Canadian singer Drake’s latest album has a techno-house influence. (Photo by Jonathan Short/Invision/AP, File)
Photo: Jonathan Short/AP
The internet exploded last week when Drake unexpectedly dropped his latest album, the techno-inspired “Honestly, Nevermind,” with many expressing surprise that he moved in a tech-house, dance direction.
But the release of Drake’s album provides a reminder that so much of club music, including the machine-like beats of techno which often are associated with Europe, is rooted in the African American experience. In fact, Detroit in the ‘80s was the spawning ground for a movement that would reach far beyond Eight Mile Road to Europe and back again.
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It was a mostly Black group of Motor City kids, influenced by everything from science fiction and the acid-trip funk of George Clinton to German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, who took ideas associated with the European avant-garde — from minimalism to industrial to “music concrète” — and combined them with an often startling Afro-futurism that resulted in something uniquely their own. (Helping them along was a popular local Detroit radio DJ, Charles Johnson a.k.a. The Electrifying Mojo, who played everything from Kraftwerk to Prince, the B-52’s and The Clash.)
The German electronic band Kraftwerk
Photo: Photo by Sebastian Kahnert/picture alliance via Getty Images, Contributor / picture alliance via Getty Image
While largely ignored at home, the Detroit techno scene — including such acts as Inner City, The Belleville Three, Underground Resistance, Cybotron, Drexciya, Model 500 and many more — bloomed in Europe where it, along with Chicago house music, influenced a new generation of electronic music. Orchestras from France to Australia collaborated with Detroit techno innovators.
This underground musical conversation between America and Europe, Detroit and Dusseldorf — what The Guardian called “a cultural feedback loop” — didn’t rise to the level of being audible for most of the American mainstream but rang loud and clear for global dance-music aficionados.
This isn’t just a matter of long-forgotten history. One of the world’s largest electronic music festivals, Movement, takes place annually in Detroit, attracting up to 100,000 people over its multiple days. To this day, whenever Kraftwerk tours, Detroit is always on the itinerary. And, a half-world away, intriguing electronic music is being crafted by a new generation of Black performers in sub-Saharan Africa such as EA Wave, KMRU, Hama and Ethiopian Records
With that in mind, here are 15 of the Detroit techno acts worth investigating. Click here for a curated Spotify playlist of Detroit techno, or search on Spotify for “A Detroit Techno Collection.”
The Belleville Three — The group featuring the three titans of Detroit techno — Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Juan Atkins — that is credited with kickstarting the Detroit techno scene. More recently, they reassembled to work on a track with Depeche Mode.
US DJ Jeff Mills (L) poses with his French bandmaster Christophe Maglou ahead of the Choregies Festival in the Roman theater in Orange, southeastern France, on July 10, 2019. – Electro music pioneer Jeff Mills will present his concert “Light From The Outside World” with the Regional Orchestra d’Avignon at the Choregies Festival, the oldest French lyric art festival, on July 11, 2019.
Photo: Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP)/AFP via Getty Images
Jeff Mills: Mills changed the game, and expanded the sonic palette of techno, by collaborating with France’s Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra and the Regional Orchestra d’Avignon. Mills and May also went on to work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Inner City: One of several post-Belleville projects involving Saunderson, the project enjoyed one of the biggest crossover successes in the Detroit scene with such sweetly melodic tracks as “Big Fun” and “Good Life” as well as, more recently, the steamroller of a dance track with Idris Elba, “We All Move Together.”
Juan Atkins: Like Saunderson and May, Atkins had his hands in many musical pots. Yet he also released several influential tracks, such as “Track Ten,” under his own name.
ARRIONDAS, SPAIN – AUGUST 17: DJ/Producer Derrick May performs on stage of Aquasella Festival on August 17, 2019 in Arriondas, Spain.
Photo: Photo by Pablo Gallardo/Redferns/Redferns
Derrick May: His “Strings of Life” track is a classic of the genre and was a huge hit in British dance clubs. He also recorded under the name Rhythim Is Rhythim.
Underground Resistance: A secretive collective of various Detroit producers/musician, UR combines science fiction, social consciousness and a tight, Teutonic groove — it’s not for nothing that one of their best tracks is called “Afro-Germanic” — into an irresistible force.
Moodymann: A current star of the scene, Moodymann (Kenny Dixon Jr.) crafts jazzy, souful R&B beats that feel like a throwback to another era.
Detroit techno producer Carl Craig poses on the balcony of his apartment in West London, circa 2003.
Photo: Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images/Getty Images
Carl Craig: A prominent remixer (working with the likes of Depeche Mode and Tori Amos), Craig released several essential albums including “Landcruising” and “More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art.” Like Mills, he also collaborated with a French orchestra, Les Siècles.
Eddie Fowlkes: This performer dubbed his blend of Detroit techno and house music “techno soul.”
Aux 88: This group’s post-Kraftwerk rhythms are particularly infectious on “Electro Slaves” and “Step Into the Light.”
Drexciya: Though their music was largely instrumental, the duo of Gerald Donald and the late James Stinson created a concept involving Black babies, whose mothers had been thrown overboard from slave ships, living underwater.
Carl Craig (right) and Kenny Larkin standing at a bar 1993. (Photo by: Marcus Graham/PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Photo: Photo by: Marcus Graham/PYMCA/Un/Universal Images Group via Getty
Kenny Larkin: While Larkin could be as spacy and minimalist as his co-horts, he also could be more traditionally soulful and jazzy as well on such songs as “Cirque du Soul” and “Flip Flop.”
Model 500: Under this moniker, Atkins created some of his most Kraftwerk-inspired grooves such as “Time Space Transmat.”
Cybotron: The collaboration between Atkins and Richard “3070” Davis resulted in the classic Detroit techno tracks “Clear” and “R9.”
Robert Hood: A co-founder of Underground Resistance (along with Jeff Mills and ex-Parliament-Funkadelic bassist Mad Mike Mills), Hood specializes in a stripped-down, minimalist style of techno.
Cary Darling joined the Houston Chronicle in 2017 where he writes about arts, entertainment and pop culture, with an emphasis on film and media. Originally from Los Angeles and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, he has been a features reporter or editor at the Orange County Register, Miami Herald, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In addition, he has freelanced for a number of publications including the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News.