When I told friends and family that I was headed to Detroit for Memorial Day weekend, the most common response was, “Don’t get shot!” followed by incredulous inquiries as to why, exactly, I wanted to travel there. The decline of the US auto industry in the 1970s and 1980s hit Michigan’s Motor City especially hard, causing a devastating economic collapse that has left today’s Detroit a depressed shadow of its former thriving self. As a result, it’s earned a reputation for being unsafe and with having few attractions – certainly not a tourist destination.
However, difficult times often inspire the best music, and Detroit is a fitting example as one of the most influential cities in the world for electronic music. It is credited as the birthplace of techno in the 1980s, creating the foundation for much of the electronic music that we hear today and continually turning out some of the most talented DJs and producers.
With its rich history, it makes sense that Detroit would host one of the world’s largest and most venerated electronic music festivals. A mecca for electronic music fans and artists alike, Movement Electronic Music Festival (also known as “DEMF,” short for “Detroit Electronic Music Festival”) began in 2000 to celebrate Detroit techno and has evolved to include a wider variety of electronic genres. The lineup features a mix of Detroit OGs, some of the most well-respected DJs from around the world, and notable up-and-comers. It is such an important event for electronic music that big name DJs who don’t even appear on the bill will travel to attend.
As someone who discovered electronic music within only the past few years, I have little knowledge about its history and the artists who set its foundations – something I’m eager to change. I heard what Movement was all about from my local Boston electronic music scene friends who, unlike me, are well-versed in the genre’s history. They raved about Movement as the place to be for any electronic music fan to hear the best music available, and I knew I had to go, despite – if not because of – being unfamiliar with most of the artists on the lineup. So, when people asked me why I was visiting Detroit, my answer was this: I was going to get an education.
Movement is located in Hart Plaza in Downtown Detroit along the Detroit River, which serves as a border between the US and Canada. It is a concrete plaza with two dedicated amphitheaters, a central fountain, and some grassy, shaded areas. The stages were all reasonably close together, making it easy to jump between stages to catch segments of many different performances throughout the day. This was helpful as the packed schedule presented many conflicts that would have been unbearable otherwise, and it also made it easy to wander around and discover new artists that I might not have made it a point to see.
The Red Bull Music Academy Stage was the main stage in the amphitheater at the center of the plaza, featuring big names and legendary artists such as Richie Hawtin, Squarepusher, Carl Craig, and – my personal favorite – Dave Clarke. Behind the amphitheater, the Made in Detroit Stage showcased local artists from Detroit and was the most reliably enjoyable stage, evidence of the city’s exceptional talent. Affectionately nicknamed the “Rave Cave” by my group of cohorts, the Underground Stage was essentially an underground bunker that was home to some of the darkest, heaviest techno of the weekend. Descending to this stage felt like being transported to a dingy, industrial club at 4am with visibility highly limited by smoke and strobe lights. This would have been my favorite stage had it not been for how difficult it was to get in and out and move around in general during peak hours. It was here that my mind was blown to pieces by German techno artist Ben Klock.
The aptly named Electric Forest Stage was located in the more wooded area of the plaza and largely featured popular dubstep and drum n bass acts. This stage seemed to draw in most of the younger attendees, most dressed in skimpy neon rave gear and holding totems, often making it feel like it was part of another festival altogether. On this stage, Gesaffelstein and Brodinksi each made it on my list of stand-out performances with their energetic techno sets. Lastly, the Beatport Stage was my favorite of the five. Located along the waterfront, performances were complemented by gorgeous river views and a breezy relief from the midday sun. Bill Patrick played one of my top sets of the weekend at this stage; I was captivated in a euphoric state for his entire two-hour deep house and techno set.
The VIP pass amenities were delightful: a separate VIP entrance, meaning no waiting in long lines to enter; an outdoor lounge area with several bars and even massage services; exclusive VIP viewing areas; pleasant portable toilets with running water; and reduced drink and merchandise prices. It was not unusual to brush shoulders with artists and other high-profile attendees such as Seth Troxler and Lee Foss while strolling around. On top of all of this, one afternoon there was a Boiler Room live set within the VIP area featuring Richie Hawtin (who was billed but reportedly did not show up), Stacey Pullen, Magda, Daniel Bell, and Ben Sims. At a price that is still less than most multi-day festivals, the VIP pass was truly well worth the convenience of avoiding lines and for the Porta Potties alone. There were several hotels within walking distance of the festival and although staying at a hotel did add a couple hundred dollars to my total tab for the weekend, I was more than happy to shell out the extra dough given the cheap ticket price and the promise of a hot shower and a comfortable bed to return to at the end of the night. My hotel was transformed into a raver hotspot for the weekend, the lobby a constant blur of neon, tattoos, piercings, luggage, and racks of beer, with mini elevator parties and friendly chaos adding to the excitement and good vibes.
The festival ran from about 1pm to 12am each day, but there was far more fun to be had past midnight. Each night there was a selection of afterparties across town that featured some of the top DJs from the festival plus many who came specifically to play after hours. Located at Detroit’s popular nightlife spots, the afterparties completed the Movement experience provided if you had the stamina and funds to make it out after a full day at the Plaza. The parties ranged from free to $35+ and went until 4am or later, some even lasting for more than 24 hours. Considering their irresistible lineups, they were absolutely worth sacrificing a full nights’ sleep, and I made it to two. The first was at Saint Andrew’s Hall hosted by Life and Death Records who featured label favorites like Thugfucker, Clockwork, and Maceo Plex. I knew I was in the right place when I entered the venue just behind Skream, who traveled to Detroit to attend the festival and allegedly played a surprise set at one of the after parties. The second was at the legendary Old Miami, the diviest of all dive bars. Running from 7am to midnight, I showed up after breakfast around noon and the party was already in full swing. Most of the attendees packed around the backyard stage for Tale of Us‘s set were clearly still out from the night before, looking a little ragged but still going strong. With good music playing somewhere in the city at virtually any hour of the day there was more than enough to do outside of the festival, so it didn’t bother me at all that there was not much to explore in Detroit in terms of tourist attractions.
Perhaps the best part of Movement was the diversity among its attendees. Nearly every type of electronic music fan was represented: kandi ravers, Miami bros, hippie kids, hipsters, affluent LA types, Detroit residents and their children, and industry elites. Unlike other festivals I’ve attended that appeal only to a niche audience, Movement truly felt like the kind of festival that anyone could attend and fit in, and, given the variety of genres represented in the lineup, any electronic music fan could find something they liked. Despite the extraordinary talent both on stage and in the audience, the overall vibe of the festival was down to earth and friendly. Everyone was pumped to be there, and even the most pretentious music fans managed to put aside their snobbery to enjoy a weekend of music discovery and celebration. While many partied pretty hard, Movement was not an obnoxious rage fest; rather, people attended because they truly loved the music, and any illicit indulgences were supplementary.
As the weekend came to a close and the ravers exited Hart Plaza, soggy after the pleasant weather turned into rain on the final day, I was not ready to leave. In a perfect world, I thought, I could stay in Detroit and Movement would continue indefinitely, the music never ending and the attendees continuing to pump money into the city’s broken economy. But, we all have to sleep at some point. It would not be an overstatement to say that it was a life-changing experience for me; I wanted an education and that is precisely what I got, learning even more than I expected about the history of my favorite music, the individuals whose innovative, creative minds made it happen despite trying financial circumstances, and the damaged but resilient city that provided the perfect setting for this music to flourish. I left with a deeper understanding and appreciation for electronic music – especially Detroit techno – and a whole list of new favorite artists. I will definitely be returning next year, and I’m already excited for what I will discover.