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Juan Atkins is recognized as one of the creators of techno music, which spawned a whole group of genres now known as electronica, and he was 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.