Michigan. The late 70s. Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, three regular teenagers attending high school in Belleville, a poor town southwest of Detroit where racial tension is high and job prospects low, embark on a groundbreaking musical journey. They become known as the Belleville Three. They are the founding fathers of Techno.
Once upon a time, between the dawn of the 20th century and the draconian policies of successive Republican presidents of the 1970s and 80s, Detroit was a boomtown. The production of the Ford motorcar drove the local economy, with thousands working in the city’s cavernous factories, while in a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard a man named Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. From 1959 onwards the city was abuzz to the sound of industry, and the hits of The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson.
But over the course of the next two decades American industry faltered and recession hit. The local economy stalled and panic set in, resulting in layoffs and the closure of factories. Overnight the great machines were silenced. The Motown era moved on, and Detroit was cast adrift. As young boys the Belleville Three witnessed this downward shift in fortunes firsthand. People they knew were laid off, thrust out of work and out of the factories, and their futures were looking bleak and unpredictable.
Music acted as therapy, and there was love for not only the indigenous sound of Motown but also great African-American funk and, increasingly, punk and electro. The three friends began listening to the likes of Parliament Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, Sly Stone, The B-52s, Talking Heads, Blondie, Tangerine Dream, Bad Brains, The Gap Band, and Prince, among others, as well as foreign bands such as Fad Gadget, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Joy Division, and The Clash – courtesy of local WGPR radio DJ Mojo. It is, according to May, the combination of Kraftwerk’s cold machine music and the warm funk and groove of George Clinton that forms the basic musical foundations of Techno.
Out of the three, Juan Atkins was the first to make Techno (and officially coin it) with his 1984 track ‘Techno City’, as part of the group Cybotron. (Although three years previously Cybotron had released ‘Alleys of Your Mind’ that sounded like Kraftwerk but from another planet, or better yet, another universe.) In fact, Atkins had begun to produce records as early as 1979, aged just 17, and he also knew how to DJ, teaching May what he had learnt. Atkins became The Godfather, May was The Innovator, and Saunderson, who went on to form the soulful Techno group Inner City, became The Elevator.
If Techno needed a Year Zero, 1984 would probably be it. This also happens to be the same year House music was born just a few hundred miles away in Chicago, where Jamie Principle’s seminal track ‘Your Love’ was blowing up in the clubs. These young guys from Detroit were heavily influenced by that scene, with May making the hours-long trip on weekends to see the legendary Ron Hardy play at The Muzik Box. Undoubtedly it was that experience, together with the patronage and mentorship of his friend Juan Atkins, which lead May to start DJing, as well as make music. And in 1987, under the alias Rythim is Rythim, he produced what is arguably the most well known Techno track of all time: ‘Strings of Life’. A year later Saunderson produced the acid-tinged ‘The Groove That Won’t Stop’ on his own KMS label.
The physical city played an important role, as did the music that surrounded them, but how important was the idea of machines? As it turned out, very – as May admits: ‘it’s all subconscious emotions and thoughts. We created our own sounds. They all came from the idea of industry and machines and electronics.’ But seldom discussed is another integral element: escapism. Many classic Techno tracks (certainly those from Detroit) reference space travel or alien life forms, because a key influence on black artists was the movement known as Afro-futurism. For African-Americans growing up in the 1970s and 80s life was often bleak – socially and economically. The Civil Rights movement had achieved much, but at a cost. In some areas of the country black people were still considered second-class citizens.
Perhaps for many then, Earth was not the best option – so they dreamed of voyaging to other places: far-off universes and distant dimensions. A case in point is Juan Atkins’ first release in 1995 as part of the group Model 500 entitled Deep Space. Listen to ‘Milky Way’ or ‘Starlight’ and you can’t fail to be transported elsewhere, mesmerised by its outward and forward-thinking sounds – both literal and metaphysical.
This early start was just the beginning of a type of music that formed the foundations upon which so much has since emerged. From Detroit Techno came the rave scene in the UK, and the infamous ‘summer of love’ in 1988 – wild, drug-fuelled, loved up parties throbbing to US-imported House and Techno. And then came German Techno, which, while heavily influenced by its own homegrown music and culture, also took a significant cue from what the Belleville Three and their peers – such as Robert Hood, Mike Banks and Jeff Mills (all three the original members of the multi-platform activist group Underground Resistance) – had created in Detroit.
From the remnants of a troubled city came a musical movement that has gone on to dominate the underground. No other dance genre previously or since quite matches Techno’s brutal, intense, machine-driven power, while at the same time being unashamedly soulful, ethereal, reverential, inclusive and, ultimately, escapist. And it has remained a vitally significant 20th century American art form, albeit one that has truly global reach, one that owes a massive debt to the myriad sounds that came before it, as well as to the individual experiences of its creators.
Top 10 Detroit Techno Classics
1. Cybotron Techno City (Fantasy, 1984)
2. Rythim is Rythim Strings of Life (Transmat, 1987)
3. Inner City Big Fun (KMS, 1988)
4. Channel One Technicolor (Metroplex, 1986)
5. Galaxy 2 Galaxy Journey to the Dragons (UR, 1993)
6. Rythim is Ryhtim Nude Photo (Transmat, 1988)
7. Underground Resistance Nation 2 Nation (UR, 1991)
8. Robert Hood Minus (Tresor, 1994)
9. Millsart Step to Enchantment (Axis, 1994)
10. Kevin Saunderson The Groove That Won’t Stop (KMS, 1988)