From: Bob Davis (
Date: Fri Mar 01 2002 - 07:36:49 CET

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    A friend of mine passed me this article and I thought that a few of you out there might find this interesting...




    Techno godfather Juan Atkins shares his thoughts on racial politics in the dance music industry, the power of radio, the death of the black DJ and why black people aren't dancing anymore.

    words: Derrick Mathis
    photos: Zen Sekizawa


    Juan Atkins couldn't have chosen a better example from his repertoire of previously recorded works than the Model 500 classic "I Wanna Be There," to inaugurate his latest disc, Legends: Volume 1 (Om Records). Bubbling and gurgling its way on a funky yet futuristic sightseeing expedition for the mind, the tune showcases the elements that comprise what are generally acknowledged as the first DNA strands of techno.

    It's not difficult to distinguish between the steely Euro-beats and mammalian black funk that writhe together harmoniously throughout the song. Yet it's almost unimaginable to believe that the currently LA-based Detroit native, who's tagged as the "Godfather of techno," has only just recently landed his first multi-record deal with an American label.

    Teaming up with Rick Davis in 1981 to form Cybotron, Atkins and his partner cranked out what are now considered some of the finest pieces of electronic experimentation today, including seminal dance singles like "Clear," "Techno City," and the haunting "Visions." After parting ways with Davies in '84, Atkins produced what some see as the most important body of techno to date under the moniker Model 500.

    It was also in the mid-'80s that Atkins joined high-school mates Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, both collaborating and working individually on projects. All three have gone on to become internationally respected producers and performers, referred to collectively in the dance music community as Detroit's First Wave, or "the innovators." But among the trio, Atkins alone is consistently referred to as the originator of Detroit's signature blend of melodic techno and electro style. The past two decades have seen moderate success and some perplexing hindrances to the career of an artist who should be as much a household name as Prince or P-Diddy. So who or what is responsible for impeding the tide of Atkins's musical innovations?


    2001 was an exceptionally prolific year for Juan Atkins. Right off the heels of the second annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival came the release of his new mix compilation, Legends Volume 1, on San Francisco's Om Records, and a well publicized licensing deal with Ford Motor Company for the use of his 1985 Model 500 classic "No UFOs." Despite all of this, the legendary DJ/producer clearly feels the future for black DJs in dance music looks pretty bleak. It's perhaps even more surprising when he reveals that one of the main reasons he's happy to sign to Om is their non-biased business model.

    "[At] Om there's no racial profiling. They're signing who they feel represents where they're trying to go-be it black dudes or white dudes," explains Atkins. "And they don't care how many black [artists] they [sign]. But in the future, I see dance labels that will [have fewer black artists] and only have trance artists on the roster-only white dudes. There might be some already."

    It's unsettling to think that race issues have affected the dance music community so deeply, even if only behind the scenes. But considering Atkins's techno in the context of black music and the mainstream since the advent of jazz in the '20s, it's clear that race has always played a profound role in recreating the music's image and sound to make it palpable to white consumers.

    "America still has a lot of [racial] barriers," says Atkins. "There's still a lot of racism here. [I don't believe] that the music industry is any different than any other industry when you've got seventy or eighty percent white people running it. You're gonna have race issues even if they're unintentional. [It's like] what happened with Chuck Berry and Little Richard in the beginning of rock 'n' roll. Eventually [their accomplishments were] recognized, though Little Richard's [veneration came] pretty late. Elvis is still bigger than all of them will ever be.

    "I think blacks are about to be excluded from dance like they were excluded from rock 'n' roll. It's not that [the industry and labels] are going to physically do it, [but they will] take so much soul out of it that blacks are not going to want to get into it. And that's [how] trance is [sounding] right now. It has no life, no soul."


    Ironically, just as rock 'n' roll evolved out of R&B, trance gained its legs via techno. Atkins notes that Detroit producer Red Planet's single "Star Dancer" ("[A] record that was made by a black dude-one of my homeboys in Detroit") was one of the original prototypes for trance music.

    It was the many trips that Juan, Kevin and Derrick made to the UK in the early '90s that kicked off techno's popularity in the British rave scene, and cleared the way for such "superstar" DJs as the UK's Danny Rampling, John Digweed and Fatboy Slim emerged.

    But it's been UK trance DJs like Paul Oakenfold who have gained extensive popularity in the US, perhaps pushing homegrown black innovators like Atkins further and further into the background. At last year's Area: One tour coordinated by Moby, Oakenfold was allegedly paid a whopping one million dollars to do the tour, while in comparison Atkins says he was paid two grand a night, a mathematical disparity that doesn't sit well with techno's Godfather. Nonetheless, Atkins maintains high respect for the British dance scene and what he perceives as its colorblindness. "The Brits have been traditionally really progressive [towards] music," says Atkins. "So when [black American] dance music made its way over to Europe, they embraced it wholeheartedly."

    Atkins notes that most forms of dance music, from disco through to techno and trance, are rooted in rhythm & blues and other forms of black urban music. But Atkins feels that institutionalized racism, which has historically capitalized on and reformatted original black art forms, is taking a hold of contemporary electronic music, specifically the music that he and his peers from Detroit and Chicago helped create. "Eventually dance music is gonna blow up here in the States. But to make that happen, what [the music industry] needs is a homogenized, [whitewashed] version of it."

    Atkins believes that the rapid fire success of white jocks like Oakenfold and Moby typify the record industry's standard practice of developing white artists in genres created by black artists. "Take Eminem for instance," says Atkins. "Now here's an area of music-rap music-that's inherently black. You really gotta have some credibility to hang in that game. Don't get me wrong-I'm not trying to take away anything from Eminem. Matter of fact, I kinda like him cause he's from Detroit and knows who I am. But look how quick he blew up. He's more famous than any other rapper right now. It was like [the music industry] was waiting for someone like that."


    But while the record industry may bear some responsibility in promoting white artists over black innovators, what about black audiences themselves? White rave audiences have always supported Atkins, yet most blacks don't even recognize the Detroit producer's name. Atkins attributes this to how music is marketed and released in the US.

    "That's precisely the thing that makes what I do so much harder. The way the American music industry is set up, when I go to a record company, they're expecting a black dude to come in the door with R&B or rap," says Atkins. "That's what's different between the Europe and the US. It's the reason why dance music had to go to Europe and come back-because of the racial attitudes here in America.

    "Right now, I'm doing a style of music that I'm calling 'urban alternative'- [its] like high-tech funk or a high-tech R&B. I've always wanted to get [this style] on the radio. That's the format that I want to develop, urban radio."

    Atkins has long held black radio responsible for the lack of support of dance music in the black community. It was only during the late '80s and early '90s on mix shows like Chicago's Hot Mix 5 that dance got any significant airplay on black radio. Radio support helped dance music gain momentum in Chicago, resulting in the birth of a new dance music genre: house.

    "We're really at a stagnant stage, because we have no outlet [for our music]," says Atkins. "Even the urban stations are brainwashed into not being adventurous. [To see a] change [of music formats] on the radio, it's gonna have to be a black program director to make that happen.

    "Radio is still very powerful, and digital radio is coming too," he continues. "Once internet radio comes to your car stereo, that might be the [time when a] change [of format] will take place. If I was programming a radio station, I'd play R&B in the daytime and dance music at night-you can mix the two. You could play a dance track and come right behind it with a rap cut. It's gonna take me or some other brother that has enough knowledge about dance music to [make] that combination happen."


    But with hip-hop serving as the primary soundtrack for black culture today, Atkins admits that his desire to expand dance music's black audience is likely to be an uphill battle. Although Atkins and others like him already have established a huge support system in the broader dance community among white fans, he insists that this is not enough-that there's more at stake than just recruiting blacks for the sake of doing it.

    "I've been a black person since I've been born," Atkins laughs. He explains his calling to bring dance music back to black audiences as "something that I feel I need to do. It's nothing that I can really explain. I think there's a mission for us to be more educated and exposed to alternative styles of music. Music should never be [restricted to just one style]. That's just like always voting Democrat. Why would we let ourselves be duped to believe that we should only vote one party?

    "In Detroit, there was a time when they were playing house music on daytime radio. And black people were lovin' that shit, man, lovin' it. If you had a station today that was playing that shit, people would be into it. It would work."

    Legends: Volume 1 is out now on Om Records.

    Bob Davis
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