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The Belleville Three

House, Techno, & the 80s: How black culture birthed the EDM era [Part One]

Anybody who’s been in involved in dance music for the last ten years or so could easily list off some of the biggest producers in the scene: Avicii, Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia, deadmau5, or Calvin Harris, to name a few. While the influence these major players have had on dance music culture is undeniable, they’re often credited as representing the face of the industry. Problematic as it may be, they’ve all got one thing in common—they’re straight, white men.

As electronic dance music (EDM) has taken over the globe in recent decades, with a boom in the popularity of festivals and genres taking hold in 2012, it’s been more and more frequented by a different target audience than what it started with—-namely, white people. That’s not to say that the scene spreading to new demographics is a bad thing. After all, one of the main values of the community is inclusiveness. Yet, when white-washing becomes so rampant that the community begins to loose sight of dance music’s history, it’s time to step back and re-evaluate. The roots of the culture are still visible, and it’s incredibly important for everyone who attends EDM events to remember who the music was created for and by: the LGBT community and the black community.

The erasure of black people in dance music isn’t a new issue. It’s been an increasing problem going back to the 80s and 90s, in the early years of raves. The founders of house and techno—arguably two of the biggest genres in the electronic world—are all black, gay, or both. Anybody who has ever listened to either of these styles, or attended the famed Movement Detroit Music Festival, owes the entire experience to the black community. These spaces simply wouldn’t exist without them. The average festival-goer has been able to get away with not knowing such crucial history for a long time, but as the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps the nation harder than ever before it becomes critical to learn and pay homage to a few of the people who changed the world. The dance scene, at its core, is structured by black culture.

From the center of Detroit, Michigan, techno was born—a creation that reflected not only its creators, but also the city that inspired it. As disco’s once seemingly invincible hold on America slowly began to loosen, a budding electronic scene was forming in the minds of three youth from Belleville, who would later become the iconic Belleville Three. Comprised of Juan Atkins, Derrick Mays, and Kevin Saunderson, the Belleville Three is responsible for the genre of techno as we know it today. As they grew up together, the trio were dedicated to and inspired by the styles of bands like Parliament-Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, and the works of late night radio DJ, The Electrifying Mojo. These were the guiding sounds for the Belleview Three as they slowly began to experiment with their own sonic touches.

The Belleville Three in 2017. Photo by Elaine Cromie/Detroit Free Press

The clubs they began playing in were havens for many in marginalized communities, creating a beautiful environment of peace and dance for catharsis, which was much needed after the civil rights movements of the ‘60s brought forth political unrest and an increasing police presence. The urge for music as a unifier and as a way to blow off steam at the state of the world became necessary; and in response, they began to lay the framework for what became a worldwide phenomenon.

Harnessing the future of music

One of the most influential originators of techno was Juan Atkins, the first member of the Belleville Three. Born in 1962, Atkins was perfectly situated to be on the cusp of a transitional music period. His childhood was shaped by music; he loved to collect different instruments, including a few that would direct his later musical career, like guitars and a drum set. Most important, though, would end up being the Korg MS-10 synthesizer he bought at 15 that sparked a talent for electronic instruments. Deeply influenced by a mixture of genres including early hip hop, club music, disco, and synth-pop, he mixed music and science fiction to experiment with futuristic sounds.

At just 18 years old, Atkins formed Cybotron with another black techno wizard, Richard Davis. The year was 1981 when they created “Alleys of Your Mind,” a record that proved to be a stepping stone for their careers once the song got radio play. Cybotron dissolved two years later after releasing their only album, 1983’s Enter, featuring the song “Clear” that ended up being the blueprint of the techno we hear today.

Whether it was playing in dance clubs in Detroit or across the pond in cities like Berlin, Germany, Atkins continued to expand his network and started his own label, Metroplex. From there, his life was all about music, and he has released music under several names including Model-500 and Infiniti. He still performs today, spinning vinyls all over the world either solo or with other techno legends.

A Rhythm begins

Derrick May was another member of the Belleville Three, just a year younger than Atkins and close friends with Atkins’ brother, Aaron, and Kevin Saunderson. May found a muse within the city of Detroit itself, and the electronic sounds he experimented with were a direct reflection of the cities’ technological background. He also had a personal connection to the music played out by The Electrifying Mojo, crediting it often as a motivator for music. He was a regular in Chicago clubs, visiting to see house legends like Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles play, and his most widely known and regarded work is 1988’s “Strings of Life,” named by Knuckles in a move that helped bridge the divide between house and techno. The song went everywhere: From Detroit and Chicago to New York and even Europe.

As the scene moved into the late-80s, the period proved to be a turning point for techno, and May was there as a direct influence on the sound. May had a sublabel under Atkins’ Metroplex umbrella, Transmat Records, and has performed and released music under monikers Kaos, Mayday, and Rhythim is Rhythim. For fans of video games, he’s had songs appear in several over the years, and even produced the music for Tekken. If that’s not enough somehow, May also ran Detroit’s premier festival in 2003 and 2004 and is the person credited with naming it Movement.

Hits on and off the field

The third and final member of the Belleville Three is Kevin Saunderson, Unlike his Detroit-native counterparts, Saunderson was New York born and Detroit bred, having moved to the city while attending junior high. He became best friends with May growing up, and was enthralled by the music Juan Atkins and Richard Davis were doing. After high school, Saudnerson took a break from music to work on a degree, with dreams of playing professional sports. However, he couldn’t resist being away from music and began creating his own style of techno. His style was harder, more percussive and vocally repetitive, and created a wildly energetic feel on dance floors.

After launching his own KMS Records in 1986, he began to perform under a wide range of names and groups, such as Kaos, E-dancer, The Elevator, Reese, and Inner City. He regularly visited New York and Chicago clubs and was fond of the Chicago house scene, doing even more to bridge the gap between genres by releasing “Big Fun” in 1987 with Chicago house producer Paris Grey.

While all three producers were huge across the European scene, Saunderson did particularly well there, regularly topping British charts during his career. He was also a major influence on the drum-n-bass and jungle genres, after releasing the song “Just Want Another Chance,” which featured a drum line now found in many of those songs. Saunderson’s musical side has slowed considerably over the years, but it’s still possible to catch a set every now and then as part of the Belleville Three, which recently united and performed as a trio for the first time in 2017 when they played Movement and Coachella.

As much hold as these three have over the techno scene, it still barely scratches the surface of the stories underneath. There are so many more who deserve recognition: Jeff Mills aka “The Wizard,” Delano Smith, Mad Mike Banks. Techno became the heartbeat of Detroit, resonating through countless people both on the dance floor and behind the scenes. While the term “techno” has become sort of a catch-all for describing EDM, there is real history and depth behind it that can only be truly experienced by having lived through it.

While techno took over Detroit, a similar style was developing not far away; the club beats in Chicago were beginning to give way to what we now call house music.  Driven largely by friends of the Belleville Three, Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles, it would soon combine with techno to begin forming a legendary dance scene that persists today.

In the next edition of the series, we’ll take a look at those visionaries behind house, and pay respect to a few of it’s most underappreciated creators.

Donate: Coalition for African Americans in Performing Arts, National Association of Negro Musicians, Music by Black Composers

Read onto part two:

H/T: DJMag, MetroTimes, HipHopMagz, Wax Poetics