This Memorial Day weekend brings the annual Electronic Music Festival to Detroit. Spread throughout the downtown area on several stages, the leading lights of EDM, Trance, Techno, Dubstep and other offshoots bring their beats to tens of thousands. In fact, this year's attendance is on-point to surpass last year's estimated 25,000 revelers!
Tonight, the festival's co-founder and acting artistic director, Carl Craig will be spinning. To many outside of Detroit, the name won't ring a bell. Yet he may well be the reason why they know about techno and EDM at all! Born in Detroit, Craig was a protege of Derrick May, who along with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, pioneered the Detroit Techno sound. The sense of the DJ universe coming full-circle isn't lost on those of us who know the history.
The lineup for this year's festival is an impressive array of EDM artists from all over the world. Some are new(ish), some are well-established and others are damned near legend. DJ Godfather spins tomorrow, as does Gucci Mane. Ritchie Hawtin, a.k.a. Plastikman is on the bill, as is his protege, John Acquaviva. (More on Hawtin in a moment.)
Most impressively of all, Detroit Techno legend, Kevin Saunderson will share a stage with his two eldest sons. This alone would be well worth the price of admission. Living in the Detroit area has its perks. The annual EDM festival is one of them. Having a sister-in-law working in the film industry turned out to be another. That last one allowed me to attend a rough-cut preview of the new documentary, "God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines," a history of Detroit techno and the birth of the billion-dollar electronic dance music industry last month. It also hit close to home, as a lot of my own memories are all tied up in that history. It's a history that every EDM fan and current or aspiring DJ should know.
Chicago has always been known as the epicenter of house music, a term derived from unique house salad dressings at restaurants. Walking down a downtown street at night, one could hear the same hits pouring out of every bar and nightclub. DJs wanted something distinctive. Long before remix services became pervasive, DJs would take popular tunes, edit them into unique remixes and sometimes press a single vinyl disc, giving them (and their club) a unique "house mix."
Detroit, of course, is known for its Motown and many contributions to classic, punk and alternative rock, but few people know of the black DJs and artists that spawned progressive/techno/EDM. If you're a fan, or a DJ who is spinning it, then this documentary is a must see! Scheduled for release sometime this summer, God Said Give 'Em Drum Machines is the brainchild of director Kristian Hill, who bemoans the fact that ""the stars of this film are considered gods overseas, but fail to get the same recognition here at home. They're the 'hidden figures' of the $7.1 billion-dollar industry of Electronic Dance Music... most people nowadays have no idea that Techno has Detroit origins or that black people have anything to do with [it]." Hill has set sights to change that.
The film brought back great memories for me. At the time, my DJ career focused on the wedding reception market, but I regularly ran into the DJs highlighted in the film: Juan Atkins, Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Mike Huckaby, who inadvertently gave the film its title. Now an instructor at YouthVille, a program he designed to teach music production to aspiring inner-city DJs between the ages of 11 to 19, he appears in the film recounting a dream in which he's talking to God. Complaining of the crushing unemployment and lack of opportunity, he asks God what he's supposed to do about it. God's answer: "Give 'em drum machines." He took that advice to heart.
I would often see Mike spinning tunes at my main source for music, Record Time in Eastpointe, and later, Roseville, Michigan. They had a special vinyl room in the back where all the best underground dance tracks could be found. He would recommend tracks that I could drop into my wedding sets to blow my audience's collective mind. He was never off the mark. At the time, I was also working with a company called Burst, Inc., which supplied the massive speakers and amplifiers for rave parties that were the main showcase for techno during the '80s and early '90s. I got to see these guys first-hand and knew that they were onto something special.
One performance I remember well was by this skinny white kid from Canada who went by the name "Ritchie Rich." He even played the theme from the cartoon show of the same name during his set. Of course, you might know him better as Ritchie Hawtin. Unlike Ritchie, unfortunately, the accolades (and the money) have evaded the others, for the most part. This film may at least rectify the former.
Another place I filled my record crates was at a store in Detroit called Buy-Rite music. This is where I would run into Blake Baxter and Kevin Saunderson, who were surprised to see the fat, pimply white kid asking for hot techno tracks. Saunderson is the man behind perhaps the best-known Detroit techno group, Inner City, and sold me my vinyl copies of "Big Fun" and "Good Life."
To Kevin and Hill, these tracks were the high water mark of the genre. According to Wikipedia, Inner City topped the US Billboard dance chart five times with nine top 40 hits to their credit on the UK singles chart. Other hits include "Do You Love What You Feel" and "Whatcha Gonna Do with My Lovin'". (Yes, I own those, too.)
Getting back to the screening, I must admit that I went in expecting to pick it apart, given my deep connection with the music, people and history. I was prepared to do battle! Yet to my utter astonishment, they absolutely NAILED it. Moreover, I learned a lot of subtext that got by me, since I wasn't as hardcore into Techno and preoccupied with weddings.
To me, what I saw of the film was utter perfection, leaving me hungry for more. Happily, there WILL be more! During a panel discussion at the end, director Hill explained that what we saw was the first of a three-part documentary, and his solicitation for funds during the event was mostly to secure the massive music royalty rights his project entails.
After a lot of reminiscing, the audience got a special bonus in the form of an amazing set by Kevin, who let everyone know that he still had chops and they're as sharp as ever! He will do so again tonight. Full circle. So whether you're a DJ, music fan or nightclub aficionado, then you owe it to yourself to see this movie and understand how it all happened" and IS happening. Visit saidgiveemdrummachines.com/ and keep an eye open for a screening in your area.