Few producers within dance music have made a greater impact than Juan Atkins. A funk musician from an early age, Atkins’ life changed when he discovered synthesizers and electronic music. He began making his own electronic demos, joining forces with college classmate Rik Davis to found electro outfit Cybotron in 1981.
It was when Atkins began making solo records under the Model 500 alias in 1985 that a new style of music, later dubbed techno, started to take shape. Alongside the other two members of the “Belleville Three” – friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – Atkins laid down the blueprint for techno, coming up with the name for the style in 1988. Initially, his records were largely ignored in the Motor City, instead becoming popular in Chicago and Europe.
Back in 2010, Atkins sat down with DJ History’s Ben Ferguson to discuss his journey in music, from playing bass in garage funk bands as a 13-year-old, to techno taking the UK by storm at the tail end of the 1980s.
You moved to Belleville when your parents split. What was suburbia like?
We were about to move to California but then my father’s ma, my grandmother, called us at the last minute and said, “They’re building a new house down the road from me.” She talked him into it. It was very, very different from inner city life. We lived in Detroit before that.
How old were you?
Like 14 or 15.
Were you already listening to music?
Yeah. I’d always listened to music. In Detroit I was playing in funk bands, garage bands with friends of mine off the street and around the block. I played bass guitar and some lead guitar. This was when I was 12 or 13.
Who else played in these bands?
A guy named Jimmy Smith, Chris…I can’t remember his last name, Keith Jameson and a couple of other people. I can’t remember everybody’s names.
And did you keep in touch with them after moving?
Not really. When I moved to Belleville it was kind of a wrap for them. I started a whole new band.
Did you carry on playing funk?
Yeah. Well, that was the era. It was the funk era – and a little disco. But then funk became disco, then disco became new wave, then new wave and disco became house and techno.
But techno didn’t just happen. You moved to Belleville with your Dad who was a concert promoter, right?
Yeah, he’d run people like Norman Connors, Michael Henderson, Barry White; he did a big Barry White show down at Cobo Hall.
Did you meet any of the stars?
No, we just went to the show and that was it.
But the shows must have been good.
Yeah, I remember Michael Henderson particularly because I liked the “Wide Receiver.” That was a big track for me in high school, so it was memorable for that one track.
Did you ever consider stardom of this sort?
You know, we were just having fun, we didn’t think about stardom or being famous. We were just kids doing what we liked to do. I would have imagined that there was a little bit of that, but really we were just stars in the garage actually. We didn’t have aspirations. When you pick up an instrument, there’s a bit of you that definitely dreams of being a superstar. That goes without saying. We wouldn’t get around in a group discussion and say, “Hey, let’s try to be superstars.” It was just something that was an unspoken rule. Unspoken rule to be famous basically, like how nobody is allowed to admit that they want to make money.
We didn’t think about stardom or being famous. We didn’t have aspirations.
Well, not everybody. Your brother was living with you as well. By the sound of it, he made a big impression on Derrick May, especially the day when he rolled up in his Cadillac with Parliament pumping out of the speakers.
[Laughs] Well, my brother was a year younger than me. He and Derrick were in the same class because Derrick is a year younger than me too. He would prowl around with my brother before we became friends.
How was your relationship with him?
He’s my younger brother. I love him, we’re one of the same. But the funny thing is back then I’d hang out with an older crowd. We didn’t hang out with the same sort of people.
Were these guys much older than you?
Yeah. They were mostly neighborhood friends.
Did they show you stuff that you might not have heard if you hung out with kids your age?
But it wasn’t long before you put down the bass and picked up the synth.
When I moved to Belleville I started playing the keyboard. My grandmother owned an organ, this hammered old B3 thing. She’d go into the music shop Brunel’s for this organ. And right at this time they’d introduced the MiniKorg-700S and the Korg MS10. These were small, smart, monophonic synthesizers. I’d go into the back room and play these synthesizers and eventually I was able to talk her into buying me one. And the rest was kinda history.
I was so wrapped up in this sound and with playing around with these synthesizers. I made drum sounds, drum kicks, everything all on this one synthesizer. That’s how I started doing my demos and my electronic music demos. By the time I got to college I had full-blown demos that I played for classmates.
How old were you then?
Around 15 or 16.
What did your Dad make of this?
By this time my father wasn’t around too much. He was into the street and was really paying too much attention to what was happening at home. Whatever I did in my bedroom [was on] my own and no one would come in, especially my dad.
Were you not getting on with each other?
No, we were great, but he was in control of the nightlife and he wasn’t at home a lot.
One difference between playing in bands and using a synth is that music could be made alone. All you needed was your bedroom, yourself and the machine.
Yeah. Well the thing is, being in Belleville the next person I could play with was ten miles away. You know it was hard for me to get together with other musicians.
I was very innovative when I was young.
So were there lots of guys just playing around in their bedrooms, trying to make stuff alone?
No, there weren’t too many other people doing that. I was very innovative when I was young.
And did you know this back then?
Pretty much. I more or less knew I was doing stuff that was not the normal thing to do.
Was this in reaction to anything? High school parties perhaps?
No, not a reaction. This wasn’t happening in Belleville. Belleville was different to the inner city schools.
Did you go to these parties?
Yes, of course.
What did you think?
It was great. All the pretty girls were there.
Did you find out about music from there as well?
Well I grew up with funk on the radio where Electrifying Mojo was playing a lot of stuff that influenced my early years. Sometimes I’d just go in the record store and buy stuff based on what the album looked like.
Electrifying Mojo inspired a lot of people. What made him different?
He owned his own show, he was in control of whatever he wanted to play. He didn’t have a format imposed on him by the program director. He was an individual, a personality – and quite a personality he was. He played a huge variety of music and exposed a people in Detroit to a lot of different things that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise heard.
He would play half an hour of James Brown, play half an hour of Jimi Hendrix and then turn around and play half an hour of Peter Frampton. He also played a lot of Parliament and Funkadelic. You name it. He brought Prince here. First place I heard Kraftwerk. Believe it or not, he’d play America “A Horse With No Name.”
Yeah [laughs]. He’d play “A Horse With No Name.” Stuff like that.
Where did his style come from?
Mojo was in Vietnam or something. Mojo was on the radio in Vietnam and, when you asked him, he’d say that’s where he got his eclectic format. He had to play to a variety of stuff to the soldiers in Vietnam. I can’t remember what city he was in, but it had something to do with that. In fact, he was in the Philippines. It must have been playing to all soldiers where he got his strong love of Hendrix, Frampton and America.
Another guy who’s famously a Vietnam vet is Rik Davis. How did you meet him?
I met him in my first year at community college in one of my music courses. I brought my electronic demos to school and when I played them to my students, everybody wanted to hook up with me because they were so different. They were so wild. Rik wanted to hook up with me and play music because he was an electronic musician like myself.
Did he play anything to you?
No, it was only at his house that I got to hear his stuff. He was much older than me, like ten years, and didn’t bring anything in to college to show.
Did he have all kinds of tales from the war?
Yeah, he had a couple of stories. He told me one time that him and a whole brigade went into the bush and he was the only one that survived. He saw stuff like that. All of his friends in the army got killed.
Was there something that made you click with one another?
I’m sure there was. There must have been for us to come together and put Cybotron together, but what that thing was I can’t quite put my finger on. There was definitely something. I was a kid though – 17. He was like a father figure to me. He taught me a lot. We didn’t have so much in common. I was in awe of him. My father was in jail at the time.
I was very confident, but where we were going was a mystery to me.
Cybotron was an early drop in the techno ocean that sent waves throughout Europe, Canada and Russia. It has been picked up by so many white kids that some people talk about techno as white music. Did you and Rik ever talk about race in relation to your music?
No. Why would we talk about race? We talked about music and race didn’t come into it. I mean, we knew we were black, and we were in America. There was nothing to talk about – those were our circumstances. We had a white guy in the band [called Jon-5], in fact. He played guitar, controlling the synth with his guitar. But if you listen to records like “The Line,” “Industrial Lies” and “Enter,” all of that guitar work was Jon-5.
A lot of my core persuasion was funk music. That could be considered to be black music but we never said, “Hey, we’re making black music.” We were making electronic music.
But how did you feel about “Clear” spending nine weeks on the black music chart?
OK, well, we knew we weren’t making rock & roll. We were playing in someone’s church and it wasn’t rock & roll.
I guess that’s where you and Rik went your separate ways, when he wanted to take it in a rock & roll direction?
I think that that was where his mind was. He was heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix. You could call him Jimi Hendrix on the synthesizer. I think that was where he wanted to be, in that album-orientated rock [scene].
Meanwhile you had these bubbling aspirations for Metroplex.
Yeah. I started Metroplex in order to release my sound. It was a continuation of the more funk and bass heavy electro tracks.
You knew you were going to do that from a young age?
Did Cybotron help you realize Metroplex?
Hopping back a little bit, I think it’s worth talking about your relationship with Derrick May.
OK, well, he came to live with us after high school, after “Alleys Of Your Mind” and “Cosmic Cars.” Right around that time Derrick was very instrumental in helping me promote the records. I was living in Detroit with my grandmother and Derrick was living with us there.
Tell me how Deep Space came about.
It was the label that Rik and I released Cybotron on, but then Derrick and I took the name and it became the sound company that we did parties under. It worked well for me and Derrick.
So you were back in Detroit. Did the move home affect what you thought about music?
Did it change the way you thought music should be heard? You started putting on parties.
Yeah, but I don’t think the move to Detroit changed something.
What were your parties like?
It was the same. It was only a couple of years after we were going to the parties; the only difference was we were now spinning at the parties. Same mix of people, same crowd but this time we were DJing.
Did you play your own music?
Yeah. We played “Alleys Of Your Mind” and “Cosmic Cars” and got a great response. Those records were huge. By then Mojo was playing the records, we were famous in Detroit.
How did Mojo get your records?
We gave them to him. He heard the demos of our stuff and liked them. The fact that Mojo liked the records was what really prompted us to play them. He was like, “I like it,” and we went away and pressed it, took it back and he kept his word and played the records.
Did you know from then on things had changed?
No, but I loved the music. I was very confident, but where we were going was a mystery to me. The thing is, just because I liked it didn’t mean that another person on the planet had to like it. So I didn’t know. I figured it was going to be good.
I don’t think “Alleys Of Your Mind” got the recognition it should have got.
I don’t think the record [“Alleys Of Your Mind”] got the recognition it should have got. Because of radio politics and the politics of distribution, it was hard to get a record distributed nationally in different cities in the States. It’s not like the UK where you’ve got Radio 1 and everybody hears everything all at the same time, especially during the early ’80s when radio was fragmented. Now it’s more across the board; if a record is big in New York, it gets passed across the cities.
Back then you had more personality style DJs and radio would sound different from city to city. It was hard to distribute or market a record across the country because a record that was popular in Detroit might not necessarily even be heard in Chicago or Cleveland and visa versa. If you went on a road trip to Chicago you might hear something and be like, “Wow, I’ve never heard this record,” simply because it never made it Detroit.
That sounds like another world now.
Yeah. Even before the internet, in the last ten years I mean, radio had become more centralized but back then it was more fragmented.
Had you ever left Detroit by then?
Well, what happened was this: Derrick’s parents had moved to Chicago, but he was still in high school so he had to stay here to finish up. But he would go there and he would tell these stories about the clubs, who he’d met and radio shows he’d heard. That was my first introduction to Chicago. When I started Metroplex he took some of my first records down there, my first copies of “No UFO’s.” He gave a copy to Farley Jackmaster Funk and he broke that record over there. Farley made it the biggest record in Chicago. He made it bigger than it was in Detroit.
Did you know about Chicago house?
Well, there wasn’t any house at that time. There was nobody making records in Chicago. When Derrick went down there and gave it some of the guys like Jesse Saunders – who kinda made the first house record – and Chip E, these guys more or less started coming out with records around the same time as Metroplex started. It was like a cultural exchange between Detroit and Chicago.
Clubs in Chicago were playing disco weren’t they?
Yeah, mainly disco. I mean if you listen to some of the early Hot Mix 5 [radio shows] it was just a continuation of disco. When disco came to an end in the United States, Italians were still making disco records, so a lot of the Hot Mix 5 mixes featured Italo disco tracks. Italians kept making disco records after 1981, and that was the stuff the Chicago boys were playing. Ultimately, after that, they started making their own stuff. But when you started listening to the Hot Mix 5 mixes, 80% of the tracks were Italo disco records.
So it was way more Italo than in New York?
Well, New York was earlier. When disco died, New York died more or less. New York was West End, Prelude and Salsoul. All of that stuff fell to the wayside when disco left. They were the disco kings.
Was there any Italo being played in Detroit?
No. Detroit was a hick town compared to Chicago. We had the social club parties, where we heard a little bit of that. Not on the radio though.
Detroit was a hick town compared to Chicago.
For people who were making music, were parties the thing to aim for? Did you want to become the tastemakers?
Yeah, but we didn’t want to necessarily host our own parties, we just wanted to DJ. We didn’t care who hosted the party. Our thing was about the music and it’s always been about the music, even to this day. We haven’t hosted that many parties, but we definitely wanted to DJ at as many we could.
You opened up for radio visionary Ken Collier at one party.
Yeah, that was very enlightening because he was the king. We learned a lot from Ken.
Did it seem like a big deal?
Yeah, there were stints when he had mixes on the radio during the disco era, but when disco died they didn’t want mixes anymore. Ken was a main guy when they did have the mixes. He was an icon. We were honored to play with him; we were glad that he wanted to play with a couple of unknown DJs.
Was Ken the type of guy who’d say, “OK, I’ll give these guys a chance”?
I don’t know. We didn’t know him before that. We were just honored to be able to play alongside him.
What happened when you started to focus on producing music as Model 500?
I took a step back from DJing for a while. Derrick continued to DJ because he wasn’t making music, but when I started Metroplex I did take a step back for a few years. And then the records got exported to the UK so I started back up, so I could go to Europe.
So to have been inspired by a band from Europe, Kraftwerk, you then found yourself going back over there.
Yeah, but you’ve got to remember that the electro thing had kicked of in Europe. “Clear” and “Techno City” were included on a set of essential electro compilations, so it wasn’t like it was the first time I was exposed to Europe.
But Europe had grown up on Manuel Göttsching and Kraftwerk. Electro wasn’t new to them. Did you think about “Techno City” as a Detroit export?
No, we didn’t know it was going to be exported then. I had no idea that it was as big in the UK as it was.
Europe was maybe a bit more open to experimental electro. Do you think you added some soul to it?
I guess you could say that.
But is that what you’d say?
Erm, I guess you could say that.
Had you heard Göttsching?
“E2-E4” was great. It was more on an ambient vibe, like a summer breeze.
Not dance music.
There was something about your four-to-the-floor beat that turned this style into dance music.
My style was always dance music. I think that from the beginning everything I had done was very danceable. My first record “Alleys Of Your Mind” was very danceable.
Did you always want to make dance music?
That’s my forte.
This interview was carried out in April 2010. A version was featured in Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s book The Record Players © DJ History