If Juan Atkins, the enigmatic force behind a revolution in electronic music now in its third decade, brought his best records to play in your basement would you show up? Would you surrender your body to a master DJ, the Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi of the underground dance scene since 1981, and free your mind to ride his propulsive sine waves to the other side of midnight? We didn’t just imagine the Godfather of Techno in the basement at Oslo the Friday night/Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend. Yes, Atkins passed through that exquisitely dim, cosmo-urbane cellar as if on a beam of light, replacing the club’s tangible charms with a near-hallucinatory condition of weightless clarity. Then he was gone. But he was there — looking thinner with apparent newfound stamina at age 42 — as the 30 or 40 or 50 people who floated on air can attest. Atkins’ brilliance was given words by Soft Curls co-promoter Scott Zacharias, who screamed: “He’s killing it!” Then Zacharias flipped on the blazing red cop light before weaving his thin white ass across a dance floor marked with a few dozen serious ravers, dress-up suburban tourists and old-school party people, and disappearing.
The problem with this otherwise pretty picture is obvious: There’s a dearth of bodies. Low turnout is a problem too common in the Detroit dance scene — itself an iconic constellation of stars, anti-stars, lovers and fools, a soft machine that helped spawn massive amounts of production/DJ talent. Later this month, Atkins and Soft Curls residents Zacharias and Sharif Zawideh will be part of an event in the Netherlands that should draw thousands. That’s the good news about what it means to be Detroit in places where culture-consumers thrive. The fear is that regular quality programming, like what goes on weekly at downtown’s Oslo — where techno/house/electro artists from Europe and the Americas have played in the city’s best-sounding room since it opened last spring — will soon be too risky to be considered good business. We’ve seen similar noble experiments fail at the now-closed Centre Street and Panacea. The financial woes of the Movement festival are part of the public record.
There are many differences between life in the margins of youthful imagination and the realities of providing stages for top international performers in a city of diminishing population and economic stability. All will get our psychojournalistic scrutiny in this space. And so will those who’ve recently left, most notably Richie Hawtin. Hawtin now lives in Berlin, where the techno marketplace is rich with artistic and commercial contacts — not to mention a few million art-conscious people. In tow went Magda (Hawtin’s Polish-born, Hamtramck-reared protégé who plays arrestingly hard-minimal tech-house), and others associated with Hawtin’s Windsor-based Plus 8 and Minus labels.
Speaking of which, Derek Plaslaiko, Hawtin’s former traveling record-roadie who moved to Brooklyn in early summer, looked boyish and athletic while spinning records at a recently reconvened Untitled at Alvin’s (Saturday, Sept. 4), with badass cohorts Mike Servito, Tadd Mullinix and Ryan Elliott with special guest Marc Houle of Run Stop Restore (Minus).
News also came our way this summer that Claude Young, whose raw DJ skills have been compared to the brutally talented Jeff Mills, has retired from the wicked game based around travel and parties. We wish Young a good rest ... and then a triumphant return to the decks.
Yet there are flickers of hope that give this column its raison d’etre. Venues as diverse as the Bat Lounge, the Buddha, the Corktown Tavern and Johansen Charles Gallery — and foodie hangouts like Agave, La Dolce Vita and Oslo — are hosting dance music events allowed to flourish in the creative realm, not pandering (too much) to the style and fashion trends that render the super-clubs paralytic and irrelevant. So too has production been stepped up, with new records from the Kenny Dixon (aka Moodyman) and Theo Parrish province of danceable funk-disco abstraction, alongside recent releases by Colin Zyskowski, John Briggs, Diviniti, Minx, Matthew Dear, Dabrye, James Cotton and Kenny Larkin (whose cheekily-named, self-referential new full-length is called The Narcissist.) Another new release to get excited about is Abe Duque’s “What Happened?” (white label), which features ’80s-vintage Detroit Techno sex machine Blake Baxter.
On top of exposing and reviewing new records in this column, we will track the best of upcoming live events too, like Paxahau’s six-year anniversary party on Sept. 25. The show features the return of Thomas Brinkmann — a Cologne-based producer and DJ whose recent Tour de Traum (Traum) CD is a reductive/ remix/ reinterpretation project that tops his late ’90s benchmark Concept: Variations (Minus). Brinkmann will do live P.A., as will Toronto-native Jake Fairley (Kompakt/ Sender/ Dumb-Unit). Dan Bell will play a DJ set, as will Berliner Sammy Dee (Perlon) and Paxahau’s Chuck Flask vs. Rich Korach.
An amazing bill meant to be experienced by thousands? Not this time: it’s at a loft above Niki’s in Greektown, 743 Beaubien St., that holds about 250 people. Pre-sale tickets are available for $20 at Neptune Records in Royal Oak, Record Time in Ferndale and Groovetickets.com. Doors are 10 p.m. Expect the music to go late. When you start beginning to see the light, you’ll know everything is all right.The Subterraneans is devoted to Detroit dance culture and will appear biweekly. Send comments to Carleton S. Gholz and Walter Wasacz at [email protected]