Four years ago, when I thought about the town of Ann Arbor, I mostly thought about the University of Michigan. I really didn’t think much of the place besides the fact that it housed this massive school and all of its students. As someone that came from a different state, I didn’t even know how close Ann Arbor was to Detroit, or how the two cities interacted. Since moving here a few years ago, however, I’ve started to get the lay of the land and realize that Ann Arbor is more than just an address for students.
I started to do some more research and found out that artists like Iggy Pop and Bob Seger used to call this place home while it served as a countercultural meca in the ’60s. Institutions like The Ark and the Ann Arbor Folk Festival cultivated a growing folk scene that attracted names like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell to the town, all while a growing punk scene thrived amongst college students. However, as time went by another genre of music started growing in Ann Arbor’s underground music scene, right next to its birthplace: techno.
When I think of music from Detroit, I usually think of Motown soul music. And while this genre is most certainly what the city is predominantly known for, Detroit has one of the most well-known techno scenes in the world, and Ann Arbor is like Detroit’s younger sibling when it comes to the genre. Having just started to explore the style over the past few years, I had heard of some of the bigger names from Detroit like Robert Hood and Mike Huckaby, but I never really understood where Ann Arbor fit into the mix. That is, until this past week when I watched a documentary called Impulse Ann Arbor, produced by the Michigan Electronic Music Collective’s co-president, Jordan Stanton. The documentary talks about the unique story of Ann Arbor’s underground electronic music scene through interviews from both students and prominent artists alike.
I was captivated by how passionate each person was about this music, and how important it was to this city. How had I not known about all of this? Ann Arbor had played an important role in this genre, that much was clear. I had been to parties and events put on by MEMCO, but I was ignorant to how significant organizations like MEMCO and WCBN FM were in growing this genre. But it makes sense. Being so close to this monster of culture and music, it would have been impossible for Ann Arbor to ignore techno. People would travel for miles to Ann Arbor to see huge names like Jeff Mills frequently DJ the Nectarine Ballroom, known today as Necto. Programs like Crush Collision on WCBN have broadcasted upcoming and established techno artists to hundreds of radios around the area. The more I learned about the genre, the more I realized that the culture it fostered was just as DIY as most basement shows that I would usually associate with the term, if not more so.
Along with the fact that most of these events are run by the artists and fans, free from a corporate influence (which is what I consider modern DIY to be), I think techno embodies the more traditional spirit of DIY from the ’70s and ’80s through its commitment to social justice and providing a safe space for everyone, especially in the Detroit and Ann Arbor communities. In the documentary, Brendan Gillen, legendary DJ and founder of the label Interdimensional Transmissions, describes the music as “a purely intellectual black music form that was a catharsis for people under great opresion.” MEMCO throws an annual Black History Month event where a portion of the proceeds go to a different Black-owned non-profits, as well as hosting a variety of events that feature female, POC and queer DJs, attempting to avoid the all-too-common lineup consiting of strictly straight white men and create an inclusive, welcoming environment.
As my last semester here as an undergrad approaches, I feel like I’ve sort of missed an opportunity with MEMCO and the scene it fosters. I love the idea of DIY, and I love the way in which Ann Arbor’s techno community embodies it. It really does focus on the community itself instead of the individual. The more and more I learn about this town, the more I realize how special it is. I really liked a quote from Gillen later on in the documentary that continues to grow more truthful the more I think about it: “In Ann Arbor, it can’t be about you or it’s going to fail.”