The inestimable influence of Juan Atkins has been at the very heart of electronic dance music from its earliest days, even if the globetrotting DJ credited with forging blueprints for electro and techno sometimes takes to the decks to find some techno kids blissfully ignorant to who he is.
“It’s a balance,” he laughs over the phone from his Detroit home. “I’m sure that the nineteen to twenty-one-year-olds who are out there don’t have a clue as to who I am unless they really dig and do research. They just love the music enough. I do get eighteen and nineteen-year-olds coming up asking for autographs and giving me respect so I know they have that love for the music when they discover it. They respect the roots and where it comes from.”
And so they should. When Atkins entered the world in the early ’80s as Cybotron with recording partner Rick Davis, he unleashed some of the earliest electro in what he saw as a collision between Funkadelic’s ‘Knee Deep’ and Tangerine Dream on tracks like the much-sampled ‘Clear’. This open-minded attitude to music had been spawned by local radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo spinning Kraftwerk next to P-Funk and Prince. By 1981, Atkins and young protégé Derrick May were hearing Mojo spinning their own electronic mix tapes created as the Deep Space DJ duo.
By 1985, Atkins had left Davis and, calling himself Model 500, set up the Metroplex label to basically invent techno (which he named in a magazine interview) with singles like ‘No U.F.O.s’, ‘Night Drive’ and ‘Techno Music’, initially building on electro-disco grooves with a mood of cold futurism and shadowy vocals. Atkins encouraged his Belleville High School buddies May and Kevin Saunderson to make their own music, the former on Metroplex offshoot Transmat as Rhythim Is Rhythim, while the latter shot for the charts with Inner City after starting his own K.M.S. label. Or, as the enigmatic May told me nearly twenty years ago, “I’m the psychopathic music major, Kevin’s the commercial music major and Juan is the teacher.”
Like many true pioneers, Atkins, although always able to find DJ work and underground label outlets for his sporadic forays into recording, has sat and watched as his ’80s visions turned into a global phenomena, often unjustly overlooked as electronic dance music spirals onwards and upwards through its latest mutations. Hopefully this is soon set to change as, although playing a DJ set at the Glade Festival, Atkins has reactivated Model 500, this time as a band featuring Underground Resistance founder ‘Mad’ Mike Banks, U.R.-affiliate DJ Skurge and Detroit producer Mark Taylor. After making their debut at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, the quintet have appeared at London’s Fabric, various European festivals and are currently recording an EP.
“I’ve recorded some tracks that I’m going to release as Model 500, collaborating with Mark Taylor and Mike, more on kind of an electro tip. Things take on a different flavour when you have other people involved. Back in the day Model 500 was just me. I’ve collaborated here and there, like on Channel One and 3mb; this new stuff has influences from Mark and Mike, so it has its own flavour. Everybody who’s heard it loves it.”
“I’ve learned to be able to lay back a little bit. That’s probably because I’m getting a little older.”
“One thing that’s different now is that I’ve learned to be able to kind of lay back a little bit. That’s probably because I’m getting a little older, so I’m able to let other people kind of handle things and not be so hands-on with everything. I could put it out on Metroplex but they’ve had the Submerge restructure and I’m not into the digital rights and stuff like that. The way I want to go with Model 500 is to get someone else to worry about the record sales rather than me trying to worry about it myself. U.R. is what it stands for: Underground Resistance. They’ve got their niche and cater to that and they’re successful, but I think Model 500 is ready for the next step, so to speak.”
“The live performance now is my main concern. We’ll be making money for the future. You’ve got to be able to take your presentation out because making money out of record sales is a thing of the past. As far as putting an actual release out, let’s face it, no matter how much you try to safeguard, people are still going to download for free and copy. Record sales are just a promotional tool unless you’re a mega star. You just got to get out there.”
When I first interviewed Juan in the early ’90s, he was witnessing the hardcore cheese-beast his techno baby had morphed into. He’s currently impressed with the current state of electronic music, notably minimal developments in Berlin.
“This minimal thing is real interesting. I actually think that it’s better now than some of the Detroit techno repeats. I still like a song to be a song. Just turning the drum machine on doesn’t do much, but in that so-called category there are some things that are pretty interesting as far as being just pure rhythm goes. I like it because there’s a certain rhythm to it and you can see what it brings out in people when you play certain tracks.”
Today’s hotshot producers are using ever more sophisticated technology – light years ahead of the twin cassette machines and mixer on which Juan’s earliest work was created. Although remembering a time when he didn’t even use a computer, Atkins finds the latest software allowing him to create music in the most unlikely places. “We actually did a track while we were waiting for a connection at the airport in the waiting area. We just turned on the laptop and all of us played parts on top of it using this little keyboard interface that you can plug into the USB. One of the new tracks was done that way. We just did it, man!”
“I was there when this stuff first came in, when it was in the early, proving-ground test stages, like prototype stuff. The technology then was real tedious and cumbersome and wasn’t mistake-free at all. The synthesisers we used weren’t capable of memory storage. You turned on the keyboard and you’d be lucky if you got the same again if you just turned it off and on. They’ve got it to the point now where they’ve been through so many evolutions.”
He’s even into Facebook. “Now I get it! I’ve always been a private person, but now I see the advantage of maybe letting a group of people know what you’re doing. These are your people, so it’s good to let go a bit, like, ‘OK, I got up and drank a cup of cappuccino in the morning!’”
It should be pointed out that Juan Atkins is a lovely guy: humble and unassuming with a quietly dry sense of humour. He used to be well-known for releasing new material as quickly as possible after completion, almost as a sense of duty – unlike Derrick May, who he says is sitting on a cache of unreleased gems.
“Part of the duty of having that artistic gift is so people can listen to it and be able to partake.”
“I’ve always had a soft spot for people, for the masses,” explains Atkins. “I’m more of a giving, unselfish person. Not to say that people who do tracks and don’t want to release them are selfish, but I think if you have the gift to be able to create music, part of it should be for people to hear it. It’s like a painting. I don’t know people who do paintings just to keep at home. Part of the duty of having that artistic gift is so people can listen to it and be able to partake.”
Recently, with both Motown’s fiftieth anniversary and the Presidential election coverage drawing attention to Detroit’s decay and the decline of its motor industry over the years, the city has seemed in danger of being written off. Even the number of hot techno missiles has eased off, but Atkins sounds optimistic; a mood bolstered by Obama’s victory, which he still can’t quite believe considering the rioting, racism and Civil Rights activities taking place in living memory just forty years ago.
“Election night was a real surrealistic kind of a night. This is something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. It just happened so quick. I think people are still processing it and it’s only now sinking in. Now that he’s on the job I’ve been real fascinated. I never watch the political channel, but I’m glued to Internet NBC every day! My wife and daughter are asking me, ‘What’s wrong, are you ill or something?’ It’s like I’m glued every day like a soap opera.”
“For black Americans it’s a good thing, of course, and I want to see the guy do some stuff, but not just because he’s black. I want to see the country get out of this economic woe, no matter what, but now it’s got more of a twist on it and is more interesting for me.”
This and the following quote may explain something about the mind that has created so much epoch-making music, often sounding not of this present time or planet. Juan Atkins hasn’t lost the sense of wonder and itch for progress which has motivated him since childhood.
“Let’s put it like this; when I was making ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’ I never dreamed I would be going to the UK regularly. It was just something that was beyond the realms of the imagination. The only thing you learned about England at school was the Boston Tea Party or you’d look at the old English fairytales. I thought England was like knights and castles in the hills, until I actually got there and thought, ‘Oh, okay’. When I was ten or eleven years old I had dreams of being like a big mega pop star. I’d put on my father’s motorcycle helmet and pull the visor down over my face as he had one of those futuristic helmets. I’d run around and play guitar and pretend I was like this mega pop star! I didn’t dream that I would be travelling to the UK, Australia or Japan, which is one of the main markets. The world didn’t exist outside of Detroit, New York and California.”
Finally, what to expect from Juan’s current DJ set?
“I still play a lot of Detroit stuff, some classic stuff, some minimal stuff… Actually I always hate the categorisation of stuff. You had all of these different waves of techno: the bleep phase, hardcore, jungle, drum ‘n’ bass. But I’ve always found something that I liked in all these different phases. These movements come and go but there’s always good stuff with everything.”
Check the Model 500 Classics set on R&S for a glimpse of a time when categories were unnecessary and irrelevant, unless you count The Future.
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Juan Atkins will be performing an exclusive DJ set at Glade Festival, which takes place on 16th-19th July at Matterley Bowl, Winchester. For more information on Glade and all other summer festivals, visit our Festival channel HERE.