Art Doc of the Week| Detroit: The Blueprint for Techno

Despite being namechecked by DJs, scholars and music fans around the world (and in multiple genres), Detroit will never really get its due as an endless, crucial fount of music that has shaped global music culture. It couldn’t possibly; its contributions are too massive. From jazz and blues to rock and punk to R&B and funk to Motown and hip-hop and Techno, Detroit has been a major cultural force in almost every American music genre there is.

The 1998 documentary, Detroit: The Blueprint of Techno, produced for the Much Music channel, is brief in running time but dense with information about the birth and trajectory of Techno music in Detroit. Though several DJs and music critics are interviewed, the major figures in the documentary are the genre’s first wave innovators Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Derrick May (who all went to high school together) and Carl Craig who, at the time of the filming, was the reigning darling and visionary of Detroit techno.

Still from Blueprint

As the camera moves from May’s studio recording complex, to record stores, to packed clubs, to location shots in Miami and across Europe, fleshing everything out with old photos and news footage of interviews, the narrative unfolds on how and why Detroit specifically was ripe to birth the music. Alvin Toffler’s futurist tome “Future Shock” was a huge influence on the philosophies and worldviews of the young Detroiters who would channel some of its speculation into their grooves. The internet is repeatedly cited as a factor in the music going global. Craig breaks down how Detroit’s economic and political decline manifests in the music – what is reflected, what is transcended – as images of the fallen city fill the screen. (This was filmed just before the city became the hottest geographical spot for “ruin porn.”) Craig and May also make clear the ways Motown did – but largely did not have an influence on their music – and how European groups like Kraftwerk and Visage had a greater impact on them, as snippets of those two groups’ music videos play.

Derrick May courtesy Blueprint Artists

At one point, when asked about the way Techno is the basis for so much of the pop music in the world now, Atkins observes, “I think we were way ahead of our time, like, ten or fifteen years.” But when news breaks that a German production outfit has, in effect, bootlegged a Detroit artist’s track and is making a killing with it in Europe, May gives a sobering, still relevant breakdown on cultural theft and appropriation that begins with the blues, resonates far beyond the world of techno, and is still painfully relevant.

Kevin Saunderson courtesy Dummy magazine

From massive crossover success of Atkins’ techno/House hybrid “Big Fun” with his group Inner City, to the darker, more experimental work of Jeff Mills and his seminal collective Underground Resistance (with Mike Banks and Robert Hood), the music is a blueprint for the EDM that is everywhere now, that is still the sound of the future, but as one speaker says in the film, Detroit sometimes gets overlooked in the telling of the history. While other documentaries might go into a bit more detail and flesh out second and third wave creators, Blueprint remains one of the best entry points and overviews on the music and culture.


Previously on Art Doc of the Week:

Top Photo of Carl Craig courtesy ThisIsProvoke


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