Sparking A Revolution: A look at Detroit’s original lineup

very year on Memorial Day weekend, electronic music fans from across the world gather at Hart Plaza for Detroit’s Movement Electronic Music Festival. It’s a full three days of dancing to music by dozens of DJs spanning the whole spectrum of the genre. But the techno love isn’t limited to this event. It’s a phenomenon that’s captured listeners all over the globe. And where did it all start? Right here in Detroit. Here’s a timeline primer on the main movers’ key moments.

'77 – The Electrifying Mojo

The Electrifying Mojo was the biggest tastemaker for a generation of music lovers in Detroit during the 1970s and ’80s. The Air Force veteran-turned-radio DJ made a name for himself playing an eclectic mix of musical styles, from funk to new wave to hip-hop, on his show The Midnight Funk Association on WGPR and later WJLB. Mojo ruled at a time when radio DJs “broke” new artists in large listening markets; he is widely credited with breaking Prince to Detroit. Mojo’s flair for playing techno pioneers, including German electronic band Kraftwerk, helped popularize the genre among Black listeners.

'80 – Juan Atkins

One of Mojo’s devoted listeners, Atkins in 1980 joined with Richard “3070” Davis to form Cybotron, whose song “Clear” followed cues from Kraftwerk’s style and mixed it with club music. According to the liner notes of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, after that initial success, Atkins was surprised to find the electro-funk style he was aiming for was done even better by Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 song “Planet Rock.” That was when he decided to redouble his efforts in experimentation and re-team with two of his earlier collaborators-classmates Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson-and form the Belleville Three.

'87 – Derrick May

When May met Atkins, the two traded mixtapes-immersing May in artists like Kraftwerk and Parliament, whose song “Flashlight” was especially influential. Atkins taught how to mix, and the two began working together. Some of the duo’s early work was creating megamixes for Mojo’s show. May’s 1987 song “Strings of Life” was a big hit in England, opening up the path for him to become one of the first American techno artists to tour Britain. His record label Transmat is located near Detroit’s Eastern Market to this day.

'88 – Kevin Saunderson

Saunderson met May when the two were 14. The pair reportedly became best friends after Saunderson punched May and knocked him out for deciding not to pay for a bet he lost. He’s the only one of the Belleville Three not born in metro Detroit, having spent the first 12 years of his life in Brooklyn before moving to Belleville. With his group Inner City, Saunderson charted eight songs in the UK and four No. 1 dance hits on the American dance charts.


'88 – Belleville Three

As three of a handful of Black students at Belleville High School, Atkins, May and Saunderson bonded over their tastes in music. The trio started working together as Deep Space Soundworks and managed to get airplay on Mojo’s show. The group later founded their own club called the Music Institute in downtown Detroit, which became a hub for local artists to collaborate.

'00 – Detroit Electronic Music Festival

The fest has switched management numerous times and had quite a few name changes, formerly Fuse-In and simply Movement. May and Saunderson each had a brief stint producing it. Since 2006, the festival is run by Paxahau, an event production company. All of the Belleville Three have performed at various points over time, with both Atkins and Saunderson returning this year. Even after transitioning from being a free to paid event, it still draws in crowds of over 100,000.

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