Detroit Techno’s Dance with Death

As automation ravaged Detroit, black musicians created a new sound that merged human and machine. With it came a vision for working-class self-organization in the Motor City.

(Matt Cowan / Getty Images for Coachella)

Detroit techno was born just as Motor City began to die. That was when, in the 1980s, three black teenagers from the suburb of Belleville — Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson — set out to make something new: music that merged human and machine.

More conceptually ambitious than other emergent styles like hip-hop, house, and garage, techno found eager audiences in the Europe of the late 1980s — which made the Belleville Three, along with a second wave of Detroit artists, into international sensations. The originators succeeded in creating a home for danceable but avant-garde electronic music — but in Berlin, not in Michigan. Today “techno” is likely to conjure up pill-popping European festival DJs instead of the black innovators operating from the heart of industrial collapse. As Detroit’s biggest musical artist, Eminem, would famously put it in 2002’s “Without Me,” “Nobody listens to techno!”

For artist and music producer DeForrest Brown Jr, “an honest revision of techno’s history would follow a trail of themes like white extractive capitalism, white flight and re-urbanization and the economics of cultural theft.” His 2022 book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, expands on this. It’s a startlingly ambitious gathering of materials — interviews, reading lists, discographies, concepts. The result is itself akin to a DJ mix, where the act of juxtaposition is the grounds for exploring hidden resonances. The opening pages make Brown’s agenda clear: to sever techno’s association with European clubs and to recast it as a component of African American cultural and political struggle — “a technologically optimized form of soul music.”

This is a compelling project, but to make such an argument requires simplifying the complex interplay of race and class particular to the birth of Detroit techno. In 1972, Motown Records left the Motor City, leaving a void that was filled by an intensely eclectic approach to music driven by remarkably visionary DJs. On the radio, the Electrifying Mojo and Jeff Mills crafted science-fiction soundscapes where synthesizer-forward experiments from Parliament, Tangerine Dream, and Giorgio Moroder came together for the purposes of mind expansion. In Detroit’s unique youth club scene — where Atkins, May, and Saunderson DJed — futuristic British new wave and robotic Italian disco were all the rage. This European music signified a high-class sophistication that was attractive to members of the city’s increasingly precarious black middle class, who, according to Atkins, sought “to distance themselves from the kids that were coming up in the projects, in the ghetto,” of East Detroit. Techno, in its origins, was not simply black music but music made by a self-consciously African American middle class.

Juan Atkins cribbed the term “techno” from The Third Wave, a 1980 book by futurist Alvin Toffler, which he encountered in a “future studies” class. It portrayed the automation of work not as a prelude to mass unemployment but as the basis for a world of work determined by individual agency and personal creativity. Toffler argued that information-based economies were supplanting the industry of the Second Wave (agriculture, of course, being the first). For Toffler, a former communist, this new economy undermined the basis for class conflict. In the Third Wave, information-based workers “own a critical, often irreplaceable, share of the means of production”: their intelligence and skill set. With these abilities, “de-massified” workers would blur the line between production and consumption. Aided by telecommunications, workers would leave the offices and factories and instead tinker from “electronic cottages” located anywhere.

The rise of the DJ — an occupation that was itself a cost-saving automation for clubs, which no longer had to hire live bands — is the embodiment of Toffler’s description of the de-massified workers of the Third Wave. The best DJs are not simply skilled knob twiddlers but connoisseurs with discerning tastes developed from countless hours listening to music. DJs are geographically independent, able to erect an “electronic cottage” in clubs around the world with little more than an airline ticket and a crate of records — or, today, a USB drive. This is precisely the career path taken by Detroit techno’s originators, with many relocating to cities like Amsterdam and Berlin.

Brown amends his presentation of Toffler’s futurism with a social analysis of automation borrowed from the remarkable work of the Detroit-based autoworker and Marxist theoretician James Boggs. As factories started to lay off workers in the 1960s, Boggs argued that automation, understood through the lens of the United States’ racialized class structure, portended a devastating future — particularly for black workers. Jobs would not be coming back. Black Americans faced a future of joblessness and destitution unless they could leverage their positions in “the fields of education, social and civil service” to lead a revolutionary movement for a different type of society: “the important decisions will be made about the structure of society at the stage of cybernation.”

By the 1980s, Boggs embraced a more multicultural working-class view. The black middle classes were leaving the city, just as many successful techno artists would, and so struggle would continue with the people who had no other option but to stay: “not only blacks but Chicanos, Arab Americans, Asians, and poor whites.” Those who remained had to take on the responsibility for rebuilding the city through “collective self-reliance,” a process that focused on developing community infrastructure, from gardens to repair shops to daycare networks. For Boggs, the goal was to construct new social relations capable of rebuilding Detroit without support from big business or the political establishment.

What would a more Boggsian, rather than Tofflerian, techno-rebellion look like?

It might look like the career of Mike Banks of Underground Resistance. UR, both a musical collective and a record label, was formed by Banks and Jeff Mills in 1990 (Mills left the group and moved to Berlin shortly after). Its driving industrial-tinged sound and militant branding earned comparisons to Public Enemy. But beyond oppositional aesthetics, the politics of UR emerge from how Banks has operated the organization since the early ’90s.

Bucking the trend of pursuing more lucrative opportunities abroad, Banks decided to stay in Detroit. He continued to nurture the city’s scene through the ’90s — most notably, the legendary Afrofuturist electro act Drexciya, whose members hailed from the East Side of Detroit, the kinds of people the 1980s teen dance circuit spurned. Banks also runs Submerge record store, which reverses techno’s migratory flows by drawing in techno fans from around the world on pilgrimages for exclusive records. In a 2007 interview with Mark Fisher, Banks was explicit that an important function of UR was to offer an alternative vision to youth: “What UR has been in the city is a hope, and the young people, it’s a great opportunity for them, it’s hope for them.” With UR, techno takes on the role of a culturally driven community-development project. Banks has sought to restore the adventurous local radio that inspired his generation and, like Boggs, is a consistent advocate for public transportation.

But the politics of countercultures, like the politics of music, are notoriously slippery. As Toffler understood, they often enough succeed at revitalizing the moribund consumer markets of capitalism rather than transcending them. To achieve the latter, it won’t be enough to imagine an alternative future — it will require the laborious effort of constructing it.