No serious history would be complete without them, and no serious history would ever be able to encompass the impact—great and small—that any number of artists even further under-the-radar made upon the Belleville Three—Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson. But it's hard to argue with Eddie 'Flashin'' Fowlkes' bona fides. Few others can claim to have been roommates with Derrick May in the mid-'80s or to have inspired Kevin Saunderson to leave football and pursue music full-time.
"Here" is making records—something that Fowlkes had little interest in before that night. "I just wanted to be a DJ. My goal was to play all the clubs in Detroit. I mean I seen Juan and them doing Cybotron [before that night] and that shit didn't excite me. It didn't phase me one bit, I was like 'Where the party at?'" After that epiphany, however, Fowlkes began to experiment with music. This was right around the same time that May and Saunderson both were getting their feet wet as well. Look at the early Metroplex releases, and you'll see Fowlkes name among them. "Goodbye Kiss" got a release in 1986, and is credited by journalist Dan Sicko as being the imprint's first "proper 'techno' success."
But while it certainly brought further attention to the city's scene, it wasn't an enormous hit. And that's something that Fowlkes certainly doesn't argue with. "You could say, 'Well, Eddie didn't have a huge hit like Kevin and Derrick did.' But you can't tell me that I wasn't there because I was the one who said, 'Hey, I want to put a record out and here come Derrick and here come Kevin," explains Fowlkes. "This is the part that I'm not trying to battle with—the people who know, knows. Like, "Yo man, there's not three, there's four of those fools, and this is the fool who was with Derrick when he told Juan he wanted to release records. If people know, they know. If they don't, cool. But I lost a lot."
So, why does Fowlkes remain the forgotten one? There are two major reasons. First, unlike the trio around him, Fowlkes never started a label. Metroplex, Transmat and KMS went a long way toward institutionalizing the names Atkins, May and Saunderson. (It also gave them the freedom to release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted to.) It's a Detroit tradition—artists walking in the footsteps of Berry Gordy, fiercely independent, hugely suspicious of those that might want to take that independence away. Fowlkes started City Boy Records in 1993, but by that time the trio had a head start of several years—and a wealth of classic material to their names.
The Belleville Three thing, I was like,
'Where the fuck did Belleville come from?'"
Second—and perhaps more important at the time of its initial attention overseas—Fowlkes and Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit compiler Neil Rushton "didn't really see eye-to-eye on things." The seminal release was the UK's first mass-market introduction to names like Atkins, Saunderson and May—and despite featuring on it the artists that were favored by Rushton were immediately given a leg up in terms of prominence in Europe. That's the thing that "kind of slowed my career up while the rest of them were doing remixes/press," says Fowlkes. Once you become the other guy—a friend of Juan Atkins, Derrick May's roommate, a DJ that inspired Saunderson—but not able to tell your story properly, you begin to fall by the wayside. Once you don't fall into the narrative—Fowlkes isn't actually from Belleville—you're ignored in favor of those who do.
Fowlkes understands. To a point. "I don't blame them, because if someone's trying to interview you, they're not trying to interview Eddie…. But when the press in the UK ran with The Belleville Three thing, I was like, 'Where the fuck did Belleville come from?' This shit started in Detroit right here. And kids who grew up ten years ago, reading that shit, believed it. They swallowed it. I can't tell the press what to write / what not to write but when you have people like Kevin, Derrick and Juan and they do interviews and they say well you guys are three originators and they don't open their mouth and the public start believing that shit, when I was there and we are doing something all four of us….it's like, 'Are you saying it's about hit records or are you saying it's about history?'"
To be fair, Fowlkes hasn't been completely written out of history. Earlier this year, he was honored alongside Atkins, Saunderson, Carl Craig and Jeff Mills at Movement. All cast handprints Hollywood-style at the Detroit Historical Museum in honor of their contributions to techno. And as Fowlkes says, those who know, know. But as any artist can tell you, it is often about hit records. And, looking over the Belleville Three's discography, they had more of them. Maybe even more importantly, they've slowed their output considerably over the years in favor of DJing and live performances. It's a concerted effort to spread the gospel of Detroit techno. But, even if he had the chance to enter onto the treadmill of worldwide gigging, it's unclear if Fowlkes would have been all that interested anyway. "I didn't want the music controlling me. I'm controlling the music."
He also saw the toll that it could take on artists inside and outside of the techno scene. Remembering a meeting with Motown legend Eddie Holland, he couldn't help but notice that most of the people in the business didn't have a stable family and kids. "So I decided, the next girl I meet, hopefully she's the right one and we can have a family. She was. That's why I slowed down. I had babies and I wanted to take care of them."
Nowadays, Fowlkes' wife has become more than his life partner. She's also been an important A&R for his music as well. "If you make a record and you got a female dancing to it, you know your record is good. I don't care what music or genre it is, if the girls don't hit the floor, the record is dead…. My wife is a house head...and [when] she says, 'Ooh, I like that one' that means I'm close."
Despite her house leanings, Fowlkes has maintained an admirably varied recording career, veering between techno and house and a bit of downtempo at times. In the early '90s, he pushed the idea of "techno soul," a descriptor that basically allowed him to cut a middle ground between Juan Atkins' self-conscious coldness and Kevin Saunderson's chart confections. "Detroit, to me, is both house heads and techno heads," Fowlkes says today. "That's why [my label is named] Detroit Wax." The city, and its history, has always been on his mind. So has the way it will be written about in the future. In 1996 Fowlkes put together a compilation called True People in what Simon Reynolds called "a stinging rebuke to the rest of the world for its desecration of the Detroit (a crime that Fowlkes has called 'cultural rape')."
But there are signs of softening. When the talk briefly turns to religion, he explains that it's "sometimes a struggle to not take God's name in vain and then sell it." I ask him why that is. "That's like selling out The Word and that's not what I am trying to do. I'm trying to be nice to people. Yes, I have burned bridges in the past, but I have learned to mend those bridges. And people who want to mend them with me, fine. If you don't, then I can understand your reasoning, but I still have to move on as a man, and a husband and as a father to my kids." Redemption? Forgiveness? Setting the record straight? That's a story we can all get behind.