Think to the times you’ve been on a dancefloor and heard “Big Fun,” “Strings Of Life,” “No UFOs,” “Clear” or “Good Life”. Think to the times you’ve heard music by Joey Beltram, Carl Craig, Suburban Knight, DVS1, Octave One and Blake Baxter. Think to the times you’ve heard anything taking cues from the rigidity, steeliness and high-energy impact of techno.
All this can be traced directly back to Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson: likeminded friends studying at Belleville High School in outer Detroit, who became known to the world as the Belleville Three. Their role in contemporary culture, let alone the dance music tradition, cannot be understated.
Operating close to the cold, unforgiving climate of post-industrial Detroit, they forged their own sound in the 80s: making use of open possibilities created by new electronic tools; stitching together cassette mixes picked up and played immediately by their mythical radio idol, The Electrifying Mojo; and creating an environment, rooted around a serious philosophy of egalitarianism and independent thought, in which ‘techno’ music could flourish creatively. As a united front, they hacked a path into an as-yet-unimagined future.
By the time of house and techno’s global explosion at the turn of the 90s, the Belleville Three’s legacy had been assured. The music they made in that first wave has continued to dominate radio, clubs, and critical lists of best dance records of all time. All three started crucially important record labels – Atkins, nicknamed ‘The Originator’, with Metroplex; May, ‘The Innovator’, with Transmat; Saunderson, ‘The Elevator’, with KMS – that have brought the world countless more classics. Their assured presence on the touring circuit to this day speaks to their staying-power as DJs. They are not just progenitors, but powerhouses.
Now, after nearly 40 years in the game, 2017 will mark the first time Atkins, May and Saunderson have ever toured and made music together as a group.
In spite of all this collective history, their appearances in the same place are surprisingly sparse. The formative days of instrument-swapping and mixtape-making was placed to the side as a result of Atkins’ early start as a producer with Model 500 and Cybotron, years before May or Saunderson began in earnest. Their residencies at Detroit spots such as Shelter and The Music Institute around ’87-89 were broken by those clubs’ dissolution. Once techno became a global industry, the first wave had briefly ebbed.
Most recently, the trio were involved in 2006 documentary High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music; a special tag-team set went down at Awakenings Festival in 2010; all have had direct curatorial input over the years with Detroit’s Movement Festival. But these stand as outliers – Atkins, May and Saunderson have been naturally kept busy with their own projects over the years. Temporary retirements, divergent musical paths and family commitments played their part, too. Now, the time has come to return as a unit.
A global tour would be cause enough for excitement – but 2017 will also see the first ever joint productions to come under the Belleville Three moniker. Amalgamate May’s steel and speed, Saunderson’s populist sensibilities, and Atkins’ canny distillation of the strange and fantastical, and the result is sure to be the right balance of boundary-pushing and crowd-pleasing. Pooling a remarkable combined century’s worth of expertise, experience and exposure, with the added impetus of making a definitive mark on the movement they started, and there is considerable cause for excitement for what’s to come in the next chapter of the Belleville Three.