Gabriel Szatan

Actually really, really nice

Feature: Detroit


“As you may well be aware, the city of Detroit is not having the best summer. Despite a modest private sector resurgence over the past few years, in July the Governor of Michigan approved the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, with the city owing debts in excess of $20bn. Yet strangely this didn’t come as a shock, seemingly by far the most logical step for a former boom town that was considered one of America’s proudest economic powerhouses a couple of generations ago, but has been declining steadily since.

Paradoxically, despite Motor City’s engine badly spluttering over the past 50-odd years, haemorrhaging both money and people at an alarming rate, the gears of the entertainment industry have continued to churn at speed. While the creativity in the region may not rest entirely on a constant sense of crisis, there is definitely a correlation. That same sense of soul-crushing hopelessness that has informed rappers from D12 to Danny Brown feeds through into the electronic community. But instead of neighbourhoods littered with deserted homes, they draw influence from the rows upon rows of desolate factories; the decimated industrial core of the city gave rise in the 1980s to Detroit techno scene, without which you wouldn’t be sitting here reading this today.

And that’s no exaggeration – we here at Dimensions have really sought to gather the cream of the crop for this year’s edition! Scan the line-up and you’ll find well over a dozen of the absolute finest exports the city has to offer, from innovative progenitors such as Juan Atkins and Derrick May who quite literally kickstarted the movement through to inimitable pioneers such as Moodymann and Theo Parrish who interwove freeform jamming and deeper low-end into the sound as part of its Third Wave, directly influencing rising talent like Jay Daniel. Speaking to Juan about that heritage, the Model 500 frontman agreed that “there’s definitely still a thread that runs through Detroit, right down to the young producers just starting out. The bar has been set so high given that it’s the ‘City of Techno’, so they have big shoes to fill, but they do a good job. Detroit artists don’t fail to deliver.”

But it’s not merely the cross-generational spread of residents that bear the hallmarks of their hometown, 4500 miles removed from Pula. Its nebulous influence is keenly felt across the spectrum, extending far and wide: you can see it in the low-slung machine workouts employed by Skudge and Funkineven; hear it in the boxjamming brutalism of Karenn and Truss; feel it in the off-kilter loopiness of Daphni and Anthony Naples. Going even further back, those slippery grooves that underpin the work of Mr Scruff and Bonobo can be directly traced to artists such as Funkadelic, and you can guarantee that jocks from Floating Points and Krystal Klear through Kutmah and San Soda will be drawing for Motown cuts from their record bags. The future may be unclear, but the legacy is assured.

The renewed reverence in recent years for the music of Detroit has been viewed by some as a cynical attempt of name-dropping and bandwagon-hopping, a case of outsiders co-opting a scene resolutely uninterested in showing off. While some may seek to wear their influences brazenly on their sleeves for self-serving purposes, on balance it’s a good thing at heart. When pressed on the global exporting of the city’s brand, he told me that “it still remains important for Detroit to be showcased at festivals,” going on to mention the proliferation of producers in today’s climate who brought no fresh ideas to the table.

He’s not wrong — Detroit’s forward-thinking approach extends beyond the talk of “No UFOs” and the “Future”, that make up the bulk of Model 500’s radically influential early hybrid-electro 12″s. In the early 00s the Germanic influence on techno could not be understated: pioneering labels of emotive minimal techno and microhouse such as Kompakt and Dial (who host a stage as well as bringing international breakout icon Pantha du Prince to our shores) ruled the roost, and rightly so. However, that transmuted to a broader European focus within the scene which had until recently been on total autodrive through tedious waters, pushing out bland slabs of monotonous tech house. Now, much as in the early 90s, the relationship between Central Europe and the Midwest is balanced and symbiotic again. Detroit’s revival has injected colour into proceedings once more.

Colour in more ways than one, to boot. The music coming out of the city stems from a rich lineage of African American culture, which bleeds into not just the sound but the context too. The afrocentric approach adopted by Mssrs Hernandez, Parrish & Dixon Jr flows out in a lattice of jazzy motifs and polyrhythms passed down through over a century of African heritage; conversely, the colder sounds of Model 500 – made up by members of militant radicals Underground Resistance – and Dopplereffekt no doubt take direct influence from the aforementioned industrial wasteland around the fringes of Detroit, harking back to a struggle between man and machine. The sounds may appear worlds apart, but are bound by the same sense of history.

Ultimately, isn’t that what makes it so special? At a time where regional scenes have been totally deconstructed by mass communication, and when a bedroom producer from any corner of the globe can shed any hint of their locale and liberally cherrypick geographically-specific influences, the music of Detroit remains singular: distinct, uncompromising, brilliant and, at its core essence, just that: the music of Detroit. Long may it reign.

– – –

10 of the best putting the ‘D’ in Dimensions

Five Old 24ct Classics

Moodymann – The Day We Lost The Soul
Dopplereffekt – Scientist
Rick Wilhite – War On Woodward Ave.
Model 500 – Vessels In Distress
Rhythim Is Rhythim [Derrick May] – Strings Of Life

…And Five Newer Cuts Destined To Be

Omar S & Ob Ignitt – Wayne Hill County Cop’s (Omar S Mix)
Andrés – Moments In Life
Jimmy Edgar – Strike
Patrice Scott – Orbital Bliss (P. Scott Rechord Version)
Andrew Ashong & Theo Parrish – Flowers

The full transcription of my print only feature on Detroit’s legacy, published 05/09/13 in Crack Magazine‘s programme for Dimensions Festival 2013


One comment on “Feature: Detroit

  1. Pingback: On Site: Outlook / Dimensions Festival | Gabriel Szatan

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