Emerging from Detroit in the 1980s, techno quickly distinguished itself via much more than just its driving rhythms. Inspired by the futuristic philosophies of Alvin Toffler and the sounds of Kraftwerk, the B-52s, and funk bands like Parliament-Funkadelic, techno was pieced together with innovative technologies such as Roland TR 808s, Roland TR 909s, and Korg MS-10s. It was deliberately post-racial and forward thinking in a metropolitian area beset by a history of racial injustice and segregation. It eschewed capitalism in a city built on the 20th century’s most iconic symbol of American consumerism—the automobile. And it was made for and by the underground, with artists often adopting pseudonyms and obscuring their personal identities.

Fast forward to 2022: Techno has grown and thrived on an international scale, influencing everything from fashion to heavy metal along the way. Despite all that, the average music fan might connect the genre more with Europe than with its midwestern roots and—thanks to the commercialization and white bro-iness of modern EDM—missing the fact that the genre was pioneered largely by young, Black men.

In his new film God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines, director and Detroit native Kristian R. Hill attempts to set the record straight, separating the facts of techno from the myths. Centered around an iconic 1987 Record Mirror photo of first-wave techno artists Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson (often labeled “the Belleville Three” due to their having grown up in the semi-rural western suburb), Blake Baxter, Santonio Echols, and Eddie Fowlkes taken by the British photographer Normski, the film documents techno’s revolutionary origin story and explores how it continues to impact the world today.

God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca Film Festival. CREEM spoke with Hill about growing up in the early Detroit techno scene and the impact of techno’s real originators over Zoom.

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CREEM: Tell me about your experience growing up with music in Detroit.

Kristian R. Hill:
Where I grew up, Juan Atkins’ grandmother lived around the block from us. People in New Orleans gravitate to brass band instruments and things of that nature, but in Detroit, we gravitated to turntables and synthesizers, and eventually beat machines. DJs Al Ester and Steve Dunbar, rest in peace, who have short parts in the film, did my eighth-grade graduation party. So from eighth grade graduation until I left Detroit, I was in the clubs as a club kid and eventually as a DJ. Not only that, [influential Detroit radio personality] the Electrifying Mojo used to have this thing called Mojo's Mixerdome. When I was 17, in April of ’87—I remember because a friend of mine recorded it—I was on the radio with Mojo and I was able to talk to him and play a 30-minute mix that I made. I vividly remember saying, “I want your job, Mojo,” not knowing that years later I would make a film and Mojo would be in it.

I’m doing my best to carry on the legacy of all of that early Detroit music where techno and house and all of that was pure and nothing was tainted. It was just as Mike Huckaby said, “It was the most important time for this music because nobody had an influence on it; it was free to grow and blossom.”

People in New Orleans gravitate to brass band instruments and things of that nature, but in Detroit, we gravitated to turntables and synthesizers, and eventually beat machines

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