Detroit techno pioneer Juan Atkins looks back on 40 years of music | Movement | Detroit
It was 1979 and Juan Atkins knew he was onto something special.
Recognized as one of the founders of Detroit techno, the pioneer of the genre made music on a synthesizer bought for him by his grandmother. “I was going to high school and there were no other musicians around me,” he recalls. “So I had to start my own band.”
On a mini monophonic synthesizer, which had just been made available to the general public, Atkins, now 59, learned how to connect drum sounds. He tinkered with white noise and pink noise until he developed a fully formed song. It was the start of what would soon become Detroit techno, a sound that swept the world and developed its own subculture in the 80s and 90s, later influencing mainstream dance music.
Now, Atkins is set to headline the Stargate stage at the Movement Electronic Music Festival on Sunday, May 29, where he will perform a special set to commemorate 40 years of Detroit techno, starting at 10:30 p.m. Throughout his set, Atkins will walk through Detroit’s techno history, beginning in his very freshman year of college when his hard work making music began to pay off.
“I was mostly taking music theory and music classes,” he recalls his time at Washtenaw County Community College, which he attended after graduating from Belleville High School. In a class of 12, Atkins played his creations to his peers, and his classmates couldn’t get enough of the futuristic sound they heard.
Still, Atkins had no idea how big the sound actually was. “I never saw it coming,” he says of the growth of Detroit techno. “But I knew I wanted to release records.”
In an experiment he says turned out “10 times bigger” than he thought, Atkins launched a collaboration with a fellow local musician named Richard Davis. Presenting Davis with his demo, the two combined their skills – Davis, who had previously released a record with soundscapes, married his musical style to Atkins beats.
The result was Cybotron, an electronic music group that would put Detroit techno on the map. In 1981, the band’s first record was released. On the A-side was “Alleys Of Your Mind”, while the B-side contained “Cosmic Raindance”. The Electrifying Mojo, a Detroit radio personality and DJ who brought dozens of artists into the Detroit community and beyond, got their hands on a copy of the record and played it late into the night for the Detroiters to connect.
Then the calls wouldn’t stop. “It went viral,” recalls Atkins. “He just exploded in Detroit.”
Over the next few years, Cybotron was picked up by New York radio stations. Eventually the music made its way to the UK, but it wasn’t until fellow Detroit techno pioneers and friends Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Eddie Fowlkes also started releasing music. that the sound has solidified as real movement.
“1987 and 1988 were the most important years,” says Atkins. Atkins, May, Saunderson and Fowlkes were simultaneously releasing hits, each landing a deal with Virgin Records. The compilation has been dubbed Techno! Detroit’s New Dance Sound.
World tours began immediately. “It was like a culture shock,” Atkins recalls of bringing Detroit techno overseas. He played one of his very first shows in London to a crowd of 5,000, where he was the only black man besides a maintenance man. “It’s something I said I would never see in the US. The UK was more progressive and open-minded towards music, especially music made by black children.”
Ironically, Detroit techno initially took a stronger place overseas than it did in Detroit. In Detroit, Atkins says it took about 10 to 15 years for music to emerge from the underground community, where it had found its way into the city’s rave culture. With the launch of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, or DEMF, in 2000 (which would later become the Movement Music Festival), Atkins finally had a platform to play the same type of set he would play in Europe for an audience American, now more public. setting.
“That was one of the things that was really remarkable about the progression of Detroit techno,” he says of the early 2000s. “Then the internet came along. It broke down racial barriers and it allowed people to interact with each other, to find out where the music comes from.
Now everyone could experience Detroit techno. On the other hand, more people also had the opportunity to create their own music. “Music has metamorphosed,” Atkins says of the genre. “It was progressing, but at the same time we found ourselves discerning what was good electronic music and what was bad. In 2010, this was no longer a novelty.
Throughout the 2010s, Atkins says access to music-making technology has saturated the market – both a blessing and a curse. “You have 10 times more people making music and that allows for more creativity,” he recalls. “But then it becomes really hard work because you have to sift through all of this and 75% of it is bullshit.”
Despite the challenges, Detroit techno continued to grow, perpetuated by its founders and also influenced by new generations of artists joining its ranks. The biggest hurdle, says Atkins, was an unexpected obstacle that shut down the entire world: COVID-19.
Clubs were closed, artists stopped touring and music fans were stuck at home. For Atkins, however, it was a surprising opportunity to slow down and get back to basics. “You can’t go anywhere, you can’t go to restaurants,” he says, after getting used to four decades of weekend trips to concerts. “It allows you to think”
The pandemic gave Atkins a chance to spend two years in the studio, a storyline that had become almost unheard of due to the increasing demands of his busy schedule. “I didn’t really have time to develop sound designs,” he says of the pre-pandemic years.
Now, Atkins plans to introduce his new material to the world during his headlining show at Movement, and says he has no plans to slow down. Instead, it continues to look towards a world that isn’t there yet, the same way it did over four decades ago.
“It’s 40 years of Detroit techno,” laughs Atkins. “40 includes the future.”
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