Detroit is a city that has influenced a lot of different things in American society, whether it be music or automobiles. A vibrant city with a long history, Detroit was the birthplace of techno music and was the city that many of the pioneers of techno emerged from. The prominent pioneers, the Belleville Three, were three friends originally from the Motor City themselves. Without their influence and their work in the genre, techno music wouldn’t be as popular today.
The Belleville Three started from humble beginnings. The three friends who comprised the group, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, met at Belleville High School. Being some of the only Black students in the school, they quickly became good friends and bonded over the color of their skin and over their shared interest in the artistry that is music. Having a similar taste in artists, they found inspiration from other prominent artists of the time, such as Kraftwerk, Parliament, Prince, and the B-52s. It was after listening to Parliament that Juan Atkins went out and bought a synthesizer. He was also the first to learn how to DJ and teach his fellow friends how to use the turntables.
Through trial and error, the trio defined the sound of techno. Using the name “Deep Space Soundworks,” Juan Atkins and Derrick May began to DJ in Detroit. By 1981, DJ Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson, the popular Detroit DJ on WGPR, began to play the record mixes produced by the trio dubbed the “Belleville Three.” In addition, the group had started to expand their influence out further by working with other artists. They had traveled to Chicago to study the house music scene there, particularly the works by the famous Chicago DJs Ron Hardy and Frankie Knuckles. The hours spent studying other artists from other beat-driven music genres and working on their craft paid off. They cultivated their unique sound combining house music with Kraftwerk’s mechanical sounds in such a way that it represented the post-industrial atmosphere of their home city, Detroit.
Although the Belleville Three helped start the techno scene in Detroit, they were not the only group in the genre. Thanks to the Belleville Three, Detroit became a hotspot for techno artists, and the community became a sort of safe haven for starting artists as they all shared studio space and equipment.
But, just because the Detroit techno community was tight-knit doesn’t mean that there weren’t creative differences between the artists. The Belleville Three soon split up after defining the Detroit techno scene and found success under many different names. All three set up their own record label, all close to one another in the Eastern Market of Detroit. They also all teamed up with some of the other pioneers of the genre. For instance, while attending college, Juan Atkins met Rick Davis, and they both teamed up to create Cybotron. “Alleys of Your Mind,” their first single, recorded on their Deep Space label in 1981, sold over 15,000 copies. The two found themselves gaining more recognition with their follow-up singles, “Cosmic Cars” and “Clear.” The result of this being that they were signed to the record-label Fantasy and released their album Clear.
Even 40 years after their debut, the Belleville Three are still influencing the genre today. The legendary trio helped introduce the world to a new, unheard of sound that helped change the music industry’s direction forever. It is in their nicknames that their contributions to techno are known. Juan Atkins has been dubbed “The Godfather of Techno,” while many refer to Derrick May as the “Innovator,” and Kevin Saunders as the “Elevator.” Through their hours spent cultivating their unique sound, the Belleville Three helped bring about a musical revolution in not only Detroit but around the world as the techno scene has grown far from its humble beginnings in Detroit.