Detroit Electronic Music Festival 2011

Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain
Horace E. Dodge and Son Memorial Fountain, an iconic sight in Hart Plaza, Detroit.

In June of 2011 I made my second pilgrimage to Detroit, the birthplace of techno music, to attend the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (or Movement 2011 as it was officially known) with a bunch of good friends and fellow DJs and music lovers. Despite my long history in the scene I haven’t attended many international festivals on the more mainstream side of electronic music so it was a very new experience for me. What follows is a lightly edited review of what went down in Hart Plaza, salvaged from a Tumblr long gone.

In front of the Dodge Fountain at Movement 2011
In front of the Dodge Fountain at Movement 2011.

Jumping right into things, the best stretch of music I heard all weekend was on the Beatport stage on Saturday night: Heartthrob, Gaiser, Marc Houle, and Richie Hawtin put on a great show, one after the other. A lot of the rest of what I heard was educational even if it wasn’t really my thing. Despite a decade of partying I have never been one to go out of my way to see big name DJs so it was my first time hearing pretty much everyone I caught at DEMF. Few of the big name sets really impressed me much—seems like these guys like to play it safe for the most part. Then again, I was told over and over again that the festival sets are just a tease and you really need to go to the afterparties to really appreciate what the top names are all about. Fair enough, I suppose, although I still don’t see why they wouldn’t take more risks on stage. It isn’t like the kids won’t eat up whatever you serve them!

Cooling off in a fountain at DEMF 2011
Cooling off in the fountain at DEMF 2011.

Most amusing set: Ricardo Villalobos. Is this guy Frankie Wilde or what? Apart from the open hostility toward the sound guy (who was totally justified in getting on Ricardo’s case about red-lining the shit out of the system), stopping a record to pick a piece of fluff off the needle, nearly losing it on the random guy who bumped the table (causing the record to skip), killing and replaying another record for no discernible reason, strutting around on stage jabbing his nipples into the air, and various other stage antics, the music was actually kinda fun. Samba! Still, it’s tough to really enjoy when the music is so heavily distorted and the programming so disjointed. I had similar issues with parts of Sven Väth and Richie’s sets—way too much distortion. Is there some unspoken rule that the living techno gods need to crank it at the expense of sound quality? Are they all deaf or something? Wouldn’t surprise me.

Big sound at the Red Bull stage at DEMF 2011
Big sound at the Red Bull stage at DEMF 2011. I have no idea who was playing at the time but it was quite a crowd!

I did my best to check out all the stages and sample different acts, figuring that I wouldn’t otherwise go out of my way to see some of these big names if I saw them on a line-up back home. Some of the bass music sounded really good but it was difficult to find a good spot to enjoy any of it (especially for Skrillex, which was absolutely rammed and not my idea of music at all). The Detroit stage seemed most authentic and much of the music I heard there had a classic flavour (but I must admit I don’t know as much about Detroit techno as you might expect). Didn’t spend too much time in the underground area as it was so smoky my eyes watered and the acoustics were terrible. Still, it was the perfect environment to sample a bit of Monolake’s surround sound set. Interesting stuff.

Strange bunny at DEMF 2011
Strange bunny.
Jumping high at DEMF 2011
Don’t fall, stupid!
American rave culture on display at DEMF 2011
American rave culture on display. Hmm…

People-watching at this event was one of my main forms of entertainment apart from music appreciation. I’ve never been to such a massive party, much less one held in the hollowed-out shell of a dying metropolis. The apocalyptic tone of the city was nicely accentuated by all the Jesus freaks picketing the event outside. Wasn’t the rapture a week ago?

Down in the basement for some dirty techno at DEMF 2011
Down in the smoky underground level for some hard techno of some kind or another. This might have been Ben Klock but I can’t be sure.

On a more practical note, were I to return to DEMF I would probably get a one-day pass and spend more time exploring the many afterparties. There were a few good acts I was keen on catching but promoters were not forthcoming with time slots—and I’m not about to pay $35 to attend a 24 hour-long party with 40 DJs on the line-up when I don’t know when the fuck the DJ I want to see is going to be on. Nah, I’d be totally content with the vibe at a place like Old Miami (which I did check out for about an hour). Not sure who was spinning (maybe Seth Troxler) and it didn’t matter; that place had the right tunes and the right vibe for the moment.

American cuisine at DEMF 2011
Aw yeah, American cuisine.

I can say with certainty that I’ve never been to an event like DEMF. Over-hyped and commercialized but still thoroughly enjoyable with lots of top talent and interesting people. It’s worth checking out, though it might not be my first pick for festivals to travel to in the future. (And indeed, as of 2016 I still haven’t returned, but it was a total blast with all the great people I met in Motor City—you know who you are…)