Large crowd at Movement Electronic Detroit Music Festival

Discovering Detroit’s Techno Roots

Modified: September 23, 2019

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For those not already aware of this stronghold community, Detroit’s best kept musical secret remains: the city that automated the world and gave us the sweet, smooth sounds of Motown, also created dance floor euphoria for the masses with the birth of techno.

 

Detroit techno DJ performing at Movement music festival

Every year, as the magic of Detroit summer rolls in, so do the welcoming, pulsing, groove-inducing beats, resonating from Hart Plaza – Movement Festival (formerly DEMF) acts as a once-a-year Mecca for techno fans from across the world. In beautiful, sweaty crowds, Berliners and Parisians dance alongside westside and eastside Detroiters to classic acts like The Belleville Three and sets from modern DJs who have continued to evolve the genre.

For those not already aware of this stronghold community, Detroit’s best kept musical secret remains: the city that automated the world and gave us the sweet, smooth sounds of Motown, also created dance floor euphoria for the masses with the birth of techno.

Pulling from the region’s industrial roots, Detroiters introduced the world to a sound unlike any other and every year, Movement serves as a culmination of a truly unique musical heritage. But Detroit’s techno roots staked their ground in the city far before DEMF’s first year – and the city keeps the sound alive long after the last stage is deconstructed in the Plaza. Techno is part of the Detroit hearts that continue to pulse in clubs, warehouses and intimate home venues all year long.

Jumping into Detroit’s techno and house scene can be the focal point for a whole Detroit trip within itself (there’s even a techno museum, available by appointment only!) and truly takes years to fully immerse into, understand, and become a regular at your favorite DJs sets. A protective yet welcoming community, Detroit’s techno scene continues to survive on their closeness, in turn, maintaining authenticity.

Images, clockwise from left: Stacey Pullen by Paxahau; crowd at 2019 Movement Detroit by Doug Wojciechowski; 1492 Gratiot, where techno in Detroit began, by Bill Bowen; the Belleville Three

"The Detroit Techno sound still resonates around the globe. Four African American teenagers created this - deeply inspired by life in Detroit, the "marriage" of cold synthesized sounds and warm George Clinton-esque funk is unmatchable. Long live Detroit Techno!” - Adriel Thornton
The Berlin Wall

How Detroit became Techno City

Open any “history of techno” book, blog, etc. and The Belleville Three appear as the origin point for modern techno – Belleville being a small suburb southwest of Detroit where the originators Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson went to school and began creating together. But many other acts from the early days of Detroit’s techno and rave scene remain heavy hitters in modern techno, like Eddie Fowlke and DJ Stingray. Several waves of DJs have followed these creators, influenced by their craft and evolving the sounds they originally put forth.

In an era of 1980s social conservatism outside Detroit city lines, the early shows served as safe havens for youthful listeners, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. To this day, techno gatherings continue to provide a refuge from the mainstream for marginalized groups and listeners.

Detroit’s style of techno and house music may have originated on streets stemming from Woodward Avenue, but its intoxicating style transcended the Midwest, and even more broadly, the United States itself. Europeans – most specifically, Berliners – took a liking to the sounds pumping out of the Motor City.

“After the wall fell in 1989 it was new,” says Walter Wasacz, a long-time techno journalist from Detroit. “It was like now we can do things that we couldn’t do before, there was a freedom to do more things creatively, [and] Detroit techno fit into that. It was a reunification of east and west Berlin, of east and west Germany, and Detroit techno was the soundtrack of reunification,” recently told the Metro Times

Historical context linked Berlin and Detroit in their unique struggles post-industry and as they continued to find their footing on the way back – techno was the soundtrack and soother in these transitions. Forever united by these sounds, the sounds of Detroit techno remain a mainstay in Berlin nightlife.

Places to go to get-down:

Though most of the clubs and spaces that hosted the techno diehards of the 1980s and 1990s are now just a memory, venues across the city still become the gathering place for those looking for a techno night (and maybe early morning) out.

  • TV Lounge: Known for hosting some of the biggest names in techno and its perfect outdoor party space, TV Lounge remains a go-to for the ultimate techno experience.
  • Marble Bar: A relatively new music-heavy venue in the city, Marble has made a name for itself quickly, hosting iconic DJs and parties for techno-lovers.
  • Leland City Club: House and sound shows find a home at this gritty club, housed in the historic Leland Hotel building.
  • Temple Bar: A Cass Corridor staple, Temple Bar has the feel of a basement party you stumbled upon – the only difference is the DJ is a talented professional and not your friend’s cousin’s friend.
  • The Grasshopper Underground: This underground dance party in Ferndale showcases live techno. Book a table through their website.
  • El Club: A favorite smaller concert venue among locals, El Club in Southwest Detroit hosts upcoming techno acts and other genres. They serve some great food, too.
  • Various pop-ups across the city – whether it’s a spare warehouse on the eastside, or a backyard at a friend’s house, techno is everywhere – for many techno-listeners and DJs, the beauty of the genre is believing in its accessibility and communality.

Images, clockwise from left: The Berlin Wall’s Bradenburg Gate by Sue Ream; TV Lounge in Detroit by Bill Bowen; ZGTO Ghostly’s DJ at Movement Opening Party at Marble Bar by Doug Coombe; Mayer Hawthorne DJ set at Deluxx Fluxx by Doug Coombe

"Detroit not only stemmed the soundtrack to of the revival of the most thriving dance music city in the world, Berlin, but what is even more exciting is that Detroit has not stopped since then. It continues to boast a brilliant, supportive, unparalleled, internationally-recognized creative community that's grinding to keep it thriving as one of the most exciting places to live, visit, and dance every day of the week.” - Gin Ebony
Haleem dancing in front of an Eastern Market mural

What does Detroit techno mean to locals?

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With a techno thriving scene in the city, locals, Detroiters, enthusiasts and experts alike fight to maintain the inclusive, exciting community it has always been. What does Detroit techno mean to those who are a part of it? From its origins to its influence today, techno clearly remains a piece of the heart and soul of the city and its people.

“Detroit’s Techno heritage is just as important as Motown’s. The fact that what is currently the most popular music in the world was created here is astounding. The Detroit Techno sound still resonates around the globe. Four African American teenagers created this –  deeply inspired by life in Detroit, the “marriage” of cold synthesized sounds and warm George Clinton-esque funk is unmatchable. Long live Detroit Techno!” – Adriel Thornton

“I choose to be here because there is no place like Detroit. I have toiled with this truism and challenged it in many ways and only recently have come to accept this. I just returned home from a month long tour to gather interview content for my radio show, visiting other dance music cities (DMC’s) to have conversations about the differences between DMC’s, the histories that have formed them, and what challenges and strengths they currently hold. Any person (underground dance music community organizer) that I spoke with who had been to Detroit claimed there was no place like it, and anyone who hadn’t been, couldn’t wait to go. Detroit not only stemmed the soundtrack to of the revival of the most thriving dance music city in the world, Berlin, but what is even more exciting is that Detroit has not stopped since then. It continues to boast a brilliant, supportive, unparalleled, internationally-recognized creative community that’s grinding to keep it thriving as one of the most exciting places to live, visit, and dance every day of the week.” – Gin Ebony

“Detroit Techno was part of the rebirth of the City of Detroit. We put a worldwide spotlight on Detroit in the 1990s, when it was mostly cast negatively. Detroit Techno was started by a few individuals who had a vision of what the music and what the culture could convey. Being a pioneer of the scene, I personally feel how the culture has evolved has a direct impact with today’s musicians. As a person who didn’t originally have a passion for scenes and the music industry, it is amazing how deeply entrenched my roots are in this music, aka Detroit Techno!” – Tim Price

Who to see today:

Some of Detroit’s biggest DJs are still busy touring the world, many of them will return to Detroit for hometown shows and packed dancefloors. The beauty of Detroit? You may stumble upon a techno legend playing a set at a small, intimate venue and wind up dancing alongside diehards.

Wanting to dip your toes into Techno City sounds today? Dive into some live set recordings and tracks before you venture to the Detroit venues:

DJ Godfather

DJ Beige

DJ Holographic

Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale – The Godmother of House

Omar S

A community who has upheld a sound and movement for decades, techno is a pillar in the city’s social and musical history. As the stages go up at Hart Plaza every year, we are reminded of what was created by the spirit of dedicated, creative Detroiters – explorable anytime of the year. May brings the city’s biggest celebration of this heritage, but the scene remains forever.

Author: Chloe Seymour

Images, clockwise from left: Haleem “Stringz” Rasul performing in Eastern Market by Bill Bowen; Stacy “Hotwaxx” Hale by Andrew Stefanik; DJ at Marble Bar by Paxahau; Mike Ellison at Submerge Record Distribution by Andrew Stefanik

Hero image: Movement Electronic Music Festival by Joe Gall

Discover more awesome things to do in downtown Detroit.

Author’s Note: The author herself is an enthusiast and continues to learn about Detroit techno’s every day - she is deeply grateful for the experts and longtime members of the techno community who shared themselves for this article.