• Boca Grande

Shout Out to The Pioneers of Techno - The Belleville Three

Updated: Jun 11, 2020

Put your hands up for Detroitttt’ (you know what comes next), ‘OUR LOVELY CITY!' At 16 years old, I would lose my mind to Dutch DJ Fedde le Grande's iconic track. Hollered into a heady haze of Blue WKDs and Goldschlager, my love for its mischievous electronic beats foreshadowed a life-long obsession with dance music and placed me on a mind-bending journey of quasi-religious fanaticism for house and techno.

But despite my 15 year-long exploration, I’m rather ashamed to say that I’d never really questioned the roots of the genre of music that laid the foundations of my closest friendships and so many amnesiac (yet still unforgettable) memories.

I suppose I’d just imagined that techno had been spawned in the murky underbelly of Berlin, grew up in Berghain and then spread across Europe on a wave of ecstasy and smiley white faces.

In fact, it was only when I saw this:

that I realised I couldn't properly place the birthplace of techno at all. I've since learnt that before it was packaged as white and euphoric, techno was black and revolutionary. Its roots, almost forgotten, entrenched in Detroit...

So how did techno’s black roots become so invisible?

It’s something that Derrick May, Detroit’s innovator of techno has noted with regret: 'You've got black kids in this country who won't come out and dance... "they don't want to know about dance music…Nobody has a black audience except for the r n' b and rap crowd. I long for a black audience to hear my music. It hurts me to believe that black people are not down. Because I'm black.'

In a recent interview with Pete Tong, Seth Troxler - the treasured titan of techno from Detroit - laments the lack of representation of black artists in dance music, stating that he co-founded Tuskegee Records - ‘a label of cultural heritage’ - with The Martinez Brothers, after they realised ‘how few of us are left, such a lack of representation, considering it was us who invented it.’

He speaks of the struggle that African American techno DJs faced in finding a more open-minded clubbing experience, which ultimately resulted in many moving to Europe. Seth has of course achieved colossal success across the continent, however he acknowledges that his acceptance in Europe was in part due to him being from a ‘light-skinned black man from the American suburbs’. It was simply easier for Europe to connect with him. Meanwhile ‘the people who started this music were side-lined...causing loss of identity of what was inherently a black music genre, whitewashed into something more palatable.’

We all have a huge amount of work to do in addressing the systemic whitewashing that has taken place across so many industries, a large part of this work is moving towards a more holistic education that should go hand in hand with action. As part of my continuing education, I wanted to take the time to explore the origins of a genre of music that I adore, and to see what action is being taken to restore its roots. So, as a first step, this week’s Shout Out goes to some of the pioneers of electronic music, the black vanguards and futuristic minds of Detroit techno: The Belleville Three.

The Belleville Three: The group credited with inventing the musical style known as Detroit techno. Juan Atkins, often heralded as the ‘Godfather of Techno,’ Kevin Saunderson (The Elevator) and Derrick May (The Innovator) were the musicians that made up The Belleville Three. They met as teenagers in the early 80s, living just outside of Detroit in a town called Belleville, these three guys came together with whatever technology they could get their hands on and pioneered the cutting-edge creations characterised by the sounds of synths and driving beats.

The Belleville Three

Let's get warmed up with some Belleville bangers:

'Ohhhhhhhh, THAT one!' I hear you cry. Yes yes, oh yes. There is a wealth of riveting information online, so please take the time to dive far deeper, (last week was whiled away listening to their interviews, watching old sets and recognising records that have been sampled by so many of the tracks that I love.) But of course, inventing a new genre of music is an unfathomable feat. It’s a process that can’t be understood simply by trawling through discographies. Profound musical movements are formed in unique situations, a combination of remarkable talent, influences, advancements and struggles that percolate, in this instance, to produce one of the most essential musical movements of the 20th century.

I’ve taken a look at what appear to be the unique elements and ingredients fundamental in forming what is arguably the most innovative genre in the study of African American music.

Detroit as a test market and an experimental proving ground Kevin had moved from New York to Detroit at the age of 9, and would meet Derrick and Juan in Belleville. But whilst the black communities of Chicago and New York were still devoted to the sounds of disco, of Chaka Khan and Chic, the music coming out of Detroit was far more experimental. In the early 80s, ‘test’ radio stations would pop up throughout Detroit that played with different genres of music; a major influence on the scene was The Electrifying Mojo, a sci-fi visionary, disk jockey and radio personality who ruled the Detroit airwaves. 'He was an underground cult hero,' says Juan Atkins. In an interview with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The Belleville Three speak of their exposure as teenagers to this experimental scene, to so many styles and genres and to artists like Kraftwerk, Parliament and the B-52’s. 'We didn’t grow up with the idea that being black, we should like a certain type of music,' it was a freedom that inspired innovation and a creative output that dawned an entirely new genre.

Relentless Ambition

Whilst Electrifying Mojo certainly shaped The Belleville Three’s progression, it was the plucky persistence and PR efforts of a young Derrick May that were pivotal to their success. As just a teenager, Derrick May would steal his mum’s car whilst she was sleeping, driving at 4am to the diner that Mojo would eat at after his late-night radio show, waiting with a demo of Juan’s ‘Alley’s of my Mind.’ It took two months of characteristic perseverance and elicit 4am drives before Derrick was able to get the demo into Mojo’s hands. Mojo played ‘Alleys of my Mind’ on his show, making it one of the first techno records to ever be played, laying down a solid foundation of guitars and machine funk for techno’s development.

The Electrifying Mojo

The rise of electronics and technology We didn’t realise music could be made with machines, synthesisers and computers at that time,’ Kevin said, we thought we needed a complete band to make the music.’ Similarly, Juan recalls that it was Rick Davis who gave him the wings to fly into those unchartered electronic stratospheres by showing him sequencers and drum machines. For those who want to dig into the detail, this interview provides an in-depth description of the equipment the three music producers were using, highlighting just how progressive the Detroit techno sound really was.

The Vision

Juan Atkins was just sixteen years old when he said he would start a music label called ‘Metroplex.’ in a time when no one had independent record labels, this was remarkably bold and forward-thinking, as visionary and futuristic as the sounds he would go onto create.

Social Background? I imagine that a few of you are expecting me to cite The Belleville Three’s social struggles as an influence in their work. In a recent Mixmag interview, Derrick May comments on this assumption. I’ve included his complete response because I think it’s extremely powerful (could have footnoted it, but who reads the footnotes?’) Full article to be found here: https://mixmag.net/feature/derrick-may-interview, but TLDR they grew up in middle-class suburbia, not the ghetto that many would incorrectly assume.


'Recently Jeff Mills spoke about how dance music used to be inherently political but that it’s since changed and become too middle class, do you have any thoughts on that?' Derrick May:

'Well like I said, we come from middle class families. We’re not poor kids. The Detroit music scene was never a poor, abject scene... I didn’t grow up poor. None of us did. And there’s that impression that because we’re black and we come from Detroit that we’re poor dumbass black kids or whatever. We’re not, we never were. We always had a perspective about this music, where we wanted it to go. We had a vision. We believed in author Alvin Toffler and other people like that, we listened to all this other electronic music that gave us this insight, we were well into intellectual sci-fi movies and books. We have never been these dumbass black kids from nowhere that made this music, like this idea fell out of the fucking sky. And every time journalists would come and see us back in the day they would always say the one question to us that was condescending and insulting: ‘So how did you make this music? How did you do this?’ What do you mean how did we do this? And it was always the same, and then it turned out to be a positive thing in the end because journalists were always impressed and amazed and we always spoke so well, and they realised very quickly that we’re not stupid and we didn’t come from abject poverty. We lived around poverty, we lived in Detroit. We lived around strife, sadness, struggle. We lived around anger and madness and resentment. But we absorbed it in a very prophetic way, in a very sympathetic, empathising manner where it became our backdrop to the story of the likes of us and the city of Detroit. We became the poets and the speakers and the writers of our city and our city’s struggle.'

These musicians built an entirely new construct upon which they conceived, produced and conceptualised music. Its template would later inspire Detroit DJs such as "Mad" Mike Banks, Jeff Mills, and Robert Hood who came together to form Underground Resistance - a Detroit collective that for more than two decades has been focused on future-minded techno with urgent political motivations. Their ambition to influence Detroit’s poor black communities with techno were born out of a reaction to urban decay, a synthy side-effect of African-American struggle, and indeed, as a form of protest.

So, how we can take techno back to black?

Whilst Seth Troxler is back in LA and committed to reigniting the dance scene on American soil, New York transplants Mandy Harris Williams and Alma Lee have founded ‘Rave Reparations’ - a social experiment based in LA aiming to subvert the whitewashing in clubs. They are striving to help make dance clubs more black again, by making it easier, and safer, for black people to attend Los Angeles dance parties, held at secret underground locations across the city.

Ultimately, I believe firmly in the idea that ‘you cannot be what you cannot see,' and as I write this, Resident Advisor released a statement outlining their commitment to ‘emphasise dance music’s black roots’ in ‘re-writing the narrative of electronic music history that has been skewed in the past.’ So we must look forward to, and insist on, the industry big guns playing a more vital role in taking techno back to black.

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