The DIY Spirit That Built Detroit Techno City

Photo of Jeff Mills by Jim Dyson/Getty Images. TR-909 by Aroom Audio.

"Welcome to Techno Christmas!"

T. Carlita greets us as we walk into Submerge's legendary basement record store. She's shooting interviews for her show, In My House, which presents Detroit music and culture history with the charm of public-access TV style. Upstairs, in the same house, is the Techno Museum, aka Exhibit 3000, and Underground Resistance HQ.

Like Detroit itself, the environment is incredibly welcoming. Finding it was the problem. Even standing directly in front of it we weren't sure we were in the right place. There was no signage, and my map app said it was permanently closed. Like techno, the whole thing was initially confusing, but sticking with it had an incredible payoff.

We peruse decades' worth of backstage laminates, admire the work of artist Abu Qadim Haqq, ogle the Korg Polysix and Roland TR-808 that were undoubtedly used on tracks we adore, and read four decades' worth of articles.

I walk out the door with a weighty book called 313ONELOVE: A Love Affair With Electronic Music From Detroit, and 18 EPs that can only be bought there. Outside, a man in an SUV sells me one more, and then we strike up a chat about what has happened since the '80s. Laden with treasure, I'll have to check a bag on the flight home.

My good friend Dan Boen and I came up in similar '90s DIY scenes, Minneapolis and Chapel Hill respectively, playing in indie pop bands, surrounded by then-unwanted gear like Fender Mustangs and Harmony Rockets, which could be had for a song. Dan was in a band called Polara, who had some success in the era's signing frenzy but, like me, he also had a penchant for all forms of electronic music. We've met in Detroit for Movement, a nearly two-decades-running music festival that celebrates one of the city's greatest cultural exports: techno.

For many people the utterance of the genre brings to mind lifeless, four-on-the-floor dance music, played at expensive festivals, packed with privileged, DJ-worshiping patrons, fueled on designer drugs, and $25 cocktails served in plastic cups. In actuality, the story of techno is one of industriousness and creativity, creating art in the face of adversity, and building something magical from the ground up.

It's perhaps the greatest, and longest-running, DIY scene in popular music history, much more impressive and influential than the channels Dan and I came up through, though we had no idea at the time. It should be mentioned along with jazz and the blues when we discuss the musical movements Black Americans have given the world, usually lacking the credit that is due.

Techno(logy) City

Detroit had been designed as a city of the future, with the auto industry at its heart, and features like the modern, above-ground train system futuristically known as The People Mover. By the time the latter had been implemented, though, the city was already in decline.

In 1967, police-incited violence had increased racial tension. The auto industry had decentralized, plus there was growing competition from Japan and Europe. "White flight" saw the bourgeoisie moving to the suburbs, leaving the increasingly jobless working classes to fend for themselves. The cultural coup de grâce came when Motown moved all operations to Los Angeles, as 1973 approached. Techno City was becoming a ghost town.

Typically, in these scenarios, all hope is lost, and inspiration is nowhere to be found. In the case of Detroit, things were indeed bleak, but a handful of heroes gave a generation of kids hope.

Topping that list was Charles Johnson, better known as The Electrifying Mojo, whose afrofuturist radio show, The Midnight Funk Association, was beloved by a community of budding musicians who would go on to change history. Starting in 1977, Mojo presented a mix of music by artists that was impressively diverse, even by today's standards, and he segued between songs with words of wisdom.

Highlights of The Electrifying Mojo's broadcasts.

At 10 p.m. each night he would "land the Mothership" and proceed to play deep cuts by P-Funk, Prince, some slow jams, and the string synth space soul of Mandré, but also British new wave like Gary Numan and Human League.

Surprisingly, The B52's were in heavy rotation. Unsurprisingly, so was the futuristic disco of Giorgio Moroder. Perhaps the most revolutionary move was peppering the broadcast with German electronic artists, most notably Kraftwerk.

Congruent to all of this was an absolute explosion in electronic music technology. The '70s were definitely a time of future-music dabbling, but with Minimoogs costing about the same as an entry-level car, access was limited. Electronic instruments had traditionally only been found in rarified spaces, like university campuses and audio labs, but only a few people had the keys.

With the exception of homegrown dub experiments happening in the islands, and the result of an off-course ghost ship full of Moogs and Korgs crash landing on Cabo Verde in 1968, the tools for making electronic music usually weren't in the hands of people of color. Even Francis Bebey first came across these instruments while studying at the Sorbonne.

As the '70s rolled into the '80s, a remarkable transition occurred, as synths featuring polyphony, and patch memory, came on the scene, thanks to innovations like microprocessors. At the same time, relatively affordable monosynths, like the EDP Wasp, were being released, with the hope of courting budding musicians who had been exposed to electronic pop, just as student-model guitars had been developed and aimed at kids who had seen The Fabs on Ed Sullivan.

But things were about to drastically change again.

Synths of techno

Up to this point when a synthesist used terms like "brass" or "strings," the fact that it was an approximation was understood, even with dedicated "stringers" like ARP's Solina and Omni, or the Roland RS-202. When Yamaha unleashed an FM beast on the world, in the form of the DX7, there were two noticeable changes compared to its predecessors: sounds became a lot more realistic and the knobs had all disappeared.

This shifted the focus away from sonic explorations, and more towards relying on presets made by programmers who understood the inherent, complicated architecture. Other companies followed suit with similar streamlined models, samplers became available, and most things with knobs edged towards being passé.


In 1981 Kraftwerk released yet another paradigm-shifting record, Computer World. It anticipated things we now take for granted, such as home computers, cybersex, digital banking, and isolation in a tech-laden world, well before they became commonplace.

In Detroit, the duo of Juan Atkins and Rik "3070" Davis, better known as Cybotron, released the single "Alleys of Your Mind." It was a stark affair, which reflected the mood of their decaying city. The Electrifying Mojo was familiar with the duo, and played their music on his show.

Cybotron's second release, "Clear," was a more hyped-up number, with white noise whip cracks, 808 beats, treated vocals, and recognizable Kraftwerk references. "Alleys of Your Mind's" bassline had nodded towards Kraftwerk's "The Hall of Mirrors," but "Clear" straight up mimicked the upward note cascade of the same song.

There's some debate as to whether the track is electro, or the first techno track, but a followup, "Techno City," uses the term in its name.

It's more soaring, futuristic, and broader in its references. It has strong Yellow Magic Orchestra energy at times. Nobody was more surprised than they were when the Fantasy label, best known for releasing Creedence Clearwater Revival's music, offered to put out their records.

Davis and Atkins ultimately parted ways. The latter formed Model 500, then recorded a single that undoubtedly feels techno, "No UFO's," releasing it on his own Metroplex label. The TR-909 beat is busier, there are claps and electronic cowbells, a syncopated bassline, a healthy dose of psychedelia, and a lot of energy.

Like Atkins' tracks that preceded it, there wasn't much of a party vibe. It was a mélange of confusion, pensiveness, and despondency that paired with the city's mood. The B-side was also a slice of dark, electric funk. It was dystopian, and yet you could still boogie to it.

Futurist Shock

As a teen, Atkins had moved to the Detroit suburb of Belleville, a town mostly inhabited by people who had decent jobs in the auto industry. Related to that, it was integrated more than most, but Atkins was still in the minority at his high school.

He made friends with two like-minded students who were also Black, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. As a clique of three, they would listen to and discuss the music they heard on Mojo's show, as well as the books they were reading, particularly tech-philosophy, not unlike what Omni magazine purveyed. Their bible was Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave.

It painted a picture of a democratic future, where technology could create a landscape and knowledge would be the new wealth. People would enjoy a better work/life balance, freeing up humankind to better itself. Paramount to our survival would be addressing ecological concerns and workplace abuse. These would be the tasks on which the new "techno rebels" would focus.

They were also enthralled by Gary Numan, even though they had a more cautiously optimistic view of what could be. Whereas the less introspective might have confused Kraftwerk as cold technicians, flirting with fascist and Aryan imagery, the "Belleville Three" saw these robotic citizens of the world as "post race," complimentary with what Toffler was writing about. The impact of these influences on them, and the artists who immediately followed in their wake, cannot be overstated.

Atkins had been the first to kick things off. After hearing songs featuring Bernie Worrell's wild Minimoog work, he bought a Korg MS-10 at 15 years old, with the help of his grandmother. He became interested in turntablism and started to learn the decks. He befriended Richard Davis, an older Vietnam vet with a collection of electronic instruments, which led to the formation of Cybotron.

Davis had also left Detroit for the suburbs, citing that the death, desperation, and decay was hard for him to see every day, after the time he'd spent as a soldier in Southeast Asia. In 1978 he'd released an experimental single called "Methane Sea," which was right up Atkins' alley.

Atkins, May, and Saunderson not only started producing various happenings as the Deep Space Soundworks collective, they also took field trips to Chicago to check out the parallel, budding music scene at predominantly gay clubs like the Warehouse, where "house music" gets its name. It was also a site of cross-pollination, owing to things like Frankie Knuckles bringing knowledge gained during his time immersed in NYC's Paradise Garage scene to his new home.

This seems to have had the biggest impact on May's career, whose first hit, "Strings of Life," released under the moniker of Rhythim Is Rhythim, incorporated now-familiar percussive piano stabs and orchestral hits. It had a more ebullient feel than what Atkins was producing. It was unusual, and put a spin on both jazz and classical music.

Remarkably, it has no bassline, yet is very much a dance track. Saunderson's output was similarly sanguine, and gave no hint as to how massive his influence would become. Others, like James Pennington, Blake Baxter, and Eddie Fowlkes came into the same orbit, and added to the conversation. Definitions were blurred between what qualifies as a musician or DJ.

Then came the formation of labels like Transmat, KMS, and their sublabels. It was difficult to follow who was performing and producing under the many various aliases, but it had the effect of making the scene look bigger than it was. In actuality it was a small group of energetic people creating three times the output, self-recording and releasing. It put even the most indefatigable punk scenes to shame, and yet this is all relatively unknown outside of inner circles.

Art being made in other metro centers often focused on how everything was falling apart, so the only options were to party down or arm up. Even though Atkins' music had a level of disquietude, influenced by what he was witnessing in Detroit's dour circumstances, that wasn't mutually exclusive from the idea that a better future could be had, if only the people had the will. Considering how African Americans had been treated in the US for the previous 300 years, this was wildly optimistic.

The musicians in this nascent scene saw themselves as kindred spirits to the young people of Germany, who lived in a country that had been destroyed before they were born, having to navigate what it even meant to be "German" anymore, and the Japanese, who were dealing with a similar malaise. They held in common making music that sounded like their environment, while looking toward technology as a savior.

Additionally, Japan was at the forefront of producing high-quality, relatively affordable electronic instruments. Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Technopolis" felt like the embodiment of this, and The Electrifying Mojo was getting it to the ears of young futurists in Wayne County.

The Next Wave

As with "krautrock," blanket terms are always a bit slippery, especially when a scene starts to blossom. "Techno" was already starting to morph into various iterations. This second wave had, perhaps, more of a manifesto feel to it than the first, which had grown organically, with no roadmap. At the vanguard of the new wave was the Underground Resistance collective—led by "Mad" Mike Banks, who had played in Parliament—and Jeff Mills.

Jeff Mills creates a full performance out of a TR-909 drum machine.

UR was more overtly political, and felt connected to Detroit's revolutionary history, which had manifested itself in the proto-punk of The MC5 and Iggy Pop, but also a very active Black Panther party. The latter's "nobody is going to do it for us, so we must do it for ourselves" attitude was in the DNA, so they built a turnkey music operation from the ground up. The earliest output felt most indebted to Atkins, tapped into sci-fi, and felt anxious at times. Coincidental or not, "UR" is also the first two letters in "urgency."

Robert Hood soon came into the fold, and the three released music both collaboratively and as solo artists. Key to the aesthetic was a "no celebrities" standard. Promoting with photos of the artists was eschewed, and the record industry, writ large, was seen as corrupt, having exploited Black artists for decades.

Whereas the first wave had incorporated a touch of elegance while the city crumbled, not unlike Britain's New Romantics, only with preppy clothes, UR dealt more in harsh realities. When Mike Banks spoke, he shared hard truths. For this reason, he was often compared to Public Enemy's Chuck D. Still, the whole thing was wrapped in a mostly instrumental, avant garde, afrofuturistic package you could dance to.

Part of their economical, fiercely independent work ethic often involved using gear which had been left for dead, when the knobless wonders wiped the slate clean.

Less expensive Yamaha synths, like the DX-100, made appearances on some tracks, but a good portion of the sounds came from "obsolete" instruments like Korg's Mono/Poly, and MS series; Sequential Circuits' Pro-One; Roland's SH-101, TR-808, TR-909, RS-09; and ARP's Odyssey and Axxe. By that point these instruments could be purchased for a fraction of what they had originally sold for.

The story of the TB-303 is one of its failure to produce the sound of a bass guitar, abandonment, and reappropriation, once they could be obtained for $25 and a six pack of beer. Now they are so associated with the sound that these prosumer-grade instruments regularly sell for well over $2,000, there is a robust clone market, and people constantly debate over which sounds authentic. The other instruments just mentioned fetch top dollar now as well. The artists featured in this article, and their adjacents, have created much of that demand.

Another story of their industriousness relates to vinyl pressing. At one time, the Motown label was the pride of Detroit, a shining example of dreams realized after the Second Great Migration of African Americans to U.S. industrial centers. Motown's exodus in '73 was just another loss for a city that could no longer get a break.

Fortuitously, a useful infrastructure had been left behind. Mastering engineers, lathing, and pressing facilities had very few clients. So when young techno artists showed up at places like Archer Record Pressing, looking to do small runs, they weren't turned away. Detroit's new wealth was talent with a lot of time on their hands, and the stars aligned.

Ron Murphy, of National Sound, had paid attention to details like bass response during the Motown years, earning him the nickname "Motown Murphy." His lathe was sitting dormant in his oldies record store, until the new generation of techno producers started asking about it.

Murphy, a man who had cut his teeth on classic tracks, for a then-robust record industry, fully understood and appreciated what the young DIY artists were trying to do. He shared his wisdom liberally, and offered fair prices. Then the creativity began.

Ron Murphy describes the mastering and vinyl-cutting process in an old interview.

Records were cut with two concentric grooves so, depending on where the stylus was set down, one song or another would play on the same side of a record. When UR bootlegs started turning up, Murphy cut a few records that tracked from the label outward, to identify which were the originals. Jeff Mills decided he wanted each song on X-102's Rings of Saturn LP to be an individual track with its own lockout groove, so the surface of the record would mimic Saturn's rings.

Murphy experimented, and determined each song would have to be 133.33 beats per minute to make the splice point work, and Mills adjusted his music to meet the challenge. Murphy is no longer with us, but that Scully lathe is, and is still in use at Submerge.

Experimentation of all sorts was always part of the equation. Second wave artists felt there were no obligations, and challenged themselves to not get lazy and follow a script. Kenny Larkin was taking new liberties with timing, and Carl Craig was exploring sonics.

Musicians would perform under different aliases, depending on inspiration. Mike Banks' jazzy work with Galaxy 2 Galaxy was different from what he was doing on the Underground Resistance EPs. Though most of the music was instrumental, mythoi were settled on for certain projects.

For example, the musical output of Gerald Donald and James Stinson's Drexciya revolved around the saga of pregnant slave women, who had been thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. One by one, they gave birth to a colony of sea-dwelling Atlanteans. Since the fetuses had never breathed air, having only existed in an amniotic fluid environment, they were able to live underwater, after exiting the womb as their mothers drowned.

On one hand, exceedingly grim, on the other, it was an allegory for looking toward a future beyond the realities Black people faced daily, in line with Toffler's utopian vision.

The techno rebels were emerging.

Rave New World

So why do so many people think techno started on the other side of the Atlantic when it is as unquestionably from Detroit, as house is from Chicago? We can examine a few events for the answer.

Songs had been trickling into the UK. "Clear" had been lumped in with electro tracks, which were popular with some DJs, and Phuture's "Acid Tracks," the first song to use the TB-303 in the way we think of it, was drawing attention to Chicago.

New Order had "primed the pump" after taking some inspiration from both Detroit and Paradise Garage, when they dropped their now-classic "Blue Monday" single in 1983. Prog elder statesmen Yes had even used orchestra hits taken right out of the electro and techno playbook on their biggest hit to date, "Owner of a Lonely Heart," which came out later that same year. However, the biggest bump came from a sampler LP that was released in Britain.

Writer Neil Rushton had been a Northern Soul DJ, so he was very familiar with Motown classics, and had a soft spot for Detroit. After releasing some Chicago house music in Britain, and realizing he wasn't the only one doing it, the music of the Belleville Three came into his field of vision, and he invited Derrick May to England in 1987, one of many times May would function as a de facto ambassador for the scene.

A deal was struck with Virgin records, who was known for taking risks, like releasing The Faust Tapes, and Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit was born. The response was enthusiastic, and timed well with a newly emerging club culture. Artists were flown in from Detroit and celebrated as innovators. Saunderson's Inner City project produced two hit singles, "Good Life" and "Big Fun," and set the table for what was to come during the rave years.

The Detroit crew was racking up big hits in Britain, but almost nobody knew it back home. Techno may not have started in the UK, but it certainly took off there, which may have given the impression that it did.

British-born prodigy Richie Hawtin, a white kid who grew up in the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario, disorientingly south of Detroit, had integrated himself into the second wave, after DJ'ing in the city during his teens. He formed his own label, Plus 8, with his friend John Acquaviva, bought up then-unwanted 101s, 303s, 808s, and 909s, and used them, along with an Atari computer, to create music that he released under various monikers, basically following every footstep of his heroes.

Richie Hawtin talks about the shift in his music-making in the mid-'90s.

At first, he was looked at as an interloper, but he earned the trust of some key figures, and certainly put in the work. While still living in Detroit's shadow, Hawtin enjoyed great success in Britain and beyond, particularly with his Plastikman releases. Unlike his mentors, he had fewer reservations about putting a "face" on his work, which bolstered his fame, and made him an important link between Detroit and Europe.

Word trickled back to the U.S. about a hedonistic rave explosion that had been raging in the UK and more people took notice. Through meiosis, various subgenres and styles emerged throughout Britain. Autechre, Aphex Twin, Orbital, 808 State, Underworld, Chemical Brothers, and so many others would add new chapters to the story.

All of this echoed the time in 1964 when British fans had become enamored of American blues music after bands like The Beatles, Kinks, and Stones expressed their love for it. Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and others were brought over to play shows for enthusiastic university students, who were fascinated by both the music and the origin stories. More bands formed as a result.

With techno, for at least the second time in pop music history, the British had been successful at giving Americans their own music back to them.

Wall of Sound

West Berlin, long known as a hedonistic city, was also embracing techno. As in the UK, abandoned buildings were temporarily turned into clubs, and there were plenty to choose from. Britain's clubs were gay-friendly, but a new hedonism and openness was flourishing within Berlin's techno scene that hadn't been seen since the Weimar era. This all culminated in 1989's Love Parade, where 150 people gathered in the streets to dance as a political demonstration, calling for an improvement in international relations and peace.

Just a few months later the wall dividing East and West Berlin came down. The reunified city already had its soundtrack, and East Berliners in particular were ready to party. Clubs popped up, opening and closing hours became optional, drug and sexual exploration wasn't discouraged, the LGBTQ+ community had new safe spaces, and every other person seemed to be a DJ. The scene became as much a part of the tourist map as Unter Den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate. The annual Love Parade eventually went on to attract 1.5 million people.

German producer Westbam, who played the first one in 1989, referred to the explosion of techno energy as "The East German Liberation Dance." It didn't take long for things to spread deeper into Europe from there.

If there is a common music of the EU, it's techno.

K-Hand's 2019 Boiler Room set.

As the subgenres materialized, the many Berlin clubs each became loosely associated with a style, Tresor having the strongest bond with Detroit. Tresor's associated label can now claim over 260 releases, many of which feature Detroit artists.

Berlin also gets credit for advancing things in terms of parity. You may have noticed all of the names mentioned up to this point have been men. With the exception of icons like Kelli Hand, the list of artists coming out of Detroit had been overwhelmingly male, and that started to change when things expanded abroad.

With over 300 clubs in operation, these days Berlin can claim to be techno's nucleus, even if it's not the birthplace. To paraphrase the people of Tresor, "techno didn't start here, we're just keeping it safe until the Americans realize how special it is."


Techno's rise in the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world merits an article of its own, but it's not possible to talk about Detroit techno without mentioning how its getting out of Detroit led to people from there becoming influential legends, who are better known outside of their native country.

Remarkably, many of them still reside in Detroit, constantly flying around the world, getting showered with adoration, playing to thousands of people a night, then returning home to live relatively quiet lives. Richie Hawtin once quipped that "whenever these people are all together in a room for over an hour, inevitably the conversation will come back down to who has got the most frequent flier points."

There is a respect for the city that, in both positive and negative ways, inspired people to make things happen. Civic pride reveals itself when its inhabitants remind you to "show love for Detroit." Kraftwerk was originally not pleased when they found out their music was being sampled or copied on early electro and techno tracks, but eventually formed strong bonds with their musical children. Even on the shortest U.S. tours they would stop through and enjoy what was probably their funkiest audiences who, true to character, the group described as "very dynamic."

Legendarily reclusive, the band has been known to mingle with artists and fans when they visit. At one party Anthony "Shake" Shakir, a link between the first and second wave, approached Kraftwerk's Ralf Hütter and said "I'm from Detroit, and I'd like to thank you for giving me a career." Many electronic artists, like Jean-Michel Jarre and (of course) Kraftwerk, have acknowledged the admiration was mutual through collaborations and remixes.

Modern takes on techno gear

In many ways, The Movement Electronic Music Festival brought things back home. Held each Memorial Day weekend since 2006, having grown out of the short-lived Detroit Music Festival, it represents a backflow, which is presumably why one of its many afterparties is called Return to the Source. Veteran artists have been involved on both the front and back end of the festival over the years, and all of the usual suspects have played it.

It also carries a lot of symbolic weight, in that artists who have been influenced by the city's most under-appreciated export have a chance to mingle at the wellspring. This year's lineup featured 120 acts, covering the gamut of techno's broad influence, ranging from veterans, like Underworld, to a jaw-dropping set by upcomer AK. Caribou delivered brilliant psychedelic electronic pop, and Surgeon rattled brains right out of their skulls.

The diverse bill indicated a dedication to jettisoning any remnants of the boys club, and it's been that way for years. Naturally, many internationally known hometown heroes are always in attendance, either on stage or in the crowd. Most of them continue to create in a city that remains DIY to its core.

Underground Resistance remains fiercely independent. Mike Banks is still skippering the ship, and is committed to both raising the community up, and calling out oppressive political policy, using music as the medium. Along with Daniel Bell, Robert Hood gets credit for the minimalist arm of techno, which influenced much of what is played in the late night Euro clubs these days.

It's impossible to list all of Jeff Mills' accomplishments, or even keep up with him. "The Wizard" is a pantologist, who has partnered with the late afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, orchestras, and art museums around the world. He has created and abandoned labels that were purpose-built for specific projects, and his discography could fill a small book.

He's been an influential DJ on both the radio, and as a performer, implementing a three deck setup that also incorporates a TR-909. Mills is to the 909 what Robert Fripp is to the guitar: a disciplined master, who has created his own language, and has no peer. In 2017, Mills was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, in recognition of his contributions to the humanities.

Hiding in Plain Sight

With a story so engaging, it begs the question, why don't more people know about techno's origins, especially since Detroit's scene is still very active? It's not like the city's contribution was fleeting, it continues to produce. The reasons are manifold. Whereas radio DJs once had autonomy, conservative programming, driven by beancounters, was becoming the norm around 1980, and self-recorded dystopian electro-funk probably wasn't what they were looking for.

Gone were the days when a DJ at Chicago's WLS could sneak in a Kraftwerk track between Zeppelin and ABBA tunes. The backlash against dance music, with its anti-gay and racist subtext, didn't help. Ironically, techno was initially "too white" for a lot of Detroit's Black community, who didn't quite get what the young iconoclasts were trying to do. To this day there is confusion as to whether techno pioneers were actual musicians or "just" DJs. The answer is yes to both.

Compounding this is the absence of simple definitions, which can make it all feel a bit like a secret society. It's nearly impossible for the neophyte to keep track of what's minimal, acid, hardcore, dub, melodic, cinematic, IDM, trance, tech house, and downtempo, which are just a fraction of the subgenres that formed.

Many styles were collected, watered down, and rebranded under the blanket term of EDM, with its adjacent VIP DJ culture, and the tone-deafness that comes with it. "360 degree elevated entertainment experiences," $25,000 tables at exclusive Las Vegas events, and DJ's hawking NFTs are so far from techno's DIY roots it overshadows the fascinating origin story to the point of erasure.

Incidentally, of the top 10 highest paid DJs, all are men, nine are white, the one minority is the heir to a restaurant fortune, none are Black.

Mainly, though, an aversion to putting the artist above the music, in an industry that puts a premium on it, probably had a lot to do with it. DeForrest Brown Jr., musician and author of Assembling A Black Counter Culture, a fascinating tome that aims to set the record straight about techno's roots, points out that "The Belleville Three" banner was just a way for others to market them. It was someone else's attempt to build a celebrity narrative that didn't exist. Surprisingly, Atkins, May, and Saunderson didn't even collaborate as a musical trio until 2017.

So, the new celeb-utantes often control the conversation. Many have even opined techno shouldn't be political, it's just meant to bring people together to dance. This ignores the fact that techno music's advent is the direct result of a primarily Black, working class community being abandoned, after corporations had extracted all they needed from it. It was made by musicians making do, often using cast-off gear, because they didn't have a seat at tables in exclusive spaces. This was done by people who looked forward to a day when a nation that had treated them as second class citizens, for centuries, would no longer do so.

Its artists often questioned predatory capitalism, and a music industry that has repeatedly taken from their community without compensation. Many of the musicians are descendents of people who were brought to the United States against their will, to work for no wages, and then escaped the Jim Crow South, only to be forsaken in a new region of the US. To say techno isn't political is to remove Blackness from yet another artform that has gone on to become massive.

There is no way I could mention all of the artists, collaborations, labels, and projects that have come out of this musically fertile city, even just the key players. Dan Sicko's Techno Rebels expands on what I've written, and there is a chapter about techno in Joe Molloy's Acid Detroit.

DeForrest Brown Jr.'s Assembling A Black Counter Culture is a deep dive for the fearless. Be on the lookout for the release of a documentary called God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines, and try to track down Jacqueline Caux's film Never Stop: A Music That Resists. Some of the Electrifying Mojo's shows are available online, and will expose you to influential tracks you've likely never heard.

If you're just curious about Detroit techno music, it's easy enough to start with the names mentioned in this piece, and then see where it takes you. I've also provided a playlist of classics and music inspired by them. You'll likely marvel at how versatile certain artists are, and you'll certainly notice some now-classic reference points.

Musicians will find new inspiration, but it shouldn't be forgotten that few of these legends chose an instrument because of its reputation, they created its reputation by using what they could afford, or what was available for free. Nothing is stopping you from doing the same with gear you are ignoring, or things that are overlooked, and can be had for a bargain.

To quote Juan Atkins, The future is really the most open-ended subject. It can be whatever you want it to be. You're not confined to any kind of parameter."

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