Most of the year, Detroit stands as a not-so-shining example of how a city can fall apart, its seemingly never-ending death spiral illustrating either the failures of the capitalist system or the perils of misguided city management, depending on one’s point of view. But the town has one thing going for it that most places can only dream of: one of the richest musical histories to be found, not only in America, but the world. There’s the blues and jazz of the Black Bottom neighborhood in the middle of the last century, the emotion-soaked R&B of Motown and the kick-out-the-jams rock of the MC5 and Iggy in the ’60s and ’70s, the timeless cosmic slop of the Parliament-Funkadelic crew—and, of course, techno, muscled into existence nearly three decades ago by Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Most people reading this will know the drill—the genre did become one of the most dominant sounds in the clubbing world, after all, and remains so to this day. Most will also know that on every Memorial Day weekend, the Motor City pays tribute to techno and related rhythms at the Movement Festival; this year’s edition takes over its longtime home, the riverside’s Hart Plaza, from Saturday, May 24 through Monday, May 26.
Launched in 2000 as Detroit Electronic Music Festival, the affair was something of an unexpected success—a previous attempt in 1994 called the World Party was, as Richie Hawtin once described it, a ”shambles.” But the fest has thrived, growing year by year in size and stature without sacrificing authenticity, and serves as one of the most beloved get-togethers in the clubland universe. That’s not to say everything has gone off without a hitch over its lifespan. Financial losses, organizational changes, various controversies and rivalries, and the resentment that always seems to come with the advancement of any underground art form—especially one like techno, which tends to engender such strong emotions and feelings of ownership among its practitioners and fans—have all made their presence known over the years.
Still, the throwdown has managed to stay remarkably true to its roots; even with its current setup of five stages, 100-plus acts and 100,000 party people, the quality control is still there. Jason Huvaere, the veteran Detroit promoter and president of Movement’s production company, Paxahau, is a man who understands Detroit techno’s legacy and takes his role in protecting it seriously. “This is where techno began,” he once stated in an interview. “This is where Juan started calling it techno; this is where Kevin and Derrick were making it soon after; this is the mecca of electronic dance music. If you wanted to call the festival a pilgrimage, you wouldn’t be wrong.” That might sound like an exaggeration, but he’s got a point. For many dance-music lovers—local fans, of course, but also revelers from across the country and around the world—Movement is the must-go festival of the year, and sets a musical standard that few similar events can match.
EDM—the plus-size, balls-to-the-wall kind that pretty much defines the sound of most electronic-music festivals these days—plays a relatively minor role at Movement. Bass-heavy EDM styles are there in (very) limited form if you want it; Skrillex and GRiZ have played in years past, and this year’s party sees sets coming from DJ Snake and Baauer, among others. The Aviciis, Aokis and Hardwells of the world, meanwhile, are nowhere to be seen.
But what Movement might be lacking in mainstream star wattage is more than made up for by the amount of depth, talent and plain old realness on hand. The Made in Detroit stage, in particular, keeps the focus on local heroes like Saunderson, Octave One, Terrence Parker, Eddie “Flashin’” Fowlkes and DJ Minx (who absolutely killed it at last year’s movement); elsewhere, Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Daniel Bell in his DBX guise, Carl Craig, Ataxia and the Underground Resistance crew’s Timeline project are among those holding it down for the home team. Needless to say, the festival hosts a wide swathe of national and worldwide figures as well, with the must-see (and must-hear) likes of Basic Channel’s Moritz von Oswald, the Hyperdub label’s Kode9, Brazilian drum ’n’ bass vet DJ Marky and Zeitgeiber (the awe-inspiring team of Lucy and Speedy J) just a tiny sampling of the pioneering acts on hand.
And we haven’t even mentioned the vast array of after (and after-after) parties, a side of the weekend’s activities that has mushroomed over the past few years. Some—like Resident Advisor’s shindig with DJ Harvey on Friday 23, Ghostly International’s night with Adult. and Matthew Dear the same night, and Soul Clap’s megablast with special guest George Clinton (!) on Saturday 24—are officially sanctioned by Movement; many others are not. While Movement weekend, thankfully, hasn’t quite become a 24-hour, Miami Music Week-style club-crawl miasma—which might be difficult anyway, given Detroit’s shortage of viable venues—a bit of planning insures a full slate of revelry, not to mention a massive hangover on the following Tuesday. But damn the after-effects—if you’ve never been to Movement, you owe it to yourself to pay homage to the city that started it all. And if you have checked it out in years past…well, you probably don’t need much convincing.