Juan Atkins reflects on 25 years of Detroit techno
This year marks not only the quarter-centennial anniversary of Miami's Winter Music Conference but also 25 years of Detroit techno, the seminal electronic dance music form that spawned the worldwide techno phenomenon. It was 25 years ago when a cohort of experimental young Detroit producers — Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson — pioneered the "techno" style, inspired by the early synthesizer sounds of European artists such as Kraftwerk, paralleling the birth of house music in Chicago.
Atkins was surely the most pivotal figure of the early Detroit techno scene, launching the legendary Metroplex imprint in 1985 and releasing the first techno records under his Cybotron and Model 500 monikers.
Like its British counterpart Sheffield a leading city of the industrial revolution and home to seminal electronic music acts such as Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League the Motor City became the birthplace of such technological music. "Detroit's industrial landscape, I'm sure, had something to do with the birth of the techno sound," Atkins says. "Detroit was and continues to be the heart of industry in America."
Indeed, many of Detroit's original techno artists, including Atkins, continue to live and work there while keeping the scene and its musical legacy alive. Every year, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival brings together old and new generations of international EDM artists for a celebration of the sound born in that city.
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Considering Atkins actually coined the term techno in the mid-'80s, one wonders how he defines the genre 25 years later, following its myriad stylistic permutations. Surprisingly, his personal definition is broader than expected and has changed little since he used it to describe his own futuristic brand of electro-funk. "Techno is short for technology. For me, techno is a term to describe all kinds of electronic music," he says.
Stylistically speaking, the stark and percussive "minimal techno" form most prevalent and popular today is a bit of a far stretch from the more melodic and layered compositions Atkins first made, but he is no purist. "I don't think the new sounds are a digression. It's just different people putting their spin on it," he says. "Back then, there was more stuff happening in the tracks, but we were also making basic four-on-the-floor beats."
Atkins continues to view the evolution of techno and electronic dance music with a certain optimism. "There's a lot more producers now," he says. "The affordability of technology has allowed for a lot more people to produce than would have been possible before." He also accepts the music industry's shift to online digital distribution and the decline of record sales — which so many of his peers have lamented — with positivity and open-mindedness.
"Digital downloads have changed the way music is made and heard, and artists have to tour and perform a lot more now because it's the only way to make money in music," he says. "But I don't necessarily see it as something negative; I think it's a natural evolution. Live performance is something that you can trace back a long time and has been around longer than recorded music."
On Thursday, March 25, Atkins will be part of a star-studded lineup of legendary first-wave Detroit techno luminaries including Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig, Moodymann, and Theo Parrish, who will play the D25 party at the Shore Club. And though in recent years he has returned to his roots, producing and performing live electronics with an accompanying band under his original Model 500 moniker, Atkins will strictly spin vinyl for the D25 party.
Seeing the Godfather of Techno more active and relevant than ever and ready to take on Conference this year proves techno is more alive and in full-swing than ever. "I don't think techno is going anywhere," Atkins says. "There will always be technological music. It might have different sounds or patterns, but techno is here to stay."
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