1981-1988: The true story of Techno in Detroit, by the pioneers

Écrit par Henry Hodson
Le 14.10.2014, à 16h15
13 MIN LI-
Écrit par Henry Hodson
0 Partages
Between 1981 and 1988, electronic music worked its way little by little into the clubs and student nights of Detroit and the surrounding area. The shaping of the new techno sound was no smooth ride though, far from it. Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Eddie Fowlkes take Trax back to the formative years which saw the birth of techno. By Jean-Paul Deniaud. 

Article first printed in the September issue of Trax no. 175

Everybody knows the tale of techno. In early 80s Detroit, three friends – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Eddie Fowlkes, the famous ‘Belleville Three’ – tune in to the radio show of a certain mister Mojo, who plays everything from Kraftwerk to Funkadelic to the B-52’s… And suddenly it clicks. Juan Atkins puts all these influences together to form Cybotron, then his own label Metroplex where he releases the song ‘Techno City’. It’s 1984 and the word techno makes its first appearance. This is followed by the compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, released 1988 on Virgin, where England and soon Europe discover the work of the three chums. Techno was the music with a repetitive kick which the English, Belgians and Germans would go on to adopt and develop, each in their own style. The new generation lead off on a dance which has never stopped since.

The legend of the ‘black trinity who gave birth to the sound of techno’, as journalist Jean-Yves Leloup tells it in Global Techno, the book serving as a reference for the genre in France, is a beautiful one. But Leloup overlooks certain crucial moments in the creation of the music, and relates the messages of one of the founding trio, Derrick May, to exclude a fourth, Eddie Fowlkes. Let’s return with Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Eddie Fowlkes to the origins of a genre which set the world dancing even now.

Detroit, early 70s. Juan Atkins is 10 years old, and his passion for music leads his father to give him an electric guitar. ‘One day when I came home from school, there was this guitar waiting for me. I loved Jimi Hendrix, and the first Parliament Funkadelic records, Sly Stone, guys I watched on TV and tried to imitate.’ He eggs his little brother to ask for musical instruments as well every Christmas.

A while later, Juan returns to school in Belleville, 50 km from Detroit, near his grandmother’s house. ‘The town is pretty suburban. It’s not easy to come by any trouble there. My grandmother had a Hammond B3 organ, and we’d often go to the music shop where there was a little room with synthesisers in. Whenever I went I’d play with them and make all these weird sounds. In the end, I asked her to buy me a Korg MS10.’ His first electronic instrument.

‘Eddie Fowlkes deserves just as much praise as Derrick and Kevin. He was there, he was there the whole time. It was just Derrick who left him out.’

At the same time, in Detroit city centre, Eddie Fowlkes also caught the music bug. ‘I was mad about jazz, soul, and I loved disco,’ he reminisces. ‘As a kid, it was soul most of all. Then my uncles returned from Vietnam with jazz. My grandfather listened to blues, our neighbours something else still. That was Detroit, tons of different music played all over. But disco, that was really my thing.’ Going with his sister to a student night put on by the Charivari crew – which would indeed give its name to A Number of Names’ famous ‘Sharevari’ (1981) – at Park Avenue Building, Eddie was fascinated by the DJs there, and the fact that the music never stopped.

They were playing things like Gary Numan, some disco, records from the New York label Prelude Records. I knew what a turntable was, but why wasn’t I up there with the bastards?! That’s what I wanted for Christmas! So my mother bought me a mixer for Christmas. I was 15 at the time, in 1978.’ For the following weeks, Eddie shuts himself in the family cellar and records his first mix with the turntable from his mother and a tape player. ‘School started after the New Year, and I took my cassettes to play in people’s cars. It was at the time when everybody in the neighbourhood wanted to be a DJ.’ On his cassettes there was Elton John, and disco, and he’d buy them all from the record store not far from his house, run by Eddie Kendricks, one of the members of The Temptations. ‘That’s where I bought my first vinyl, Bennie and the Jets by Elton John.’

It was Elton John for the young Derrick May 

Derrick May had a similar childhood. Born in Detroit, he would stay there all his life. His mother raised him alone – ‘my father wasn’t around’, he confides solemnly. What was he buying at the age of 14? ‘Elton John. Yeah, Elton John, that was cool! Yellow Brick Road, Bennie and the Jets, they’re great records. Then there were the Ohio Players, and of course Funkadelic, early Kraftwerk, Jimi Hendrix…’ Next he leaves for college in Belleville and meets Juan Atkins and a certain Kevin Saunderson, whose parents moved from New York to Belleville while he was very young.

They quickly become best friends. Juan prefers his own company though when recording demos in his bedroom, with two Kenwood cassette players and the pre-amplified mixer that his grandmother bought for him. ‘I recorded the Korg MS10, the electric guitar and a bass, that’s all I had. And for the percussion, I used drum tracks, there was an album with pre-recorded drum rhythms.’ From one cassette, he would play the sounds through the mixer before recording them on the other tape. ‘I wouldn’t stop this kind of back-and-forth between the two cassette players before I had finished with a song. And in the end I made myself a demo with four or five songs on it. And at that point I went to university, to Washtenaw Community College.’

He enrols in all of the music classes there, and when he plays his demos everybody is in agreement: Juan has talent. A certain Rick Davis, Vietnam veteran, invites him to jam with him. ‘He was a bit of a hermit,’ Juan remembers, ‘he didn’t want to play with anyone until he heard my demo. His house was like entering the cockpit of a spaceship! It was pitch black and all you could see was the lights coming from the touch of his keyboard, his sequencers and drum machines.’ Rick is about ten years older and has already brought out the record Methane Sea under the name of 3070, a blend of beatless electronic textures along the lines of Tangerine Dream. The connection was instant. ‘He was a bit bizarre but very cultured,’ Juan Atkins recalls. ‘He was like a teacher to me.’

The two musicians share the same taste for science-fiction. From their futurist discussions they got the name for their group Cybotron, and for Juan’s future label, Metroplex. The first Cybotron record, Alleys of Your Mind, was released in 1981 on Deep Space, a label created by Derrick May and Juan Atkins for the occasion. If you can hear the immediate influence of Kraftwerk, Juan says ‘the basslines are directly influenced by Bernie Worrell, the keyboardist for Funkadelic. Cybotron is really the combination of Kraftwerk and P-Funk.’

Mojo steps onto the scene  

This was a mix that was sure to appeal to the most influential DJ on Detroit’s brand new FM station, Charles ‘The Electrifying Mojo’ Johnson. His show, which was several hours long, always started with spaceship noises, sometimes for a whole hour. ‘It was like aliens were landing! All that Star Wars style music at the start of his show, that fit perfectly with Cybotron.’ Juan knew that after leaving work, Mojo would go to the café next to the broadcast building. One evening, Derrick May decides to give him ‘Alleys of Your Mind’, with ‘Cosmic Raindance’ on the B side. ‘Mojo loved it!’ Atkins remembers. ‘He said: I like it, I don’t even care where you come from, I’m definitely going to play it.” We were amazed! We listened to the show two days later and it was on air! It was in 1981, in the summertime.

Next Juan Atkins becomes a sort of shadow to Mojo, recording remixes for him and later mixes. ‘We’d take a record, work on it and make two different versions of a popular song. We just made re-edits of The B-52s’ songs, of anything that was popular. It’s true, that was us, Derrick and me. Though he never mentioned us!’ Eddie Fowlkes assures: ‘When mixes started on the radio, that’s when Juan came in. Mojo had never played a mix before 1980-1. And we knew that Mojo wasn’t a DJ.’

Some time before, Eddie Fowlkes had gained popularity with his mix tapes, and above all his mixer. ‘The other kids only had good turntables, the ones with the straight arm. So at the weekend I joined them and we would practice. The more you learned, the greater your popularity in the neighbourhood and soon everybody had your tapes. Then, when the Technics 1200 arrived, that changed the game to some extent, but my technique was already good enough.’ By mixing at nights here and there he finally comes to meet Derrick May, then Juan Atkins and the Deep Space crew, who as well as being a new label, organise club nights.

It was under the Deep Space name that Eddie would develop a series of student nights at the faculty of Eastern Michigan, in the suburbs. He would make a friend particularly interested in his mixing technique, Kevin Saunderson. ‘With the Deep Space crew, we had a mobile sound-system with lights,’ Eddie recalls. ‘You could go to any campus then return to Detroit for another party. I started to do ‘frat parties’. Derrick and Juan were in Detroit, we would put on parties, Kevin came and he knew them from college. I just remember this big and strong guy who would hang around the decks. He couldn’t mix at the time.’


The Deep Space crew’s music had two main sources of direct influence: Chicago’s Frankie Knuckles and Ken Collier in Detroit. Both mentor DJs, the first of whom played disco music bordering on house, and the second new sounds from Europe.

I discovered Frankie Knuckles in 1981, Eddie recounts. Ken Collier, the biggest DJ in Detroit, knew all the DJs in the country. One evening, Ken Collier played in Chicago and we went to see him at Warehouse, where Frankie Knuckles was DJing. It was the first time I had seen a mixer with two turntables and a reel-to-reel tape deck. I had never seen that before, the reel-to-reel and two turntables, three tunes! At that time, it was like a taboo to go to the gay clubs, but it was there that you heard the best music. Ken Collier played the student nights too, that’s where we discovered all the underground music. He’s the one who created our culture. Juan liked certain European bits, he bought records and gave them to Mojo who then influenced the whole of Detroit.’

These were the same records which built the foundations of a Deep Space whose buzz and contribution to the social calendar, carried by the sounds of Cybotron, were growing by the minute. ‘At that time I only wanted to DJ for the girls, man,Eddie confesses. ‘And there really were girls! Everyone came to dance. There was no alcohol, no spirits, and if there was you’d drink it in your car. If you wanted to smoke a joint, you’d do it in your car. People dressed up, even the DJ wore a tie. It was calm and respectful. But each night, your reputation was at stake.

The night that changed it all  

In the face of Deep Space’s success, Direct Drive, another crew, begins to take it personally. Founded by Todd Johnson, Direct Drive, which at first included Delano Smith, has aged a little and this older generation – with Mike Clark at the head – is irritated by the arrogance of the newcomers. The two crews organise a soundclash which would see the use of drum machines in a DJ set and radically change their approach to the dancefloor.

That party was legendary,’ Eddie begins. ‘It was at my faculty, and I had invited the crew: Juan, Derrick and then Art Payne, Keith Martin. We put Juan in the corner with an 808. We had two turntables, a mixer, and these red, white and blue lights which swept the room. We played and played and when the party hit its peak you would hear Juan’s snare, he was on the beat. We left just one record on, it was the best around at the time, and then we start to lower the volume. Then it was just the 808 playing. We had left the turntables and turned everything off, they had no idea where the sound was coming from. It went nuts! Because no one had ever heard a drum machine take centre stage. People were screaming, the girls went mad! Juan played for 15 to 20 minutes and then we mixed a record back in.

‘No one produced besides me,’ Atkins asserts, ‘nobody knew about the 808, it had only just come out. I had had this idea of making drum loops and we won the competition. The Direct Drive guys are still outraged about it. They still talk about it!’ (An interview on the blog Bleep43 caused no small backlash over the issue, with the Direct Drive DJs (Delano Smith, Todd Johnson, DJ Al Ester, Mike Clark…) bumping heads with the old members of Deep Space (Juan Atkins, Art Payne… read the interview here).

The two men tell the tale of how news of the party reached the ears of Jeff Mills, then Chicago, kickstarting the combination of drum machines and DJing. ‘Jeff Mills started to play on the radio with a Roland 909,’ Eddie tells us. ‘Then people from Chicago came to Detroit, they heard Jeff Mills and started to play with a drum machine while mixing and using the breaks. I just mean to say how legendary that night was.’ It was 1985.

‘It went nuts, because no one had ever heard a drum machine take centre stage. People were screaming, the girls went mad! It was a legendary night.’

The same year, Cybotron packs up. Juan Atkins wants to continue in the vein of the huge 1983 hit ‘Clear’, but Rick Davis prefers prog rock. So Juan launches his own label Metroplex and takes the name Model 500. One by one he releases ‘Night Drive’, ‘No UFOs’ then ‘Technicolor’ under the alias Channel One . ‘That record was really popular in Los Angeles,’ Juan remarks. ‘It was at the time when Egyptian Lover or the Techno Hop Records boys were making sped-up electronic music, inspired by what we were doing. We were starting to sell more records on the West coast than in Detroit!

At the same time, Chicago, where disco is still going strong, starts to take notice of Detroit’s new sound. ‘Derrick May’s mother had moved to Chicago, Eddie explains, ‘and that was our ticket to parties over there. Derrick was a friend of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard, and they really respected us for Cybotron’. Derrick gave No UFO’s to Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk,’ Juan follows, ‘and he played it. The common ground between Chicago and Detroit then was that the kids wanted to listen to four to the floor, music from overseas, and the first New York releases. The only way to be sure you had an exclusive was to make it yourself. So Jackmaster and Chip E made their own house records, but our tunes were played more than those from Chicago. We had more futuristic elements in our music. Theirs was more based on soul music, disco, and ours on something new, it was a fresh sound. Trax Records in Chicago tried to imitate the sound and called it acid house, but really it was techno.

The flatshare gone wrong                  

In Detroit, Eddie Fowlkes and Derrick May become flatmates. Eddie works in the daytime and Derrick the night, and the Deep Space nights carry on. One evening, while Juan Atkins is DJing, Eddie passes out. Waking up, he has only one idea on his mind: he should make a record too. He calls that his ‘epiphany’. He tells only Juan, who laughs in turn. ‘And he said “Yeah that’s what it is!” The next day I went to his and he saw that I meant business. He told me to do this, do that, save money and get a studio.’ He doesn’t say nothing about it to Derrick and starts to build a studio in his bedroom: drum machine, turntables and a keyboard.

One day, I said to Juan that I was ready. We finished with the song and he said to me: Okay man, I’m going to make you a tape, mix and master it. I asked him what mastering was, and he replied “it doesn’t matter!” After three weeks, Eddie starts to worry about his tape and Juan replies that he talked about it to Derrick, and that he too wants to make records. A while later Kevin Saunderson wanted to start as well. ‘We were all releasing records at the same time, on Metroplex’ Eddie concludes. ‘That was the start of it all. I was the trigger, after this epiphany that made me want to release a record. And guess what happened? Guess who my flatmate was?

‘Goodbye Kiss’ was released in all its raw techno glory by Eddie Fowlkes in 1986. This was followed some months later by Kreem (the three others) and their release ‘Triangle of Love’. It was rather more soulful techno/house with a deliberate nod to New Order. Funny that the names of these records would foreshadow the future relationships between Eddie and the trio… But first Juan and Eddie leave again for Los Angeles to try to launch a label.

We went a year and a half before the first compilation even came out,’ Eddie recalls. ‘Egyptian Lover was waiting for us at the airport, we met NWA and Coolio… Juan was a favourite in every town in the United States with Cybotron because so many Latinos thought he was Mexican or Puerto Rican. But when they saw that he was black, all the black people got interested. People don’t realise quite how big Juan was in the US and the L.A. label made him a contract for all of his releases. We tried to meet up with Egyptian Lover again to force the record companies to give us a deal and a video. I hadn’t imagined that Juan was so well-known in the streets of Los Angeles, but you heard his music everywhere. ‘No UFO’s’ and ‘Technicolor’ completely blew up in California.’

It was one telephone call which would change the game entirely. In Detroit, Derrick May is in contact with an Englishman, Neil Rushton, who wants to gather together Detroit releases to put out an album in England. ‘We were starting to run short of money so we came back. And there, three or four months later, all the people we had met had got deals for themselves. If we had stayed we could have swept America with this stuff. NWA, JJ. Fad, Coolio, all those guys had blown up. And our music went directly from Detroit to Europe. Our biggest mistake was going back and doing this compilation because I think it would have exploded here in the States then in Europe, but it all happened in reverse.

Then we’ll do without Eddie

On returning to Detroit they found the British press and with them Neil Rushton. Juan Atkins remembers: ‘When Detroit and Chicago began to really like the music, it also became famous in Great-Britain. A load of people, not only Neil, wanted to release this music.’ Neil was not only a journalist but a manager too and when he met the four in Detroit, Eddie didn’t like him. ‘He and Neil didn’t get on, first of all because Derrick and Eddie’s relationship was so complicated,’ Juan recounts. ‘And Neil was more or less friends with Derrick, so Derrick told Neil not to bother with Eddie.’

Eddie Fowlkes also revisits the story. ‘I couldn’t trust that guy. Neil Rushton was just a DJ, and his business partner, John Mostyn, was the manager of Fine Young Cannibals. Rushton owned the business. He came and he said: “We’re going to get the press behind you and sign Derrick’s releases.” But we were all together! I said to Derrick that I had no trust for that guy. He told him that, it annoyed him and Derrick replied: ‘Okay, then we’ll do it without Eddie.’

Of course though Eddie is on the compilation, he couldn’t have made it without him. But he is excluded from all the promotion. ‘When Neil Rushton decided to leave me out of press contact, I said to Derrick that that wasn’t cool. Juan agreed and I just dropped the issue. That’s how I missed all the press coverage. Neil had total control, so no interviews or photos for me. It was just Derrick, Kevin or Juan. Rushton made Derrick the spokesperson. But Derrick couldn’t make the compilation without me. How are you gonna make a damn compilation without me?!

‘People don’t realise how big Juan was in the US’

That’s why Eddie isn’t part of the three, the holy trinity or whatever you want to call it,’ Atkins concludes. ‘Does it bother me? Not really, I have enough problems of my own, I can’t concern myself with everybody else’s. But kicking Eddie out, I don’t think that was the honest thing to do. Eddie completely deserves to be a part of it and I think it should stay that way. I think he should be included as though he were part of the first three. He deserves just as much praise as Derrick and Kevin. He was there with us, he was always there. It was just Derrick who left him out.’

What’s more, according to Fowlkes, the compilation should have been called The Best of Detroit House Sound, following the suggestions of Neil and Derrick. But it was Juan who insisted. ‘Juan was the bastard who said: “No, I make techno.And that’s how the album was changed to Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit.’ Released in 1988, the compilation marks the official entry of techno into Europe, even if people were already playing it here and there, and further marks the soundtrack to the turn of the millennium on the public conscience. Complete with its pioneers, and its forgotten heroes.

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