My name is Ann-Marie Teasley, and some of you may know me as ‘The AM.’ I am a Detroit-based DJ/producer and organizer of Underground and Black Detroit. If you don’t already know, this blog is a platform that will always advocate for what is real and what is BLACK! That said, there are many topics I would like to dive into for this piece about Detroit Techno and its culture. As of lately, there have been many misinterpretations about the genre, what it means, and where it is going. In an effort to offer some insight to those who have discovered the music in more recent years, I had the pleasure of documenting my conversations with a few crucial musical figures from Detroit.
I must admit I was hesitant to write this blog post until I happened to see Kevin Saunderson speak on a video clip as I scrolled through social media. What stood out to me most was when he stated:
“…Oh, definitely a generation that doesn’t understand the roots. It’s up to promoters, people in positions of power, managers, artists, all of us to make sure they don’t get lost.”
Right then and there, it became evident to me that others were seeing the same thing that I was seeing, so I might as well speak on it.
As a native Detroiter, I came onto the rave scene in 1996, the first woman I ever saw DJ was Queen Minx, and the hottest after-hours was called Better Days. I do admit I wore fat pants, but I got an opportunity to experience the Detroit rave scene in its prime and spent around 15 years on the dancefloor before I ever touched a mixer. I had no idea at the time, but I was receiving an education in the music that you can’t get anywhere else. It became the most significant part of me and who I am.
Fast forward to current times, I have finally become somewhat of a DJ, but what I rarely hear at a “techno party” in Detroit is any Detroit Techno at all; the influence isn’t there, nor is the sound. Yet many people playing these parties have the name “Detroit Techno” [or next generation of, or other forms of Detroit monikers] plastered on their bios and social media handles as if it’s some slogan. This is where the roots become lost, and the work is not being done to preserve them. The promoters that entertain this behavior by booking more and more of these types have an agenda or simply do not know shit about this music.
Going back to the first Detroit Techno that I heard, it would have to be Cybotron. Cybotron was formed in 1980 by Juan Atkins and Richard Davis, who are both talented and educated Black men- this is probably why you often hear people who have been listening to techno for 30 years refer to it as Black Music. Techno was one of the first forms of electronic music that we heard in our city, that was created in our city; it was [and still is] our reference to what techno is. Yes, I am aware of the significance of Kraftwerk, but I am only speaking about what was created in Detroit for this piece.
James Pennington, aka Suburban Knight, Pioneer of Detroit Techno and original member of Underground Resistance, was kind enough to speak with me about his biggest influence, who happens to be Juan Atkins.
“The first time I saw Juan Atkins play it was at that club on Broadway…you know the one? Yeah, at the Music Institute back in the eighties. I saw him, and it made me feel like I just knew I wanted to be a DJ.”
The Music Institute was the first techno club in the city and one of the first in the world, established in 1988 at 1315 Broadway in Detroit, Michigan. Since James’ first release was Big Fun with Kevin Saunderson, who also played at the Music Institute, I wanted to dive a bit deeper into the conversation. I took a chance and asked if he was following the work of any new artists on the scene, and the answer was an emphatic “No”. Of course, I had to ask him why? He continued:
“Overall, there is a lack of representation in the music, it’s not the same feeling, and over time, people just started coming around to attach or get records- the homage was gone.”
I agree that there is now a certain “feeling” missing, and when looking at 90% of rosters, it appears that the entire culture is currently facing erasure. Black artists’ names and faces have become very few and far between on lineups in the very city where the first techno club in the world housed predominately Black DJs. When it came to the topic of the music and its culture, I decided to speak with one of the major players in Electro, DJ Maaco of Detroit In Effect.
“Detroit Techno has always been bigger than just a music genre to me. It’s our good times, bad times, heartaches, struggles, and come-ups! The music has kept a lot of us off the streets, out of the pen, and from going off the deep end. This music got some of us through our roughest times. I recall when I was 16 deejaying at a house party back in the ’80s and had guns pulled out on me because folk didn’t want me to leave. So instead of risking getting shot, I ‘tired’ them all out with some electro and techno music. All the ‘gangstas’ danced until they fell out, hahaha! And that’s not saying that you have to experience some type of hardship to understand, but try to learn the culture. I think once you understand the culture from which this music was born, you will have a deeper appreciation for it.”
Yup, that’s right guys, this music was born from the struggles and the good times of black people. Although it has taken on many different forms, the fundamentals will always remain the same.
One of the more interesting stories I’ve heard is the story of Tommy Hamilton and BJ Smyth, also known as “AUX 88”. Aux 88 built their sound, fan base, and look, all from the ground up, with a collage of influences introduced by The Electrifying Mojo‘s radio mixes. I asked BJ to tell me about their first gig back in the early ’90s, and how they got started.
“Well, our first gig was actually at this flower shop/cafe. The owner had heard of us and wanted us to play. We had created “AUX Mind,” but it wasn’t on the radio yet, and no one even understood it. We broke down our entire studio with all the gear, chords, and cables, and we walked into this place, and there were three people inside. One of which was a waitress. So, we did our entire show: AUX Mind, Let It Ride, Direct Drive. The guy loved it, and he gave us free food. It was rough; we lived in cars, played at backyard BBQs, cabarets’, and skating rings. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were getting good at assembling and breaking down all that gear, and we were creating a grassroots following. We couldn’t say that we were the next anything, the people had to decide that. Your work and your contributions over some time will determine what you are to the genre.”
That last sentence resonated with me because there are so many who are looking for overnight success yet are not ready for what they are trying to obtain.
I think it’s a pretty bold act to move to a city as monumental as Detroit to pursue a career in electronic music with Detroit Techno as a slogan but fail to play, produce, or represent the genre. [Which is most likely because there is no relationship to it.] How does an artist play European EDM/tech-house sets yet call themselves a Detroit Techno DJ? Are they just trying to have fun, live their dreams, and do not know any better?
When I was in the very beginning stages of DJ’ing, I was probably one of the worst you’d ever seen, and you could probably see my heart beating through my chest during my sets if you looked up close. That said, I was lucky enough to get some openings for Mike Clark, who gave me some pointers about getting my shit together not just technically, but also mentally. One of the things he told me was to “Understand and learn your history in order to properly lead the future.” Indeed, you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, and it took me a minute to understand a lot of Mike’s teachings because I was so new and blind. I wanted to drink a bunch of drinks and play at whatever bar would have me. I too was just trying to have fun and live out my dreams- I couldn’t see his advice clearly until I did more work and got deeper into the game.
My sister Ash Lauryn, creator of this blog and successful touring DJ, has also played a vital role in being an advisor to myself and many others on obtaining goals as an artist. I took some of the more appropriate quotes from one of our sit-downs [because y’all know how we get] to shed some light on entering the industry.
“People forget that you have to pay dues to get respect. Simply moving to Detroit and deejaying electronic music doesn’t make you the next generation of Detroit Techno, and it also doesn’t necessarily mean that you are upholding the legacy. It’s all about instant gratification and clout these days, which is why some are quick to label themselves something they are not. People need to study the music and culture before attaching themselves to something they don’t know enough about.”
“My advice for newer artists is to carve out your own lane- find something that makes you different and hone in on that. Also, be patient; success doesn’t happen overnight. Be willing to commit for the long haul if you really want it.”
I saved one of my favorite quotes for last because I think we all can use some inspiration from time to time, especially when we are experiencing the highs and lows of the industry.
“Believe in yourself, work on your craft and develop a sound that is you. Surely you will take bits from one artist or another, especially if they influenced you, but make it your own. If you really love what you are doing, then the payday is coming.” –Tommy Hamilton AUX88
So, there you have it, perspectives of what is happening in Black Music by Black people who created it first. Our goal is to bring awareness to those who are just joining that Detroit Techno is not a trend, slogan, or gimmick to get you booked-its a legacy that needs to be respected. Besides, we can always tell where you’re really from just by your selections. 🙂
For nostalgic and educational purposes, here are a couple of rave flyers circa 1998 and 2001 in Detroit’s heyday, so be sure to check the lineups! Back then, the community was almost like a secret society, “For those who know.”
The AM is a DJ and Producer from Detroit, you can follow her on Instagram @i.am.amx and on Twitter @i_am_amx.