Juan Atkins (born December 9, 1962) is an American musician. He is widely credited as the originator of techno music, specifically Detroit techno along with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. The three, sometimes called the Belleville Three, attended high school together in Belleville, Michigan, near Detroit.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, United States as the son of a concert promoter, Juan Atkins learned how to play bass, drums, and “a little lead guitar” at an early age. Atkins, along with school friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, tuned in regularly to WGPR to hear DJ Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson’s genre-defying radio show.
At age sixteen, Atkins heard electronic music for the first time, which would prove to be a life-changing experience. In late-1990s interviews, he recalls the sound of synthesizers as being like “UFOs landing.” He soon had his first synthesizer and abandoned playing funk bass.
“When I first heard synthesizers dropped on records it was great… like UFOs landing on records, so I got one. …It wasn’t any one particular group that turned me on to synthesizers, but ‘Flashlight’ (Parliament’s number one R & B hit from early 1978) was the first record I heard where maybe 75 percent of the production was electronic.”
Deep Space Soundworks
He bought his first analogue synthesizer, a Korg MS10, and began recording with cassette decks and a mixer for overdubs. He subsequently taught Derrick May to mix, and the pair started doing DJ sets together as Deep Space. They took their long mixes to Mojo, who began to play them on his show in 1981. Atkins, May, and Saunderson would continue to collaborate as Deep Space Soundworks, even starting a club in downtown Detroit for local DJs to spin and collaborate.
The 1982 single “Cosmic Cars” also did well. Cybotron recorded their debut album, Enter, and were soon signed to Fantasy Records. One track, “Clear,” struck out in the direction that Atkins would pursue with what would later be called his “techno” music. Instead of merely reworking elements of, “Clear” fused them with club music.
Atkins considered Cybotron’s most successful single, “Techno City” (1984), to be a unique, synthesized funk composition. After later hearing Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (1982), which he considered to be a superior example of the electro funk style he was aiming for, he resolved to continue experimenting, and encouraged Saunderson and May to do the same.
In 1985, Atkins left the group due to artistic differences with bandmate Rik Davis. Davis wanted the group to pursue a musical direction closer to rock, while Atkins wanted to continue in the electro-style vein of “Clear”.
Atkins began recording as “Model 500” in 1985 and founded the Metroplex label. His friends Eddie Fowlkes, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson all recorded singles on the label.
Atkins’ first single as Model 500, “No UFOs,” was a hit in Detroit and Chicago. He followed it with a series of landmark techno tracks, earning him the nickname “the godfather of techno.” Within a few years, Atkins’ work was re-released in Europe.
Over the years, Atkins has also released works under the name Infiniti. He explained the difference in a 2007 interview: “Model 500 is really a continuation of Cybotron. That’s one thing that I’ve always stayed the course with and I’ve always wanted to not deviate when I do stuff with Model 500. In the past year it’s probably what Cybotron would have done had the partners not split. Its more song-oriented with melodies, not just dance track – that’s always been my experiences with Model 500. Now if I do stuff under the name Infinity [sic], that would be the more straightforward form of pure techno, the purest techno what is deemed as techno right now in North America and in Europe.”
Atkins’ earlier works are generally considered electro. Over the years, his sound matured and grew in complexity, and many of his more recent works are heavily layered rhythmic soundscapes. Today, this techno is considered its own genre.
Atkins and other Techno artists have cited the long-running Detroit radio show of Charles “Electrifyin’ Mojo” Johnson as a musical influence. Mojo, a local legend in radio, played an eclectic mix of music including Parliament, and Prince. Atkins and May got their start recording from the radio and remixing for the radio, specifically, Mojo’s show; after this apprenticeship, they began producing original music.
The Detroit Sound
“Maybe techno coming out of Detroit had more of the black experience involved, and of course what we’ve grown up with is soul music and R&B stuff, and then there’s funk itself,” Atkins told Melbourne magazine Zebra in 1999. “It would be only natural that more of these elements would show up.”