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BELLEVILLE 3: JUAN ATKINS (THE INITIATOR) / DERRICK MAY (THE INNOVATOR) / KEVIN SAUNDERSON (THE ELEVATOR)
The Belleville Three
The three individuals most closely associated with the birth of Detroit techno as a genre are Juan Atkins (The Initiator), Kevin Saunderson (The Elevator) and Derrick May (The Innovator), also known as the "Belleville Three". These three high school friends from the Detroit suburb would soon find their basement tracks in dancefloor demand, thanks in part to seminal Detroit radio personality The Electrifying Mojo. Ironically, Derrick May once described Detroit techno music as being a "complete mistake...like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator, with only a sequencer to keep them company."
Kevin Saunderson was born in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of nine he moved to Michigan, where he attended Belleville High School in Belleville, a town some 30 miles from Detroit. In school he befriended Derrick May and Juan Atkins, both of whom had been born in Detroit but later moved to rural Belleville. At the time, the three were among the few black students in their high school.
The location of Belleville was key to the formation of the Belleville Three as musicians. Because the town was still “pretty racial at the time,” according to Saunderson, “we three kind of gelled right away.” The rural setting also afforded a different setting in which to experience the music. “We perceived the music differently than you would if you encountered it in dance clubs. We'd sit back with the lights off and listen to records by Bootsy and Yellow Magic Orchestra. We never took it as just entertainment, we took it as a serious philosophy,” recalls May.
Belleville was located near several automobile factories, which provided well-paying jobs to a racially integrated workforce. “Everybody was equal,” Atkins explained in an interview.“So what happened is that you’ve got this environment with kids that come up somewhat snobby, ‘cos hey, their parents are making money working at Ford or GM or Chrysler, been elevated to a foreman, maybe even a white-collar job.” European acts like Kraftwerk were popular among middle-class black youth.
The segratory stigma attaching to Eight Mile Road was comparable to that of Watts in Los Angeles, The Bronx in New York or South Chicago. Although the Belleville Three lived outside the city limits, their influence in loft apartment parties, after hours and high school clubs and late night radio united listeners of progressive dance music from above and below Eight Mile Road. Even Techno-friendly regular hours clubs like The Shelter, The Music Institute and The Majestic were incubators Techno's progress from basements and late night radio onto the dancefloors of the world.
During the first wave of Detroit techno scene of the 80s, huge parties were held with upwards to fifty or more competing DJs. Most of the early party-goers were made up of middle-class black youths. However, as Detroit experienced heavy economic downfall, many of the middle-class white families fled to the suburbs in what is called the "white flight" of the early 70s while middle-class black families were displaced by the degentrification of once securely middle-class black districts.
Detroit Techno as a genre created a new-found, integrated club scene in Detroit that had not been felt in a general sense after the Motown label moved to Los Angeles. Television programs like TV62 - WGPR's "The Scene" - featured a racially and ethnically very mixed selection of dancers every weekday after school, but the playlist was typically jammed with the R&B and Funk tracks of the day, like Prince or the Gap Band. Breakouts like Juan Atkins's Technicolor, under his Model 500 moniker, eventually found their way onto The Scene, and helped to validate the burgeoning local Techno underground with the urban high school set, college radio programmers and DJs from Chicago to London and beyond. In addition, the advent of a huge circuit of local parties in Detroit spawned competition between a number of DJs, with a week's preparation for a party being common.
The club scene was as much in transition as the city they were in. The wide-spread popularity of techno across socio-economic lines led to a mixing between West Side and elite high school youths with ghetto and gangster "jits" (abbreviation for "jitterbug"). Unfortunately, the economic problems of Detroit and the prevalent social apathy and desolation led to a proliferation of gun violence within clubs and by 1986, the techno club scenes were wrought with gun shootings, fights, and acts of violence further compounding the sociological and economic recovery of Detroit.
This wave of violence, economic collapse, and socio-communal atrophy extensively affected the Detroit techno themes. Still influenced by the same Euro sounds, Juan Atkins and Rick Davis formed Cybotron producing Detroit hits like Alleys of Your Mind, Techno City, Cosmic Cars, and Clear before signing onto the Fantasy label. However, Cybotron's dominant mood of tech-noir and desolation played into describing the city's decline. "But for all their futuristic mise-en-scene, the vision underlying Cybotron songs was Detroit-specific... from industrial boomtown to post-Fordist wasteland, from US capital of auto manufacturing to US capital of homicide."By the end of the first successful wave of Detroit techno, the city's center had become a ghost town and the techno landscape was evolving into a more hardcore, militaristic frenzy of drug-infused rave and trance scene.
The three teenage friends bonded while listening to an eclectic mix of music: Kraftwerk, Parliament, Prince, and The B-52's. The electronic and funk sounds that influenced the Belleville Three came primarily from a 5-hour late-night radio show called The Midnight Funk Association, broadcast in Detroit by DJ Charles "Electrifyin' Mojo" Johnson on WGPR. Juan Atkins was inspired to buy a synthesizer after hearing Parliament. Atkins was also the first in the group to take up turntablism, teaching May and Saunderson how to DJ.
Under the name Deep Space Soundworks, Atkins and May began to DJ on Detroit’s party circuit. By 1981, Mojo was playing the record mixes recorded by the Belleville Three, who were also branching out to work with other musicians. The trio traveled to Chicago to investigate the house music scene there, particularly the legendary Chicago DJs Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles.House was a natural progression from disco music, so that the trio began to formulate the synthesis of this dance music with the mechanical sounds of groups like Kraftwerk, in a way that reflected post-industrialist Detroit. An obsession with the future and its machines is reflected in much of their music, because, according to Atkins, Detroit is the most advanced in the transition away from industrialism.
First Wave of Detroit Techno
While attending Washtenaw Community College, Atkins met Rick Davis and formed Cybotron with him. Their first single “Alleys of Your Mind”—recorded on their Deep Space label in 1981—sold 15,000 copies, and the success of two follow-up singles, “Cosmic Cars” and “Clear,” led the California-based label Fantasy to sign the duo and release their album, Clear. After Cybotron split due to creative differences, Atkins began recording as Model 500 on his own label, Metroplex, in 1985. His landmark single, “No UFOs,” soon arrived. Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson also recorded on Metroplex.
Although the Detroit musicians—the Belleville Three were a close-knit group who shared equipment and studio space, and who helped each other with projects, friction developed. Each member of the Belleville Three branched off on his own record label. May's Transmat began as a sublabel imprint of Metroplex. Saunderson founded KMS based on his own initials. They set up shop in close proximity to one another, in Detroit’s Eastern Market district.
Presently Detroit has a genuine techno/rave scene with a varied cast of dedicated DJs, producers, promoters, fans, and dancers. No other city in the United States has an underground techno party scene as vibrant and fiercely protected and respected as the techno party scene/community in Detroit.