When the average person thinks of the history of black urban music in the ’80s, it’s probably a safe bet that they aren’t thinking about techno. Techno has become so closely identified with white folk — from its central importance to European music culture through to the disenfranchisement of electronic music in the United States — that many people, even ostensible fans of the music, might be surprised to learn the circumstances under which this music was developed. That this story has been primarily forgotten is one of the great tragedies of modern music.
It is this forgotten history that High Tech Soul purports to address. The story of techno is the story of three men, Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson — the Originator, the Innovator and the Elevator, according to legend. Growing up in Detroit (or, more precisely, Belleville, Michigan), they were schoolmates, and at first independently but later in collaboration they created the rudimentary sounds of early techno before even graduating high school. Atkins is generally credited with coining the term “techno”, and the origins of the phrase are discussed in the movie. Originally, techno was just an offshoot of contemporaneous house, influenced by the scene in Chicago. Atkins, influenced by the work of futurist Alvin Toffler, coined the term “techno” as early as 1984, releasing a track called “Techno City” under the name Cybotron. The music had its own distinctive name and identity, related to early house and electro, but by the late ’80s had become very much its own phenomenon.
High Tech Soul connects the history of techno to the specific socio-economic circumstances of Detroit. Just as hip-hop began as a very specific reaction to urban life in New York City, techno evolved in the distinctive environment of ’80s Detroit. Nowadays Detroit is probably most closely associated with the economic downturn in the domestic auto industry that began in the ’70s, as well as the economic blight that followed extensive rioting in the ’60s. There is certainly a lot of truth to the conventional wisdom in this instance: as the film point out, Detroit is currently home to only about a third as many people as it was in ’50. This creates a lot of breathing room for the remaining inhabitants.
The film draws a connection between this radical depopulation and something more cerebral than mere urban desolation: Detroit was once one of the world’s most technologically advanced cities, a forward-thinking “Paris of the West” whose industrial advancements served as the motor for America’s massive economic growth in the first half of the twentieth century. That history of futuristic thinking, combined with the gritty realities of predominantly black urban life, made for interesting bedfellows: techno is the result.
All the major participants in techno’s early years are still alive, and all are interviewed for High Tech Soul. It’s shocking to see how young they still are: Atkins is only 44, May 43, Saunderson, 42. Already considered legends in their field, they are some of the most widely respected and sought-after DJs in the world. The problem with High Tech Soul, therefore, is a problem of omission. The film celebrates Atkins, May and Saunderson, along with the music they helped create. Latter-day techno innovators such as Richie Hawtin and Matthew Dear are interviewed on their influence. But the question remains, for any viewer, what about hip-hop?
It goes without saying that hip-hop is the single biggest cultural force to spring from the Untied States in decades — it has swept the globe, influencing musicians and movements from Malaysia to Brazil. At some point along the way techno failed to make the case to American youth, and the result was that while it would become very popular in certain corners of the globe, it would remain a rarified pastime, and aside from a few isolated moments in time, never a popular phenomenon. Atkins, May, and Saunderson haven’t always been quiet regarding their resentment of this fact. High Tech Soul elides any discussion of hip-hop.
Watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in the triumphal mood, discussing the importance of techno both to the history of Detroit and the history of electronic music, and examining the personalities involved and the way they helped shape the foundation of one of the most important genres of electronic music. But there are also passing glimmers of frustration and resentment on the part of those involved, moments when playing to packed clubs across the world doesn’t seem quite as important as walking down the middle of a crowded American street and going unrecognized.
For what its worth, High Tech Soul is a compelling look at an underepresented slice of American music history. I question why the movie is so brief, considering the area covered — at times it felt as if it could have been half again as long without any problems. Some of the best footage in the movie is reserved for the bonus interviews, featuring much longer examinations of Detroit sociological history, as well as a few candid comments that are almost worth the price of admission in and of themselves (I mean, I can see why they left the part with Eddie Fowlkes talking smack about Moby out of the film, but it’s still hilarious). But overall, while the film is a compelling picture of techno music in the context of Detroit, I have a feeling the definitive statement on the place of techno music in American and world pop culture has yet to be made.