Detroit has gone to the wall and news agencies are laughing about it. Fox Business Network announced on Monday, “The Motown city is singing the blues.” But few others are seeing the joke. There’s a sense that it is positioned on the frontier of neo-liberal capitalism – not like a Deadwood frontier, frakking gas in North Dakota. This isn’t about untold riches. Detroit is on the edge, pushed any further and it’ll fall.
In its economic boom Motor City produced the biggest recording artists and housed one of the great record labels that will ever exist. Never again will there be a Tamla Motown, nor car insurance salesman more withered than Iggy Pop. And there will never be an act more peerless than Drexciya, whose place in the pantheon was once summed up to me as “the Beatles… Kraftwerk… Drexciya.”
The golden age of the city is well and truly over. As Detroit born Charlie LeDuff, a Pulitzer winning, big rat hunting writer observes, “It is an eerie and angry place of deserted factories and abandoned homes and forgotten people. Trees and switchgrass and wild animals have come back to reclaim their rightful places. Coyotes are here. The pigeons have left. A city the size of San Francisco and Manhattan could neatly fit into Detroit’s vacant lots.” In his book Detroit: An American Autopsy, LeDuff argues that bureaucratic corruption and arson are systemic, while revealing how the police covered up the highest murder rate in the US.
The challenge seems impossible. The White House announced last week, “We remain committed to continuing our strong partnership with Detroit, as it works to recover and revitalise and maintain its status as one of America’s great cities.” One would think the relationship between Washington and Detroit would be akin to that of a head and its limb. Seemingly not, Vice-president Joe Biden told reporters: “Can we help Detroit? We don’t know.”
But behind the strife, the beat goes on. A central paradox can be found in a maxim for the city’s music scene: make a hit record or go hungry. As such, Detroit continues to offer a rich variety of gold standard artists. Musicians that cannot be ignored. Among the fresh faces are Kyle Hall, Danny Brown, and Matthew Dear. Kyle is the undisputed torch bearer for the city’s techno scene. Once viewed as a wunderkind, through releases on his label Wild Oats he is now recognised as one of the greats. Danny is a comparatively zeitgeist-y artist, capturing the mayhem and the absurdities of modern life. He is stupid, vibrant, and loving. Behind his toothy grin and wild hair there’s a tenderness (as well as an unfiltered pornographic mind). Matthew Dear is a revered electronic musician around the world. Equally, older acts such as Terrence Dixon, DJ Stingray, Andrés, Guilty Simpson and Apollo Brown continue to produce incredible music, even if their salad days are behind them.
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But who are the new kids on the block? Who’s worth keeping an eye on? Are they really singing the blues? Here’s a small selection of what Detroit sounds like today:
Zoos of Berlin are on their second record now. Released on Time No Place the group imagine a pastoral Britain. Akin to Bowie’s Berlin-era trilogy, the utopia here is artful pop music. Whether this is a pastiche of the city returning to nature, with the message “some live above the air” to highlight how the city is being swallowed by the earth and her economics, is open for discussion. For the music in its optimism and spirituality could be seen as a new beginning following post industrial decline.
Tyvek, comparatively, is operating with a timeless fingerprint. Moments of No Wave and Tom Verlaine are sprinkled over a proto punk bed of rolling funk and riff wars. They are the ancestors of Death, via the hopelessness of punk. In that there is not feeling of vanquish, there’s no Stooges righteousness to this rebellion. Where once Iggy would have won a street fight, and commanded the riot, Tyvek channel no such optimism. There’s no need to explain the city’s anger, and in singing about when the bailiffs come for their TV, the message and where it comes from is unmistakably rooted in the present.
Osborne, real name Todd Osborn [ed. note: no ‘e’], is making zonked-out Deep House grooves. His latest single – featuring vocals from no other than Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard – is a clear indicator of the internationally-minded production. One that wouldn’t be out of place on a UK heavy Deep House compilation with Ben Pearce and Disclosure. It is a reminder that Detroit is not an insular town making niche music but a world beater that once stood atop the pop charts. And there’s more than a hint of a Gary Numan about Osborn: not only does he fly planes, but he fixes them, he has built a hovercraft, and has fabricated a video game kiosk out of hospital equipment. Such love of electronics charges the music, providing an easy momentum.
Monty Luke (pictured above) is a head banging Techno upstart making engaging, physical patterns. His track ‘Shape Of Things’ released earlier this year featured the faintest hint of Teklife influence, on a record that could be traced back to Terrence Dixon. A circle squared by his releases on the legendary Planet E. His greatest talent is in his ability as a machine worker, to picture a musician hunched over his MPC cutting and welding the track together. There’s a sense of clean craftsmanship and industrialism to Monty Luke’s music that makes him stand out from the production line. Comically he grew up in South California, only moving to the town for its industry: the one that makes melting hot records, rather than ghost wagons.
Skywlkr is Danny Brown’s DJ/hype man/producer/right hand man. He was on tour with the Lothario, so surely he’s already on everyone’s radar? Well, he is but not for playing second fiddle. Earlier this year he released a track with London rapper Cas which was a homely reminder of his potential to jump styles and continents. But for now his work on tracks like Kush Coma are so dizzying there’s no reason he shouldn’t be considered a star in his own right. His music represents the melting pot creativity that is a benchmark for great music cities. If may be stuck in the mid-west of a great continent, but Detroit has the intoxicating multiculturalism of any great port town: whether it be Lagos, London, Beirut, Myanmar, or NYC.