Clouds Settle Over Detroit Electronic Music Festival

LTJ Bukem, Kid Koala, Tortoise, others to perform at event pitting founders against one another.

Weather forecasts are in, and a dark cloud will likely settle over Detroit this weekend during the second annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival — both literally and figuratively.

Scattered showers and thunderstorms are expected Saturday through Monday. Equally threatening, however, is the turmoil surrounding the event's organizers.

Earlier this month, producers Pop Culture Media announced it was terminating festival co-founder and creative director Carl Craig's contract because he failed to deliver several signed performer contracts on deadline.

Craig, a renowned techno artist and label head many believe gave the DEMF its credibility when it debuted last year, claims the charges against him are unfounded. Last week he filed a lawsuit against PCM and festival co-founder Carol Marvin for breach of contract and defamation of character (see "Carl Craig Fires Back At Festival Organizers Who Fired Him").

The DEMF, which kicks off at noon Saturday and runs until midnight each night, will feature more than 70 performers, including drum'n'bass innovator LTJ Bukem, techno experimentalists Autechre, turntablist Kid Koala and house veterans Carl Cox and Laurent Garnier.

This year's event, again free and held on four stages in Hart Plaza, lacks the hip-hop emphasis that paired Mos Def and the Roots with Richie Hawtin and DJ Spooky. DEMF 2001, however, is loaded with turntable wizards including Doc Martin, Glenn Underground, Jazzanova, Derrick Carter, John Aquaviva, Mark Farina and P'taah (a complete lineup is available at www.electronicmusicfest.com).

"I selected people who would make a statement musically and inspire people to come out and listen," Craig said. "It wasn't like, 'I got to hire this guy because he's a big name.' It was like, 'I got to hire Tortoise because they're unbelievable music makers.' It's all about the music."

The inaugural DEMF was several years in the making, according to Marvin, who produced the Detroit Jazz Festival for six years. It was designed to expose a Detroit-born musical style that was receiving more recognition elsewhere. When the likes of Craig, Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen first morphed early drum-machine rhythms and synthesizer patterns into nascent techno during the early and mid-'80s, it changed electronic music forever. It was time to pay Detroit and its artists the respect they deserved. Last year's festival drew a surprising 1.1 million people from around the world and was deemed a massive success.

The festival's behind-the-scenes conflicts have many techno fans outraged at the treatment of one of their heroes.

"I have no confidence whatsoever that the DEMF can flourish as it should under people who don't have an understanding of Detroit techno's global importance, its history and its unique strategies," said Tim Barr, author of "Techno — The Rough Guide." "Along with many people here in the United Kingdom, I've cancelled my trip to this year's festival in protest at what I perceive as a fatal blow to what was the most promising event on the global musical calendar."

Craig, who is also celebrating the 10-year anniversary of his Planet E label this weekend (see "Carl Craig To Celebrate Planet E Label With Compilation, Party, Reissue"), admits his differences with Marvin have affected the festival and his spirits.

"It's like the freakin' government taking away your baby," Craig said. "You go to court against the mother of the child and then the judge says, 'We think the mother should have the baby.' Of course you're going to feel really hard about it. It's your flesh and blood. It's my idea. It's a shame we've had to part ways in such a screwed-up situation."

Craig's absence will almost certainly affect next year's festival, but what about this year? He is still on board until May 30 and has signed a stellar lineup that includes Mixmaster Mike, De la Soul and Tortoise as well as fellow Detroit artists Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May (known as the Belleville Three, for the suburban high school they attended during the late '70s).

"I think the signs were there months ago that this year's event would be very different from last year's," Barr said. "I suspect many of those changes resulted from behind-the-scenes maneuvering as people outside the music have forced their way in, hoping to grab a slice of the action for themselves."

Craig said Marvin went behind his back while planning this year's festival, which has been officially renamed fOCUS://DEMF/2001 after sponsor Ford Motor Company's Focus model (Atkins' "No UFOs" has been used in Focus commercials since last fall).

Several calls to PCM and Marvin were not returned.

"There's some DJs being put in without my approval," Craig said, though he refused to give names. "If I wanted to hire them, I would have hired them."

Still, the show must go on.

"The festival is about an idea, a great idea," Craig said. "Just because I have issues with one person in particular doesn't mean it's going to ruin how I feel about the festival. I'm excited about everyone I asked to play. I'm interested in seeing a lot of the new jacks. There's some really amazing talent."

Credibility may have to be found elsewhere next year. According to Dan Sicko, a Detroit native and author of "Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk," Pop Culture Media is considering filling Craig's role with a panel of artists and industry insiders. "That can't and won't be as strong as one person's vision by definition," Sicko said. "While things were damn near perfect last year, some seams are showing this year."

DEMF 2001 will naturally be compared to last year's edition, a tough act to follow. The festival went off with few hitches (a handful of drug-possession arrests were made and one man was seriously injured when he fell off a statue) considering that more than 300,000 people attended each day.

"It was an unprecedented success story," Barr said of last year's DEMF. "The numbers who traveled from Europe to attend confirmed the huge worldwide interest in the music coming out of Detroit."

What also instilled the DEMF as a landmark event was the support of Detroit, which provided Craig and Marvin with a venue and initial funding.

The city's involvement is in sharp contrast to other dance-music hotbeds such as San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Toronto and Miami, where officials target the club and rave scenes in an attempt to curb the use of ecstasy and other party drugs.

"Detroit realizes they can bring back the reputation and respect Motown had at one time," said Craig, who has released landmark techno records under the aliases Paperclip People, Innerzone Orchestra and Psyche. "It benefits Detroit more to support the music and events like this rather than shut them down."

While the event itself is free, the city capitalizes on millions of dollars from tourists, who last year began flocking to Detroit as early as Wednesday for parties.

Several clubs will be packing music fans in during the night this year as well. Atkins, May and Saunderson play one of the most anticipated parties Friday at the CPOP Gallery, while Ken Ishii headlines the Mekka party Saturday at the Majestic Theater Center and Metro Area top the 7th City party at the SereNgeti Ballroom. Craig makes his only turntable appearance Sunday at the Planet E party at the Labyrinth.

If the clouds don't pass — both the literal and figurative ones — the weekend's real excitement could well take place indoors.