Prose and consoles
Techno Rebels should be required reading for all lovers of dance music.
This Memorial Day weekend, for the tenth year in a row, the world’s electronic-music enthusiasts converge on Detroit’s Hart Plaza for Movement, a yearly celebration of the Motor City’s invaluable contribution to electronic music: techno. An often-misunderstood genre, techno grew out of Detroit and its surrounding areas in the early ’80s. At the time, journalist, author and advertising creative director Dan Sicko was buying his first records as a teenager growing up in Ann Arbor.
Sicko’s love affair with the sounds that would later become known as techno inspired his definitive history of the genre, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, published in ’99; the second, updated edition hit shelves last month (Wayne State Press, $19.95). The book begins with Detroit’s pre-techno days in the late ’70s and early ’80s—when high-school kids threw all-night parties mixing early electronic artists from Europe, like Kraftwerk and Alexander Robotnick, with artists like Parliament-Funkadelic. Sicko then delves into the genre’s migration to Europe in the ’90s, where it spawned scenes in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. Finally, Techno Rebels returns to Detroit in the new millennium as the city gave birth to new-school labels like Ghostly International.
In the new edition, Jeff Mills, who had previously declined interviews, opens up about his role as radio jockey the Wizard and founding member of Underground Resistance. There’s also more detail on Movement (founded in 2000) and the Ann Arbor scene, including quotes from Ghostly founder Sam Valenti IV.
Speaking from his home in Detroit, Sicko, 41, points to the 1988 compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit as a defining moment for him: “That was the first time I realized [techno] was much bigger than I pictured it, that there were dozens of people here doing this.” The album focused on the trio credited with techno’s creation: Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson—dubbed the “Big Three” (a nod to the city’s auto industry). The compilation announced Detroit techno’s arrival and helped it become the international phenomenon that eventually birthed rave culture.
The proliferation of raves in the ’90s also motivated Sicko to chronicle techno in such great detail. “I wanted to get Detroit’s story right,” he says. “I wanted to tell how this is an American form of music. I didn’t want to talk about parties and Ecstasy.” Initially, Detroit’s techno parties were relatively drug free. It wasn’t until the Ecstasy-fueled European offshoot was introduced in the U.S. that drugs began to take precedence over the music, something obscured by the media’s focus on narcotics in DJ-driven culture.
Despite that shift, and the city’s economic downturn, party-promotion engine Paxahau helped keep the scene alive in the ’90s; in 2005, Paxahau took the reins of Movement, maintaining its success. “People like Paxahau and artists like Carl Craig and Richie Hawtin, who could have been taking gigs overseas, went out of their way to make a scene in Detroit,” Sicko says.
For Sicko, Detroit parties at that time, the best of which often took place in the town’s old warehouses and factories, intrinsically linked the music to the city. “Connecting this very future-focused, forward-thinking music with a really important but discarded piece of Detroit’s past were very powerful moments,” he says. Those warehouses may sit quiet and empty now, but thanks to people like Sicko and Paxahau’s Movement fest, Detroit’s techno spirit lives on.
Dan Sicko’s revised edition of Techno Rebels is out now. Movement takes place Saturday 29 to Monday 31 in Detroit’s Hart Plaza.