The Detroit Sound Pt 1!


originally published on Bloc Weekend’s website.

You may have heard of Detroit.

When it comes to writing metropolis based musical histories, Detroit is the biggie, the War & Peace, the Hamlet, the Puccini (not sure whether Puccini is actually long… just assume it is) – basically it would take a lifetime to do justice to this amazing centre of aural delights. So we’re not going to bother.

This is a potted history, a whistle-stop youtube powered homage to the motor city’s defining cultural moments. There will be links a-plenty to follow up so delve deep because this is the tip of a very cool iceberg.

Where else to start than 1959 and the release of Tamla Motown’s first disc. Marv Johnson’s ‘Come To Me’ may not have the recognition of later world wide mega hits from the likes of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and more, but it is pulsing with the dna that made the label one of pop music’s greats– the pounding drum/ tambourine back beat, the sweet vocal harmonies and the themes of love and loss.

While we’re here – and you could spend forever on Motown – another early classic came from Barrett Strong with his dance floor stormer ‘Money’.

The rest you know yourself– River Deep Mountain High, Baby Love, Heard It Through The Grapevine, Tears Of A Clown and on and on (and on and on…), alongside the Michigan born but Detroit resident from the tender age of four, Stevie Wonder. In a diversionary aside – in no way chronologically correct – check Stevie performing ‘Superstition’ in the studio in 1973. Amazing version.

While Berry Gordy’s hit factory pounded out ostensibly good time party music there was a dark heart beating away beneath the strings and soaring melodies- a darkness that reflected the cities crumbling race relations and pressure cooker atmosphere. By the late 60s Detroit would fall into a bloody riot, as it had done 100 years previously (a race riot that had engendered the creation of the cities police force.) The city was tearing at itself, with battle lines drawn up between races and cultures. It wasn’t just Detroit’s black communities venting there emotions through music. The hippies, dealers and layabouts where forming there own proto punk responses to repression from the man, most viscerally in the primal brute music of The Stooges, and the political propaganda of MC5. The Stooges formed in ‘67, the year Detroit burned. By ‘69 they had released there first eponymous LP which featured the all time classic ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ alongside the hugely influential No Fun

Where The Stooges were an exercise in nihilism, The MC5 were overtly political in their message, forming the White Panther Party in solidarity with the discriminated blacks of Detroit. They made there biggest contribution to what later would become punk with the much sampled Kick Out The Jams

Interestingly Kraftwerk have sited the energy and power of MC5 and the clanging motor city beat as a major influence on their work. This influence was very much reciprocated in the next, and possibly most famous stage of Detroit’s development– the invention of techno.

The roots of techno can be seen in mid to late 70s Detroit with the increasingly disco tinged sound pushed by Motown. The labels in-house drummer, and member of Stevie Wonder’s touring band, Hamilton Bohannon, scored a nation wide hit with the looping dance of 1975s ‘Foot Stomping Music’ – there’s even a hint of kraut rock in the cyclic roll of the groove.

More of his syncopated deep disco funk can be heard on the b side ‘South African Man’, a departure from traditional disco 4/4 formats into something altogether more heady.

Whilst George Clinton was from New York, his track ‘Flashlight’ recorded with Parliament had a tremendous influence on young Detroit. To quote Juan Atkins – “Flashlight was the first record I heard where maybe 75% of the production was electronic. The bassline was electronic and it was mostly synthesisers.” Simon Reynolds/ Energy Flash

As well as being a massive club hit, Flashlight was a big radio track. Radio played a fundamental part in the evolvement of techno. Shows from the Electrifying Mojo and The Wizard (an early incarnation of Jeff Mills) were compulsory listening, and on them the new techniques of DJs could be heard. Mills in particular was known for smashing together as many records as possible in his allotted time. The tracks being released were no longer finished products- they were notes in a palette of sound, open to constant re-contextualisation. Listening to the clip below of Mills cutting and scratching through electro it’s amazing how much ragged life can be heard bursting through the haphazard scratches…

Jeff mills the wizard on radio

The story of the evolution of techno has been told millions of times. Essentially it runs – Three middle class black kids, the ‘Belleville Three ‘Juan Atkins, Derrick May & Kevin Saunderson to the likes of you and I – get hooked on the wilder sounds of disco, alongside the European avant-garde movements coming from Germany. Immersing themselves in the futurist philosophies of Alvin Toffler’s extended essay ‘Future Shock’ – the text which gave Atkins the name Techno – the Belleville Three pooled their resources into creating a cerebral machine music. This potted history, as with so many of it’s type, omits the contribution played by numerous musicians, hustlers and players around the city. It’s probably easier to just listen to the music.

Cosmic Cars by Cybotron (Juan Atkins and an older college friend Rick Davis, ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the sythesizer’ according to Atkins) is often sited as the first ‘true’ techno piece. Whether this is true, or whether ‘Cars’ can be seen as an extension of electro is a moot point. Regardless, it has all the elements techno encapsulated– hard 909s, futursitic fantasy themes and washes of space age synth.

Cosmic Cars – Cybotron ‘82

Impossible not to post Clear by Cybotron here too.

Channel one electro as played by Mills

After Cybotron split, with Davis wanting to pursue a more rock direction, Atkins set up the now legendary label Metroplex and began recording under the moniker Model 500.

The first few singles to come out on Metroplex were Juan’s solo forays as Model 500. We’re actually posting the b-side ‘The Future’ to first single ‘No UFO’s’, as feel it more reflective of the the Metroplex techno blueprint and we’re not just referring to the title. “Change is all around us, the future is here. Pocket calculators & TV sets, remote control and micro-cassettes. Keep on moving forward.” An obvious nod to Kraftwerk and continuation of Atkin’s obsession with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but also a more upbeat vision than that of some of Cybotron’s lyrics of ‘mind control’, ‘paranoia’ and ‘robotisizing your mind’. All underpinned by the emerging distinct techno aesthetic of lolloping 909s.

Juan set out his mandate for Metroplex with a further 4 releases under various guises – Play It Cool with a somewhat questionable vocal but a definite progression in sound. We’re going for the Different Version here:

It was around this time, the rest of the Belleville clique wanted in on the act too! On M-006 (that’s Metroplex #6 to you!), Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes – the fourth member to join the clique – put out ‘Goodbye Kiss’. I’m not convinced of its greatness but to do justice to this era we’re posting it so you can witness the sounds emerging between the four.

Kevin Saunderson’s collaboration with Atkins on M-007 sounds suspiciously like someone’s been listening to Blue Monday but you can nevertheless hear Mr Saunderson’s signature vocal treatments and drum programming sneaking in. We’re posting the dub of this as it’s rather tasty.

Derrick May’s Transmat, label was created originally as a sub-label to Metroplex.

Let’s Go, the first release on the imprint was a collaboration between all three original Bellevillians Atkins, May & Saunderson.

When you think Derrick May, your instant reaction is towards Strings of Life… and you’d be right but let’s not forget such classics as ‘It Is What It Is’

‘The Dance’ – this recording sounds so much better than the crackly ole monster I have this on.

“It was a mistake”, Derrick May shocker about the aforementioned seminal anthem strings of life

Go on then, let’s give it a whirl in all it’s glory. Check the innocence of the pianos over the drama of the string.

Transmat released some absolute crackers. I was surprised to discover that NYC born Joey Beltram’s far beyond classic banger Energy Flash actually came out on Transmat, a year before the better known R&S release. For that reason, we’re allowed to post it here. No arguments. Check it.

And one of the first releases from Carl Craig, ‘Crack’ under the Psyche moniker. The first version of b-side Neurotic Behaviour, written by Craig was beatless as he didn’t have a drum machine at the time (hence the ‘ambient’ label!). Derrick May listened to Carl’s tape and added a beat to the track for the Transmat release. Here it is.

Carl Craig’s first label, co-owned Retroactive label released some truly incredible pieces of raw stripped down forward machine funk. Check Oscillator Man, the first output under his Paperclip People moniker. The drums go out of time, the break’s all over the place and yet it has so much energy and drive to carry it through. Possibly my favourite Carl Craig track of all time and one that doesn’t get an airing enough. Mind you, the price a mint original of this would set you back you wouldn’t want to take it out the sleeve! The whole 12” is superb, with Gyspy Man a cover of Crystal Waters ‘Gypsy Woman’ and ‘Paperclip Man’ a re-edit of Yello’s ‘Bostich’.

Craig went on to form the hugely influential Planet E records (currently celebrating it’s 20th year this year). First release ‘4 Jazz Funk Classics’ went on to define the Planet E doctrine. At times harsh and obtuse drum machine programming with ethereal melodies floating through the tracks. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ from the EP is the pick. Five mins of relentlessness and then the break and then, well I’ll leave you to check what happens halfway through the 6th minute.

Just two years on, on ‘Rushed’ from 69’s ‘Sound on Sound’ and the more tripped out sounds are creeping in and forming a more cohesive and deeper techno sound. The synth line is a sample from My Mine – Hypnotic? Tango, a classic Italo Disco record from 1984.

The list of Carl Craig-isms could go on and on. God knows I’ve spent the past 10 years trawling record shops and indeed Ebay/Discogs for his releases. Let’s not forget his tendency to disappear into a massive jazz-hole sometimes… in fact, no let’s forget that and concentrate on a few more of his career highs.

Check ‘94 opus ‘Throw’.

Alongside Landcruising from 95, his homage to Autobahn (thanks Simon Reynolds)

And his more recent remix of Junior Boys from a while back…

But I digress.

Kevin Saunderson, whilst not actually hailing from Detroit initially – he was from NYC until moving to Detroit in his teens – can definitely be said to be the most of poppy of the Belleville Three, bringing with him disco influences along for the ride. He produced what is pretty much Detroit techno’s biggest hit to date in the form of Big Fun

Early on producing far more underground and indeed with more than a nod to the acid coming out of Chicago on ‘Bounce Your Body to the Box’ as Reese & Santonio.

Also check “The Sound” – Reese & Santonio

Recently lifted blind by Supernova on Beat Me Back – given away for free by Mr Saunderson himself. Click Here To Download Now

The Sound rip off/now called Beat Me Back By Supernova, what the hell by Kevinsaunderson

Check the banger from 98 ‘Warp’, released on Heavenly Recordings (I’m learning a lot in the research of this article!). You can well imagine Weatherall smashing this out on the floor of Turnmills @ The Social. In fact I think I remember it!

Whilst researching this curation, fabric had a very helpful little week long curation by Visionquest on Detroit. Thanks for that! Did you know that famous Lady Gaga impersonator Madonna was from Detroit? Well you do now. Don’t worry, I didn’t either. And it’s not a competition anyway.

Here’s her performing the premiere of her first single Everybody (so shamelessly stolen by Annie on her Greatest Hit) live @ No Entiendes club in NYC. No it’s not in Detroit but it’s a whole load more interesting than posting another youtube video with a sleeve cover all the way through it.

Two of the more overlooked Detroit artists from the early days

Eddie Flashin Fowlkes

Blake Baxter


Instinct rare deep detroit

The second wave… coming soon to a R$N/Bloc post near you!

As ever with these (Wil & Ian’s) musical curations this is merely a music lovers guide for music lovers. It is by no means extensive… that job lies at the foot of yourselves. If the music moves you, explore more. If you think we’ve made any glaring omittances then by all means get in touch. x

Words by:

Wil Troup & Ian Mcquaid