Blog: Dan Sicko

Dan Sicko is the author of
Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, now in its second printing. He's also written for numerous publications including Rolling Stone, Wired, and Urb.

Dan has lectured about Detroit music culture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, UCLA, and for the Shrinking Cities project in Leipzig, Germany. He works as a Creative Director with the Detroit office of Organic, Inc.

Dan Sicko - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: A Love Letter to Monday

I am not a morning person. Neither am I a beginning-of-the-week person. There's always been something about shifting to a work mindset and any additional events or tasks that just seems all the more daunting. For example, finishing this post I'm sure raised my blood pressure a tiny bit.

But at some point in 2008, that all changed. I looked forward to Mondays to the point where I almost felt guilty. This is where I fell in love with improv. Not to retread the posts of PJ Jacokes, who is infinitely more qualified to speak on this subject, but it's worth noting this phenomenon that so permanently changed my behavior.

Sometime after I started taking classes at the fated, displaced Second City Theater in Novi, I wandered down to Hamtramck to check out the Monday night line-up at the Planet Ant Theatre, all of which is dedicated to improv. It would be a while yet before I'd step on stage and fall on my face, but I could at least take in the opening guest troupes and their amazingly talented home team.

Let me just say this now—I'm not throwing "amazingly talented" around because I'm from Detroit. I've seen improv in four cities now, including Improv Olympic and The Upright Citizens Brigade,  and on a good night Planet Ant can hang with them all.

This is in a theatre that has a modest 65-seat capacity or thereabouts, and only charges $5.00 for what amounts to about three hours of entertainment.

I owe this place a lot as it revitalized my creative process (or maybe that's completely rebuilt it from the ground up?), and gave me plenty of chances to get on stage. Starting from hugging the "back line" and not saying a word to initiating scenes and performing as a part of a guest team, I've learned a lot. And technically, I haven't really taken any classes there.

Aside from any one character or scene, the lasting impression one gets at Planet Ant is how much the performers love what they do. Even if you would never consider doing the same sort of thing, you should come down some Monday. You can experience Detroit's creative spirit in a wonderfully raw but expertly practiced way.

Except for me I suppose. But I'll happily fall on my face for you.

Post 2: Dig Deeper

One thing I've learned in my years in marketing is that even the most complex story can be simplified. I tend to resist that notion when it comes to talking about Detroit. And doubly so when it's techno music.

When I first set out to write Techno Rebels at the end of 1996, it was right at the onset of the big marketing push known as "electronica", another genre haphazardly thrown out into the ether. It might have made it easier to divide up record bins, but it made techno's story even harder to tell. There would be no "elevator pitch." My favorite bit of irony is that Derrick May is credited with a literal techno elevator pitch, "It's like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator." Aside from interesting music, I like to think the German group would also make instruments out of Clinton's hair extensions.

I chose to tell the story of techno in Detroit—a much easier task than "defining" it. Since doing so, I've pretty much abandoned the notion of music genres altogether. Once you've committed to tracing the roots of a culture, you know that there are no real boundaries, only little flashes of brilliance and concentrations of attention. The moment you cling to one definition or aspect, the more anomalies and exceptions will emerge. Presenting the complexity was a real, yet amazingly rewarding challenge.

For starters, techno is a product of Detroit's black middle class. This brings up two issues. One, the mere concept of a black middle class has been a difficult one to grasp in the U.S., and it leeches some of the "urban" allure. It places the culture a few levels above the idea of "street music", certainly a very different story than that of hip-hop.

From there, if you can fathom the notion of a black bohemia and marry that with a love of New Wave and synth-pop music of the 1980s, we can start talking about the culture that spawned Detroit techno. This particular starting point is what informed Chapter 2 of my book, and I spent an inordinate amount of time researching and obsessing over it. I think it was because it predated my involvement in the scene by five years or so. It was that much more mysterious and intriguing.

Working through the nuances of its music has made me that much more defensive of Detroit as a city and its portrayals in the media. It's far easier to be awestruck over the "ruins" of Detroit, or if you're lucky, perhaps the farmland or grasslands that have reclaimed the city. But until we were graced by the excellent Detroit Blog or until Time, Inc. embedded itself last fall, it has been far too easy to plug the city into predictable patterns.

I say to anyone ever writing, speaking, or visiting, and especially to those of us still here who try to explain what it's like: Resist that we can be defined by consecutive images of Bob Seger, Martha Reeves, and Kid Rock. Resist that we are only defined by our sports teams. Resist the notion that we can be summed up so easily. Otherwise, there's no excuse when we are so easily dismissed.

Take a page from any one of Detroit's disproportionally talented DJs: Dig deeper. Play the B-side.

Post 1: A Moment of Doubt

I wanted to leave Detroit.

It hurts to admit it, but for a period at the end of 2008, it's all I could think about.  I'm sure you'll remember that wonderful period when the economy took a nosedive and the future of Ford, GM, and Chrysler were all in question. Seem like forever ago? Does the phrase "Let Detroit Fail" refresh your memory?

It wasn't fear that motivated me. My usually annoying, logical brain somehow skipped over the obvious problem: the possible collapse of the American auto industry (and by extension, my day job). Instead, what got me was shock. The ignorance and bile directed at my hometown was overwhelming, frustrating, and depressing. This wasn't just your random Facebook status, but "considered" opinion in editorial pages and on the floor of the Senate. It still rattles me when I think about it. Along with Cleveland, we've been the butt of jokes for decades, but I didn't realize how deep-seated they really were. Even if I had wanted to leave, I was going to drag this perception of Detroit and a portfolio full of automotive work with me. My prospects didn't look good.

As I started to look around at other cities in the Midwest, things slowly but miraculously began to change at home. Just the act of thinking about leaving made me reassess my core skills and aggressively pursue others. I wrote more, got on stage (more on that later), and rediscovered what an amazingly talented city this is. I went from an all-time low in confidence and security to feeling more energized than ever.

My agency diversified. I diversified. After a little luck and a lot of pain, I came out of 2009 stronger and better equipped to defend Detroit's rightful place at the center of the creative universe.

Revisiting Techno Rebels during all of this was very fitting, and very comforting. Techno music is one of Detroit's greatest cultural stories—one that begins when the rest of the country had given up on it the first time. I forgot how much I loved delving into its earliest origins in the post-Motown era—where the vacuum of the early- to mid-1980s forced out this amazingly potent new music. More importantly, techno created a lasting mechanism for keeping Detroit in the context of "the future."

Techno Rebels helped me find that Detroit again. I never want to leave it.

Techno Rebels is available now through The
Ghostly Store and in bookstores mid-April.

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