by Jennifer Washington
Electrifying and soul-shaking music is what Detroit’s annual Electronic Dance Music Festival is known for. Also known as Movement, it attracts an international crowd to the city now known as the “mecca” for Techno music. That is quite impressive for a city that has been in a state of unprecedented financial decline and ruin. Certainly, the city can use the revenue this mega event brings. The Techno lovers come for the music, perhaps, even believing the music can somehow revitalize this musical trend setting city.
The rich legacy left by Motown is undeniable. With artists like Eminem, Kidd Rock, Kem, and Big Sean making such an impact on the music scene, Detroit is still considered fertile ground for up and coming musicians of all genres.
As a Detroit native in the 1970s and ‘80s, I grew up loving the radio and listening to the records my Dad bought me. Although I don’t remember ever learning all those Motown songs, I’ve always believed they were etched into my DNA somehow. Hits from artists like Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, just to name a few, were always being played in my house and I knew them like the back of my hand. Like cars, music was a big deal in the “D” and has a legacy just as strong.
As early as I can remember, I would always hear cars in the street blasting music like it was their God-given right to do so. While it may have been an annoyance to others, to me it was a joy. It was funny to hear a hoopty with a boomin’ sound system playing the hits. Those “road DJ’s” were actually my connection to finding out what was hot in the street – what other people were feeling.
When my brother and I grew older, we would take our entire allowances to the record store on Seven Mile. With Rick Wilhite as our guide, Buy-Rite was like paradise with records and tapes of all the latest club tracks and mix show favorites. We would buy every new release.
Radio, too, was the best in Detroit. Oh, how I would look forward to the “Top Eight at Eight”, which was the daily countdown, or the “Jam It or Slam It”, when they would test new songs. But, the coolest were the mix shows. Every night top WJLB DJ’s like the Wizard and the legendary Mojo, would play mixes of this electronic-type music from artists we knew nothing about. They were mysterious. They were never featured in any of the teen magazines like Black Beat or Cream. They had no videos, and they never even came in for in-store tours. We loved it anyway and, at some point, started calling it “Progressive” music.
One of my earliest memories is a song called “Technicolor”. I did happen to know one of the producers of this song, but only because one of my neighbors was dating him – Doug Craig. It even went on to become one of the classics. There were a few others “Cosmic Cars”,” Planet Rock”, and “Electric Kingdom” and they became big hits as well.
But, these songs were different. They didn’t always have vocals and sometimes didn’t follow normal song structure, or so it seemed that way in the mix. Most had no traditional hooks, bridges, verses, or breakdowns. Primarily instrumental, many of these songs were uplifting and were designed to make you get up and dance. Later, I came to know some of these song’s artists by name and discovered that Juan Atkins of Model 500 & Cybotron was the main man responsible for other such hits like “No UFO’s”, “Clear”, “Alley Ways of Your Mind”, as well as “Technicolor”.
Before we knew what it was called, we were talking about yet another type of music. They say it was from Chicago, but for us club kids in Detroit, it was ours. In the summer of ’88, Kevin Saunderson’s “Big Fun” hit the Billboard charts, and a name was given to this new genre – House. With a successful follow-up, “Good Life,” our music was finally getting the recognition it deserved.
Unfortunately after moving to Los Angeles in the summer of 1990, to my dismay, House music was not played there. Even in the clubs, DJs played the same thing that you would hear on the radio! Except at the gay clubs, where you could hear a new type of electronic music – they called it “Techno.”
We also started hearing about “dance” music in the ‘90s with names like Black Box and Snap! Those songs were very commercial. Yet, Hip-Hop prevailed on the radio in LA, and that was that. The only time I could hear my type of music was when I returned to the “crib” as we called it. As soon as I tune in to WJLB, I would feel right at home.
It is now 2012, Electronic Dance Music is bigger than ever with every major artist recording Techno all over the charts: Britney Spears, Usher, Black Eyed Peas, Chris Brown, and more. The names Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson have become synonymous with demi-gods and are now known as the Fathers of Techno.
It wasn’t until the ‘90s, that Detroit started to become known as the birthplace of Techno. The city even started hosting this annual festival at Hart Plaza dedicated to it…I made it back only once when it was still a free event in ’94. So, I was very excited to finally make it home for this past year’s event.
Last year’s headliners were: Felix Da Housecat, Matthew Hawtin, Moody Man, Flying Lotus, just to name a few of the fifty DJ’s performing to an audience of over 100,000 people. Music lovers of all ages and from all over the world came to rave for three days over Memorial Day weekend for the annual event produced by Paxahau.
During our musical exploration, we were also invited for a tour of the Museum of Techno run by Submerge, the leading international distributor for Detroit urban electronic music and merchandise. With the legendary Detroit DJ John Collins as our guide, we were given a real historical perspective on the music and were introduced to many big local names like Stacey Hotwaxx Hail, Detroit Techno Militia, D Winn, and a few members of the Underground Resistance. These legends were able to paint a picture of what the music means and how it is created with electronic instruments such as synthesizers, drum machines, sequencers, etc,
But, our journey didn’t end there. We ran into a group of people working on the Detroit Sound Project. It is a documentary series in-the-making exploring the music of Detroit and its creators, as well as its influence on music around the world. Director, Kristian Hill says, “Detroit is a hot bed for talent and will endure and continue to innovate. It’s important that the world finally sees the truth about our city.”
The story begins in Detroit and features Techno and House DJ’s from the city that have achieved international success in the world of Electronic Dance Music. Now, their work has motivated myself and other interested parties to join the movement and research other genres, such as Hip Hop, R&B, and Gospel, which are also prevalent in the city.
Detroit Sound Project’s mission is to promote the city’s biggest natural resource – music…and to showcase the beautiful side of what the world believes is one of the most dangerous cities in America.
The goal is to make the completed documentary series available to all platforms and to submit it to various film festivals. The more venues that will screen the documentary, the more people that can be reached in spreading the word that Detroit is still viable, musically, culturally and will, again, RISE and thrive!
To learn more about this worthwhile project, go to www.detroitsoundproject.com. Or to find about this year’s upcoming Movement Festival, click here: http://www.movement.us/.
Photos by Kristian R. Hill