Though Detroit will always be "Techno city" as far as the international press is concerned, and booty bass music continues to dominate its urban dance clubs and airwaves, the city has always had a rich, if unsung, house music scene.
In fact, if you dig a little deeper into Detroit dance music history, you'll see that late-'80s techno was really the more Europhilic, New Wave-influenced tip of the larger Detroit house iceberg. Even techno militants Underground Resistance and Jeff Mills began as house producers. Beyond the May-Saunderson-Atkins Deep Space Network mobile deejay triumvirate and its legendary Music Institute Club were deejays like Mike Clark and his Direct Drive mobile crew, playing long-forgotten Detroit clubs like the Downstairs Pub.
But where techno traded in its local cult status for international superstardom, Detroit house stuck around. Deejays such as the late Ken Collier, who spun at Heaven in the early '90s, regularly passed up gigs overseas; instead, they recycled their energies back into the local scene that made them. Idyllic and commercially myopic as the house scene may have seemed, its insularity kept it pure: Without a solid grounding at home, there was no "house," the producers and deejays seemed to insist. Besides, while techno had long since left behind its urban black audience for a white raver crowd, house was still by and for its original urban audiences.
Following the onset of hip hop and R&B radio programming in Detroit in the early '90s, Detroit's house scene lost any hope of reaching a new audience, while its original upscale urban audience had grown up and moved on. By the mid-'90s, Detroit house found itself relegated to the black, gay, underground audience that had spawned it in the late '70s.
But now, as techno dissipates with overexposure and the more commercial booty sound plateaus in sales and hype, Clark and other producers are reinventing Detroit house with a return to the by-Detroit, for-Detroit philosophy of their late-'80s beginnings. The new genre has been dubbed "Beatdown," so named because it slows down the music's beat to the 120 BPM house party groove that attracted its original urban audience. "When you really had a crowd goin'," explains Clark, "you were 'beatin' 'em down." But "beatdown" could just as well be an acknowledgment of Detroit house's underdog status.
Beatdown's sound couldn't be further from techno's chilly futurism or booty's pitched-up, scratch-happy raunch. Where techno alienated itself from Detroit's musical history, beatdown proudly embraces it. "Kraftwerk didn't do shit for me," confesses Eddie Fowlkes, co-owner of City Boy Noveau records -- which has already released three 12"s by himself, Norm Tally and Herdest Cummings -- commenting on the German electronic outfit often cited as influencing techno. Beatdown takes house back to its more organic roots in disco, jazz and funk.
"It was Stevie Wonder -- he had the funk, the soul, the jazz, and he was the first motherfucker to use a synthesizer," Fowlkes continues.
"See, Juan (Atkins) and me, we were musicians, man. I was always into funky, jazzy shit. My mother used to date the manager of the Chi-Lites, so they'd be practicing in my basement. I'd hear their songs and I'd be like, 'oh yeah, that's the shit in my basement,' so naturally, I've just always been more of a jazzhead."
"All the jazz and vocals we do is stuff that you wouldn't think of as being from Detroit, in the way Detroit's thought of as being 'techno,'" explains Clark. "But to people in Detroit, it makes sense."
As such, beatdown sounds like Kraftwerk never happened. For his part, Clark's tracks revel in extended keyboard solos courtesy of local fusion band Jazzhead. Kenny "Moodymann" Dixon Jr. works with jazz sax diva Norma Jean Bell on his new "Sunday Morning" remix 12" on the Planet E label. The best example of beatdown's pan-genre, pro-Detroit embrace was Scott Groove's phenomenal Pieces of a Dream disc earlier this year on the European label Soma. Not only did Grooves work with George Clinton on a houseified funk track made up of rare P-Funk concert tapes, he even brought in legendary jazz vibist Roy Ayers to reprise his xylophone part on a house remake of Lonnie Liston Smith's fusion classic "Expansions." Says Grooves, "To me, working with Detroit musicians is about being able to do a song with, say, (Detroit gospel great) CeCe Winans and play it somewhere and tell people 'This is a guy from my city.'"
"I'd rather be asked to play Flood's than London's Ministry of Sound. It takes me 10 minutes to drive to Flood's," he explains with a laugh, "and seven hours to fly to London."
With all its genre-bridging, beatdown is as nostalgic as it is forward thinking, which, in the future-obsessed world of dance music, makes it an anomaly, a throwback. But to their credit, beatdown's prime movers know their scene is as important as their sound, and, in their urban bohemian way, they are content to keep beatdown a cultish phenomenon. To that end, Clark and his fellow deejays favor more low-key, locals-only, obscure downtown clubs like the late Club 246 or, more recently, Friday nights at Eastern Market's Johanson Charles Gallery, as well as longtime house scene supporter Korie Enyard's Saturday nights at Better Days nightclub on Woodward.
But if beatdown's return to a one-nation-under-a-jazzy-house groove sounds a little utopian, it marks the first real effort by Detroit dance music to reconnect with the upscale black audience from which it came. Enyard knows that will take some recultivating, admittedly tougher now that house has neither techno's hype nor booty's radio play. "When you've got hard-core hip hop and R&B-ers, they don't want to hear something that's not on the radio," she says.
"There's a whole generation that doesn't know what Detroit house is. We know we need to re-educate, but there's going to be an audience that keys into the fact that house is like what jazz was, in that it's free-spirited."
In this sense of unity there is hope. Carl Craig's new single, in his Paperclip People incarnation, ain't called "4 My Peepz" for nothin' -- it's a subliminal anthem for an even more subliminal cult of Detroit house.
Sometimes the urban pride gets hamstrung on race politics. Moodymann, with his massive afro and the race-baiting liner notes on his full-length, A Silent Introduction, is beatdown's version of Chris Rock's Nat X character from Saturday Night Live -- who implored "white kids" to "stop sampling black music" and "making it sound weak" -- a curious comparison as 'Mann is no stranger to sampling jazz guitar licks himself. Still, to put a house nation spin on Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer's "the hope is back, the pride is real" citywide PR line, beatdown says "the funk is back, the hope is real."
With City Boy Noveau, Chicago transplant L.A. Williams' Chisel label and Grooves', Paperclip People's and Moodymann's records blowing up as much in Detroit as the rest of the world, beatdown is proving that the house legacy that begat techno lives on in its own right.
"We can learn from other people's mistakes. We've seen the whole 'superstar DJ' thing take its course," says Fowlkes.
Beatdown has even made a believer out of one-time househead "Mad" Mike Banks of Underground Resistance. After making a rare local appearance at premier beatdown club Better Days, where Scott Grooves is the Saturday night resident, a softer-voiced Banks said simply, "I could feel that old feeling again, like it was in the early days."Hobey Echlin is a freelance writer. Send comments to email@example.com