The Dummy Guide to Detroit techno part II: the Second Wave to the present day Tracking the electronic sounds of The Motor City as they exploded into Europe and were transformed by successive waves of Detroit kids.
We return to the final frontier, as described in the first part of this Dummy guide, to the late 1980s where the first wave of Detroit techno broke and became the second wave. As with all Dummy Guides, this is less for the heads and more for the interested and enthusiastic. A subject as vast as this requires a lengthy book to begin to get into all of its aspects, but for now we invite you to read about some of the larger themes that have defined Detroit’s second wave through to the present day.
Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit: A scene exported, connected, and celebrated
The scene created by the first wave in Detroit had, by the late 80s carved its own spot in the city’s underground, but, despite a couple of breakout hits, still didn’t command much attention beyond the city limits. But this was 1988, and the Second Summer Of Love was just getting started – Europe was ready for Detroit and Detroit was ready for Europe. Four countries in particular embraced the sound of The Motor City and let it influence and infiltrate their own distinct dance music cultures: Great Britain, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
In the UK, as house, acid house, and Balearica were beginning to form a nascent dance culture at drug-fueled warehouse parties and illegal raves up and down the country. A few DJs were already supporting Detroit techno, hearing of it via the house artists from Chicago and New York City that had already become popular overseas, but it was a compilation album on Virgin UK put together by the famous northern soul figurehead Neil Rushton, that broke this sound to the masses. ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit’ was a game-changer.
Legend has it that Neil Rushton wanted to differentiate this “new dance sound of Detroit” from its older dance sound of motown, while Juan Atkins had been calling his music “techno” to differentiate it from Chicago’s house music and also in reference to the “techno rebels” referred to in Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. In actuality, by 1988 there were already Cybtron tracks with ‘techno’ in the title, New York’s Man Parrish had released his own electro tune named Techno Trax in 1982, and Frankfurt’s Technoclub opened in 1984 and specialised in the EBM music that was popular at that time. Rushton didn’t invent the term techno at all, but, spurred on from Juan Atkins’s offering on compilation entitled Techno Music, he was the first to mass market the sound of Detroit at that time under a singular name. The compilation is still cited by many in the UK and Europe as an integral part of the music of Detroit going from a local scene to an international phenomenon, as well as codifying the proliferation of microscenes under the techno banner.
As the scene went global and links were forged in countless cities across the world during the rise of electronic dance music culture, there are few places that forged a bond like the one between Detroit and Germany, and in particular Detroit and Berlin. With (psycho)geographic commonalities ranging from a surplus of abandoned space and post-industrial collapse to extreme climates and an obsession with futurism and a potential for rebirth, it was no surprise that the man-machine music of Kraftwerk influenced Detroit’s youths, which then in turn made it their own and influenced Berlin’s clubbing culture. 1989 saw the Berlin Wall fall, and techno, in part due to the implicitly social nature of dance culture, became the soundtrack as people traveled and explored between the east and west. This new emblem for unification needed a home, and a particularly famous one was found in the underground vault of an abandoned department store that was called Tresor.
The club, which has since closed down and re-opened in a new location, also gave birth to a record label, and catered to the growing obsession with Detroit techno by inviting its producers and DJs to play as well as releasing their music. The parent label of Tresor, Interfisch, was the first label to put out Detroit music under another of its sub-labels in 1990, but the Tresor sub-label started up in 1991 and out of its first five releases, four had productions and/or collaborations with Detroit producers on them. Tresor continues to support the music of Detroit with Mike Huckaby’s ‘Tresor EP’ and a new set of remix EPs by Juan Atkin’s Infiniti alias having dominated their spring/summer 2012 releases. This exchange was also reciprocated as labels like Juan Atkins’s Metroplex released a collaboration between his Model 500 moniker and 3MB, the duo of Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald before they went their separate, and extremely influential, ways.
Bass Mutations: The second wave & move towards Detroit Electronic Music
The export of Detroit’s music to Europe was also due to an influx of new producers from The Motor City around the late 1980s and 1990s who, alongside the original techno rebels of the first wave, started personalising the genre with their distinct amalgamations of influences and intentions until sub-genres began to rapidly form. It’s entirely impossible to name all of these mutations or the people involved in the second wave here, let alone do much to breach the the surface of the ones included, but the following paragraphs outline a few of its key members and trends. A harder and sparser sub-genre was forming via artists like Mad Mike Banks, Robert Hood, and Jeff Mills. The trio, who even collaborated together under the name X-101 on Tresor’s debut release, were all originally in the Underground Resistance collective together.
UR was very much rooted in anti-commercialism, intent on making a statement on the racial and socio-economic state of Detroit. One of its founders was Jeff Mills, an exceptionally skilled DJ who held down his own radio show as well as a recurring guest slot on The Electrifying Mojo’s Friday night programme as ‘The Wizard.’ Eventually he left UR, moved to New York where he set up Axis Records, relocated to Berlin and was a resident at Tresor, and finally settled in Chicago where he set up his legendary Axis imprint, Purpose Maker.
Robert Hood was another prominent member of UR who joined not long after it started and also eventually left the collective and Detroit to go solo. Hood stripped down the sound that him and his contemporaries were creating even further, eschewing melodic progression for the hypnotic basics, and is considered one of the main founders of minimal techno. The second founder of UR, former Parliament bassist Mad Mike Banks, continued the collective along the same sonic path until their “Interstellar Fugitives” album, which saw him take to a funkier, jazz-influenced musical direction dubbed by many as hi-tech funk. He also played a large role in founding and running the Submerge record shop, distribution arm, and techno museum, which is a must-see for anyone who visits Detroit.
Stacey Pullen was another second wave artist and got his start watching and working with Derrick May, even living with him in Amsterdam for a while, until he carved his own niche by fusing garage and house into a soulful techno all his own. May also gave the Octave One brothers their initial boost, with an early Transmat release of theirs making the cut on ‘Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit’. Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir, whose popularity has only peaked in recent years thanks to a superb Rush Hour compilation ‘Frictionalism’, but was included Neil Rushton’s seminal compilation. He played the “sampling sport.” A production technique more associated with hip-hop, Shake defined his sound by incorporating this into techno. He also mentored Claude Young, who fused Shake’s broken-beat style with Robert Hood and Jeff Mills’s harsh minimalism to make yet another unique strand of music under the rapidly expanding Motor City musical umbrella.
One of the most innovative figures of the second wave, who continues to push the musical boundaries even today, was the young prodigy Carl Craig. He has released under many guises since 1990, when he was just 21, and established the Planet E label, and his constant reinvention and obsession with drawing from any and all genres of music both within and outside of Detroit are widely cited as the pillars of his success. Lastly, with nods to all of the DJs and producers I wish I had the word-count to include, the second wave partially included a young artist from over the bridge in Canada’s Windsor, Ontario named Richie Hawtin. With many of Detroit’s best DJs spending their weekends in Europe for gigs, Richie drove across to national border on a regular basis to fill the many empty spaces available with parties and got the medium of techno out further into the midwest to different audiences. His career is well-documented, and there are many arguments as to whether he is considered part of Detroit’s musical history with topics like his birth in the UK, upbringing in Canada, race, class, and subsequent relocation to New York and eventually Berlin used against him.
A unifying aspect of the second wave is the departure, by many of its members, from the original concept and sound of Detroit techno. It can be argued that the second wave was also the beginning of the change from calling the dance sound of Detroit “techno” to more appropriately naming the whole scene Detroit electronic music. While some of the sub-genres started by the second wave remained true to the sound of techno, there were many others that had more in common with other genres of music while still retaining an underlying intensity, fusion of man and machine, fierce proudness, and independence that remained definitively Detroit.
Recognition & Movement: when the Motor City itself joined the party
The term Detroit electronic music was also used in something wholly positive that came about by the year 2000; a free festival held in beating centre of the city’s Hart Plaza whose sole purpose was to celebrate electronic music both in Detroit and abroad for the community to enjoy. This wasn’t the first electronic music festival in Detroit; the 1994 World Party took place at the Joe Louis Arena and was intended for the same purpose, but failed to succeed and was a one-off event. For the first DEMF, the common abbreviation of this second attempt, the location was moved to Hart Plaza, the main producer of World Party hired Carl Craig as artistic director (before he was controversially fired), and almost a million people attended. DEMF ran another two years and saw the rise of independent parties crop up in Detroit and nearby Windsor.
Moving forward and continuing this notion of citywide celebration seemed the only option in the wake of DEMF’s success, and that is where the current incarnation of this festival, aptly titled Movement, came in. Starting in 2003, it was spearheaded by Derrick May for its first two years , but failed to recoup its expenses as the city pulled out much of its funding. In 2005 Kevin Saunderson tried another festival called Fuse-In Detroit, which was the first time attendees had to pay admission, but the money still didn’t add up and the festival was passed onto the record label, Paxahau, which reinvented the festival again while changing it back to Movement. It has been steadily finding its way back to success since 2006 with attendance over the three days finally breaking the 100,000 mark in 2012 after 2011 rose to just under it. This past year also saw the ultimate acceptance from the city of Detroit: Mayor Bing declared May 20-28th, 2012 as “Official Detroit Techno Week” with the following, rather fabulous proclamation:
Many thanks to Detroityes for the image
Back to the future: Detroit today and beyond
This loose definition of Detroit electronic music became even more apparent in the third wave when free jazz meanderings and deep house were transmuted into the foundations of Kenny Dixon Jr and Theo Parrish’s music, even rendering some of their output beatless while still appropriating its defining principles. Rick Wade, Mike Huckaby, Marcellus Pittman, and Rick Wilhite are all part of this league of producers championing the Detroit deep house style that came up in a loose time period between the mid 90s and mid 2000s. Omar-S, whocame into his own slightly after this time period, fuses funk and drum machines in a way that both harkens back to the first wave, but takes the sound in an entirely new way. This nebulous third wave, with its minimal documentation in comparison the the previous two eras, also ended the idea of “waves,” at least until it is properly documented and studied in the future which isn’t entirely unfathomable.
Whatever this present time period will end up being called, the talent coming out of The Motor City is still alive and well. Kyle Hall, who was mentored by Rick Wilhite at 15, and helped out by the likes of Omar-S, Mike Huckaby, and other figures within the scene has been fusing Detroit’s deep house strain with the funky and post-dubstep rhythms that have been bubbling up in the UK over the last few years. Jay Daniel, who collaborates on a monthly party and DJs with Kyle Hall, is another young star on the rise that carries the torch of the last three decades. There are certainly many more names that we have yet to hear about who are playing the local party circuit and honing their craft. Most everyone involved, from Juan Atkins to Carl Craig to Kyle Hall are holding down busy DJ schedules, still making records, and are continuing to spread the gospel of Toffler’s writings through the man-machine harmony that defines their music.
We hoped you enjoyed these brief 4,000 or so words on a subject that could easily warrant 100,000. If you want to learn more, or already knew the basics before reading this guide, I recommend giving some time to ‘Techno Rebels: The Renegades Of Electronic Funk’ by Dan Sicko. ‘Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture’ by Simon Reynolds covers the international emergence of dance music culture, including Detroit, and offers a lot of insight on the various scenes’ connectivity.
Alvin Toffler’s ‘Third Wave’ is mentioned many times throughout this guide and his futurist writings, though not concerned with music, are an interesting read that might give some more insight as to what inspired a young Juan Atkins to take the first steps as Cybotron and Model 500. There are also countless documentaries that you can find on Netflix, Youtube, and DVD. Obviously, the best way of experiencing music is through listening, and I actively encourage interested listeners to dig in to the rich back-catalogues of the individual labels set up and hustled by the artists linked to in the article.
Then there is actually being there. On a personal note, although it took me over six years from the time I said I’d attend Movement to making it to one thanks to support from my work, I cannot recommend it enough to those that haven’t been. Talking about Detroit is one thing, but immersing yourself in its culture while speaking to both its artists and locals was an integral part in getting my head around The Final Frontier. Thanks for reading.