In the 70’s, Detroit was struggling, but the club scene was thriving and everybody was dancing to disco music. Soon after, the innovative DJ culture set the stage for a group of friends to start tinkering with early electronic instruments. All of a sudden a new type of futuristic music was born taking the underground dance scene by storm.

DJ/Producer, Juan Atkins, known as the Originator, created the term Techno. He was later joined by Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Blake Baxter, Eddie Fowlkes, and Santonio Echols. As collaborators, they released local hit after local hit and finally caught the attention of some eager Europeans.

In 1988, London based record label owner Neil Rushton came to Detroit searching for gold, found it, licensed it and sold it overseas, taking the group of friends and their burgeoning industry with him on an overseas quest for bigger and brighter things than Detroit could offer.

Techno became an overnight sensation and so did Juan, Kevin, and Derrick. But it didn’t happen for the rest. When the money entered the picture, friendships were broken, leaving them fractured as a group, with no collective bargaining power in the music business. With no knowledge of publishing and licensing, Blake, Eddie and Santonio, whose contributions went largely unrecognized and uncompensated, were left in a state of heartbreak and despair to this day.

By the late 1990s, dance music changed and so did Detroit. Techno had long been forgotten and secretly became a mere export, with no new audiences being cultivated. Manufacturing jobs were sent to other countries, and unemployment and crime hit a new high. Hip Hop became the new sound, and the new underground culture provided illicit means for the youth with no direction in the city.

Today, Detroit is largely unrecognized for the creation of Techno, which was the beginning for what is now known as the $7.4 billion dollar business of EDM. As of 2017, there are no African Americans listed as top earning artists.

The founders eventually discover brotherhood and betrayal don’t always mix on the dance floor. Now over 30 years later, they fight to keep their legacy and music alive in a city that is only now giving them their due recognition.

The Pioneers

JUAN ATKINS

They call him “The Originator.” It’s a title earned not only from his groundbreaking work under the names Cybotron and Model 500, but also from the fact that he coined the term “techno music.” He melded the cosmic funk of Parliament with the synth-pop of Kraftwerk and served it up through his Korg MS10. And just like that, without even realizing it, a movement was born.

EDDIE FOWLKES

Eddie “Flashin’” Fowlkes discovered the art of DJing right alongside Juan Atkins and Derrick May, but he took it to the extreme by performing with turntables, a mixer, and drum machines. He dove into music production by building a recording studio in his bedroom, which ultimately resulted in his landmark single “Goodbye Kiss.” Released on Atkins’ Metroplex label, the song was crucial in defining the Detroit techno sound and Fowlkes as a legendary Detroit techno pioneer.

DERRICK MAY

They call him “The Innovator.” Through his high school friendship with Juan Atkins, May learned the ins and outs of both DJing and electronic music production. As his skills grew, so did his circle of influences, which included a healthy dose of house music from neighboring Chicago. In 1987 he and his innovative collaborators created one of the most influential records in electronic music history, “Strings of Life.” Now considered a classic, the song went on to gain the attention of European audiences and record labels, which put him on a course for musical immortality.

BLAKE BAXTER

Dubbed “The Prince of Techno” by his peers, Blake Baxter released his first songs in 1987 with Saunderson and was later featured on Virgin’s groundbreaking “This is Techno!” compilation, which solidified techno as its own genre. Baxter was poised for stardom. But life happened and as Atkins, Saunderson, and May became the breakout sensations, Baxter traveled down his own path.

SANTONIO ECHOLS

Santonio Echols first made a name for himself as a collaborator with Saunderson in the group Reese & Santonio, known for a string of classic underground dance tracks. Those songs quickly propelled Saunderson’s career, but Echols’ passion was music, not business. Though he left the game earlier than his fellow pioneers, he is still making music today, with his kids following in his footsteps.

KEVIN SAUNDERSON

They call him “The Elevator.” Along with Atkins and May, Saunderson was a pillar of The Belleville Three: the group of high school friends who pioneered Detroit techno. But his moniker is derived from the way he elevated techno from the underground to the mainstream. In 1987, Saunderson produced the song “Big Fun” with his group Inner City, which charted in the U.S., Australia, and all over Europe. Their follow up single, “Good Life,” was even more successful, resulting in techno becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

MIKE HUCKABY
(1966-2020)

Beyond being one of Detroit’s most lauded electronic music DJ/producers, Mike Huckaby was a humble thinker and a visionary. His ethereal dream of the city’s early techno scene gave “God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines” its title. Huckaby’s breakthrough musical efforts started in the mid-’90s and ultimately earned him critical acclaim as an international dance music producer. With his vast music knowledge that spanned genres, he was in a class by himself: a teacher of old and young, distinguished from his peers by his selfless generosity. Huckaby’s contributions, not only to the music scene but to humanity, are destined to reverberate forever.

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