It’s a dark, nightmarish night. A harvest moon hangs low on the horizon, obscured by clouds. The streets of Detroit are quiet – too quiet… an unusual, heavy silence. Steam is rising from the sewers, and a rusty jalopy is screeching around the corner, lights ablaze.
Inside the beat-up junker is the strangest sight you ever saw – four skeletal Funkadelic look-alike robots plugged into a single Korg MS10 maniacally playing a steady four-on-the-floor beat. A young black man in the driver’s seat looks straight ahead, frowns, and then sings: “I wish I could escape from this crazy place.
A sinister stop-start bass line and an army of mysterious, demented snyths back up his detached, echoing voice. The low end booms out of the speakers and rattles the car.
“Right before my eyes, all I see are stars, and other… and other… and cars, cosmic cars.”
The man’s name is Juan Atkins. He wears a five o’clock show with a backwards baseball cap and spends most of his time making music – a new, 100% electronic sound he’d dub techno. It’s the early ’80s, so it stills sounds a lot like George Clinton funk, but its the beginning of something very unique and singular. His lyrical themes are inspired by the gritty side of Detroit – the burned-out homes, murders, drugs, and old, decaying factories. He talks about “industrial lies” and the “paranoia right behind [the] alleys of your mind”, no doubt a dual reference to the dangerous back alleys of Detroit. Later, he’d tell NPR:
“My music has always to a certain degree been about a certain escapist attitude. Because there are times that you can be in a city like Detroit and it can get really bad. You just want to fly away. Sometimes you wish you could just sail off to another time and space.”
That’s when you load up the tank of your Pontiac Bonneville with the dankest weed and head for outer space. A cosmic trip, courtesy of the Big 3. Atkins takes off at a red light, and no one sees him again for a week.
By the late ’80s, techno had become a full-fledged mass movement in Detroit, with its own pathos and ethos, and all thanks to the dedication and belief of Atkins and others like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Over the course of a decade, techno had evolved from a variation on funk to a freeform and frenzied rhythmic exploration of electronic sound. Ensembles like the Underground Resistance were taking the music further and further out, to what the modern listener would finally recognize as modern techno.
Techno is now a worldwide phenomenon. But it’s home will always be Detroit, Michigan.