Prologue: I wrote this piece in the early 2000s, after the first two or three Electronic Music fests on Detroit’s riverfront. After years of undergound raves and a start at Joe Louis Arena in the 90’s, the Techno Fest on Hart Plaza started in 2000. An attendance estimate for this first gargantuan event was 1-1.5 million*, and though some mainstream sources opined that the estimate was inflated, I was there and I didn’t doubt it one bit.
However, the attendance in 2012, years after the imposition of entry fees, dropped to 107, 343.* (*Wikipedia estimates) But the numbers in 2015 were way back up again, though alas, I never went after they began charging fees after the first few years – way out of my budget.
So here I was, in the youth of my old age, looking at another generation take its place in the musical history of Detroit – and I was clear that their presence marked not only a massive dance party, but a sign of the future of the city.
(Btw, this was one of my submissions for which I was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, in 2012.)
The Techno Fest And The New “Movement” In Detroit
Detroit is the home of the annual Electronic Music Festival, aka Techno Fest – now officially named “Movement” – held on Memorial Day weekends on Hart Plaza. It is one of the seminal events in Detroit as it transitions into a new, post-industrially-dominated city. From the inception of this festival in 2000, the “movement” that was taking place on the Riverfront was not only to the music, but a synergistic spark in the movement of young whites not only coming to – but remaining in – Detroit.
Detroit is an overwhelmingly African-American city, yet for this event, the crowd is overwhelmingly white. After decades of their parents’ fearful avoidance of the city, a new generation of suburban kids is not only refusing to be afraid of the urban center, but refusing to leave, setting up residence in downtown lofts and apartments, partying in downtown clubs, and skateboarding in the night on Woodward Avenue.
At the first festivals, there were enough black Detroiters to give the Techno Fest – as it is known – the edginess and cool to make for an exciting musical event for the whites who have come to the city, for up to this point the blacks in attendance have been mostly members of the Detroit’s black cultural and musical intelligentsia. Techno music, with its pan-continental DJs and audience, is not viewed as a “black” dance music of choice in the ‘hood – rap, hip-hop, and the new R&B were the genres that were marketed to blacks. Doubtless, the African-American founders of techno music, accustomed to mostly white audiences in the US and Europe, were surely glad to see so many brothas and sistas here in their home town, dancing to the music that they created.
On the other hand, too much hip-hop and rap throughout the festival weekend runs the risk of attracting too many of its fans from the ‘hood – which might make this neo-hippie fest a little too “diverse” for comfort to the whites who are pouring onto the plaza; so a balance is necessary. Fans come to the Techno Fest from many miles away – not just the suburbs but from Australia, France, Japan, Germany; backpacks full of provisions for this new electronic Woodstock. During the festival, thousands of kids – mostly white – rest and hang out near a monument on the promenade dedicated to the Underground Railroad, a massive bronze sculpture of a group of slaves fleeing toward freedom to Canada, in plain sight across the river. Only those familiar with the intense divisions between Detroit’s city and suburbs truly appreciate the lovely irony of this scene.
The music could be heard from three main stages and a dozen booths at once, banging off the high-rise buildings that rim the plaza. The DJs use the archetypal beats and sounds of R&B, funk, disco and pop culture – the building blocks of our contemporary aural heritage – to create a transnational dance genre. Multiply these samples and sounds by tens of thousands of culturally recognizable beats, phrases and riffs, rearrange them into new configurations; these artists are as creative as the original makers of the music from which they sample.
The turntable technicians transform electronic sounds into music, and many, with their sampling, display a prodigious knowledge of the vocabulary of modern cultural sounds. Detroit’s Motown sound developed in part from the relentless rhythms of the mechanized clash and clang of assembly lines of the auto plants in which Berry Gordy and his contemporaries toiled. Today’s youth grew up with different sounds – the ambient noise of video games, computers, cell phones; technology with its hums, bells, bleeps and blips, the aural wall that surrounds today’s environment. All of this electronic sound engendered a musicality that is based on – but is inevitably unlike – the sounds of the rock and roll generation.
Techno music evolved from black middle-class Detroiters able to afford – or hustle up on – the turntables, electronic equipment and voluminous libraries of vinyl record collections that were the original tools of the DJs craft. I remember when my young brother and cousins – Lawrence Battle, and Bruce and Carl Martin – among that first group of DJs in Detroit, were suddenly immersed in sound snippets of records that we grew up with, lugging car loads of milk-crates filled with records to weekend parties.
Masters of the Dance
On the last day of the first Techno Fest, a new element changed the character of Movement, so that its final day was different than the first. The police had abandoned bag checks and let the crowds pour in, and they showed no sign of thinning. For the first time all weekend, pouring into the main entrance was a growing phalanx of bristling “young Black males” – from the neighborhoods. The mostly white crowd had gradually become “Blacker” and it wasn’t clear what this would mean. These new arrivals crowd the plaza in excited agitation, some with the sullen defiance of the unwanted, the mask to hide their fear of being unwelcome, their knowledge that their presence is cause to tighten jaw lines and police lines, both.
It is understood that this festival is not for them, but rather for the visitors, though doubtless, Techno’s founders are gratified that, finally, the music that they created will have an audience of Detroiters from the ‘hood. Over the three days of the festival, word has spread through Detroit that the music is “live” and worth risking the possibility of suburban and police hostility. They know that their arrival is akin to crashing a gigantic private party; nevertheless, they come. They flow into the bowl of the plaza; and the air crackles with their young black maleness. Yet instead of fleeing – as may have happened a decade ago – the young suburbanites jelled into a concentrated mass of excitement and awe.
The festival had blown off the hook – it was electrified. The black youth crowd the plaza, huddle in tight, dark circles. No cute rainbow-hued costumery and Hackey Sack looks for these new arrivals – they are from the shirtless, bedraggled school of urban poverty. They felt out the crowds, spotted locations, sized up adversaires as they worked their limbs into cudgels or stood stock-still in Zen concentration. They were the Masters of Dance and they had come to take their rightful positions. The battle had begun. It was a war, not of weapons, but of strength, grace and mental acuity. The crowds parted like the Red Sea as these new participants step into the whorls of dance that had formed in the ocean of people.
Bass was bumpin’ through to the bone marrow. These new dances defied any concept of what was known as dance decades ago but then again, this is not the movement of courtship – as in the Motown days – but of power, motor skills, and muscular control. Their bodies replicate the movement of computerized machines, and it is not romantic, nor really sexual. Thirty years ago black dance broke out of partnered confines into robotic motions of machinery and mime. After they had been embedded in the dance lexicon of the Black community for years, Michael Jackson displayed these moves to the world.
“Poppin’ & Lockin’” the abrupt, mechanized, stylized imitation of robots, is familiar now to generations of Black dancers, mastered even by small children in the ‘hood. Body waving, Breakin’, Moon Walking, Runnin’ Man, Robot and Tickin’ – the bizarrely elegant quivering of every joint and muscle at conflicting angles – all these dances grew from hip hop’s beginnings and even before. Most black dancers at the Techno Fest displayed their mastery of “Jittin” , a matrix of extreme, skillful foot and legwork, with its origins in Detroit.
The great racial rhythmic divide doesn’t exist in the same way as in generations past, what with music videos, MTV, BET, et al, and whites are exposed to black music at exponentially higher levels than previous generations. The white kids, most as segregated as ever in real life, are profoundly integrated regarding music and dance – even if they are learning moves that black kids mastered almost 40 years ago. The first Techno Fests were the bar exams of dance.
Dance Wars on the Plaza
The white kids who could “Lock” and Break Dance had dominated the festival’s dance circles and entertained the crowds all weekend – but with the arrival of the Detroit dancers they now stand back in humility and awe. The blacks have come to “take them to school” – and they all know it. Many of the suburban boys rarely got a chance to see – in real life – the rippling pop of brown limbs and muscles and they study these moves with as much concentration as college entrance exams. Emboldened by attention and recognition, the black dancers from the city challenged one another to ever more physical flights of daring and skill.
The suburban kids and visitors were mesmerized by this urban drama. The blacks were sure of their dominance, suffering no fool gladly to step into the ring with them unprepared, but they were generous as well. The white kids who proved their mettle and went toe to toe with the brotha’s are given respect – smug, serious nods of approval, or wild high-fives, as each dances into the ring and out again. Dancers strip from the waist up, every visible muscle like rhythmic pythons under the skin.
Added to the layers of consciousness, physicality and race at the festival, I saw the whites whose forebears would not or could not flee from Detroit – the white boys from the ‘hood, lighter facsimiles of the young blacks; skin color alone differentiated them from their darker neighbors; indistinguishable in speech, dress and attitude. They too were stars in this game of bravado and skill and their combination of urban-ness in white bodies makes them fascinating bridges between the two worlds – humble enough to accede leadership to their dark brother mentors in the ‘hood, but cocky in their dance mastery and urban skills in comparison to the suburban boys.
Then came the girls from the ‘hood. All weekend the moves of most of the white girls was a kind of Brittney Spears’ hip-hop lite, and they stepped back in excited incredulity to watch the arrival of the “ghetto fabulous” home-girls. The allure of these new arrivals is primordial; the suburban girls – some of them probably real stars in their hometown schools and malls – are agog at the nubile finesse of these brown, urban females. There is nothing coy about their moves; this is the hard core “booty shake” of Senegal via Luke Campbell and the East Side of Detroit. Their rhythmic undulating was intense and incredible to behold. As their bodies roiled they stared straight ahead in the dead seriousness of trance. After minutes of these pelvic machinations, they collapsed in childish giggles – just young girls havin’ fun.
The boys from the ‘hood danced in tandem, transferring waves of rhythm to one another, staging mock vignettes, sexual simulations and Chaplinesque parodies for the crowds. Watching this populist art unfold, it is clear that there is a deep, adult intelligence at play in this display of skill and wonder. The battles intensified all over the plaza and black, white, yellow and brown dancers established victories in recognition of their mastery – they are the Shaolin warriors of dance. There were no guns shot, no violence – dance alone was the measure of will and negotiator of the social contract.
At the edge of Hart Plaza the huge, dark figures of the Underground Railroad sculpture stood larger than life; massive, bronze figures fleeing from the ancestors of some of these very young people in their ceaseless, ecstatic movement on the plaza. I stood and reflected that during my own youth such an edifice would be unthinkable; much has changed within my lifetime. This statue of slaves on the verge of freedom stood in the midst of a scene that years ago was only a dream – kids of all colors dancing in Detroit’s dark night.