Juan Atkins – An Exclusive Interview With The Originator Of Techno
If it wasn’t for Juan Atkins, many of us might not have discovered the music known as techno. In the early 80’s he was the one to release the first techno record ever, next to his lauded work as an electro pioneer. We are honored to have him for an interview on Hammarica.com
Juan, you have performed at events all over the world ranging from dark undergound parties to the most slick produced mega events. Of course it is always a kick to play in front of thousands. But if you were to choose, would you pick a dark strobe-lit hole filled with banging techno til the early morning.. Or a bigger commercial event where you only get to play for 1.5hr. tops?
Well some events are not always 1.5 hrs tops.. I mean usually I do get to play two hours at these big events. You know, every event is different.. Every booking I get is different.. I try to make the best out of every situation that I come into and I try to put out the best and do my best. So I can’t say that there is a preference in which type of venue I like to play. I mean I have fun every time I play. So there is no situation that trumps another situation. Smaller crowds.. smaller clubs tend to be more intimate, tend to be able to interface with your crowd a little bit more. But other than that, like I said: every situation is a great situation for me.
You are not only credited with creating the genre of techno, but also coining the name for it. For those who are not aware, one of your records prominently featured the name techno in its title. In Europe, back in the day, both techno and house were regarded simply as ‘house music.’ The techno name only got to more prominent use a few years later when people got more educated. Was there a connection between the guys from Chicago like Frankie Knuckles, who is credited as the godfather of house music, and you guys in Detroit? Did you attend parties at the Warehouse and did guys from Chicago come to Detroit? Or were these two rather independent scenes?
Yes for sure, Detroit is only a four hour drive from Chicago and visa versa, so yes we would drive to Chicago and we’ve been to the Warehouse and see Frankie play. A lot of Chicago guys would come up here to Detroit. We would book for Hitman, Wilson and Farley Jackmaster Funk and Bad Boy Bill. Yeah all those guys come and play at parties for us here. There was definitely a friendly rivalry I guess you could say. As a matter of fact Derrick (May) sold Frankie Knuckles the Tr 909 that a lot of the first house records were made from. Because Chip E was sort of like Frankie’s assistant or so to speak. He would be at the club, at the Warehouse so that’s how he got a hold of that 909 to make “Like This” and other tracks. So there is definitely a lot of relationship between Detroit and Chicago.
One of your early high-regarded records was a track called ‘Clear.’ Just a few years ago, Missy Elliott and Ciara used this track as a base for their hit ‘Lose Control.’ Were you actively involved in the process- or aware of this? How did you like the end result? In a way, do you feel this was one of the records that was the prequel to the current commercialization of dance in mainstream pop music?
No I was not aware, but the record company did everything legal and they dotted the I’s and crossed the T. They licensed the track from Fantasy Records which is the owner of the sound recording copyright so they didn’t really need to come to me for clearance. So actually the first time I heard it, I think I heard it on the radio. But I was quite happy with the end result of the record. The record went to number one on the pop charts here in the USA. You know at least I got my writers credit on the record as well. I always wanted to see my name on a record on a number one, on Billboard. So I guess that was sort of a dream come true in an indirect way.
I think a lot of the music, a lot of Detroit music and a lot of my music was definitely a template for a lot of electronic dance music to seep into the mainstream here. For sure.
Techno clearly thrives in Detroit, especially with the mega festival DEMF which is dedicated to techno. How well does the genre perform in other US cities? Are there certain metropolitan areas where it is especially popular? Do you feel the rise of dubstep and other dance music genres will help the techno genre as well to gain more popularity stateside?
Yeah, You know the festivals are starting to pop up all over the USA. This style what they call dubstep.. I mean, I can remember the dubstep from when it first kinda evolved from jungle and drum & bass music. And the first, earlier dubstep was pretty cool. I think where it is now, and why a lot of US kids and a lot of these big festivals and rave parties now can identify with the music, is because the sounds that they are using, basically are just electronic versions of rock guitar sounds. And a lot of this ‘dubstep’ to me is just an updated version of rock and roll. So I think that’s why the kids can get into it on one hand.
On the other hand, I do think it kinda opens the door for a lot of electronic music. It introduces the kids to a new sound, or an electronic sound. But it remains to be seen if the real techno, pure techno music, or pure electronic, can cut through these loud, scratchy, noisy dubstep tracks.
You are known for two musical aliases: Model 500 and Infiniti. Model 500 which often features vocals and continues where Cybotron left. And Infiniti which showcases the more pure form of techno. Do you make this distinction in your DJ sets as well, or is there one specific Juan Atkins sound when you play?
I think in my DJ sets it’s just basically Juan Atkins. I do tend to be non-linear when I play. And what I mean by non-linear, you know I like to peak and valley.. I like to take people on a story you know. So yes I do mix styles when I play. But the main consistent theme is all of it is danceable and all of it is real high energy dance music. So that stream or thread kinda remains constant throughout the whole set.
Ever since you and others started the techno genre some 30 years ago, techno has much evolved into an array of different genres. Do you feel the direction it has taken is where you wanted it to be?
Well to be honest with you, there is no specific destination that I was looking for when I created my first records or created electronic dance sounds or techno music. I was just doing what came naturally to me. The technology was there and somebody had to do the job, and it was me. So I guess I embraced the different strands or the different variations of techno music or electronic music because I welcome all change. Some of it is a little more sour than others. But as a whole I think the progress takes president over some missteps here and there.
Which techno producer/DJ of the new generation really captures you?
That is a hard question.. I don’t really have any favorite artists right now.
What is the best thing that ever happened to you in the DJ booth?
I guess the best thing that ever happened.. I am sort of a DJ that is sort of spontaneous.. meaning that I don’t really know what I’m gonna play going to any situation. It all depends on the crowd and the audience. And I guess the best thing that has happened is when all of the right records come together.. The right mixes everything is seamless. And the sound system is beautiful and good. And just sometimes, you could mix the right tracks together, it almost sends a chill down your spine.. it makes you kinda shaky a little bit..
And I can remember one time playing at the Fuse club which really kinda stands out. It was actually when they first opened. I was one of the first DJs they had and the night there was amazing. And just everything was just so seamless that it made me kinda shiver! So I guess you could say that was one of the best things.
You have made many many records, and a lot became classics. However, do you have some personal favorite records from your hand that did not get the attention you felt they should have gotten, but which you really want people to hear?
It’s funny because right before this interview I was listening to a track I did called Astralwerks that I did on my Deep Space album. It was a jazz record in a way and the signature was a 5/4 time signature which is sort of a jazz time signature. And I really felt that that was a very good classic piece of work. I mean it is not so danceable, but it is more of a listening record, maybe a soundtrack. I think more people should have heard that maybe.. because I haven’t gotten too many comments on it. I just took it that a lot of people didn’t hear it.
If you could make a prediction: where do you think techno and its events will go the coming years?
You know, I don’t know if the sound will change as much that it still will be electronic.. But I think the way it is presented will change. I think that live show presentation along with the multimedia visuals will probably be more prevalent in a lot of sets. And I think the lines between live shows and DJ sets will become very blur.
HighTechSoul documentary about the rise of Detroit Techno.
Your name is almost synonymous with Detroit. Would you ever leave the city and would that effect your music?
[wp-like-locker]You know I have left the city a couple of times, I had to. But I had to return for certain reasons. So I mean I like to travel, I like to see the world, I like to see other places. So when you see leave the city.. Definitely with the internet and information super highway the world has become a lot smaller.. But you know leave forever? Who knows?[/wp-like-locker]
A last word you would like to share with our readers?
Basically I just like to tell anybody that likes music: keep an open mind. You can find something good out of any style of music.
So perpetuate, support music, buy records, buy digital downloads, buy whatever.. But you know, just remember there artists and producers that have such a love for music and have such a love for this art that it’s all they do. They earn a living form the sale of their music and presentation. So support them.
Thank you Juan for taking the time for this interview!