Detroit – that infamous parable of industrial collapse, racial strife, unemployment, crime and corruption – has become painfully hip in its advanced stage of decay. Ruin porn, of which the city is the undisputed capital, can take much of the blame. Looking at those ultra-shareable online galleries of flaking ballrooms and derelict factories, you wouldn’t know that a million people still live in Detroit, many of them struggling to get by. Cult hipster films from recent years like “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “It Follows” have been set in Detroit – not because their stories required it, but in order to lend them a backdrop of artful desolation. Even the British publishers of Mark Binelli’s cautiously optimistic history “Detroit City is the Place to Be” (2012) saw fit to slap an apocalyptic new title on it (“The Last Days of Detroit”), complete with a cover image of the abandoned Packard Plant.
The city’s questionable coolness owes something to its reputation as the birthplace of techno, which originated in the mid-1980s when Detroit was already in steep decline. Never wholeheartedly adopted in its home town beyond a hardcore of acolytes (the crowd at the Music Institute, the first techno club, was remarkably mixed for such a racially divided city), the music blew up abroad in 1988, when the British music journalist Neil Rushton put together his compilation “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit”. Sixteen years after Motown had upped sticks for LA, Detroit was back on the music map. Techno was immediately influential. It kickstarted Britain’s acid house movement (see image below), leading to rave and countless post-rave genres that flourished across Europe and the world in the 1990s. And with the global saturation of techno-infused pop in recent years and the rise of stadium-filling EDM (electronic dance music). Detroit’s role in music history has been cemented.
Since Britain was midwife to the genre, London seems like the right place for a Detroit techno exhibition. The ICA’s “Detroit: Techno City” is limited to a single, poky room, suggesting modest ambitions on the part of its curators, but it runs up against a problem common to any dance music exhibition: how to convey the spirit of a cultural phenomenon that is mostly non-verbal and rooted in the experience of clubbing. Records adorn the walls, unplayable behind perspex. Two drum machines and a bass synthesiser (the now “iconic” Roland TR-808, TR-909 and TB-303) lie disconnected on a central table. With its ritualistic objects stripped of their original function, the room feels more like some retro-futurist shrine than anything to do with dance music. The curators would have been better off clearing out the exhibits and hosting a small, sweaty club for the duration of the summer. The art students would have loved it.
It might also have been a better way of communicating the exuberant optimism of early techno. Because Detroit techno was hopeful. Its creators were Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, three young African-Americans who had met at school in Belleville, a predominantly white suburb of west Detroit. Atkins, in particular, found cause for optimism amid the bleakness and segregation of the inner city. A fan of futurologist Alvin Toffler’s work, Atkins saw Detroit as the first post-industrial city, ready to embrace the bright technological future that lay ahead of it. Using inexpensive analogue equipment in their DIY downtown studios, the Belleville Three pioneered a sound characterised by a 4/4 beat, funky bassline and futuristic sound palette – “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator”, as May memorably described it. They made the early techno records quickly, collaboratively and more or less anonymously, releasing them under a number of aliases without much hope of commercial success. Their sound drew on the emptiness and paranoia of the surrounding urban wasteland while soaring dreamily above it towards a techno-utopia in which robotic automation fused with soulful humanity.
Those are the basic facts. But what else might explain techno’s genesis in Detroit? Perhaps we should look to the past as well as the future. Kraftwerk, who as children had grown up playing on the bomb sites of post-war Germany, had wasted no time in synthesising the appalling rumble of an explosion on their first record – a kind of sonic auto-therapy, perhaps. Similarly, the Belleville Three deliberately took the rhythmic clank and whir of the assembly line – the ghostly memory of a sound had once been the lifeblood of Detroit in their parents’ generation – and reanimated it, pressing it into service to create, not cars, but music. A way of processing trauma, but also moving forward: there is a comforting regularity in the steady 4/4 kick-drum pulse that underpins techno. Can it be a coincidence that techno has found its natural habitat in cities like Detroit, Berlin and Belgrade, all places trying to move on from painful pasts?
Five essential Detroit techno tracks
Model 500, “No UFO’s” (1985)
Juan Atkins put out this prime slice of early Detroit techno on his own new label, Metroplex (Model 500 was one of his several aliases). The vocal sample encapsulates Atkins’ belief that technology (even the extra-terrestrial kind) can save the world. He wasn’t alone: the Electrifying Mojo, the radio DJ who did most to promote the new techno sound locally, used to tell his listeners to flash their lights so the aliens would know where to land.
Derrick May, “Strings of Life” (1987)
Featuring chopped-up string samples from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a looping piano riff in place of a bassline and a mechanical salsa beat, this is one of those tracks that shouldn’t really work, but somehow does thanks to the fearless genius of its creator. Two years after its release, “Strings of Life” became one of the anthems of Britain’s acid-house heyday, the so-called “Second Summer of Love”, in 1989.
Inner City, “Good Life” (1988)
One of two crossover hits that Kevin Saunderson, the most commercially successful member of the Belleville Three, produced under the name Inner City. “Good Life” and “Big Fun”, which both featured vocals by Chicago diva Paris Grey, brought the Detroit sound to dancefloors around the world.
Juan Atkins, “Techno Music” (1988)
This unashamedly Kraftwerk-indebted track appeared on Neil Rushton’s seminal compilation which introduced the Detroit sound to Britain. Inspired by the track, Rushton allegedly changed the album title at the last minute to “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit”, inadvertently naming the genre. Juan Atkins himself borrowed the word from Alvin Toffler, whose book “The Third Wave” (1980), an optimistic vision of post-industrial society, predicts the rise of the “techno rebels” – those not afraid to embrace technology in order to achieve emancipation. Atkins had recorded an earlier track called “Techno City” with Cybotron, his former collaboration with Rick Davis.
The Suburban Knight, “The Art of Stalking” (1990)
Having written the bassline to “Big Fun” in the late 1980s, James Pennington went on to join the Underground Resistance collective in the 1990s, which – along with other producers like Richie Hawtin – made music that embodied the darker, harder sound of second-wave Detroit techno. “The Art of Stalking”, recorded under the Suburban Knight alias, sits on the cusp between first and second waves. Its bassline, pursued by a predatory synth, retains the signature squelch of the TB-303 but swaps funk for paranoid syncopation.
Detroit: Techno City ICA until September 25th, 2016