By now we all know this origin story as well as we do that of our favorite comic book superheroes: In the early 1980s, the granddaddy of techno, Juan Atkins, and his disciples, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson were lowly high schoolers who spent many a night nerding out to WGPR's DJ Charles "Electrifying Mojo" Johnson's space-themed radio show — a genre defying, on-air journey of funk, soul, kraut, industrial, and new wave tracks the boys would often record and then remix. Specifically, bands like Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, Afrika Bambaataa, and Parliament-Funkadelic would shape the eccentric musical subconscious that Atkins still draws from today, and will manifest at this year's Charivari Detroit.
Techno's origins may even sound like urban folklore at this point. But its collective spirit and imagery remain a big part of what enables electronic music festivals to thrive in this city. In just its second year running, Charivari boasts an expanded lineup of over 80 DJs spinning all forms of electronic music, including house, techno, disco, trance, DDM, and U.K. garage, and some that might not even have names yet. There's also a larger location to accommodate the expectedly sizable turnout — all 982 acres of Belle Isle. The festival is still perhaps regarded as the little sister to behemoth Movement, but its edge lies not only in the fact that it's free and open to all ages, but that it hosts the largest lineup of Detroit-based DJs. After all, the term "charivari" is also rooted in Detroit, alluding to a series of dance parties in the early '80s by the same name, whose cult following help popularize early techno bangers such as Cybotron's "Cosmic Cars" — and of course the amazing 12-inch "Sharevari" by A Number of Names, released in 1981.
Back in the day, when the Electrifying Mojo would begin his broadcast, he would announce "The mothership has landed." The mantra was appropriated not only by Atkins, May, and Saunderson, but a lot of young, black kids growing up in a city that was the former epicenter of technology, and now an industrial ghost town. Techno was the new outlet for innovation, its fixation on the imagery of futurism (recall Model 500's "No UFOs") a gritty expression of Detroit's fraught relationship with it.
The scene inevitably shifted in the mid-'90s when Theo Parrish, one of Charivari's highly anticipated performers, became the face of house, which distanced itself from the sleek machinations of Atkins' world, and instead returned to Motown roots — employing R&B, jazz, funk, and soul in tracks that were slower and more nuanced.
Moodymann, another Charivari headliner and Detroit techno/house pioneer, describes his sets as "giving you my environment," or, in other words, sharing the records he bought at Cliff's on Seven Mile Road, and the tracks he bumped in his car on the way home with a worldwide audience. Playing in his hometown this year means celebrating with like-minded electro heads who still appreciate the fact that hauling around a heavy crate of records, mixing live, and keeping the dance floor moving is what it's really all about.
Kyle Hall, a rising star in the scene, will perform at Charivari alongside his heroes, like many other up-and-coming acts this year. But the environment still feels collaborative. Mysterious Detroit techno legend Omar S. was already a huge influence on Hall well before Omar approached him at a Movement after-party about putting a record out under his label, FXHE. Their mentor-mentee relationship is good example of how unique the music scene is here, where pioneers live around the corner, and don't just pass the torch, but offer tangible tips and invaluable advice. And while tracks off Plastic Ambash are wilder and a little more experimental than his forefathers', he still understands that his music is a reflection of the Detroit experience.
Other notable DJs performing this year at Charivari include Chris Campbell, whose successful radio show, The Progressive Underground, is a reinterpretation of The Electrifying Mojo; new-school favorites Kevin Reynolds and Aaron Daniels; and DJ Roach & Mike Clark, members of the forever righteous music collective Underground Resistance.
Charivari Detroit fest takes places Saturday and Sunday, August 1-2; noon to 10 p.m.; Belle Isle Park; charivaridetroit.com; free admission with park pass.