The Detroit Electronic Music Festival drew more than 1 million people in each of its first two years. This year, organizers are emphasizing a wider variety of performers – and wondering why techno, which is hugely popular in Europe, is less well-received in the United States.
The lineup of nearly 70 performers represents a blend of urban music, and includes Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton and the Los Angeles-based hip-hop trio Dilated Peoples. The three-day festival starts Saturday.
“What we’re seeing now is a combination between hip-hop music and electronic music, and I think the Detroit festival is capitalizing on that,” said M. Tye Comer, the editor of Mixer Magazine in New York, which focuses on DJ culture.
“The roots of the music – the funk and the soul – the roots are all the same…. It’s expanding to become a celebration of urban music as a whole.”
Mike Grant, who sits on the festival’s seven-member artistic board, said, “I think that diversity is what keeps the festival fresh. No one likes to eat the same food everyday.”
Detroit DJs Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Carl Craig are often credited with inventing the techno sound while spinning in Detroit clubs in the early 1980s. The sound really took off in Europe, however.
When the Detroit techno group Inner City became popular in the early 1980s, for instance, most people assumed they were British, said Dan Sicko, 33, the author of “Techno Rebels,” a book about the musical movement that led to the festival.
“The festival is like a reunion for the artists and the city that spawned it,” Sicko said.
“The American media to some degree loves to focus on music that comes from abroad… and I think for at least a decade Detroit was overlooked that way.”
Saunderson, May and Craig were instrumental in getting the festival off the ground, but they won’t be performing this year because of a dispute with the organizers. Fans can still catch them performing at various parties after the festival wraps up each night.
“The nightlife will be bright,” Saunderson said. “It’s not often you get all the Detroit talent together.”
Sicko said this year’s festival is aimed at closing the gap between techno’s original, black, Detroit audience and the white kids who picked up on it later.
Comer said George Clinton “expands the scope” of the event, which he called “one of the most important dance festivals America sees every year.”
The festival bills itself as the world’s largest free music festival. It “draws ravers from all across the country,” Comer said. “It brings out families. It’s more than a party.”
For performers such as Dilated Peoples’ DJ Babu, “This might be our biggest crowd ever.”