Future perfect

by Dan Sicko
Billboard Books
$16.95, 240 pp.

With the publication of Techno Rebels, there’s now no going back to the old, thrice-told tales and legends about Detroit techno. Dan Sicko’s (pronounced see-koh) history of the first decade of this movement affirms many familiar stories and notions about techno, but it does so with such nuance that the old, familiar, easy explanations fall short by comparison. The sound bites about Detroit techno which have substituted themselves for historical knowledge may serve as points of interest in sending readers to this book, but the richness of detail and context it provides leave those first stories behind as empty shells.

So much of this local history has circulated as misremembered nostalgia, hype and smarter-than-thou conjecture that Techno Rebels is a standout both for its scope and its seriousness. For even though it does patently reassure us that Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins – with the help of a few of their friends and thousands of local youth – created music that transformed dance cultures worldwide, this book’s reassurance comes from a more thorough local act of remembering and recovering, contextualizing and conceptualizing than has been seen in print before.

One sound bite which has been worn out by repetition is the summation that techno is "like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator." It’s clear that this quote has stuck in part because it presents the kind of gestural shortcut that any description of the truly new both needs and resists. But it’s also been repeated so frequently because it reassures us that techno can be both quirky, jumpy, geeky, white European avant-rock and soulful, spaced-out, full-on black Deee—troit funk! Techno Rebels, however, explores the social context of techno so powerfully that the Kraftwerk-Clinton hybrid becomes a mere shadow of an explanation. The interesting stuff here is the often misremembered reality, which saw both of these musical influences dovetail with the cultural agenda of Detroit’s youth.

Even more importantly, Sicko’s work remembers something that often becomes even easier to forget about the importance of Detroit techno music: Perhaps it’s because techno artists have been famous in Europe and virtually unknown in their own neighborhoods for more than a decade, but it’s difficult to remember that this music was important here on its own terms long before British youth crafted their late-’80s rebellion on its sound, and well before the Brits sold it back to the Americans as rave culture.

Several other books tell their readers how three Detroit-area youth created techno because they were isolated in bleak, unhappening Detroit, and how big this music got to be after it got noticed across the Atlantic, where the real action is. But Sicko dedicates most of Techno Rebels’ first 100 pages to recovering the movements, moments and social scenes here – the scenes that made the music real, and the adherents of which bought tens of thousands of copies of each of these records in Detroit and Chicago alone – before making any oceanic leaps.

Techno Rebels is not only an affirmation of Detroiters’ experience, but a striking claim that Detroit’s situation and its aesthetic codes must be understood in all their cultural richness, in part because they are so easily and so surprisingly applicable elsewhere.

Marc Christensen writes about books and music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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