Emerging from Detroit in the 1980s, techno quickly distinguished itself via much more than just its driving rhythms. Inspired by the futuristic philosophies of Alvin Toffler and the sounds of Kraftwerk, the B-52s, and funk bands like Parliament-Funkadelic, techno was pieced together with innovative technologies such as Roland TR 808s, Roland TR 909s, and Korg MS-10s. It was deliberately post-racial and forward thinking in a metropolitian area beset by a history of racial injustice and segregation. It eschewed capitalism in a city built on the 20th century’s most iconic symbol of American consumerism—the automobile. And it was made for and by the underground, with artists often adopting pseudonyms and obscuring their personal identities.
Fast forward to 2022: Techno has grown and thrived on an international scale, influencing everything from fashion to heavy metal along the way. Despite all that, the average music fan might connect the genre more with Europe than with its midwestern roots and—thanks to the commercialization and white bro-iness of modern EDM—missing the fact that the genre was pioneered largely by young, Black men.
In his new film God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines, director and Detroit native Kristian R. Hill attempts to set the record straight, separating the facts of techno from the myths. Centered around an iconic 1987 Record Mirror photo of first-wave techno artists Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson (often labeled “the Belleville Three” due to their having grown up in the semi-rural western suburb), Blake Baxter, Santonio Echols, and Eddie Fowlkes taken by the British photographer Normski, the film documents techno’s revolutionary origin story and explores how it continues to impact the world today.
God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. CREEM spoke with Hill about growing up in the early Detroit techno scene and the impact of techno’s real originators over Zoom.
CREEM: Tell me about your experience growing up with music in Detroit.
Kristian R. Hill: Where I grew up, Juan Atkins’ grandmother lived around the block from us. People in New Orleans gravitate to brass band instruments and things of that nature, but in Detroit, we gravitated to turntables and synthesizers, and eventually beat machines. DJs Al Ester and Steve Dunbar, rest in peace, who have short parts in the film, did my eighth-grade graduation party. So from eighth grade graduation until I left Detroit, I was in the clubs as a club kid and eventually as a DJ. Not only that, [influential Detroit radio personality] the Electrifying Mojo used to have this thing called Mojo's Mixerdome. When I was 17, in April of ’87—I remember because a friend of mine recorded it—I was on the radio with Mojo and I was able to talk to him and play a 30-minute mix that I made. I vividly remember saying, “I want your job, Mojo,” not knowing that years later I would make a film and Mojo would be in it.
I’m doing my best to carry on the legacy of all of that early Detroit music where techno and house and all of that was pure and nothing was tainted. It was just as Mike Huckaby said, “It was the most important time for this music because nobody had an influence on it; it was free to grow and blossom.”
People in New Orleans gravitate to brass band instruments and things of that nature, but in Detroit, we gravitated to turntables and synthesizers, and eventually beat machines
I was in school when the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival [which morphed into the current Movement Electronic Music Festival] happened in 2000. It seemed like the average person in the area had no idea about techno, even with this phenomenon bringing all of these tourists to the city at a time when there weren’t a lot of visitors. How do you think that lack of awareness shaped the culture or allowed the music to develop under the radar?
It was strictly an underground thing. If we're talking about club kids, you're talking about maybe hundreds or a thousand, and you’re talking about over time. So let's say the class from like ’78-’82, they aged out of it and the class of ’82-’86 were really into it and eventually they aged out too.
Then, around 1987-1990 in the Black community, there's kind of like this aging-into-hip-hop that’s happening. And in hip-hop there was immediately a connection to the face and to the person. It was easy to sell an identity, whereas in dance music, these guys are going by pseudonyms—Model 500, Cybotron, Rhythim is Rhythim. If you can’t really put a face to it, popular culture really doesn't have anything to connect it to.
It wasn't until Inner City put out “Good Life” [in 1988] that you could connect it, not only to somebody, but to the kind of visual everyone is accustomed to; a guy-girl group singing a pop jam about having fun and good times. That’s easier to commodify. I think it’s at that point that Detroiters started to say, “Hey, I love that record. Who made it?” And even those early records, you had the same thing happening. “I love that record, but I don’t know who made it. Are they German?” It’s like, “No, these dudes are from Detroit.”
Probably to this day, a lot of people think techno is a European thing. And if you mentioned not just Detroit, but Belleville, some people would be really surprised.
From my standpoint, that's where things get problematic. That's where the story becomes: is it fact or is it fiction? With the Belleville portion, how much was it marketing? How much was it really just three guys whose parents had moved to the same community in the suburbs? Yes, they lived in Belleville. But at that time, they weren't really making music, except for Juan. Juan also connected to Rik Davis, and without that we don’t have Cybotron.Rik Davis had been making electronic music or putting out electronic music prior to this. He was a Vietnam vet, and they were high school kids, so there was a generational disconnect. Where does Rik Davis fall into all of this? He’s no doubt an originator, but it was those guys that you mentioned—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson—who grew up in Belleville connecting with the people of Detroit; Eddie Folkes, Blake Baxter, and Santonio Echols.
Up to that point, there had been no genre defined as techno. Sure, you’d say Kraftwerk was a German electronic band, but they weren't calling themselves “techno.” Yellow Magic Orchestra out of Japan, that's technology music, but they weren't calling it techno either. So, it’s a thing where people commonly think because of Kraftwerk, it’s a German thing. The Germans did play a role, the Japanese played a very important role, but it really was Juan, Derek, Kevin, Blake, Santonio, and Eddie who put the soul into the machines.
The Germans did play a role, the Japanese played a very important role, but it really was Juan, Derek, Kevin, Blake, Santonio, and Eddie who put the soul into the machines
I saw a short film about Detroit techno a few years ago, and one of the takeaways was that the beat of Detroit that powered the rhythms of Motown also defined Detroit techno compared to electronic music from other parts of the world. Do you find that to be true?
The [reason] why techno and house are different is in the intention. In Detroit, they were actually being futuristic in their intention. They were conscious of other ideals than disco loops and things of that nature. They weren't “jacking” as they were in Chicago in that “jack your body” period. Detroiters were looking at this from a futuristic perspective, from some of the early teachings of Alvin Toffler. It was that vibe that allowed them to cover themselves in what they thought was the new way to look at the world. It was like a techno point of view. At one point in time, there was a techno dictionary. There was techno speak. There were things going on where everybody was trying to get into a mind frame to have a vision about where these records could take them.
And in Juan's case, if you took race out of it, how far might it take you. Rhythim is Rhythim, Model 500, these names could kind of make you colorless, and that's what they were attempting. Looking back on it again, that might be part of the reason why the Black community doesn't really know about it. It's built for the underground, you know? Does it have mainstream success? Sometimes, but on a broader scale it’s something that [music journalist featured in the film] Greg Tate, rest in peace, shared with me: these things sometimes aren't made for mass consumption.
These things sometimes aren’t made for mass consumption
Another theme that comes up, in this film and in other discussions about electronic music, is appropriation and erasure of Black and queer artists. EDM has become associated with rich white kids, for example. Do you think that the intention of “What would the possibilities be in a futuristic world if we weren't confined by these societal trappings?” inadvertently fed into that?
That’s a great question. For our film, I was trying to figure out a way to pull these men more into the cannon of Black music, while also showing how this cannon of Black music has had an impact on the world. And doing so without necessarily driving home the point of erasure and appropriation. I wanted to show true actual moments that created this music, and pull some of the subjective nature out. That's why I concentrated just on these six guys, in this moment, in this picture, on this magazine cover. Because that would allow us to freeze time for a minute, and just see in terms of like, where dance music was at the time.
So, it’s not necessarily a racial perspective, but a factual perspective. Not only that, we bring the history of how we got to Detroit, Chicago, and New York [dance music] so you can understand that triangle, too. For years these cities have produced music that changed the world. Not to take away from New Orleans, Memphis, or Nashville, but what happens in Detroit is very original. It’s a high-art culture that is adding to the world. The racial standpoint is something I wanted to talk about in the film, but not to make it a point: “these guys were wronged because they were Black.” On the whole, they’ve had careers as musicians. No matter for how long, that is a blessing and a privilege.
Your film really drove home how influential techno is in pop culture, even when it isn’t directly referenced, whether it’s bands like Primal Scream and U2 borrowing techno sounds and themes by the early 2000s, or how the fashion industry has leaned into its futurism. Do you think that techno and the people who originated it are finally getting their dues?
It's 50-50. People now call Juan Atkins the godfather of techno, but we don't know him. We can say Cybotron is the seminal techno band. However, the only picture that exists of them—John Housley, Juan Atkins, and Rick Davis—is distorted and you can't really even see their faces. So how do we tell this story when the archive isn't there? That's why we lean into this as more of a historical film. We're trying to put all the pieces there so that people can see this and understand it and it's not just conjecture. There will be other techno documentaries, but with this one, we wanted to just make sure we laid out how this music came about from the scene before it took off into the world.
The film makes a lot of connections about the influences behind techno, whether it's the B-52s or Sly and the Family Stone, or other bands with traditional instruments. How do you see techno impacting genres outside of the electronic scene today, whether it’s the rhythms or the futurism?
All of these esoteric, heady things you can think about, techno fits in there. That’s why you’re seeing orchestras doing full-blown techno pieces, with Jeff Mills and Carl Craig working with orchestras. Or you see the work Jeff Mills was doing with Tony Allen on the Afrobeat side—rest in peace, Tony Allen. Seeing how these rhythms are in Europe, and they’re now over in Africa. In the underground, our music is there.
Another thing Huckaby would say is, “Detroit DJs are influenced by everything.” That influence becomes our own, in a way. So when we turn it back we have ownership of techno, but this music is for everybody. And the film shows, when it becomes a commodified thing and we put names on it, this is what can happen. So here we are 40 years later and people still don’t know about these contributions to musical history. Guys like Juan and Kevin should be nominated for Grammys or Lifetime Achievement Awards, or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These people have spread the gospel of dance music post-Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan to heights nobody could have understood back then.
Seeing how these rhythms are in Europe, and they’re now over in Africa. In the underground, our music is there.
Do you see Detroit embracing that as part of its music culture now more than ever? Or is it more like, “Hey, we need to get some tourist dollars and so we're gonna do what we can?”
I think Detroit is ready to be in tune, and I think they want to honor and give thanks to these producers and DJs. Hopefully this film [makes an impact] because it allows them to be seen in their most positive light. And that's the intention of this film: to show, warts and all, how Detroit is so beautiful and how the people who come from there impact the world.
[Techno] musicians are the rock stars of the future. And we need to take care of our rock stars so that in the future they're seen in their proper perspective. And that's why this film concentrates on Juan, Derek, Kevin, Eddie, Blake, and Santonio as our Mount Rushmore of techno—because they are the first “cover boys” of this music.