Looking back on one of tech house's most-played tracks.
"Who's Afraid Of Detroit?," a 2006 hit from the US producer Claude VonStroke, almost didn't exist. Its iconic bleeps and bassline were originally made for a track called "Dirtybird For President," a tech house tune that never actually made it onto wax. We're lucky it didn't. "This is one of those tracks that came out of something that wasn't quite as good," VonStroke, whose real name is Barclay Crenshaw, said about "Who's Afraid Of Detroit?" in 2010, four years after it first appeared on the B-side of The Whistler / Who's Afraid Of Detroit? The fifth release on Dirtybird, it remains the label's best-known tune, a timeless monument from the '00s minimal era.
Crenshaw, who grew up in Detroit, produced the track while living in San Francisco, a key hub for underground house and techno in the '00s. He'd launched Dirtybird as a platform for his friend Justin Martin, a promising DJ and producer who Crenshaw thought had star potential. Together with Sean Williams, Justin, and Justin's brother Christian, Crenshaw broke into the San Francisco scene by throwing free outdoor events. "None of us were happy with the sound at the time," Crenshaw said in a 2016 interview with GRAMMY Pro. "The popular sound was minimal techno. Everybody was super mean. We needed clown-ness."
After two releases from Martin, both of which pushed a minimal sound peppered with goofy bleeps and blops, Crenshaw released his debut record, Deep Throat. It was a hit. "I didn't actually think I was going to be an artist on the label," Crenshaw told RA's Carlos Hawthorn in 2015.
Deep Throat didn't come close to matching the reach of the The Whistler / Who's Afraid Of Detroit?, which came out the following year. Tucked away on the B-side, "Who's Afraid Of Detroit?" was a sleeper hit, initially taking a backseat to its more in-your-face counterpart. DJs eventually caught on to its low-key charm. One of them was Richie Hawtin, who deemed it his favourite track of 2006 and closed his sets with it for months. (He's still doing it, having used it to close Time Warp's 25th anniversary event in April.) Relatively subtle for Dirtybird, "Who's Afraid Of Detroit?" is deep and dark, but with enough spice to power big dance floors, thanks to a thumping bassline and twinkling synth melody.
"That's a saw wave, a little bit of distortion, reverb and glide, and some slapback delay," Crenshaw said of that iconic melody. "My whole thing is trying to not make it sound like I'm playing it on a keyboard. So all the tricks are usually just a way to make it sound like I'm not just hitting buttons."
Functional as it is, "Who's Afraid Of Detroit?" is a considered piece of music. The bassline is actually a combination of three heavily EQ'd channels of bass, and there's a section after the breakdown in which a snare lands on the downbeat, a trick Crenshaw said he used to give the track "some grit." The only straightforward element is the lo-fi orchestra sample, which comes and goes as the track's energy swells. Engineered to perfection, a combination of clever arrangement and detailed effects made "Who's Afraid Of Detroit?" a dance floor sure shot, powerful enough to move feet and emotional enough to touch hearts. Just don't expect to hear it the next time you hear Crenshaw spin.
"I do think it's a good record," he told Carlos Hawthorn. "I am at the point where I can play it every once in a while. I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but I'm not going to play it every show."