A Bluffers Guide to Detroit Techno
Full of wonderful people and some truly great pieces of history, if you’ve ever driven through Detroit during the day, you still can’t help but notice what a bleak and depressing place it is. Since the economic collapse of the domestic automobile industry in the late 70s, Detroit has seen better days. It’s the poster child for depressed, post-industrial America. The recovery has been a long time coming, and it isn’t there yet.
But at night, it’s a different story. The seemingly endless miles of winding highway, the lights of industry that resemble nothing so much as space stations—at night, the place might as well be Mars. Driving through the city, listening to the Electrifyin’ Mojo on the radio, three teenagers from Belleville High School suddenly got it. If you drive the I-94 at night today, playing their music, you will, too. The music is of the place and the place is of the music; they are totally and irrevocably linked.
The sound of classic Detroit Techno is eerily detached and mechanical (influenced by the city’s industrial roots, as well as by synthesizer-based music like Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, the B-52s, Prince, and New Order), but it is also smooth and soulful, making the music uplifting and dark all at once. The characteristic sound of the Roland TR-909 drum machine and the synthesized string sounds created lush landscapes of sound; the underlying funky edge, derived from a love of Parliament/Funkadelic and others, gave the music an otherworldly feel. The moody, melancholy edge of classic Detroit Techno also reflects the city’s depressed financial state and expresses a longing for escape—the outer space, to the future, to anywhere. The mix sounds like nothing else on Earth, and it isn’t meant to. Detroit Techno has always had a strong sci-fi influence, and if you’ve been there, you can certainly understand why. The futurist writings of Alvin Toffler were a major influence.
Today, producers all around the world are working with the template of the Detroit sound, especially in Berlin, one of the first European cities to really dig the Detroit sound. But back in Michigan, a new wave of producers are still ticking along, still restless, and still innovating. That’s the great thing about the future—it is always in front of you.
This Bluffer’s Guide to Detroit Techno does not strive to be definitive, merely an introduction. I urge any of you reading this with even a passing interest in electronic dance music to check out some of the recommended tracks and explore further on your own. Consider this a launching pad, not a Bible. For every artist highlighted here, there are at least five more worthy of your time and attention.
The Originators: The Belleville Three
Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson met at Belleville High School in the late 1970s and soon, united by their love for European electronic music, funk, soul, early hip-hop, the burgeoning Chicago dance sound, and especially Detroit’s legendary radio DJ the Electrifyin’ Mojo, began to DJ together in a troupe. Soon thereafter, Atkins hooked up with Richard Davis (known as 3070, in true futurist mode) to form Cybotron, releasing what, to many, stands as the first Detroit Techno record, “Alleys Of Your Mind.” Significantly, the record was self-released on their own Deep Space Records. The sound was completely alien, taking all of these influences and incorporating them in to an altogether freakier mix—stripped-down, sinister, and groovy as fuck.
After completing a handful of other classic singles and a full-length album as Cybotron for the Fantasy label (home of Creedence Clearwater Revival, among others), Atkins ventured out on his own, founding the Metroplex label in 1985 and issuing his first single (“No UFOs”) as Model 500, his most well-known pseudonym. May was living in Chicago at the time and told Atkins to come visit and to bring his single. It was soon a hit in Chicago clubs and mix shows, and the revolution was on.
May soon followed suit with his Transmat imprint (the matrix numbers start with the prefix “MS,” which stood for “Metroplex Subsidiary”), and later Saunderson with his KMS label. The scene started with an independent, unified, DIY-vibe and maintains it to this day. The body of work issued by these three labels (between roughly 1986 and 1992) stands as one of the most important in the history of electronic dance music.
Major Aliases: Channel One, Infiniti, M500, Magic Juan, Model 500, Model 600, Cybotron (with Richard Davis), Kreem (with Kevin Saunderson), X-Ray (with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson).
The oldest of the Belleville Three (he was a year ahead of May and Saunderson), Juan Atkins also was the first of the trio to release a record, in 1981 as the futuristic Cybotron with partner and fellow futurist Richard Davis (aka 3070). He was also, more significantly, the one to coin the term “techno” to describe his music. Legend has it that when Ten Records in the UK wanted to release their famous compilation of Detroit underground dance music in 1988, the Belleville Three were asked to come up with a name to differentiate the Detroit sound from the one happening simultaneously in Chicago. Atkins insisted that his music be called “techno” and needless to say, it stuck, giving the movement its name and making Atkins the default “Godfather of Techno.”
Atkins back catalog is as deep as it comes, and he has touched on many genres in his long and storied career—jazz, funk, R & B, drum & bass, hip hop, and more. This ever-shifting musical template has helped his sound stay fresh, but also makes navigating his work a bit tricky if you’re a fan of one particular style or another. His early work has a strong funk influence, and bears a close resemblance to what is now known as electro. Atkins’ beats tend to be closer to classic breakbeats than traditional “dance music” patterns, although with his constant stylistic shifts, he certainly runs the gamut. His funky bass patterns show the strong influence of P-Funk and late-70s R & B.
Dark, smooth, and somewhat downbeat, Atkins’ music also uses more vocals than most of his contemporaries, whether it be chanted, sampled, half-rapped, or even crooned, adding a new layer to his work. Check early classics like “Clear” and “No UFOs” or the later “I See The Lights” and “I Wanna Be There” for prime examples of Atkins’ pipes.
In the mid-90s, Atkins worked extensively with Berlin producers such as Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz Von Oswald and through that work has further strengthened the bridge between that city’s Techno producers and the Detroit scene. Atkins is still active today as an artist and a DJ, and has recently come into the mainstream’s eye thanks to Missy Elliott sampling Cybotron on her hit, “Lose Control” for which Atkins was actually nominated for a Grammy as the original songwriter.
“Alleys of Your Mind,” “Clear” (Cybotron); “No UFOs,” “Off to Battle,” Ocean to Ocean,” “Night Drive (Time, Space, Transmat),” “Sound of Stereo,” “The Chase,” “I See the Light,” “Starlight” (Model 500); “Jazz is the Teacher,” “Cosmic Courier” (M500 & 3MB); “Game One” (Infiniti).
Major Aliases: Rythim is Rythim/Rhythim is Rhythim (the spelling fluctuates over the years), Mayday, R-Tyme (with D. Wynn), X-Ray (with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson), Intercity (with Kevin Saunderson and James Pennington)
While Juan Atkins may be rightfully considered the Godfather of Techno, there is little question that when outlining the sound of Detroit Techno, Derrick May’s output comes first in many minds. His nickname “The Innovator” is an apt one, as he took the template that Atkins and others were working with to its logical end, in the process creating a string of singles that still stand as some of the greatest electronic music ever produced. Derrick May didn’t make too many records—then again, he never really made a bad one either.
Sometimes referred to as the “Miles Davis of Techno,” May favors many layers of sound (including lots of percussion) and jazzy solos and riffs that overlap and play off each other perfectly, creating dancefloor compositions that work equally well in the living room. The famous “ambient mix” of May’s 1987 masterpiece “Strings of Life” (originally found as the “Unreleased Mix” on Network’s Retro Techno compilation, but since released elsewhere under a variety of names and mixes) illustrates his compositional powers, spending six minutes building and easing tension perfectly without the aid of rhythmically implied kick drum. May’s work, more than any of the rest of his compatriots, earns the tag of “sublime.”
Which isn’t to say that May’s work can’t be fierce and work the dancefloors to a frenzy. The original version of “Strings of Life” with its signature piano riff (co-written with or written by Michael James, depending on who you believe) is probably one of the most played dance records in history, and hardly any instrumental dance track, techno or otherwise, is so instantly and universally recognized. “The Beginning,” “Drama” (made with a young Carl Craig), “Move It,” “Salsa Life,” and “The Dance” are stomping, percussive monsters that hold their own next to practically anything.
Fairly prolific between 1985 and 1990, May has been a very quiet man since. He still regularly DJs, but hasn’t produced much music at all in the last 15 years, outside of a handful of tracks (mainly reworked versions of older recordings anyway), compilations, and collaborations (with System 7, among others). May famously took an enormous advance from the Belgian Techno label R&S back in the early 1990s as part of a multi-album deal; he has yet to produce a note for them. What happened to May’s drive to compose is anyone’s guess.
“Strings of Life,” “Nude Photo,” “It Is What It Is,” “The Beginning,” “Drama,” “Beyond the Dance,” “Feel Surreal” (Rythim is Rythim/Rhythim is Rhythim); “Wiggan,” (Mayday); “R-Theme” (R-Tyme).
Major Aliases: Reese, Master Reese, The Reese Project, E-Dancer, Esser’ay, K.S. Experience, Tronik House, Kaos, Keynotes, Inner City (with Paris Grey), Reese & Santonio (with Santonio Echols), Kreem (with Juan Atkins), X-Ray (with Derrick May and Juan Atkins), Intercity (with Derrick May and James Pennington)
Kevin Saunderson is the youngest of the Belleville Three and while many are quick to write him off as merely a house producer who fell in with the right crowd (that is, Atkins and May), Reese has shown himself capable of unleashing some heavy dancefloor techno all on his own. One listen to tracks like “Funky, Funk, Funk” (also released as “Inside Out” on May’s Transmat offshoot, Fragile), “The Groove That Won’t Stop,” or “Bounce Your Body to the Box” will tell you that anyone who refers to Saunderson as “weak” simply hasn’t heard nearly enough of his music.
That said, Saunderson did spend more than a decade fronting Inner City with Chicago House diva Paris Grey, making techno-oriented pop records for Virgin, Ten, and 6×6 Records, among other labels. And while he pursued—and found—chart success in Europe with tracks like “Big Fun” (the single taken from the Ten/Virgin comp) and “Good Life” (Inner City hit the British Top 40 a surprising eight times), Saunderson stayed underground for the most part in his native country, producing a staggering amount of music under a bewildering array of names and on a menagerie of labels. While purists might say that Atkins and May were the “real Techno” artists of the trio, Saunderson certainly did more to raise the international consciousness of the genre than the other two combined.
It is, however, entirely fair to say that Saunderson’s sound is generally lighter and more easily accessible than both May’s and Atkins’ output. Perhaps this is because his music is generally more melodic than most Detroit Techno, and is rendered with a much brighter palate. Or maybe because his music bears a closer resemblance to the House sound of Chicago (thanks in no small part to his years in collaboration with Grey in Inner City). To write him off would be a mistake, however, as his catalog is deep and wide and varied and bears more riches than might appear on first glance.
“The Groove That Won’t Stop” (Kevin Saunderson); “Rock to the Beat,” “Funky, Funk, Funk” (aka “Inside Out”), “Bassline” (Reese); “The Sound” (Reese & Santonio); “Good Life,” “Big Fun,” “Hallelujah,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Ain’t Nobody Better,” “Ahnongay” (Inner City); “Pump Up the Move,” “World of Deep,” “Velocity Funk,” “Heavenly,” “Banjo” (E-Dancer).
The First Wave
While Atkins, May, and Saunderson got most of the international headlines, a group of like-minded producers fleshed out the early Detroit scene into a three-dimensional palate. Working with several variations on the Detroit Techno blueprint, these early pioneers may take a bit more digging to find, but their output is every bit as important to the history of the scene and its place as a worldwide phenomenon.
Major Aliases: Suburban Knight, Intercity (with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May)
The sound of the Suburban Knight is best summed up in one word: dark. To further expand: repetitive, groovy, and menacing. Pennington’s swirling, atmospheric chords and circular riffs were a precursor to the harder, minimal sounds of latter-day Detroit producers like Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills, and Robert Hood, as well as the Berlin Techno scene. When early singles “The Groove” (1986) and “The Art of Stalking” (1990) appeared on Transmat, the sound stood in stark contrast to label founder Derrick May’s dense, orchestral productions. His hand in the one-off Intercity project (released on KMS in 1987) alongside Saunderson and May adds an edge previously missing from either of their works.
Pennington is still going strong and flying under the radar today, two decades later, where his sound is very much in vogue, especially with the recent popularity of minimalism. He continues to DJ around the world, and releases top-quality singles for, among others, Underground Resistance—a most fitting home for his sound and militaristic, stealthy persona. In fact, his tracks are a highlight of UR’s recently released Interstellar Fugitives 2 compilation. His debut full length, My Sol Dark Direction was released on Peacefrog in 2003 and comes highly recommended.
“The Groove,” “The Art of Stalking,” “Nocturbulous,” “Midnite Sunshine,” “Echo Location,” “Maroon,” “Moon Rays” (Suburban Knight); “Out of Control” (Intercity with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May).
Major Aliases: The Blake Baxter Project, The Prince of Techno, Renee, Pump Da Bass
Although he may in fact be a wonderful man, Blake Baxter didn’t earn his nickname “The Prince of Techno” because he was so polite. The influence of Prince Rogers Nelson was strong in Baxter, and it permeated his sound. Basically, if Atkins or Saunderson ever produced The Artist Formerly Known As… , it would likely sound exactly like Baxter’s classic work: smooth and funky tracks, full of R&B touches and topped by Baxter’s sweaty, whispered poetry. Baxter’s lyrics focused on Prince-like themes as well, such as the opposite sex, spirituality, and well, the opposite sex.
That all said, Prince never made a Techno record and Baxter isn’t merely a rip-off artist. He was a resident DJ at Berlin’s famous Tresor club for a period of time, and for the most part he records for European labels these days. Still a force to be reckoned with, especially on the turntables.
“Forever and a Day,” “Ride Em’ Boy,” “Ghost,” When a Thought Becomes U,” “When We Used to Play,” “Minimal Freak,” “Fuck You Up.”
Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes
Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes, like many of the early Detroit producers, was first and foremost a DJ. His skills on the turntables are legendary, and his legacy has mainly been left on sweaty club floors over the years.
That said, Fowlkes has released some great tracks over the course of his career. “Time to Express,” Fowlkes contribution to the legendary 1988 Ten/Virgin Techno compilation, is a highlight of the set, all rubbery synth riffs and gently phased hi-hats. Unfortunately, it also has some painfully dated vocal overlays and samples, the less said about the better. A rewarding history lesson then, but nothing you would want to work on the decks today.
Thankfully, Fowlkes didn’t stay mired in that sound, and his work since has come to be categorized as “Technosoul,” as accurate a name as any. His sound grew into an engaging hybrid of classic Detroit sounds, smoother Chicago House, and a bit of classic R&B. Perhaps surprisingly, he too found a second home in Berlin. His 1993 collaboration with 3MB (aka Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz Von Oswald), The Birth of Technosoul is a classic. Today, he is still active, running the City Boy label and of course as a DJ.
“Time To Express,” “Macro,” “Goodbye Kiss,” “Inequality” “My Soul.”
The Second Generation: 1990-1998
Following the sensation surrounding their first compilation, Ten/Virgin UK went to the well again for Techno 2: The Next Generation, an eight-track collection of a new wave of Motor City producers that introduced a fresh cast of characters to the now global Techno scene. The Detroit sound was everywhere: Juan Atkins was even called upon to remix the Style Council. With more money and attention pouring into the city, Detroit saw an explosion in new artists, labels, studios, and even pressing plants.
In 1990, Atkins and May stumbled upon a pair of locals named Steve Martel and Ron Murphy and soon their National Sound Corporation (NSC) became the local record cutter of choice. After cutting acetates for Atkins, May, and a handful of others, NSC made their official public debut with the first releases on Plus 8 and, a week later, Underground Resistance. With a capable (and creative) cutting lab in town—NSC famously cut their records to play backwards from the inside out, with lock grooves, messages scratched into run-out grooves, and even with “NSC-X2 Groove Technology,” where a record would play two entirely different tracks depending on where you dropped the needle—the music came fast and furious and with creative energy to spare.
With stars in their eyes and the world’s dancefloors at their feet, Detroit’s new horde of artists took the classic sound in as many different directions as they possibly could. This led to some of the most creative and expansive sounds ever laid to wax. It was a genuine explosion, and the fallout was mighty sweet.
Major Aliases: Paperclip People, 69, Innerzone Orchestra, BFC, Psyche, Designer Music, Piece, Shop, Tres Demented
Starting his career in the late 80s working with Derrick May on some of his classic Transmat sides, including the stomping “The Beginning”/“Drama,” Carl Craig soon set out on his own, and he has hardly stayed still since. Making his debut in 1990 on the second Ten/Virgin UK Detroit Techno compilation as Psyche, Craig soon founded the seminal Retroactive label with Damon Booker. After a falling out with Booker and the demise of Retroactive, Craig launched the Planet E imprint under his 69 guise with the astounding “4 Jazz Funk Classics” in 1991. The title was a sly nod to Throbbing Gristle, and the lo-fi, distorted, and funky sound therein saw new influences creeping into Craig’s palette.
Craig was famously influenced by everything from the Smiths to Prince to Morton Subotnick, and his records never fail to push the sonic envelope. He incorporated his far-reaching influences in envelope-pushing ways, bringing jazz, funk, ambient, rock, pop, and even Krautrock and experimental noise into the Detroit equation. His laundry list of pseudonyms bears out his musical nature: 69 is lo-fi, stripped-down, dancefloor funk; Paperclip People make giant, epic disco-flavored tracks; BFC is practically beatless; Innerzone Orchestra’s debut single, the jazz-breakbeat monster “Bug In The Bassbin,” inspired a host of drum and bass producers, and later recordings included Francisco Mora of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, among others. And still, there is a unifying sound to his productions that is nearly instantly identifiable—rattling, layered percussion is his hallmark, along with the positively alien sounds he coaxes from his synths. Carl Craig, more than most dance music producers, is a true artist.
“At Les,” “Science Fiction,” “Just Another Day,” “Sparkle,” “Darkness,” “Angel” (Carl Craig); “My Machines,” “Jam The Box” (69); “Bug In The Bassbin” (Innerzone Orchestra); “Remake,” “Throw,” “The Climax,” “Floor,” “4 My Peepz” (Paperclip People); “Evolution” (BFC); “Crackdown” (Psyche).
Major Aliases: Shake, Da Sampla
Anthony “Shake” Shakir has been perhaps the most under-the-radar techno producer in all of Detroit, but for those who know, he is also one of the best. Producing tracks on his own since 1981, Shakir worked as a co-writer, producer, editor, and engineer next to Atkins, May, and Carl Craig in the late 80s. Shake’s solo debut was actually on the first Ten/Virgin Techno comp (“Sequence 10,” credited to Shakir), but he really didn’t get moving in earnest until the 90s. Founding the Frictional label in 1995 (with Claude Young), then Puzzlebox in 1996 (with Keith Tucker of Aux 88), Shake has resisted the European influence that many Detroit producers have shown and kept his tracks pure to the original vision: stripped down and funky. A well-kept secret, but a most rewarding one.
“Sequence 10” (Shakir); “5% Solution,” “Get A Feeling,” “The Floor Filler,” “Electron Rider” (Shake); “With A Piece Of Ice” (Da Sampla).
Major Aliases: Brother From Another Planet, Project 625.
Matched up with Anthony Shakir in the Frictional camp, Claude Young’s style is very much like his partner: minimal and moody, with a lush flair. Young also founded the Dow and Utensil labels, home to classic sides from Terrance Dixon, Terrance Parker, and others. Young is also a world-class DJ with fantastic technical skills—check out his installment of !K7’s “DJ Kicks” series from 1996 for evidence. Young has said in interviews that he is and always will be first and foremost a DJ, and so it appears that even he doesn’t give his music enough credit. These are some tough tracks. His 1997 full-length Soft Thru shows that he is capable of so much more though.
“Changing Factors,” “Acid Wash Conflict,” “Quicksand,” “Shift,” “Electronic Dissident,” “Impolite To Refuse” (Claude Young); “Joe 90” (Claude Young & Ian O’Brien).
Major Aliases: Bango, Black Odyssey, Kosmic Messenger, Silent Phase
Personally groomed by Derrick May and with early sides appearing on both Transmat and its Fragile offshoot, Stacey Pullen follows in May’s large footsteps with a neo-classical, digital edge to his music absent from many of the grittier Detroit productions. You can hear May’s fingerprints all over him, but that is by no means a bad thing, given May’s virtual retirement. Pullen works that intangible, almost spiritual vibe present on the most lush Rhythm Is Rhythm sides, and although he can pull a surprise out every now and again, it’s roaming that territory where he finds the most success. Unfortunately, he also seems to have picked up May’s work habits, and his output has been very sparse. What there is, however, is generally excellent, and at times, downright transfixing.
“Vertigo” (Stacey Pullen); “Ritual Beating System” (Bango); “Sweat” (Black Odyssey); “Eye To Eye,” “Get Down” (Kosmic Messenger); “Fire,” “Psychotic Funk” (Silent Phase).
Major Aliases: Dark Comedy, Lark, Yennek, Pod
Kenny Larkin worked on computers in the Air Force for a few years before returning to Detroit and falling in love with the techno sounds of the early 1990s. However, his first musical output came through Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva’s Windsor, Canada-based Plus 8 imprint, and his singles were an instant highlight of the label’s early releases. Larkin went on to release his first two full length albums on high profile European labels Warp (1994’s Azimuth, as part of their pioneering “Artificial Intelligence” series), and R&S (1995’s Metaphor): both are uniformly excellent and worth tracking down. Larkin’s sound is jazzy and soulful at times, with a melodic twist, but can also feature dense, looping grooves that pound without mercy. Larkin has always been a larger, more influential figure in Europe than in his native land, likely because of his dalliances with European labels and pure, digital sound.
(If you notice a gap in Larkin’s discography in the late 1990s, there’s a simple explanation: He took a few years off from production to pursue a career as a standup comic. Thankfully, he’s now back where he belongs.)
“We Shall Overcome,” “Loop 2,” “Catatonic” (Kenny Larkin); “War Of The Worlds,” “Good God,” “Plankton” (Dark Comedy); “Tedra” (Lark)
Major Aliases: Mad Mike, Underground Resistance, X-101 (with Jeff Mills and Robert Hood)
Mad Mike Banks is without a doubt the most controversial and politically outspoken member of the Detroit Techno community; he is also one of the most successful. Having started his career as a studio musician (he played with Parliament/Funkadelic, among others), it was when he formed Underground Resistance with the like-minded Jeff Mills and Robert Hood in 1990 that his career really took off. Having built up UR from a fledgling imprint pressed on thin wax and recorded cheaply and quickly on four-track to one of the longest-running and successful Techno labels in the world, Banks deserves a ton of credit as one of the driving forces behind its operation. Some are hesitant to give him that credit, however, thanks to UR’s militant stance and fiery social commentary.
His somewhat militant stance, refusal to be photographed with an uncovered face, and the harshly worded propaganda found on many UR records is often misunderstood, however, as exclusionary or clique-ish. While some may view his techniques as racist or overly harsh, they are really directed more at maintaining independent thought and operation on a musical label than anything else.
That said, the musical legacy UR has laid down is a rich one indeed, far from the one-dimensional hard sound that some seek to pigeonhole them into. Over the years, UR has been on the pioneering end of minimalism, hardcore/rave style tracks that incorporated 808-derived acid sounds with stomping hard techno, frenetic electro, smoothed-out house-like electronic grooves, so-called “hi-tech jazz” which fuses electronic instruments onto jazz fusion structures with emotional, spiritual results, and more. UR’s catalog is deep and varied, and while it may not all appeal to every audience, there is something there to meet everyone’s tastes. Newcomers are advised to start with one of the two Interstellar Fugitives compilations, and move on from there based on what strikes their fancy.
Major Aliases: Millsart, the Wizard, H & M (with Robert Hood), X-101 (with Mike Banks and Robert Hood), X-102/X-103 (with Robert Hood)
For many, Jeff Mills is the primary figurehead of the Techno movement. His minimal, fast, relentless, looping productions and legendary DJ sets (most famously on three turntables) have turned converts the world over onto his singular brand of “Millsian Minimalism.” His style has been aped by many, and yet there is still no mistaking the sound of one of his records: sizzling percussion, phased circular riffs, sci-fi sound effects, and gentle atmospheric washes.
Mills began his career as The Wizard, a radio DJ in Detroit, then later as a member of house music act True Faith. He founded Underground Resistance with Mike Banks and Robert Hood in 1990, and his early output for the label set the tone for what was to follow even after his departure: hard, fast, and uncompromising. Leaving the UR camp in 1992, Mills founded his own Axis imprint (and later an offshoot label, Purpose Maker) and his career took off. Buoyed by his frenetic, grinding DJ style, he took the world by storm, unleashing pandemonium on club floors from Detroit to Berlin to Tokyo and back.
Despite Mills’ reputation as a hard-as-nails grinder, however, he actually holds a sophisticated, artistic side that has come to fore in recent years. His DJ sets now include video that he mixes live with the music, and he has composed new electronic scores for classic films Metropolis and Buster Keaton’s Three Ages. He also continues to embrace a philosophical approach to life and art, made public mainly through the almost-poetic writing on his record labels. His attitudes hark back to the early Detroit days, where futurism was first and foremost in many producers minds. Mills now carries that torch proudly. And while his music may have a more thoughtful edge to it of late, he is still capable of blowing your head off with his sets at the drop of a hat. Simply put, Mills is one of the most important electronic music producers of all time.
“The Extremist,” “The Bells,” “The Dancer,” “Java,” “Growth,” “Humana” (Jeff Mills); “With,” “Inner Life” (Millsart); “Drama,” “Suspense” (H & M with Robert Hood).
Major Aliases: Monobox, The Vision, Floorplan, Inner Sanctum, H & M (with Jeff Mills), X-101 (with Mike Banks and Jeff Mills), X-102/X-103 (with Jeff Mills)
Although he carries a much lower profile than Mills or Banks, Robert “Noise” Hood has been a major figure in the minimalist movement, helping to pioneer the style over a decade ago to relatively little fanfare. With the accent on experimentation and a palpable soul vibe, Hood has toiled for years at his craft, but has seemingly been overshadowed by the prolific and flashy Mills and the controversial and militaristic Banks. His music, however, is every bit as important and influential. His 1994 Minimal Nation LP was instrumental in bringing the terminology to Techno, both through its title and the stripped-bare groove within. It is strange and cold and beautiful, and it still resonates today, even with so many producers having bitten the sound since.
Hood still has much in common with his former UR partners, including a fiercely loyal sense of community and a semi-conflicting desire to remain underground and change things from within rather than appealing to the masses. Hood’s M-Plant label has been his main outlet over the years, though he has also recorded for the Berlin-based Tresor label, Mills’ Axis imprint, and Metroplex, among others. He may just be Techno’s best kept secret.
“Internal Empire,” “The Pace,” “Behind This Door” “Spectra,” “Who Taught You Math” (Robert Hood); “Downtown,” “Population,” “Realm” (Monobox); “Liberation Radio,” “Spectral Nomad” (The Vision); “Drama,” “Suspense (H & M with Jeff Mills).
The Next Generation
Detroit has always had a competitive and richly creative scene, and in the new millennium, that hasn’t changed. A new group of producers are taking the classic Detroit blueprint in all-new directions and creating a new legacy for future generations. Below are a few of the most prominent examples, but rest assured, the scene is still thriving. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for the latest sounds from Detroit; chances are very strong that you won’t be sorry.
DJ 3000 (aka Frank Jucaj) was a fixture on the still-thriving Detroit DJ scene when he was asked to join the Submerge/UR crew. His first assignment was a mix CD: Somewhere In Detroit, issued in 2002 and featuring the next wave of artists in the Submerge camp rubbing shoulders with the old guard. Mixing up Juan Atkins and Underground Resistance tracks with new school producers like Los Hermanos, Mr. De’, and Erik Travis, his funky set laid the blueprint for a new age in Detroit Techno, one that embraced it’s roots in electro and hip-hop far more than the previous generation. Jucaj soon set up his own label, Motech, and through that outlet has released smooth, funky tracks that takes cues equally from the classic Underground Resistance “hi-tech jazz” style and earlu Atkins’ productions like Cybotron and Model 500. He continues to represent Submerge/UR/Motech as a DJ both in clubs and on wax (he engineered UR Battlepak Vol. 2, a collection of mixing loops for DJs lifted from classic UR cuts), as well as releasing his own tracks on Motech. DJ 3000 is taking it back to the future with style.
“Passage To Malësia,” “Barracuda,” “Drumë,” “Stand Alone.”
Major Aliases: Berg Nixon
Born and raised in Detroit, Crosson’s music bears a decidedly non-Detroit influence: one can hear the traces of Windsor’s Richie Hawtin, Ann Arbor’s Matthew Dear, and a host of Berlin artists in his music, and most of his output to date has been through European labels like Trapez and Telegraph. His style is heavily percussive, sounding a bit like a fleshed out version of Hawtin’s Plastikman alias at times, and features deep, dubby baselines and dark atmospherics reminiscent of Berlin’s Basic Channel camp. Crosson recently released his debut as Berg Nixon for Hawtin’s Euro-style minimalist imprint, M_nus, as well. This new schooler has thrown out the classic texts in favor of a new method, and it will be interesting to see how it goes over in his hometown over the years.
“Say So,” “Artists Have Bad Haircuts” (Ryan Crosson); “Box Escape,” “The Depths” (Berg Nixon).
Los Hermanos is a collective of DJs and producers from the Underground Resistance camp who have taken their Techno in a whole new direction. Dan Caballero (aka DJ Dex), Gerald Mitchell, Santiago Salazar (aka DJ S2), and Rolando Ray Rocha (aka DJ Rolando, the Aztec Mystic) have a definitive Latin flavor in their music, adding yet another new wrinkle to the Detroit story. Working mainly on their own label of the same name, Los Hermanos are proof that Techno crosses more boundaries than perhaps its detractors give it credit for.
Their music is strongly based on the smoother side of the UR spectrum, taking off from the sound of DJ Rolando’s classic “Jaguar” and running with it: synthesized string sounds, mellow chords, and melodies that can rightfully be described as beautiful. Classic Detroit producers have touched on Latin rhythms over the years, most prominently Derrick May and Carl Craig, but with Los Hermanos, it is a genuine identity rather than a genre exercise—further proof that there are no boundaries or cultural barriers that a common love of great music can’t cross.
“Birth Of 3000,” “My Mother’s Guitarra,” “Quetzal,” “Son Dos.”
The music of Detroit took the world by storm in the late 80s and early 90s, and the Techno vibe hit big all around the globe. Berlin and Detroit have long had a symbiotic relationship of sorts; London was well into things for a while; and Tokyo has also embraced the music.
But around that same time, just across the Canadian border, in Windsor, Canada, a group of young producers fell for the sound just across the water. Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva founded Plus 8 records in 1990, having their first record cut at NSC (it was their first job, too) and making sure to credit “National Sound Corporation, DETROIT” on the label.
Plus 8 soon found success not only in Detroit, but in Europe, where licensed versions of Plus 8 tracks by F.U.S.E., Circuit Breaker, Cybersonik, and Speedy J hit big with the ravers. The Plus 8 roster included fellow Canadian Daniel Bell (aka DBX), Detroit native Kenny Larkin, and even Japanese Techno groundbreaker Ken Ishii, making it a truly international affair. In fact, early Plus 8 labels had the legend “Rotterdam, Windsor, Detroit, London, Toronto” around the label.
Hawtin soon tired of that, however, and with his newfound infusion of cash launched an experimental sublabel for more experimental recordings (Probe) and a house imprint (Definitive), both of which were very successful. Not content to just keep making the same old club tracks, however, Hawtin soon put his modified 303 to work and unleashed Plastikman, kicking off a whole new type of minimalism movement with the dynamic “Spastik” single, a track that consisted entirely of percussion, raging and detuned and relentless.
Since then, the sublabels have come and gone, Plus 8 is maybe half as active as it was in it’s heyday, and Hawtin’s main outlet is his own M_nus (or Minus, if you prefer) label, founded with the slogan “Minimize To Maximize.” Most Detroit producers embrace Hawtin as one of their own, though there had been rough times in the early days, and he is now granted honorary Detroiter status.
A similar path has pushed Ann Arbor-based imprint Ghostly International and their more dancefloor oriented sister label Spectral Sounds into the limelight. Again working off the Detroit blueprint, but adding their own bit of local flavor, artists like the prolific Matthew Dear, Jeff Samuel, and Geoff White have kept the vibes and excitement of old Detroit going. Though they embrace other genres, Techno is at the heart of Ghostly’s operation, and they too have been embraced by the Detroit electronic community in earnest. Those looking for something with a slightly different flavor would be well served to check out some of their fine works, such as the Spectral 25 collection or Ghostly’s Idol Tryouts Vol 1 and just released Vol 2.
Written By: Todd Hutlock, Originally Published on: 2006-03-07 Reprinted from: stylusmagazine.com