Movement Festival 2017 Brought Richie Hawtin, Carl Cox, 30K Techno Fans, and Triumph to Detroit

Douglas Wojciechowski


The dream of the '90s is alive at Movement.

The Detroit festival celebrated 17 years of success in the open spring air Saturday through Monday, May 27 to 29. For three days, it shot laser beams, smoke, and techno rhythms into the hearts and ears of black-clad ravers. They descended upon the pavement of downtown's Hart Plaza to lose themselves and each other in the steady, unrelenting pulse while Canada silently watched across the Detroit River.

Six stages set the scene for a Memorial Day Weekend that at one point may have seemed impossible. Techno, for one, is an underground sound, and while it's proven to be one of Detroit's greatest cultural exports, it's pioneers and brightest stars are often relegated to the periphery. At Movement, side stage dwellers become main stage darlings, experimentation is on spotlight, and those baggy UFO pants hiding in the back of your closet become fashion gold.

Estimates place more than 30,000 die-hard heads at Movement each day, a tall order for a genre that Eminem famously dismissed in his Moby jab of 2002. Today, it just might be the fastest-growing sector of the electronic dance market, as a younger generation of one-time EDMers dives deeper into catalogs. Techno's second-wave gods are put on bright new pedestals, evidenced by the crowds that gathered to watch Seth Troxler tear up the Stargate stage or found themselves completely floored by Richie Hawtin's jaw-dropping Close set at the Main Stage's concrete arena. Close projects the producer's skilled hands on artful display via zoomed-in cameras placed around his great collection of modular synths. It's like you're standing right next to the man, and it really helps dancers understand the precision in all that beautiful, bleating noise.

Truth be told, six stages of techno can be daunting to the uninitiated listener. Your grandmother who swears The Chainsmokers and deadmau5 sound the same would have a serious case of gray-scale walking through Movements' sonic forest, but three days immersed in a sound really brings out its nuances.

There were moody atmospherics with Joseph Capriati and TestPilot on Sunday, or Monday with Mind Against and Recondite, the picturesque waterfront scene of the Pyramid Stage providing a beautiful backdrop for day-dreaming dancers to get lost in. Those seeking harder styles found the throbbing, industrial bass they craved in the dark recesses of the Underground stage, so-named for its hidden placement under a series of stairs and walkways that darkened the dance floor even as the sun beat brightest. Everyone seeking shelter during bouts of rain found their brains blissfully beaten with hard-edged noise from Matrixxman, Function, Drumcell, and more. If you wanted it funky, there was plenty of groove from Chicago's legendary Cajmere, and Soul Clap's disco-licious live band set featuring chorus girls and Detroit keyboardist Amp Fiddler turned the Memorial Day afternoon into a communal backyard barbecue.

The vibe that everyone is family runs rampant throughout the fest. If you've made the trek to techno's mecca, you're no fair-weather fan. Movement is for the inducted, those seeking a deeper dance experience. There are no fireworks to mark the end of each night, no sexy dancers flanking the decks, nothing to entertain you but the skillful mixing of beats, and no distractions if the talent doesn't live up to the hype.

The Red Bull stage did provide some non-techno variety. Earl Sweatshirt dropped tons of new material, his own dark, electronic beats mixing well with the trudging techno around him. Thundercat's mesmerizing bass-fingers cast a spell on the crowd, and hometown hero Danny Brown performed a high-energy love letter to Motor City.

It was a particularly magical weekend for the locals, perhaps no more than techno's holy trinity and founding fathers; Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and Juan Atkins. They performed Saturday as The Belleville Three on the Main Stage, putting the rich history of techno's past on display for a crowd that spanned generations while shining a light on the waves of the genre's future. Could they have ever imagined a gathering of minds so great when they haphazardly began to invent the sounds that generations of producers and DJs would emulate and build upon, back when they were creative kids in the mid '80s looking for something to take their mind of surrounding blight?

Nestled as it is in the heart of downtown, surrounded by Detroit's gleaming buildings both new and old, the tale of resurrection and triumph was on everyone's minds. America loves a comeback, and Detroit is poised for one of the greatest in its history. Defiled and broken as the once-great automobile capital can seem, the past five years have seen great progress. Buildings that locals will tell you have been abandoned for decades now greet guests with wide doors and shiny floors. Local businesses and breweries pop up between community gardens and colorful street murals painted by some of the best in the world. Movement offers a chance for the city to show off its good side to a crowd that isn't afraid of a little dirt.

Detroit is once again a city with dreams. It's far from perfect. Racial tensions still run deep and the threat of gentrification looms like a storm cloud, but for the most part, the energy is one of positive change. Those who seek to work to truly make Detroit a home are either far-flung locals returning or those who truly understand and respect the city's rich cultural heritage.

“All these great DJs, they're playing your city,” Carl Cox exclaimed as he closed out the final night. It was a great moment of pride for everyone involved, local or not. No one comes to Detroit because they don't truly love it, just as no one comes to Movement to celebrate techno unless that beat runs in their blood.


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