Since the early 2000s, Detroit’s Movement Electronic Music Festival has celebrated its city’s place in the history books. This year, as attendance soars and crowd-pleasing artists like deadmau5 pepper the bill, Patricia Johnson wonders if the best parties emerge as the main events draw to a close.
Last weekend, I made my third visit to Detroit’s yearly celebration of its techno heritage, Movement Electronic Music Festival. In the two years since my last trip, the festival has swelled in popularity, acquiring new fans as EDM dwindles. This shift was apparent in the visibly younger crowd, with far more bared biceps and booty shorts than I had anticipated; the festival kids who make the rounds each year had now added Movement to the rotation, alongside the likes of EDC and Ultra. But gone is the neon, replaced with head-to-toe black – as though the Kardashians and Richie Hawtin had merged to create a new techno festival uniform, proclaiming “don’t give me shots or coke” or “eat, sleep, techno” on their (black) t-shirts.
Over a decade after its inception, Movement is not quite as cool as it may have once appeared. So it’s hardly surprising that underground techno heads are increasingly turning their nose up at the daytime festival in favor of the litany of unofficial after-hours events. But I feel protective of the festival I’ve grown to love – sure, the after parties are worth rallying for, but there is something special about spending the day on Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit, wandering from stage to stage, discovering artists you’ve never heard of blow you away. Going into this weekend I wondered if this would still happen, or if my after-hours-only friends were onto something.
I arrived in Detroit on Friday, one day before the festival kickoff but just in time for pre-party festivities. My first stop of the evening was the annual Smartbar party at TV Lounge where Delano Smith, Jason Kendig, Derek Plaslaiko, and others skillfully warmed up a crowd of fresh-faced party goers and industry VIPs excited for the weekend ahead. With three stages, there was enough to explore for the entirety of the evening, but I eventually moved on to Theo Parrish’s annual after-hours Music Gallery party.
Located to the north in Hamtramck, the remote venue perplexed even the local attendees. The party was well on its way to being one of the weekend’s most memorable – the venue a large, rave-appropriate commercial garage, the audience a diverse group of positive, friendly music lovers. The sweet smell of barbecue wafted from the first room into the large dancefloor, where Parrish was intentionally obscured by a wall to foster a more collective vibe. But the party ended abruptly just after 2AM as police angrily demanded that everyone leave, citing the lack of proper permits. As the crowd filtered out, a particularly heated officer indiscriminately yelled, “Thanks for ruining my city!”
The accusation cut deep at a festival intended to celebrate the city’s rich – and often under-appreciated – music culture; Parrish himself has dedicated himself to Detroit’s dance music scene for over two decades. But even though downtown Detroit is rapidly springing back to life as Warby Parker and its commercial peers move in, drive just a little further out and it’s clear the city and its surrounding communities are still recovering from economic collapse.
The next day I arrived for day one at Hart Plaza and immediately descended into the dark, rave-like Underground Stage where Matrixxman wasted no time unleashing punishing techno onto a willing audience. Later, Octave One delivered one of the best live performances of the weekend, their energy on the stage matching the exhilarating energy of their set. Larry Heard performing live as Mr. Fingers was a special treat, and Carl Craig closed out day one with the most appropriate Detroit techno set I could imagine.
For my second night of after-hours functions I headed to Tangent Gallery for a Tresor party where I caught Silent Servant, Marcellus Pittman, Claude Young, and a stimulating live set with Thomas Fehlmann and Terrence Dixon. Here, the difference between festival attendees and after party attendees was apparent: gone were the Holy Ship hats, replaced by Discwoman tees. Also notable was the lack of iPhone glow on the dancefloor, the hallmark of a quality party. I left satisfied, but it sounded like the place to be Saturday night was Club Toilet, via NYC’s Wrecked and Pittsburgh’s Honcho – described to me as a sweaty, shirtless, queer utopia.
Much of day two was spent recharging in my hotel room. The festival lineup wasn’t especially captivating, but I did head to the Plaza to catch some much needed live acid from Paranoid London before a thunderstorm rolled through and shut down the festival momentarily. The weather delayed a closing set from deadmau5 under his techno moniker testpilot, so he filled the time with a few awkward jokes and belches into the mic. The audience allegedly found this very entertaining.
Thankfully, the after-hours lineup on Sunday evening was stacked, with unmissable artists headlining multiple venues across town. One of the hottest events – obvious by the seemingly-endless line around the block – was the 10-year anniversary of No Way Back, a collaboration between local label Interdimensional Transmissions and New York’s The Bunker. Organizers had transformed the venue completely, hanging a parachute from the ceiling illuminated with moody red lights to backdrop the pummeling techno from Erika, BMG, and others. A side room provided a respite with eerie ambient sounds and folding chairs in which to reflect (or nap) – this was not your typical American techno party.
It was impossible to go wrong on this night of Movement after hours events. My only complaint was that all of the most desirable DJs played after dawn, and thus I missed them: Derek Plaslaiko and Mike Servito at No Way Back; Omar-S and DJ Stingray at Day/Night; Andrés kicking things off at Old Miami. This scheduling rewarded the most dedicated and experienced party goers. The smart strategy would have been to go home and sleep for a few hours, then head back just after dawn, refreshed. Instead, I made the rookie move of attempting to power through, failing when my aching feet called it quits.
But during Movement one missed opportunity only opens the door for another. Since I was sleeping rather than dancing at 8AM, and not waiting in line at Old Miami at 1PM, I was able to make it to the festival early for the first time all weekend. Monday – the final day – boasted Movement’s most diverse lineup yet, letting a little bass and hip-hop slip in for some essential techno palate cleansing. I lost my mind dancing to TT the Artist, DJ Spinn & DJ Taye of Teklife, and Danny Brown – leaving time for some traditional Movement flavor with DJ Harvey, whose blissful afternoon set was truly a blessing.
While the crowd and indeed some of the music was different this year, one element that remained unchanged was Movement’s commitment to celebrating the legacy of Detroit techno. The Made in Detroit stage featured the best of Detroit’s local DJs and is consistently the best stage at the festival. This is one of Movement’s greatest strengths: at many other American music festivals the location is virtually irrelevant and attendees simply drop in, dance, and then leave. At Movement, there’s a cultural story being told about the city and the innovators responsible for creating truly global sound.
My worry as attendance rises and Movement becomes just another stop on the summer party festival circuit is that the culture of Detroit and the original purpose of the festival will be overlooked, attendees ignoring the local acts in favor of the big names from overseas (all while walking around in trendy “Made in Detroit” tees), possibly leading to a homogenization of the festival lineup. It is easy to go to Movement and not stray far from Hart Plaza, but then it’s impossible to get to know Detroit as the culturally rich city that it is. The police officer’s naked resentment towards us on Friday night underlines my worry – that festival attendees are all merely techno tourists who drop in, dance, and then leave without developing a respect for the city. Respect alone will not help boost the Detroit economy, but it can help ease the perception that music fans are taking advantage of a recovering city.
My hope is that Movement remains an educational experience. Even if a new attendee doesn’t know Carl Cox from Carl Craig when they arrive, their experience at Movement should inspire them to dig a little bit deeper. This is why I will always opt to not skip out on the day events at Hart Plaza in favor of the after-hours parties. Some epic sets can only take place on a festival stage in front of a large audience and some sets are more suited to intimate club spaces – Movement gives you the option to do both.
Patricia Johnson is on Twitter
Read next: How to make a bleep techno classic