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    Discovering her past: Element uncovers her roots through African Ancestry DNA testing Tarik Moody


​​Music Documentary Reveals the Black History of Detroit Techno

todayFebruary 20, 2024

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I recently sat down with director Kristian Hill and producer Jennifer Washington to discuss their eye-opening new documentary, God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines. The film chronicles the origins of techno music in Detroit and the collective of black artists who invented this now-celebrated electronic dance music genre, only to never receive proper recognition.

Starring legendary figures like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Eddie Fowlkes, and more, God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines tells the story behind one of Detroit’s great musical innovations that transformed nightlife across the globe. In the early 1980s, these visionary artists created a radical new sound called “techno” – built on drum machines, synthesizers, and their city’s deep musical lineage from jazz, funk, and Motown.

Yet, over time, the names and faces behind techno got obscured as the music exploded internationally through the rave scene and mainstream pop alike. Today, few realize that black musicians from working-class Detroit neighborhoods conceived one of the foundation stones of modern dance music.

The film documents techno’s beginnings through first-hand interviews with the genre’s pioneers. It also highlights their later struggles for wider recognition of techno’s Detroit roots and their own contributions as innovators. As director Kristian Hill and producer Jennifer Washington revealed through our conversation, God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines aims to give techno’s originators their due place in music history – especially fitting during Black History Month.

The Cultural Roots of Detroit Techno

Detroit’s African-American music culture laid the foundations for techno to emerge. From jazz to Motown, the city cultivated iconic sounds that reverberated globally.

As director Kristian Hill explained, Detroit had a “rich legacy” of music influencing the youth, from radio DJs like Mojo to the television dance show The Scene. The Scene was a prominent dance television show aired in Detroit from 1976 to 1987 on WGPR TV 62, the nation’s first Black-owned and operated television station. It was a local cultural phenomenon that showcased the latest dance moves, fashion, and music, becoming a significant part of Detroit’s dance history. This early “bubbling of culture” primed the next generation.

By the late 1970s, forward-thinking DJs like Ken Collier, affectionately known as “The Godfather” of Detroit’s dance scene, blended genres and introduced new rhythms to local radio and underground clubs. This exposed the youth to cutting-edge dance music from the U.S. and Europe.

At the same time, revolutionary instruments like the Roland TR-808 drum machine became accessible to the next generation of musicians. Juan Atkins acquired one of these coveted devices in the 1980s, unlocking new creative possibilities with programmable beats.

The TR-808’s distinctive sound became a staple in Atkins’ productions and was a key component in developing the Detroit techno sound. The drum machine’s ability to create deep bass kicks, snappy snares, and crisp hi-hats allowed Atkins to craft rhythmically innovative and sonically rich tracks. This helped set the stage for techno’s evolution as a genre and cemented Atkins’ legacy as a pioneer in electronic music

Roland TR-808

Juan Atkins and the Birth of Techno

Of all the techno originators, Juan Atkins’ early musical experiments were most critical to the genre’s formation. Along with Richard Davis, Atkins created Cybertron, an electrifying amalgam of funk, synth pop, and futurism.

Tracks like “Clear” (1983) introduced the world to their self-coined term for this sound: “techno.” The name conjured cold, mechanical textures, yet Atkins imbued his music with warmth and humanity.

As Atkins adopted new monikers like Model 500, his productions set the template for techno. Insistent drum machine rhythms, subtle melody lines, and science-fiction motifs became staples of the emerging genre.

“Juan’s early work, Cybertron’s early work…that’s creating the whole synergy for people to make records,” explained Kristian Hill.

Atkins soon joined forces with two other young visionaries – Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – to form what became known as the Belleville Three. This trio of musical masterminds from the same high school forged techno into an uncompromising new style.

The Belleville Three

While initial singles like Saunderson’s (aka Kreem) “Triangle of Love” didn’t make many commercial waves, their collective efforts gained traction locally. Thanks to DJs like Jeff Mills blasting Belleville Three tracks, they cultivated an ardent local following.

The Techno Visionaries Emerge

Inspired by Atkins, a loose collective of like-minded artists drove techno forward through the 1980s. Friends since high school, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson found their voices.

May’s tracks as Rhythim Is Rhythim, like “Nude Photo” (1987), stretched techno’s boundaries with abstract soundscapes. Meanwhile, Saunderson crafted pop-leaning gems under names like Reese and E-Dancer, bringing the music to wider attention.

Others, like Blake Baxter, Eddie Fowlkes, and Santonio Echols, also created seminal recordings that fueled Detroit’s underground party scene. Together, Blake Baxter, Eddie Fowlkes, Santonio Echols, and Thomas Barnett have joined forces as the group FOUR313, to preserve Detroit’s “true” history in techno music

Producer Jennifer Washington notes that she didn’t even know this music was called “techno” growing up. The various pioneers “were just making music” for their city.

Techno Captivates the World…Except America

As the 1980s closed, techno’s hypnotic aesthetic spread rapidly across Europe and the UK. Key taste-makers like Neil Rushton and Derrick May toured overseas, exposing new fans to the sound of Detroit.

Techno crossed over into the pop mainstream when Saunderson’s group Inner City, fronted by Paris Grey, landed international hits like “Big Fun” (1988) and “Good Life” (1989). Acts like Moby and The Prodigy soon incorporated techno elements too.

Yet back home in America, the music largely overlooked the music birthed in Detroit’s backyards and warehouses. Following Motown’s demise, the city lacked an industry apparatus to nurture the scene. And as hip-hop took off nationwide, radio and media paid little attention.

For Atkins and his peers, overseas success was bittersweet. They enjoyed strong followings in Europe and Japan but felt neglected in America. As director Kristian Hill laments, their records were “exported, so it’s just coming back to America.”

Reclaiming the History of Detroit Techno

In recent years, a subculture has coalesced around celebrating Detroit as the birthplace of techno. Annual events like the Movement Festival honor the music’s heritage.

Local institutions also commemorate techno history – Submerge was founded by “Mad” Mike Banks and Jeff Mills, who started the label and distribution center out of a need to help unite multiple small, unorganized labels struggling to survive. It is also home to “Exhibit 3000,” a museum dedicated to the birth and rise of Detroit techno.

The new documentary God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines continues this reclamation project. With exclusive access to stars like Juan Atkins and Derrick May, it chronicles the scene’s humble beginnings.

The film illuminates techno as a uniquely Black American art form – the descendants of Motown infusing machines with soul. It also conveys the bittersweet story of lost dreams and damaged bonds among childhood friends.

Ultimately, God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines conveys the lasting impact of techno’s pioneers. Their creation sparked a revolution in dance floors worldwide, even as the artists struggled for recognition.


Like the city it hails from, Detroit techno battles tirelessly for survival. As one of America’s great musical innovations, its history deserves wider appreciation during Black History Month and beyond.

However, the Black origins of Detroit techno have been continually sidelined in the U.S. for various interlocking reasons:

Efforts by artists like Underground Resistance aim to preserve techno’s origins in Black Detroit. But wider recognition of this seminal African-American musical history remains an ongoing struggle.

Films like God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines continue the important work of telling techno’s story as one pioneered by Black artists and integral to wider Black music culture.


Written by: Tarik Moody

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