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Submerge in Detroit: Techno's Creative Response to Urban Crisis

  • C. VECCHIOLA (a1)

The Detroit electronic music (DEM) community is a group of urban residents who, since the 1980s, have used new technologies in music production as well as changing communications technologies to create a transnational arts community. This article is a result of ethnographic research of the DEM community conducted from 1999 to 2007 and is focussed on the city's biggest independent distribution company, Submerge. The phrase “electronic music” refers to both house and techno music. Techno music and house music are African American music genres created in Detroit and Chicago respectively during the early 1980s. Recent concerns in the field of American studies – transnationalism, community collaboration, issues of technology and global communication – can be seen in a group of urban residents who have been exploring similar issues, in some cases by necessity, for the past three decades. It is important for the study of American urban places to include a clear picture of heterogeneous urban populations in places of crisis. With a richer idea of what life is really like in cities in crisis, we can better plan, develop, and encourage urban revitalization.

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1 The top three states visited by overseas travelers were California with 25.5%, Florida with 23.7%, and New York with 23.7%. US Dept. of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2001.

2 The title of the book that was quickly catapulted to required-reading status on Detroit exemplifies this tendency: Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). While Sugrue's book does the important work of refiguring the urban crisis as the result of economic policy and white homeowner animosity rather than springing from the urban rebellions of the 1960s and cultural patterns of urban pathology, the book's major flaw is the lack of attention to black agency. The consequences of this limitation are explained well in Beth Bates, Timothy Bates, and Grace Lee Boggs's Where Are the People? Review Essay on Thomas Sugrue's The Origins of the Urban Crisis,Review of Black Political Economy, 27, 4 (Spring 2000). Comparing Detroit to disaster resulted in two provocative recent articles: Reese's, Laura A.Economic versus Natural Disasters: If Detroit Had a Hurricane …,” Economic Development Quarterly, 20, 3 (2006), 219–31; and Herron's, JerryDetroit: Disaster Deferred, Disaster in Progress,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 106, 4 (2007), 663–82. I do not want to suggest that the motif of disaster is not useful in order to make policy suggestions, but merely that a concurrent attention to what functions as vibrant in the city enhances our complete understanding of the realities of urban places.

3 For some notable exceptions in ethnography see Elijah Anderson, Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999); Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalks (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999); Katherine Newman, Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market (New York: Russell Sage Foundation at Harvard University Press, 2006); Katherine Newman, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City (New York: Knopff. 1999); Mary Pattillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Mario Luis Small, Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

4 For an excellent, Detroit-based discussion of the importance of community participation in planning practice see June Manning Thomas, Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997).

5 Andrew F. Haughwout and Robert P. Inman, “Should Suburbs Help Their Central City?”, Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, 2002.

6 An informative discussion of this interchange can be found in an article by Heiko Hoffman, “From the Autobahn to I-94: The Origins of Detroit Techno and Chicago House,” Pitchfork Media, available at

7 The same year a collective of musicians, known as A Number of Names, released a song called “Sharevari” which is alternately regarded as the first techno record. Its layered sound and repeated vocals that mimic two copies of a record played almost in synch (“Chari Chari … Vari Vari”) replicate the sound of a DJ's performance. Naming the song after an influential 1980s clothing boutique that featured avant-garde fashions demonstrates the aesthetics of this particular social scene.

8 Submerge was nurtured early on by Mike Banks's family, including support from his mother and his sister, Bridgette.

9 “History,” Submerge, 1 Aug. 2009, available at

10 Christa Weatherspoon Robinson, email interview, 10 June 2005.

11 Bridgette Banks, personal interview, 8 July 2003.

15 Christa Weatherspoon Robinson, e-mail interview.

16 “History,” Submerge.

17 The company investigated incorporating more digital downloads but decided instead to remain rooted in its foundation of vinyl records. Some considered vinyl records obsolete as early as the introduction of the cassette tape and the compact disk, but DJs and electronic music have saved vinyl from extinction. Digital downloads are, however, sold by Submerge Recordings, which is a separate company owned by Ade' Mainor that was once housed in the same building as Submerge.

18 While the urban crisis of Detroit influenced the music, the positive effects of political power resting within the black community were also important to the development of the music. For a text that reframes the discussion away from the absence of white residents towards the resulting realities of black political power see Heather Ann Thompson, Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

19 Bridgette Banks, personal interview.

20 Though she cautions against waiting for the government to take care of you, I believe that Bridgette's comments have less to do with a broad-based repudiation of the welfare system than with an understanding of the limits of the system as it exists. The challenges facing the central city are discussed within the city in terms fluid enough to incorporate both self-reliance and the necessities of public policies that redress inequities of opportunity in urban neighborhoods.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
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