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Atkins, Juan

Juan Atkins

1962

Musician

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 Detroitin 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.

At a Glance

Born on September 12, 1962, in Detroit, MI; son of a concert promoter. Education: Attended Washtenaw Community College, Ypsilanti, MI.

Career: Musician, 1981; Deep Space Soundworks, co-founder (with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May), 1981; Music Institute club, Detroit, MI, owner, 1981; Metroplex record label, founder, 1985.

Awards: ArtServe Michigan Governor's Awards, International Achievement Award, 2004.

Addresses: Agent Just Say Agency, 2331-D2 East Avenue S, £122, Palmdale, CA 93550.

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.

Selected discography

Singles

(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.

Albums

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.

Sources

Books

Sicko, Dan, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999.

Periodicals

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.

On-line

"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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Atkins, Juan

Juan Atkins


Electronic music artist, producer


Juan Atkins was one of the creators of techno music, the source of the group of genres lumped under the umbrella category of electronica, and was the first person to apply the word "techno" to music. He found new ways of making sound, and in so doing he influenced nearly every genre of music in the 1980s and beyond. Yet his name is not well known beyond the world of electronic dance music. He might, in fact, be one of the most obscure of modern music's true pioneers.


Techno had its origins in Detroit, Michigan, where Atkins was born on September 12, 1962. As a child he lived on the city's northwest side. Techno is often associated in the minds of its fans with Detroit's often bleak landscape, scarred with the abandoned buildings that were relics of an industrial golden age. But techno's first stirrings took place 30 miles to the west in Belleville, Michigan, near an interstate highway leading to Detroit's center, but otherwise very much a small town partly surrounded by farmland. While attending junior high and high school in Belleville, Atkins met Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, who also became artists crucial to techno's development. The trio would later become known as the "Belleville Three."

Atkins's father was a concert promoter, and Atkins became interested in music at an early age. Especially compelling for him was Charles Johnson, a Detroit radio disc jockey called the Electrifying Mojo, one of the last "freeform" DJs who flourished on commercial radio in the United States. His shows mixed many genres and forms, but he focused on the 1970s funk of artists such as George Clinton, Parliament, and Funkadelic (which had some Detroit roots of its own). He was also one of just a few DJs who presented the pulsing, experimental electronic music of the German ensemble Kraftwerk on U.S. 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 worked toward combining Kraftwerk's electronics with funk's big beats and spacey atmospheres. He took up keyboards as a teenager and began experimenting with a mixing board and a cassette tape player. He enrolled at Washtenaw Community College, located near Belleville. There he learned the basics of electronic sound production from fellow student Rick Davis, a Vietnam War veteran who owned an array of innovative equipment, including one of the first sequencers (a device allowing the organization of electronic sound) released by the Roland Corporation. "He was very isolated," Atkins told the Village Voice. But the experience transformed Atkins's outlook.

"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 teamed up with Davis (who called himself 3070) and, billing themselves as Cybotron, the two released the single "Alleys of Your Mind" in 1981. The name Cybotron reflected the duo's futuristic interests. "Alleys of Your Mind" did very well for a release by a pair of unknown community college students, selling some 15,000 copies in the Detroit area after the Electrifying Mojo aired it on his radio program.

In 1982 Cybotron released "Clear," whose cool electronic sound would mark it in the minds of many enthusiasts as a milestone in electronic music's evolution. "Clear" was almost wordless. Techno as a genre tended to use text only as a rhythmic element or adornment—when it used text at all. The following year they released "Techno City," which gave the new music a name; the term was anticipated and perhaps inspired by futurist Alvin Toffler's book The Third Wave (1980), which used the term "techno rebels." Atkins and Davis eventually went their separate ways, but by that time Atkins had taken other steps to popularize the new music he was in the process of creating. With May and Saunderson he formed a collective enterprise, Deep Space Soundworks, which launched the downtown Detroit club known as the Music Institute. The club inspired a new group of techno DJs, including Carl Craig and Richie Hawtin, also known as Plastikman.

Atkins continued to record in the middle and late 1980s, now using the name Model 500. His releases of this period, including "No UFO's" (1985) and the evocative "Night Drive," are considered techno classics. Spare and polished, they inspired a host of younger electronic musicians in Europe, where techno was more popular than in the United States. They were released on Atkins's Metroplex label (which he also used to nurture the careers of younger Detroit musicians), and some were collected in the 1990s on the Classics album released by Belgium's R&S label.

For the Record . . .

Born on September 12, 1962, in Detroit, MI; son of a concert promoter. Education: Attended Washtenaw Community College, Ypsilanti, MI.


As Cybotron, with Rick Davis, released debut single, "Alleys of Your Mind," 1981; with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, formed Deep Space Soundworks, 1981; opened Music Institute Club, Detroit, MI; as Cybotron, with Rick Davis, released "Clear," 1982; recorded as Model 500, 1985–; founded Metroplex label and recorded single "No UFO's," 1985; performed in England, 1988-89; produced remixes of recordings by the Fine Young Cannibals, the Tom Tom Club, the Style Council, and other British groups, late 1980s; produced reissues and new releases on R&S label, Belgium, late 1990s; recorded as Infiniti, 1991–; as Infiniti, released Skynet album on Tresor label, Germany, 1998; as Model 500, released Mind and Body album, R&S, 1999; released Legends: Vol. 1, on OM label, 2001; performed at Lost nightclub, London, England, 2003.


Addresses: Record company—Metroplex Records, 2030 Grand River Ave., Ste. 304, Detroit, MI 48226.

These recordings helped to define a new form of nightclub culture in the United States, and especially in England, where Atkins and Saunderson found their greatest popularity. Though techno music often had a fast beat, it wasn't the deep, intense pulsation of disco and the popular dance music that succeeded it; instead, Atkins's music had a mechanistic sheen that encouraged the pursuit of a blissful attitude rather than sheer sweaty sensuality. At all-night "raves," participants alternately revved themselves up with fast dance tracks and cooled down with slower, dreamier ones in different rooms of the same building. It was often Atkins who provided the soundtrack; he made the first of many European trips in 1988. The cool quality of Atkins's music was famously described by May and quoted in the Village Voice as "like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator." It helped inspire the new genre of ambient techno, created at the hands of DJs who combined techno music with the intentionally featureless "ambient" sounds of musical experimenter Brian Eno.

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, although he released several recordings on which he billed himself as Infiniti. A series of European reissues of his earlier work again stimulated his creative juices, and he returned to the recording arena, now working in the more expansive album format. The 1995 Model 500 album Deep Space was really Atkins's album debut. He released new albums as Infiniti (Skynet, 1998, on Germany's Tresor label) and as Model 500 (Mind and Body, 1999, on Belgium's R&S).

Through all this, Atkins wasn't exactly a celebrity in his Detroit hometown. But the establishment of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival displayed the power of what Atkins had created, when a crowd of an estimated one million people turned out to hear Atkins's musical descendants make people dance, using nothing more than an array of electronic gear. Atkins himself performed at the festival in 2001, and that year he released the Legends, Vol. 1 album on the OM label. Scripps Howard News Service writer Richard Paton in the Cincinnati Post observed that the album "finds him not resting on past achievement, but still mixing pumping, well-crafted sets." Atkins continued to perform on both sides of the Atlantic, and the end of the year 2003 saw him appearing at London's hip nightclub, Lost.


Selected discography

(As Cybotron, with Rick Davis) "Alleys of Your Mind," 1981.

(As Cybotron, with Rick Davis) "Clear," 1982.

Enter, Fantasy, 1983.

(As Cybotron, with Rick Davis) "Techno City," 1983.

(As Model 500) "No UFO's," Metroplex, 1985.

(As Model 500) "Night Drive," Metroplex, 1985.

Classics, R&S, 1995.

(As Model 500) Deep Space, R&S, 1995.

Infiniti Compilation, Tresor, 1995.

(As Infiniti) Skynet, Tresor, 1998.

(As Model 500) Mind and Body, R&S, 1999.

Legends: Vol. 1, OM, 2001.

(As Model 500) "Play It Cool," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "Testing 1-2"/"Bang the Beat," Metroplex (12" single).

"The Chase," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "I See the Light"/"Pick Up the Flow," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "Interference"/"Off to Battle," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500, with 3MB) "Jazz Is the Teacher," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "Outer Space," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "Play It Cool," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "Sound of Stereo," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "Starlight," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 500) "Testing 1-2"/"Bang the Beat," Metroplex (12" single).

(As Model 600) "Update," Metroplex (12" single).



Sources

Periodicals

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.


Online

"Juan Atkins," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (November 2, 2004).

"Juan Atkins," Piero Scaruffi, http://www.scaruffi.com/vol4/atkins.html (November 2, 2004).

"Model 500," R&S Records, http://www.rsrecords.com/rsp_m500.htm (November 2, 2004).


—James M. Manheim

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