Best of an era

Ten of the most important Detroit dance records of the 1980s, in close to chronological order:

1. Was/Not Was – "Wheel Me Out" and "Out Come the Freaks" – Ze, 1980-81

The Was Brothers may have found major mainstream success in the later 1980s, but their first two singles rank as some of the best and strangest disco Detroit ever produced. These off-kilter gems were full of crazy arrangements, but it’s the remix work of Ken Collier, the legendary godfather of house music in Detroit, that brings the driving bass lines to the forefront, making these true classics.

2. A Number of Names – "Shari Vari" – Capriccio, 1981

Unexpected collisions of culture helped define Detroit in the 1980s, and no record did this better (or set a better tone for our town in that decade) than "Shari Vari." The music is cold yet funky, sounding like a stripped-down cross between Soft Cell’s "Tainted Love" and Kano’s "I’m Ready," with lyrics straight out of a high school GQ fantasy. After Mojo helped name the group, this song became a Detroit party classic, inspiring a whole generation to make their own records. For a more detailed history of this record and many others here, check out Dan Sicko’s Techno Rebels,

3. Cybotron – "Alleys of Your Mind"/"Cosmic Raindance," 7-inch – Deep Space, 1981

Juan Atkins enters the scene with his self-released debut, the A-side interpolating Ultravox’s "Mr. X," but taking the Euro collision of "Shari Vari" much further with a more discernible element of funk. This was the vision that we heard in Parliament synth bass lines, but perfected here on a science-fiction level. People still hustle to the B-side in Detroit.

4. Cybotron – "Clear" – Fantasy, 1983

Juan Atkins has always found the best collaborators, from 3070 to Mauritz von Oswald. The Animal Diaz remix of "Clear" unites the Detroit and New York visions and creates one of the defining records of early 1980s electro, and perhaps one of the most sampled. You can find all these classics on Cybotron’s only CD, Enter.

5. Model 500 – "No Ufo’s"/"Nightdrive through Babylon" – Metroplex, 1985

The second record on Juan’s own Metroplex, this is probably the greatest-ever electro record from Detroit. Very memorable sci-fi lyrics, killer triggered bass lines, perfect synthesis, 808 drums and talking Apple computers. These tracks have it all.

6. Rhythim is Rhythim – "Nude Photo"/"The Dance" – Transmat, 1987

When Juan Atkins collaborator Derrick May started his own label, he named it after a Model 500 lyric, and though he took great inspiration from Juan, he brought much more Chicago (especially Larry Heard) and disco into the music. This combination made a unique new sound: With work from Thomas Barnett on the A-side and D Wynn on the B-side, this record set the blueprint for Detroit techno.

7. Rhythim is Rhythim – "Strings of Life"/"Kaos" – Transmat, 1987

Derreck May’s fresh and playful approach reached new heights with the stunning "Strings of Life," proving that instrumental techno could be both emotionally powerful and incredibly dramatic. This EP is balanced with the perfectly percussive, psychedelic B-side "Kaos." All of these and more can be found on the essential double CD Innovator.

8. Reese & Santonio – "The Sound"/"How to Play Our Music" – KMS, 1987

With an even more evident Chicago influence, Kevin Saunderson carved his niche with highly accessible but deep and classy records for KMS. The A-side, "The Sound," is seminal in techno’s obsession with sonic detail, centered around a perfect original tone (that Todd Terry later copped).

9. Reese & Santonio – "Bounce Your Body to the Box"/"Forcefield" – KMS, 1988

Blake Baxter – "When We Used to Play"/"Does Not Compute" – KMS, 1988

Mixing Chicago’s Jack sound with a more sinister edge, strange and spooky tones with steady yet inventive 909 percussion, these records helped usher in a darker mood, which in turn had a major influence on techno in the 1990s. All the Kevin Saunderson jams can be found on Phases & Faces on KMS-Planet E.

10. "Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit" – Virgin (UK), 1988

To the outside world, this set defined Detroit techno. In addition to featuring a who’s who of the Detroit scene circa 1988, this record has a defining essay by Neil Rushton and an across-the-board hit with Saunderson’s "Big Fun" (under the group name Inner City, co-written by the Suburban Knight), a million-seller, proving that Detroit techno was commercially viable.

Pitch’d is MT’s biweekly column devoted to Detroit’s BPM musiculture. Send info, releases and news to Pitch’d, c/o Brendan M. Gillen, PO Box 8298, Ann Arbor, MI 48107, or via e-mail
Scroll to read more Local Music articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.