The Belleville Three

In the Black History Month post on Sister Rosetta Tharpe I talked about the far-reaching impact black Americans have had on practically every music genre to be developed in the US. Today, I want to introduce you to Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – the three friends that gave birth to techno and who influenced music around the world.

Atkins was born in Detroit in 1962; May was born in Detroit in 1963; Saunderson was born in Brooklyn in 1964, but moved to Belleville, a rural town outside of Detroit, where he became friends with Atkins and May in middle school and high school. Living in the midwest – arguably the epicenter for the creation and expansion of much of the popular music in the US – the boys were exposed to a wide range of styles. They were especially fond of radio DJ, Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson, who played everything from the B-52s to Kraftwerk to Prince to Parliament.

In the mid-to-late-1970s, Atkins and May started mixing music, and Saunderson soon joined in the fun. Atkins took up the synthesizer after hearing Parliament, and he was the first of the three to get some turntables and start DJ-ing. He taught his friends how to work the turntables, began to produce music, formed a group called Cybotron, and had a solo project under the name Model 500. May produced music under the moniker Rhythim is Rhythim, and Saunderson achieved commercial success working with vocalist Paris Grey as Inner City.

The three re-purposed technology to create a new form of music and created an underground scene that appealed to marginalized people. This was happening as robotics were replacing people at Detroit factories and there was huge job loss; as technology was destroying the economy of Detroit, these three friends were using technology to kick off the next wave of Midwestern groundbreaking music.

“We were inspired, and we didn’t just come up with this thing out of nowhere. There was Kraftwerk, and Ultravox, and Yellow Magic Orchestra, and all these wonderful electronic groups that were doing amazing things before us – but when we came along, we basically always felt that we wanted to do our own thing. We felt inspired by it, but we never wanted to be like it. We never wanted to emulate it. We never wanted to copy or replicate anything we heard.” – Derrick May

By the early 1980s, the three were DJ-ing in Detroit under the name Deep Space Soundworks. They’d travel to Chicago to experience the new house music scene (born from disco), starting a long-lasting cultural exchange with many collaborating DJs and musicians, such as Frankie Knuckles. And, they incorporated European sounds, particularly the mechanical synth sounds of Kraftwerk. The combination of styles perfectly reflected the environment of Detroit.

“Maybe techno coming out of Detroit had more of the black experience involved, and of course what we’ve grown up with is soul music and R&B stuff, and then there’s funk itself. It would be only natural that more of these elements would show up.” – Juan Atkins

Eventually each started their own record label: Metroplex (Atkins), Transmat (May), and KMS (Saunderson).

In 1987, the trio spent three months renovating an old Firestone building in downtown Detroit, in the hopes of creating an after-hours club like they’d been to in Chicago. That building fell through, and they took up space in an empty four-story shoe store. The following year they opened the after-hours club, the Music Institute. It allowed for continued collaboration with their house colleagues and other musicians. And, it became a space that would inspire Detroit-area techno DJs for years.

“[The Music Institute] was a spiritual place for music. If you weren’t there you obviously missed something because I think there are only about four clubs in the world that can compare to its power and energy. We had a young, beautiful, black crowd and I mean beautiful in the sense of spirit and mind and soul. We had white kids coming, Spanish kids coming, gay kids coming, straight kids coming. And, nobody was on drugs.” – Derrick May

In 1988, dance music entrepreneur Neil Rushton helped them license their music for release in the UK. To distinguish their style from that of Chicago house, they used a term coined by Atkins – and so, “techno” had entered the international stage. (This is also when the three were first called The Belleville Three.) Their sounds deeply influenced the dance scene in London. And, just as they had been influenced by German musicians, Detroit techno would transform the electronic music scene in Germany. Full circle.


Sources: Wiki Belleville Three, Wiki – Atkins, Wiki – May, Wiki – SaundersonRed Bull Music Academy – The Music Institute, Ask Audio, We Got This Covered, NPR – 10 Essential Detroit Techno Tracks, Derrick May – The Secret of Techno

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