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juan atkins

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interview by andrez for zebra & 3d world, 1999

Inspired as much by Kraftwerk and 'Bladerunner' as they were by the legacies of Motown, soul and jazz, a group of guys from Detroit, USA, took on electronic music in the 1980s and created something totally new. These days we call it techno. At the helm of this musical renaissance was one man called Juan Atkins, and he's still out there redefining sounds in his own fashion.

 

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In a matter of a thousand words, how do you introduce somebody who's been called the originator of techno and the godfather of the electronic groove? Once upon a time, towards the end of the '70s, the teenage Juan Atkins played bass in a funk band before meeting a guy called Rick Davies (alias 3070) and with his help kick-started seminal band Cybotron in 1981. Four years later Juan left the group to continue to produce what was now purely electronic music under the production alias of Model 500 - and along the way inspired school chums Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson to do the same. He also started up his own label. Called Metroplex, it was intended to continue the Cybotron legacy, to help new artists, and to push through the new sounds these guys were introducing to an unsuspecting world.

 

The legacy of Detroit's role in electronic dance music is quite obvious. Starting out with people like Juan, Derrick May, Blake Baxter, Jeff Mills, 'Mad' Mike Banks and Kevin Saunderson, the city's pre-eminence has continued on through Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen, Suburban Knight, Jay Denham and Claude Young. Given his own role in the baptismal stages of this city's electronic hiatus, it would be fruitful to note just where Juan Atkins sees Detroit these days and where it's headed as the next millennium approaches. "I think Detroit remains a very important city when it comes to electronic dance music," he assesses, "and I think it will always be a kind of reference point. I also think it will be a city where the future is reflected earlier than anywhere else, so Detroit should be noted as the place where preparations were made early for the next millennium."

 

What is it about the nature of Detroit that set it apart from other cities in America, let alone the rest of the world, in terms of the development of this thing called techno? "Who knows?" Juan mutters, a little like he's sick of the question. "It's a hard one to figure out and no-one will ever really know. I guess the reality is that Detroit was founded and based as an industrial city and of course when you're making the transfer to a technological society it would be obvious for the industrial cities to make the transfer first - and I think that would affect not just the business world but everything around it."

 

It's interesting then to compare and contrast the electronic music that emerged from the Motor City in the '80s with its European counterpart. Music by the likes of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and DAF was at times coldly austere and overtly masculine when compared with the warmer, funkier qualities of the American production line. There's also a progressive futurist aspect to most Detroit-made techno from this period. Derrick May once dubbed their sound "Kraftwerk meeting George Clinton in an elevator". Juan has his own theory about why this occurred. "Maybe techno coming out of Detroit had more of the black experience involved, and of course what we've grown up with is soul music and R&B stuff, and then there's funk itself. So I guess it would be only natural that more of these elements would show up."

 

Given the Detroit crew's pivotal role in the development of techno, it's downright strange that mainstream America is only now getting into the electronic groove, but via the imported sounds of British producers like the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers and Underworld. "It's history repeating itself," Juan declares. "I mean look back at the Beatles and the Rolling Stones - you can hear in their music that their main influence was Motown. It's obvious! . . . but it took the Beatles to be the supergroup - nobody from Motown could fit that bill."

 

 

An irritating aspect of history? "Of course it is - it's racism, you know? It's irritating because racism is suppression, so I guess you have to thank god that there are people in the world who don't really care about that. I think it's changing here in America, but too slowly. You have to remember that the industry in this country is based around capitalism, and that involves a certain amount of exploitation, an emphasis on marketing and profit, and bottom line. So when you have that you have people being over-cautious about market tastes and they'll underestimate a lot of things - like the black experience here in America. So we get ignored even when we do something innovative."

 

Fortunately this hasn't been the case elsewhere, especially in Europe. Juan's records as Model 500 were licensed to Belgium's R&S imprint from 1981, he released music as Output on the UK's Kinetix label, and he cut 'Jazz Is The Teacher' with 3MB, the Tresor label's in-house production team which consisted of Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz Von Oswald (one of the driving forces behind Basic Channel).

 

He's also continued with his own label Metroplex. "I started the label in 1985; the first three or four releases were definite classics and I think that's continued. Right now we've got some good quality emotional releases coming through and I think Metroplex is one label definitely always look out for, and as long as we can keep the new releases interesting it can always be a cool thing."

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