Juan Atkins Biography
Influenced by "Electrifying Mojo", Track Title Gave Genre Its Name, Produced Remixes in England
Juan Atkins is generally recognized as one of the creators of techno music, which spawned a whole group of genres now known as electronica, and he was probably the first person to apply the word "techno" to music. His novel electronic soundscapes influenced nearly every genre of music that came after. Yet except for followers of electronic dance music, few music fans recognize his name. Despite recognition in the form of an exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum, he remains among the most obscure of modern musical pioneers.
Techno music originated in Detroit, Michigan, and it was there that Atkins was born on September 12, 1962. Fans worldwide associate the music with Detroit's often bleak landscape, littered with abandoned buildings and other relics of the roaring 1920s and the golden age of the automobile. Atkins himself shared his impressions of Detroit's desolate core with techno historian Dan Sicko: "I was smack in the middle of downtown, on Griswold. I was looking at this building and I see the faded imprint of American Airline [a logo], the shadow after they took the sign down. It just brought home to me the thing about Detroit—in any other city you have a buzzing, thriving downtown."
But the true beginnings of techno took place a half hour's drive to the southwest in Belleville, Michigan, a small town near an interstate leading to Detroit's central city. Atkins and his brother were sent there to live with his grandmother after his grades dropped in Detroit, in the hopes of removing him from the city's violence. As a junior high and high school student in Belleville, Atkins met Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, both techno pioneers. The trio made trips into Detroit for parties on the weekends. Later they became known as the "Belleville Three," with Atkins, according to Sicko, receiving special mention as "Obi Juan."
Influenced by "Electrifying Mojo"
Atkins's father was a concert promoter, and there were various musical instruments around the house while he was growing up. He became a fan of a Detroit radio disc jockey named the Electrifying Mojo (Charles Johnson), one of a rare breed of "freeform" DJs on American commercial radio whose shows mixed genres and forms. Electrifying Mojo wove various kinds of music around the 1970s funk of artists such as George Clinton, Parliament, and Funkadelic (which had some Detroit roots of its own), becoming one of just a few American DJs who played the experimental electronic dance music of the German ensemble Kraftwerk on the radio. "If you want the reason [techno] happened in Detroit," Atkins told the Village Voice, "you have to look at a DJ called Electrifying Mojo: he had five hours every night, with no format restrictions. It was on his show that I first heard Kraftwerk."
In the early 1980s, Atkins became the artist who found an American middle ground between Kraftwerk's electronics and funk's big bass lines and distinctive atmospheres. He played keyboards as a teenager, but he was a DJ and sound manipulator from the beginning, experimenting at home with a mixing board and a cassette tape player. After finishing high school, Atkins studied at Washtenaw Community College near Ypsilanti, not far from Belleville. It was through a friendship with a fellow student, Vietnam veteran Rik Davis, that Atkins began to learn about electronic sound production; Davis owned a spread of then-innovative equipment including one of the first sequencers (a device allowing the user to organize electronic sound) released by the Roland corporation. "He was very isolated," Atkins told the Village Voice. Soon Atkins' collaboration with Davis gave rise to a new music.
"I was around when you had to get a bass player, a guitarist, a drummer to make records, …" he told the Village Voice. "I wanted to make electronic music but thought you had to be a computer programmer to do it. I found out it wasn't as complicated as I thought." Atkins joined with Davis (who called himself 3070), and the pair billed themselves as Cybotron, a name they chose from a list of futuristic compound words that they had compiled and called "the grid." The two released a single "Alleys of Your Mind," in 1981, and it sold around 15,000 copies in the Detroit area after the Electrifying Mojo aired it on his radio program. A second release, "Cosmic Cars," did equally well, and the duo's sales got the notice of the West Coast independent record label Fantasy. Atkins and Davis hadn't sought a record deal, and in fact, Atkins told Dan Sicko, "We didn't know anything about [Fantasy's interest] until one day we opened the mailbox and found a contract."
Track Title Gave Genre Its Name
In 1982 Cybotron released "Clear," a recording with a distinctive cool tone that would later mark it as an electronic music classic. "Clear" had almost no text, and techno as it developed would use words mostly rhythmically or decoratively (when it used words at all). The following year Atkins and Davis released "Techno City," and listeners began to use the record's title to describe the musical genre of which it was a part. The term was probably inspired by futurist Alvin Toffler's book The Third Wave (1980), which used the term "techno rebels" and which Atkins had read in a high school class in Belleville. Atkins received a second jolt of creative inspiration from the 1982 rap hit "Planet Rock," one of the first rap records to incorporate high-tech electronics.
Atkins and Davis split up over creative differences, with Davis wanting to push their music in more of a rock-oriented direction. Davis eventually drifted into obscurity, but Atkins took steps to popularize the new music he was making. Joining with May and Saunderson, he formed a collective enterprise, Deep Space Soundworks, which had begun as a DJ group headed by Atkins and in turn launched a downtown Detroit club called the Music Institute. A second generation of techno DJs, including Carl Craig and Richie Hawtin (also known as Plastikman), began to hold forth at the club, and techno even found a place on Detroit public radio affiliate WDET on a program called Fast Forward.
In the middle and late 1980s, Atkins used the name Model 500. His recordings from this time, such as "No UFO's" (1985) and the evocative "Night Drive" (which featured Atkins's whispered narration of a drive around Detroit's freeway system), are often considered techno classics. Economical and polished, they inspired younger electronic musicians, especially after techno became popular in Europe (where its profile was always higher than in the United States) and began to make its mark on nightclubs in England, Germany, and Belgium among other countries. Atkins in 1985 formed a label of his own, Metroplex, releasing his own recordings as well as those of younger Detroit musicians. He had envisioned the label, Derrick May told author Dan Sicko, as early as age 17. Some of Atkins's own 1980s work was collected in the 1990s on the Classics album released by Belgium's R&S label.
Techno shaped a new kind of nightclub experience in the United States especially in England, where Atkins and Saunderson found themselves in demand. Techno music was certainly intended for dancers, but its beats weren't the sensual pulsations of disco and its successors; instead, Atkins's music had a mechanistic, modernistic quality that stimulated blissful feelings rather than sheer sexuality. At dance events called "raves," which could last all night, dancers might charge themselves up with fast dance tracks and then cool down with slower, dreamier ones in different rooms of the same building. After making the first of many European trips in 1988, Atkins provided the evening's soundtrack for many a British nightclub patron. The cool quality of Atkins's music, famously described by May (as quoted in the Village Voice) as "like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator," helped inspire the new genre of ambient techno as composers and DJs combined techno music with the intentionally plain "ambient" sounds of avant-garde musician Brian Eno.
Produced Remixes in England
The late 1980s were probably the high point of Atkins's fame, and in England he was invited to do remixes of hits by top acts such as the Style Council, the Tom Tom Club, and the Fine Young Cannibals. He cut back his activities in the early 1990s somewhat, although he released several recordings on which he billed himself as Infiniti. A series of European reissues of his earlier work stimulated his creative juices anew, and he returned to the recording studio, now working in the more expansive album format. The 1995 Model 500 album Deep Space was really Atkins's solo CD debut. He released new albums under the names Infiniti (Skynet, 1998, on Germany's Tresor label) and Model 500 (Mind and Body, 1999, on Belgium's R&S).
Through all this, Atkins was only moderately well known, even in his Detroit hometown. But the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, held annually along Detroit's riverfront, showed the impact of Atkins's creation as a crowd of an estimated one million people turned out to hear his musical descendents make people dance with nothing more than an array of electronic gear. Atkins himself performed at the festival in 2001, and in an Orange County Register interview quoted on the Jahsonic Web site he reflected on techno's ambivalent status as African-American music. "I gotta believe that if we were a bunch of white kids, we'd be millionaires by now, but it may not be as racial as one may think," he said. "Black labels don't have a clue. At least the white guys will talk to me; they aren't making any moves or offers, but they say, 'We love your music and we'd love to do something with you.' But blacks don't even know who we are."
In 2001 Atkins also released the Legends, Vol. 1 album on the OM label. Scripps Howard News Service writer Richard Paton observed that the album "finds him not resting on past achievement, but still mixing pumping, well-crafted sets," as quoted in the Cincinnati Post. Atkins continued to perform on both sides of the Atlantic, moving to Los Angeles in the early 2000s. He was prominently featured in "Techno: Detroit's Gift to the World," a 2003 exhibition mounted at the Detroit Historical Museum, and the year 2005 saw him performing at the Necto club in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not far from Belleville.
(As Cybotron, with Rick Davis) "Alleys of Your Mind," 1981.
(As Cybotron, with Rick Davis) "Cosmic Cars," 1981.
(As Cybotron, with Rick Davis) "Clear," 1982.
(As Cybotron, with Rick Davis) "Techno City," 1983.
(As Model 500) "No UFO's," 1985.
(As Model 500) "Night Ride," 1985.
Enter, Fantasy, 1983.
Classics (compilation), R&S, 1995.
Infiniti Compilation, Tresor, 1995.
(As Model 500) Deep Space, R&S, 1995.
(As Infiniti) Skynet, Tresor, 1998.
(As Model 500) Mind and Body, R&S, 1999.
Legends: Vol. 1, OM, 2001.
Sicko, Dan, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999.
Associated Press, January 17, 2003.
Cincinnati Post, August 9, 2001, p. 20.
Grand Rapids Press, May 29, 2001, p. B4.
Guardian (London, England), November 22, 2003, p. 31; July 24, 2004, p. 32.
Village Voice, July 20, 1993, p. SS18; September 11, 2001, p. 126.
"GearTalk: Juan Atkins," For Men, http://formen.ign.com/news/36668.html (January 16, 2005).
"Juan Atkins," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (January 16, 2005.
"Juan Atkins," www.scaruffi.com/vol15/atkins.html (January 16, 2005).
"Juan Atkins: Biography," Jahsonic, www.jahsonic.com/JuanAtkins.html (January 15, 2005).
"Model 500," R&S Records, www.rsrecords.com/rsp_m500.htm (January 16, 2005).
"Detroit Techno: Race, Agency, and Electronic Music in Post-Industrial Detroit," Michigan Journal of History, www.umich.edu/~historyj/papers/fall2003/tausig3.html (January 16, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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