The Evolution of Electronic Music in Detroit

Concert photo with crowd and hands in the air and bright stage lights.
Photo by Kelly Pettit

As the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene continues to rise, it is important to recognize the roots of the genre not only to get an understanding of how and why the music was and is created, but to be able to comprehend and appreciate the aesthetic of the musical style as well. The concept of techno music dates back to the early to mid 1900s, when futurists such as Luigi Russolo and Alvin Toffler predicted the effects the Industrial Revolution would have on the creative minds of people. Russolo believed that prior to the urban industrial world, there was no true sound. As 19th century machinery began to take over, new speed, energy, and noise engulfed the cities. One city in particular, Detroit, with its rising auto industry, was one of the most significantly impacted areas during the revolution. In the mid 20th century, Detroit became a world-class industrial powerhouse and the fourth largest city in the nation. After World War II, Detroit’s auto industry began to decline, and many people in the area lost their jobs.

In addition to the necessity for new jobs, racial tensions between whites and African Americans led many whites to relocate to the suburbs. By the mid 1960s, Detroit was left with a high population of jobless African Americans and an infinite amount of vacant buildings and bankrupt businesses. Decades passed and Detroit’s dismal atmosphere remained unchanged. In the mid 1980s, however, several Detroiters decided to use the city’s dystopian state to their advantage. With the uncountable amount of vacant buildings and spaces throughout the area, these Detroit artists decided to use these rooms that were filled with artifacts of American industrial culture as places to provide food for their imaginations. The three main techno artists of Detroit, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May, or the Belleville Three, decided to create music that mimicked the post-industrial sound of the city. Rather than covering up the true identity of Detroit at that time with uplifting, trendy music, these artists wanted their music to be real—to surface Detroit’s authentic, dark sound in their tracks.

Detroit techno was inspired by the previous funk and soul artists of the city, combined with the futuristic and melancholic aesthetics of post-industrial Detroit. Although the music was a reflection of the city itself, techno brought new life into the area. It was a new environment, a way in which people could acknowledge and cope with the current, grave state of the city, while also submerging themselves in futuristic, extraterrestrial, conceptual music. Detroit techno was a way for Detroiters to move forward, even if the city was still in the process of recovering from its straining past.

People question whether Detroit techno is still alive or not, considering that the city is remarkably different from what it was during the time of techno’s creation. With a changing environment comes changing sounds—new music. Today, techno music, typically referred to as electronic music, has branched out into many different genres and subgenres, such as house, trance, trap, dubstep, ambient, breakbeat, disco, downtempo, etc. Although all electronic music may not foster the same emotional and meaningful components it once did, the musical style continues to inspire artists and bring together people from around the world today. Despite the fact that the city has changed from its previous state, the idea and influence of conceptual art remains unfaded.

April 24, 2015: Populux, Detroit

It was like any other Friday night in Detroit. My sister Nicole and I desired to find something different to do. Our friends Kevin and Josh told us that an awesome show was happening at the new Populux nightclub right on Woodward Avenue in Midtown, Detroit, which had just opened a week earlier. We were slightly skeptical about going to Populux, still bitter that the Magic Stick was torn down for its creation, and also not wanting to pay the twenty-dollar cover to see whoever it was that was performing. Apparently it was some DJ, Kevin Saunderson; that didn’t mean anything to me. Kevin and Josh kept trying to persuade us to come, proclaiming that it would be a great show, and due to the fact that Josh is one of the members of a really unique and eclectic electronic duo, we gave him some credibility. My sister and I decided to check it out. What did we have to lose? We paid the doorman twenty-dollars and walked up the stairs, unsure of what to expect in the nightclub.

Populux was dark, and I mean very dark. There was a bar directly in front of the staircase, and the stage was far to the right. The bar and the stage were the only things illuminating the entire room. As Nicole and I walked closer to the crowd, we discovered that Kevin Saunderson was just about to start. The audience was larger and more enthusiastic than I expected. As I looked closer, I noticed that many of the people were older than the typical “ravers” I was used to seeing at electronic shows, which struck me as bizarre. Why were so many older people at a techno nightclub?

When Kevin Saunderson appeared on stage, the whole audience became focused. It was as if they were awaiting a speech from their beloved master, King Saunderson. The music started out relatively quiet and steady, like a downtempo game of Tetris. The florescent lights spread in blue beams across the crowd. Thin, green lasers moved in dot-like fashions over the waves of blue light. The music continued, almost unchanging in its patterns of rhythm.

I was unsure of how I felt; the environment, the music—it was all so different to me. I was used to bright lights and crazy visuals. I was used to seeing who was dancing next to me. I was used to wild electronic music with great build-ups and intense bass-drops. Kevin Saunderson’s style was unique. It was minimalistic and repetitive, yet consistent and strong. People all around me were submersed in the music, not even thinking to look up to see what was happening around them. They were lost in the sound, like a deep hypnosis. I wanted to be on their level—to understand the language of the foreign music. I think I was more intrigued by people-watching then actually enjoying and dancing to the music at the time.

My sister hated it. She was pulling at my arm the whole night asking when we could leave. The truth was, electronic shows and raves were not her scene, and she did not even want to try to enjoy them, which made it extremely difficult to go to these types of events with her. I like to give everything a try. Even if it is not my first choice, I want to make the most out of every experience (especially after paying cover to get in). Nicole’s negative attitude combined with my lack of familiarity with the music and the environment made it hard to truly enjoy the show.

Although I was irritated by my sister’s attitude at first, I realized quickly on that I could not blame her for her mixed feelings about the genre and the crowd that came with it. I am nineteen and she is twenty-five. We grew up in different environments with different generational perspectives. My sister listened to alternative rock and post-hardcore music growing up. She was a big fan of the rock band scene. When she was in high school, most musicians in local bands fell somewhere in the rock/alternative genre. Not many people listened to or created electronic music, which was classified as House Music at the time, and if they did, they were most likely the outcasts. The rock, alternative, and post-hardcore genres were “cool” in Nicole’s high school years; the people who were in those bands and attended those shows were a part of the in-group. For her generation, shows were more about the image than the actual music. The scene consisted of a more rebellious attitude; it was a place to let out teenage aggression and angst. My sister and I have always had a close relationship, despite the six-year age gap, which meant that her musical tastes influenced mine. Because Nicole loved the rock/alternative/post-hardcore scene, I loved the rock/alternative/post-hardcore scene. Growing up, I was exposed to a variety of musical styles. My parents only played The Beatles and The Monkees in our household when we were children. My sister introduced me to the alternative/hardcore/rock genres at a young age. On top of it all, I was living in my own generation of music—I was exposed to what everyone else my age was listening to. I was in my mid-teenage years when I discovered electronic music. I loved the craziness of it all from the start. Even more importantly, I loved the attitude—the positive vibes of the atmosphere. It was a big change going from rock/hardcore shows to electronic shows; there was no aggression or angst at EDM shows. I interpret these crowds of people not as ignorant, drugged-up, fake hippies, as many like to believe, but as people who encourage acceptance and love in their environments. In a country where gender inequality, misogyny, racism, and other forms of hatred still very much exist, these raves, EDM shows, and festivals help contribute to the counterculture. These events not only offer an escape from our flawed society, but help to fight against them.

At raves, EDM shows, and festivals, people wear what they want, whether it be huge, miraculous costumes or absolutely nothing at all. People dance however they want to. People act however they want to. Unlike the majority of people in everyday society, who find this behavior abnormal and are quick to form judgments, the people at these events are supportive of one another and boost each other up. Everyone looks out for everyone else. At these events, there are no social expectations. There is no impression management, no in-group or out-group. In a nation where people show feelings of hatred against those who are different—those who stand out—these shows scream “screw society’s standards” by showing nothing but pure love, appreciation, and respect for those who do not conform to society’s definitions of norms and values.

After considering my sister’s feelings on the EDM scene and my own thoughts regarding the topic, I started to think about how Kevin Saunderson must have been feeling that night at Populux. Here he was, one of the main creators of Detroit techno itself, performing in a local Detroit nightclub for a diverse crowd of people, the majority of which were probably unaware of his contribution to the genre. He created music in the late 80’s and early 90’s that changed the lives of many people, music that inspired countless musicians. He was considered a musical genius, a futuristic inventor of his time. Saunderson created Detroit techno during a time when Detroit resembled a dystopia. He, along with a few other techno artists, attempted to reinvent the sound of Detroit, and they did so by creating futuristic, otherworldly music that imitated sounds of machinery and the technological revolution. Saunderson contributed to the revitalization of the city, the renewing of Detroit’s spirit. In the 80’s and 90’s, everyone knew who Kevin Saunderson was, especially electronic music fans in European countries, where EDM was extremely influential. Today, the EDM genre has progressed into a variety of sub genres, becoming more and more complex. Being so used to the complexity of the music, it can be difficult for people of the current generations to truly connect with the original, minimalistic techno sounds. Although there were many Saunderson fans in the building that night, there were also many people lost in the translation of the music. Saunderson’s goal, despite its difficulty, is to keep the authentic Detroit techno sound and atmosphere alive.

While dancing around the nightclub, I tried to study Populux and its design. It was a cool place—unlike any club or venue I’ve ever been to before. It was dark and mysterious, yet offered great spaciousness, open to the infinite vibrancy of light. It gave off a new, futuristic, clean vibe, one that made you feel as if you were no longer in Detroit. The upstairs/rooftop location of the club felt disconnected from the rest of the city; you completely lost track of time…lost track of where you were. Maybe I was really somewhere in Miami, New York, Tokyo…

Although some, even myself originally, were angry that Populux was taking over the Magic Stick, I discovered that, like anything else, there was purpose to this change. Populux was a nightclub created to bring change to the city. The creation of Populux serves as a rebirth of the Detroit techno sound that has influenced the direction of music around the world. I didn’t realize until later on that on the night of April 25, 2015, I experienced a Detroit-made legend’s performance at a Detroit-made revolutionary nightclub. June 25-28, 2015: Rothbury, Michigan

This past summer, on June 24, 2015, my best friend Brittany and I packed our bags and filled her car to the roof with mountains of food, clothes, and camping materials for our trip. We were off to Electric Forest, a massive electronic music and camping festival held in northern Michigan (Rothbury, Michigan to be exact). Rothbury is a rural town approximately three-and-a-half hours north of Allen Park—our suburban city that lies relatively fifteen minutes south of Detroit. As a result of my location and close relationships with many people in the area, most of my time prior to the festival was spent in downtown, Midtown, and Corktown Detroit.

I was used to Downriver, Michigan. I was used to the hype involving the up-and-coming city-life of metro-Detroit. I was used to going to the same places the majority of the time. On more lively nights, I went to the Majestic Cafe, Populux, The Masonic Temple, and The Fillmore. When an event or concert was held at one of these places, you knew it was going to be a great time. On the average weekend, I would often go to dingy, dive bars, such as The UFO Factory, PJ’s Lager House, Temple Bar, and The Old Miami to see local acts perform. At first, I loved going out. I was infatuated with the fresh, new atmosphere and the different faces surrounding me everywhere I went, and I desired more than anything to fit into the Detroit scene. As time progressed, I discovered that it was only that: infatuation. Just like anything else, it all got old. Although I tried to make the most out of every night spent in the city, going to the same places and seeing the same things over and over again was starting to bore me. The nights became hit-or-miss. The dismal lighting and confined space of many of the spots I frequently went to was getting much too repetitive. The whole Detroit atmosphere was almost becoming too comfortable. Aside from the tolerable Detroiters—and don’t get me wrong, there are many—I was accustomed to seeing the same crowds at almost every event I attended. There were the cyber-freaks, the snooty-hipsters, the grungier-hipsters, the downriver I’m-confused-why-you’re-here groups, and the imitation-hippies. I guess you could say the crowds were diverse at first glance; enough to lure one in. However, the diversity factor became less enticing once I realized that these were the same so-called “diverse” groups every time I went out.

Although I would label my love for the city as unwavering—and even more so following the eye-opening and inspiring Honors Colloquium course taught by Dr. Kim, which highlighted the main elements of past, present, and future Detroit —after a certain point, I started to question the type of people I was surrounding myself with, and even more importantly, their motives for being at the places they were at. To be honest, there were even times that I questioned my presence at some of these places. From attending several electronic shows beforehand, I believed most were simply an excuse for youngsters, and even occasionally people of the older generations, to get “messed-up” on copious amounts of ecstasy and hallucinogenic drugs. The fact that I was constantly exposed to the stereotypes placed on rave culture by a great majority of society—even members of my immediate family—was also not very reassuring. If I told my mother that I was going to an electronic show, the first words to come out of her mouth were “you better not do any drugs!” Many think raves or EDM shows to be dirty, provocative, and solely drug-revolved, thus linking those characteristics with all rave-goers. It made me wonder if society had always held these negative views toward techno, rave music, EDM, whatever you choose to call it, or if the prejudice against “ravers” evolved more recently.

Regardless of others’ intentions and beliefs, and regardless of my own occasional, skeptical thoughts, I went to the shows to dance—to lose myself in the music. I went to electronic shows because they were so unlike anything I had ever experienced beforehand. I’ve been to rock performances, rap concerts, alternative gigs, even punk and screamo shows where the crowds of people would create tremendous, engulfing mosh-pits, in which they would disgracefully fly around in a circular motion like enraged bees in a disturbed hive—pure insanity—yet nothing was quite like an electronic event. They were intense and electrifying, but felt safe. Whether people were under the influence or sober, there was never any conflict. There was no judgment. No one cared what you wore or how you danced. Everyone was happy and alive as ever. The pervading vibrations of the music combined with the exuberance of the crowd was enough to make you feel on top of the world, on top of the universe. The sound itself—the rising tension, the otherworldly rhythms, the intensifying drop of the bass—it was all pure ecstasy. Feeling the music—actually feeling something so intense for the first time in a long time—was a huge inspiration—my inspiration for purchasing the four-day pass later on.

Brittany and I didn’t know what to expect, really only haven gone to several different electronic shows in our lifetimes. What we did know was that what we were about to experience would be four days full of absolute craziness. We had bought our tickets about seven months before the event. All of our friends who had gone had told us great stories about their experiences at Electric Forest and how unforgettable and amazing it was. It was as if they had taken some sort of Zen vacation and returned as different, much happier people. About two months after tickets went on sale, the lineup for the festival was released. The tickets sold out instantaneously—faster than they ever had before. In fact, according to Electric Forest media resources, the tickets sold out less than twenty-four hours after the release of its 2015 artist line-up, and three-and-a-half months earlier than ever before. I became even more excited for the festival, feeling immensely lucky that I was among those that were going to be able to have the true “Forest experience.”

The drive there felt like waiting in line for the biggest, best, most adrenaline-rushing roller coaster—the Dragster of music events, if you will. Being as excited and impatient as we were to reach our destination, we only made two stops: the first time to use the bathroom, and the second time to stop at the Walmart nearest Rothbury to purchase last-minute necessities. Walking into the store felt like Black Friday all over again. Hundreds of people filled the parking lot of Walmart late at night, carrying cases of water, food, tent materials, toys, etc. back to their cars. My heart was pumping already, and this was only a Walmart stop. At this rate, I thought I was sure to faint or have a heart-attack once I reached the actual event.

After another half-hour or so, we had finally arrived in Rothbury, Michigan. Unfortunately, our eagerness was immediately slapped in the face by the three-mile long lines of cars waiting to get past the vehicle check-point and through the entrance. We knew that we were not going anywhere for another few hours. On the bright side, the masses of people within the lines of cars treated the long wait like one gigantic party. People from every direction blasted music through their car speakers. Many even got out of their cars to walk around and introduce themselves to different people. Looking around at the hundreds, maybe even thousands of vehicles in one general area…feeling the excitement, the good energy brewing in the atmosphere…it was absolutely incredible.

Once we made it through the car-checkpoint, we arrived at the campgrounds. We parked Brittany’s car and set up camp right away. Every tent was neck-to-neck, leaving neighbors no option but to become best buds, and everyone was completely content with that. Once everything was set up and laid out, Brittany and I got ready and headed to the entrance of the forest with our other friends. After three tiring hours of waiting in the massive line to get in—oh, the déjà vu—we finally made it. We were in the forest—the Electric Forest.

Walking through the mystical woodland felt surreal. It wasn’t just another place—it was a real life fairytale. The forest was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was new, authentic, invigorating. Even the air felt different, like a cool cloud surrounding my body and gradually absorbing itself into my skin. People were flowing around me like graceful streams gently passing, many dressed in miraculous costumes and extraordinary outfits. They swayed through the trees like light-footed fairies, graciously greeting their new forest friends and family. The land was filled with bright, geometric, multi-colored lights hanging high from the trees. Magnificent, mind-boggling art structures were seen in every direction. Thousands of hammocks filled the gaps between the dense, skyscraper trees. The air felt as crisp as the first sip out of a can of ice-cold sparkling water and gave with it a fresh, earthy aroma. For being in such a crowded, active place, everything was so quiet and still. It seemed as though my mere existence thrived within the hollow core of the forest’s fiber; I could only hear the perfectly faint echoes of chimes and gongs, the comfortably soft whispers of conversations passing by me. There I was, standing in the middle of Sherwood Forest, dumbfounded. It was a complete sensory overload. Time was not an existing concept in the forest. I was convinced I was in an alternate universe, where nothing mattered but what was right in front of me at that moment.

There was so much to do, and so many different options to choose from. There was the Silent Disco, where you were given a pair of headphones as you entered. You could listen to either the blue channel or the green channel, both of which had different DJs. When you entered the space, everyone was wearing headphones and dancing to the channel of their choice. When you took off the headphones, the only thing heard was the shuffling of everyone’s feet, which I got a kick out of. Everyone was completely submersed in the music, losing themselves to the electrifying sets being blared through the personal headphones. The lights and decorations hanging from above intensified the moment. There wasn’t a care in the world when you were in the Silent Disco. Throughout the forest, there were comedy stages, meditation spaces, conversation circles, artistic playscapes. It did not matter whether you chose to dance all day or lay in a hammock for hours on end, there was no right or wrong, no should or shouldn’t. We all had three days to do what we wanted, three days to escape from reality in any way we chose to.

There were seven different stages at the event; one of them, the Forest Stage, existed within the actual forest. The others, including the Ranch Arena, Sherwood Court, Tripolee, The Hangar, Jubilee, and The Observatory, were dispersed throughout the rural land. Each stage was exceptionally unique in style, yet all were ridiculously massive in size. The big acts of the first day included Odesza, Galantis, Kaskade, and Flume. The second day: Datsik, Carnage, Skrillex, and Flux Pavilion. The third day: Slow Magic, Phantogram, and Bassnectar. The last day: Alison Wonderland, Black Tiger Sex Machine, Gramatik, Wiwek, and Big Gigantic. Despite Electric Forest’s reputation for transforming into a festival solely revolved around EDM, the event happened to consist of many different musical acts deriving from diverse genres. The entire concept of Electric Forest, in fact, is rather eclectic. The festival, while mostly hyped up for its electronic music performances, it also known for its mix of rock, roots, and jam sounds. Every year, The String Cheese Incident, a bluegrass, neo-psychedelia group, performs three shows, all of which attract a great majority of forest-goers.

When it came to the music, I didn’t really care much about who my friends and I went to see perform at the time. I just went with the flow, letting my friends create our schedule for the day. Out of all of the amazing performances I saw, I remember enjoying the Bassnectar and Skrillex sets the most. I’m pretty sure my mind exploded at some point during Skrillex’s show. I remember being trapped in my own mind, completely and utterly hypnotized by the lights. They were everywhere—these huge, thin, white lazer beams—taking over the sky from every angle. They weren’t the colorful, fruity types of lights you might think of when “rave” comes to mind, but the type that make you feel as if an alien-abduction is emerging upon your very being. The lights didn’t stop once during the whole set. The beams hit on every beat, every build-up, every drop so precisely, so on-point that my eyes were becoming almost too engaged, yet it was impossible to look away. After a minute, the music became an accessory to the light show. I had never experienced such a visual high in my entire lifetime.

Bassnectar’s show was another one of my favorites. It was held at the Ranch Arena, and the whole area was completely packed, full to capacity. I went to the stage with a few of my forest friends about a half-hour before the show since they wanted to be as close to the front as possible. I was more laid back about where we stood in the crowd and when we got there. As the show was about to start, my friends and I noticed that we ran out of water in our camelbaks. I told them that I would leave to get water for us and come back, but they didn’t think I was going to be able to make it back up to the front. I left anyways, knowing that I was going to need water during the show, while also looking forward to getting some fresh air for a few minutes. I exited the crammed crowd and made my way to the water station to fill up. Once I returned to the area, I took a deep breath and decided to make the attempt in pushing my way through the crowd back to my friends. To my surprise, it was relatively easy. I was used to crowds of people that would become infuriated if people cut in front of them to get closer to the stage. At Bassnectar’s show, people encouraged me to move closer, helping me make my way through. It was the most supportive, friendly, enormous crowd I had ever been in. Once I made my way back to my friends, they were completely shocked. At that very moment, Bassnectar’s set had started. The crowd went completely wild with excitement. People all around were waving their tall totem poles, many with Bassnectar’s symbol on them. It was that feeling all over again—the feeling of the music and the energy of the atmosphere absorbing into my skin, making its way through my entire body. The moment was exhilarating. I don’t think I had ever danced so much and so passionately in such a tight space. All around me were smiling faces. It was pure bliss.

Leaving Electric Forest was the most bittersweet experience. I did not want to depart from this fairytale of a place. At the same time, I knew that living in reality is what makes fairytales so special when they come along. If we were constantly experiencing things like Electric Forest, if we were always living in a dream world, these experiences and places would not be as extraordinary and as beautiful as they are. The most special things in life are like shooting-stars, they come once in a great while and fly by before our eyes. It was time to go back to Detroit, that was a fact. But I knew that I would never forget the time I spent in Sherwood Forest. I would never forget the atmosphere, the people, the love permeating the air. It wasn’t another music venue, nightclub, or dive bar. It was an alternate universe, and I cannot wait to see what next year holds. August 15, 2015: Mad Decent Block Party, Detroit

It was the beginning of August, the last month of summer vacation, and my friends convinced me to purchase a ticket to Mad Decent Block Party. I didn’t know too much about the event, except that Mad Decent was a label headed by the popular electronic DJ Diplo, and that the Mad Decent Block Party Tour, which started-up in 2008, was a one-day EDM festival that made its way throughout the United States every summer. Despite my lack of knowledge regarding the structure, crowd, and location of the event, as well as some of the artists that were going to be performing, It didn’t take much convincing to get me to grab a ticket. I was eager to attend pretty much any electronic music event after my magnificent experience at Electric Forest, and with the growing pace of summer’s days crunching away, I was more than ready to have some fun. After all, it was something different—something new to do. The event was held at the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, which, prior to the show, I had never visited. I was also thrilled to hear that Cashmere Cat, one of my favorite experimental artists, was going to be performing, in addition to Flosstradamus, Daktyl, ETC!ETC!, Keys N Krates, Party Favor, and Zeds Dead. Most of the DJs that were going to be performing that night fall under the electronic sub genre of trap. Trap music focuses on heavy bass and beats, and infuses underground hip-hop and rap with electronic components. Although I wasn’t a die-hard fan of most of the artists, going to Mad Decent Block Party was just another excuse to submerse myself in a dynamic crowd of passionate people—a sea of pure, vibrant enthusiasm—and dance like crazy for the love of music.

The day of the event, I jumped out of bed, hopped in the shower, and threw on a baggy, tropical tank top, some black shorts, and my fresh, new, all-white Vans sneakers. It was a hot, sunny day in Detroit, and I was prepared to accept how sweaty I was going to be by the end of the night. I decided to take my time getting ready and drive myself to the block party in order to avoid being outside in the draining sunlight all day. I left my house at 4 p.m. and headed downtown, which took what seemed like a million hours due to the traffic. Once I arrived, I parked my car on the elevated, grassy field where the rest of the cars were and headed to the center of the complex. Upon my arrival at the entrance, I discovered that the Russell Industrial Center was a complex of studios and shops—almost like a giant, spray-painted warehouse. The event was held outdoors, in the center of the entire structure. To my surprise, the set-up of the block party was plain and simple; there were several tents for beverages and merchandise, a collection of porta-potties, and the single, main stage. There was nothing extravagant about the scene, especially considering the stage was encompassed by a vast halo of dust and dirt. The atmosphere seemed unusual and unique. These people weren’t the fun-loving, easy-going hippies I was used to. The majority of the Mad Decent Block Party crowd gave off a faux attitude, a wanna-be-tough-guy impression. They were the type of kids that refer to themselves as “Detroit-made” when in reality, they were born and raised in the suburbs—the pseudo-Detroiters, if you will. What took me by surprise weren’t the people themselves, but the fact that they were at an EDM event. It was the type of crowd that I would have expected to be at an Eminem concert or some type of metal show. Regardless, I decided to push my immediate thoughts and curiosities aside and focus on the upcoming performances.

Once I pushed through the impatient crowd and finally found my friends somewhere in the middle, we all headed close to the stage to watch Cashmere Cat perform. His style is different from the other artists—he has more of a light, instrumental sound, whereas the others performing that night fall under the heavy trap category. All of a sudden, the stage lit up with fluorescent blue lights and the crowd became silent. Geometric figures of all dimensions and unrestrained visuals spun around on the digital screens at the back and sides of the stage. Cashmere Cat came on stage, and the silence was filled with the intense roar of the crowd. His music started softly, like a downtempo version of the PacMan original theme song. After a few minutes, Cashmere Cat started to pick up the pace and play some of his most famous tracks. Looking around at the crowd, I felt as if my friends and I were the only ones that were really intrigued by Cashmere Cat’s set. I assumed most of the others wanted to be carried away by the intense vibrations and heavy bass drops of the hard trap electronic music.

Once Cashmere Cat’s performance came to an end, the crowd grew even more impatient for the next act, Flosstradamus. Flosstradamus is a duo of two electronic DJs that focus on trap (most of their music consists of electronic spins on heavy rap tracks). My friends did not want to move from where we were; they feared that since we were very close to the stage, we would lose our spots and would not be able to get back to the front if we left. I offered to leave so that I could get some air, fill up my friends’ CamelBaks, and grab myself some H2O. Dancing in the midst of such a compacted crowd was almost too much to handle—far too much to handle without water. I left in between sets, hurrying out so that I could get water quickly and make it back to my friends in time. I did not think that it would be challenging to maneuver through the crowd, considering most electronic crowds I had been in prior to this show were relatively laid back. Once I filled the CamelBaks and started to move back into the crowd, however, I discovered that getting back to where I was was not going to be as simple as I thought it would. Saying “excuse me” and gently trying to push through the crowd with three heavy backpacks filled to the top with water, I encountered many angry people. Instead of trying to help or encourage me, most only had negative things to say. I even had to stop and explain to several people that I was carrying my friends’ heavy backpacks and was just trying to get their items back to them. Once I finally reached my friends, I was extremely relieved, but also irritated with my experience reentering the crowd. Right then and there, I realized that not all electronic shows contain the same atmosphere of people. This was no Electric Forest, no Populux nightclub, where everyone either interacts positively or simply coexists peacefully. This was an overall competitive, unfriendly crowd.

Pushing all negative thoughts aside, I was excited for Flosstradamus to perform. I could tell most of the people in the crowd were as well, judging by their matching black Flosstradmus tank-tops and shorts, along with the skyscraper totem poles they swayed through the air, the black flags displaying the Flosstradmus logo on them—which is a simple triangle with an exclamation point in the middle. I never knew how serious Flosstradamus fans were about the music until I attended one of their shows. Flosstradamus fans refer to themselves as members of “HDYNATION” (Hoodie Nation): boys are called HDYBYZ, and girls, HDYGRLZ. I don’t know if it was just me, but I could swear that the Flosstradamus fans even walked in sync. HDYNATION was like a cult. The duo was known for putting on mind-blowing sets, so I was interested in finding out what all of the hype was about. Once the stage lit up, every one in the crowd moved so close together that there was hardly any room to breathe, and the crowd went completely wild. The music started out with a steady beat, the tension progressing, and a voice came on the speaker. “Are you guys ready? I wanna see all the HDYBYZ and HDYGRLZ go crazy!” Once the voice faded and the tension was built up as high as could be, the bass dropped, and minds exploded. The crowd instantaneously freaked out. People were not just dancing, they were raging. It felt like I went back in time to the hardcore metal, mosh-pit days. I finally understood what all of the hype was about; people weren’t here just to listen to music, they wanted to party—to get as “turnt” as humanly possible.

By the time Flosstradamus’s set was finished, I could barely feel my legs and I was ninety-nine percent sure I threw out my back, but it was all worth it. I was happy to be parched, to leave with sore limbs, to be as drenched in sweat as possible. Although the crowd was different than I anticipated, I was still able to lose myself in the music and dance like a maniac. I wasn’t sure if trap electronic was the perfect music for me, but I was sure that Mad Decent Block Party was a success, and a great end to my EDM-filled summer. Detroit Techno:

After attending a variety of EDM shows and festivals, I started to become curious regarding the background of the genre. I knew that it was invented in Detroit, but where in Detroit was it created and how? How did it evolve from the underground rave scene into the worldwide renowned genre it is today? These questions, along with my newfound interest in the city—inspired by the Honors Colloquium course I took during the previous fall semester—led me to the perfect topic for my Directed Study: the evolution of Detroit techno music.

Once I began my research, I discovered that the concept of techno music existed far before Detroit or Germany started to create the actual sound. An Italian futurist by the name of Luigi Russolo, who was also a painter, composer, and maker of experimental instruments, predicted that people would eventually start creating a new type of music. In his manifesto L’arte dei rumori, or The Art of Noises, issued in 1913, Russolo discusses his belief that the human ear has become accustomed to the urban industrial soundscape, leading people to approach musical composition and instruments differently than they had prior to the industrial revolution. He believed that the world was essentially quiet before 19th century machinery came into existence, and that this new speed, energy, and noise would inspire people with futuristic ideas, would make people hear music differently with their modernized ears. Another figure that influenced the artistic creativity behind techno music was American writer and futurist, Alvin Toffler. In Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, author Dan Sicko briefly discusses the influence of Toffler’s theories, which dealt with the digital revolution, the communication revolution, and technological singularity. In fact, Juan Atkins, one of the creators of Detroit techno, cites the phrase “techno rebels” in Toffler’s book The Third Wave as his inspiration for using the word “techno” to describe the music he helped create.

Before I started my research, and prior to attending any EDM events, I never really questioned what factors inspired the creation of techno music. I simply viewed the genre from the outside, only hearing the repetitive, housey-music and only seeing the drugged-up weirdo ravers. As I began to read Detroit Techno: Transfer of the Soul Through the Machine by Mathias Hanf, I discovered that the creation of techno was far deeper than turntables and synthesizers. It was the accommodation of a concept within a sound. “Techno was born out of a necessity—a necessity for survival in a devastated and socially isolated place and for distinction and freedom in a world dominated by whites.” (Detroit Techno, pg. 31) Detroit techno came from struggle—from a time when Detroit remained at a standstill at rock bottom, trying to recover from long patterns of segregation and violence, from its post-industrial state and depraved atmosphere. Rather than viewing the city’s condition in a negative light, many Detroiters during the 1980s and 1990s decided to use Detroit’s unique state to their advantage, and they did this through creating music. Before the 1980s, most Detroit musicians, aside from blues artists, used music to alter peoples’ mindsets by creating lively, upbeat tracks that covered up the dismal state of the city. As time progressed and the blues were washed out by the sounds of new technology, many Detroit musicians decided that they wanted to create music that was real—music that would mirror the city, rather than cover up the truth.

From Detroit’s industrial decay, to its racial tensions, to Detroiters’ desires to escape in their own futuristic ideas, a variety of factors led to the creation of techno. Detroit artists viewed the abandoned buildings that filled the city not as waste, but as space. These spaces were not vacant, not empty nor useless, but full of artifacts of American industrial culture. This allowed for Detroiters to use their imaginations and create something where others saw nothing. The city of Detroit, particularly in its dystopian state, was a city like no other. It wasn’t Chicago or New York City, where buildings and housing areas were jam-packed, where there was barely enough room to breathe, where people were in constant competition to create something great. Detroit had room. Detroit had soul. It had buildings, factories, and houses that were untouched for decades, places that were filled with history and infinite memories. Artists in the city aimed to emphasize this in their music. It was the emptiness in the city that put the wholeness in the music. (Derrick May, Detroit Techno)

So how did Detroit artists mirror the city’s sound through their music? Artists such as the inventors of techno, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May—the Belleville Three to be exact—did this by creating music that sounded futuristic, yet still contained historical significance.
“Techno music has always, for me, been about making a new transition. It’s always about understanding and remembering where we and the music came from, but forever pushing forward into the unknown, from one moment to the next, making another transition.” (Richie Hawtin, Detroit Techno, pg. 57)
Their mission was to mimic the industrial, machine-like sounds of Detroit. The techno artists believed that these sounds not only reflected the past and present state of the city, but also highlighted the creative aspects of Detroiters’ imaginations. “A machine has no soul. Yet, its execution of human ideas can be conceived as the transfer of the soul through the machine.” (Detroit Techno, pg. 3) They wanted to make music that no one had ever heard before—music that was ahead of its time, but that could still allow people to submerse themselves in the extraterrestrial sounds and dance like crazy.

Detroit techno was unique primarily due to the unique atmosphere it was born in; it was a musical reproduction of the city itself. (Detroit Techno, pg. 6) Not only did the music sound unlike anything every heard before, but the locations it was performed at also differed from any other music hall or venue. Detroit techno was underground. It was performed in small, dark rooms, with nothing but a DJ, a crowd of techno fans, and a strobe light. Everyone was there for solely for the music—the dark, techno sounds that could only emerge out of a place like Detroit.

As I continued to read about the history of techno and the creators of the genre, I began to reminisce. I thought about the Kevin Saunderson event I attended in April, and how ignorant I was to not even realize that I was in the presence of one of Detroit’s very own living legends that night. Kevin Saunderson, also known as “The Elevator,” along with Juan Atkin (The Initiator) and Derrick May (The Innovator) were the three main inventors of Detroit techno. While Juan Atkins was one of the first to be recognized, Saunderson and May were quick to join in and add their own touches to the music. Atkins, who was inspired by Kraftwerk, a German electronic music group, started out with extremely minimalistic, futuristic sounds, while Saunderson strived to intensify those sounds by adding Detroit’s own funky, Motown sound to the tracks. May’s goal was to add power and energy to the genre to further connect with the audience. Together, all three helped to kick off Detroit’s new music scene: Detroit techno.

Shortly after the music took off, it was clear to the artists that the music was most popular in European nations. Europe simply had a greater appreciation for the music. Although the Belleville Three did have a large fan-base, it was disappointing to many that the music was more highly respected across seas than in the city it was born in. The artists believed that in order to understand the music of a city, one has to understand the city’s sound because the city’s sound is the city’s spirit. Techno music was not a necessity in Europe as it was in Detroit. Europeanization of the music eventually led to the decline of Detroit techno.

It is said that Detroit techno no longer lives today. The music can still be found, and is still performed in certain areas of the city. However, it will never be what it was during the time of its creation due to the fact that the music was a representation of Detroit during that specific time. When a city changes, so does its music. As time continued, the genre began to expand. Today, there is not only techno, but EDM, house music, dubstep, trap, tropical house, acid house, downtempo, ambient, jungle, trance, and the list goes on and on. Some question if the music still holds the meaning and purpose that it did before. It may not be the savior it once was for the city, but the reevaluation of techno has opened the genre to unlimited possibilities. (Detroit techno, pg. 91) Although techno is dead in terms of the state from which it was created and the issues it once addressed, the genre is by no means dead. “Although techno music may have developed a new identity, it has never given up its defining principle to accommodate a concept with a sound” (Detroit techno, pg. 90).

References

Detroit: Blueprint For Techno. Perf. Rolando, Terrence Parker, Mike Huckaby, Juan Atkins, Richie Hawtin, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig. MuchMusic, 1998. Online Documentary Video.
Green, Jared. DJ, Dance, and Rave Culture. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2005. Print.
Hanf, Mathias Kilian. Detroit Techno: Transfer of the Soul Through the Machine. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2010. Print.
High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music. Dir. Gary Bredow. Perf. Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson. 2006. DVD.
Matos, Michaelangelo. The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America. N.p.: Harper Collins, 2015. Print.
Real Scenes: Detroit, Documentary on the Birthplace of Techno. Dir. Patrick Nation and Dan Higginson. Perf. Mike Huckaby, Kyle Hall. Clockwise Media, 2011. Online Documentary.
Reynolds, Simon. Energy Flash: A Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull, 2012. Print.
Sicko, Dan. Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk. Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2010. Print.

Share it now!