October 4th, 2006
Finally, Detroit has its own techno documentary–High Tech Soul. As this title highlights, and the documentary makes quite clear, Detroit techno is a unique form of music in the world of electronic dance music because of it’s creation in the Motor City. “High tech soul,” a phrase expressed by producer/DJ Derrick May in the film, is an extraordinarily suitable label for Detroit techno.
The musical and cultural roots of Detroit techno are predominantly African American. In the early 1980s, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, three African American college kids from Bellville, Michigan (a small town outside of Detroit), began to create what is now called Detroit techno. These three men are highlighted in the film, along with Eddie Fowlkes, whose status as a founder of Detroit techno is explicitly and humorously addressed in the film. Major musical influences that these, and many other prominent Detroit DJs, claim are James Brown, Sly Stone, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, and Kraftwerk, as well as influences from musical genres like disco, electro-funk, house, and experimental electronic music. Considering these influences, thinking of Detroit techno as soul music created with high tech sensibilities becomes an appropriate way of understanding the music in the context of its history.
In addition to Atkins, May, Saunderson, and Fowlkes, a large number of DJs and producers contributed to this documentary. Some of these artists, in order of appearance, are Carl Craig, the “Electrifying Mojo,” Richie Hawtin, Nico Marks of Underground Resistance, Kenny Larkin, Jeff Mills, Stacy Pullen, Scan 7, John Aquaviva, Blake Baxter, Thomas Barnett, and Delano Smith. These artists commented on Detroit techno’s long and diverse history, highlighting important DJs, musical equipment, and endearing feelings about Detroit as a city.
This 64-minute documentary includes 17 minutes of extra footage. In these extras are segments of interviews that did not fit into the documentary and categorized under four titles: “Talkin’ Trash:” some of the DJs humorously “talk trash” about more “mainstream” DJs; “Drugs:” DJs value the ability to enjoy techno without the enhancement of drug use; “School of Techno:” producer/DJ Blake Baxter talks in detail about equipment that DJs use and demonstrates them in his studio and with his beat boxing talents; and the final section of extras is called “Detroit:” Jerry Heron, an English professor at Wayne State University, talks about Detroit’s history and explains why it is the most American city.
The contribution of a documentary that focuses on the history of Detroit techno is a welcome addition to a growing collection of films being made about electronic dance music. Over the past decade, we have welcomed Modulations, a documentary covering a wide range of electronic dance music, which presented a concise history of the music during the twentieth-century; Maestro, featuring New York underground dance music during the 1970s and 1980s as an important bridge between disco in NYC and Chicago house of the early 1980s; and Put the Needle on the Record, exploring the rise of many DJs to pop music status through the venue of the Winter Music Conference which takes place every year in Miami, Florida.
For further information:
May, Beverly. 2006. Techno. In African American Music: An Introduction, ed. Mellonee Burnim and Portia Maultsby, pp. 313-352. New York: Routledge. (A detailed study of the history of Detroit techno highlighting significant figures, time periods, and musical influences.)
Modulations. Directed by Iara Lee. 74 minutes. Caipirinha Productions, 1998. DVD.
Maestro. Directed by Josell Ramos. 77 minutes. Sanctuary, 2003. DVD. (reviewed in the July issue of Black Grooves)
Put the Needle on the Record. Directed by Jason Rem. Music Video Distrubution, 2006. DVD (also reviewed in the October issue of Black Grooves).
Posted by Denise Dalphond
Review Genre(s): Electronica, Club/Dance Music