Shut up and dance

May 15, 2002 at 12:00 am

What’s the future of the DEMF? Does it have one? So far this year’s DEMF has been defined more by what it doesn’t have than what it does, which is kind of a shame. Lack of money, lack of sponsors, lack of headliners, lack of clear artistic direction, and blah-blah-blah-blah.

Here’s what we know: This year marks the festival’s third year — the last of its contract with the city. Festival organizers have yet to replace Ford, last year’s big sponsor, which opted not to renew after learning the hard way last year that rave kids and car marketing don’t go together as easily as commercials with fast cars racing to Chemical Brothers knock-offs. (Ford apparently received poor feedback from DEMF attendees dubious of a large corporate presence at an underground event — despite the fact that some of last year’s “underground” DJs can command $50,000 a gig. After receiving a similar response from sponsoring Moby’s Area:One tour and other events, the company has since devoted much of its youth marketing budget to TV commercials.)

And there’s a karma gap — if not a personality gap — after DEMF founder Carl Craig’s abrupt dismissal prior to last year’s festival.

Now on the eve of DEMF 2002, Pop Culture Media president Carol Marvin, more known for firing Craig than running it this year, is too busy nailing down last-minute sponsors to return phone calls to tell us what’s really going on with this year’s DEMF.

Put your ear to the dance floor and all you hear is the monotonous 4/4 of local music industry insiders, who seem to outnumber actual DEMF patrons who really care. They, as usual, are bitching, as they have since the festival’s inception three years ago. They’re either bitching about being left out, or being mishandled, or not being paid enough if at all; playing the squeaky wheel on a vehicle that miraculously is even running at all. As veteran local DJ and label owner Brian Gillespie, who is playing the festival this year, puts it, “We finally have something like this bringing people and money from all over the world here and all people are doing is putting it down.”

For his part, Gillespie is reprising the techno karaoke party at Oak Park’s Royal Kubo Lounge May 23. Local talent, including Adult. and Ectomorph’s Brendan Gillen, will perform karaoke versions of their songs. “It’s not about guest lists, or who’s showing up or who’s playing, it’s just a chance for everybody to have fun and leave their egos at the door,” says Gillespie.

At least two major personalities in Detroit techno history, Underground Resistance’s Mike Banks and Jeff Mills, formerly known as the Wizard, declined offers to be part of this year’s steering committee, perhaps out of a sense of solidarity with Craig, perhaps acknowledging that just because they can make techno doesn’t mean they know how to program a festival.

So what is happening this year? Answer: A whole lotta the music Detroit is known for.

The bill is admittedly a bit streamlined owing to the decision to replace the more cosmopolitan Craig with a committee of local techno and house DJ/producers from outside Craig’s jazzy techno clique. Why not include some of the area’s veteran party promoters, who have experience putting on bills almost as big as the DEMF — in truck yards under the Ambassador Bridge at 5 in the morning — and who may have provided a much-needed link between the city’s electronic music-makers and music fans?

The DEMF has always tried to give props to Detroit music thought to be underappreciated in the past decade — despite the fact that many of its practitioners have concentrated their efforts on making a living overseas. It has provided a forum for national and international artists, most in part inspired by the Detroit sound, regardless that some have taken said sound and become more successful with it elsewhere.

No surprise then that this year, things are getting back to basics. On the committee we have respected, if insular, local icons like Record Time store buyer Mike Huckaby and outspoken Detroit technocrat Alan Oldham, known for once uttering, “Detroiters are tired of hearing how stupid they are for not liking techno.”

Well, they’re gonna have a lot of chances to warm up to it this year. Like the Bob’s Country Bunker scene in The Blues Brothers, where the gum-snapping bartender told Jake and Elwood that the bar featured “both kinds of music, country and western,” this year’s DEMF has both kinds of dance music — techno and house. In fact, most of the overseas talent on the bill this year, like England’s cigar-chomping Dave Clarke, are techno purists, while the more notable non-Detroit jocks, like Roy Davis Jr. and Kenny Dope, are old-school house maestros. As a local DJ put it, “It’s like 1992’s ‘Journey to the Hardcore’ all over again.”

Interestingly, in a year where neo-electro New Wave and experimental beat-makers operating under the intelligent dance music (IDM) banner have piqued national interest in electronic music like never before, and a mainstream documentary has extolled the merits of the scratch DJ in hip-hop, this year’s DEMF is a bit light on left-of-dance floor-center fare.

There are some nice surprises, however. Dub-reggae icon Mad Professor playing live, as well as members of AUX 88 and other local electro producers operating as A Number of Names. Los Angeles’ Dilated Peoples, a neo-old school group down with local MC Hush, is one of the few hip-hop crews on the bill. And where the dream pairing of P-Funk and Kraftwerk to flesh out Derrick May’s famous quote that techno sounded like George Clinton and Kraftwerk trapped in an elevator could have been a great crash course in Detroit techno’s roots, well, one out of two ain’t bad. George Clinton will have to do — especially without big sponsorship coin to flesh the Krafties out of their studio for a visit.

If anything, however, this year’s DEMF proves that Detroit electronic music is bigger than any one style, personality or ego. By putting the DEMF creative direction in the hands of a committee made up of relatively unsung underground techno stalwarts and working within a much more restricted budget (some local DJs report getting 25 percent of the fees they commanded last year), Detroit will be challenged to make Christmas — as in DEMF — come regardless whether those, the Cindy Lou Whos, who could do something about it are carping on about how the Grinch has taken all the shiny stuff away.

If there’s a lesson in all this, it’s that Detroit and its artists have survived and thrived without the hype this far, and will continue to do so — with or without a Carl Craig or a DEMF. And as much as the DEMF has been a sometimes-awkward dialogue between Detroit techno’s past and present, its art and its commerce, it has also shown in awkward detail how much more at home the Detroit sound seems on its own. Underground, the underdog, growling along in its infinite beat, not doing the national show-biz thing jumping through Uniroyal tires for sponsorship loot it’s gone long without.

Time for everyone to shut up and dance.

Hobey Echlin believes in the beat. E-mail [email protected]