L’ouvrage autobiographique de Laurent Garnier (co-écrit par le journaliste David Brun-Lambert) dispose d’une nouvelle édition, en langue anglaise. Outre l’annonce d’une adaptation cinématographique (une œuvre fictive, et non documentaire), Electrochoc s’adresse désormais à un public anglophone, laissant transparaître (de nouveau) les reflets du parcours et de la passion de Garnier, notamment la scène acid house de Manchester — sans fard ni artifice.
En témoigne un premier extrait voué à la techno de Détroit, septième chapitre dudit recueil. Au travers des propos de Jeff Mills et de “Mad” Mike Banks, le segment Final Frontier retrace l’évolution d’une division autrefois mise à l’écart et de l’expérience personnelle de Laurent Garnier, déambulant dans Motor City à l’orée des nineties.
Le producteur français concevait alors une playlist de rigueur (Model 500, Dopplereffekt, Kevin Saunderson, Blake Baxter, Theo Parrish, Derrick May et Jay Denham), hébergée par la plateforme Apple Music.
Et voici l’extrait dont il est question, en anglais donc :
“My plane landed in Detroit at around 5pm local time. I was questioned several times over at border control without really knowing why. Eventually, the US immigration officer got bored and stamped my passport. I passed through customs and stepped outside through the security doors. I jumped into a cab and gave the driver Kenny Larkin’s address. He was waiting for me at his house in the white suburbs of Detroit. The taxi pulled away and sailed onto the ring road. Once we had crossed the invisible boundary into ‘downtown Detroit’ I began making out the city’s wide avenues. It was getting dark. The headlights faintly lit the decrepit walls lining the streets. Buildings resembled crumbling mausoleums. In the distance I saw two towers bearing the letters G and M. The taxi driver pointed them out to me as if proudly showing me the ruins of a local monument, ‘You see right there, that’s General Motors!’ On top of the steel and glass towers, the red and blue letters overlooked the down-at-heel city.
In the taxi, I was trying to recall when I had first heard the name Detroit. Was it in the 90s, via techno? Or through Motown soul? Soul and techno: two by-products of the same story of suffering and sincerity. One thing is for sure, I have always associated Detroit with music. For the likes of me, having grown up with music, Detroit is the mark of quality, whether experimental jazz or rhythm ‘n’ blues, the invention of futuristic funk by George Clinton or the cries of anger of MC5 and The Stooges, and, of course, the unforgettable sound of Motown.
The US itself seems to have a hard time remembering Detroit as a musical guiding light, whereas in Europe, Detroit is regarded as a city overflowing with innovation, groove and perfection. And for people like me, Detroit is the birthplace of techno, a place of hardship, where jazz, the last great music of the century, underwent a change and evolved into electronic music. Techno can be considered the urban continuation of jazz. Be it John Coltrane or Derrick May, their obsessions are the same: space, time, groove and unfathomable melancholia. I was in Detroit for a special reason, to soak up the vibes of the city and to meet my techno heroes. I hoped to reach the purity and great sadness that permeates the music and understand why Detroit’s music exudes such emotion, so much hardship, so much experience and so much beauty. I had expected to arrive in a rundown city and have a hard time getting to grips with the mystery that is Detroit. I had planned on questioning everyone I met there and interpreting every sign. But instead, all the answers could be found just by looking at the history of the city.
Like Manchester in the early 1800s, during the golden age of the British Industrial Revolution, Detroit also became the great American city of industry. Several thousand blue-collar workers came from all over the US to work at the Ford automobile plant, while the black workers were confined to the foundries. Greek immigrants founded Greek Town and the first black community within the city settled in a ghetto known as Black Bottom. It was there, on Hastings Street, that the first temple of the Nation of Islam was built.
In 1932, after the Wall Street Crash, Detroit was nicknamed the ‘green city,’ as there were more trees per square kilometre than in any other city in America. World War II marked the second golden era for Detroit, a.k.a. Motor Town, as it became ‘democracy’s arsenal.’ B-52s were built in the Ford factories and army tanks at Chrysler. Then jazz appeared and the Black Bottom ghetto was knocked down and replaced by a motorway. In 1959 Motor Town gave birth to Motown, the cultural pride of the black community. Then the battle for civil rights broke out in the US, and in July 1967 Detroit experienced three days of bloody rioting. Then began the city’s slow downfall. It began with the closure of automobile factories. The white community fled to the suburbs and the ghetto grew bigger and bigger. And finally, in the 1980s, there was an explosion in drug abuse, especially of crack, in these same ghettos.
Detroit techno music tells the story of all of this hardship. And within this music one can feel the life force that refuses to be put down. Words are of no importance. Everything is expressed within a few notes, repeated ad infinitum. Detroit techno is made of metal, glass and steel. When you close your eyes you can hear, far off in the distance, then closer and closer, the echo of crying. Like in jazz and blues, Detroit techno transfigures suffering. This authenticity of spirit has no price.
At the beginning of the 1980s, Detroit was still a sounding board for American record companies. If an artist made it in Detroit, the labels felt that artist could make it across the US; the majors trusted the local Detroit radio stations and their DJs. The influence of Detroit radio DJs would play a critical role in the future of young artists and the emergence of new musical trends. Today, every single DJ and producer who made up this first wave of Detroit techno artists still talks about Electrifying Mojo’s radio show. He was a visionary, who mixed European electronic music with early black music. Mojo was the first to play prime-time Prince and A Certain Ratio, Funkadelic and Kraftwerk, Visage, New Order, Pet Shop Boys, the B-52s, Falco and even the French violinist Jean Luc Ponty. Everyone agrees that Mojo was the person who created the framework on which to hang Detroit techno.
In the middle of the 1980s, another DJ appeared on the Detroit radio scene, known as The Wizard. His technique, innovation, knowledge of mixing and the mystery that shrouded his true identity resulted in him becoming a legend within the city. Almost 20 years later, Jeff Mills still remains The Wizard. The current hip-hop generation in Detroit grew up listening to him. And to this day, on the rare occasions that Jeff Mills per- forms in Detroit, you will still find hip-hop fans at his gigs who would never normally venture into techno clubs. It’s not rare to overhear in a conversation, “Eminem and his posse came down to listen to The Wizard” or, “The Producer Jay Dee and the group Slum Village were at the venue.”
Jeff Mills is undoubtedly one of the most important and creative music producers of the last 15 years. He is a visionary, a leading light in the world of techno, and a master DJ (as one would use the term master craftsman). You only have to see Jeff playing across three record decks to be mesmerized by his feline movements, not to mention the inimitable way in which he plays rough, minimal, funky music. Here, Jeff Mills will serve as our guiding voice and describe Detroit in the early 80s; a city struck by crises, which, in the space of a generation, changed from a city of abundance to an urban nightmare, giving birth en route to the final musical revolution of the 20th century: techno.
“In 1979 I was 16. My older brother had been a DJ for several years. He let me practice at his place, on his gear. At around the same time we both began sending mix tapes to radio stations in Detroit. It wasn’t really something people did back then. On my brother’s advice I must have sent about 15 tapes in just one year to the station WDRQ, but never got a reply. When my brother decided to stop DJ-ing he gave me all his records and his equipment. I set it all up in my bedroom and started practicing for several hours a day.
Between 1979 and 1981, the first hip-hop sounds started filtering through to us from New York via Chicago. It was the beginning of a street culture made up of dance, graffiti, rap and DJ-ing, with some incredible inventions like scratching. Hip-hop was both a global and a community culture, created by and for the ghetto: “For Us By Us.” On the East Coast there was Grandmaster Flash and DJ DST; on the West Coast Dr Dre and DJ Yellow; in Florida and in Mississippi there were Bass stations, radios playing the beginnings of electro and Miami Bass. But at this time, videos showing DJs mixing didn’t exist, and in Detroit it was impossible to get hold of any information to find out how these DJs were scratching and making these sounds. Rumour had it that if you wanted to scratch faster you had to wear surgical gloves. Within a matter of days every DJ in Detroit was wearing white latex gloves.
The more I heard from New York, the more I got into DJ-ing. I studied every piece of information to do with music that I could: the label bosses, the musicians who were in, the remixers, scratching patterns … In Detroit we grew up with music. From as young as 14, kids were going to mobile discos for teenagers. Every age group had their own parties. When I was 17, I started getting DJ work at mobile discos.
Then my brother introduced me to some influential people on Detroit’s nightlife scene. These people could help me develop my art, teach me how to play records in a club and make a selection of music suited to an older crowd. My brother arranged a meeting at a downtown club called Lady so I could audition. As I wasn’t yet the right age legally (21) to be allowed into the club I had to sneak in through the back door and scramble up into the DJ booth without being seen by security. It wasn’t yet 10pm and the club was already packed. The bosses and the resident DJs came into the DJ booth, “OK, show us what you can do.” I started off my set with a move that they had never seen before.
I put the needle on the first record in the middle of the break and then played a second copy of the same record from the beginning. I won my ticket to play the week after. The bosses agreed to take me on and teach me the ropes. I learnt how to make a track popular with the crowd (play part of the record, take it off, play it again an hour or so later to build a hit), I learnt what kind of records I should always have in my boxes to adapt to any given situation, I learnt which records were good for transitions, etc. … Basically, I learnt about the psychology of the dance floor; training that a lot of DJs and musicians from Detroit have never had.
Despite my youth, within the space of a few months, I was given three residencies in three Detroit clubs. In one of them, the UBQ, they were organizing the after-party for Prince’s Purple Rain Tour, which was in town for seven dates. As luck would have it, WDRQ radio decided to broadcast the after-party live on air. I received instructions to only play music associated with Prince (Sheila E., Vanity, Tiles, etc.). It was my first time on the radio. I was really excited and prepared my set several days beforehand. Just as I was about to start my set the radio DJ asked me, “What’s your stage name?” And I replied, “My best friend calls me The Wizard”. And so she announced, “Now, live on WDRQ, it’s The Wizard!'” The next day I found out that WDRQ had achieved their best audience figures in months. I was called in to the radio station to be interviewed with a view to getting my own show and to meet the new program director. He came from New York and wanted to introduce hip-hop to Detroit by programming a special hip-hop mix show on WDRQ.
There were two of us being auditioned. After playing a 15-minute set I got the job. The director took me aside in his office and said, “We know about you already because of all the demo tapes you’ve been sending us.” He opened up a cupboard and there inside I saw all the tapes I had sent in over the years, in chronological order. “We’ll teach you the rules of radio.” And so I learnt how to edit tracks on tape and how to produce a show. I was given a budget as well as access to their entire record collection. I was allowed to buy all the records I wanted and had carte blanche. For a guy who wasn’t even 20, it was an unbelievable stroke of good luck. Faced with a rival radio station, WRDQ needed to head off the competition and the new director was counting on me. “Here’s your studio [built specially for me with three turntables], this is your receptionist, and here’s your telephone. Now, over to you.”
1982. Their aim was for him to present the big New Year’s show, during which he would play for nine hours solid. ‘The radio station did a lot of advertising around me. I had to be available to go on-air at any time of day to surprise the listeners. I distinguished myself from the other radio DJs by creating thematic mixes: Michael Jackson vs. Prince, Automobile vs. Motor City, etc. For these shows, I used the radio’s archives. I think that my love of concepts dates back to this period.
To preserve The Wizard’s mystery, I wasn’t allowed to use the name The Wizard in clubs or to reveal my true identity to anyone. Meanwhile, I continued to play in the city’s clubs. At the beginning of the 80s, Detroit had many very talented DJs including Darryl Shannon, Delano Smith, Carl Martin, who, influenced by Electrifying Mojo, introduced new music from Europe, known as synthpop, into the clubs.
In 1981, a record – “Sharevari” – was released that would play a pivotal role in the history of Detroit techno. “Sharevari” was produced by a group of middle-class students from Detroit, two boys and two girls calling themselves A Number Of Names. They were members of a student asso-ciation (called Sharevari) that organized parties and had made quite a lot of money. They decided to make their own music. They went into a studio, found inspiration in the track “Moscow Disco” by the Belgian band Telex, and recorded “Sharevari.” Mojo turned the track into a big hit in Detroit. “Sharevari” is the very first techno record from Detroit, but as yet nobody had used the term “techno,” it simply didn’t exist.
I met Juan Atkins just after the release of “Sharevari.” He already had his band, Cybotron, loved Kraftwerk, and had released a track, “Clear.” After “Sharevari,” his music changed. His band split and the two other band members left for California to make pop music. Juan chose to stay in Detroit. In 1985, he released “No UFOs” and “Night Drive,” two amazing tracks that used sounds similar to “Sharevari.” It was then that everything happened. People began talking about techno, without really knowing where the name came from – but who cared? New music from Detroit now had an identity, a special flavor. “Sharevari” had been the trigger and Juan Atkins was the first hero of the techno trinity. Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson would follow suit.
But this small group of people didn’t know each other. The city was divided into two: one side was downtown and the other in the suburbs. At the time, there were a lot of parties going on in Detroit, in people’s back- yards to local clubs. One Sunday night, at a “black night” I was playing, Kevin Saunderson came down to see me. We didn’t know each other, as we didn’t hang out in the same circles. Several different scenes had sprung up across the city without ever coming into contact. Kevin gave me one of his first records, which he had released under the name Reese & Santonio. He also introduced me to Neil Rushton, the boss of Network Records, the first record label to release Detroit techno in the UK. A few months later, Kevin Saunderson released “Big Fun” and had a massive hit.
At that time, I had my own industrial band called the Final Cut. We had made a few records but I felt like I hadn’t found the right people to make music with. Then I met Mike Banks.”
Mike Banks, alias Mad Mike, is the true soul of Detroit techno. He is an urban guerrilla, a man haunted by the suffering of his city. Mike has chosen music to fight against the problems of daily life and takes his inspiration from the Afro-American struggle of the 1960s. Mike is a resistant, ‘a pure product of Detroit’s black culture,’ as he says.
Mike, a musician, producer and legendary techno figure throughout the world, chose to organize his struggle in the shadows, never giving interviews or wanting to be photographed. Through his record label Underground Resistance, Mike Banks spreads a guerrilla philosophy whose targets are the major record labels, the American segregationist system, and despair in the ghetto.
From inside the building that houses his record label Underground Resistance, a distribution platform for Detroit’s independent record labels Submerge and several studios, Mad Mike pursues his causes – to get young people away from crime and drugs, to rally against the economic disaster that is Detroit – and music.
When he speaks, Mike Banks tells the story of Detroit with a slow, deep ‘scarred’ voice and relates the history of Underground Resistance.
“Jeff and I wanted to do great things, like all the kids in this city. We wanted to do something big, be on a major, earn money, be on TV, be in a magazine. All these things are proof of success over here.
Jeff loved industrial music, and I loved everything Jeff played, as he has the funkiest ear for sound in the world. We met in a studio in Detroit, the United Sound Studio. I was recording with other musicians: Ray (now in Underground Resistance), Mike Pierce and Scott Christers. We were studio musicians, able to play any kind of music: R&B, funk, church music, gospel. Our band had been signed to Motown. But Motown wanted to call us For Girls Only, or something like that, and make a boy band out of us. They wanted us to be dressed like Prince and put on make-up … We were 23 or 24 years old. We thought, “If that’s what we’ve gotta do to make it, fuck that!” Motown broke off our agreement and we became studio musicians for the remainder of our contract. This enabled us to work with George Clinton, David Spradley (who wrote “Atomic Dog”), Amp Fiddler and the Reverend Thomas Whitfield. Because of our bad experience with Motown, we were left with a bitter taste in our mouths. This is when I met Jeff Mills.
Jeff also had a bad taste in his mouth. Musically, he was excellent, but things were turning sour with his band the Final Cut. Besides, a black man playing industrial music, it just didn’t make sense! Jeff had an amazingly fast way of making music. In contrast, we were used to working up to three months on a song to obtain exactly the right harmonies. This is why Kraftwerk’s music was so fascinating for us. We were trying to reproduce their songs on our guitars. We didn’t know that it was machines that produced these sounds. When we learned that all these things were done with computers, we started studying the technology. We used our lunch breaks to record. Jeff came and gave us a hand on the edit of a few of the tracks.
We started to see each other more and work together more regularly. We both liked Public Enemy for the way they refused to play the “show niggers.” You know, we the black people, in the USA, we always have to be disguised, to make ourselves up, to be flashy or to play the clown if we want to enter the music business. I came from a family of sportsmen and workers. At my place, we were opposed to this “show nigger” shit! I was educated in an environment that despised fancy clothes, all those pimp get-ups, because living in the ghetto doesn’t necessarily mean acting like a pimp.
My family instilled one core value in me: work. Pimp, prostitute, dealer, that’s not a good model. I became very disparaging of these kinds of people as I grew up. The “showboats niggers,” as I called them, were nothing else but cannon fodder. And that’s why a band like Public Enemy immediately struck a chord with me. They were so powerful, so good. Their logo was a target with a silhouette in the middle. What they were saying to the white establishment was: “This silhouette, here, it’s me, and I put myself in front of the target on purpose. If you have the balls, shoot!.” They were taken to court for that.
With Jeff, we realized we worked well together; we had the same mindset. So we created the UR concept, Underground Resistance. UR came from Public Enemy for the black power, and a love of the German precision of Kraftwerk. When we became business partners, Jeff was at the height of his fame with his radio persona, The Wizard. He started playing Public Enemy on WJLB, the most influential black radio station in Detroit. The bosses asked him to stop. But, hanging out with me, Jeff had become a resistant. He was supported by me and my boys, most of whom were gang members. Jeff ignored the station’s warnings. He continued playing Public Enemy, each night, on WJLB. The radio station started to cut back his shows. From two hours, the show was put back to one hour, and then to thirty minutes, until it only lasted fifteen minutes, and at this point, Jeff resigned. It was the end of The Wizard. It was hard for us. And I think it also damaged music’s development and expansion in Detroit.
UR evolved out of this fighting spirit. UR is the continuation of a long struggle and we chose existing technologies to make this struggle move forward. Through UR, we wanted to express everything through sound; no need for pictures. We were against everything you have to accept in order to be famous.
Jeff and I were studio musicians, and so operated in the shadows. So we decided that if people wanted to meet us, it would be for our music, not to see what we looked like or to check out the color of our skin. We were just coming out of the 80s, a time when many black artists had had their noses done or their skin whitened. Fuck that! If a guy doesn’t know what you look like, he won’t care, as long as he likes your music. It’s Detroit and the whole black experience in America that gave birth to Underground Resistance. UR is a prolongation of the incessant struggle in everyday life. I think inspiration goes beyond generations. Jeff and I often talked about that. Our music goes beyond us. Sometimes, I compare music to what a vampire obtains from the blood he sucks: eternal life. The energy we pass on stays behind and can touch people in 200 or 300 years time. I’m on earth to inspire other people, and maybe people who are not even on earth yet.”
“At the beginning of UR, Mike and I would meet and discuss what we wanted to do. Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson had told us about their bad experiences with European record companies. “Big Fun” and “Good Life” had been released on majors and things had gotten nasty. It was perfectly clear to us, we didn’t want to work with the majors. We both had experience of deals with majors in which we had been swindled. That is where the name Underground Resistance came from. Literally, to create a resistance to the “overground.” Before we started making music together, we first thought about the direction we wanted to take. Our militant approach to techno comes from Public Enemy, but the idea of conceptualising our music came from the radio. If you want a show to become big on the radio, you have to be different, surprise people. That’s what we did with UR. I had access to recording studios, I had a good knowledge of sound, and I knew about editing. I could be a DJ for a hip-hop night or a house night. Mike brought soul to our music, and a special way of playing keyboards. He also had a certain knowledge of vocals and introduced patience and consideration into the narration of our tracks.
All my machines and all his keyboards gave life to an incredibly well- equipped studio. At that time, we didn’t work on computers. Our studio was configured so we could work on several songs at once. We had a very simple way of working in UR; we each had distinct roles. First, we ate chicken, and then we discussed what we wanted to do. We wrote the instrumental parts together. Mike played the keyboard parts and then left the studio to allow me time to prepare the mix on the mixing desk. He came back to do the final mix and I finished the track’s final edit alone. We worked in this same way from the first UR record, “Your Time Is Up,” that came out in 1990, until “The Punisher” in 1992.
In 1992, we produced a band from Detroit called Members Of The House. The record was released under license on the UK label React, and, as it did well in Europe, the band was invited to do a show in the UK. The guys from Members Of The House came from the ghetto and they were tricky, so Mike decided to go with them to Europe, while I stayed in Detroit. It was the first time we were separated for more than a week. During Mike’s absence, I wrote “The Punisher,” the first record I made for UR on my own. At the time, Derrick May and Blake Baxter were starting to tour in Europe and sent home amazing news: “I played in Belgium to a crowd of 15,000 people.” It was crazy! I had only been to Europe once before and had no idea what was going on over there.
Meanwhile, Detroit was also changing. It was going from musical fever pitch into a downward spiral. Most of the artists had moved to Chicago, California or New York. Hip-hop and gangsta rap had become huge in Detroit; radio stations didn’t play techno anymore. Young people that had no musical background or studio experience were doing mixes on the radio. They didn’t even know the difference between hip-hop and gangsta rap. Gradually, gangsta rap imposed itself as the dominant genre and completely changed younger people’s mindset. There were more and more drugs and gangs. The streets became more and more violent and the audience less and less open-minded.’
In 1992, Jeff Mills left Underground Resistance, and went to live in New York. Mike Banks continued his struggle and got to work with the younger generation (Drexciya, Aux 88, James Pennington, DJ Rolando, etc.). Yet, Detroit was plunging back into darkness once again.
My taxi drove through a deserted neighbourhood, passing endless warehouses and pieces of twisted and bent sheet metal, shaped by the freezing cold wind. Here was the last tangible evidence of a past era when this neighborhood would have been Detroit’s central food market. I stared at the giant parking lots littered with the remains of abandoned trucks. There was a great sense of loneliness here. Flashes of graffiti stood out against the abandoned vehicles that had been left to rot.
Urban myth says that, at night, the Unknown Writer wanders Detroit’s derelict buildings. He walks through abandoned neighborhoods, stricken areas and ghettos painting his slogans, pamphlets and poems onto the walls. Underground Resistance promoted the Unknown Writer’s work, printing his slogans on their records in order to spread his political and lucid urban poetry. ‘Do not allow yourself to be programmed.’
A conversation started up with the cab driver. He asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I hesitated before answering, ‘I’ve wanted to come here for a long time, you know … I need to understand a few things.’ Silence.
And then he repeated ‘… a long time,’ with a drawling voice. He then said in a low voice, ‘So, you’ve come here to understand Detroit … We’re going to make a quick detour; there’s something you have to see. It’s a few miles from here. Don’t worry, I won’t charge you, it’s on me … ‘ Outside, I could hear bass sounds, but I couldn’t tell where the music was coming from. The cab edged its way into the night. Neon lights twinkled. Rows of Baptist churches and weather-beaten houses alternated with liquor stores. Further along, a crack house. I could make out a couple of people moving about in the shadows. For miles on end, the same configuration: church, liquor store, crack house …
Suddenly our surroundings changed and the taxi driver slowed down. The façades of derelict buildings painted with frescos became visible in the headlights of his Ford. A huge banner hung across the wall of a faded red-brick building stated: ‘You are entering the Heidelberg Project peace zone.’ Poems advocating non-violence and respect were painted in big letters on the walls, floors and abandoned cars. The cab driver turned at me, ‘Here, it’s a peace zone. It must be one of the only places in Detroit where people say hi to each other and come to pray. Even the gangs stay clear of this area, you know! That’s Detroit too: there’s violence, but there’s also hope …’
Then the cab pulled away and we drove back through the same derelict neighborhoods to go back downtown. I could almost smell the death, the drugs, the violence, and the loneliness. This city seemed to live under a perpetual curfew. The center of Detroit was deserted, except for the area of Greek Town, which houses luxury hotels, restaurants and shopping for tourists. Detroit was a ghost town. The odd pedestrian we came across turned round to check they weren’t being followed. In Detroit, cars waiting at red lights keep an eye on people crossing the street, in case they pull out a gun. That’s everyday life in downtown Detroit, which runs all the way to the edge of 8 Mile Road.
8 Mile Road is the name given to the ring road that separates two very different worlds. On one side is downtown Detroit where 80 percent of the black community lives. On the other side lives the white middle-class, free of gangs, drugs and violence. When a car driven by a black man leaves downtown Detroit, passes the 8 Mile road, and heads towards one of the white suburbs, the driver can be sure he’ll be followed by the flashing lights of the DPD. Every time, it’s the same scenario. The vehicle is pulled over and the driver is questioned (‘Where do you live? Where are you going?’), and then he is called to order (‘Don’t forget to go back home …’).
‘It’s so stupid what’s going on in this city! The desire to do something new is already dead in the water before the plan has been hatched. I can never feel truly happy or satisfied because I know it won’t be long before some- body else is shot. If you let yourself be happy around here, something will come along and destroy it. At the same time, I love this city for its special vibe. Nothing is really normal here. For example, if you go buy shrimp, “Hello, a pound of shrimp, please”. The guy will answer, “We don’t have any shrimp”. Yet there’s a huge sign saying: “We sell shrimp” right in front of him. But the guy answers quietly, “We don’t have any.” That’s crazy! But I learned to love all of that. It’s like church … When I was a kid, I didn’t understand a single word the priest was saying. He talked about the struggle between good and evil. I listened to what he was saying and thought, “Yeah, right, you keep talking.”
But then I grew up, and the theme of the struggle between good and evil came back to me. I realized it was true. It’s a vampire world here. Public Enemy wrote “Night Of The Living Baseheads,” well that’s exactly what it is! When night falls, guys come out to find dope. You see them wandering around like vampires looking for blood, hanging out on the streets looking for their next fix. When the sun comes up, they go back into hiding. When the Bible talks about the possessed, madmen who are prisoners of their dual personalities, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I swear they’re talking about people on heroin. Nowadays, when I go to church, I understand more what the priest is talking about. Because I have lived here and I’ve grown older and learned not to judge people. As the Bible says, “Don’t judge thy neighbour”.’
The taxi dropped me off in front of Kenny Larkin’s house in the white suburb of Birmingham. In Detroit, Kenny was seen as techno’s golden boy. He had trained as an actor and got involved in making music by accident. He had been inspired by Derrick May’s music and had signed three albums, including Azimuth and Metaphor. Both of these albums did well worldwide, earning him a lot of money. For all these reasons, Kenny was criticized in Detroit, but – and this was a problem for his critics – his music was excellent.
After a warm reunion, Kenny told me that a dinner had been organized at Fishbones, a restaurant in Greek Town where several other people were waiting for us. Just as we were about to leave he said, ‘Bring your records, – Why? – Don’t worry! Just bring your records.’ I put my bag in the boot of his car, got into the passenger seat and off we went. We drove towards the lights of the hotels in Greek Town. We walked into the restaurant. The walls were covered in photographs of baseball players and pictures of classic cars built at the Ford factories. At the back of the restaurant, the makers of Detroit techno were all seated around a table. I walked over and Kenny introduced me, and I realized then that this kind of dinner, with all the people on the Detroit scene, was exceptional, maybe even a first.
In 1993, it was still rare for someone from Europe to take an interest in Detroit. Around the table were Derrick May, Mike Banks, Kelly Hand (one of the only female producers in Detroit) and Maurizio, a producer from Berlin who had invested in a factory in Detroit that pressed vinyl. They were all very welcoming. I wasn’t there to ask for anything, and they knew that. “Acid Eiffel,” licensed by Fragile/ Transmat, was a rare collaboration between Detroit and Europe. On top of this, Kevin, Mike and Derrick had all been to the Rex. They knew me; they knew I was there for the right reasons. I talked to Mike Banks, who offered to take me somewhere the next day. It was all very mysterious.
‘I got something to show you.’ The atmosphere was relaxed, we talked about music, of course, and there was a lot of joking around. They joked about people who weren’t there, and then the conversation moved onto baseball and I was out of my depth. As the restaurant began slowly emptying, I noticed that no one in the place recognized any of these demigods of techno …
As everyone stood up to put their heavy winter jackets back on, someone asked me, ‘Did you bring your records with you?’. I answered shyly, ‘Yes.’ I got back in the car with Kenny to discover there was a party at a local primary school. There were hardly any clubs or venues where you could organise techno nights in Detroit. Nevertheless, promoters were very resourceful, despite the real risk of the DPD or even local gangs turning up. These events rarely attracted more than 200 people and most of them came from the white neighborhoods, beyond 8 Mile Road.
I bumped into DJ Bone in the corridor of the primary school. He suggested that I come and DJ with him in one of the empty classrooms. The exclusively black crowd was here to dance and listen to the music. There were no lights, except for the neon light coming from outside. In a word, we were a million miles away from how all those Parisian music aficionados imagined Detroit. Bone played a few records before inviting me to take over. I hurriedly opened my record bag and began my set. I tried my very hardest to get the crowd to come round to me, though I could feel some people looking at me skeptically. As people began to get into the music, their dancing got more flamboyant. Mike was watching on from a corner of the room. I felt like I was really getting somewhere, as the room hit fever pitch. I played a St Germain track followed by “Losing Control” by DBX. People were yelling ‘Yeaaaaaaaah!’ I had been dreaming of this for years! I would have given anything for an opportunity like this, and now here it was! It was like a dream; in fact I really thought I was dreaming … Then, suddenly, a guy stood in front of me and said, ‘No more music in here!’ Bone stood behind me, not moving. Mike came over quietly. I asked the guy why but he just mumbled, ‘Stop the music.’
I was told that the police had arrived. The party was over. People quietly left the room, obviously used to the DPD putting a dampener on things. As Kenny was showing me out and offering to drive me back to my hotel, I heard bass sounds coming from another room at the other end of the corridor where the Canadian DJ Richie Hawtin was playing. I went to find out what was going on and walked into a room full of white kids clearly unaware of any police intervention. Did the DPD really only close one of two rooms? I would never know. I picked up my record boxes, said goodbye to Bone, and went back to find Kenny, who was waiting for me in the hall to take me back home.
The next day, Mike Banks asked me to meet him at the Motown Historical Museum on 2648 West Grand Boulevard. Mike was waiting for me in front of the museum, sitting on the bonnet of his car. He didn’t ask me anything about what happened the night before as he walked me up to the entrance. All he said was, ‘You gotta understand where you are.’ We entered Hitsville, Motown’s headquarters, opened by Berry Gordy in
1959. Mike paid for my ticket. ‘I’ll wait for you outside.’ Within the first few minutes, I could already feel the greatness of the ghosts of the past. People were whispering, like in church. I walked past photographs of Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and Stevie Wonder. I then went inside the recording studio where absolutely nothing had been changed. Inside this very studio, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, the Temptations and Norman Whitfield recorded some of the most beautiful pieces of African-American music. The studio once ran 24 hours a day. This hellish pace of production only stopped in 1972 when Berry Gordy, the big boss, relocated to Los Angeles. I continued my visit along a corridor whose walls were lined with gold records before entering the projection room. I took a seat.
Like a perfectly orchestrated partition, a film about the story of Motown started playing on the screen. The images were narrated in a respectful tone of voice. Some scenes were silent, others filled with music. This was a film about pride, ambition and independence. The images told the story of the African-American ideal conveyed by Motown. I sank back into my seat and slowly began to realize the purpose of my visit: to grasp the soul of Detroit through the memories of its most beautiful creation. I understood that the spirit of ‘Young America’ was still alive; that, despite countless knockbacks, it hadn’t disappeared. And that, 40 years on, we could still find traces of this spirit, in the projects Mike Banks had undertaken at UR. Like UR today, Motown was a record distribution network that protected the independence of the artists from the majors. It was a recording studio (where all the musicians from the label could go) that guaranteed a particular sound. It was a group of accomplished artists who shared the same philosophy. And it had a visionary boss who re-invested all the profits back into his label and back into his city.
Through Underground Resistance, Mike Banks continues to celebrate this great lineage. But UR didn’t model its working methods solely on Motown. UR took inspiration from Motown, but then adapted Berry Gordy’s model to the realities of a now disillusioned Detroit. It’s like a thread running through the years, and a desire to communicate the same sense of urgency. You only have to look closely at UR’s work to see a similar driving force to the Motown story. In the music of Detroit there has always been soul and there has always been anger.
If you go out onto the streets of Detroit you will quickly see that Berry Gordy’s golden age is long gone. Detroit’s artists, the keepers of its soul, have deserted the city in droves. Mike Banks has found a new energy in this desperate situation and is trying to restore hope.
“For the people of my parents’ generation, Berry Gordy was a symbol of hope. That’s what the Motown museum represents for me. When you go inside, you realize that the struggle we are having now is the same as in the 60s. But Gordy won his battles without the technology we have. That was an inspiration for me. At Submerge, we have printers, computers and faxes; with all that stuff we should be able to do something! When
I see the conditions the Motown musicians had to work in, what limited resources they had, and the impact they had on the world, I think it’s amazing! Berry Gordy wanted to conquer the planet with Motown music, at a time when black people were still fighting for their rights. He is a great source of pride for our community.
But in his system, musicians weren’t the most important cog in the machine and they suffered. What happened to them won’t happen to artists at UR because I wear two hats: I’m both the CEO and a musician. Berry Gordy was an excellent businessman and I can appreciate the sorts of things he had to deal with. Like, for example, when he had to give the mother of an artist who was on drugs the money the artist had earned … The dark side of success, I sure know what that is. When you make something of yourself in this city, you have 3,000 unemployed guys after you wanting you to bail them out. But it’s impossible! I hear people cussing Kevin Saunderson, saying, ‘Kevin sold out, he left to live in the white suburbs of Detroit.’ But he didn’t have a choice! He was incapable of saying no. Every time some guy came to ask him for 500 dollars because his kids had nothing to eat or because he was in trouble, Kevin gave him the money. If he hadn’t left the ghetto, he would be unable to provide for his own family. Berry Gordy lived under this constant pressure and had to face the same kind of dilemmas. He decided to leave for Hollywood in 1972. He wanted to produce movies, but I’m sure the pressure from all those people wanting money made from Motown helped him make that decision. I’m sure of it, because we’re under the same pressure.
Other pressures pushed Gordy to leave Detroit. Motown artists had become stars and they simply wanted a better life in a nicer town with sunny weather. Up until the end of the 60s, Gordy still had full control over his artists by managing them with a rod of iron. But some of them became too famous, they started paying him less attention and started talking about moving to California whether he liked it or not. He couldn’t bare the idea of seeing them moving away from him. So he left for California, to produce his movies and keep an eye on his artists. I still have an article on him – that had a big effect on me – in which he says the worst mistake he ever made was leaving for California, because it changed the sound of Motown. It changed the soul of the music. The sound, the sense of urgency and the struggle weren’t the same … Maybe if they had gone to Compton, Inglewood or any other place, things would have turned out different. But those idiots, they went to Beverly Hills or some place like that! And there, they lost their mojo. The magic vanished!
I’m not attached to Detroit like a clam to a rock, but when you go inside the Motown building, you can feel the spirit of the musicians is still alive. There are places in Detroit where you can feel that vibe. I feel like I’m a part of this city. I often say to my boys that you can feel the change in the music when an artist moves away. In the beginning, they’re in Detroit, working on their tracks and they have a real sound. Then they travel and start doing other things. They work less in Detroit and they deal with people who think that because they’re from Detroit, they must be someone important in techno, so everything they do is great. That’s when it goes bad! Then one day, they find themselves back here and realize they lost something on the way.
I’m not saying everything comes from our surroundings. Other factors influence our music. In my case, one important factor is to save my ass! Some of the best producers I know were very poor. Their inspiration came because they needed money: “Someone told me I could make money making music, so listen to this.”
[Mike Banks reinvests all of UR’s profits into the community – neighbourhood associations, nurseries, etc. … and into building the label’s offices.]
The construction of the Submerge building was a great learning curve. The people who I thought would be by my side during the work weren’t there. The people who rallied round me and supported me were cousins and a few friends. A lot of them had drug problems. Before, I thought they were wasting their lives; it pissed me off. Then one day, I found myself overwhelmed by the work still left to do on the building and I had no more money left. I said to them, “Listen guys, that’s it. We can’t continue. I don’t have a cent left.” My cousin Cliff replied, “You think we’re here for money? With what you pay us?! What we want is to see this building finished!” They blew me away. Because my problems were nothing compared to what they had been through with drugs. That day, I realized you should never judge people.
The Submerge building is a tribute to all the people who have bought our records. Every single cent we earned is invested in that building. I want to be able to pass on what I’ve got to the people around me, to my kids and to my friends’ kids. I want them to be able to work here if they want to, instead of working like robots in the factories. At Submerge, everyone has a role to play and can find his or her rightful place. Learn and move on. I want people to say, “My dad worked here 30 years ago, smart-ass, so this is how you should wrap a record! Like my dad showed me.” Working for Underground Resistance and Submerge means joining a family business.’
Since 1992, daily life in Detroit has became harder and harder. The techno scene has been marred by rivalry, quarrels and jealousy. The most important artists have deserted Detroit for Europe. Detroit’s police invariably break up the rare techno events still held in downtown Detroit.
While Mike Banks and Underground Resistance continued their struggle from Detroit, other American producers and record labels started to become aware of how big the house and techno phenomenon was in Europe. Eager to leave Detroit, certain DJs and producers gave in to easy money and flattery. An American DJ scene developed, satisfying the demands of Europe, which had eyes only for Detroit, New York and Chicago. Whereas the most famous American DJs couldn’t hope to be paid more than 500 dollars a night in their own country, some New York DJs were demanding 15,000–20,000 dollars to perform a three-hour set in the UK. Taking advantage of this, other US DJs began asking for indecent amounts of money, and many of the promoters and clubs in Europe agreed to their demands.
This worldwide phenomenon spread to the Holy of Holies: Detroit. The reputation of the Detroit label was soon under siege. For the majority of the artists living there, music was an escape route from their difficult lives; it wasn’t a question of money or fame. But when in 1993 promoters in Berlin invited a host of Detroit’s DJs to perform at the Love Parade, the DJs understood they had possession of ‘a goose that lays a golden egg.’ They could sign sub-standard records to labels who were happy just to put the Detroit stamp on the tracks. The artists could have a lot of fun with this newfound wealth. Unsurprisingly, for some, it went straight to their heads. And for quite some time, a minority of these artists fobbed off their shoddiest productions on European record labels and were well paid for it. No European record label was going to refuse a track by an artist from Detroit, even if the music was mediocre. It was a win-win situation. The result was that 80 per cent of tracks signed by Detroit artists to European labels were not great. People in Europe idolized Detroit, but there was no love involved.
‘Our community has no experience when it comes to managing money. Some people lost it when all of a sudden they had some money, because they were scared it wouldn’t last and wanted to make the most of it. I get that. In Detroit, if you never go out, you have a very distorted idea of the real world. The news on TV continuously reels off all the bad things going on out there (“somebody has been killed in this place or that”), reiterating the message to the people living out in the white suburbs that they’ve made the right decision to live away from downtown Detroit because otherwise they might end up with a gun to their heads. They serve up this kind of story, or stories about model citizens handing out soup to the poor. This town is split in two, even in the way an event is relayed. The news on TV gives a biased version of reality. I think that the people who are making techno are trying to get away from this. But I’ve already talked about the influence this city has on us … Even when we try to escape, a part of the city stays within us.’
Underground Resistance continues to work towards helping music in the city, in keeping with their value system. They look towards the street and to the future, exploring the possibility of other worlds in their music. As Jeff Mills states below, the theme of space, omnipresent in black music (from Sun Ra to Funkadelic, from Coltrane to techno), has always had a significance.
‘It represents freedom. Out of here. Out of this world. Space, the unknown, it can be anything. Even if it’s worse than here, it’s not here. Space is The Final Frontier. We have a chance that life elsewhere is better than life here, and this is why the outer space theme is so important. It represents hope. Because, in this country, if you’re born black, the out- look is bleak. Really!’
A taxi took me back to the airport. I was slumped in the back seat reading the titles of the records in my bag. The words ‘future,’ ‘warfare,’ ‘fugi- tives,’ ‘planet,’ ‘mystic’ and ‘riot’ stood out. Outside, the dreary land- scape passed by. In Europe, nobody ever talks about Detroit’s real ruin: in terms of culture, Detroit is a failure. Everything has been wiped out, even the memories. The Italian Renaissance-style Michigan Theatre, a remainder of the golden age of the 1950s, has been turned into a parking lot. The same thing has happened to concert venues. You have to go to the Baptist church in Greek Town to find the only bookshop downtown. And there’s no music here anymore.
When I got back home, people wanted to pick my brains about the real Detroit. Like most people in Europe, they had preconceived ideas about Detroit’s so-called techno scene. Fuck that shit! I saw nothing in Detroit that resembled a scene! To have a ‘scene,’ you have to have nightlife, and venues, and clubs, and a network. You also have to have other people who share your aspirations. But in Detroit, everything seemed damaged and fragmented.
Before I set foot in Detroit, I had my own fantasies about the city. I imagined it to be incredibly violent. And that is exactly what it was. But Detroit also had an exciting vision of the future. Yet mistakenly, I thought that because the violence in the city was so intolerable, the bond between the techno producers in Detroit would be stronger. I thought they would all be driven by the same ideals, but I was disappointed to find that some of them were simply interested in making money in Europe from the Detroit name.
That first trip to Detroit wasn’t life-changing. I didn’t like the music from Detroit more because I had breathed the city air. But what Detroit did teach me was the importance of putting your heart and soul into your music. The reason why Detroit techno strikes a chord with me is because its producers lay bare their souls in their music. They lay bare their sorrows, their resentment, their wounds and their hope. Derrick May’s words kept going round inside my head, ‘You don’t make a record for fun, man.’
If the music of Chicago shoots from the hip, the music of Detroit has always spoken straight to the heart. It can bring tears to my eyes. It produces an intense emotional reaction. Records like “World 2 World” or “Strings Of Life” are the soundtracks to my life. I can listen to them time and time again and still feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. This cannot be manufactured. This is real.”