Hive Five: Detroit Techno Starter Kit

A scene from the Movement Festival, May 2009. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

For many music fans around the world, the words “Detroit” and “music” aren’t reasons for muttering Eminem lyrics, humming “Seven Nation Army” or strolling through Motown memories. To a select mass, Detroit is and will always be the home of techno and house, two strains of soulful electronic dance music born and bred in the Motor City in the early ‘80s, and imitated the globe over. Memorial Day weekend will mark the 11th year that an electronic music festival (now called Movement) takes place in downtown Detroit’s Hart Plaza to mark the city’s beat-driven heritage. And while fans and performers will be gathered from every continent, there are still quite a few people for whom the world of “Detroit Techno” is an impenetrable wall of drum-machines, with no natural gate. For these, we have concocted a (perfectly imperfect) way in: 30 years of musical culture distilled into five great, chronologically-ordered tracks.

1. Cybotron: “Clear” (1983)

In the beginning, there was Juan Atkins, techno’s godfather and Richard “3070” Davis, and the music they made together harkened to the bleak futurism of Afrika Bambaata’s urban electro and whatever it was that Kraftwerk were doing at the time. 20 years later, Missy Elliot used “Clear” on which to build her top five hit, “Lose Control.”

[Listen to "Clear" here.]

2. Rhythim is Rhythim: “Strings of Life” (1987)

Derrick May built upon Atkins’ blocks, using the cross-fader and a mix of European and Midwestern dance records to set an early standard for club DJ’ing. But it was “Strings,” recorded under one of May’s aliases, that made him a superstar and identified Detroit techno’s DNA: At once exultant and abstract, a funky electronic jazz for masses. One of the late 20th century’s defining compositions.

[Listen to "Strings of Life" here.]

3. Plastikman: “Spastik” (1993)

Here’s where the “rave” comes in. Windsor, Ontario-bred Richie Hawtin was already a veteran of Detroit parties and production techniques when he started Plastikman. Through the ‘90s, he spread his hard-techno Detroit influenced sound around rural U.S. and beyond, becoming a superstar on the dayglo-stick circuit and retaining critical credibility. “Spastik” was huge with audiences – and still is.

[Listen to "Spastik" here.]

4. Rolando, the Aztec Mystic: “Jaguar” (1999)

Part of the legendary Underground Resistance crew (think techno’s own Public Enemy, but without the levity of Flavor Flav), Rolando and his track took the pre-millennial world by such storm, that European Sony artists were soon creating unauthorized covers – and being sued for it. A worthy successor to “Strings”– equal parts catchy, weird, funky and futuristic.

[Listen to "Jaguar" here.]

5. Theo Parrish: “Falling Up (Carl Craig remix)” (2005)

Theo Parrish is a Detroit original: Creator of unique leftfield records that sound like an exploding id, and a maximalist DJ who uses the mixing board like a dub-reggae producer or free jazz saxophonist, pushing the soul and R&B records he plays in every imaginable direction. Here, he made a wonderfully minimal house track that — thanks to a remix by Detroit’s techno ambassador, Carl Craig – throbbed like a mid-tempo sex act.

[Listen to "Falling Up (Carl Craig mix)" here.]

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