Motor City Electronics
Ahead of the final night in La Cheetah's series of Detroit celebrations, The Skinny talks to key Motor City players Juan Atkins, Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes and Keith Tucker
‘Put your hands up for Detroit.’ This was an appeal fervently heeded by clubbers across Europe during the summer months of 2006, when Fedde Le Grand’s stuttering electro house anthem dominated the airwaves, refusing to die off quietly. Presumptuous as it may be to speculate, it is likely that many of those who fist-pumped to that Matthew Dear-sampling chart hit, did so without quite knowing exactly why they should venerate the city in the title. Yet, being the birthplace of techno, Detroit has long been hallowed turf for those with a passion for underground electronic music.
Having held a series of nights billed as Motor City Electronics over the past three months, Glasgow’s La Cheetah Club is set to round things off in impressive fashion by hosting an exclusive debut live performance by the originator of techno, Juan Atkins. Over a career spanning three decades, the prolific producer, DJ, and owner of Metroplex records has set the benchmark high in a city with an embarrassment of musical riches. Releasing seminal records under various aliases including Cybotron, Model 500 and Infiniti, he paved the way for future Detroit artists to develop and expand on both the techno sound and its future-inspired conceptual backdrop.
Taking a break from working on his upcoming set, which he tells us will include some new material, Atkins ponders the influence of his hometown.
“Detroit has always provided fertile ground for creative ideas going back to the Motown days. There’s just something about the place that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s such a hard city. It’s not like New York or Chicago or LA, where you have a cosmopolitan vibe. You don’t have the fashion world, the movie world and things like that. You just have plain, gritty Detroit.
“It was also one of the first cities to experience the transition into technology, with the emergence of robotics and the automation of the car plants. So we experienced a lot of post-industrial decline in the landscape before most cities in America. But I think there is something about all of this that stimulates creativity in the arts.”
The Motown era may in fact provide some clues as to what has made the city’s modern electronic output so distinctive. No doubt, some may find it difficult to associate the legendary label – responsible for releasing hits by the likes of The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye – with the synthesised, ultramodern sounds explored by Juan Atkins and his peers. Yet many electronic artists from Detroit feel that their music shares that same lineage.
“The funk and the soul play a part in Detroit,” says Eddie ‘Flashin’’ Fowlkes, ahead of his set at the opening night of La Cheetah’s series. “I want to play what I feel is the heart of Detroit – not so hard, not so soft. You have to remember that the music wasn’t at 130 [beats per minute] when we started off. It wasn’t what kids nowadays think it is, like trance.”
Fowlkes has a point. It’s hard, for instance, to ignore the funk flowing from much of Juan Atkins’ early work with Cybotron, most notably on tracks like Cosmic Cars. Though the city’s music has evolved a lot, with a more hard-edged breed of minimalistic techno and a darker strain of electro emerging over time, there is a particular Detroit vibe that has been carried through to this day.
For AUX 88’s Keith Tucker, who blitzed his way through the history of electro at La Cheetah in September, his own music developed from the seeds sown by pioneers like Juan Atkins. He stresses that his work should not be confused with any of the countless new genres that seem to be dreamt up continually nowadays.
“I was upset at first when electro house came along and people were referring to my stuff as electro house. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but that’s not what we do. I personally call our style electro-funk. Derrick May used to talk about putting George Clinton and Kraftwerk in an elevator together and seeing what you get. That’s the way we look at it. To me, our thing is like putting George Clinton in the elevator with Juan Atkins.”
So, while groundbreaking electronic acts like Kraftwerk no doubt influenced much of the early Detroit material, Juan Atkins and contemporaries such as Eddie Fowlkes, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May all put a distinctive Motor City stamp on their work which has continued to influence local acts, and indeed producers from around the world, to this day. Even ghettotech, a rapid-fire hybrid of Detroit techno and Miami bass music, shares this quality. “There’s just a certain attitude that you hear in the beats,” explains Brian Jeffries AKA DJ Godfather.
“A lot of people outside of Detroit are trying to do ghettotech records and you can really tell the difference. The Detroit stuff is dirty sounding on purpose. It has to have that Detroit vibe, while still being aggressive, if that makes sense. A lot of people will do a fast ghettotech record and you can tell it’s not from Detroit. It’s lacking that grit and soul to it that you hear in Detroit house and techno music.”
It is admiration of this inimitable, gritty quality and a respect for Detroit’s impressive musical legacy that has characterised the Motor City Electronics series. Perhaps most importantly, the series has been defined by its commitment to showcasing influential artists who perhaps don’t have the profile of other Detroit alumni such as Jeff Mills or Richie Hawtin. “There’s the Detroit you know, and then there’s the Detroit you may not know about but really should know,” says La Cheetah’s events coordinator, Grahame Ward.
“We wanted to put on a series of guests – particularly people like Eddie Fowlkes, Keith Tucker and DJ Godfather – who have been very influential over the years. These artists are guys who are greatly respected but often don’t get as much attention as they perhaps deserve. We really wanted to hear what their definitive account of this music was.”
For Fowlkes, nights such as these are an important way to commemorate the legacy of his city. “None of us had a blueprint or knew how big it would become. We were just some kids who wanted to make some music,” he explains. “Any time you can celebrate something you did, something that blossomed into a billion dollar business, it’s cool. Too bad we couldn’t control the billion dollar business. But any time you can celebrate something that you love to do, it’s beautiful.”
It’s hard to conceive of a more fitting way to close such a celebratory series than by coaxing an exclusive live set from perhaps the most significant figure in the development of techno music. “From the club’s perspective, the Juan Atkins night is the biggest booking we’ve ever had,” explains Ward.
“Juan has a plethora of aliases and he has released outstanding music through all of them. I’m hoping that it will be the best techno night in Glasgow this year, just because of who Juan is and because he is doing something that has never been done before. To have a night like this in a limited capacity club like La Cheetah is mouth-watering really.”
Having lit the touch-paper for three decades worth of truly innovative music to explode out of Detroit’s local scene and into the world, and with contemporaries queuing up to sing his praises, Juan Atkins has every reason to feel proud of his legacy. “It’s a really good feeling,” he admits.
“If you have an opportunity and you have a gift that can change the world for the better then I think you need to seize that opportunity. Basically, that’s what I did. At the same time, I had no way of knowing how my music would get out into the world or what effect it would have.
“I just knew that I was doing something special.”