The sign outside the festival makes it seem so simple: DETROIT TECHNO.
Inside the first tent, an ecstatic club kid flails about as a wall-projected corporate logo swirls behind him and the DJ’s vibe emanates from the hatchbacks of two loc’d out economy cars. As the beats crescendo, smoke fills the tent, making it difficult for the users at the Be Your Own DJ kiosk to see the miniature turntables on their monitors. Evidently the spinning corporate oval feels the music, too. It begins to morph between its corporate identity and that of an amorpous color wheel which splays reds, browns, and jarring yellows across the skinny frame of the raver busting his nouveau running man before it. Welcome to the 2001 Detroit Electronic Music Festival, sponsored by Ford. Counterculture meets corporate culture in the streets of the Motor City, and the beats echo through empty buildings.
The sins of Detroit have entered the vernacular. The automotive corporations still call the city home. But the decrepit outnumber the vital buildings in an aging downtown that can only whistle with the ghosts of its boomtown past. There is life here. The city burns with a sense of urban cool that seems borne from its hardscrabble existence. Unfortunately, sometimes it just plain burns. Despite a recent downtown resurgence of sports teams and theatre districts, despite the city’s proud subculture of punks, pimpdaddys and DJs, it’s D-Town’s cliched and sad downfall that remains its calling card. As if apologizing for the city’s woe, the sad, deserted visage of the 88-year-old Michigan Central Train Depot greets highway visitors with empty windows and 18 deserted stories of Indiana limestone.
Detroit Techno has always been about imbuing soulless beats with the sunny grooves of Motown’s stable of artists. The electronic music internationally known as the Detroit Techno sound does its best to combine the Motor City’s industrial heart with the soul of its ever-enterprising culture. Motown was a part of this, as was Detroit rock pioneers like the MC5, Iggy Pop, and even Bob Seger. DJs like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Carl Craig are superheroes within the community, having established and developed the music while fiercely protecting its hometown affiliation. The Detroit Electronic Music Festival is derived directly from Detroit Techno’s pride – both for itself and the city it thrives in.
Held over three days Memorial Day weekend in an outdoor plaza shadowed by skyscrapers, DEMF 2001 was a free event showcasing not only local DJ talent, but also an international array of electronic musicians, either influenced by or paying tribute to Detroit Techno. Three stages featured a non-stop onslaught of beats, scratches and grooves, with instant dancefloors happening all over as the rain poured down. Over a million people, mostly kids with something to prove, made the trip downtown to hear the music. Over a million people added a bottom end to the soundwaves reverberating through normally empty downtown streets.
This year’s festival featured a major corporate partner in the Ford Motor Company, on board to promote the Focus, a flashy little thing aimed at the very demographic that was shaking its pants off to DJs on three stages. Ford’s presence was not as overt as it could have been. Backing up the Focus TV campaign, futuristic signage hung about proclaimed ‘DETROIT TECHNO’ over a shot of the car in action. The aforementioned ‘Focus Tent’ featured plenty of smoke, beats, and (surprise!) a few Focus floor models for the Great Unwashed to check out. But for the most part, Ford’s sponsorship, even its siphoning of the DETROIT TECHNO tagline, seemed to be more about supporting a good thing than milking it for sales.
There was a sublime moment in the evening of the second day. As frenetic breakbeats cascaded out from the Motor Lounge stage, the club kid proletariat grooved beneath a giant, windswept American flag. Behind the stars and stripes was the sheer limestone wall of the (soon to be demolished) Ford Amphitheater, upon which a flickering hologram projected itself, larger than life. The spiraling image shifted from the blue Ford oval to a rainbow color strobe to a drivetrain schematic to a Blade Runner-esque florescent cityscape image and back to the spinning blue corporate logo. It was as if Ford could feel itself mixing with the kids dancing below, shape-shifting between its 9-5 identity and the freewheeling rainbow of color that signified the DEMF’s never-ending groove. Finally, just beyond the amphitheater, the neck of a great steel crane jutted out, silhouetted against the night sky. As the beats and sounds of two stages met and mixed in the airstream, all of the faces of Detroit co-mingled in a single image of pure potential.
And the people danced.