Acid House: Detroit

By Kris Needs

Detroit gave the world techno. Few don’t know that. While house was built on ’70s disco anthems, techno sought to disown the past and trouble the future. Although highly influenced by European electronic pioneers like Kraftwerk and British electro-pop, the wild, otherworldly sonic experiments conducted in early ’80s Detroit provided the blueprints for today’s vast panorama of electronic sub-genres, along with fertilising the UK’s first parties.

Three school friends from Belleville High stand atop the mighty tree of Motor City producers which sprouted as techno grew: Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Where Chicago and New York saw lives swivelled by club DJs who became icons and greatly influenced the UK’s prime movers, it’s always said that Detroit’s main influence sat behind a radio microphone. WGPR’s Charles Johnson called himself the Electrifying Mojo and played a genre-straddling mix from P-Funk to Kraftwerk and all-points in between. Hugely life-shaping, but the city has a more unsung DJ hero in the late Ken Collier, who drove mainly local gay, black crowds wild with disco and early electronic dance strains before there was house. Derrick May cites him as his main DJ influence.

Three school friends from Belleville High stand atop the mighty tree of Motor City producers which sprouted as techno grew

Inspired by Alvin Tofler’s book, The Third Wave, a future vision credited as the movement’s manifesto which mentions ‘techno-rebels’, the Belleville Three bandied about the word as they sculpted breathtaking future-grooves and space symphonies on basic analogue equipment. The term ‘techno’ first appeared in style magazine The Face after Stuart Cosgrove asked Juan to name this music. When I first interviewed him in 1990, Derrick disowned the word but explained, “I’m the psychopathic music major, Kevin’s the commercial music major and Juan’s the teacher.” Juan had started in the early ’80s, hitching up with Rich Davis to form Cybertron, forging early electronic classics like ‘Clear’. Solo by 1986, he started Metroplex and unleashed a stream of classics like ‘No UFOs’ which often encompassed electro.

The formidably-talented Mayday’s Transmat label started in 1986 as a Metroplex offshoot on which he released unearthly classics like ‘Nude Photo’, ‘It Is What It Is’, ‘The Dance’ and heart-rending ‘R-Theme’, which blew minds as well as dancefloors. ‘Strings Of Life’, inspired by Martin Luther King, appeared in May 1987, becoming a massive anthem in the UK. Between 1988 and 1990, he fired up the Music Institute, Detroit’s answer to Chicago’s Powerplant, mixing from reel-to-reel to decks, introducing European electronic music and doing manually what’s now done on laptop to incendiary effect.

After spending time with Derrick in the early ’90s, he reminded me of techno’s answer to The Sex Pistols, speaking his mind (“Techno? What the fuck’s techno?”) while inspiring kids to start realising their own electronic visions. Derrick cut down on recording during the ’90s but continues with DJing and Transmat, mentoring talents like Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen.

Kevin Sanderson became the most commercially successful of the trio, lavishing Inner City with Paris Grey’s soulful vocals to create major anthems like ‘Big Fun’. His underground excursions as Reese (‘The Groove’) were dark masterworks while 1991’s ‘Funky Funk Funk’ became a UK hardcore prototype.

Following close behind were more producers who helped cement Detroit techno as a major force, although Eddie ‘Flashin’’ Fowlkes was there from the start, first scoring with the music he called ‘Techno-soul’ on ‘Goodbye Kiss’. The roll call also includes Octave One, Blake Baxter, James ‘Suburban Knight’ Pennington, Kenny Larkin, Claude Young, Richie Hawtin from nearby Windsor, Ontario, and the mysterious, subversive and frequently jawdropping Underground Resistance. After scoring as True Faith with a large vocal outing called ‘Take Me Away’ (mashed-up to huge effect in the UK by the Pinup Girls), ‘Mad’ Mike Banks went underground with DJ Jeff Mills (who’d spun on Mojo’s radio show as The Wizard) to create UR, which would become one of Detroit’s longest running techno operations, fighting commercialisation while constantly nurturing amazing, groundbreaking music.

Made by machines more than any other music, techno is in the frontline to constantly change its form with technological developments, creating new styles which can affect the mainstream and even rock groups like Radiohead years later. The mutating of the Belleville Three’s original blueprint continues. Or as Derrick May always likes to say, “I just go on and do what I do because life is life and rhythm is rhythm.”


You can visit to listen to and purchase a selection of the Acid House classics discussed in our retrospective.

Click here to visit JUNO.

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