Detroit Continues to Inspire Techno Music Producer

Tamara Warren
The New York Times

Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, claimed that Detroit’s assembly lines inspired the sound of his label’s music. The originators of techno dance music, which also got its start in the city, were subject to these surrounding influences, as well, though the mood of the town had changed dramatically by the early 1980s.

Underground Resistance Michael Banks, producer and co-founder of Underground Resistance. rarely shows his face in public.
“Detroit is a cold place with a heart made of metal,” said Michael Banks, a producer and co-founder of Underground Resistance, a politically charged techno outfit in Detroit.

“For me, the car industry affected techno music by its efficiency aspects,” Mr. Banks, who also records under the name Mad Mike, explained.

Juan Atkins, a Detroit music producer, is widely credited with inventing the techno genre. He coined the term in 1984 from the novel “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler. That same year, Mr. Atkins released the song “Techno City,” a recording that popularized the word in Europe.

Mr. Atkins drew heavily from the influence of local car culture, creating tracks like “Night Drive” and “Cosmic Cars” under the recording names Cybotron and Model 500.

What made Detroit techno distinct from other forms of early electronic music was the industrial, methodical and soulful nature of the compositions. There was minimal use of vocals, which were created entirely on synthesizers. The mechanical pulse of techno resonated with the car industry.

Mr. Atkins and his peers cited the German synth-driven music group Kraftwerk and funk legend George Clinton, who periodically recorded in Detroit, as the impetus for their work. Kraftwerk also made textured dance tracks like “Autobahn” in 1974, experimenting with the blend of synthesizers and live instrumentation.

The second wave of Detroit techno producers followed suit with car themes layered both overtly and subconsciously in the music. For example, “Landcruising,” a 1995 album by Carl Craig, included a sample in the introduction from his BMW 318i engine.

It was during this time that Mr. Banks started Underground Resistance Records.
“Just as the automakers were constantly trying to improve quality and cut costs by adding robotics to assembly lines,” he said, “back in the ’80s I was searching for ways to get rid of annoying band members who complained too much, were always late for shows and always wanted all the money. Drum machines and sequencers were the answer.”

Mr. Banks works out of a recording studio that originally housed a labor union on East Grand Boulevard, several blocks from Motown’s origins. He counts car designers from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler among the fans who come to the building to buy vinyl.

“There have been times at our small store here in the basement of the building that some rather odd customers will come through,” said Mr. Banks, an avid Chrysler muscle-car enthusiast. In 1991, his label released “G-Force” as an homage to Detroit drag racing. “These people aren’t your average dance floor D.J.’s that usually buy our products. They are young automotive designers. They listen to our music so as to inspire progressive thoughts of what automotive transportation will be in the future.”

He added, “I’m proud they come to us here in one of the most depressed neighborhoods in a massively depressed city for inspiration of what could be.”


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