More than a Movement: the evolution of Detroit's legendary techno festival


Seventeen years ago I was working for a Detroit techno record label when the city's first electronic music festival was staged at Hart Plaza, a promenade on the banks of the Detroit River. The respected producer and DJ Carl Craig, along with a local PR company, had proposed the idea to the city — and our underground scene rallied around him. In 2000, no one thought that a free outdoor techno festival in downtown was possible. The city, suffering from its post-apocalyptic Robocop reputation, was best known for its economic decline and broken automotive industry. The city still had its musical pedigree, and techno was its latest European export — except that most Detroiters had never heard of the tradition of Detroit techno. It was a spectacular time to be in the Detroit underground, if you were young and creative, long before it was identified as an edgy destination city for American dreamers.

Word spread quickly to internet-savvy hard-core techno fans on the 313 listserv that their favorite DJs Rolando, Derrick May and Richie Hawtin were booked along with Craig's eclectic lineup that included J Dilla, Mos Def, and The Roots. In those pre-MySpace, pre-Friendster, pre-Facebook days, my friends and I flyered for the festival in gay clubs and sweaty inner-city bars, where DJs mixed Detroit-made bass-heavy techno tracks with the latest Outkast and Missy Elliott hits.

Day one, on the morning of that first festival, it poured rain as frazzled volunteers scrambled to plug in speakers and build stages. We prepared for the concept to fail and fade away. Until it didn't. There was this you-had-to-be-there moment when the DJ Stacey Pullen played on the main stage and the bowl filled with dancing bodies at dusk. Children bopped alongside senior citizens and b-boys popped and locked to four-four rhythms and percussive house beats. Backstage there were hugs, shouts, and happy tears. As the weekend party raged on, fans from around the world scrambled to book flights to be a part of the historic occasion. TV camera crews started showing up, documenting the scene. Officials tallied the attendance records at close to a million people. An annual Memorial Day tradition was born.

Smaller, better managed, and much more expensive

This past Memorial Day weekend I made the familiar pilgrimage to the Movement festival. It still takes place on the same riverfront, but much more has changed over the past 17 years. And the festival — attended by 40,000 people a day — is considerably smaller and better managed. The Detroit Electronic Music Festival was renamed Movement 10 years ago, when Paxahau, a collective of DJs and promoters and longtime Detroit techno fans, won a bid from the city to produce the festival. They continue to curate it with the passion that distinguishes it from the post-rave, lose-your-mind, Ultra-Daisy festival circuit. And it's still a huge source of local pride — this year, the city officially declared the week of the festival Techno Week in Detroit and honored some its key players. Many of the local DJs have played on the stages multiple times, faithfully making time for it in their touring schedule

But like everything in contemporary culture, Movement is not immune to music industry economics. The once free festival now has daily $95 price tag and a VIP package that costs over $300. Though it takes place in a city that is 80 percent black, the festival's attendees are mostly young white people. And most Americans still have no idea that electronic music is a Midwestern creation.

Kraftwerk were headliners at this year's festival, and the most distinct moment I experienced this year was at their 3D set on Saturday night. The bowl facing the main stage, nestled in the belly of the city's small array of downtown skyscrapers, swelled with writhing bodies. Kraftwerk appeared in the moonlight, all-Bauhaus and Dusseldorf-cool, and we put on our glasses. When they dropped the beat on "Trans Europe Express" I shivered. On the screen, a projection of a flying saucer landed on our Techno Boulevard. For Detroit — and anyone who is a student of legit electronic music history —  this was a full-circle moment.

Kraftwerk, George Clinton, and Giorgio Moroder were the precursors to Chicago house and Detroit techno, a genre that blends hard mechanical beats with the emotional intelligence of funk. In the shuffle of mostly European EDM hype in the US, it's often overlooked that African-American musicians from Detroit are largely responsible for creating this form of music in the 1980s. A young musician named Juan Atkins took inspiration from the region's dystopian physicality and his love for science fiction, particularly Albert Toffler's Future Shock. He formed a group called Cybotron and released the first techno record "Alleys of Your Mind," in 1981. His Belleville high school classmates Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Eddie Fowlkes also began to DJ and produce during this time, and they would eventually go on to launch record labels in Detroit, establishing many of the label practices that informed the next two decades of indie music. A local music scene, built from vinyl records and computerized gear was born. The genre continued to expand, and a second wave of producers emerged in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, including Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills, Moodymann, Carl Craig, and Octave One.

But by the time electronic music exploded in Europe and eventually permeated the US pop market, the story of black DJs and producers had faded from the narrative. Electronic music had turned into the world's dominant party soundtrack, but the impetus behind its creation was largely lost. In a feature last year, Pitchfork addressed the political leanings of those early artists, but the breadth and depth of the music was more than political; it was celebratory, Afrofuturist, and there to make you dance. That piece of the genre is 100 percent Detroit, and it's what's made techno universal.

Movement Festival Detroit Tamara Warren

(Tamara Warren)

Several decades later, it's a curious time in Detroit and electronic music culture. Much of the city's cultural scene has been appropriated by newcomers, and many of the African-American residents feel torn between hope and a profound sense of being left behind. The concept of Detroit as a blank canvas ripe for reinvention appeals to the pioneer spirit, but often at the expense of Detroit's strong African-American middle class and long history of black leadership. While new farm-to-table restaurants and bike shops open that cater to almost all-white customers, and Shinola advertises its Detroit headquarters on New York City billboards, many black-owned businesses in the newly developed communities have lost their leases after the 2008 recession. Young people are moving to Detroit from the suburbs and across the country to pursue creative careers — many in the music industry — but still nearly 40 percent of the city's population live below the poverty line, and Detroit has been widely criticized for turning off residents' water who have delinquent bills, causing a potential public health risk.

The result is a city in flux that still feels widely segregated by both race and class. This transition is evident in the faces of the festival crowd. In the early days, it was common to see diverse groups of teenagers and families hanging out next to the candy ravers. The contrast today is striking. "When festivals were free at Hart Plaza, more people were likely to wander downtown to people watch and sample the offerings," writes BLAC columnist Desiree Cooper. "Because the godparents of techno and house are Black Detroiters, it's a shame that Movement is such a non-event for so many of us."

Movement is a grand party we both delight in and slightly dread

But the Movement festival continues to flourish, stirring interest in Detroit and its strong musical roots. And this year, like always, there were pockets of excellent music that highlighted Detroit's contribution past and present, from Juan Atkins' dark duo with German producer Moritz von Oswald, to an infectious DJ performance by the up-and-coming Detroit producer Kyle Hall, and a moving live set by funk musician Amp Fiddler, who has influenced scores of both techno and hip-hop producers. The after parties catered to a broader crowd, and included at least one fundraiser for Michigan causes. International visitors stopped by the Submerge techno museum to learn more about the genre's history and bought stacks vinyl records from Somewhere in Detroit, down the street from Motown. On Saturday night, Moodymann's record label threw its biannual all-night skating party at a city roller rink, where the rapper Rakim made a surprise appearance under disco lights.

Movement isn't about only seeing your favorite DJ or reflecting on the state of the city or dodging the odd costumed fans in pink fuzzy slippers. As the crowds get younger, and the rest of us become more sage, Movement is a grand party that we both delight in and slightly dread. The producer Mad Mike, who founded Underground Resistance, once told me that the true mark of classic record is its timeless nature — you can can hear it in any era and it still sounds fresh. Detroit's greatest techno tracks have this impact. In this city that still captures the imagination, the music has always been about how the past lives in the future.