Juan Atkins interview: The Originator

Juan Atkins spoke with Marko Kutlesa about Detroit, early musical influences and his work, past and present, with the other two members of the Belleville Three.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 31st May 2017.
Originally published: 25th May 2017

Of the three producers from Belleville, a suburb outside of Detroit, who are considered responsible for birthing the city's techno music, Juan Atkins is known as The Originator. That's because Atkins, who was a year above peers Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May in high school, has a production career that predates theirs by several years. 

In the early 1980s he formed the group Cybotron and, with partner Rick Davis, released several seminal 12”s and an album Enter (1983) on the Fantasy label that are regarded as the very beginnings of the genre. Of the 12” singles, 'Clear', an electro track that combined the funk of Parliament/Funkadelic with the synthsizers and drum machines of European music like Kraftwerk and 'Techno City', regarded as the first 4/4 techno track, are perhaps the best known. 

In the mid 80s Atkins went solo, launching his own Metroplex label in 1985 with his own release 'No UFOs', using the new alias Model 500. He would continue working under that alias, releasing several bona fide Detroit techno classics such as 'Off To Battle' and 'The Chase' on Metroplex and several albums on European label R & S Records.

Meanwhile, on Metroplex, which alongside Kevin Saunderson's KMS and Derrick May's Transmat had become one of the key labels of Detroit techno, he helped nurture the careers of several artists like Eddie 'Flashin' Fowlkes and Anthony 'Shake' Shakir and worked himself under several new aliases, most notably Infiniti, who released an album and classic single 'Game One'.

In the early 90s Atkins began a collaborative relationship with German producer Moritz Von Oswald of Maurizio/Basic Channel fame which, like Metroplex and Model 500, remain active to this day. They have released two album projects on Tresor and performed live together several times.

Prior to appearing at the Southport Weekender Festival and the One Tribe Festival this summer, Marko Kutlesa sat down with Juan Atkins. Their interview covers some of the early days of Detroit techno and some of Juan Atkins plans for the future. But upon discovering that Atkins was in Berlin at the time, just about to play Tresor, a club he has a long association with, their conversation began with a question about some of Juan Atkins' other relationships in that city.

You've developed some quite long associations in Europe, like your work with Maurizio and Mark of Basic Channel. How did those relationships come about? 

I met Mark Ernestus and Moritz (Von Oswald – Maurizio) in the aerly 90s. They actually used to come to Detroit and they would go around all the pawn shops and buy up the analogue gear. They shipped it all to Berlin and had it retrofitted with MiDi interface, some kind of technology before MiDi was actually widely implemented. 

One day, I was living in this building with Mike Banks, and Mike knocked on my door and said 'Hey, there's some guys here from Berlin who want to meet you' and it was Mark, Moritz and maybe Thomas Fehlmann. I ran into Thomas again at the offices of ZTT Records in London. He was in the lobby. He invited me to Berlin and I said 'sure!' I had never been on the continent of Europe yet. This must have been about 1991. So, he set it up and the trip was paid for by doing a DJ gig at Tresor and also an EP we did as 3MB, three men in Berlin. It was actually Moritz and Mark's studio, Love Park, that we used.

 How different was their set up compared to what you were used to using in Detroit?

The stuff I had in Detroit was before MiDi, so if you had a Roland drum machine and a Yamaha keyboard, you couldn't synch because it was two different manufacturers. That was one of the main differences.

You, Kevin and Derrick were among the few black kids at your school. Why was that? 

Well, we lived in Belleville, which is a suburb of Detroit, about 30 miles outside. There were not a lot of black families that lived in the suburbs. That was the reason. When I was in school in Detroit it was totally black. We had like one or two white students in my junior high school. So that was definitely different.

That's probably a different experience that you three had to what most black kids growing up in Detroit had. Do you think it set you apart in any way?

I'm sure it did. I couldn't exactly tell you how, apart from that I was introduced to a helluva lot of rock music, but I'm sure it did.

What kind of music did you listen to when you were really young, before you heard electronic music for the first time? What music was around the house?

Funk music. I grew up in the funk era. My early teenage years were in the 70s. Towards the end we had the disco era, but before that I was listening to Parliament/Funkadelic, Cameo. P Funk was my main focus.

Yeah, you've previously cited 'Flashlight' by Parliament as one of the first all electronic records to have an impact on you. That was a number one R&B single in 1997. Did hearing it make you look into the rest of their catalogue or were you already aware? 

I was already a big fan.

How was the band viewed at the time? Were they seen as a regular pop act?

Naw. It was definitely viewed as somewhat avant garde. They weren't your typical, conventional group. They did these live shows where they would strip, there was a guy wearing a baby's daiper on stage, it was really provocative and caused some controversy. That was one of the things you looked forward to, when Parliament/Funkadelic showed up to do a show. It was like going to the circus.

The sounds of the dance music that came out of Detroit were often described as futuristic. Was science fiction ever a big influence on you? 

Yeah, definitely. I was well into anything sci-fi. Anything about space, time travel or UFOs. It was fascinating for me. The first Star Wars film came out when I was a junior in high school. It was essential. TV shows like Star Trek, Lost In Space we watched religiously. Books like Alvin Toffler, HP Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov. There was one in particular called 'Childhood's End' by Arthur C Clarke that really struck a chord with me.

In the early years of Model 500 you worked alone in the studio. In later years you done a lot more collaborative work. What happened to make you want to make that change?

It was not a conscious decision. It was just the way things came about. I did start out working in collaboration, working with Rick (as Cybotron), so it wasn't a foreign idea. Just sometimes a matter of logistics. 

  

What does Rick do now? I haven't heard of him since Cybotron. Does he still make music?

I haven't seen him since I lived in Ann Arbour, must've been around 2007. I talk to him, over the phone and through the internet, but I actually haven't seen him for 10 years. Rick is a Vietnam vet, so he's never had to work. He got compensation, living expenses from the government. So, it's not like he has to do anything to survive.

I suppose he's still at his place. He's still living, I know that much! He's always been into the visual side of things, visual media. He told me he was making some type of video and that he would send it to me when it was finished, but I haven't seen it yet. I assume he's not done with it yet.

The radio DJ the Electrifying Mojo is often mentioned as a key influence to those who went on to record dance music in Detroit. When he played music on the radio, a lot of it must have been very new to your ears. How did people find out what the songs were that he played?

Just like most radio DJs at the time he would announce what certain records were. Mojo was such an icon, you would wait for his show every night. Every night at 10 o'clock, wherever you were, whatever you were doing, you had to tune in for Mojo. This was before Shazam or Google, so if he didn't say what it was, maybe you wouldn't get to know. But because you were listening every night, sooner or later he would say what something was.

What kind of impact did the opening of The Music Institute have on you, Derrick and Kevin?

It wasn't so much The Music Institute having an impact on us as it was us having an impact on The Music Institute. It was a club that Derrick and a couple of partners, including George Baker, opened. There weren't a lot of black kids in Detroit that were able to travel to Europe at that time and when we were there of course we would buy music, bring it back and play it in this club.

Without that, the kids in Detroit wouldn't have been exposed to all the music that was played there. We had access to all these records from Europe and the UK and that kind of electronic music was happening first in those places, especially London. 

Derrick was obviously there a lot as he was Friday night resident. But did you go a lot? Were you a clubber?

The Music Institute was kind of like a home base for us. Even when the club wasn't open we would be down there, using the soundsystem. It was our place to listen to music, rehearse. If you were working on something new and wanted to test it out on a soundsystem we'd go down to The Music Institute in the day to do a soundcheck. We were always there. 

What records do you associate with the club?

I tell you, one of the biggest records there was from the UK, that acid song 'Acieeed' (D-Mob 'We Call It Acieed'). Do you remember that? That was definitely one of the biggest records at The Music Institute. And, of course our stuff. All of the early KMS stuff, my stuff, 'No UFOs', 'Off To Battle', definitely Derrick's music, 'Nude Photo'. 'The Dance' was a major track there. And all of that early acid music. 'LFO' was a huge record there too.

Out of everyone who came through The Music Institute and who came up after you, Derrick and Kevin, which do you consider particularly to have come from the Juan Atkins school? I know Carl (Craig) came up under Derrick and Ron Trent and Chez Damier worked at the KMS studio, so who came up under you?

My group, who came up under Metroplex, was like Shake – Anthony Shakir and Martin Bonds. Those were the two major guys, they actually lived in my studio. Even when I wasn't there, they would be there. 

What are your immediate plans for the future?

Well, actually there's going to be a relaunch of Cybotron. That's in the works. The plan is to have a new album ready for early 2018. Cybotron never really had a live show, so I'm going to do Cybotron live, play the classics and material from a new album. Really, I should be working that as we speak. 

We did quite a lot of live Model 500 over the last few years and I released an album last year, so I'll be continuing with that as well. I think right now, because of file sharing and downloads, an artist can't sustain themselves from releasing music any more, so people paying to come and see your live show is the way to go. 

Who will be involved in Cybotron with you? Who will be alongside you when you perform?

Model 500 will still have the same personnel as before. That side of the show won't change, although some of the visuals and stuff will. We're going to try and get into video mapping. 

With Cybotron, as far as the music goes, it will probably be just me. When it's live? I don't know. Maybe there will be a Cybotron entity, me along with one more person. But if that does happen, I don't yet know who it will be. 

You're teaming up with Derrick and Kevin this summer to do your first joint tour. You're playing the Detroit Electronic Music Festival together, then coming to Europe. How does it feel to still be working with these guys all these years later?

Well, it's not like we've been apart and we're suddenly coming together. Although we haven't done a lot of projects together, we've always been in touch. Before we said, "hey, let's do a tour together", sometimes we would get booked separately and not know we were playing together until we showed up at the venue. So, there's nothing really that different, except we know from the start that we're playing together. 

Some people are more talented in the studio, some people are more talented as a DJ in a club. The times I've seen Derrick play... he's frightening. He can be so good it can make you think that 90% of other people should just give up. Is it as intimidating for you to share a DJ set with someone who's as good as he is?

Well, of course not,  I taught Derrick how to play! He could never intimidate me! I'm definitely proud of how he's excelled and succeeded at it. In some instances... I'll put it this way... on his good day he might be able to take me. Ahahahaha! But, of course, I'm never going to concede to my student. They say sometimes that the student can become the master, but I'd never admit that. Ha!

You can catch Juan Atkins at Southport Weekender Festival in June and also at Audio Farm presents One Tribe Festival in August. Tickets for both are below.

Southport Weekender Festival at Finsbury Park, London - Saturday 10th June

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Standard - 4th release £49.75
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Standard - 5th release £52.50
(£47.50 + bf)
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Standard - 3rd release £44.25
(£40.00 + bf)
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One Tribe Festival at Cholmondeley Castle Estate, Malpas - Thursday 3rd - Tuesday 8th August

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