DEMF – Detroit Electronic Music Festival : RA Oral History


1. Noel Dix and Luc 2. Silver spiderman, 3. fountain 4. Richie Hawtin’s big to do 5. everyone in detroit loves techno 6.finally getting to see Rick Wade 7. chillin 8. the plaza 9. Scion, my favourite performance 10. the crowd 11. the afterparty 12. robots rising 13. downtown 14. like i said everyone loves…. 15. green spiderman 16. Andy Stone and crew.

Words / Todd L. Burns

Put your hands up: An oral history of Detroit’s electronic music festival

RA charts the trajectory of one of the most important events in the dance music calendar.

Detroit Electronic Music Festival, Focus Detroit Electronic Music Festival, Movement, Fuse-In, Movement. The festival that has occurred on Memorial Day weekend in Detroit at Hart Plaza centered around electronic music since 2000 has had many names. The story behind those names is just as complex as you might expect. It’s a tale of hope, despair, perseverance, backstage drama and, most of all, amazing music.

To explain the many twists and turns of the festival thus far, we turned to the people that were directly involved. Artists, promoters, city officials, journalists, more than 50 in all, presenting an oral history of Detroit’s electronic music festival.

Richie Hawtin (DJ/producer): There were mumblings for quite a while about a festival in Detroit.

Rob Theakston (Planet E employee): Carol Marvin had done a lot of small-scale events around town. And then she helped put on this thing called The World Party, which was supposed to celebrate The World Cup in 1994.

Dan Sicko (author, Techno Rebels): I don’t think they got nearly the attendance they hoped for at The World Party. But it was a decent event.

Daniel Bell (DJ/producer): They struggled to pull an audience.

Tim Price (jack-of-all-trades, Plus8): Rich played and Kevin with Inner City. I remember going, and it was terrible. They’d left all the lights around the edge on [of the arena] so it just had no energy at all. They maybe did 1,000 people. It looked like a rave, and back then [electronic music] was really underground.

Richie Hawtin: Shambles.

Rob Theakston: In my opinion, the biggest fiasco of a Detroit party in history [to that point].

Adriel Thornton (Detroit promoter): I helped Carol with The World Party. At the time, it was the biggest party like that that had happened in Detroit. It was after that that Carol started thinking about doing a broader festival.

Kevin Saunderson (DJ/producer): Detroit Electronic Music Festival. I remember the phrase being said, when me, Derrick and Carl got together and had a meeting in like ’96 or ’97. We were talking about things we wanted to do years later. I’m not sure who mentioned it, whether it was Derrick or Carl, but they talked about Hart Plaza.

Walter Wasacz (Journalist, Metro Times): Even before the first year, there were rumors. People were saying there’s going to be a festival, people are getting it together. People like Carl, Derrick, Kevin. This was ’98 or ’99.

Adriel Thornton: [Carol] really loved and appreciated electronic music, so it was a natural thing for her. And she had the insight to get people who were more on the ground to help.

Carl Craig (DJ/producer):
Derrick, myself and Carol were meeting about a year-and-a-half before the festival happened.

John Arnold (Producer): I remember walking around town and running into Derrick May on the street. This was late summer of ’99. Derrick is an idea man, and is always very enthusiastic about his vision. He was telling me about an idea for an electronic music festival downtown. We talked about possible venues, and how such a feat could be pulled off. I left the conversation thinking “Who could pull this together?”

Rita Sayegh (filmmaker, The Drive Home): Derrick had talked to Carol Marvin, but then I think Derrick didn’t really want anything to do with it, so Carl…well, he’s usually up for any challenge.

Adriel Thornton: My understanding is that Derrick May was the first choice. Carol wanted someone who was a relevant electronic music artist who could help in securing other artists, so Derrick was an obvious choice. In discussing it, though, it came out that Derrick may travel too much and may have his hands in a few more pots. So Carol went and got Carl.

Rob Theakston: Carol assembled a pretty smart team to do public relations, including Barbara Deyo. And she had an assistant, Adriel Thornton, who had been involved with Detroit techno since the early ’90s. I think those match-ups really helped Carol get to Carl, and vice versa. It made sense that Carol, with her connections within the Detroit community, would meet up with Carl and discuss this happening. She was really well-connected and she had the people with the funding to make it happen. Once things started to happen, everyone got really excited about the potential.

Adriel Thornton: Ernest Burkeen from the Parks Department was absolutely critical. He put his job on the line in order to make that festival happen the first year, and Phil Talbert was right there with him.

Phil Talbert (Special Activities Coordinator, Detroit Recreation Department): I was responsible for all of the events that occurred at Hart Plaza. We were approached with a proposal from a lady named Carol Marvin to do an electronic music festival around January 1999 if I remember correctly.

Ernest Burkeen (Director, Detroit Recreation Department): Carol Marvin came to us with a tape of an electronic music festival that had taken place in Europe to show us what it might be like.

Phil Talbert: I will be quite frank: I had no idea what electronic music was when she approached me.

Ernest Burkeen: We never had anything going on Memorial Day other than an Armed Forces parade.

Phil Talbert: We did the Jazz Festival, and the [country music] Hoedown, but we knew that we really didn’t have anything for a young demographic. So when the proposal came, and once I found out how huge it was in Europe and how important it was locally, I went through the process of convincing the city.

Ernest Burkeen: Getting members of that administration on board was a hard sell.

Dennis Archer (Mayor, 1994 – 2001): I like music. I like all forms of music. Classical, opera, rock, Motown, the blues. I enjoy it. But this was a music form that was outside of my domain, not something that I followed or sought after, even though a lot of young people had expressed an interest in the electro-tech music.

Phil Talbert: We needed to get the mayor, Dennis Archer, up to speed on what electronic music was, and what this festival could mean. [Because we thought] it might help how the city was viewed in the United States and abroad. We thought that if we made an investment in showing that this could happen, that the city was safe, that it would be a help in bringing a new demographic to the city of Detroit. We felt we could do that through electronic music, if we did it right…There was some fear there though. We didn’t want to do something that could be negative for the city.

Ernest Burkeen: Dennis has always been a very practical person, and he saw that this would bring a light on to the city in a positive way.

Dennis Archer: I do know that there was a lot of discussion about electronic music, and it was during my administration when I was in office. And as I began to read more about it, it appeared to be something that was remarkably widespread worldwide.

Rob Theakston: The festival almost didn’t happen, and it was my fault. I was working at Planet E at the time, and Carl had a very important meeting downtown. I was running around doing something else that day, and it completely slipped my mind to remind him that he had a meeting. It was the first and only time in the three or four years I worked with Carl that I thought I was going to get fired. He pulled me into his office, and he screamed at me that the meeting was with the Mayor of Detroit. I thought he was meeting with his accountant or something.

Barbara Deyo (PR): I’m a make-up artist, and Carol Marvin was a client of mine. One day she said, “I have a job for you that I think I’d be really good at. I want you to do PR for the festival.” I didn’t know anything about techno, I hadn’t done any PR, so it was a whole new world for me. Carol offered me the job in August or September of 1999. I was originally supposed to start on November 1st.

Daniel Bell: The City Council at that time was dragging its feet.

Phil Talbert: Carol was looking for funding support to get it off the ground, which was something that the city didn’t traditionally do.

Barbara Deyo: The whole staff didn’t start working until February 1st.

Josh Glazer (Journalist, Real Detroit Weekly): I remember getting a call from our publisher one afternoon. He said, “I need you go to Carl Craig’s house downtown tonight at 7 PM, he’s going to tell you something.” I was like “OK, that’s a little weird…” I got to Carl’s place and it was him and Carol Marvin. We sat down and they kind of told me the whole plan. They had literally just signed the contracts with the city in the past 24 or 48 hours.

Barbara Deyo: I didn’t sleep for like three months. I was constantly pulling all nighters.

Tim Price: [Everything] had started three months before, so there was no time to get big sponsors.

John Arnold: Everything was real last minute. I was booked two or three weeks before the festival. Nobody even saw the flyer until a week-and-a-half before.

Matthew Dear (DJ/producer): The whole festival seemed to come out of nowhere, fast.

Robert Gorell (Journalist, Metro Times): It obviously wouldn’t have happened without Carl, especially to talk all of those musicians to come in and play for a free festival.

Rita Sayegh: Carl called in like every favor from every artist he knew. The fact that it happened. I mean, it’s like a miracle basically.

Daniel Bell: I think there was a mixture of skepticism and cautious optimism. The optimism mostly coming from the fact that Carl was involved, and he seem determined to make it a success.

Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir (DJ/producer): I was definitely a doubting Thomas. That’s kind of my personality anyway though.

Brian Gillespie (DJ/producer): I come from a scene where we do small warehouse parties. Hearing that someone was going to throw a big giant festival, I was like, “If I see it I’ll believe it!”

Aaron-Carl (DJ/producer): I didn’t know it was being planned until it happened. I was asked by a relative, “Are you going to the festival?” “Um, what festival?”

Josh Glazer: Being involved in the techno community in Detroit and having seen so many things NOT work, it was a little hard to swallow. Not necessarily that it wouldn’t happen, but that anyone would come, or enough people would come. I was definitely skeptical. “Is anybody going to come to Hart Plaza for an entire weekend of Detroit techno?”

Richie Hawtin: Everyone was kind of in a bit of disbelief after The World Party, wondering whether this new thing was going to be our crowning achievement or most embarrassing moment.

Brendan Gillen (DJ/producer): I think most people were thinking, “Oh my God, what is this car crash going to look like?”

Kevin Saunderson: I don’t know if Carl knew it was going to happen, I don’t think Carol knew it was going to happen. Everything was last minute.

Adriel Thornton: At some point everyone other than Carol wasn’t sure. Carol was really the only one who seemed to be like “No! This is going to be…huge!”

Ernest Burkeen: It went down to the wire.

Adriel Thornton: Carol was going and fighting the battle to get it done. She had endless meetings with the city. She’s the one who had to convince them. And there were so many last minute hoops to jump through.

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