Students and community members gathered for the Detroit Techno and Resistance symposium in celebration of Black History Month on Sunday afternoon at the Rackham Amphitheatre.
The symposium featured a panel of prominent Detroit-based DJs, producers and activists who discussed the emergence of Detroit “techno” music and how they continue to use music in parallel with their activism.
The event was hosted by the Michigan Electronic Music Collective and WCBN, the University of Michigan’s student-run community radio station. The three panelists were DJ and producer “Mad” Mike Banks, DJ and producer Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale and DJ Ron Johnson, known as DJ Jungle 313.
Business and LSA senior Jordan Stanton, co-president of Michigan Electronic Music Collective, or MEMCO, introduced the panelists and highlighted the importance of techno for the Detroit community.
“For the past two years, MEMCO has been hosting a growing annual Black History Month party at the club to call attention to the Black roots of techno house music,” Stanton said. “It’s one thing to hear the music, but it’s an entirely other thing to get the stories from some of the very people who cultivated and spread the music.”
Johnson moderated the panel and discussed the nonprofit he started in Detroit, Spin Inc., which provides music production education to youth in Detroit communities. He said the organization was born from a need to make music accessible to the city’s young adults in the absence of public school music programs.
“A lot of creativity was lost because of a lack of access,” Johnson said. “We wanted to give our children, our community, access to have that equipment that they may not be able to afford, and still be able to benefit and create music that can actually impact our community to impact other communities internationally.”
With the nonprofit, Johnson said he aims to help children in a way that is dynamic and builds creativity.
“We don’t look at music as a tool, just like water,” Johnson said. “Water is something that could quench your thirst but it can drown you if not used properly. Music should be looked at in the same context … music now is whitewashed or is dumbing down the community. Music should always be a tool to be able to be used as a vehicle for social commentary and expression, but expression and freedom of expression with responsibility to this community where it’s coming out of.”
Hale, who works for Johnson’s nonprofit as the lead teacher, agreed with Johnson and highlighted how much of a gift it was to bring music to people’s lives.
“You never know who’s listening,” Hale said. “It’s always important to be positive in your delivery so that you can pass on that feeling to the masses. Even if it’s just one person where you can affect them like that, that gave me all the happiness, that I was able to remove sorrow from someone’s life.”
The panelists then turned to defining what techno is. Hale noted how the advent of new technology in electronics allowed techno to emerge.
“I watched the birth of it, I started playing music before techno came out,” Hale said. “Overseas there was the eruption of bringing equipment and turntables and stuff back.”
Johnson said the techno producers, DJs and musicians in Detroit need to be innovative because of low access to electronic equipment due to the cost of the appliances. He continues to teach young adults how to build music equipment out of everyday materials.
“We used bare-bones things,” Johnson said. “I’m teaching children how to use conductive ink to make MIDI controllers. An Ableton Push, that’s $1,000, that’s almost four months’ worth of food for a family, they’re gonna have to give up food for that (Ableton) Push. So I show them how to make a piece of paper into a Push.”
Banks echoed Johnson’s sentiments. By pricing music and electronic equipment so highly, he said, manufacturers were pricing out young Detroiters from the opportunity to be creative professionals and musicians.
“People should realize that techno was created in pawn shops here,” Banks said. “There weren’t any music stores in Detroit … most of the gear that was used to make classic Detroit techno was under $200. It was accessible.”
Taking into account new developments in some parts of Detroit, Banks ended the talk by emphasizing the need to lift up the majority of Detroiters, who can be helped by supporting organizations like Spin Inc. and accessible music education.
“In Detroit, the environment can be very bleak,” Banks said. “Detroit is making a comeback but only in certain areas. From Grand Boulevard to Jefferson, that’s new Detroit. But the rest of Detroit, where all this inspiration and creativity come from, seems like it’s being left behind. With our programs going into different locations, giving our children access, maybe we can go and change that narrative.”
LSA senior Jaewon Heo attended the panel out of an interest in techno and the opportunity to hear from musicians who led the way for the style.
“I’ve never really heard about techno from a person who was at that place in Detroit in the 80s, 90s when it was a burgeoning scene,” Heo said. “That in itself was interesting … I’m glad so many people came to the event today, I wasn’t really expecting to see a lot of young people here … I have the impression that techno doesn’t really have a lot of recognition especially outside of the Detroit sphere.”
Heo noted the importance of these panels in preserving techno culture locally.
“Specifically for Detroit techno, it’s kind of ironic that it doesn’t really get the recognition that it deserves even from a local standpoint,” Heo said. “It’s important to immerse yourself in the music, especially if you make music, because hopping on the Internet and just clicking on a song doesn’t really give you a lot of cultural context because you can listen to anything from anywhere, anytime.”
Reporter Sonia Lee can be reached at email@example.com