Techno City:
Race, Space and the DEMF

The attendance at 2008's DEMF was roughly one person to each of Detroit's 70,000 vacant houses. Greg Scruggs reflects on his first visit to Techno City

By Greg Scruggs

As the sun came up over Detroit, Michigan on the Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, the conversation turned, as it always seems to with visitors, to emptiness. “70,000 vacant houses,” one Detroiter told me while a crew began setting up turntables on the patio of the TV Bar. We were lounging in the warming dawn, slowly unwinding from an all-nighter after the first day of Movement: Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival (DEMF). “It’s a city built for three million that now has less than one,” another guy piped in. The smell of charcoal wafted through the air as they began setting up a barbeque. This was, technically, an after-after-party. “And you live here?” I asked the armchair demographer incredulously. “Yeah, man. It’s like fucking tumbleweeds.” It’s easy to throw an outdoor party at 7am on a Sunday morning when there’s no one around to complain. But I’d forgotten my sunglasses and my eyes weren’t taking too kindly to the rapidly approaching day after such a long night. It was time to rest up for the remaining two days of DEMF.

Detroit is the only city in American history to have crested, and then fallen below, one million in population. From a peak in 1950 of 1,850,000 residents, the great exodus from the Motor City left it with 950,000 in the 2000 census. While other cities have suffered higher rates of depletion — Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Buffalo all top Detroit in percentage of residents lost since peak population — Detroit’s shrinkage is so significant because the city was once so great: the fourth largest in the United States. But the city was a victim of its own success. Henry Ford wanted every autoworker to afford his own car, paving the asphalt for the mass exodus after World War II. The city’s streetcar system shut down in 1956 and the federally subsidised interstate highway system began at the same time. Northland Mall, the first suburban shopping mall in the United States, opened two years earlier in the suburb of Oak Park.

White flight, as the postwar suburban growth is called, was endemic to most American cities, abetted by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) tactic of redlining, which demarcated entire neighbourhoods — often inner city and black — as high-risk and unsuitable for federally subsidised mortgages. White populations fled urban cores to the picket fences and manicured lawns of the suburbs with the help of Uncle Sam. By the mid-’50s, the suburban population exceeded Detroit’s. Emptied neighbourhoods became destroyed ones, especially after the 1967 riots that came a year ahead of the 1968 race riots nationwide following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Suburban Techno, Urban Renaissance

Kevin Saunderson, Derrick, May, and Juan Atkins were 9, 10, and 11 years old when Coleman Young was inaugurated as the first black mayor of Detroit in 1974. This did not have immediate repercussions for them — they weren’t Detroiters. The 'Belleville Three', as they’ve become mythically known, were from a decidedly leafier suburb about 30 miles outside of the Motor City, the product of a middle-class upbringing. Kraftwerk and assorted Europhile tastes were looking beyond working-class black Detroit, stronghold of jit. Granted, both city and suburban sounds were buoyed by the ecumenical taste of the Electrifying Mojo, Detroit’s legendary radio DJ of the late ’70s and ’80s.

At its outset, then, what became known as Detroit techno was not the pervasive soundtrack of the city. While it reflected the eerie environment of post-industrial decline, evident throughout the Detroit metro area, it was less attuned to the ongoing racial and political struggles in the city. Mayor Young was controversial to the last over his five terms, accused of hardening racial segregation in his invention of 8 Mile as the psycho-geographical border between the black city and the white suburbs. Detroit continued to empty out, losing nearly another half million residents, mostly white, during his almost twenty years in office. By 1993, the suburbs had grown enough to warrant their own area code, and 313, formally used for all of metro Detroit, became reserved just for the city, making “the 313” into a badge of Detroit authenticity.

Throughout Young’s mayoralty, the economy continued to bottom out while he “was faced with the paradoxical task of creating an image for the city that appealed to both its African American majority population and to the white-dominated world of investment."1 He did successfully woo the world of investment on one occasion, when “Henry Ford II flexed his corporate muscles, bringing the private side of Detroit’s public-private partnership to life in a way that has never been repeated."2 The result was a rebranding of Detroit as “the Renaissance City” and the construction of the Renaissance Center, a complex of seven interconnected skyscrapers that dominate the skyline. In Fortification Architecture Detroit, Mitch Cope argues, “The most extreme example of a fortification in Detroit is the Renaissance Center. Designed by John Portman and completed in 1977, it is, in the architect’s own words, an ‘other world’ with an interior that is a ‘total environment,’ a city within a building. Actually, it is a modern-day medieval fortress strategically situated on the outer bend of the Detroit river [sic], complete with an exterior concrete façade, an entrance blockaded by 24-foot-high concrete pyramid bunkers, bridges, catwalks, and glass towers at each corner.”3

Renaissance for who exactly? Visitors streak in from the suburbs via I-94 or I-75, highways whose construction cut through the heart of several Detroit neighbourhoods (“the location of the freeway was chosen also to destroy a part of the city which developers and city planners deemed undesirable and dangerous”4), valet park at the RenCen, now the world headquarters for General Motors, and ogle the latest model cars in a circular showroom while browsing luxury stores along the circumference of the skyscraper-cum-shopping mall. Is this what Coleman Young meant by the renaissance city? Urban designer Ron Harwood, a lifelong resident of the Detroit metro area, points to a prominently placed sculpture downtown: The Fist of Joe Louis. The Brown Bomber is a certified Detroit hero and a statue of him greets visitors at the entrance to Cobo Hall, a downtown arena and convention center. But The Fist, unveiled in 1987, strikes Harwood as a provocation: the fist of black power, ungloved, disembodied from the man, focusing on the potential for violence. It’s the fist behind Coleman Young’s demarcation of 8 Mile and the milestone of 1980, when Detroit became a majority black city for the first time in its history. The notion of a renaissance city, Harwood opined, is that of Detroit reclaiming itself as a black city. When it comes to a soundtrack for black Detroit in the 1980s, one could no longer look to Motown Records, whose soulful pop music ruled the airwaves in the ’60s. They had moved to Los Angeles in 1972. 1987 was, however, the year Derrick May, recording as Rhythim is Rhythim, released Strings of Life.

But Strings of Life really caught on across the pond, helping ignite the acid house phenomenon throughout Europe at the end of the ’80s. The Belleville Three, despite establishing deeper roots in Detroit proper, including three record labels (Transmat, Metroplex, KMS) and a club (The Music Institute), found their biggest audiences on the other side of the Atlantic. Techno was, and to some extent remains, a dirty word in the US. Detroit’s own Eminem lashed out in his 2002 single Without Me: “And Moby, you can get stomped by Obie, / You 36-year-old bald-headed fag blow me / You don't know me, you're too old / Let go, it's over, nobody listens to techno.”

The Good Life at Hart Plaza

Moby headlined the main stage on the first day of this year’s DEMF. Eminem and his Detroit rap crew, D12, were nowhere to be seen. While electronic music purists were skeptical of a major commercial act like Moby, he drew a capacity crowd for a set of hard techno that sounded nothing like his recent studio albums. The main stage occupies the amphitheatre of Hart Plaza, in the centre of downtown Detroit, with the Renaissance Center looming overhead and the Fist of Joe Louis just outside the main entrance.

2008 makes nine straight festivals now, one for each year of the new millennium. Not that the decade has been smooth sailing, as DEMF has gone through the roster of Detroit techno legends with mixed results, successively employing second generation innovator Carl Craig, then Derrick May, then Kevin Saunderson as creative directors, only to end up in controversy, firings, resignations, and ill will. But, logistically at least, DEMF appears to have finally hit its stride with promotion group Paxahau. While the plucky festival of yore — free admission, a line-up curated by Detroit DJs themselves — has yielded to a more professional operation, there is much consensus that the assurance the show will go on is worth any loss of spontaneity.

Under Paxahau, DEMF has taken a big-tent approach to electronic music, both in terms of quantity and diversity. Expanded to five stages this year and running noon to midnight on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday of the last full weekend in May, it would take some serious stamina, and possibly a few extra ears, to catch everything. As such, a truly comprehensive review is impossible. There were highlights regardless. Carl Craig, whose tenuous relationship with DEMF dates back to his 2002 firing, headlined the main stage on Sunday night with a performance that transcended the possibilities of electronic music. Working off a laptop, he weaved in and out of his own work, including his remixes of Faze Action’s In the Trees and Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom’s Relevee, while sharing the stage with fellow 313 scenesters Niko Marks and Kelvin Sholar on keys, as well as Detroit jazzman Wendell Harrison on saxophone and clarinet. Craig has been experimenting with this techno-jazz fusion for a couple years now and it makes for an awe-inspiring live performance. The only disappointment is that he played for just an hour, beginning at 11pm and ending at the festival’s midnight curfew, while the set appeared to be in its infancy, just starting to climb out of its slow build-up when he had to pull the plug.

Packed into the middle of the day, plenty of locals from the Detroit orbital — Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International and M_nus, founded by Windsor, Ontario native Richie Hawtin — threw down festival party sets. The M_nus crew in particular was in full force on Sunday, beginning with Richie’s kid brother Matthew then running through Konrad Black, Heartthrob, Paco Osuna, Magda, and finally Mr. M_nus himself. Magda’s set probably took the day, featuring surprisingly funky cuts as it revved up. The M_nusers were fresh off a Saturday night after-party kicking off their 10-year anniversary tour.  Between the Hollywood-esque flyer and the sci-fi gimmickery, M_nus is either trying to resurrect the schizophrenia of ’80s Detroit techno artists or they’ve simply jumped the shark, and charging the same amount for their one party as a ticket to the entire festival costs while they do it. I sensed a lot of backlash, both on the messageboards and among festivalgoers, and I myself was disappointed to see the party farmed out to LiveNation, a corporate event promoter notorious for steep prices and inflexible door policies (i.e. cross this line and you are officially out of the club, no reentry, no exceptions).

As an antidote to the digital discipline and effete aesthetics of the minimalists, there were a wide variety of acts tying together the threads between hip-hop, techno, and electro on the Red Bull Music Academy Stage overlooking the Detroit River. Egyptian Lover, a throwback electro act, played early on the first day, followed by DJ and hip-hop producer Peanut Butter Wolf and then living legend Pete Rock. Hip-hop has had a reasonably strong presence in recent years at DEMF, including a tribute to Detroit producer J Dilla in 2006. On Monday, was given six hours to showcase ghettotech DJs. The name, while contentious (it was coined by the since-deceased Disco D, a white kid from Ann Arbor, a quaint college town), describes a style that, more so than techno, became the soundtrack to urban Detroit, the music of the working-class jits that the Belleville Three were self-consciously separating themselves from. Having such a strong ghettotech presence at the festival was certainly an act of reconciliation between classes among black Detroiters, although techno is still given the lion’s share of attention.

Making my first trip to Detroit, I confess a giddy anticipation for any strains of Detroit techno classics. Several DJs pulled through with a definitive focus on the optimistic. Kevin Saunderson’s breathtaking (I was, quite literally, out of breath at the end) closing set on Monday night at the Real Detroit stage blended in his own legendary track Good Life, which I’d also heard earlier on Saturday at the Pioneer Pro DJ stage. Dubfire, one half of DC house duo Deep Dish, let Strings of Life play on in its entirety as an encore to his closing set at the Beatport tent. The harsh sounds and bleak tone of Model 500’s No UFO's and Night Drive were nowhere to be heard, and neither hardly was Juan Atkins; flyers for his Loft Party on Sunday night floated around (though neighbours at my fleabag motel commented to me that the loft was actually a basement). The more muted sentiment of Frankie Knuckle’s It’s a Cold World caught me at one stretch, but then again that’s Chicago house pessimism talking.

The festival grounds were fairly circumscribed, but endlessly interesting to explore. 14-acre Hart Plaza is full of varied topography, from a ziggurat that afforded a towering perch over the Red Bull stage to subterranean passages that led to the cavernous echoes of the Real Detroit stage, where the heaviest beats reverberated off the concrete in an effort to recreate the feeling of an underground Detroit club. Festivalgoers were fairly diverse, albeit predominately white, although there were some black fans who attracted plenty of attention with their slick jit footwork. A few parents brought children, which always elicited a double take, while plenty of high schoolers — or those whose neon coloured attire made them look as young as high schoolers — affirmed that rave attire, sadly, is not dead yet.

Carl Craig addressed the crowd during his marquee set, calling the adoring crowd “the future", as a sea of the techno-crazed swarmed across every available surface. DEMF posted record attendance this year with 75,692, its highest since the festival began charging admission in 2005. I took the liberty of comparing that to this year’s North American International Auto Show, a century-old Detroit tradition for the auto industry. Attendance fell this year to 702,814 over 9 days. That’s still more per day than DEMF, but I added another variable: space. Cobo Hall is 222,967 square metres to Hart Plaza’s 56,700. That gives DEMF .45 people per square metre per day and the Detroit auto show .35. Call it the density index, and DEMF comes out ahead. Twisting statistics to my own advantage? Perhaps. But in a shrinking city, bodies in space over time is the real goal, the real measure of repopulation. As the auto industry continues to sputter on its own fumes, techno may prove the city’s real renaissance.

Thinking About Shrinking

Get away from downtown though, and it’s still a different story. DEMF after-parties were spread all over the city. While a short walk from Hart Plaza brought you to yuppie heaven Bleu, where Benny Benassi presided over the official DEMF post-fête, heading further afield yielded a more interesting night. A Detroiter told me Sunday night’s after-party at The Works would be a good chance to catch some local Detroit DJs. It’s in Corktown, and a buddy who’s from the area warned me about the neighbourhood. The club was in the shadow of the now defunct Tigers Stadium, suggesting that even a century-old baseball team couldn’t provoke neighbourhood revitalisation. They’ve moved crosstown to Comerica Park, part of the shuffleboard moves in the city’s strange geography of sport. Basketball, the black, urban sport par excellence, has been played since the late ’80s at the Palace in Auburn Hills, far out in the suburbs, where the Pistons just got knocked out of the NBA playoffs. Ice hockey, the white sport of the north, is played right downtown at Joe Louis Arena, where the Red Wings are about to hoist another Stanley Cup, the most successful team for over a decade in a majority black city. The Detroit Lions moved from a stadium in the suburbs to a new dome in the city, and while football attracts an integrated crowd, Lions tickets are the most expensive of the four major league sports in the city.

I pondered this while taking a break from the sauna inside. The corner of Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard didn’t look dangerous so much as deserted. Boarded-up buildings, empty lots, dark streets, but no one around to even seem threatening. The club had off-duty police on-hand as security anyway, protecting the predominately white crowd from whatever (presumably) black menace might come in off the streets. In the Detroit mindset, as Mitch Cope explains, “Someone ‘walking in off the street’ is seen as a threat."5

The omens of urban decay are there downtown if you look hard enough, but can be obscured by gleaming new landmarks like the Compuware World Headquarters or Detroit People Mover, an automated monorail nicknamed the “ghost train.” The most shocking building in Detroit, however, wasn’t too far from The Works. The Michigan Central Depot, once a majestic train station, lies in utter ruins. David Kohrman of calls it, “The ultimate symbol of the automobile's complete triumph over public transportation.”

On the outskirts of downtown, staring out at this post-industrial vastness while the steady thump thump thump shook through the walls of the club, I couldn’t help but wonder what to do with it all? Simply marveling at Detroit and writing it off as a wasteland is an unhelpful commonplace. The best example is Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, when arsonists traditionally set fire to abandoned buildings, an event hyped up, and ultimately perpetuated, by the media and even Devil’s Night tourists. The city tried its hardest to clamp down on what appears to be a manufactured, hype-induced “tradition,” which nonetheless led to severe fires on several Devil’s Nights throughout the ’80s, with 800 blazes alone in 1984. But the myth persists

The most damning indictment comes from Professor Jerry Heron, director of the American Studies Program at Wayne State University (that’s in Detroit). In I’m so bad, I party in Detroit, he concludes:
“The made-up Detroit that everybody knows all about is a city we had to invent because the real place is too painful and too genuinely dangerous to contemplate. That Detroit, the one that really exists, is the inevitable outcome of plans we have undertaken as a nation — plans that have cruel and violent and racist outcomes, incompatible with the way we would like, most of us, to feel about ourselves. But we have to be able to see the worst; our appetite for ‘reality’ demands that we contemplate extreme conditions. So we invent a Detroit to be the stage for whatever we fear most in ourselves; we act all our bad dreams there. And then, because it is Detroit, we just walk away, because it’s their problem, not mine, their fault, nothing to do with me. ‘America’s first Third World City,’ as [Ze’ev] Chafets calls it [in Devil’s Night and Other True Tales of Detroit], and that’s just how much it concerns us, as if Detroit were in the third world, which is to say it doesn’t concern us, finally, at all.”6
These were tough words to chew on as I ducked back into The Works for Troy Pierce’s 3-6 am set, a searing, contemptuous barrage of minimal beats reminiscent of Ivan Smagghe and the Kill the DJ crew. But that kind of techno nihilism smacks of the callous disregard for Detroit that Heron points out. While I rather enjoyed Pierce’s set, I knew he and the rest of the M_nus crew were packing up the next day to go back to Berlin, which now strikes me as a gentrified Detroit (whereas Berlin is “poor, but sexy", Detroit is poor and unsexy). In Real Detroit Weekly’s Movement preview, they kept mentioned how many DJs were flying in from some European capital to play, as though Detroit was lucky to be graced by their presence. Plenty, I’m sure, jetted right out, as the Detroit Metro Airport still has several daily flights to Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Düsseldorf. The international network that made techno popular abroad when it couldn’t get a fair shake in the States has perhaps only strengthened in the intervening decades.

Winding down for the second day/night (time began to lose meaning) at a dawn after-after-party, this time at the Old Miami, I had the sunglasses but the sun didn’t cooperate. The steel grey daylight was a reminder that, despite the all-night hours, this was not Ibiza. There are no sun-soaked beaches along the river. This is still Detroit. Even on the unofficial first day of summer, Memorial Day, a chill that dates back to February might cut through the sky of the upper Midwest.

Another outdoor party in the early morning hours, and again no neighbors to complain. The proof is on Cass Avenue at 7am on a Monday morning: This is a shrinking city. The two volumes of Shrinking Cities in fact have plenty of diagnoses and proposed remedies for Detroit. From metal scrappers to marketing, it’s all there. I pulled clumps of grass as I sat in the Old Miami backyard. Urban agriculture sounds feasible. Maybe just more of the techno renaissance —  Detroit label Underground Resistance boldly declares, “Through our music we made the city of Detroit a magical place of global inspiration for thousands of people throughout the world."7 That’s something even city hall can get on board with, and they have publicly supported every edition of DEMF, just as Chicago has gotten around to recognising its own dance music legacy twenty years later, from Frankie Knuckles Way to House Unity Day.

But who am I kidding? I had my own flight to catch out of Detroit Metro Airport. I may have been bad enough to party in Detroit, but the real question is: Who’s good enough to get up the next morning (or afternoon) and do something about Detroit?

1Philipp Oswalt, ed., "Detroit", Shrinking Cities Volume 1: International Research, 228. Ibid, 228-229.
2Wiliam J. V. Neill, "Promoting Detroit", Shrinking Cities Volume 2: Interventions, 730. Ibid, 729-731.
3Mitch Cope, "Fortification Architecture Detroit", Shrinking Cities Volume 1: International Research, Chapter 4: Panic City, 293.
4Cope, 289.
5Cope, 289.
6Jerry Heron, “I’m so bad, I party in Detroit", Shrinking Cities Volume 1: International Research, Chapter 5: Imagining the City, p. 347.
7Michael Baute and Johannes Ehmann, “26 Record Covers", Shrinking Cities Volume 1: International Research, Chapter 5: Imagining the City, p. 332-333.
 Greg Scruggs writes about the intersection of music and urban space at
sheppard posted 7 June 2008 (19:40:56)
grace lee boggs and the boggs center!
Fran posted 27 January 2009 (12:27:33)
An excellent and informative article. Thank you very for enlightening me on the connections between Detroit and techno music, and for including some really interesting revelations about the city itself.
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