House Music's Detroit Roots
This genre, also known as techno or electronic dance music, originated right here in the D in the '80s. Meet five house originators who talk about its past, present and future.
At Detroit nightclubs such as TV Lounge and Ambiance Ultra Lounge, house music pulsates so hard, it seems hypnotic for dancers who never stop moving on the floor.
It pumps late weekend nights on Hot 107.5-FM and WJLB-FM and, each Memorial Day weekend, the world comes to Detroit to hear it at the Movement Electronic Music Festival on Hart Plaza. In August, thousands will revel in the stellar lineup of DJs that made house music famous and have kept it alive at the Aug. 3 Backpack Music Festival on Belle Isle—among them Juan Atkins, Allan Ester, DJ Minx and Bruce Bailey.
The genre has become so immensely popular that Forbes Magazine listed the highest paid DJs who play house music.
Better known as techno or electronic dance music, the sound created in Detroit (some would argue Chicago) in the 1980s was pushed aside by hip-hop. It left the city and circled the globe to become a multibillion dollar industry, garnering lucrative incomes for producers, songwriters and the DJs that spin the tunes.
Now, techno has come home—and is experiencing a renaissance that allows its mixologists to enjoy a new shine.
There's something about a pulsating bass beat under soulful vocals about love and pain that is very personal to Detroit. It's a sound that bridges soul, R&B and gospel into something entirely new and irresistible.
B.L.A.C. Detroit chatted with some of the music's originators and the DJs who remember house music's past, and discovered how they keep moving toward the future.
"I created this genre of music in 1986 with Juan Atkins and Derrick May. I am the beginning. It wasn't techno music at the time, so we came up with the name. Juan started it first. Derrick and I were around each other a lot because we were closer in age, and we just wanted to make music from electronic instruments that people could dance to and that DJs could play. We were the first ones to do that at the time, but then it started to take off in Europe, and it's bounced back here—after all of those years."
"Americans and Detroit has drastically improved all of a sudden. They've only been getting pieces of the book, not getting the full story. Some of the story is being told and things are getting in sync, especially now with the younger generations. It's always been in with the younger generation in Europe. They grew as an older generation who loved it too. Finally in America, there's a change."
This summer, the techno pioneer has been busy giving aspiring producers a chance to make history with the "Good Life" remix contest. Among prizes, he offered a contract to his KMS Records. "I'm still evolving; helping my boys develop. My sons are making money DJing; I'm helping them get into that same mode."
Jennifer Witcher Aka DJ Minx
"I've been a DJ for about 25 years. I used to go to the club The Music Institute in Detroit and listen to Derrick May. On Friday nights, he was the party jumper. R&B, you dance and sit down. But house, it's continuous. I said I wanted to be a DJ by watching Derrick May. It was a fun craft at the time, me being as shy as I was. He asked me one time why I always looked at him and I told him that I wanted to DJ. He said 'Oh, that's great.' The next time I saw him, he asked, 'Are you DJing?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Don't come over here again till you're DJing.' I started practicing almost every day, trying to mix records."
"Most famous DJs have females around them that are groupies. When I started DJing, I guess the guys felt like I was a groupie. … That's why I started Women on Wax. Other females saw the respect I was getting and they would come to me and say 'Please help me, 'cause I'm having such a hard time.' I started mentoring and managing and helping them get out there."
"The Women on Wax label is growing. I want to keep growing that."
"I was introduced to disco back when I was 12 years old. I knew I wanted to be a DJ from the first time I heard it. I gravitated to the energy and the uplifting messages. I was a dancer before I was anything, and I could operate a record player before I could walk. I've always been fascinated with vinyl and the whole concept of dropping the needle on the platter."
Has garnered a reputation for taking his audience to church on the dance floor, driving crowds insane. When he spins, he excites himself and bounces in the air. "Motown is rooted in gospel," he says of the music. "It's the energy, the drive and the upliftment."
"I don't want to be 60 years old and still playing records, but I do want to still be involved in this some way, shape, or form."
"I was introduced to house through Juan Atkins, my brother. Juan introduced me to every aspect of this music. He turned my life around. Without him, I wouldn't be here. I was a 13-year-old kid who had no idea of anything about music other than what I heard on the radio. Then Juan came along and introduced me to Jimmy Hendrix and George Clinton and all these cross genres of music. He turned me on to Mojo (a popular Detroit DJ in the '70s and '80s), and Mojo turned us on to a whole 'nother life of music. There was no house; there was no techno. It didn't exist. Juan coined the word 'techno' music. It was people like Mojo that helped us. He was making music but he knew the business, and he'd tell us what to do. We looked to him like a father."
"My audience is people I love, and people who love me. It's so universal. I'm on the road more than three-thirds of a year, overseas gigs, tours, concerts, events—and it all has a price. ... I appreciate this as an art form, and I believe people who support it feel the same."
"I'm completely motivated by my daughter now, and I'll continue to do this until I put her through college. After that, I hope to be able to transition into my art and photography, because traveling 200 days of the year from Detroit keeps me away from her."
"I started playing in Europe, first. My first real gigs were in Belgium, Holland and Germany. That's really where I learned to DJ. Hip-hop got strong; electronic music went to Europe."
Listed among Rolling Stone Magazine's "25 DJs That Rule The Earth" and Fact Magazine's "The 15 Greatest Remixers Working Today," he still spends most of his time on the road—and is "waiting to see what will happen next" in Detroit.
"My label, Planet E (Communications), is releasing a three-disc compilation called 'Masterpiece Compilation,' which include includes the first disc, 'Aspiration'—music I'm now playing in the club. The second disc, 'Inspiration,' is music that inspires me. The third disc is called 'Meditation.'"