Donnerstag, 30. September 2010

Sound of Detroit.

To understand the music of a city one has to understand its sound. Detroit has a sound of its own: the rattle of conveyor belts and robots assembling cars, the angry shouting of mobs running riot and the repetitive and gloomy beats of Detroit techno reflecting it. The sound is the spirit of a city. What makes the sound of Detroit so distinct?

Detroit was a French military base before it became a city in 1815. The rapid growth of the city commenced around 1850 when the first industries established themselves. With the founding of the automobile manufacturer General Motors in 1908, the city on the Canadian border became one of the significant sites along the Manufacturing Belt. Michigan rapidly developed into the second-biggest industrial state in the United States and required many more workers. The arriving labor force consisted of European immigrants and many blacks who fled the racist laws and poor living conditions of the American South to seek a better life in Detroit. They found it as assembly-line workers for Henry Ford. Ford guaranteed them a “$5-a-day Revolution”[1] in order to meet the growing demand for his Model T automobile. The strategy attracted thousands of new workers. In 1920, the Motor City of Detroit had already reached over a million inhabitants.

Along with the growth of Detroit as an industrial city came a vivid and rich cultural life. Legendary boxing champion Joe Louis, who relocated to Detroit from Alabama, described how much the city impressed him upon arrival: “I never saw so many people in one place, so many cars at one time. I had never seen a trolley, schoolhouses, movie theaters. One thing I knew, Detroit looked awfully good to me”[2]. And the same way the city must have sounded to him. The dense infrastructure and housing segregation in Detroit created a vibrant setting for black music, which had been brought along by the migrants from the South. Paradise Valley, a black neighborhood, which thrived from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, came to be so popular as a music and entertainment district that it rivaled New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s South Side. The heart was Hastings Street with its countless bars and clubs. Many Southern-born guitar players who came north to work in the automobile plants transported their “rough-hewn blues music“[3] into Paradise Valley. The most famous was John Lee Hooker, whose cover for the 1995 album Legendary Modern Recordings shows the artist on Hastings Street.

During the Great Depression, the city was sorely afflicted by unemployment and poverty. The black population suffered even more, because trade unions were controlled by whites and a sharp educational gradient meant that they, as less skilled workers, had much higher unemployment rates than the educated. During World War II, the automobile manufacturers of Detroit were transformed into an armament industry. President Roosevelt referred to the production plants as an “arsenal of democracy”[4]. However, even though the President’s Fair Employment Practices Committee declared that there should be no discrimination in the employment of workers in the defense industry, this was not the case in Detroit. In June of 1943, the ongoing discrimination led to one of the bloodiest race riots in American history. The apparent success story of the Motor City suddenly stumbled. 

Meanwhile, the Second Great Migration had led more than 300.000 African-Americans into Detroit in the mid-1940’s. Soon, the city was not able to cope with the population boom any more. Through urban renewal programs, the city altered in look and sound after World War II. Production sites as well as the white middle- and working-classes moved to the outskirts of the city. After Detroit’s population had peaked in 1953 with almost 1.5 million residents, it steadily decreased. What stayed behind in downtown Detroit were mostly black workers, who lost their jobs because they could afford neither to commute nor to move into the suburbs. Throughout the 1950’s, the majority of the Paradise Valley residents were relocated into housing projects. Under the auspices of the Federal Highway Act, much of Hastings Street was bulldozed to create room for I-75, the so-called Chrysler Freeway. The blues sound of Detroit had ultimately been replaced by pneumatic drills and rushing cars.

The changing face of the Motor City caused the formerly dynamic music scene of Paradise Valley to dissolve into smaller clubs and bars in the poor areas. Yet, it never disappeared completely. Musical training at the desegregated Cass Technical High School and Northeastern High School as well as Wayne State University produced a lively jazz scene in Detroit in the 1950’s and 60’s. Jazz music had been a part of Detroit’s musical scene since the Jazz Age of the 1920’s, but it was now that it actually flourished. Among the most popular artists were multi-instrumentalist Yusuf Lateef, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bass player Paul Chambers and drummer Elvin Jones. Also Donald Byrd, who later went on to become a best-selling artist for the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, started his career as a trumpeter in Detroit. According to Down Beat Magazine, Byrd was “proof that there’s a lot of worthwhile jazz being created in other localities besides New York, Chicago and the West Coast”[5]. With a musical piece like Cristo Redentor, Byrd showed his proximity to gospel music with an accompanying choir. The example shows his open reception and mixture of different musical genres as well as his changeability (from intense hard bop over jazz fusion to rhythm and blues). This versatility is something very typical for Detroit-based artists. Even though – or rather, because of – the deteriorating look of Detroit, the city’s sound always remained innovative.

As the white worker was able to fulfill his dream of his own house, the divide between the poor, black population in downtown and the richer, white population in the suburbs increased even more. The first malls opened in the suburbs, whereas many buildings in the inner city were abandoned. The well-known Detroit Symphony Orchestra had to leave the Orchestra Hall in downtown Detroit because of major financial problems. Due to court-ordered busing and other racial tensions, the year 1967 saw another riot, this time lasting for five days. The riot caused the city's reputation to deteriorate even more among whites. By the 1970’s, Afro-Americans formed nearly half the city's population. The city furthermore slid into an economic crisis. In addition to Ford Motor Company’s labor process reaching its limits, the effects of the oil crises and globalization had a major impact on the Motor City. Unemployment rose to new heights and the city suffered from brain drain, the departure of thousands of skilled workers. It turned into “the classic Rust Belt city”[6]. In 1973, the first black mayor, Coleman Young, was elected. Though popular among many black residents as a “great warrior”[7], Young's hotheaded style during his four terms in office was not well received by many white Detroiters, who continued to move to the suburbs in large numbers.

While white America continued to avoid the crisis-area of downtown (black) Detroit, ironically, its music became increasingly popular with white audiences. From the 1960’s onwards, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records became the quintessential icon for black pop music. Gordy’s story seemed like the ordinary story of a black Southern migrant at first. He was born in Detroit after his parents had relocated to the city in 1922. At a young age, Gordy worked in the automobile industry and frequently visited the jazz clubs in the city. Inspired by the first African-American label owners like Don Robey (owner of Houston’s Peacock Records), Gordy, using an $800 loan from his family, founded Tamla Records in January, 1959. After a year, Tamla and Gordy’s second label, Motown Records (a portmanteau derived from the words “motor” and “town”) became incorporated as Motown Record Corporation. Gordy was able to use the strategy of Henry Ford’s fast assembly-line production in his own way: after 1960, the Motown label produced hits in series. During the 1960’s, the label had more than one hundred songs in the Top 10. Such legendary artists as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and The Jackson 5 were all signed to Motown. Beyond that, the roster included white artists. Motown primarily stood for a peaceful and happy sound romanticized by Martha and The Vandellas in their song Dancing in the Street: “Summer’s here and the time is right / for dancing in the street”. Even when some songs adopted a political tone – like Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On: “You see, war is not the answer / for only love can conquer hate” – it stood antagonistic to the violent Vietnam protesters of the era. Gordy called the Motown headquarters on West Grand Boulevard Hitsville USA. As an allusion to Nashville, the heart of country music, he wanted Motown to become just as meaningful for black music. And, unlike the white-owned Stax Records in Memphis or Atlantic Records in New York, it was Motown in Detroit which became the epicenter for black pop music. Today, Motown Records counts as one of the most successful American labels. However, the irony of fate let Gordy relocate his legendary label to Los Angeles in 1972. For Motown’s conciliatory sound, Detroit’s aggressive climate did not provide any perspective. After the label had left, it seemed as if Detroit had lost its sound. A few highlights appeared on the scene (for example George Clinton, who enriched funk music with synthesizers), but impulses in modern music were set in other cities. The up-tempo disco music of the 1970’s gained its influences from Philadelphia (with Philadelphia International Records, run by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) and New York, where a new age of DJ culture gained importance (especially David Mancuso at The Loft and Nicky Siano at Studio 54). In contrast to other music-scenes and cities, which profited culturally from South-American and Asian immigrants as well as a homosexual subculture, in Detroit the population groups kept to themselves. But, as always, Detroit was able to revive its sound.

Before the great success of Motown recording artists, white and black music in Detroit had been fairly separated. Only a few bands were able to cross over, for example Hank Ballard & The Midnighters with the track Work With Me, Annie. But, not only black Detroit had its own music scene: In 1955, the Detroit-native Bill Haley ushered in the rock’n’roll era with the release of Rock Around The Clock. Throughout the following decades, a rich rock scene formed in Detroit, with world-famos artists like Bob Seger, Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. American hard rock group Kiss immortalized the city in their anthem Detroit Rock City, a favorite during baseball and hockey games in Detroit until today. Later, the city was dominated by the rawer garage rock, still rock’n’roll but combined with “anger, determination and attitude”[8]. The new and rough Detroit Rock City with popular bands like MC5 and The Stooges (with lead singer Iggy Pop) could be seen as the antithesis to the mellow and peaceful sound of the Motown record label. It laid the groundwork for a flourishing hardcore punk scene in the late 1970’s. The 1980’s saw Detroit set a course with pop music. Most famous became Madonna, who was born and began her career in the area. In the late 90’s, the music of Detroit stayed versatile with artists like Kid Rock, who gained a reputation for combining musical bits of hip hop, alternative rock and heavy metal to nu metal, and The White Stripes, a band which revived garage rock after 2000. As well as the black sound, the white sound of Detroit has never been characterized by standstill.

By 1990, more than three-quarters of city residents were black, compared to just five percent in the suburbs. In 2001, the Census Bureau conducted a statistical study about the “Most Racially Uniform Cities“[9]. With now more than an 80 percent black population, Detroit ranked second (for cities populated by African-Americans), whereas the nearby Livonia, with over 95 percent white, ranked first (for cities populated by whites). At the same time, urban decay, crime, acts of incendiarism, drug problems and dreariness dwelt in downtown Detroit. The city gained the dystopic look, where director Paul Verhoeven shot and set his dark science-fiction film RoboCop. After 2000, the population of Detroit fell below one million. Jerry Herron, professor for American Studies at the city’s own Wayne State University, defined Detroit as “the city everybody likes to look at as a place that's dangerous, abandoned and economically no longer viable. It's the most famous failed city in the United States”[10]. The author and columnist Ze’Ev Chafets even named Detroit America’s “first Third World City”[11]. The transcending of 8 Mile Road, which ran along the northern boundary of Detroit, was deemed extremely dangerous for whites. After the 1950’s, Detroit provided the perfect example for a failed city concept. The everyday struggle in the city was slowly re-evaluated when it became a synonym for experienced severity. This led to a new form of Detroit patriotism and street credibility, which for example was expressed with the T-Shirt slogan “I’m so bad, I party in Detroit”. Despite all adverse conditions, Detroit was able to reinvent itself.

New music added a soundtrack to Detroit’s redefined urban culture. After 1980, black electronic music echoed the inner city dilapidation and gloomy dreariness with a new sound: Detroit techno was a logical progression of the songless blues and jazz pieces from early Detroit; besides, its monotony, dismal tone and machine-like atmosphere directly mirrored the spirit of the post-industrial and decaying city. The steady, electronic rhythm replaced the melodic, colorful songs of the Motown era just as much as the futuristic robot did the human assembly-line worker in the automobile industry. And there was another significant difference to Motown. The happy sound may have been an expression of a black life in Detroit, yet it had often tried to circumvent and ignore the daily depression in Detroit to get their large audience completely carried away with the music. On the contrary, the early techno artists directly pointed out the grave situation and, at the same time, listeners still immersed themselves in the music. Detroit techno drew its influences from various other concepts (from synthesizer-oriented music to futurologist Alvin Toffler) and constantly reacted to all outside influences by musical innovation and diversification. Although techno music mostly abstained from vocals, it is among the most expressive examples for the sound of Detroit, because it unadornedly rendered the city’s spirit.

Since the 80’s in Detroit were dominated by techno, hip hop was able to rise to prominence only in the late 1990’s with the world-famous rapper Eminem and his group D-12 as well as the lesser known Jay Dee, who also demonstrated his abilities as a producer. On his album Welcome 2 Detroit, not only the featured artists from Detroit, but the used sample of Donald Byrd’s Think Twice showed Jay Dee’s appreciation for his city.

Between then and now, the city’s sound has considerably lost its popularity. Matthias Schönebäumer, journalist of Die ZEIT, ascribes this to a general tendency of today’s popular music, which displays lesser concern with black struggle (the persistent element in Detroit’s musical development). After the techno years, the Motor City was still able to develop a wide range of new artists and genres. Although they cannot be reduced to a common denominator, they still show the characteristic versatility for the sound of the city. The electronic scene for example is talked about. African-American artists like Kenny Dixon Jr. and Theo Parrish have found their own way to interpret modern American house music, the project The Detroit Experiment merges live jazz with electronic music and DJ Assault helped to create the genre ghettotech (also known as Detroit bass), a fast and rough electronic music with pornographic lyrics. Furthermore, there is the label Ghostly International from the nearby College town of Ann Arbor, which specializes in experimental music the label calls avant-pop: “cutting edge music with an electronic methodology and a pop sensibility”[12]. The city also hosts the Detroit Electronic Music Festival annually in May. Detroit’s hip hop is heavily characterized by the raw street-sound of Royce da 5’9” or the jazzy orchestrated pieces of producers Wajeed and Saadiq of the Platinum Pied Pipers. Other emerging newcomers like Dwele or Amp Fiddler helped to shape the world-music friendly genre neo soul. The developments show that especially black Detroit has kept its self-confidence for innovative music.

Today’s Detroit in many areas still looks like a ghost town, with once-populated areas being “claimed back by nature”[13]. However, slowly the appearance of the city has improved. Along with former mayor Dennis Archer’s plan for “Tax-Free Renaissance Zones” to bring business-owners back to the city, efforts for racial integration were made. Action groups like “Paint the Town” are adding more color to the city. The new construction of theaters, art galleries, museums and the renovation of the Opera House are a sign that the city is “experiencing a bit of a renaissance”[14], as Detroit-based musician and writer Matt Borghi carefully puts it. After a fifty-year leave, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra came back to the Orchestra Hall and in 2005, the Detroit School of Arts was added to the complex. Throughout the years, the school produced such notable artists as R&B singer Aaliyah. Two new stadiums were built and in 2006, the city topped it off by hosting the major Super Bowl event. A more fertile economy also brought some relief to the poverty. But then again, the recent crisis particularly harmed the Big Three automakers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) and the area. Michigan-based filmmaker Michael Moore recently faulted that parts of the city still look like “the landscape of another planet”[15]. If only very slowly, a revitalization of Detroit is progressing.

What makes the sound of Detroit so distinct? First, one has to note a distinction between pop music from Detroit (Madonna’s early hits, Aaliyah or most of Eminem’s chart-topping work) and the more independent, creative-reflective and mostly black sound of Detroit, which sets the city’s spirit to music. According to Schönebäumer, especially the latter illustrates how much a local music culture is associated with the urban environment out of which it emerges. Melancholic blues were a sign for the repressed black workers from Paradise Valley, and Jay Dee’s jazzy and broken beats reflected Detroit’s music tradition and inner disunity. Even Berry Gordy’s Motown, which often tried to turn away from the depraved city life, can be considered representative of a black life in Detroit of the 60’s. In Detroit, techno stood as the musical expression of human machines and mechanical humans. Human machines mean the robots in the automobile industry and the futuristic and gloomy appearance of downtown Detroit; mechanical humans mean the effect this changing look had on its citizens, including the originators of techno music. The songless Detroit techno tracks were musical illustrations of these conditions of life. The examples of Chicago (which had the more fun-oriented house music) and Europe (which lost track of the original idea of techno by commercializing it) showed that this dark techno sound could only emerge out of a place like Detroit. These examples demonstrate that Afro-Americans have suffered from the changing face of Detroit; their music, however, has profited from it. Life in Detroit has a sound of its own and the city’s music was continually able to face up to it and reflect it. This makes the sound of Detroit so distinct.

Taken from “Detroit Techno – Transfer of the Soul through the Machine” by Mathias Kilian Hanf



[1] Ford Motor Company, “Henry Ford's $5-a-Day Revolution” , April 2009.

[2] Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise & Fall of the Motown Sound (London: Omnibus, 2003), 9.

[3] John Cohassey, “Hastings Street Grease, Vol 1” , April 2009.

[4] cited from: Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert, Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 141.

[5] Gary Bredow, High Tech Soul – The Creation of Techno music, Plexifilm, Glu Studios and A Fine Mess, 2006.

[6] Ed Garsten, “Detroit's 'great warrior,' Coleman Young, dies” , April 2009.

[7] Checker Sedan, “Detroit Music Part 2” , April 2009.

[8] Gary Bredow, High Tech Soul – The Creation of Techno music, Plexifilm, Glu Studios and A Fine Mess, 2006.

[9]The Associated Press, “Most Racially Uniform Cities” , April 2009.

[10] Gary Bredow, High Tech Soul – The Creation of Techno music, Plexifilm, Glu Studios and A Fine Mess, 2006.

[11] cited from: Matthias Schönebäumer, “We Almost Lost Detroit. Pop-Standort Detroit: Schwarze Musikkultur zwischen Verfall und Aufschwung”, in: testcard 14 (March 2005), 54.

[12] Ghostly International, “Releases - Ghostly International” , April 2009.

[13] Matt Borghi, “Black History In Detroit : From GM To Motown” , April 2009.

[14] ibid.

[15] Mike Householder, “Michael Moore: Detroit Looks Like "The Landscape Of Another Planet"” , May 2009.


Aus: Matchless Magazine, März 2010

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