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Black to the Future 

Juan Atkins on the vision thing

Wednesday, Oct 31 2001
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It‘s the age-old thing of black America inventing something and white England digging it and working it out into a more palatable form. You’d say all the stars are English, but the guys I name as my heroes are black Americans.

--Norman Cook,

a.k.a. Fatboy Slim,

in Playboy

Juan Atkins, a.k.a. the Godfather of Techno, recently landed his first multi-record deal with an American label. Read that sentence again. Notice the word recently. Now consider this. It was 1981 when Detroit sent out a new groove that reverberated around the world. And the DNA strands of that groove were created by Juan Atkins and his partner Rick Davis, who formed Cybotron and cranked out what are now considered some of finest pieces of electronic experimentation today, including ”Clear,“ ”Techno City“ and the haunting ”Visions.“

In ‘84, after parting ways with Davis, Atkins, under the moniker Model 500, produced what some call the most essential body of techno to date. Around this time Atkins began collaborating on some projects with high school mates Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. All three went on to become internationally respected producers and performers, referred to collectively in the dance music community as ”the innovators.“

But among the trio, Atkins alone is consistently referred to as the originator. An Angeleno for the past two years, he spends every weekend on the road playing gigs around the country. This has been an exceptionally prolific year for Atkins. Right off the heels of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, the release of his new album, and a well-publicized licensing deal with Ford Motor Company for the use of his 1985 Model 500 classic ”No UFOs,“ Atkins talked with the Weekly about the state of dance music and the future of the black DJ.

L.A. WEEKLY: Why did you go into dance music instead of hip-hop?

ATKINS: Hip-hop was too slow. Believe it or not, that’s the only reason. I‘ve never not been into it. But you know, when you go to a club, you want some shit that’s gonna make your blood pump.

You‘ve been doing raves since the mid-’80s -- you started early on in the underground U.K. parties. How does the rave scene over here compare to the scene in Britain?

The U.S. scene doesn‘t have the same intensity. The Brits have been traditionally really progressive in terms of music. So when dance music made its way to Europe, they embraced it wholeheartedly. Dance music here is still seen as black music. Let’s face it, the music -- disco, techno and trance -- it‘s all based on urban music. I think in America we have this institutionalized racism, and I think a lot of kids somewhere in the back of their minds know this. I think that eventually dance music is gonna blow up here in the States bigger than what it already is. But to make that happen, what they need is a homogenized, whitened version of it. I think that’s what trance is.

Your music, techno, derived from funk and soul -- black music. Many people are still unaware that trance more or less evolved out of techno. Does it bother you that trance is gaining so much popularity here in the States?

I‘d have to say that I’m affected by it and somewhat disappointed. I don‘t play much trance music. Fact is, trance -- it has no life, no soul. It’s almost like marching music. There‘s nothing to it.

It’s interesting that Area: One‘s biggest headliner was Paul Oakenfold, who has basically built his career off of trance. Reportedly, he was paid a million dollars for that tour.

I heard the same thing, and I think that’s outrageous. Here‘s a a guy who will go on record and say that Derrick, Kevin and myself brought techno to England. That music wasn’t around when we went to the U.K., and here he is making a million bucks a tour.

Back in ‘94, in talking about your difficulties in getting a record deal, you told an interviewer that you thought U.S. record companies saw white techno artists as more marketable than black ones. Do you think this bias led to the success of white DJs and electronic artists like Oakenfold and particularly Moby, since his sampling of hip-hop, gospel and the blues pretty much served as the backbone for his top-selling album Play?

Well, let’s take Eminem, for instance. Now, there‘s an area of music -- rap music -- that’s inherently black. You really gotta have some credibility to hang in that game. But once the music industry found a white dude who had some credibility -- don‘t get me wrong, I’m not trying to take anything away from Eminem -- matter of fact, I kinda like him ‘cause he’s from Detroit and knows who I am. But look how quick he blew up. He‘s more famous than any other rapper on the set right now. It was like they were waiting for someone like that.

Do you see the history of rock & roll repeating itself?

Man, check this out: I can play a record for you that was made by a black dude -- one of my homeboys in Detroit. He made the track that trance evolved from. He’s called Red Planet. ”Star Dancer“ is the name of the track, and it‘s the original prototype for trance music. But right now trance is the same thing in dance as what heavy metal is to rock & roll. Or, like rock & roll is to blues. With trance, history repeats itself -- it was black dudes that created rock & roll. America still has a lot of racial barriers erected. You’re not gonna make me believe that the music industry is any different than any other industry when you‘ve got 70, 80 percent white people running it. You’re gonna have race issues -- even if they‘re unintentional. And yeah, I think blacks are about to be excluded from dance like they were excluded from rock & roll. It’s not that anyone‘s going to physically do it, it’s that they‘re gonna take so much of the soul out of it that blacks are not going to want to get into it.

But you’re a black DJ who spins at a lot of raves. That scene‘s made up primarily of young white kids, who are, from what I understand, really into your shit.

That’s precisely the thing that makes what I do so much harder, because when I go to a record company they expect a black dude to come in the door with R&B or rap. That‘s what’s different between Europe and the U.S.

You‘re not coming to the table with the expected goods.

There’s nothing in America that‘s conducive to a groundbreaking black alternative artist -- that’s something that upsets me. It‘s the reason why dance music and techno had to go to Europe and come back -- because of the racial attitudes here in America.

But it seems like your new label, Om Records up in San Francisco, is trying to develop a name for itself as the soul lover’s deep-house label by signing jocks like Chicago‘s Mark Grant, Marques Wyatt and yourself . . . like they’re trying to get a monopoly on all the brothas.

Yeah, they‘re dedicated to the real deal.

What does the real deal mean to you?

Brothas doing their thing. You’re always gonna have people that are gonna want to hear the real shit. I remember a long time ago when I used to go to the Parliament Funkadelic concerts, and you always had about seven or eight rows of white kids sitting in the front religiously ‘cause they wanted to hear the real deal. So there’s always gonna be people who want to hear the real deal.

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