Detroit: Hit the Open Road

Detroit, the Motor City and Birthplace of Techno Music

From a ghost city come the ideas of the future

Counter-clockwise, it’s 11 o’clock and the journey begins… Feel 1:

Download: Feel 1 – Detroit: Hit the Open Road


“Like an X-Ray, it shoots right through you down to the bones. Its beats are dots on a spine of time. The gravitas of its makers, who shape it with their bare hands instructing electrons to move just so, have opened the nation to a dimensional groove. The invisible city of the Internet is the psychic twin of the Motor City, a frontier space of decaying heydays and outlaw tendencies. But instead of hiding, the open road wakes a fierce pride and love of the future deep in the heart of uncertainty. That is what it is to feel alive again.”

After the American industrial revolution accelerated in Detroit with the car boom, it cratered in the early 21st century through corporate mismanagement and suburban flight. Detroit itself, the familial home of Mitt Romney, became a ghost city, hollowed out by despair and economic alienation. Where Motown once ruled the airwaves, a new sound began to fill the void in the early 1980s. First came the electro beats of Cybotron and then the robot disco of Detroit Techno, what Derrick May once famously described as Kraftwerk and George Clinton stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.

Jeff Mills

Jeff “Wizard” Mills

In many ways Detroit has been the backcountry of urban black America, as the Mississippi Delta once remained the fertile heritage land of minimalist twangs and soulful heartstrings for the blues and rock. In Detroit, far from the media centers of New York and Los Angeles, a brave community of artists forged a skeletal time spine for the 21st century, inspiring everyone from Daft Punk to LCD Soundsytem to Deadmau5. Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Carl Craig, Kelli Hand, Richie Hawtin, Kenny Larkin, Drexciya, Robert Hood, Jeff Mills, and on and on … these are the names that will someday inhabit the myth of America’s great electronic music revolution, as important as jazz or rock before it.

After the “Belleville Three” of Atkins, May and Saunderson, plus Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes, set the initial blueprint of Detroit Techno, it evolved in wild new directions. A “second wave” of producers pushed a harder sound, especially Underground Resistance and Plus 8 Records. Mills, who had earned the nickname “The Wizard” for his dexterity as a DJ mixer, also helped drive an uncompromising minimal sound, like a car stripped to its chassis and wheels. His ambient compositions were equally forward looking, approaching a kind of cosmic jazz marooned on another planet. Younger acts like Octave One embraced the stabbing rhythms of the European rave scene by way of New York’s Joey Beltram. While others still, like Moodymann, pursued a purer Detroit vibe, one that explored the city’s Motown and funk roots.

Richie Hawtin

Richie Hawtin aka “Plastikman”

In recent years, newcomers to EDM are making pilgrimages to Detroit for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. DEMF draws quality acts from around the world to ply their craft, from Higher Intelligence Agency and Photek to Speedy J and Booka Shade. Detroit Techno has also continued to influence new generations of electronic musicians, who look to Detroit’s canon of classic cuts as job one in developing their tastes and instincts. Just as the radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo helped spark the imaginations of Atkins and company decades ago, with his eclectic mix of Kraftwerk, Prince, and the B-52’s, Detroit Techno today is laying the foundation for the next shift.

Techno now stands as a beguiling outlier of the American future. Just as the Detroit auto industry rose from the ashes of the Great Recession to become a bright spot of economic and technical revival, techno (EDM) has finally reached a critical mass with the mainstream. And as Obama has struggled to find his voice in the narrow corridors of Washington power, lashed every step of the way by an equally powerful code of old resentments, techno reminds the new generation of what is still possible in 2012. It is not just a dream. It is the human spirit motoring at infinity.


Download: Feel 1 – Detroit: Hit the Open Road


Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins

Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins, techno’s originators