derrick May material, I wanted to follow up the Detroit connection. I took a flyer and called up Transmat; I got Derrick May and we started to release his records in England. ...Derrick came over with a bag of tapes, some of which didn't have any name: tracks which are now classics, like 'Sinister' and 'Strings of Life.' Derrick then introduced us to Kevin Saunderson, and we quickly realized that there was a cohesive sound of these records, and that we could do a really good compilation album. We got backing from Virgin Records and flew to Detroit. We met Derrick, Kevin, and Juan and went out to dinner, trying to think of a name. At the time, everything was house, house house. We thought of Motor City House Music, that kind of thing, but Derrick, Kevin, and Juan kept on using the word techno. They had it in their heads without articulating it; it was already part of their language."
  34. ^ Reynolds, p. 219
  35. ^
  36. ^ Reynolds, Simon Reynolds, "Generation Ecstasy." pg.114.
  37. ^ Philip Sherburne, "Digital Discipline: Minimalism in House and Techno." Continuum, NY, 2006, pg.321.
  38. ^ Generation Ecstasy is based on Energy Flash, but is a unique edition significantly rewritten for the North American market. Its copyright date is 1998 but it was first published July 1999.