Despite the reverence that electronic fans feel for all things Detroit, when you get into the city itself, the reality is less rosy. After large scale race riots in the late 1960s and the gradual decline of the auto industry headquartered there, Detroit fell into a pattern of decline which caused many of its inhabitants to flee to the suburbs as crime worsened. Today there's little reason to return. Walking through downtown Detroit at night (on a weekend, no less), I was often the only person around for blocks, only running into others around the streets dominated by clubs. And in-between those streets, large stretches of the city were covered with abandoned buildings. The city's sprawling design is also unkind to those who live there without their own transport. I was thankful to have a car with me, as scarce public transit and pricey taxis would have made each leg of my journey a sore and expensive trip.
But despite its flaws, the DEMF, and Detroit’s status as the hometown of techno, makes the city in late May more inviting to a certain kind of tourist than Disneyland. This year was the seventh annual DEMF and my first. It was also the second organized by electronic event organizers Paxahau, who took the reins after they were passed from Detroit techno legends Carl Craig to Derrick May to Kevin Saunderson. Each knew what kind of talent would excite crowds, but none of the producers were equipped to organize such a massive event by themselves. This was also the third year DEMF charged for entry, this time costing $21 a day or $41 for all three days. Probably doesn’t seem too expensive for many fest-goers, but it was a major barrier to Detroit locals who best remember the event as free; in fact many locals I spoke with blamed admission above all else for the Fest’s sinking attendance. Then again, many also touted this year’s line-up as the best since its inception.
The festival is held in Hart Plaza, a multi-level concrete jungle gym which sits alongside the Detroit River. It offers two natural locations for stages: a large concrete bowl designed like an amphitheater hosting the gigantic main stage, and a second stage erected next to another concrete structure (are you sensing a theme yet?) shaped like an Aztec pyramid, behind which the gleaming GM buildings loomed. A massive fountain shaped like an alien showerhead is stuck in its very middle. The last point of the venue triangle was the expansive Beatport tent, adorned in characteristic green banners and full of Beatport employees handing out gift certificate-like fliers for the site’s free DEMF selections. A fourth stage, the Real Detroit tent sponsored by a local alternative newspaper of the same name, was nestled along the Plaza’s outer perimeter and showcased only local talent. And in Detroit, that’s nothing to sneeze at.
Moodymann closed out Day One with guitarists, singers, a percussionist, a brass player, and keyboardist and, er, two armchairs. Photo: Stephen Boyle
Day One - Saturday (Photo Gallery)
Saturday started with a leisurely exploration of the Plaza’s contents, first through the little village of booths which had sprung up to exhibit their wares. Several sold Detroit apparel so attendees could take their D-town pride with them, while several others hawked marijuana-themed items and candy under a charming ‘4:20 Time’ banner. But the cool weather, intermittent drizzling rain and Pole soon drew me to the Beatport tent, where Stefan Betke was bombarding a foot-planted audience. Even his newer and bouncier material was still a little too hefty for the time of day, and when the sub-bass finally disappeared it was like a giant weight was lifted from the appreciative crowd.
Chicago DJ Sassmouth quickly got folks dancing again with an energetic techno set that included Ricardo Villalobos’ skyward remix of Beck’s ‘Cell Phone’s Dead’, but it was a jacking detour into old school Detroit techno which truly set the crowd off. I quickly stopped by the Pyramid to see Bobby Bird of Higher Intelligence Agency unfolding snoring soundscapes to almost no one, but opted to stay out of the rain and return to Beatport for shelter and Butane’s murky minimal throb. When his cavernous sound eventually got cranking, it lured many fest-goers into the tent and kept them there with an infectious blend of Imogen Heap (!) and tracky techno beats, as well as uplifting soulful vocal house tunes. Almost as entertaining was the guy with “TECHNO” shaved into his hair who had a photographer queue nearly as long as Butane’s.
On my way back to the Pyramid I met Rhiannon Maciasz, a Westland, Michigan resident who has made the journey to Detroit for DEMF every year since its start. “I can’t wait to see Richie Hawtin again, he’s so hot,” she enthused. Richie, if you’re reading this, I’ve got a telephone number. Anyway, after seeing the wisest graffiti of the whole fest (“Where’s Carl Craig?”), I caught some of Rhythm & Sound’s mammoth six hour set. The relaxed vibes echoing from the PA matched the casualness of the set, with vocalists Willi Williams, Lloyd Barnes (aka Bullwackie) and Milton Henry moseying around the stage, toasting atop classic dub instrumental 45s selected by Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus. The MCs happily sang Jah’s praises and offered the swaying crowd positive messages of peace and love; Von Oswald and Ernestus seemed only interested in dunking vocals in oodles of rounded reverb.
How do you think your set went?
It was great. The mixes weren’t all the greatest mixes of all time, but it was awesome – a great time. One of the best crowds ever. My parents were in the crowd. And my wife. All my friends from when I lived here.
Is this your first time playing in Detroit?
Well, I used to live here. I’ve never done a tech-house, techno set before. I’ve played drum and bass here. I used to play the huge underground raves with a headlight on my forehead as DJ Tree in the old Packard Plant. Stuff like that.
King Britt’s set overlapped with Guido Schneider’s live PA at the Beatport tent, so I split halfway through. The other stage was just a crowded. And as the day had been on the cool side, the approaching night’s chill and persistent rain drove more and more people to the enclosed tents. Not being too acquainted with Schneider’s material, I opted to lean against a lighting scaffold and chat with Chicago DJ Adonis TFU, who had made coming to DEMF a tradition since its start. “I guess I’m most looking forward to Jeff Mills and Stacey Pullen,” he replied when forced to choose only two. The pungent smell of marijuana, which would become something of a fixture during the fest, hung in the air.
When Dirtybird labelhead and flagship producer Claude VonStroke took over, the mood in the tent instantly became a little lighter. With a wide grin matching the cheeky tracks he stitched together, VonStroke showcased a few tunes soon to be released by DB, a couple of his own (you can’t be CVS and leave without playing ‘Who’s Afraid of Detroit’ – he chose the Audion remix), and even showed off a bit of scratching skills. In other words, it was a lot fun.
With the rain subsiding and the Beatport tent overheating, I trekked back to the main stage to watch some of Kerri Chandler’s set, arriving just in time to hear a laborious rework of James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’. Many a vocal house track later, Chandler wrapped up his set; but Moodymann, Saturday night’s headliner, was not even close to ready. Chandler came back to try and warm up the crowd, even grabbing a wireless mic to “come fuck with us” and walking through the throngs of people. This only killed about five minutes, so we all waited patiently for another 35 before Moodymann’s elaborate set-up was complete.
Filling the stage were two guitarists, three back-up singers, a drum kit, a percussionist, a brass player, a bassist, two armchairs (no joke), a keyboardist and a hype man, with a gaggle of ornately dressed dancers waiting in the wings. During his first song, a loungish number, the mix was completely out of whack, with almost no volume for his vocals and excessive volume for random other elements. When we finally could hear him, it quickly became apparent he was singing over a backing track, sometimes sitting down to let the CD do the work for him. It wasn’t until the second song that Moodymann provided the anxious audience with a steady beat to dance to. The hype man tried to keep folks involved with boasts about Moodymann’s legendary status and “DETROIT” chants. Pulling a sudden directional U-turn, they decided to play the first song again, this time twice as long and with a drum machine. I was beginning to wonder if the bloated set would ever get off the ground, but it was too late for most: Weary from dancing, turned off by the lackluster performance and unwilling to brave the rain which returned yet again, fest-goers started filing out of the plaza. As the set went on Moodymann and Pitch Black City tightened up and added a female vocalist, but only the most diehard fans stuck around.
A couple miles away from Hart Plaza in a slightly dodgier part of town looms the humongous Masonic Temple, which now acts as a venue. The Gothic building is nearly as long as a city block. Disappointingly, the Ghostly International/Spectral Sound afterparty was not held in the Grand Ballroom, which was breathlessly described to me as, well, breath-taking; instead, party-goers were shuttled upstairs in elevators (complete with operators) to the fourth floor.
As soon as the doors opened we were enveloped in air as hot as the Devil’s fart and twice as smoky, stepping into a yellowed foyer with low, ratty furniture covered in hiply-dressed creatures. A folding table covered with DETROIT condoms blocked one of three entrances into the main room. Further inside, the room was completely dark except for a few can lights above the tiny bar on one side and a huge Ghostly logo behind the impromptu DJ booth, poked full of white Christmas lights alternating on and off. Claude VonStroke was sweating heavily behind the decks, again offering a fun vibe now tweaked to be a tad wicked for the after party crowd. VonStroke eventually surrendered the stage and Matthew Dear took over as Audion. Tying together his tracks and remixes into a gnarled whip of sound, Dear kept the crowd going mad with sounds as deep and dark as he pleased. By the time Ryan Elliott took over I was worn down by the heat and worn out in general, so I decided to take a pass and catch him the next day.
Model 500 took to the stage and the crowd erupted with an intensity not before seen during the fest. Photo: Stephen Boyle
Day Two – Sunday (Photo Gallery)
Sunday afternoon greeted us with a torrential downpour and strong winds which soaked pants and shoes within minutes. The Real Detroit stage, dotted with large puddles accumulated from early morning storms, was forced to stop Ryan Crosson’s set in the first few minutes as the PA was sitting in an inch or two of water. As luck would have it, though, the rain suddenly dissipated and the disappointed were free to roam. After event planners scrambled to wring out the PA, Crosson was able to pound his smaller but sizable audience with pock-marked melodic techno. Hunger bested any desire to see Lee Curtiss, so I wandered to the few food stands available, mostly made up of local Detroit eateries. Unfortunately you couldn’t just buy food, you had to exchange cash for tickets at an uneven exchange rate (nine tickets for every ten dollars); I would end up spending more money on tickets than on anything else. Munching on falafel, I watched Milieu on the main stage from afar. It was nice to hear some Basic Channel sides aired even if to a tiny crowd, though he would soon switch to more modern material including the ever-durable ‘Rej’, as well as Donnacha Costello’s ‘6.6’.
How many times have you played DEMF?
Twice? This will be my third time I think. But we always do something around the festival, but I’ve only been a part of it twice.
What is your set like when you play with someone else?
Me and Ryan, we’re really keen on each other’s styles and we’ve played together for almost six years. It’s more fun than anything, and we just love to have a good time. Honestly, I’m a lot better when I play with somebody else. I need that extra record of time. And it’s fun, because I get to sit back, listen and enjoy the set and I don’t feel as rushed. When it’s just me, it’s more working; and that’s cool, but it’s nice to just enjoy the party as well.
When you play with someone else, does that expand the scope of what you play?
I think it gives you a bit more freedom – a bit more variety. Ryan plays a bit more straightforward, he plays the deeper, harder stuff; and I like to play more experimental, trippy groovy stuff. So when we play together it’s a cool mix because he’s playing more edgy and I can get deeper and weirder – it’s a good balance.
Later at the Pyramid was Baby Ford, minus Zip, who chose to stay home for family reasons. I was quite keen on Ford’s set, which was a touch more light-hearted and chipper than I had expected and included Matthew Dear’s ‘Dog Days’ and piano-laden house tracks. I then briefly snuck over to hear some of Misstress Barbara’s set, which at times had an “I Love Techno 2007 (The First Six Months)” feel to it. Dear proved popular with her as well; she dropped ‘I Gave You Away’, before closing with her undisputed smash, ‘Barcelona’. Moments after the crowd struck up a “Bad Boy Bill” chant, which prompted me to evacuate and claim a spot on the Pyramid for Gui Boratto. Armed with only a laptop and MIDI controller (from the look of things), Boratto delivered a flawless if unsurprising set to the thoroughly excited and voluptuous crowd crammed into the plaza. ‘Beautiful Life’ proved to be the perfect warm weather anthem many guessed it would be during the winter months (I’ll be damned if it’s not used in at least two commercials by year’s end) while Kompakt’s favorite number cruncher and co-owner Michael Mayer continued the label lovefest on the turntables, opening with Prins Thomas’ remix of Lee Jones’ ‘There Comes A Time’. Wearing a Mr. Happy T-shirt, Mayer fittingly bounced along enthusiastically to his selections, including Simon Baker’s rated single, ‘Plastik’. A large yacht passed alongside the plaza; its passengers marveling at all the people stricken with uncontrollable dance fever.
Thanks to another scheduling snafu (especially common on Sunday), Hardfloor were still erupting over-the-top rave bombs well after Monolake was slated to start. No problem for the audience, many of whom had long since cracked their glowsticks for the day. Several thunderous drumrolls later, Monolake’s table mounded with gear was shifted onstage and Robert Henke alone got cracking. Iceburgs of melody slowly floated from the speaker racks, only to be chopped up by clanking metal drums. It was somewhat odd to see barely-clad women gyrating to such austere music, but it showed the audience was more interested in a solid beat than its sonic accoutrements. With Model 500 still being assembled in the background, Henke and his Elmo shirt (!) kept cranking out the beats. But boy, when the four hooded members of Model 500 finally did take the stage, the crowd erupted with an intensity not before seen during the fest. Juan Atkins stood in the middle and addressed the crowd through a harsh, booming voicebox. Over twenty years on, Model 500’s tracks still had a great deal of immediacy to them, a testament to Atkins’ songwriting in spite of primitive technology. A slew of uniformly dressed dancers, later branded the X-Men, got down with old school breakdance moves during a couple tunes. Because of all the schedule-shuffling Model 500 only played for under an hour, but by the time they closed with the legendary ‘Clear’, the full house was still full and boogying through the exhaustion.
Heidi and friends grew moustaches especially for the Minus afterparty. Photo: Stephen Boyle
Minus Afterparty (Photo Gallery)
Minus’s minimal aesthetic seems to take over any space it inhabits; as was the case with the Museum of Contemporary Art of Detroit, which was stripped of all its art and plunged into darkness. From what I could tell the space was a repurposed warehouse with a huge main room lit only by a few red laser beams and visuals projected above the informal DJ booth. Footage of a carwash and then magnetically-manipulated iron grains offered a surreal touch to the booming minimal assault coming from all angles; it was quite a place to be off one’s face. Moments after I found a suitable spot the screen announced JPLS was handing over the turntables to labelhead, Richie Hawtin, much to the delight of the quaking masses. RA’s photographer, Stephen Boyles (who was like an second set of eyes throughout the DEMF), pointed out the discreetly located VIP room, which turned out to be right behind the DJ booth. As Magda, Heidi and a few others horsed around with electrical tape moustaches, Hawtin continued his relentless campaign unaware.
Juan Atkins Afterparty
Just when I thought it might be time for some rest, Stephen offered the chance to check out Juan Atkins’ loft party five or six blocks away. In a neighborhood equal parts historic brick houses, rundown board ups and freshly built developments, Atkin’s loft was easily overlooked, except for the short parade of cars scrambling for parking. Wooden floors and brick walls greet me inside, along with about 35 to 40 other people dancing casually to jacking house blasting from the modest but powerful PA. Buzz Goree and A Guy Called Gerald reigned over the turntables, turning out first wave monsters like Detroit Grand Pubahs’ ‘Sandwiches’, Atkins and Baby Ford looking on from the sidelines. In spite of the inviting house party vibe, my legs were about to give out so I had to miss Atkins spinning at 5 a.m. I felt lucky just to be there at all.
Day Three – Monday (Photo Gallery)
Monday was a fantastic consolation prize to all those who had made it through the assorted weather of the previous two days – not a cloud in the sky, a pleasant 75 degrees (24 degrees Celsius) and a heavenly breeze blowing. Last night’s after parties and the drive back to my hotel prohibited me from reaching Hart Plaza before 2 p.m. (sorry Mirko and Paco Osuna!), but I was right on time for Vladislav Delay on the main stage. Foolishly forgetting to pack sunscreen and unable to find any stores open on Labor Day which carried it, I opted to listen in the shade. His amorphous, scraping sound gnawed its way from the sound system, not exactly prodding the sparse audience into dancing, but instead offering a relaxing aural exfoliation. While there, I chatted with Maelene and Earvin Burnom, an older couple hailing from Flint, Michigan. “We were actually hoping for some jazz,” Earvin admitted, “They had some last year on this stage.” Even still, the pair was happy to take in what was offered.
What are you looking forward to at the DEMF?
Actually, Model 500, but I won’t see them because I have to play at the Minus afterparty at the same time. That was the only act I really, really wanted to see.
I’ll go, but nothing else is catching my attention in a huge way like that. I did remixes for Cybotron, so I wanted to see the closest to the real thing that they’re going to be.
Jay is really funny. He’s maybe the most genius comic in techno.
We would be right to claim our space early, as droves of eager Luciano fans flooded the tent to capacity within his first few records. He’s one of a few DJs I’ve seen who truly takes the craft to a higher level with precise use of samplers and turntables to create new tunes entirely from his crates’ contents. His ambitiously-weaved set enveloped the crowd in warm and positive vibes; it was like a tropical beach party in Detroit, one his enthusiastic capacity crowd (including many other DJs, like Carl Craig and his family) would not soon forget. One masterly-crafted set deserved another, as Richie Hawtin took the turntables at the other end of the long booth, and the tent filled well beyond a safe capacity. Squished against everyone around me, one heaving mass of humanity bucked and swayed to Hawtin’s live-edit filled set. ‘R U OK’, ‘Plastik’ and C2’s stuttering remix of Junior Boys’ ‘Like A Child’ were all rinsed to overwhelming approval from the crowd. Hawtin’s mum and dad, both of whom he looks exactly like, joined the overflowing audience on the stage behind him, while the folks around me tried to score champagne from Hawtin’s increasingly drunken staff and one intrepid clubber climbed the lighting rig. I can say with little hesitation that these were my two favorite sets back to back.
All of the other stages were closed down for Jeff Mills’ set, so the main stage and the surrounding area were completely mobbed. With my legs creaking from the pseudo dancing I had been capable of for the previous four hours, I fell onto some open grass nearby and just stretched. Baby Ford happened to stop nearby and we chatted, eventually moving back stage to get a better viewing angle. Mills’ set was mostly free of surprises (except airing ‘Rej’ in the first ten minutes), but kept passionate fest-goers sweating until the very end with sparse, driving rhythms. We were herded out of Hart Plaza within minutes of Mills’ final thumps by security eager to keep the Detroit Police happy, but I was happy to leave. Having had my fill of nearly 36 hours worth of quality dance music, I was ready to get some sleep and still hear a pounding kick drum in my dreams.
Theo Parrish and Stacey Pullen on Day Three. Photo: Stephen Boyle