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Electronic Warfare: The Political Legacy of Detroit Techno

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edited February 2015 in R&B & Alternatives
Electronic Warfare: The Political Legacy of Detroit Techno

Techno may be best known as a European phenomenon marked by hedonism these days, but its roots are steeped in black protest and the plight of Detroit.
By Andy Beta , January 30, 2015


A1 “The Grey Area”

Robert Hood: Deep Concentration: The Grey Area Mix (via SoundCloud)

Detroit techno originator Robert Hood made his name on whetting tracks down to their spiritual essence. His music lovingly marks paths back to funk, disco, and gospel—speeding up Sister Sledge to the point of delirium on “The Greatest Dancer”, or incorporating ecstatic group vocals on “Never Grow Old”—and his full career can now be readily explored thanks to the new three-disc, 33-track career overview, M-Print: 20 Years of M-Plant Music. During a recent Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Tokyo, Hood described his productions as “minimal music for catching the Holy Ghost” and he’s no doubt the lone artist on Resident Advisor’s Top DJs of 2014 list who doubles as an ordained minister.

At one point during the RBMA lecture, a video was shown featuring a very young Hood onstage alongside fellow members of the unabashedly political Underground Resistance collective, which set out to influence Detroit’s poor black communities with its uncompromising sound and aesthetic in the late 1980s. Watching the bygone clip of him with Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks (in a menacing in a black ski mask), Hood pinched the bridge of his nose, overcome with tears. “The struggle of black artists that came from nothing, had nothing—(I was) blessed to share this music,” he told the crowd.

Underground Resistance: "The Final Frontier" (via SoundCloud)

Hearing about techno as it was originally conceived—as a reaction to inner-city decay, as byproduct of African-American struggle, as a form of protest—served as a crucial reminder of the roots of this dance music, and that the name Underground Resistance was in no way a euphemism, but a reality. To the outsider—in this writer’s case, a white teen from the suburbs of Texas—it might be hard to conceive of the oft-wordless techno as revolutionary music; by the time I started hearing it in the early ‘90s, it certainly wasn’t the relentless sound of Underground Resistance. At that nascent stage, Detroit techno (and Chicago house) was being packaged and presented as the smiley-face music of Berlin, Madchester, and Belgium—the sound of Europeans and Ecstasy. Rather than Marshall Jefferson’s “Move Your Body”, my generation was instead indoctrinated with its Belgian rewrite, Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam”. Even then, techno’s blunt force was being lightened.

Underground Resistance: "Transition" (via SoundCloud)

In light of recent comments by Azealia Banks and the conspiratorial charge of “cultural smudging” with regards to hip-hop culture, one need only look at techno and house to see how such blanching can take hold. As Chicago house producer Derrick Carter lamented last month: “Something that started as a 🤬 black/Latino club music is now sold, shuffled, and packaged as having very little to do with either.”
“Struggle” isn’t the descriptor that springs to mind when thinking of the genre in 2015, as techno has since become more commonly known for its hedonism and excesses, and its multi-billion-dollar machinations. Look again at Robert Hood’s rank at #44 on Resident Advisor’s Top DJs of 2014 Readers Poll and then notice the lack of African-American faces that appear higher up the list. Or as Carter put it when he regarded those same lists: “Show me the 🤬 brown faces—🤬 ! Show me EITHER the 🤬 or brown faces—and then discuss ‘cultural smudging.’”

A2 “A Newness”

DJ Dex: UR 101 Mix from MoMA PS1

Last December, members of Underground Resistance could be found setting up shop in the dome at MoMA PS1 in Queens, with a set from DJ Dex and a Q&A afterward featuring Mike Banks. When someone asked why—in the wake of the ongoing protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner—there was silence within the techno community, Banks said “hip-hop was the sound of the now, while techno was concerned with the problems of the future, which was its own kind of agitation,” according to The New York Times.

But UR could also be about the present, and their musical/artistic/political example resonated with generations of Detroit kids. In a mini-doc on YouTube, DJ Mark Flash credits people like Banks for giving him hope in a city that offered little. “Most kids in my neighborhood never even get a chance to get out,” he says. “My friends that I grew up with are still there, they haven’t even left the neighborhood.”

The week before that PS1 performance, Banks took to the stage at Brooklyn club Verboten with another Detroit icon, Carl Craig, while yet another Detroiter, Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann), DJ'd in the side room. For someone who kept his anonymity through much of the ‘90s, it was disarming to see Banks without a bandanna or ski mask hiding his face. And it was exhilarating to see him combine forces with Craig for a set of body-elevating, gravity-escaping techno. There were strange interludes—of everything from Yarbrough & Peoples’s funk classic “Don’t Stop the Music” to Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra”—but for most of the night both men had their heads down, whip-lashing kick drums and heating hi-hats until they felt like white fire. Late into the set, Banks’ keys took on the timbre of a church 🤬 —perfect for Sunday at 4 a.m.

Banks’ band Timeline released a single earlier in 2014, “Light My Fire”, which features a bright beat and needling, looping guitar lick, with a cooed female vocal on the hook. Meanwhile, the luminous, jazz-inflected “Next Step 4wrd” on the B-side opens with a sampled sales pitch: “Yes, Detroit is enjoying its finest hour. There is a renaissance, a rebirth in the city. There’s a newness in Detroit.”


  • dontdiedontkillanyon
    dontdiedontkillanyon Show me some love, you losers. Members Posts: 10,172 ✭✭✭✭✭
    B1 “The Bar City of the Year”

    These days, it can seem like Detroit isn’t America’s 18th-largest city as much as it’s a metaphor for that which is dead and bankrupt—and hoping to be born again. It’s the corpse of the country’s auto industry and the hope of urban renewal. It’s the birthplace of techno and the abandoned home of Motown. Detroit cuts off public services for its citizens as it offers tax incentives for small business owners. Earlier this month, Columbia Journalism Review's David Uberti wrote about how Detroit is perceived and presented by the media:

    Recent coverage has showcased Detroit’s “booming bike industry” and a luxury watch company, among other vibrant, if relatively small, businesses. Motown was described as a “culinary oasis” and “The Bar City of the Year.” Such monolithic descriptions of Detroit are similar to reporters’ characterization of Brooklyn, where the artisanal doings in a handful of neighborhoods in a borough of 2.6 million people drive the media’s narrative.

    Detroit's musical heritage also fuels this odd narrative. As writer Michaelangelo Matos once noted at NPR: “‘Detroit’ is a byword for high-minded purism, a bulwark against ‘commercial’ dance music.” When I interviewed producer Kyle Hall a couple of years ago, he discussed how Europeans fetishize the music (and his own) birthplace: “They think it’s a techno city here and the party scene is thriving. But I wanted to make a reality check and show a juxtaposition between the two worlds—between the concept of Derrick May driving his Porsche down the street and what Detroit is really like.” Hence his debut album’s cover image of him sitting in a dilapidated speedboat dumped somewhere in his hometown. And when Berlin super club Tresor announced plans to open a club in the city that birthed its sound, it brought up arguments of a much needed influx of income for the city versus yet another example of Europeans co-opting Detroit’s story.

    Kyle Hall: "Measure 2 Measure" (via SoundCloud)

    In the CJR story, Uberti also quotes Ron Fournier, a National Journal columnist and Motown native, who talks about the differing perspectives of his hometown: “Detroit is undergoing a rebirth, or Detroit will never come back. Life is all about the gray, and journalism is all about the gray. I’ve always seen Detroit just like I try to see politics: It never was as bad as people told me it was. And it’s not as good as they say it is now.”

    B2 “Rearranged as Such”

    On “Sloppy Cosmic”, Detroit producer Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann) delivers a 12-minute interpretation of Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop”. A strange chorus of voices starts the track: There are snippets of newscasts, recitation of statistics about the murder rate in Detroit, Desert Storm veterans reported as being killed on Motown streets. A choir intones the original song’s refrain of “I can hear my mother call.” It’s a line that rises like a ghost from knee-deep funk and drifts back to doo-🤬 , then moves even further back, to sanctified gospel. But George Clinton twisted the line so that the “mother’s call” comes in the night, when she’s prostituting herself so as to support her kids.

    “Cosmic Slop” is one of the most poignant songs in Funkadelic’s catalog, found on their 1973 album of the same name, nestled between odes to 🤬 and nappy dugouts. When reviewing Moody’s take on it last year, I didn’t quite see how everything added up. But after returning again and again to the song following a most turbulent 2014, I realized how wrong I was in that initial assessment. Kenny Dixon Jr. didn’t deliver a party track, but instead a trenchant social commentary. As an outsider listening in, it’s only in hindsight that I can hear the politics inherent in Moodymann’s cover—it is not so much a protest about the problems of the future but about the problems of the present that draws on the music of the past. Or, as George Clinton sings in a weathered-yet-still-vital voice: “Don’t walk so smooth/ Things don’t seem to have changed that much.”