Memorial weekend is soon upon us and that brings a special excitement for me. Why? It’s not because of the first summer barbeques or parades, it’s the Detroit Electronic Music Festival.
The Detroit Electronic Music Festival, or “Movement” as is properly titled these days is a three-day music festival in Detroit at Hart Plaza. Most of the musical acts on the three stages are electronic based, featuring the likes of such types of music including, but definitely not limited to techno, house, hip-hop, and trance.
Detroit is regarded as the birthplace of one such type of electronic music called “Techno.” Techno originated with a few DJ’s in Detroit in the 1980s, and is a type of danceable electronic music that is inspired by and often emulates the sounds of computers and machines mixed in with the beats. You can pick out “Techno” from other types of electronic music by the “bleeps, blips, and bloops” that sound like they might have been made by your PC or Apple from the 80s. It makes sense that such a sound would come from a group of guys born in the Motor City, and growing up in the land where factories put the world on wheels.
Techno has historically been somewhat of an underground music scene here in the United States. Until the advent of the Electronic Music Festival in 2000, to experience live music in Detroit you would have to attend underground raves, or select nightclubs such as the now, long-gone Motor Lounge in Hamtramck. In Europe, electronic has historically been much more mainstream, and is commonly heard on the radio.
So, in early spring of 2000, when I first heard about the new music festival, that was to be free, and open in Hart Plaza I was extremely excited. It was the music that I loved, Techno. Free, in the daytime, and legal to be enjoyed! I gathered up my friends, and made sure to be there on the first day, Saturday.
Looking back at my photos of that first afternoon, it is hard to believe how sparse the crowd was at first! There was hardly anyone around. The next day, there were more people, as buzz of the festival must have traveled. I had a blast that first festival, dancing with my friends open in the air. Because the thing about techno, is that it drives you to dance! On one of those days as I was dancing at the stage nearest the waterfront, I looked to my right, and not ten feet away from me, checking out the stage was then Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. I had to respect him for coming down on the weekend, in a full suit, to see what this new festival was all about. He was right there in the middle of the action. I don’t think I will ever forget that.
The second year the popularity of the festival exploded. I remember driving on Jefferson past Hart Plaza and amazing at just how many more people there were that year than the first. Word had spread, and it had spread far. That was the beginning of the Europeans and out of state folks who began to make the trek to the festival every year. We used to joke that you could pick out the Europeans by their funny looking shoes and back packs.
Every year since 2000 I have returned to Hart Plaza for the festival. I have missed countless family barbeques as a result. But I just couldn’t resist the pull of the music, the dancing, and the opportunity to create art, and enjoy a fantastic time with my friends. I only missed last year, and that was because I was standing up in my sister’s wedding 3 hours away.
As a photographer, the Electronic Music Festival is my absolute favorite event to photograph. The people watching, alone, is priceless, since many come dressed in their weirdest attire, and with a camera, I can document the crazy outfits that wouldn’t be believed if they just described. Then there are the break-dancers, my favorite to photograph. The crowd circles around them as they show off their body bending talents, and I crouch down in front to get the lowest angle I can to photograph them. My ideal shot is one with the Ren Cen looming in the background behind them. I have ten years of photographs of people and friends at the festival. This is also where I first started using digital video.
The festival has changed over the years, gone from the sparsely attended first year to crazy packed years when the festival was free and overflowing with all sorts of people. It then became a ticketed event that, while higher on the security (or at least the illusion thereof) it became lower on the spontaneity of attendants. Over the years that I have attended, I’ve seen the festival change names, stage layouts, and corporate sponsors. I’ve danced in good weather, and cold, rainy weather. I have seen hundreds performers local and national such as Parliament, Moby, Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, Derrick May, Kevin Saunders on, Juan Atkins, DJ Godfather, Detroit Grand Pubahs, Frankie Bones, and even a former high school classmate now turned successful DJ. I have dragged all of my friends, and some of my family, to the festival. I’ve run into old friends, made new ones, even if it was just for that day. I have played Hacky-Sac on the field by the river for hours, and danced in the “circle” with all eyes on me. I love all that is the music festival, and all of my memories of it are filled with the pulsing music. My heart races faster just thinking about it.
This year the big national act is Fat Boy Slim, a best selling electronic artist, and one I’ve never seen. Also performing is the Plastic man, Richie Hawtin, a DJ from Windsor, whom I haven’t seen perform inn at least ten years. Sadly, I will miss the festival again this year due to unforeseen circumstances that will keep me at home. So if you are looking for adventure, make the trip to go, dance a little for me, take some photos using a slow shutter speed and capture the swirl of lights and dancers for me, and maybe even join in a game of hacky-sac for me. I had been there every Memorial weekend for ten years, and I will be thinking about it and wishing everyone who attends the best as the festival beats on in 2011.