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A Tale of Two Cities: Our 1998 Feature on the Racial Politics of Detroit Techno

Techno DJ, Derrick May (Rhythim is Rhythim), UK 1990's. (Photo by: PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of SPIN.

Seven Mile and Greenfield may look like a lot of things, but the future isn’t one of them. The busy intersection in northwest Detroit lies just south of 8 Mile Road, the infamous boundary between the largest U.S. city with a majority African-American population and its prosperous and predominantly white suburbs, but it might as well be a planet away. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early June, Nation of Islam members stand in traffic hawking copies of the Final Call. Two kids sell katydids for $5 from a makeshift stand. Telephone poles act as crude town criers, with tattered handbills announcing “40 Years of Motown: The Reunion” and “Need Cash? Refinance!” A weathered billboard threatening “Armageddon: July 1st” most likely heralds an overhyped action flick, but given Detroit’s tragic history, anything is possible.

It’s a vista that hardly seems to fit the description “Techno City.” the name Juan Atkins hung on Detroit almost 15 years ago, yet this is the neighborhood where Atkins grew up, and where the futuristic electronic music began. It was near this spot that Buy-Rite Records stood, the first local store to offer 12-inch dance singles by area producers and musicians. Many of those same artists—Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, to name a few—are now superstar DJs abroad, their international
stature cemented years ago, but in their own community they’re practically invisible. Atkins hopes to rectify that, and thus the “Godfather of Techno” has chosen this storied corner as the location for his own record store.

Named after the world’s first techno label, which Atkins launched in 1985, the Metroplex Shop is celebrating its grand opening today. The festivities should be the crowning moment of the 35-year-old Atkins’s career, but things don’t go exactly as planned. Hard-to-find singles by Atkins recorded under the name Model 500 hang on the wall, but only the white customers are leafing through the Detroit techno racks; the store’s few black shoppers are crowded around a display case of rap cassettes. Meanwhile, the shop’s speakers shake to an altogether different beat. “There’s some ho’s in this house / If you see ’em point ’em out!” squeals a high-pitched rapper over preposterously fast BPMs. It’s a cut mixed by DJ Assault, the current kingpin of Detroit booty music, the ghetto take on techno that currently has a vice grip on the local radio airwaves. Even in Atkins’s own store, techno is no longer top atomic dog.

Such is the dilemma faced by Atkins and his accomplices. In the city where the assembly line was made a staple of modern life, techno’s Henry Ford and his disciples welded together Motor City funk, European avant-garde composition, and Japanese gadgetry to form a whole new chassis, but found their invention unappreciated in the American marketplace. Like jazz musicians from Ben Webster to Dexter Gordon in the 1960s, Atkins, May, and Saunderson embarked for Europe in the late ’80s to find their fame and fortune. These days, due largely to their accomplishments, Detroit is indeed known as “Techno City” to the dance world, a place referred to in hushed, reverential tones. But Atkins and friends have suffered a double whammy: Not only have they failed to gain any real American success, they have lost their original black base in the process. “Our audience back home now is primarily white kids,” May tells me later. “We could go out and promote in the black community, give out flyers, but they won’t come, ’cause they’ll say, ‘Ah, that music is weird. It ain’t what’s happening.'”

“In the U.S.,” Atkins says of the techno landscape, “a black kid can come up with something profound in his basement, and won’t get noticed in his own backyard. But kids in the U.K. can discover it.” In front of the store, some passersby have staged an impromptu rap concert, grabbing a mic and freestyling at shelf-rattling volume. A couple of shoppers glance at the singles on the wall, shrug, then leave. “Because of its racial politics,” says Atkins, somewhat beleagueredly, “America is falling behind the rest of the world.”

* * *

The tug-of-war at the heart of techno mirrors the dissension in the city it hails from. Detroit is still recoiling from the repercussions of July 23, 1967, when a police raid on a black after-hours drinking spot touched off six days of violence, the worst U.S. civil disorder of the 20th century until L.A. in 1992. “White flight” to the suburbs was already well under way, but the riot put serious horsepower behind the city’s abandonment. In the first 20 years after the riot, Detroit lost one third of its population; a city built for two million people has today dwindled to less than half that. In one generation, Detroit went from 70 percent white to almost 80 percent black. Further devastated by a declining auto industry and skyrocketing unemployment, more than half of the city’s manufacturing, retail, and wholesale base had disappeared by 1987.

The fancy term for this is “deindustrialization,” but “ghost town” is more apt. Far from the lawlessness that the national media have portrayed, the prevailing feeling in Detroit is an eerie emptiness. Prewar skyscrapers in the heart of downtown stand forlorn and abandoned; streets dotted with ramshackle shanties amid untended scrub look more like backcountry roads in the Mississippi Delta than arteries in a major urban core.

Yet the city’s post-apocalyptic mystique is crucial to the mythology of Detroit techno. The contradictions in imagining a technologically advanced future while both the past and present sit in shambles around you are rich indeed, as are those of a sophisticated art music hailing from such a stubbornly close-minded, blue-collar town. “To the rest of the world, Detroit is like a prune pit,” says Craig. “It’s an underdog, but you can do what you’ve gotta do without people bothering you.”

A Tale of Two Cities: Our 1998 Feature on the Racial Politics of Detroit Techno

Techno’s roots in Detroit date back to a black FM DJ named Charles Johnson—better known by his on-air name, the Electrifying Mojo. From 1977 into the mid-’80s, Mojo practiced a philosophy he calls “counterclockwiseology”: ignoring the strict racial formatting that afflicted the local airwaves. “When I first got to Detroit, it was like apartheid on the dial,” Mojo recalls, “separatist radio.” A typical evening’s session of Mojo’s genre-defying Midnight Funk Association ranged from Parliament’s “Flash Light” to Visage’s “Frequency 7,” plus anything and everything by Prince. Most important, when the German electronic group Kraftwerk’s Computer World came out in 1981, Mojo played virtually the entire album every night, making a lasting impact on impressionable young listeners like Juan Atkins.

When Atkins was in high school, his family moved from the city to Belleville, a small rural town 30 miles southwest of Detroit. Because there were so few black families in Belleville, Atkins struck up friendships with two pals of his younger brother: Derrick May, who had also just moved from Detroit, and Kevin Saunderson, who had recently relocated from Brooklyn, New York. Atkins turned his pals on to Mojo’s radio show, and the trio began trading mix tapes, while Atkins, May, and May’s friend Eddie “Flashin'” Fowlkes began spinning at parties under the name Deep Space Sound.

At college, Atkins met Vietnam vet Rick Davis, and the duo formed a group called Cybotron, releasing a series of singles and an LP, replete with robotic vocals and plinky synth beats, before Atkins struck out on his own. He chose the name Model 500 as a way of “repudiating ethnic designations,” cloaking his persona behind a machinelike veil. For his debut as Model 500, Atkins formed a new label, Metroplex, and unleashed the 12-inch single “No UFO’s,” a tale of extraterrestrial encounters with a self-empowerment subtext.

Like a black version of punk rock, techno musicians around Detroit quickly launched their own labels-among them May’s Transmat and Saunderson’s KMS-and started releasing records, many of them produced by Atkins. Along with no-budget blank record sleeves, the artists camouflaged themselves behind a dizzying variety of alter egos, particularly Saunderson, who holds the unofficial record for aliases: He’s recorded as Kreem, Reese, Reese & Santonio, Reese Project, Key-notes, Tronik House, Inner City, Inter City, and his current persona, E-Dancer.

The multiple monikers were “to help Detroit seem bigger,” says Saunderson, to make it appear “that there was more going on,” but this elimination of any telltale emblems of African-American identity would later haunt the Detroiters in their search for a black audience. While hip-hop was rising to prominence as the vérité narrative of urban America, producing outsize personalities and memorable rhymes, Atkins and friends were dispensing with vocals altogether, their sci-fi soundscapes serving as cerebral tickets out of the inner city, not so much escapist as transcendent. “I’ve always had this addiction to anything futuristic,” Atkins says. “Maybe I think everything is going to be better.”

In 1988, Atkins’s faith was rewarded when Virgin U.K. released the compilation Techno!: The New Dance Sound of Detroit, and the term that Atkins lifted from Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave was propelled into hipster vernacular. Soon the poppier, house/techno blend of “Good Life” and “Big Fun” by Saunderson’s Inner City became enormous hits in Europe, and the locus of Detroit techno shifted overseas. “It wasn’t that we went out to market records to Europe,” says Atkins. “They picked up on something that America wasn’t interested in.” Thousands of E-fueled ravers greeted the Detroiters when they came to perform in England in ’88 and ’89, and the Continent soon became Motown’s home away from home. “The world called,” says May, “and we answered.”

These days the Motor City sports almost a dozen top-shelf DJs who slip in and out of Detroit Metro Airport unnoticed each weekend, bound for five-star hotels in Europe and Japan, armed only with their metal box of records and a change of clothes. Pocketing $2,000 to $5,000 a night, a hard-working DJ can make, as Craig points out, “hundreds of thousands of dollars” a year. In lieu of extended touring, the DJs jet back and forth across the Atlantic every couple of days, flitting in and out of some of the world’s most scenic cities the way most folks make a run to the video store. Saunderson, for example, spends each Monday through Thursday with his wife and two sons, dutiful enough a dad to make sure he’s home when the kids return from school, then heads to Europe for Friday through Sunday. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of commuting to work.

“Whenever you get Derrick or any of these people together for more than an hour,” says fellow mobile DJ Richie Hawtin, “the conversation inevitably will come back down to who’s got the most frequent-flyer points.”

In the kitchen of Derrick May’s stylish pad above the offices of his Transmat label, four clocks tell the time in London, Tokyo, New York, and Detroit, a constant reminder of where his bread is buttered. From 1986 to 1992, recording under the pseudonyms Mayday and Rythim is Rythim, May turned out some of the best singles that Detroit ever produced-“Nude Photo,” “Strings of Life,” “It Is What It Is”-and then abruptly stopped making music in favor of a jet-set DJ lifestyle that led the dance-music press to dub him the “techno playboy.” “Derrick is a serious legend, like Sam Malone,” says his good friend Craig. “But these days nobody in the black community knows who Derrick May is.”

“We may have left here too soon,” admits May, 35, assessing the creative jet lag Detroit’s scene suffered in the early ’90s. “We became so attached to Europe that we left our boundaries and forgot our homesakes. We sold ourselves short-not out, but short.”

* * *

Windsor, Ontario, five minutes due south of Detroit—yes, south—may be the only place from which Detroit looks like a bustling metropolis. “This is one of the best locations to get an overall picture of Detroit,” says Hawtin, a.k.a. Plastikman, as he sits in the living room of his home, a former firehouse nicknamed “the Building.” Since he colaunched the Plus 8 label in 1990, the area’s premier minimalist has become the most controversial character in the evolution of Detroit techno, so much so that there are those who feel that Hawtin shouldn’t be considered part of Detroit techno at all.

Hawtin earned his devil status by almost singlehandedly bringing white, suburban rave culture to Detroit. For nearly six years he’s taken advantage of Detroit’s surplus of vacant warehouse and factory space and thrown what are widely acknowledged to be the city’s best parties in some of its worst neighborhoods. While the originators were blitzing Europe, Hawtin stepped into the vacuum and reenergized the scene, and in the process reshaped its racial makeup. “He created the suburban culture,” says DJ/composer Stacey Pullen, who records as Silent Phase and Kosmic Messenger. “Kids came out to his parties like it was a big playground.”

Hawtin’s arrival was accompanied by some strong feelings of resentment. A member of the black electro outfit Drexciya once hissed that Hawtin belonged to the “Caucasian persuasion,” and while much of the sniping has subsided, Detroit may be the only place where you’ll still hear rumblings of the sentiment that “white people shouldn’t play techno.” When white artist Brendan M. Gillen released his first electro record as Ectomorph, one black techno label owner told him that he should “stick to what white people do.” More recently, the liner notes of Moodymann‘s Silent Introduction album included the inscription, “To all you white suburban kids, sampling black music all the time, try some rock’n’roll for a change, you’re making black music sound silly, weak, and tired.”

A Tale of Two Cities: Our 1998 Feature on the Racial Politics of Detroit Techno

While scores of ravers followed Hawtin into the city in a reversal of white flight, “Mad” Mike Banks and his Underground Resistance label tried to steel the course of Detroit techno’s original black identity. Banks, who blends the outspoken militancy of Chuck D with the D.I.Y. purism of Ian MacKaye, is the inspirational force behind Detroit’s unique strain of black nationalist techno, which ranges from the overtly political content of Banks’s own group, Underground Resistance—one single is inscribed, “Message to all murderers in the Detroit police force: “we’ll see you in hell!”—to the sci-fi scenarios of Drexciya, who propose that pregnant African women thrown overboard during the Middle Passage might not have drowned but instead given birth to a race of water-breathing Afronauts who will one day resurface to deliver Whitey a beatdown.

Given Detroit’s status as a bastion of black consciousness, it’s hard to imagine an unlikelier bunch of heroes than Aryan automatons Kraftwerk. By choosing Detroit as one of only five cities on their recent U.S. tour, Kraftwerk acknowledged the debt they owed the Motor City, and vice versa-their concert at the State Theater was practically a family reunion, with all the distant cousins present: In the crowd were Atkins, May, Fowlkes, Gillen, Gerald Donald (Drexciya/Dopplereffekt), bass/booty jock DJ Godfather, Dan Bell (Cybersonik/DBX), Keith Tucker (Aux 88/Optic Nerve), and Anthony “Shake” Shakir. For Detroit techno, it was basically the landing of the Mothership.

When Kraftwerk finally stepped on stage, they were greeted with the enthusiasm of a Nuremberg rally. As Ralf Hütter recited, “Uno, dos,” from “Numbers”—a Mojo staple—the audience thundered back, “Tres, quatro!” as if the Teutons were Detroit’s own. The lovefest continued afterward at an impromptu reception for the group at a new techno club called Motor, the first of its kind in Detroit in nearly a decade. Hundreds of fans packed a tiny back room to press flesh and compare gear, and despite their limited conversational abilities, Kraftwerk’s Hütter and Florian Schneider mingled with their acolytes until the wee hours. As the pair finally began to offer auf Wiedersehens to the faithful, “Shake” Shakir spoke up for all of Motown’s electronic community. “I’m a musician from Detroit,” he said, extending his hand to Hütter. “And I’d just like to say thank you for giving me a career.”

* * *

“My concept of running a label is to do it better than anybody else has done it around here,” says Carl Craig, leaning back on a couch at the downtown offices of his record company, Planet E, a binder of sales reports on his lap and a Black Power fist Afro pick sticking out from the back of his head. The 29-year-old honcho behind Detroit’s most innovative label, Craig is the bridge between the originators and the various waves that followed, developing from the “boy genius” of techno who made his first recording in 1989 under the tutelage of Derrick May into the most consistently inventive Detroit artist of the past decade.

Since launching the company in 1991, Craig has expanded the scope of his label to include not only his own work (under pseudonyms like Paperclip People and Innerzone Orchestra), but also that of less celebrated artists, like the enigmatic Moodymann. He’s also initiated the practice of compiling CD retrospectives of out-of-print material, including Kevin Saunderson’s essential late-’80s underground singles and Craig’s own early work as Psyche and BFC. “They do it with blues records,” points out Craig, “how come we can’t do it with our music? Whatever we don’t sell I’m going to donate to libraries around the country and see if we can get it in their archives. Why not? You have to know your history to pave your future.”

Craig, who’s as close as techno comes to having a prodigy, first heard Mojo’s show while in first grade, and as a teenager discovered the scene developing at the now-legendary after-hours club The Music Institute, where May was house DJ. “It blew my mind,” says Craig of the short-lived venue. “I found where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, who I wanted to become. It was like coming out of the closet.”

But young black audiences today aren’t having electronic epiphanies like Craig’s. “Kids relate to hip-hop because it says something to them,” says Craig. “It’s street. Techno goes somewhere else. It relies on your intelligence. There are no words, no lyrical content. Back then, we were like, here it is, it’s African rhythms mixed with European melodies, let’s see what you can do with it. And they were like, fuck you. So we went to Europe.”

Craig is now taking active steps locally in hopes that techno might become the soundtrack to all tomorrow’s parties. He’s finalizing plans to open a club next year with May, Saunderson, and fellow DJ Kenny Larkin, as well as investing in distributing free techno tapes to kids, aiming to get them hooked early on the music’s instrumental pleasures. “Nobody knows our music because they can’t hear it,” says Craig. “We need to take the initiative and promote ourselves.” Craig pauses to look out the window at the city below. “This is our hometown,” he says, “and for us to be alienated like this isn’t right.”

* * *

It’s unbearably hot inside the Walter Paluch Post 12 of the Polish League of American Veterans Ladies Auxiliary, but the oppressive temperature doesn’t faze the 200 or so black men and women who are gathered here to “cabaret,” a local tradition of staging parties at union halls and fraternal lodges. Tonight’s affair is organized by employees of Chrysler, the postal service, and the Farmer Jack supermarket chain, and on the dance floor young couples socialize in their festive finery. A DJ goes through the motions on an old-school set of Parliament and Cameo standards, before mellowing things out with a slow dance.

By 2 a.m., the dance floor is empty, the crowd listless. Folks are gathering their things and heading for the door when the house MC barks, “It’s time to get this party cranked up!” and DJ Di’jital takes over the decks. Spastic, high-velocity beats start flying, a whiny voice cries, “Bounce that ass, bounce that ass!” and the dance floor explodes in a frenzy of flailing arms and legs called the “jit.” “Ladies,” the MC shouts, “if you’ve got a big ol’ booty, turn it around and back it up!”

This is the world of booty music, the newest “new dance sound of Detroit,” as well as one of the oldest. Alternately called “Detroit bass,” “ghetto bass,” “techno bass,” “ghetto tech,” or just lumped in with electro (the techno/hip-hop/funk fusion from which it’s derived), booty has been around in one form or another since the early ’80s. Harder and faster than similarly salty Miami bass, it features call-and-response chants and potty-mouthed lyrics sung in obnoxious, high-pitched voices, like Alvin and the Chipmunks as Long Beach Crips. Unlike techno, booty’s topical preoccupations are easy to divine: In the words of DJ Assault’s “Ass N Titties,” “Ass / Titties / Ass ‘n’ titties / Ass ass titties titties / Ass ‘n’ titties.” It’s strictly “Shutup, there it is.”

Despite Detroit techno’s international luster, booty owns the hearts, minds, and asses of the Motor City. While neither techno nor local hip-hop ever really blew up-Detroit has produced zero rappers of note-the combination of the two has become a formidable hybrid. Booty blasts out of car stereos everywhere, and receives the radio airplay techno never could achieve. Local sales are booming, with entrepreneurs testing their records at strip clubs to see if the tracks have shake appeal. According to Mike Himes, owner of RecordTime, the area’s biggest dance-music store, booty sells “five-to-one over anything else. It’s total youth, it’s what jungle is doing in England. It’s easy to mix, you can move to it—it’s got everything the kids want.” Not surprisingly, there’s considerable disdain from techno’s elder statesmen. “It’s the same old shit, just repackaged,” sniffs Craig. “The best electro records were made in the early ’80s. Isn’t it time to move forward?”

Ultimately, though, Detroit techno’s low U.S. profile has much more than booty to blame. Atkins and his contemporaries have been stymied by a variety of factors out of their control, including radio’s conservatism, lack of record company support, and the city’s isolation from the music industry (especially after Motown Records left for Los Angeles in 1972). But some culpability can also be laid squarely at the feet of the creators themselves: for issuing limited-edition, vinyl-only singles under a staggering variety of aliases, for insisting on an abstract and often radical musical vision, and for not minding the store back home.

Despite all of the Motor City’s marketplace pitfalls, the mood is one of optimism here at Atkins’s Metroplex shop. Though the store may move more Master P tapes than Model 500 vinyl, Atkins is finally establishing a home base for the movement he helped launch. Even more encouraging, after a 15-year absence from U.S. record stores, Atkins may have three albums out this fall: a DJ mix record on TVT, a project under the name Infiniti, and Model 500’s new Mind and Body.

His colleagues are almost as busy: Saunderson’s new E-Dancer album, Heavenly, is as funky as ever, while Craig continues derailing the trainspotters with his new Innerzone Orchestra album, Programmed, an exciting departure into jazz. While Detroit’s old guard enjoys renewed vitality, dozens of younger DJs are vying to join the electronic elite, and the local club scene has enjoyed a renaissance with the opening of Motor and an inspired new after-hours nightspot called Better Days.

“I’ve never given up on my home turf,” insists Atkins, looking out his store window at the passing cars on 7 Mile Road. “There’s a verse in the Bible that says all the tools that you need are in your own backyard, that you should never have to go to distant lands to reap your success. I do believe that.”