Two decades ago it happened again, but this time the upheaval was musical. In 1985 Juan Atkins released the first record on his fledgling label Metroplex, ‘No UFO's’, now widely regarded as Year Zero of the techno movement. Like Ford’s Model T, the impact of these new machine rhythms was global, hitting especially hard in Europe, where techno subsequently developed into a mass cultural phenomenon.
Twenty years on and the music might have conquered the globe, but the city where it was born can often seem like an afterthought. But while Henry Ford might have been reluctant to change the car that built him an empire (“You can have it any color, as long as it's black,” was his mindset) and the Detroit automotive industry later struggled to keep up with its imitators, musically Detroit techno has adapted and survived. Juan Atkins in particular has never rested on his laurels, expanding his fleet to include the classic lines of Infiniti and Channel One amongst many others. Like Ford, he also went international in his collaborations, working with Thomas Fehlmann, Moritz Von Oswald, Pacou, and 4 Hero, while maintaining Metroplex as one of the premier techno labels, releasing records from Detroit artists such as Eddie Fowlkes, Terrence Dixon, Robert Hood, Anthony Shakir and more.
Now in 2008 comes the latest update. Tricked out with a band that's truly a 313 supergroup, featuring Mad Mike, Mark Taylor, and DJ Skurge in its ranks, Model 500 has been transformed into a lean mean live techno machine with Juan at the helm. Recently they’ve been stepping out to represent inner city techno all over the world, hitting clubs and festivals from Barcelona to Tokyo to Rome to Fabric in London. While Juan’s shirt and tie at last year’s DEMF performance may have been a homage to Kraftwerk, there was no mistaking these cats for robots during their performance. Jamming on the classics, Model 500 live is a cosmic funk band providing the soundtrack to the future in an old school way. Mad Mike Banks, DJ Skurge and Juan Atkins explain their vision:
How did this lineup for Model 500 come together?
Mad Mike: I chose the lineup. Juan trusted me to put the band together. Milton is a big part of the UR groups so he was an obvious choice. Milt is ice cold – a lot of guys might be a good deejay, but he’s an instrument, he's a musician, he can take a track off put on another one, and we have to play to what he's doing. Fuck all the sequencers and that shit, that shit is too slow. Even the machines is too slow. The deejay can go all over the place, he can mix in and out at will. Milt has a good feel for playing with musicians.
Mark Taylor is like Juan's best friend – he helped Juan with his previous album. Mark was a big part of ‘The Flow’ and other songs that Juan released even before he had his own releases. Juan and Mark are really close. I think the unit we got is a good unit – hopefully we can do something amazing. The musical talent is definitely there, the egos and humbleness that is required is definitely there too.
by Thomas Cox
Why does the Model 500 concept still matter to you in 2008?
Juan: It still matters to me. It’s how I started. That's my group, that's me. It's like Earth, Wind, & Fire – they didn't change names or start making new records under different names. That was the idea, that was the concept. I want to develop Model 500 into a 21st century electronic band live show. I want it to be the electronic band in America for the 21st century. I want it to be big, fill up arenas. The crowd loves it.
How does playing live compare to deejaying?
Juan: It's fun to be up there, be in front, the interplay with the crowd. When you deejay, you don't get the chance to interact with the crowd. You spin your records, but the deejays now they don't talk on the microphone like they used to. So it's good to have that interplay with the crowd. I play keyboard – I'm a musician. I got some technical skills.
How has your Korg sponsorship helped you out?
Juan: Korg is one of the manufacturers that have some of the latest most up-to-date stuff, it's good to have that relationship. It's good to know they know about us and respect us enough to want to endorse us and give us gear.
Are there plans for taking this band into the studio?
Juan: Starting probably this month we're going to start recording, start working on some new stuff, a new album to be released on Metroplex.
Mad Mike: Every show we did so far, we start going through the songs, and people know the songs. Juan has never played. Milton is a veteran – me and him played in Universe 2 Universe and Interstellar Fugitives. You know, for Juan it's a new thing for him. He gets to communicate with the audience, play his heart, do his thing on the keyboard.
Each time the band gets better and better. Anything Juan Atkins, we have the potential to play. It's not just Model 500 shit. We play Cybotron, ‘Clear’, ‘R-9’, all of that kind of shit. We want everybody to know this is the dude who defined Detroit techno. The shit wasn't on the four on the floor beat most of the time – it was electro shit. He is one of the few guys in the city that still plays his shit. We could actually do a concert in the city with the songs we're playing and people could come. I think it's going to be even more successful as we go on.
Why is performing live with synthesizers important when almost everyone else is using laptops?
Mad Mike: You couldn't mouse click that shit. Especially to interact instantaneously with the crowd. Those lines were hand played techno lines – it’s not all neatly laid out. His shit was very musical. It's challenging to do.
Milton: I'll speak on behalf of broke dudes on the street about software. I'll give it this much credit – it gives cats a chance to wet their whistle in a production environment. I started off that way, so I can't knock it completely, but when I saw how real live synth studios sound, I was like "Okay, I gotta go that way" and I completely dropped all software stuff. If more people had the chance to actually do that themselves, I think they would go that way as well. It gets back into the old playing live, you have to play something, you have to strum something, you have to beat on a drum. I think that gets kind of lost nowadays. When you can go and basically make all your music on a laptop and rock a crowd that way, I can't blame nobody for doing that. But it definitely ain't the same as playing the notes on stage. The swagger you get from missing a note or playing something off, all that adds character, it's a whole different feel to it. The music that Juan makes stands the test of time. That shit is eternal. When it gets out there that these guys are playing, I think people know.
Mad Mike: I think the most interesting thing is that you can come out and see people actually fuck up live on stage. It's not going to be perfect. Or "Damn, that was funky as hell and that wasn't on the record." Yeah, you're listening to the record but watch what we can do to it. Watch what could have happened, these are the possibilities. It's really the human part of it. People can see the quickness and spontaneity of the players.
Most of the guys who made Detroit techno are very musical. Carl Craig is very musical –he plays guitar. Jeff Mills was a drummer, Juan played the bass. I played a bunch of different shit. These guys are musical, Shake and them cats, Kenny Dixon plays, Theo Parrish and them guys are very musical cats. You can see the actual element that this shit got made in. Cats that just didn't give a fuck and were like "Try this, try that. Fuck working off a plan. We know we're going in this direction but we don't know what's going to happen."
I hear Model 500 has something going on with Korg…
Mad Mike: Cornelius at Alter Ego Management has managed to land a much needed sponsorship for Juan. Thank god somebody did that shit after what, thirty fucking years? Somebody reached out. Too bad Roland fucked up and missed it. But at least Korg came through for Juan and supplied us with a few things so we could accurately put down what happened back in the day.
Model 500 was supposed to jump off way prior to this, but the problem was all our equipment that we had in the studio that we practiced with, this is what they gotta rent on the other side for you to play with. We couldn't afford to pull the shit out of our studio. Fuck that. If your shit gets tore up, you're hit, you're out of business. We needed like doubles of whatever we had in our studio, and Korg came through after many other companies were asked. Roland was one of them. Yamaha was another. The only ones that came through was Korg and Akai. For people to have programs on their machines that say "Detroit Techno" in the fucking machine and then for the guy to approach and say "Can I get sponsored for a little bit of gear?" and they are like "We don't know who you are", that really set us back. Okay, maybe we didn't approach the right way with the official air about us, but I just think that Korg and Akai deserve a tip of the hat for coming through. The concert wouldn't be possible without the gear contribution. We can't afford to buy doubles of shit.
Milt, you're a younger guy, what is it like to play in a band with a legend like Juan Atkins?
Milton: It's an honor playing next to somebody I grew up listening to. It's not something I expected when I first started doing this. This is amazing – something I'm sure a lot of people wish they could do. Even just hanging out and talking with him, I learn a lot. Just listening to people who came before you, trying to soak up some of the knowledge they can offer.
Is it intimidating?
Milton: Yeah, sometimes it is. Honestly, I played out for a few years in bands before I did the techno thing, so I've never really been intimidated by crowds or other people musically. I know I can offer something, put something on the table. It's the confidence there that allows me to be able to mingle with these heavyweights.
Mike, you've been involved in doing live shows with Carl Craig, your upcoming X-102 performance with Jeff Mills, UR's live bands, and now Model 500. Why this sudden move to playing live?
Mad Mike: You can't sell records hardly no more. In order to generate some cheese, you gotta start stepping up and playing live. That's the only way for people to give you love. In Brazil or China, these people want to get down too. They can't buy the records, but they can download and create a demand to see you. If you can get there and play live, they can give you a little love back. I feel like there is also an extinction worry. There's so much competition, these guys kinda know "Damn, I gotta step up or ain't nobody gonna know black people had anything to do with this shit.” I think quietly lurking behind the scenes, that element is definitely present. These guys feel like "I gotta step up and represent the inner city for this music" otherwise people are gonna forget this shit came from the inner city. In fact, I think a lot of people have already forgot. If it wasn't for a few freedom fighters out there we'd all be back to work. I think that element is heavy in peoples' hearts. It's sad – these guys go to Europe, they show these people how to do electronic music, how to deejay, what records go with what. 15-20 years later, you're in your 40's and the words "old school" start getting attached to you. At UR, we stay in Detroit and we pick up guys like Milton, Billeebob, Mark Flash, motherfuckers like this because you gotta keep training younger newer producers who want to make tracks.
Do you think people will one day look back on originators like Juan in the same way that people look back on John Coltrane or Miles Davis today?
Milton: There is a direct correlation with those previous eras – blues greats, jazz greats. It's kind of like you get put into this legend pool but you're still out there doing your thing. If you just roll with what's hot at the time, you might miss what's right in front of you because its not getting all the press and all the accolades. I would hope you would go back and study where it all came from. A lot of people don't do that in this particular industry. Musicians have another intellect, whether you play rock music or whatever I think they appreciate it a lot more as far as "Oh, what's the roots of this? Why am I doing this, where does this come from?" I think some cats may end up like Van Gogh or some shit – famous after you die.
Mad Mike: I think Juan is making a statement with this tour. "I'm not gonna lay down", and if anybody deserves to lay down it is him. He don't wanna lay down, he's got the fighter in him. He's a gentle little guy, but he understands what's on the line. I think everybody in the band understands. I think everybody in Detroit understands what's on the line.
Why do you think Juan's music was more successful in Europe than in the United States?
Mad Mike: Juan couldn't get no love here. They wasn't hearing electronic music. They was like "Man, hip-hop is the shit, we ain't gonna have no black Kraftwerk shit, fuck that. The street thang is what's going on." This music is selling so the record companies abandon all other music and go with what sells. That's how they wound up in Europe. I think they were all a bit naive that shit was gonna blow up and become popular. And that's what they were led to believe. I used to be like "Dude, that shit is gonna come back", but just the way it is at the festival (DEMF) right now: Moby. Everybody is going to forget us. So this is a deep tour. This is a really deep tour.
What we are doing is critical. I respect Juan, Kevin, and Derrick because not only were they pioneers in thinking up a new sound but they were the first guys to do licensing deals. They were also the first ones to get fucked. Graciously, they weren't ashamed, they said "Hey man, don't do this, don't do that." You know, UR, 430 West, all the guys they call the second generation, we had somebody in front of us.
Will the band be working on new material?
Mad Mike: When we're practicing together, we drift off out of practice and start fucking around, twiddling around with shit. Mark Taylor always says "We should just make stuff up right here." Mark has some pretty nice stuff, Juan has some stuff. Hopefully we can add on some songs that can stand up to what he did. That's the big challenge for an album with him. All of us experiment, that's Detroit. Ain't nobody in the lead, it's just whoever come up with some shit. Juan has a direction for where he wants to go, I have a direction I want to go, we're focusing four different perspectives. We just gotta agree to put it all on one record. But that's how Detroit works, what makes it one is that everyone agrees "Yeah that's a tight track".
Top photo credit: B.J
Model 500 play the Dissonanze Festival in Rome on May 10.