Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Label Of Love

Published on Guardian Online
25 Years Into The Future: Happy Birthday Techno

Detroit based record label Metroplex is celebrated its 25th anniversary this month at the city’s annual electronic music festival Movement. Over 60,000 fans paid tribute to the label’s founder Juan Atkins - along with techno godfathers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – at their special birthday stage.

“I never intended it to be as big as it turned out to be,” admits Juan. “I just started it to release my own music as Model 500 after Cybotron had ended. I’d sent my first release - No UFOs - to some major record companies but they all turned it down. I had a real belief in this new sound and setting up Metroplex was the only way to get it out there.”

By 1985, Juan had been conducting electronic experiments for five years. He moved to Belleville, a leafy suburban town on the outskirts of Detorit, at the age of 11 and having played bass guitar in garage bands whilst living in the city began toying around with a Korg MS10 synthesiser that his grandma had bought him. His new isolated surroundings made it more convenient for him to make music alone and Juan spent endless days in his bedroom experimenting with its capabilities - rudimentary tests and trials that laid the foundations for techno.

At around the same time Atkins met Rik Davis, a Vietnam veteran who’d developed an interest in electronic music whilst serving in the army. They shared sounds with each other and soon became bandmates in the group Cybotron. “There was definitely something that made us click together,” believes Juan. “We talked lots about Toffler’s idea of the Third Wave and developed what you might call a techno speak dictionary. In this dictionary were a lot of words like metroplex and cybotron. That’s where these names came from.

“Metroplex is short for Metrocomplex which was a future word that Alvin Toffler spoke about. It referred to his scenarios in Future Shock and Third Wave about how cities over the world would grow so big that they would all become one. This was a Metrocomplex.”

For Juan, soundtracking the future was where his own destiny lay. Cybotron split when Rik’s interest in guitars and rock music and Juan’s commitment to technology pulled the pair apart. Metroplex dedicated itself more to an electro sound. Akins released his next two tracks as Model 500 - Night Drive (Thru Babylon) and Technicolor – which gave way to a 4x4 beat count. Clearly Atkins' future meant dance music.

By this stage Atkins had recruited childhood friend Derrick May to help distribute Metroplex releases, but before the pair could get to work they first of all they had to iron out one disagreement: A compilation that would introduce the UK to this new Detroit sound was due for release. Derrick wanted to call it ‘high-tech soul’ but Juan was insistent that it should be called ‘techno’. Forget Motown, Techno City – the name of a 1984 Cybotron track - was Detroit’s new identity.

According to Atkins the label has gone through various metamorphoses over the last 25 years. “Changes started to happen when a west-coast company Macola took over our catalogue. They pushed the music to an American market. When Derrick and I were working on the distribution our focus was very much on a European market, as well as Detroit. I was very influenced by Kraftwerk and electro had already hit that part of the world.”

Juan moved out of Belleville and back to Detroit city after graduating high school. He doesn’t deny that the city has influenced his music. “It’s not just the artists or the music here but the whole atmosphere. There’s just something about this city that affects you in a certain way. It has a specific flavour."

Detroit city has changed a lot over the years and many people define it these days as a place in decay. “But that’s the beauty of it,” believes Atkins. “It’s not like a major metropolitan city; it’s not shiny and new. It’s decaying like an ancient city in Europe. In the ruins you can see the oldness, mixed with the new. Detroit is an industrial city. It was one of the cities the forefront of the industrial revolution. In front of your eyes is end of the industrial revolution mixing with the start of the technological revolution. It’s a very unique flavour.”

Just as Motown defined Detroit during an industrial era, Techno redefined it once more. According to Atkins, it’s set to do so again. “We’re now in the Third Wave. I strongly believe that Detroit will be seen as one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world in the near future. Something big is about to happen that will affect everyone, not just artists.”

Luckily for Metroplex’s stock-in-trade, there’s a future still waiting to happen and Aktin's wants to soundtrack it. “I’m about to give some stuff that’ll reflect what I’ve always done and that’s make things that’ll last 25 more years.”

Whilst Detroit’s status as a shrinking city might be the antithesis to the future predicted by Toffler and his followers techno’s global success has proven that some kind of world unity was waiting to happen.

Techno’s five track trajectory

Kraftwerk – Tanzmusik (1973)
Detroit absorbed the sound of German electronic music. Derrick May famously set this connection in stone: “The music [techno] is like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator.”

Parliament-Funkadelic – One Nation Under A Groove (1978)
George Clinton’s Midwestern electronic funk group influenced a great shift in dance music in the early 1980s and spawned a genre that became known as “electro”.

Cybotron – Clear (1983)
Cybotron’s biggest hit, a real fusion of electronic experimentation and funky dance music that proved electronic music soul had soul.

Model 500 – Play It Cool (1986)
After Cybotron left the game, Atkins brought back the 4x4 beat in a series of electro tracks released by Metroplex.

Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes – Goodbye Kiss (1987)
Known as Metroplex’s first proper “techno” success.

Ben Ferguson has contributed to a book of interviews with DJs who have shaped the history of music. The Record Players is available to buy at http://www.djhistory.com/