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Last modified: Wednesday, September 27, 2006

First academic conference on techno music and its African American origins to be at IU on Oct. 21

Sept. 27, 2006

DJ Marcellus "Malik" Pittman is one of the "3 Chairs," who are a integral part of today's Detroit techno sound.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The world may know about the Motown Sound, but many music fans don't know that techno -- a wildly popular electronically produced form of dance music reverberating through dancehalls and raves across Europe -- was developed 20 years ago by a handful of African American college students around Detroit.

Portia Maultsby, professor of folklore and ethnomusicology, and director of the Archives of African American Music and Culture at Indiana University, hopes to create a greater awareness and academic appreciation for the music's origins. She has organized the first national conference about the genre, "Roots of Techno: Black DJs and the Detroit Scene." The event is scheduled for Oct. 21 in Willkie Auditorium, 150 N. Rose St, Bloomington.

Maultsby said the conference will re-establish the African American origins of the genre and an understanding of the context from which it came.

"It is interesting how the music migrated from Detroit to Europe, and the music became associated with rave parties, and then migrated back to the U.S., and Americans became involved ... and the African American identity became invisible," Maultsby said. "Music can be appropriated and re-appropriated, and history can be distorted as a result of that ...Very few people associate techno with its African American origins."

Several of the genre's pioneering DJs have been invited to the conference to share their stories. In addition, panel discussions, live demonstrations and CD signings are scheduled during the conference. Live performances also will be given by many of the DJs on Oct. 20 and 21 at the Second Story nightclub, 201 S. College Ave., in downtown Bloomington. The public is invited to all the events.

Despite the national and global influence of techno and the role of African Americans in its development, she said the genre has been excluded from the collection development activities of music libraries and archives. The AAAMC hopes to initiate the collection of archival materials and facilitate scholarly research of techno through the conference at IU.

The only other known educational or museum effort devoted to the genre was an exhibit held at the Detroit Historical Museum for 18 months in 2003-04. Catherine Burkhart, Sulaiman Mausi and Lina Stephens were the exhibit's curators. They will present at the IU conference, along with Beverly May, a historian and contributor to Maultsby's recent book, African American Music: An Introduction (Routledge, 2006).

Denise Dalphond, a graduate student in ethnomusicology, said the conference will allow her to create better understanding of music she embraced while growing up in the rural community of North Judson, Ind. It is also her master's thesis project.

"It is very important to look at it [techno] from an academic standpoint," Dalphond said. "To be able to document the DJs' stories in person, in this kind of setting, and to have all the musicians together, having their stories recorded, is important for documentation and preservation.

"I think people are still wary to classify a DJ as a musician," she added. "Scholars don't embrace the concept that the equipment that a DJ uses is a musical instrument."

Among the artists coming to tell their stories is Juan Atkins, widely credited as one of three originators of techno music, along with childhood friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Atkins coined the term "techno" to describe their music, taking as one inspiration the works of futurist and author Alvin Toffler, from whom he borrowed the terms "cybotron" and "metroplex." Atkins began recording as Model 500 in 1985 and continues to produce his own and other musicians' records under the Metroplex Records label.

Since its origins, techno has evolved into a plethora of subgenres, known as "acid," "ambient" and "industrial." Another conference participant, Terrence Parker, has established himself as a producer, remixer and DJ of a subgenre called house music and is known as a pioneer of the inspirational/gospel house movement.

Also participating are DJs known collectively as "the 3 Chairs" -- Marcellus "Malik" Pittman, Theo Parrish and Rick "the Godson" Wilhite. As production artists and selectors, they have helped define today's Detroit techno sound. Early in his music career, Wilhite worked closely with Atkins and May.

Jennifer Witcher, also known as DJ Minx and Detroit's "First Lady of Wax," is a successful DJ in a male-dominated field of music.

Print-Quality Photo

Jennifer Witcher, better known as DJ Minx and Detroit's "First Lady of Wax," will speak from a woman's perspective about a genre dominated by male performers. A featured DJ for Deep Space Radio, she was chief executive officer of the Skyloft Gallery in the early 1990s, where she helped create a place for the scene's unexposed artists and musicians. In 1996, she formed Women on Wax, a collective of female DJs, and began working with promoters and others around the country. She is planning a Women on Wax tour. She now records for the Women on Wax label.

With the band Underground Resistance, participant Cornelius "Atlantis" Harris was the first member of a Detroit-based band to play techno music live at major concerts. Also participating in the conference will be Mike "Agent X" Clark, one of Detroit's most prolific DJs today. Other performers still may agree to participate in the conference.

"Roots of Techno: Black DJs and the Detroit Scene" will take place from 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Willkie Auditorium. Before Oct. 13, cost of registration is $5 for IU students and $15 for non-students. After that date, the cost will be $8 for IU students and $20 for everyone else. Admission to the live performances at Second Story will be $6 each night with performances beginning at 10 p.m.

More information is available at the conference Web site at

The conference is partially funded by the College Arts and Humanities Institute. Other sponsors include the IU departments of African and African American Diaspora Studies, American Studies, Communication and Culture, Folklore and Ethnomusicology, the School of Journalism, the African American Arts Institute, Foster International Living-Learning Center, RPS Academic Initiatives and Services, Foster Quad Community Council and Foster Quad Student Government. Additional support has been provided by the record labels Sound Signature and Unirhythm, and the record outlet Vibes New & Rare Music.