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Three’s Move A Crowd

April 7, 2022
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“Techno music is just like Detroit—a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.” — Derrick May

You know, sometimes “mistakes” just revolutionize music and define a culture. That’s what high school friends Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May—the Belleville Three—did. And it’s time these pioneers receive their damn flowers. Not that they haven’t earned high recognition from colleagues, critics, and a legion of people across the globe who have had perpetual eargasms since the eighties. But their contributions to music by creating the Detroit Techno sound, which has influenced many of today’s artists, are rarely discussed.   

But first, a quick history lesson. After linking in Belleville High School, Atkins (“The Originator,” who coined the genre “techno”), Saunderson (“The “Elevator”), and May (“The Innovator”) would hang out after school listening to The Electrifying Mojo, a local radio DJ who played Prince, Kraftwerk, The B-52’s, Parliament, and others that perked their ears. Deejaying parties together and music experimentation on a Roland TR-909 would follow for the Belleville Three. The funny thing is, though the name suggests that they’ve been rocking as a legit group, the trio never fully embraced the name until Coachella in 2017. That’s a testament to their individual work as musicians who coincidentally hailed from a small Michigan suburb about 30 minutes outside the Motor City.

Atkins, considered “The Godfather of Techno,” broke out first forming the electro group Cybotron and creating futuristic sounds unheard of before, like the single “Clear.” Hear the influence relevant to this era of music for yourself. May more than held his own under the moniker “Rhythim Is Rhythim,” with the classic “Strings of Life.” And then there’s Saunderson, who had the most commercial success out of the three forming the group Inner City and producing their Magna Opus, 1989’s Paradise. A mainstay on the US and UK charts, the debut album had hit singles “Do You Love What You Feel,” “Big Fun” and “Good Life,” which are staples at any House party to this day.

It’s understandable if one thinks Detroit Techno and House Music, notably Chicago House, are the same. The two sounds are like cousins—hell, maybe even siblings when you think of it. The two share the same traits in construction—synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, 4/4 beat structure—but the ones behind the boards make them sonically unique—even though both influenced the other. But, one thing is for sure, the rise of EDM in the aughts, to now, have their roots in the Midwest, specifically Detroit. Sure, Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and deadmau5 are considered the faces of Electronic Dance Music—and to a sadder extent, to some, the pioneers. But it’s time for fans of the music to rail against the white-washing, do their Googles, and learn a thing or a thousand about the tunes they pop Molly and rave to were heavily influenced by three Black men. Black pioneers. Black geniuses, who, as May once said, were “on a mission to save the world from bad music.”  

Shit, they still are.

Mission more than accomplished.