Sound Of The Outsiders –Detroit Techno and Chicago House

Written by Alan McGee
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Back in the 80s, I picked up every house and techno record I could find. Why? The early Detroit techno and Chicago house scenes were like reliving the punk rock year zero again.

The music was exciting and reflective of the day. It's no wonder that one of the main proponents of the Detroit scene, Juan Atkins, based his philosophies of music on Alvin Toffler's book Future Shock. It was a shock to hear each of these weird little records that reinvigorated my love of music.

Each record was seemingly anonymous (like punk rock) and essential. You'd be obsessed by Nitro Deluxe's Let's Get Brutal and then that would fade, and another classic such as Mr Fingers' Can You Feel It would be the must-have the following week. Instead of a guitar, all you needed was the attitude and skill to abuse cheap electronic equipment innovatively and you could be making records in your bedroom without the need of a record company.

However, there was one record company which had started investing in this early futuristic sound. Trax Records in Chicago was the Atlantic Records of the house scene. All their A&R was done in the legendary club the Warehouse. DJs would play the records, the ones that didn't make the crowd move didn't get pressed and the ones that did got pressed immediately. The turnover of the records was so quick that they would use old and recycled wax for the vinyl. Dodgy manufacturing just added another layer of mystery. The hisses suggested the sound had been captured from another world.

The Warehouse catered to society's outsiders, gay and black: DJ Frankie Knuckles summarised it as "church for people who have fallen from grace". Reaganomics in America was at its height. Such policies offered no hope to the poor - dancing and making music seemed like one way out.

The creativity was intense: at the same time there was a concurrent scene happening in Detroit. The Motor City has always been a musical inspiration: Motown, MC5, the Stooges, SRC, the White Stripes - little wonder it also provided the world with a sound even more exciting than that reverberating from Chicago. The three artists most responsible for the birth of techno - Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, otherwise known as the Belleville three - took inspiration from Chicago house, Midnight Funk Association radio broadcasts, Future Shock, Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk, and innovated it into techno. The sound was harder and more minimal than what was happening in Chicago and more reflective of the industrial landscape of Detroit.

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Derrick May's classic Strings of Life, credited to "Rhythim is Rhythim", riffed on the Chicago house scene but was bleaker and more minimal while Kevin Saunderson's pop sensibilities took their techno sound to Billboard charts with Inner City's Big Fun. However it's Juan Atkins' records which still hold a complete fascination for me. Discussing Berry Gordy's "hit factory" metaphor for Motown, Atkins said: "Today the automobile plants use robots and computers to make their cars ... I'm more interested in Ford's robots than Gordy's music." A listen to three of his early records - Cybotron's Clear, Model 500's Future and No UFOs - confirms the timelessness of his urban, space-age sound.

Despite their pioneering spirit, the Belleville three have had to fight for the recognition that techno is essentially a black thing and a Detroit thing. As Derrick May explained, "Nobody thought young, black kids from Detroit would be able to create something like [techno]. That's probably why it happened with so much power and impulse. We came through the back door, and nobody expected it. But basically, [electronic music] became a white-boy thing. And it's really kind of sad. Kevin, Juan and I know music history. We know it very well. We know what happened to the early blues artists."

Instead of giving in, they fixated on black positivism empowerment. When the other infamous Detroit collective Underground Resistance were questioned about the potential parallels, their founder Jeff Mills explained: "Of course there are going to be links - that's why we had songs with titles like Riot. Because that's indicative of the era we were born in, and the things we remember."

Despite music industry injustices, what remains is Detroit's unique ability to deliver techno that pushes the genre ahead. One listen to Underground Resistance member Robert Hood's Minimal Nation or Point Blank and you realise that the techno community in Detroit still stand by the legacy of the Belleville three. Each release refines the groove, and resurrects the church of the outsider.

Read 4990 times Last modified on Saturday, 10 April 2021 13:40
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Alan McGee

Alan McGee

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ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


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