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I Got a Tour of Detroit's Techno Museum, and Found a City That Still Dreams

With creatives being forced out of overpriced cities, Detroit's future could be truly great.
January 17, 2014, 5:00pm

If you've spent any time living in London or New York City in the past few decades as a budding creative, you may have come to similar conclusions as David Byrne did in his op-ed for The Guardian. The potential for creative growth is being stifled out of these major cosmopolitan hubs. They're simply no longer the fertile places they once were, or sometimes continue to be held up as. After thirteen years in the city, London today only makes sense to me as a hot desk: a place I can pop into to make some quick money, and get the hell out before public transport reverts me to the angry man I never again want to be.

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Truth is, you're more likely to find real creative hotbeds in cities that are ignored or written off. Like Brussels, where I've just moved to, or Detroit. I came to The D in early December to do research for a book I'm writing about modern hip hop production, and the city took me by surprise. I came away thinking that Detroit felt like the future. I saw in it many of the hallmarks - poverty, chaos, destruction, potential - that New York, Berlin or London had before gentrification rendered them distant memories.

A few days after arriving in Detroit I made contact with Waajeed, a local producer and entrepreneur who had recently relocated to his hometown after a stint in NYC. He tells me to meet him at 3000 East Grand Blvd. On my way there the cab driver - himself a transplant from NYC thirty years ago - painted a bleak picture of the city. It fitted the mainstream discourse of the city's decades-long woes, yet I still couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to it.

From the outside, 3000 East Grand is a nondescript square brick building with three floors, a few windows, and a blue door. There are no outward signs of its cultural significance, which to some is equal to that of the Motown headquarters-cum-museum situated a few blocks away. As I learn shortly after meeting Waajeed, 3000 East Grand is the home of Submerge: the operational facade of pioneering techno label Underground Resistance and its affiliates. Relocated from its original home at 2030 Grand River in 2002 it continues to stand as a "silent hub for Detroit techno"; a proud bastion of independence and creativity built with the blood, sweat and tears of the second generation of techno. If you've ever ordered a record from their online shop, this is where it came from.

After our meeting Waajeed gives me a quick tour of the building, which it turns out is an old union hall as indicated by the markings on the glass door outside the boardroom: "Amalgamated Transit Union | Local 156". There are studios and offices, a shop in the basement, and on the ground floor a "techno museum." My curiosity is piqued, but unfortunately I can't stay to find out more. Once home, a quick internet search reveals that there is indeed a techno museum there, nicknamed Exhibit 3000. Appointments must be made during business hours. I arrange for one the next week, a day before I leave.

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I return on the day with my host in tow. Zach is an artist and Ann Arbor native who chose to return to Detroit from NYC a few years back, after the cost of living drove him out, and the potentials to be found in Detroit proved irresistible. I'm again playing a role I'm only too familiar with: the out-of-towner who tells the residents about stuff they didn't know about, or have never done.

On arrival we're greeted by Bridgette, who handles day-to-day operations for Submerge. She also normally gives the museum tours but tells us that she instead asked for Cornelius Harris to be our guide. I'd heard the name many times in the past week. Harris is Underground Resistance's label manager. As we wait for him we happen upon "Mad" Mike Banks, the legendary producer and co-founder of Underground Resistance alongside Jeff Mills. I'd met Banks by chance during my first visit the previous week. Having recognised me, we strike up a conversation about a little known hip hop label affiliated with UR called Hipnotech. This leads us to the basement, where the Somewhere In Detroit shop is located.

At first, the basement looks like any other record shop: rows of vinyl, posters on the walls, clothing on the side. It even has a cat, a cute black ball of curiosity with piercing yellow eyes. There is one thing that sets this shop apart though, and it isn't its location. The walls and ceiling beams are covered in messages from fans who have visited 3000 East Grand, and left a small mark behind. You could spend hours reading them, witnessing the awe those who have built this place are held in by music fans around the globe. This isn't just a record store. It's a church.

Banks is a great storyteller. Whilst playing records, he paints a vivid picture of the history of the building and the city. Submerge spent two years restoring this historical place with no outside help. Looking at it today, you'd have no idea everything had been restored by hand. Harris finally arrives and, after a small introductory chat, we begin our tour. Returning to the ground floor, we pass a plastic world map covered in pins in the staircase. Each pin indicates a sell from the Submerge shop. The spread of the virus.

Exhibit 3000 is unlike any museum I've ever visited, aside from perhaps the tiny drum museum hidden in the back streets of Asakusa, Tokyo. It's one room located on the left side of the ground floor, just behind the imposing staircase that first greets every visitor. Most of the artefacts and memorabilia that make up the exhibit are housed in glass cases hung on the wall, giving us plenty of space to move around and get up close with each section.

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The first part of our tour includes memorabilia from UR's early trips abroad, one of them an old London public transport card with Banks' face on it that jumps out at me instantly. There are early Jay Dee (then J.D) records on Hipnotech, distributed by Submerge, and collages and artefacts from those who have inspired UR's work and struggle: The Electrifying Mojo, Jackie Robinson, the Tuskegee airmen. The sense of history is palpable through the glass. This first section also includes a sizeable display dedicated to the pressing plants and cutting machines that UR used for years. Most notable among those is Ron Murphy, a little known but integral part of the UR sound whose career spanned two of Detroit's greatest musical movements: Motown and Detroit techno. His pioneering work and spirit is alive and well inside Exhibit 3000 in the shape of the 1932 cutting lathe he used and which sits proudly behind a glass window. A silent metal giant, holding echoes of history.

The cutting lathe, as used by Ron Murphy.

We move into the main part of the room where the next few cases hold some of the better-known artefacts in the exhibit, such as a display of Roland electronic instruments. These are the original 303, 808 and 909 drum machines and synthesisers that shaped the sound of techno as Banks, Mills and others subverted them beyond their original intended use, much like the hip hop pioneers did in NYC with turntables, SPs and MPCs. The next case along holds drawings of UR characters, early artwork, and a large drawing of a futuristic looking car that wouldn't be out of place in a sci fi movie. Harris explains that it was given to Banks by one of the Viper car designers. It's a UR concept car, and it comes with the message: "To Mike who inspired me, so I thought I'd return the favour."

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Next to those is a display of influential releases from the first and second generation of techno, including a copy of the record that would give the music its name, Virgin's 1988 compilation Techno! The New Sound of Detroit. Recounting the story of how compiler Neil Rushton came to put the record together after a visit to Detroit, Harris points out that the decision to include the word "techno" in the title was made at the last minute, with little thought to the consequences. A five-minute marketing decision that, like so many, stuck forever.

The opposite wall holds an old photograph of a mean looking racing car, like those I'd see as a child in American TV series. Above it is the title "UR 017 The Punisher". During Submerge's previous incarnation at 2030 Grand River Banks owned a car nicknamed 'The Punisher', which he regularly raced to win money that was channelled back into the business. If you own that record, this is the car that inspired it.

We also come across a large canvas that I first noticed when I came in. It's titled 'Detroit Babylon' and again was gifted to Submerge by another Detroit visual artist, Ron Zarkin, as a tribute for inspiring him. On the left a man stands amid a futuristic, grey landscape. He looks ahead at two giant nuclear reactors, the same ones that inspired the short story We Almost Lost Detroit, about the 1966 partial nuclear meltdown. On the canvas, the reactors are powered by a Roland 808 drum machine.

The exhibit ends with a display titled 'The Future'. In it are photos of babies, infants and children, some of them holding records or playing with turntables. There is also a photo of the Fillmore's sign for Dilla Day Detroit, and a Pure Comics print of a warrior woman decapitating enemies while shouting "Say nice things about Detroit!" As Harris tells me their history is not just techno, it's a varied, rich and multifaceted one. The exhibit is about not just the past, but also the present and the future. It's about knowing where you come from, in order to better understand where you're going.

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Discussing this, he brings up a project called the 51st Dream State by NYC artist Sekou Sundiata, who realised that in the wake of 9/11 most everyday people had lost the ability to truly dream or look beyond what's in front of them - bills, mortgages, consumerism. In that sense, the Submerge building is about dreaming. Those who built it always imagined something other than what they were told they could have. Another piece of paper amid all the photos reads:

"The Future… we are urban African American Futurists who pioneered yet another sonic gift to the world. We are taking the sound into the future. The question becomes: will a history of greed and ignorance repeat itself, and unknowingly make us irrelevant? Did we learn anything?"

Our tour ends with Waajeed joining us, completing the circle. His recent return to the city saw him set up in the Submerge building, where both his studio and the Dirt Tech Reck merchandising machine now reside. It's from here that he has begun returning to the sort of grassroots, militant work that first put him on the map, like UR. After ten days in town I came to really understand what Zach had said when he told me Detroiters were "proud to the bone". It seems to me that it's this pride that fuels people like Banks, Harris and Waajeed to stay behind and continue to build, while the city rises and falls in seemingly even cycles. Pride, but also militant activism. A lifetime dedication to change through action, not just words.

Exhibit 3000 is the real home of techno. Nobody will tell the story for them in Detroit, and so they took it upon themselves. To most Europeans America may seem like a cultural wasteland - a place with little history - but that's too easy a trap to fall into. I should know, I've been guilty of it in the past. Visiting Exhibit 3000, meeting the guys and experiencing the city for myself, I've come to understand that while America may be young compared to Europe, it is no less culturally and historically rich. It just hasn't had the same amount of time to understand the value of preserving and upholding its history to the rest of the world.

On my return from 3000 East Grand the previous week I got a lift from Banks and a UR member named Ray. When they bade me farewell at my destination, a strip of new businesses on Michigan Ave that have been central in the regeneration of the area, Mike left me with a final word of warning: "Don't hang out in [BBQ joint] Slow's too much - you might turn into a hipster!" We laughed, but over the following week the line echoed in my head as I met people and discovered the divisions that make up Detroit today. Sure, there are hipsters and rich kids moving in because the city's cheap and empty, but there are also people coming from cities like Ann Arbor because of the unique opportunities that Detroit can offer. And those people are building things, too. They're looking for a way forward. Just like Banks, Waajeed, and the others have been doing since the 1980s.

The one thought I've not been able to let go of after my time there is whether or not these groups can ever truly co-exist, and perhaps even build together. Waajeed told me Detroit didn't need help, it needed partners. I think it has more of them than it realises. Perhaps they just haven't found a way to build and move forward together yet.

You can follow Laurent Fintoni on Twitter here: @laurent_fintoni