DEMF 3 is a little meaner and leaner. This year’s event sticks more closely to the soulfully abstract techno for which Detroit is known in the world dance-music community. Last year’s event at times seemed like a stop on a national rave DJ tour or a Sha Na Na review of old Detroit techno acts. DEMF 3 feels more coherent and unapologetically Detroit. It mixes underground faves with their worldwide peers. But three days of DJs, endless variations on techno and house, live electronic and hip hop on four stages is a lot to sift through.
A reason to get to Hart Plaza first thing Saturday (well, noon is the ass-crack of dawn for DJs) is Jay Langa. Under his Green Hornet alias, Langa was a fixture at legendary mid-’90s Poor Boy parties, keeping the deep, melodic, soulful tradition of techno alive when others were cashing in on harder, minimal crowd-pleasers. His road-less-traveled style is anything but careerist — Langa currently co-owns a Papa Romano’s pizza joint in Troy to make ends meet. He says he’s planning on using his Saturday slot on the Miller Genuine Draft DJ Tower as a crash course in techno history. “My set is the culmination of all my years playing records — UR [Underground Resistance], Laurent Garnier — a lot of the stuff that’s meant a lot to me over the years,” he says. “I’m trying to educate.”
Mad Professor (Neil Fraser) holds court (2 p.m., Underground Stage) with deep dub reggae manipulated live. A veteran producer, mainly of reggae groups (most recently he worked as soundman for reggae icon Lee “Scratch” Perry), Fraser has twisted knobs and tweaked riddims in his legendary Ariwa Studios for everyone from UK punks the Ruts to Massive Attack, for whom he did a dub version of their “Protection” (called “No Protection”). Live he can seem more like a soundman than a performer, yet his mastery of sonic reworkings is stoner-tech at its best.
One of DEMF’s most ambitious live sets, however, is DJ Defiant and the People’s Movement (3:30 p.m., Main Stage). Local hip-hop DJ Defiant released a staggering underground mix CD last winter on which he had local MCs rap on political and social themes over instrumental hip-hop cuts.
Defiant and his army of socially conscious MCs and spoken-word artists — among the dozens are MC Greed and Decompoze — will re-create the CD live in one of the DEMF’s few hip-hop highlights.
DJ Funk (5:30 p.m., CPOP Stage) is gonna hurt somebody — or so it says on one of his hundred or so tracks. As Chicago’s busiest ghetto-house producer, DJ Funk has built a 150 BPM empire out of booty tracks. Live, he can DJ an entire set just playing his own stuff. Pretty much everything you hear on 97.9 FM WJLB or 105.9 FM WDTJ every weekend night that isn’t made by either DJ Assault or Godfather is likely to be a DJ Funk track — you’ll know it when you hear his set.
Once the sun goes down, the night belongs to techno. Back at the Miller Genuine Draft DJ Tower at 7 p.m., Scotland’s Steve Rachmad makes his U.S. debut with deep, minimal techno, followed by Marco Carola at 9:30 p.m. Carola has distinguished himself as a European techno artist who has expanded the Detroit formula, refining its chilly soul with a more heavily produced edge. A master of mixing records on three turntables, he can pull an intensity out of techno few DJs ever find.
On the Main Stage is the trifecta of Mike Grant (5:30 p.m.) — owner of the more house-than-techno Moods and Grooves label — Chicago’s more-techno-than-house Mike Dearborn (8 p.m.), and finally the godfather of techno, Juan Atkins (10 p.m.). The man whose Cybotron and Model 500 started all this techno madness in the mid-’80s means Saturday night belongs to the classic Detroit sound. We can only hope Atkins doesn’t get hailed on like last year.
Gary Martin holds down the gospel hour (noon, Main Stage). A former glam-rock guitarist and lounge-band leader, Martin is the Thin White Duke of Detroit techno. His releases on his own Teknotika label make their way into the record boxes of better-known Detroit practitioners (Jeff Mills, Richie Hawtin, etc.). Riding high on a prolific string of remarkable singles (three in four months) and coming into his own as a DJ, Martin is a relative unknown destined for bigger and better things.
Following Martin is Subterraneous (1:30 p.m., Main Stage), a local hip-hop collective made up of members of Binary Star, One Man Army and the Trackazoids. Known for its Detroit spin on the post-Native Tongues sound of New York groups like A Tribe Called Quest, with the feel-good backpacker hip-hop vibe of the West Coast’s Hieroglyphics Crew, Subterraneous brings a battle-flavored spontaneity and immediacy to Detroit hip hop without forgetting about rocking the party.
Stewart Walker (1:30 p.m., Underground Stage) is an American techno artist not from Detroit that has worked with both Richie Hawtin’s Minus label and Alan Oldham’s Puresonik label. Not content to simply DJ other people’s records, Walker concentrates on producing and performing. Now in Berlin running his own Persona label, Walker is probably this DEMF’s best example of the Detroit sound and spirit (abstract but soulful, minimal but melodic) manifesting in yet another generation of producers.
Back on the Main Stage, Blake Baxter (3 p.m.) and Eddie Fowlkes (5:30 p.m.) lay down the vintage Detroit sound as only first-generation artists can. Aside from Juan Atkins, Baxter and Fowlkes are the only two members of Detroit’s first techno wave playing this year. Baxter was once known as “the Prince of Techno” for not being afraid to speak up in his tracks (vocals are a rarity in techno). It became his trademark (the Chemical Brothers would later sample him saying “the brothers gonna work it out” for its track of the same name).
Eddie Fowlkes, meanwhile, is the unheralded founding forth member of Detroit techno (a group including Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson). Fowlkes tasteful adherence to techno-house style in his DJing makes his techno soul for grown-ups.
Following Fowlkes is George Clinton (8 p.m. Main Stage). Purists may think Clinton is perhaps more Tastefest material than DEMF. Bear in mind that Clinton was originally supposed to double-headline with Kraftwerk (which bowed out for various reasons). Had the bill come to pass it would have lived out Derrick May’s famous quote that early techno sounded “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk trapped in an elevator with nothing but a synthesizer to pass the time.” Atkins credits Clinton’s “Flashlight” as a seminal influence because it was the first funk song to use an all-synth bass line.
Those needing harder beats can dig the UK drum ’n’ bass of Roni Size’s partner and ace producer/DJ, DJ Krust (9:30 p.m., Miller Genuine Draft DJ Tower).
DEMF 3 ends as it began, with both kinds of music — techno and house. There’s house in its more soulful, old-school, gospel-cum-disco form by Chicago’s Roy Davis, Jr. (noon, Main Stage), and in its more techno-flavored Detroit rave-intense form by Chicago’s DJ Traxx (8 p.m., Underground Stage).
Then there’s the hard, banging, take-your-breath-away, dare-you-to-dance techno. It’s typified by the heavy drum machine, kick drum and spare, electronic instrumentation, and practiced by minimalists such as Alan Oldham (3:30 p.m., Main Stage) or the UK’s the Advent (6 p.m., Main Stage). As Jay Langa says, the Advent — led by Cisco Ferreira in a one-man live show — is “the heavy metal of techno.”
The flamboyant Chicago-based live artist Green Velvet (2 p.m., Main Stage) has elevated its numb beats into a backdrop for performance-arty vocals with a nod to 1980s New Wave.
Of note Monday is LA’s Dilated Peoples (7:30 p.m., Main Stage), this year’s lone national hip-hop act. No strangers to Detroit (they have worked with local MC/producer Hush), Dilated play hip-hop as if all this corporate-wannabe madness that is most radio rap these days never happened. Featuring DJ Babu (World Famous Beat Junkies) and hot off the Scratch Movie tour, Dilated are more true-school than old-school. As heard on its Capitol Records debut Expansion Team, these Peoples mix battle bravado with party-rock bump.
Other cool stuff:
With Outdoor Television Network providing jumbo video screens, DEMF-goers not busy dancing can see Main Stage DJs in action and the stellar live acts in this year’s lineup.
Some of this year’s highlights, in fact, may not be coming from any of the stages. Reps from tech companies like Native Instruments and even members of UK breakbeat group Propellerheads will assist festival-goers in navigating the 30 or so microstudios set up on-site. Apple and local promoter SolCom have put together a tag-team tech demonstration area where aspiring gearheads can check out the latest in Apple computers, as well as music software programs. SolCom promises “a World War II re-enactment via electronic music”: its Axis and Allies Audio Lab features a German and British producer going head-to-head in a soundclash using killer programs demonstrated at the Apple Audio Lab. Bombs away.Hobey Echlin writes about the technocracy for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org