Tortoise, De La Soul, Laurent Garnier and Kevin Saunderson are among those playing...
God, it would appear, is not a DJ. The fOCUS Detroit Electronic Music Festival has to be cut short this weekend as the heavens open up and drop torrents of hail on an unsuspecting crowd, forcing Detroit techno creator Juan Atkins to abbreviate his set and headliner Derrick May to cancel his completely. Sadly, this is not the first of bad news for the festival, only in its second year.
Controversy arose a mere two weeks before the event as festival producers fired DEMF co-founder Carl Craig from his position as creative director, claiming Craig failed to meet artist contract deadlines. (Craig, whose firing will take effect two days after the festival’s closing, has filed a lawsuit alleging breach of contract and defamation of character.)
Many fans demonstrate alliance with the techno luminary, sporting bright pink “I Support Carl Craig” stickers. But despite pre-festival politics and
hard rains, the event still draws well over its expected total, surpassing last year’s 1,000,000 plus figure. For the first of the three days, Craig co-ordinates a mostly jazz and abstract techno-tinged line-up. Among the highlights are Chicago’s post-everything kings Tortoise, tinkling through an evening set of jazz-informed dub-rock, flavoured with electronic beats to appease the crowd of mostly techno fans.
Germany’s Jazzanova follow with their singular pastiche of funk, hip-hop, and drum’n’bass that’s both concise and fluid but alone isn’t enough to ignite the crowd. Roars of approval are finally heard when the group make the first of the weekend’s many dedications to Craig. Meanwhile, intelligent dance musicologists Autechre deliver skittery and complex, yet surprisingly danceable, funked-up beats and blips to a frighteningly overcrowded underground stage beneath the main plaza. In a case of bad logistics, those fortunate enough to get near Mssrs. Brown and Booth risk asphyxiation by spray-paint fumes from nearby graffiti artists.
Hip-hop is essential to Sunday’s 20 plus performances, which feature the likes of De La Soul, Saul Williams and a pair of scratch-happy turntablists. Hardly maintaining the energy of their ‘Three Feet High…’ days, De La‘s set begins awkwardly, with the founders of conscious hip-hop spewing forth blue-word banter and clumsy MC/DJ interplay – the bane of many a live hip-hop performance. The group’s tepid hour in the spotlight proves a
contrast to Saul Williams who, along with a full live band, restores positive hip-hop’s good name with his hybrid of spoken word, hard rock, rap, and tuneful crooning. Though politicizing may have gotten the best of him, there’s no denying the strength of Williams’ live show and his humble, yet heroic, stage presence.
Mixmaster Mike held the much-touted headlining slot for the evening, but the Beastie Boys collaborator and crown prince of turntablism is upstaged by Kid Koala’s half-hour of mischievous plunderphonia and mad skills. Real-time sampling, impeccable technique, and dropped-in references to kids’ shows and Tears For Fears’ ‘Shout’, among others, make the young Montrealer’s hyperactive set both humorous and jawdropping.
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The crowd is receptive, already pumped into a frenzy by deep, minimal techno and house sets by Detroit’s Kenny Larkin and Canada’s John Acquaviva earlier in the day. Bits of electro, tinged with soul, and mixed with Eddie Grant‘s ‘Electric Avenue’, keep the rain-drenched masses bouncing all afternoon. France’s Laurent Garnier also plays into the Detroit theme with a three-hour Motown-heavy set of funk, downtempo and acid jazz, complemented by a keyboardist and a bass clarinetist who impressively squeal and skronk in time to Garnier‘s samples.
The final day of the festival sees several strange turns. First, club
favourite Carl Cox cancelled his early afternoon DJ set. Disappointment was
tempered by the anticipation of evening performances by Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, and Derrick May – the Holy Trinity of Detroit techno. Saunderson’s much-awaited live PA with Inner City revives memories of techno’s glory days as the band drive through early ’90s club hits ‘Good Life’ and ‘Big Fun’. At the same time, Derrick Carter entertains an impressive crowd at one of two riverfront stages with his knock-’em-dead Chicago house.
Atkins, making good on a missed set at last year’s DEMF, holds the crowd at a fever pitch for 45 minutes of techno gospel – everything from ‘Trans Europe Express’ to his own ‘Night Drive’ – until an unexpected hail storm forces
the crowd to run for cover. Many seek refuge in the underground stage
where Slam‘s high-powered beats close the festival by default.
After an hour of down time, with no word from the main stage, producers finally pull the plug on DEMF 2001. The evening ends eerily, if not metaphorically, as Craig‘s disembodied voice boomed from a dark stage. Leaving fans disappointed and the festival’s fate in question, he offers only: “We’ll see you in the future.”