Friday, October 30, 2009

Some business.

Getting more official tonight...

I am working on cleaning up my dissertation proposal for a final grant application from the American Association of University Women. Since I'm getting busy with my words lately, I figured it would be appropriate timing to post my brief proposal (it's six pages, dissertations going to be 200+, I'm thinking) to my blog. I would LOVE feedback from anyone who is interested in contributing ideas or suggestions. So thanks in advance. Here we go...

History, Heritage, and Identity in Detroit Electronic Music

Through a complex of history, heritage, and identity, people involved in electronic music in Detroit conceive of and construct this music as African American. Techno, house, and electro, the primary forms of electronic music in Detroit, are not typically identified as African American musics on a national and global scale outside of Detroit. For this reason, my primary theoretical approach is to explore, using ethnographic research, musical, verbal, and other cultural evidence of the discursive construction of an African American identity for Detroit electronic music. I address this objective using three points of inquiry: First, what in the performance, sound, and discourse of Detroit techno, house, and electro tie them to African American culture? Second, why is it important to make these claims of cultural identity in connection with this music? And third, baring the evidence of these musical foundations in African American history and culture, what are the implications of Detroit musicians, of color and white, stating proudly that this is no longer Black music?

Marcellus Pittman, Detroit DJ and producer, explained, in an interview I conducted, what makes Detroit electronic music African American,

The history, the history behind it…There were a lot of drug gangs in Detroit [in the 1980s]…A lot of kids would stay in and just listen to the radio, Mojo and Jeff Mills. That was the only thing that we had that we could look forward to without anything bad happening. We would tape the sessions from the radio…It's also Black because Black people made it. It's this confusion of the Kraftwerk thing and the whole German thing…that was techno too…It was inspiration for us and we fed off that. And we came up with our own style and called it techno.

Marcellus, as well as other electronic musicians/DJs in Detroit, explained that the musical and cultural past for African Americans in Detroit informed the creation of techno and house music, and continues to impact production and performance of Detroit electronic music to this day. Further, many Detroit electronic musicians emphasize the contemporary global impact of techno, house, and electro, minimizing the African American identification in the music and culture. Central to my research, are the concepts of history, Detroit, and African American culture.

Time, space, and human interaction are key markers in the African American identity of Detroit electronic music. I investigate the concepts of music and identity in time and space in order to understand the manifestation of Detroit electronic music as African American, and as not African American. Time emerges in my analysis in various manifestations, including musical time, performance duration, and historical periods. The concept of space is significant, from the layout of musical electronic equipment in a DJ booth or production studio, to locations where electronic music happens in Detroit. Even Detroit itself provides an expansive site from which to investigate identity and legacy, given Detroit's complex socio-historical development. Finally, interaction and communication, in a complex of mentoring, DJ and production partnerships, and institutional upkeep, demonstrate explicit links to African American culture and history in Detroit.

Detroit has a powerful history of musical abundance, extreme innovation, and prosperity prior to the mid-1960s, and extreme poverty, disenfranchisement and violence beginning in the mid-1960s. With the gradual exodus of Detroit's white population to suburbs during the 1960's, and 1969's violent and devastating race riots referred to as the "Long, Hot Summer," the city has continued to struggle with misguided leadership, profound disenfranchisement, and crippling racism. However, in spite of all this struggle, electronic music culture in Detroit is thriving today. I have seen surprising levels of dedication and civic mindedness from Detroit's citizens in connection with electronic music culture. Contrary to widespread views of this city as being a wasteland of crime, abandoned buildings, and poverty, Detroit is full of life, and cultural and civic activity.

The model I will use to investigate time in Detroit electronic music is based on the work of ethnomusicologist, Ruth M. Stone. Stone has established a multifaceted model of time in her work on West African musical performance. Stone is "concerned not only with the rhythms of sound and the placement of text, but also with the larger flow of events, and ultimately with the movement of time for both the individual and the family" (Stone 1998: 124). In Detroit, time can refer to musical time, or the beat, in electronic music. Time also refers to the performance event including the duration of musical segments, duration of a DJ set, and duration of multiple DJ sets in a single night. In addition to the music and performance applications, time applies to historical periods. Taking this approach to Detroit electronic music, I demonstrate how techno, house, and electro are linked to identity, and to broader notions of heritage and legacy. My focus on varying notions of time stems from indigenous concepts of time and musical production among electronic musicians in Detroit. In conducting this research with DJs, producers, record label managers, booking agents, record store owners, club and event promoters, and fans in Detroit, I have found that there is a particular catalog of sounds, musical references, and music production choices that are unique and characteristic of Detroit.

Furthermore, as I investigate time and culture as fluid, reflexive, and dynamic concepts, diverse notions of space become important. The locations where electronic music happens within Detroit are essential to the legacy of this music, as is the connection of the music to Detroit itself. Electronic music has a strong local, independent presence in Detroit where record stores, internet and college radio, roller skating rinks, outdoor festivals, gay and straight dance clubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, museums, and out in the street, are all central to the existence and proliferation of electronic music. These locations impact the local music scene, but they also provide a backdrop for the international success of Detroit musicians. Detroit cultivates musicians providing them with inspiration and community, launching a select few on to international success. Detroit electronic music has typically demonstrated international success, particularly in Europe and Asia, yet in the United States, this music is nearly invisible and inaudible. International success began in the late 1980s and continues to this day; coupled with it came a severe disconnection of the music from its African American and Detroit-centered history, making cultural appropriation an important issue for Black electronic musicians. Nevertheless, the music has a strong presence in Detroit. Space, geographic or otherwise, is central to the exploration of history, heritage, and identity in Detroit electronic music.
Through eclectic methods and diverse relationships, mentoring, partnerships, and the maintenance of musical institutions are the primary processes of human interaction by which electronic music culture thrives in Detroit. Women mentor female and male DJs and producers, and men also mentor female and male DJs and producers. Some musicians maintain a solitary production and performance schedule, however, many enter into partnerships, or crews, with other like minded musicians and artists, striving to represent Detroit in their own ways. Local institutions make profound contributions to Detroit's electronic music culture: radio stations and particular radio programs, a local record pressing plant, a local record mastering company, numerous local record labels and management companies, and historically significant promotion crews and dance club locations. I contend that these methods of interaction and communication are clear indications of the impact of African American heritage on Detroit electronic music culture.

Academic attention to electronic dance music, in general, has increased in recent years. However, Detroit electronic music is still overlooked and replaced by a focus on the global dimensions of this music. There are two scholarly articles published that focus entirely on Detroit techno music, one of which argues that Detroit techno is post-soul and in effect, no longer African American (Albiez 2005). The author of this article did not conduct ethnographic research. The second article, written by techno historian Beverly May, appears in a recently published anthology on African American music and is a wonderful introduction to the history of Detroit techno music (May 2006). This article is also not based on ethnographic research, rather the author did a series of journalistic interviews over a period of five years. Serious academic attention is due this music, and the culture of Detroit. Through my analysis of Detroit electronic music's history, heritage and identity within the context of time and space, I will devote needed attention to the musical culture of this city.

In my ethnographic research, I focused on the perspectives of Detroit DJs and fans. I conducted various types of ethnographic interviews with individuals and with groups of DJs. Topics addressed in the interviews include musical production and creativity, history, African American culture, Detroit history and culture, musical influences, and the international circulation of Detroit electronic music. I spent a year and six months, from February 2008 to July 2009, attending over one hundred DJ performances in Detroit, videotaping many of them. The opportunity to closely observe DJs performing, and then to analyze their video recorded performance, has been undeniably valuable in my research.

I engaged in participant observation in order to understand fundamental elements of production and performance in Detroit electronic music culture. Close attention to the ways in which the DJ manipulates the electronic and digital equipment, transitioning between different audio sources, adjusting volume, the various levels of treble and bass, and other musical parameters gave me a much more nuanced understanding of what a DJ does in performance. I developed a heightened awareness for the role of fans in performance as feedback providers for the DJ, guiding and altering the performance as needed through a cycle of verbal and non-verbal communication. Finally, interviewing, and listening to and talking about musical recordings has provided me with important tools for musical analysis.

The primary contribution to the humanities and social sciences offered by this study is its proposition that cultural and musical identity take shape according to the multi-dimensional communication involved in performance. Furthermore, I offer new perspectives on the concept of Blackness and how this is manifest in the productions of DJs in Detroit. I am basing this on anthropologist Maureen Mahon's model of Black American rock musicians. Mahon moves beyond "racialized thinking" in order to explore and expand the boundaries of what Blackness may encompass or signify. She exemplifies Black rock as an ideological, cultural, and political "breach of racial etiquette" and an expansion of contemporary notions of Blackness (Mahon 2004: 8). Finally, my research will establish a model for investigating other identities manifest in electronic music as well as the dynamic and expansive dimensions of African American culture.

Works Cited

Albiez, Sean. "Post-Soul Futurama: African American Cultural Politics and Early Detroit Techno" European Journal of American Culture, 24, no. 2 (2005): 131-152.

Mahon, Maureen. 2004. Right to rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race. Durham: Duke University Press.

May, Beverly. 2006. "Techno." African American Music: An Introduction. Mellonee B. Burnim and Portia K. Maultsby, eds. New York: Routledge.

Pittman, Marcellus. Interview with author. August 13, 2008.

Stone, Ruth M. 1998. "Time in African Performance". In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: Africa, edited by Ruth M. Stone. New York & London: Garland.


kent williams said...

I think this is succinct and surprisingly readable to a non-academic.

The interesting question for me is how the requirements of academicity interact with actual meaning to the larger community. I.e. is this primarily you wrestling with the conceptual gods of ethnomusicology, or is this something that e.g. Mad Mike could read and see something new about the artistic community in which he exists.

The part that made me smile was "I offer new perspectives on the concept of Blackness," because if you said it at the Coney Island at 3AM you'd at best get a lot of strange looks. I know you're using the term in the context of how it has been discussed in previous academic work, but to a non-academic it's a bit jarring.

I actually read and edit master's theses and dissertations (and grant proposals) for people in my department, so good on you for being lucid. If you want, I can look at your draft for style, if not for content.

pipecock said...

this also stuck out to me: "I offer new perspectives on the concept of Blackness and how this is manifest in the productions of DJs in Detroit."

this is something that is very important, as i do not think this has been done. too many people seem to think that "black culture" is something that is limited to whatever is on BET and in the popular culture. what is going on and has gone on in Detroit, Chicago, NYC, and other places flies directly in the face of that.

and this isn't meant as a diss, but Dan Sicko's "Techno Rebels" did not do this to enough of an extent. i'm not sure if it was due to pressure from the publisher or what, but i really hope that your dissertation turns into a book that gets published. i know from what you've been posting on here that you've done things almost exactly as i think they should be done in studying this music and culture. i can't wait to read the final result myself!

caisa said...

Scott Grooves will be playing in London at East Village in London on 20th November!
Check it out!

Sean Albiez said...

H,mmm - I don't think I argued that Detroit Techno was no longer African-American - the idea of the post-soul formation was that it was a new perspective on what it meant to be African-American in the 1980s - and 'post-soulness' was to be found across African-American cultural production and intellectual interventions at the time. My argument was that Detroit Techno in this period could potentially be viewed as a part of this wider phenomenon - part of notions of a 'new blackness'. I don't remember saying Detroit Techno was deraced (though Juan Atkins discussed avoiding 'racial designation' by adopting a range of ambiguous pseudonyms etc.)

Thanks for the mention!

JB / DJ Anicet said...

recent MA graduate in Middle East studies, and a DJ of disco / deep house on the side, I bumped onto your blog by looking for an analysis of the recent Detroit techno phenomenon (the whole revival with Theo Parrish, Moodymann, etc).

there is indeed a lot to be written about the subject. I was looking for comments on the harmonic construction of the songs; it seems to me that the choice of minor keys in Detroit by, say, Theo Parrish, is not incidental, and refers both to the soul heritage of the music and to the bleak socioeconomic situation of the city.

JB / DJ Anicet

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