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Rain, Controversy Couldn't Stop Beats At Detroit Electronic Fest

Despite cofounder Carl Craig's firing and terrible weather, beat junkies poured into Motor City over weekend.

You have to hand it to techno junkies — not much can come between them and their beats.

Hostile weather, behind-the-scenes controversy and canceled sets from two of the biggest attractions (LTJ Bukem and Carl Cox) all threatened to put a damper on the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, but the attendees — estimated between 850,000 and 1.5 million over a three-day period — kept dancing.

Not until hail and lightning shut down the second annual event with an hour left to go Monday night did the pulsating rhythms from turntables, synthesizers, voices and a few guitars begin to dissolve from historic Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit.

It didn't look good early Saturday morning, hours before America's most vital electronic music gathering was to get underway, when local police arrested 125 people at two nearby raves, confiscating guns, drugs and tanks of nitrous oxide. Although they weren't festival related, the busts were a sign that authorities weren't going to turn a blind eye to some of the scene's unlawful components.

And when the festival did kick off, immediately people were talking about the absence of Bukem, the popular U.K. drum'n'bass producer scheduled to perform Monday night. Although there were rumors he pulled out after festival cofounder and creative director Carl Craig was fired earlier this month (see [article id="1444029"]"Clouds Settle Over Detroit Electronic Music Festival"[/article]), promoters said Bukem had problems with his passport.

Speaking of Craig, it seemed as though nobody was going to be able to forget about his story — the classic artist vs. corporation struggle that had been so well-documented by local press. The longest line at noon Saturday was the one at the booth for his label, Planet E, where they were handing out little pink "I support Carl Craig" stickers.

Asked one clueless onlooker: "What is Carl Craig running for?"

Not public office, the DJ said later. "I deal with too much politics already," he said. Changing to a more serious tone, he added, "It was good to see a mass of pink stickers from the stage. I'm glad to have the support."

DEMF 2001 seemed doomed, but leave it to the music — entrancing styles of techno, jazz, rock and hip-hop umbrellaed (no pun intended) under the "electronic" label — to revive the inspirational spirit so heralded at the festival the year before.

By P'taah's ambient Saturday afternoon set on the Ford Focus Main Stage, everything but the music was an afterthought. Police on duty were calling the event "peaceful" and bobbing their heads to the tunes (the exact number of arrests at the DEMF was not available Tuesday morning, though early reports in The Detroit News indicated it was only a handful). Craig was racing to and from the four stages to see the acts he booked. Even Carol Marvin, the president of Pop Culture Media, who sponsored the event and was scorned for terminating Craig's contract — effective Tuesday (May 29) — wore a smile.

Techno music may have been born in Detroit, but this was only the second time the city had a chance to relish it. A tornado could have wiped through site — sending pacifiers, glow sticks and Red Bull cans into oblivion — and this show would have gone on.

Music fans from around the world descended on Detroit determined to hear more than 70 acts, ranging from DJs Doc Martin and Laurent Garnier to bands Tortoise and Jazzanova. Dressed in rain-soaked club wear, the festival saw people and families of all ages and races grooving to a variety of entertainment.

The DEMF had a number of memorable moments, many of which infused popular music with the beat mixing of DJing or the record scratching of turntablism.

Canadian John Acquaviva closed his two-hour, festival-stealing DJ set Sunday afternoon by dropping Eddy Grant's 1983 hit "Electric Avenue" into his mix. He started by laying the song's factory sound effects over a slippery beat, eventually inserting lyrics and finally the entire track.

The night before, Static Revenger opened his pounding set with the oozing guitar and screaming fans from Peter Frampton's live version of "Do You Feel Like We Do."

Kid Koala, a flashy turntablist who announced he was available "to DJ weddings and children's parties," spliced up Tears For Fears' "Shout" so much during his set Sunday that when he finally played the chorus, which the packed crowd sang along to, it was a shock to hear what song he had been working.

The artist with the most pop music references — and the most people watching him — was Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike. Dropping at least a record a minute during his 90-minute headlining set on Sunday, he made sure to play plenty of Beasties, along with sprinkling familiar lines from Rage Against the Machine and Rush over underground hip-hop albums that begged for boogying.

Mike said before his set that he was never influenced by Detroit techno, but couldn't resist Craig's invitation. "I just heard 1. 5 million people were here last year," he said. "That's a lot of ears."

Mix Master's mainstream appeal drew a large crowd, but as Craig said many times during the weekend, the DEMF is not about recognizable artists, but the history of electronic music and its future.

Techno trailblazer Juan Atkins, before being cut off at the end of his festival closing set (Derrick May was to follow), traced electronic music's origins by playing some of his early tracks next to those by Afrika Bambaataa and Kraftwerk.

Kevin Saunderson reunited his 10-piece electronic ensemble Inner City to warm up for Atkins, though it was the reunion of A Number of Names that created the most buzz. The Detroit duo behind 1981's "Shari Vari," often cited as the first techno track, played their guitar and synth music together for the first time in 19 years.

Long Island hip-hoppers De La Soul made history the heart of their Sunday afternoon show, chronicling their own career from 1989's 3 Feet High and Rising to last year's Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump.

On the other end of the spectrum was the self-proclaimed future of hip-hop, Saul Williams, whose debut album was released in Europe earlier this year, "but America isn't ready for it yet," he said. The lyricist, who starred in the movie Slam, garnered mixed reactions with his preachings put to electronic and rock grooves.

The real taste of things to come could be heard Friday night from the underground Bacardi/Real Detroit Weekly stage, where Autechre were breaking down techno beats on their computers and building them back up with all sorts of twists and turns.

With U.K. superstar DJ Carl Cox calling in sick Monday, the final day was bland until the Detroit legends Inner City and Juan Atkins took the stage.

When Derrick May came on to announce the DEMF would end early, he introduced Craig to wild applause. Craig's final words: "It was my pleasure to have you in Hart Plaza. We rocked it once again."