God Said Give'em Drum Machines: The Story of Detroit Techno

by BJ Panda Bear

Recently the world of Electronic music got a bit unnerved when ABC News anointed David Guetta as the “Grand Father of Electronic Dance Music.” It wasn’t a reflection of the DJ’s skills or passion, but this grand statement took away the historic roots of electronic music and their pioneers, from post-disco NY, to the house scene in Chicago, and the origins of techno in Detroit. This tweet adds to the long list of moments in our culture where African American history has been whitewashed.

Though those dark words were stated, it also permitted the most perfect timing for social media to take notice, and perhaps even better timing for the documentary, God Said Give’em Drum Machines: The Story of Detroit Techno, to come out. We got a chance to speak to the director Jennifer Washington and Kristian Hill to have them set the story straight, and correctly guide the narrative of this all-American and, most importantly, historically African American music and cultural movement.

I really felt moved by this project especially after those memes I’ve been seeing about David Guetta.

Kristian: Yeah right on time with our film to kind of come with the actual knowledge—we’re glad to see those memes.

When did you guys start to compile this project?

Kristian: A little over seven years ago Jen and I met while I was in Detroit beginning to tape local DJs like Allan Ester, and from taping it all, we made a short character piece after we felt there was a power following this story. I think 2011 was our first movement where we went back and filmed a lot of guys and did interviews and that was the foundation of our work. That following winter we were in Amsterdam Model 500, and really chasing the thread of this music around the world began then. 

Were you able to follow the roots from Detroit?

Kristian: We were definitely able to follow the roots from Detroit to Russia, where people understood the roots were from Detroit. We did trips to London, and speaking of memes, there’s this photo of Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Eddie Fowlkes, Blake Baxter, and Santonio Echols. This photo was taken by a gentlemen by the name of Normski. In the beginnings of making this film, we would always go back to this photo. It became the centerpiece to our story—the people we would begin to follow for this first film on Detroit music. 

Did you grow up listening to this music? How deeply are you involved in the culture and music yourself?

Jennifer: When I grew up I was listening and loving Detroit radio and listening to it every night. It would come on the radio cafe at 8 and was my favorite thing. I would say ‘84 or ‘85 was when they started playing this new futuristic type music that I latched onto. I never knew the title of the songs or who the artists were, they were never announced, so it was always a mystery to me. Pretty much until I grew up and returned to Detroit one summer— I'm from Detroit— I kind of fell upon the first ever techno music in the world. This is where I learned where this music came from and who these artists were, the titles of the songs. When I came across this museum and became acquainted with the story behind this music, I realized that there is a story behind this music, and it needs to be told. 

Kristian: Yeah and I grew up around the block from Juan Atkins’ grandmother, so I've known Juan since I was a child. That relationship really, over time, broke me into the music because I have an older brother who would DJ. Juan was making records, and again around ‘85, ‘86 I was DJing, so a lot of the guys in the film I've known for years—Eddie and Derrick, I've known of them for years— and I've had a broader relationship with a lot of the other guys in the film and in our community. I've known Mike Huckaby, god, since I was in high school. We were both high school friends and DJs so I'm very connected to the community and the story. 

What do you feel like the music culture is veering towards in this mainstream world of EDM? What we hear now, it’s not the same as the Euro EDM culture that was underground back then. Do you feel like there is sort of a proper kind of inspiration and paying-of-the-dues to all the guys now? Or is it a constantly-being-white-washed kind of music?

Kristian: You know, it’s hard not to notice the kind of whitewashing when you can watch a four-minute video of Paris Hilton DJing in Ibiza,, and you couple that with American festivals, or festivals in general, that are dominated by these acts that really are two or three generations removed from the origins, and cultural origins of this music, which includes house as well as techno. So yes, it becomes overwhelming, but you try not to be too old and understand that festivals have to. Its commerce now, it’s definitely business. Festivals are doing what they have to to meet the bottom line, but sometimes authenticity doesn't ring through with how this music was created from the underground. They may grab on to different facets of it like Ultra’s half resistant stage— we all know underground resistance is the resistance that was born into this music. They are the black counterpoint of this music but its rare that an Ultra would invite these guys. You try not to get to lost in that stuff. There’s a culture in the underground all over. These guys are working, and they're all around the world. It’s just domestically sometimes that all this stuff gets lost. 

Was there a point where Black youth kind of lost their hold on techno music, similar to how rock and punk from the Afropunk movement now is being viewed as “alternative” even though it’s based off this prototype of music and culture? 

Jennifer: I think it’s just the beginning. When it was truly a Detroit thing, the support for it was still small and I think the Black youth interested in it at the time were middle class and, so when they moved on, so did the pioneers of the sound. I think that the Black youth didn’t really have a connection to it anymore and I think that’s part of this problem that we have. It’s not just the whitewashing of the music, it’s that we, as Black people, didn’t connect with or support the music.

Kristian: I think that was a great point and if we just look at the timeline of music and lets say, this kind of music explodes at the same time as hip-hop becomes this world-wide thing. So American record labels, which are in New York and Los Angeles, they’re then feeding the pipeline of this kind of rap music around the country and world. So the dance music culture becomes secondary and maybe even further behind because now the younger audiences are being fed hip-hop music. So the kids that may have even still been connected to the music are now being fed politically conscious rap and things of that nature, so that draws them further away from the music. The audience seems to have been in flux. 

Do you feel like there is any hope? Have you been listening to any younger, contemporary artists of color who are paying tribute to lots of techno and house music? Bands like, Newbody have been getting attention working on a lot of production that embraces old school house and techno vibes. 

Kristian: I mean, really, you can just start with the four chairs: Booty Man, Marcellus Pittman, Kyle Hall, Mike Huckaby. If you want to go younger there’s Drummer B, I mean there’s artists that are still on this wave you know— Gari Romalis. There’s a rich seabed of music. The problem isn’t that guys still aren’t making this music. The problem is that American audiences don’t really know where it comes from. So you have a few kids out there that are still holding on to the torch and pushing the culture forward. My favorite is Jay Daniel and Kyle Hall. I just really love what they’re doing. They work on Wild Oats Music. They are just two guys who are figuring out the space organically, and they’re making great music. They travel and they were international DJs by the time they were 21 years of age. They’re not too much older than that now. They are who I point to as the future.

That’s a very important point of conversation. Its been a sort of cultural battle to maintain the voice of culture and musical moment in a contemporary setting. Is the new generation something to look forward to? And at the same time, what else would you like to focus on presenting with this documentary? To tell the youth that this type of music came from America and is a Detroit based, African-American centerpiece?

Kristian: That’s definitely part of our mission. It’s also to really give the early machinations of this dance music culture that techno was born out of this whole idea of mixing and what that meant to this particular genre of music, and these particular artists. It’s not only that you're creating a sound but you have to figure out how to get it on the dance floor and how to get people dancing. So you know, being a DJ is just a critical component of this. Early history of DJ culture that rolls us into the birth of Juan Atkins and eventually the birth of Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson Santonio, Echolsand, and many others that made the foundation of this music. So those messages are key, however my partner Jennifer, I’ll let her take over on this last part, letting people know about Detroit’s history. 

Jennifer: Yeah and letting people know what its people are capable of, and it would be a powerful story for any underdog to know this. I think this story is bigger than just the music and beyond just the techno story— it’s about getting proper recognition. There are other films that tell this type of story and this film is another one and it’s just kind of centered around an empowering story for people in the city—African American youth. Also I think you can kind of compare— these guys are like the “hidden figures” of the EDM scene. Like the popular film Hidden Figures, for us as Black people, it was empowering. We never knew we had anything to do with the space launch? So when that story came out everybody had a new sense of pride and I think this story can do the same thing. 

Kristian: Just how they looked at the future, we’re still dealing with big concepts that I think resonate around the world. Just like this music took off in London and went over to Berlin and became the sound of Berlin. I think this film will have the same impact, however we want a bigger impact domestically, so this story can get out.

Yeah I wanted to actually ask you guys why do you think it is from Russia to Europe to Asia even, that techno music is so much more well received and embraced and then in America? It’s such a different type of standard of aesthetics and sound. Why is it that, in all these places outside of America, the music is so much more well embraced?

Jennifer: It is, it’s popular. It’s considered popular music. Everywhere we went we heard techno music.

Kristian: It’s funny I was recalling how in Berlin they had EDM Christmas carols and in Saratov you hear house music and electronic music just coming from the kids’ cars. In Russia, just how the kids would put together raves and knew the history back and forth. You know it was overwhelming to see the impact of this music on people’s minds and bodies outside of America, and how much of an impact it had. However, here in the states I kind of look at it like kids with rap and things of that nature—music without words sometimes may be too overwhelming. I have no idea. It just seems like rap has made it so kids need to hear those things, and one thing about techno is that it has an impact on your mind, your brain and it allows people to go in different. It allows your mind to go in different places, like jazz. Maybe in America kids aren’t accustomed to that feeling.

Awesome thank you so much this was a really wonderful conversation. Do you have anything else you want to talk about?

Kristian: One thing… the title of our film—God’s— it’s something that came up in a conversation we had with a gentleman, Mike Huckaby. He told us about a dream he had, and he told the story from the standpoint of you know, Detroit is something in such a dire situation that an angel went to God and asked him what do we do. All the people of Detroit are starving and in pain what do we do. And he said God was sleeping and he woke up and said, “Hey give them drum machines,” and he said some of the angels scoffed and were like drum machines? But one of the angels was smart enough and he said, “Hey if God said to do it then you do it.” We started these creative classes based on this dance music and this class is thriving despite what is happening in Detroit with jobs and things of that nature. We collaborated with his story and his story became the embodiment of this film. So we were inspired by artist to make this film so I think the title of this film, there’s more behind it. There’s more behind Mike Huckaby’s words. 

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