The Techno Wave
Techno music, the true successor to late seventies synth-pop, translates the desolation of post-Motown Detroit into electronic dance rhythms. Simon Trask listens to the programmer's tale.
Long after the Motown label deserted the city of Detroit, a new type of music is forging a relationship between soul and technology in the Motor City.
THE SCENE: DETROIT, murder capital of the USA, an industrial city left behind in a post-industrial society. US Census Bureau statistics released as far back as 1980 identified a massive shift in population, wealth and economic activity from North East to South West America. Detroit, firmly located in the North East, suffered a 21 percent population drop and still managed a 12.1 percent unemployment rate. A New York Times article of the day vividly referred to urban landscapes "marred by vacant factories, warehouses and great open spaces where such buildings once stood". And the Ford car plant, so long the life-blood of Detroit, replaced much of its workforce with robots and computerised automation in response to foreign competition. Despite drastic cuts in services the city was virtually bankrupt, and its mayor declared "We are at the edge of an abyss".
Welcome to the world of Techno music, a world peopled by dreamers caught up in the despair of everyday Detroit life, yet glimpsing a brand new future in which technology functions as saviour rather than destroyer. They've read Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave and realised that they're riding it. The glory days of Motor City were built on a solid industrial manufacturing base. Now Detroit must become part of the information technology society.
The departure of Berry Gordy's Motown empire to Los Angeles in 1972 in search of white middle-class respectability left a musical vacuum in Detroit which is only now starting to be filled. Together with Juan Atkins and Derrick May, 23 year-old Kevin Saunderson represents a new generation of Detroit musicians who claim direct descendancy not from Motown but from the music of Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode and Gary Numan. Mention these and other late '70s/early '80s techno-pop groups such as The Human League, Yellow Magic Orchestra and New Order to Saunderson and his eyes light up. Much of their music was available on import in Detroit when he was growing up there.
"It seemed like music of the future to me", the soft-spoken musician recalls as he takes time out from recording at Battery Studios in Willesden, north London. "Kraftwerk had this really clean, computerised, futuristic sound. Their music had a good groove, but at the same time it was deep and you could sit back and listen to it. They had a good image, too."
The biggest music in Detroit during Saunderson's formative years was Parliament/Funkadelic, and it was a shared liking for the Mothership Connection which first brought together the youthful Saunderson, Atkins and May at Belleville High School in West Detroit. No wonder May has likened Techno to "George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company".
May has also been quoted as saying that "English bands ten years ago hardly knew what they were doing. They left us waiting. Somebody like Gary Numan started something he never concluded".
That's a sentiment which few could disagree with, as many early '80s techno-pop groups have proven incapable of providing a convincing technology-driven music for the late '80s. With house music still checking gospel and '70s disco, and hip hop replacing Kraftwerk with James Brown and Led Zeppelin, Techno is the true inheritor of the techno-music mantle.
Saunderson identifies a significant difference between the music of the early '80s groups and that of Techno musicians.
"Techno has a better groove as far as the bass end goes", he explains, "and it has a much rawer sound. In fact, the bass end tends to make people associate Techno with house music, but really the two are very different".
Indeed, the four-on-the-floor bass drum and 120bpm tempo which house and Techno share does make them superficially similar. But listen a bit more and Techno's allegiance to European synth-pop and rejection of black music's soul and gospel heritage begin to unravel themselves.
The seminal Techno group was undoubtedly Juan Atkins' trio Cybotron, which recorded for the Fantasy record label in the early '80s. Ironically, Fantasy was located in Los Angeles, Motown's new home. But that was the only connection. Atkins was building not on Motown but on the mechanical rhythms of Kraftwerk and the sombre chordal and melodic structures of Gary Numan. Cybotron's 1983 album Enter even includes a track called 'Cosmic Cars'.
Techno has already thrown up its fair share of underground classics, such as Saunderson's 'The Sound', May's 'Nude Photo' and Atkins' 'No UFOs'. Now it's getting the Big Push in the UK with 10 Records' double-album sampler Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit, a generous collection of tracks which showcases both the underground and the commercial faces of the music. The Techno trio are in evidence as artists, producers and mixers alongside other Techno figures such as Blake Baxter and Eddie "Flashin" Foulkes.
While Techno is a good starting point, anyone wanting to go deeper into the music should also seek out the Jack Trax 3 and Jack Trax 5 compilation albums (for cuts by May and Atkins) together with Saunderson's 'The Sound' 12" and May's 'Nude Photo '88' 12".
Saunderson is musically more diverse than his companions, a fact which he attributes to the early years he spent in New York (he was born in Brooklyn and moved to Detroit in 1976). There he was exposed to the likes of Evelyn "Champagne" King, MacFadden and Whitehead and the burgeoning NY disco scene.
At present he's heading for crossover success with Inner City's sprightly cover of the Gap Band's 'Big Fun' (Inner City is a Saunderson pseudonym). 'Big Fun' is included in the Techno compilation, as is a pure electronic dance track by KS Experience (no prizes for guessing who KS is) which goes by the entirely appropriate name of 'Electronic Dance'. Saunderson also performs mixing and production chores on several other tracks.
Meanwhile, in the guise of Reese and Santonio he has recorded classic underground tracks such as 'The Sound' and 'Bounce Your Body To The Box', stripped-down bass 'n' drum workouts which attempt to dissolve music into pure frequency and rhythm. Saunderson creates a spacious rhythmic backdrop through judicious use of reverb and a careful combination of splashy, scratchy and clicky percussive sounds which float in and out of the mix like traditional rhythm sections were a thing of the past. Rich, booming bass sounds operate at virtually subsonic levels, strange synth sounds burble away, and any hint of a vocal line is reduced to a disjointed robotic incantation - all over a pounding, insistent bass-drum beat. The meaning is in the sound. The effect is hypnotic and compulsive.
Saunderson is currently a second-year undergraduate at East Michigan University in Ypsilanti near Detroit, where he's studying Telecommunications. However, he took time off from his Spring and Summer courses in order to pursue his burgeoning musical career, and may not return in the Autumn. The underground success of his own music has also meant he is increasingly in demand as a remixer and producer. In fact, when I caught up with him at Battery Studios he was producing tracks for the Wee Papa Girl Rappers' debut album, having previously completed a successful remix of the duo's 'Heat It Up' single. He's currently working on remixes for Burrell and Loose Ends and doing production work for house duo Blow.
Like many of today's most influential dance-music producers and artists, Saunderson began his musical career as a DJ - in his case on college radio and in the underground clubs of Detroit. He still plays the clubs, currently spinning a mix of techno, house and acid on Friday nights at Detroit's hottest underground club, The Music Institute, alongside Derrick May.
From college radio Saunderson progressed to local radio station 98WJLB where he put together half-hour mixes three or four times a week.
"House music was just starting to come out of Chicago", he recalls, "and I featured a lot of that music because it was something new and it was good."
Unfortunately his support of house music was to prove the downfall of his radio career, as he recalls ruefully: "The radio station told me I was ahead of my time and then fired me".
"English bands ten years ago hardly knew what they were doing. They left us waiting. Somebody like Gary Numan started something he never concluded."
Even more galling was the fact that the same station started programming house music in its main slots only seven months later - a change of direction which wasn't accompanied by Saunderson's return to the airwaves.
To add final insult to injury, Detroit's radio stations gave no exposure to Techno music until five months ago, a state of affairs which Saunderson attributes to jealousy on the part of other DJs. Now Inner City's 'Big Fun' is the biggest song in Detroit, and gets played four or five times a day on the radio. Ironically, it was UK success which started to open the doors back home. "When you start to get known in the UK, America pays attention to you", Saunderson confirms wryly.
When Saunderson took the decision to start creating his own music instead of playing other people's ("I was always wanting to add things to other people's music, and I felt I had a good feeling for what people liked to hear", he explains) the number one priority was to set up his own studio. His mother helped him out financially, while Juan Atkins advised on equipment. Saunderson started out with a Yamaha DX100, Roland Juno 106, Fostex eight-channel mixer, Tascam eight-track recorder, several reverbs, and giant speakers that could handle 800 watts each - all set up in a two-bedroom apartment. Hardly surprising, then, that he had to move four times in the first year.
"I tried to be courteous to people", he maintains, "but... I have to play my music loud. That's the only way I can get a feeling for what I'm doing."
Saunderson now has a studio in the basement of a house in Ypsilanti, just off campus. Soon he plans to move yet again, and this time he'll be renting out separate premises for his studio - such are the rewards of success.
But these days an up-and-coming musician needs more than talent to see him through. Good business sense is almost as important, and fortunately Saunderson appears to have his business head firmly screwed on. His first record, 'Triangle of Love' by Kreem (the same personnel as now make up Inner City), was released on Juan Atkins' Metroplex label. Feeling that there were certain marketing aspects he would have handled differently, Saunderson decided to start up his own record label. Now he owns two: KMS Records and Fierce City Records, which concentrate on developing Detroit talent and Chicago talent respectively. Like many a sensible musician, Saunderson ploughs his earnings back into his studio.
"It's still got a long way to go", he admits, "but it's much improved compared to when I first started. I have more speakers and a lot more reverb units. I think programming reverb sounds is going to be the next step for me. I use Roland's SRV2000 a lot, and I'm into Lexicons. The SPX90's okay for some stuff."
Saunderson's instrument arsenal now takes in a Roland S550, Casio CZ5000, Roland JX8P, Korg Poly 800, Roland TB303 (the acid-house bassline machine) and Ensoniq Mirage. Drum-machine chores are taken care of by Roland's TR909, 808 and 727 together with an Alesis HR16 ("one of the cleanest drum machines I've ever heard") and his own sampled sounds.
"I like to use a combination of 909 and HR16 hi-hats, together with the 808 bass drum or sometimes the bass on the 909", he explains. "Those drum machines have a real good feel, both together and on their own."
Saunderson refuses to use sampled drum-machine sounds in place of the genuine article, as he explains: "Sampling changes the sounds in some way. I'll go into a studio and they'll say 'We have the 808 right here, sampled on disk', but I won't use those samples 'cos they're not the same at all. At one time a lot of groups were using samples rather than the actual machines, and somehow the results just didn't have the same feel, there was something missing."
Instead he prefers an offbeat approach to obtaining percussive sounds which is in tune with the creative spirit of sampling, for instance sampling a handclap, or a piece of paper being crumpled, and playing around with the tuning to see what sort of results he can get.
Currently Saunderson's favourite sampler is his Roland S550 - a fairly recent acquisition.
"I have around 125 disks for it", he enthuses. "I use it for drum sounds, synth sounds, guitar sounds, orchestra sounds, strings, jungle sounds, church bells... More or less anything, really. In fact, the S550's taken over from the Mirage. That's out."
Extracts from old records join drum-machine sounds in not finding their way into Saunderson's sampler.
"What's going to be the music of the future if people keep sampling all this stuff from the past?", he argues. "I figure that the people who're gonna be real successful are those who keep looking ahead, who're going to set the trend. Forget what's happened in the past. It was good, but let's move on."
When it comes to his synths, Saunderson often turns to another Roland instrument: "I use the Juno 106 a lot - in fact, I used it on the session last night. It's very easy to program, and I like the way you can mess with the frequencies. There's only so much you can do with it, but it has great sounds, you can really get some futuristic sounds out of it. I've got some sounds that I'm thinking maybe it's a bit too early to use them. I'll just wait till the time's right."
Not for nothing is Saunderson's best-known underground record called 'The Sound'.
"If I can't create a sound that I like, I find it very hard to create a song", he admits. "I get inspired by a good sound. It's like a message to me, it gives me a feeling for a rhythm or a melody. The sound's the most important thing.
"Usually I start by trying to program a bass sound, 'cos that's what the music needs. I'll use any of my keyboards. I sit around for hours trying to program sounds that no-one else has come up with before, sounds that are going to have a lot of energy. If you use presets you just end up sounding like everybody else."
"A lot of groups were using samples rather than the actual machines but the results didn't have the same feel, there was something missing."
Attempting to combine creating music, running a record label and staying on top of technological developments is by no means an easy task. Fortunately, Saunderson is able to enlist a little brotherly help on the technology front, as he explains:
"My brother's an engineer, used to do stuff for Brass Construction and Skyy, so he knows a lot about the technology. I always call him up before I get a piece of equipment. Technology's moving so fast, there's so much equipment it's crazy. We talk it over and he'll say 'Wait! Don't get that 'cos two weeks from now there's this coming out which is even better'."
Yet for Saunderson, owning the very latest gear is not an automatic priority. His primary interest is in choosing equipment which helps him to get the job done.
"I have a Commodore 128 running Dr. T's Sonus sequencing software, which is great", he enthuses. "When we were arranging the session with the Wee Papa Girl Rappers, the studio asked me what type of equipment I was going to use. When I told them I used the 128 they had a problem with that. It was like "Oh no, we use the 1040". I know the 1040's great, but I'm not used to working with it and I don't want to work with it. So they got me a 128. It's just convenient, 'cos I can do pre-production back home and bring my sequence disks over here.
"I've been talking to my brother about upgrading to a more powerful computer, though. He's recommended the Amiga. He uses one and reckons it's going to be the strongest computer for music."
Saunderson is in no hurry to be using the very latest SMPTE/MIDI synchroniser on the block, either.
"I use the Korg KMS30 sync box back home, and now I'm using one over here too", he explains. "I've had a lot of problems with SMPTE over here. Some machines don't seem to read the same, and sometimes there's problems with storing the bpm's and start times. My first night here there was a problem with the SMPTE, and we ended up having to cancel the session. I guess one day I'll get into SMPTE 'cos overall it's more convenient, but I've just got to have the time to learn more about it. Back home I engineer all my own stuff, but over here these guys know the equipment a lot better than me, so I let them engineer and I try to pick up pointers on what's happening.
"Every engineer I've used over here has been on top of what I'm doing, and I really admire that. The guy I was using last night was really into it. He knew what was happening, knew the scene, and it wasn't hard to tell him what I wanted - he almost read my mind.
"In fact, I'd say the engineers, the studios, the recording quality, the pressing plants and the mastering labs are all so much better here than in America. They're far in advance."
And Saunderson intends to put his money where his mouth is by recording some new Reese and Santonio material in London. He's already done pre-production work back in Detroit on a track called 'The Station'.
Saunderson refutes any suggestion that Techno is a cold and unemotional music.
"Take Derrick's 'Strings of Life'", he says. "He made that out of frustration with Detroit and the way people are acting. I know Detroit is the last place he wants to be; he doesn't care to be there at all. There aren't any lyrics to say what he feels, but I think the way he did the track is his way of saying it."
Together with his fellow Techno musicians, Saunderson is trying to forge a positive human use for technology which is in stark contrast to the Ford car plant's computerised automation.
He speaks in hushed tones about the human consequences of Detroit's depressed condition.
"There's a lot of violence, a lot of kids killing each other. I actually live 45 minutes out of Detroit, 'cos I don't even want to be there. The city's in a rebuilding stage. There's a lot of really expensive building going on, and the authorities are trying to attract a gambling casino there. At one time all the whites moved out to the suburbs, but now they all want to move back into town again, so a lot of the minorities are getting moved out.
"There's also a major drug problem at the moment. Crack is, like, crazy out there. It's very depressing, and there's nothing really positive I can say about the city as far as what's going on and the people that're running things. There's a lot of unemployment, a lot of people on welfare. I think the city puts the people in that bad situation, and a lot of young people coming up don't understand why they're in the situation they're in. It's a bad case.
"I really believe that a lot of drugs were planted in America. They were put among the minorities as a way of breaking down communities, of keeping blacks and other minorities against each other, of keeping the black race from rising. If someone asks me a thousand times, I'll swear that's the reason, that's what's happening.
"The only thing we can do is achieve something positive, set a good example. Beat the system by not doing what they want us to do."
Saunderson's method of beating the system is to become successful, and in the process help put Detroit back on the musical map. When the Motown empire travelled west, Detroit lost its musical soul. It is that soul which Techno's youthful exponents are attempting to restore to their troubled city. So where does the music go now?
"It depends on technology, on what's coming out next", Saunderson replies, characteristically. "Technology can change the music around. I think digital recording and mixing is definitely going to change music. You can be creative in new ways with that stuff.
"But I hope I can keep a concept. My Inner City record is getting a massive response in the States. It's in the clubs 'cos it has a good dance feel, but it can also be played on the radio. It might even cross over. So I'm looking strong for that type of sound, but I'm going to keep an underground sound too, 'cos I never want to forget my roots, and the underground sound will always be happening."
Interview by Simon Trask