By Lauren Santucci
I can buy a t-shirt reading “Detroit soul” at a Carhartt store (a Detroit brand), in Paris or Berlin, but at home, Carhartt sells overalls and boots for construction workers. Europe is fascinated with Detroit, often misrepresenting its culture of music and the reality of its economic strife. What originated as a form of black protest against repressive social structures, the true roots of Detroit house and techno are lost in Europe’s appropriation of it at expensive clubs. The more significant form of protest in the Detroit community, which is 82% black, is rap and hip-hop. In reality, Detroits aren’t all that wrapped up with house or techno these days.
Detroit techno and house is situated in Europe. On my last flight from Detroit to London, Kyle Hall, a young DJ in his twenties that grew up on the Westside of Detroit and founded a Detroit-based record label Wild Oats, sat behind me. He was on his way to Glasgow to play that night while discussing his impressions of how shit the food was the last time he played there. He elaborated on his frequent experiences in Europe when speaking to Fader magazine, “I’d say that Europeans have more nostalgia for Detroit dance music than people in Detroit do”.
Artists like Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, and Kevin Saunderson, the original and most celebrated DJs from Detroit, book shows during the winter holiday season when it overlaps with their time off at home with their families. Kyle Hall and Jay Daniel, arguably the most prominent Detroit house artists right now, began by doing sets in the city but switched to a similar schedule once they started booking shows in Europe.
What you can find in Detroit right now, however, are deeply embedded rap and hip-hop scenes. CrackKillz Da G.O.D., a former coworker, good friend, and young local rapper that hosts rap and hip-hop shows around the city describes, “I think the city feels more like hip-hop than anything. When you come to Detroit, you don't feel house or techno. It feels like a rap song here.” The big names that have come out of Detroit recently are rappers like Danny Brown, Big Sean, Dej Loaf, and Zelooperz. Rap and hip-hop are now the platforms for the struggles of failed societal structures and governmental corruption. Where Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins addressed these issues with their own unique genre, the low beats and abrasive flows of Danny Brown, Dopehead, and Zelooperz, all members of hip-hop collective based in Detroit called the Bruiser Brigade, are in their place. In a Vice Noisey documentary about Detroit music released this year Danny Brown pointed to a blighted house across the street and said “You can’t make the palm tree, California type of shit when you out your window looking at that. You in Detroit? Yeah you wanna hear some dark shit.”
During the recent economic strife the city has undergone after the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, Detroiters feel especially connected to the artists that ‘made it’. Last summer, my coworker from a restaurant downtown played Dej Loaf the entire shift, proudly reminding me that his brother lived in the same apartment complex as her a couple years before she was signed to Colombia Records. In light of crime, corruption, house foreclosures, school closings, poverty, and water shutoffs, it makes sense that Detroiters are righteously proud of their impressive and extensive musical talent. For a city with a dwindling population of about 700,000, it is an impressive feat to be considered on both national and international stages. What is missing from Europe’s fantasies is the reality of Detroit’s consistent struggle; in April of this year the poverty rate was recorded at 40%.
I am impressed that a city categorized by bankruptcy and poverty can still be simultaneously appreciated for its distinct culture and music on an international scale. I’m equally as proud as I am confused how this happened. CrackKillz sum up this fascination to me in simple terms, “It’s rich history when it comes to the music. When Motown was pumping out music, they did it the same way Ford pumped out cars. It resonated with people. You can feel the soul and spirit in the music, so people were pulled towards it and moved by it.”