On the corner of Michigan Ave. and Griswold St. in downtown Detroit, the only signs of life are inside a brightly-lit hot dog joint, where four figures sit solemnly, like a modern-day version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Most everything else around them is vacant and slapped with “For Lease” signs that no one is likely to answer. You know all the standard terms used to describe Detroit -- apocalyptic, war zone, ghost town? There’s no wrong answer.
A few steps away, a three-story building appears ready for the wrecking ball. A small shoe-repair shop seems to be its lone occupant. The rest of the windows are either blacked out or boarded up. But a single door remains open, leaking the muted bass of a steady disco beat. It leads to a wooden staircase that leads to a vast dark loft space and the smell of pot smoke.
There are maybe 100 people, some dancing, some sitting at the dozen or so tables, some at a makeshift bar in a corner. “This is Detroit. This is what we do,” says Duncan MacLachlan, who’s wearing a light-blue V-neck sweater and big glasses. “People who play for 5,000 people for 50 dollars in Berlin, they play for 100 people for five dollars here.”
“Here” is one of Detroit’s notorious blind pigs -- illegal dance parties -- that end in the small hours of the morning. At a time when everyone has written Detroit’s eulogy, the parties are the manifestation of its feisty spirit, and the electronic music blasted there is the city’s global calling card.
“Right now it’s a great time, better than when we had more resources,” says Mike Huckaby, one of Detroit’s electronic music pioneers and a teacher to the city’s next generation of artists. “It has a lot to do with the negative economy in Detroit. Keeps you hustling. DJs making music nonstop. You can’t take a break with it. It pays off.”
“Back in those days in Detroit, rave parties were 2,000 to 3,000 people in warehouses."
The blind pigs have become a favored target of the Detroit Police Department of late, and are the work of a small crew of promoters and DJs, among them Matt Abbott, a high-energy guy with a slim, cyclist’s body, a shaved head, and a sturdy mustache. The 32-year-old has been throwing parties in Detroit for 15 years.
“I started young,” he says in between greeting partiers and sipping Bud Light. “Back in those days in Detroit, rave parties were 2,000 to 3,000 people in warehouses. That’s what I started doing when I was 17, 18.”
After stops in the Netherlands, Berlin, and New York, he moved back. Detroit’s late-night scene has shifted, he says, to the clubs and bars, “anywhere you could do it legally. And that’s kind of where we’re at right now. Then I started doing them at hole-in-the-wall bars down here, anywhere I could, just to keep it going.”
There’s plenty going on tonight. In a corner, someone builds a pyramid out of empty beer cans. When it’s Abbott’s turn to DJ, the crowd moves around the small table on which he’s set up his equipment.
Last November, the police raided one of Abbott’s blind pigs (“They rolled in 20 deep with shotguns,” he says), resulting in nine tickets. He threw a legal party in February to raise funds for his defense, and that got raided, too. A couple of weeks ago, another party he’s affiliated with -- though he wasn’t there this time -- was also raided.
Although he’s not bubbling over the current state of techno in Detroit, Abbott remains an optimist: “I have a love/hate relationship with this city. It’s at a bad point right now, with all the s*** that’s been happening to me with the busts. But there are so many people in this city and the county who are asking why are the cops f***ing wasting their time on this. We’ll see... I think we’re getting out of people hibernating.”
In a matter of weeks, Abbot’s wish will have been realized -- as it is every year around this time -- by one of the landmark events on the electronic dance music calendar. Created in 2000, The Movement Dance Music Festival last year drew nearly 100,000 people from all over the world to Hart Plaza on the banks of the Detroit River. This year, more than 100 artists will spin, tap, and loop on five stages over three days (though after-parties and periphery events will extend the festivities close to a week).
Movement is one in a seemingly endless series of electronic dance music festivals around the globe where Detroit DJs and producers (the two seem to go hand in hand) pack thousands into tents the size of auditoriums. “It’s a great and even excellent point in time for Detroit,” says Huckaby. “It always has been. But right now, there’s a nonstop demand for production from Detroit. There’s the ability to DJ in Europe and throughout the world.”
When the Music Institute, Detroit’s main techno club, shut down in 1989, partiers flocked to vacant buildings, warehouses, and factories for illegal events.
If the electronic dance music craze, which has made DJs like David Guetta and Skrillex unexpected household names, is the mega-mall of the music landscape at the moment, Detroit’s brand of electronic music is the curated boutique store on the yet-to-be-gentrified street. Movement reflects that.
“It’s more up and coming and raw,” says Jason Huvaere, who together with partners Sam Fotias, Jason Clark, and Chuck Flask runs Paxahau, a promotions agency that has put on Movement since 2006. “There’s an accessibility that exists there with a certain type of music that isn’t as easy with Detroit techno. You have to work and pay attention and listen for the different elements in the music that we program. But once you do, you realize it’s a whole other layer. And that layer is the one that’s constantly trying to evolve and move forward.”
Wearing pressed dress shirts and crisp khaki pants in a bright conference room in Greektown, Fotias and Huvaere look more like founders of a tech startup than electronic music mavens. Paxahau emerged during the second wave of techno in the early 1990s, organizing the parties at the long-closed Packard Plant and working with Richie Hawtin on the shows that made him famous, Spastik and Plastikman. “In the early ’90s it really was the music that brought everybody together,” says Fotias. “It was people actually freaking out to music.”
The actual origins of techno can be traced back to the 1980s, when DJs here, influenced by funk and the synth-driven albums of the German group Kraftwerk, mixed the genres into futuristic dance grooves. Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, high school friends from the Detroit suburb Belleville, got the credit for launching the style (Atkins came up with the term techno). In the early 1990s, a second wave of inspired producers took the baton and built on that foundation, turning techno into an international phenomenon, igniting the careers of Hawtin, Carl Craig, Theo Parrish, and others and spawning the labels Underground Resistance and Plus 8.
But at that point, Detroit was already a city in decline and unable to sustain the dance clubs that served the music. When the Music Institute, Detroit’s main techno club, shut down in 1989, partiers flocked to vacant buildings, warehouses, and factories for illegal events. The most famous were held at the defunct Packard Plant, a gutted structure on 35 acres.
“The early ’90s is when the underground dance scene started,” says Huvaere. “There would be four different DJs that would play a range of house and techno, and the variety would get you to sunrise. The parties were so raw and pure and friendly that they were really easy to get used to.”
In the late 1990s, police began cracking down on illegal parties, and by 2000, the scene was dead.
“From a party level,” says Fotias, “from the West Coast to Milwaukee to St. Louis, all the way around, you had very similar events, these big events with lasers and video screens, but Detroit was like, ‘F*** you.’ It was dirty. It was tough. And people would come from all over because it was so markedly different from everywhere else.”
In the late 1990s, the police began cracking down on the illegal parties, and by 2000, the scene was dead. Lately, though, there have been hints of resurgence. If there’s a bona fide revival, one can look at the city’s character for clues as to how it may happen.
“Techno is a part of this bigger picture. It’s not something unto itself. It kind of became that once it went over to Europe,” says Cornelius Harris, who owns Alter Ego Management and serves as label manager for Underground Resistance. “But here, it was just a part of the fabric of the city. I look at it like that.”
The blue-collar roots of techno’s sound are evident in the offices of Underground Resistance, located in a former union headquarters. The brick bunker still bears the sign “Laundry Workers Local 129” high above the front door. Another sign on the imposing steel door says “No Appointment No Entry Call First.”
“Everybody had a label,” Harris says of those early techno days. “It’s easy to say Motown [provided the influence]. But we’ve also got a pressing plant here. Knowing it’s easy to get your records made and you can go down the street to pick them up, and with it being right here, that fosters [the scene].”
In Detroit, there’s definitely a feeling that music is all around you. Harris says that during the days of Motown, there was a neighborly element to the industry. Motown and its many offspring labels -- like V.I.P., Gordy, and Soul -- were no more than a collection of houses spread around the city. “That really humanized the industry,” says Harris, dressed in a black pork pie hat, black T-shirt, and jeans. He sits behind a glass-top desk, like a professor during office hours.
“The people in Motown were regular people in the city,” he says. “They didn’t seem like superstars. As the story goes, Smokey Robinson would be in a club when he heard a song in his head. He’d call the musicians at two in the morning and they would go to the studio, which is the garage, and record the song.”
In many ways, you can see that neighborly tradition continuing on in the current techno scene. Kyle Hall, a 20-year-old musical prodigy and the current DJ of the moment in Detroit, began spinning vinyl when he was 11 years old, learning from local great Raybone Jones. At 14, he enrolled in YouthVille’s music-producing class, which is taught by Huckaby. Rick Wilhite, whom Hall met at Wilhite’s record store (which has since closed), is also a mentor.
As Detroit struggles to emerge from decades of decline, the city remains rich in musical resources.
Hall stormed onto the scene when he was 17. By the time he was 18, he had started his own label, Wild Oats, releasing Worx of Art #1, which featured the hit “I <3 Dr. Girlfriend,” a soulful track with a light touch, a smart beat, and subtle overlays. He has since pressed many more and is currently preparing the release of a record by his friend Manuel Gonzalez. As young dance music DJs, they are part of a small crowd.
“Dance music in Detroit was for old people -- the generation of my parents’ age,” says Hall. “But that’s only in the United States. Elsewhere, Detroit has always been a mecca of electronic music. Europeans are always fantasizing about Detroit because that’s where it’s coming from.”
Even while he is playing to packed arenas in Europe, Hall maintains a monthly residency, “Fundamentals,” at Motor City Wine in Detroit with his own protégé, Jay Daniel, a friendly 21-year-old. The two are also sharing the stage at the Movement Festival. Interestingly enough, Daniel also has music in his family. His father plays the drums. His mother, Naomi Daniel, sang on a Carl Craig track from 1993, called “Stars.”
“The musical legacy of Detroit has a lot of great leaders, and if someone is really serious about becoming a DJ or a producer and has to be in the shadow of this incredible legacy?” says Huvaere. “Then almost any of the dozens and dozens and dozens of DJs would provide easy mentorship.”
As Detroit struggles to emerge from decades of decline, the city remains rich in musical resources. Huckaby, who continues to guide young talent through the early stages of their education, believes Detroit’s economic struggles have pushed the city’s music makers to work even harder. “You have production skyrocketing in Detroit,” he says.
Hall, who moved downtown a year and a half ago, agrees. “There’s definitely a resurgence to Detroit, its stuff being held to a higher esteem, people wondering what’s going on in Detroit the last few years,” he says. “New stuff is happening. People from the suburbs coming. Lots of gentrification.”
Among the gentrifiers is Ernie Guerra, aka Erno the Inferno, who’s at the blind pig on Michigan Ave. Guerra and two friends, Joe Vargas and Steven Robert, started Tour Detroit, a monthly summertime party, four years ago. “Our goal is to bring people from the suburbs to Detroit,” says Guerra, who is on the Movement bill. “Our parents’ generation all grew up in Detroit and then moved out to the suburbs. Everyone who is our age in the suburbs, I guarantee you their parents once lived in Detroit and moved out [after the Riots of 1967]. But there is all this history down here -- these great buildings. I want to know, What happened?” Adds Vargas, “I hate to compare it to Berlin, but it’s there.”
Guerra says that while the city has been on the upswing during his seven years living in the Woodbridge section of Detroit (near Wayne State University), the last two or three years has been especially bright.
He thinks for a moment. “Our kids are going to save Detroit,” he says.
Check out the Red Bull Music Academy Stage at the Movement Festival.
Check out the June 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands May 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.