Could it be, would it be, the festival of our dreams?
Less than 12 months ago, something like 1.1 million people converged upon Hart Plaza to eat, sweat, breathe and dance together, celebrating all that’s remarkable about Detroit to the pulse of its soulful, invigorating electronic beat. A relatively underground phenomenon with a reputation marred unjustly by drug deaths, egos and the r-word, cleared its name in a massive mystical display of humanity: The Detroit Electronic Music Festival last Memorial Day weekend.
All that is intense and remarkable about the city and the electronic music bubbling from its core shone bright in the open air and under the lights at sundown. There was a sense of community and the strength acquired despite, or perhaps through, adversity; giving meaning to the mythical cloud that envelops the city and that many visitors said they were looking to discover. But most of all it was three days of near-tears of joy and chest-swollen pride, pride that we exceeded the city’s ironic, magical population number for one weekend. People wanted to be here. And without any conflicts or ego clashes.
The DEMF rose above what it was in all physicality — a few DJs, some records and a venue. It became what festival producer Carol Marvin calls “heaven on earth,” what artistic director Carl Craig calls “all spirit,” what techno pioneer and event headliner Derrick May calls “beautiful.” Detroit got its due at home. Finally.
Now, as we find ourselves less than one week away from the festival’s much-hyped successor, we’re being shown elements of the flip side of the beast. The behind-the-scenes pressure of putting together one of the largest free festivals in the world in its follow-up year reached a boiling point May 10, when Craig was given notice that his three-year contract would be terminated May 30, two days after the festival ends. Although the reason reportedly was Craig’s failure to meet deadlines for securing contracts with performers, Marvin refused to discuss firing details in a Metro Times interview last week. Craig countered the firing with a lawsuit against Pop Culture Media, Marvin’s company, claiming breach of contract and defamation of character.
Tale of two visions
This change of events has turned the two festivals into a kind of best of times/worst of times tale of two visions, all before the first record of the second event even drops. A community of musicians, as well-known for its backstabbing and melodrama as it is for mutual support and a tradition of sticking together, is struggling with what May describes as a “conflict between your mother and your father and you don’t know which side to pick. Your mother being the festival and your father being your good friend. Your loyalty is caught up in a decision.”
But May says he knows Craig still wants everyone to play.
“He knows that in the long run, it wouldn’t do him any good to have you not play. He’s too much of a decent individual to ever try to destroy or disrupt something like that. It’s not in his character. He ain’t cut like that. He didn’t get into this with the idea to destroy it. He didn’t spend all his time and devote the last two years of his life to this because he wanted to see this destroyed.”
Through it all, one thing’s for sure — while the headlines get bigger and the controversy brews into various conspiracy theories, Mom and Dad are pulling together to make sure the party doesn’t die. And as DJ towers are erected and performances fall into the appropriate places in the schedule, the festival is shaping up to be another history maker.
The ideas for this year’s lineup started coming to Craig as he wrapped up the plans for last year. Certain artists he couldn’t book from last year were put in the mix for 2001. “I had an initial idea for this year that didn’t pan out the way I wanted to do,” Craig says. “I still wanted people to perform from last year, but I wanted to kind of change things up a bit, kind of shake it up. So that it showed the diversity that we have here in Detroit, show how diverse the artists are in Detroit. The one that really came out similar to what I wanted was Kevin Saunderson and Inner City, because Kevin DJ’d last year and I really wanted to see an Inner City show. I thought it would be special for the city. My objective was to also show musical diversity to the people in the city. We know that a million people came last year. We know that a million people are going to come this year. Because of that, it’s an opportunity to kind of expose the music to a whole bunch of people.
“I wanted, for instance with the first day on the main stage, elements of jazz that are associated with electronic music. I wanted that to be seen. The next day is elements of hip hop that are involved in electronic music. The last day is techno, visiting that. By bringing in Mark D’Clive Lowe from England or P’Taah from Atlanta or Tortoise from Chicago … or Kit Clayton to straight-up laptop synthesis. Doing things with Daniel Miller from Mute records’ DJXDJ that shows the base of integrating DJing with loops, creating new sound scapes and things concerning that. I wanted to make sure there were enough elements of cutting-edge styles. As well as putting on a lot of local people who are doing cutting-edge stuff.”
Craig had a hard job, that’s for sure. Last year he “worked from the heart.” This year was riddled with high crowd expectations and a large number of artists who all deserve a piece of the action. Also important to Craig was that the organizers “stayed true to an idea before changing really anything, wait until we had really proven ourselves for a second year and then expand.” In a slightly hushed shoe-gazing moment, Craig admits that it kind of expanded “without me, yes it did.”
Perhaps it was inevitable. Riding on the unexpected successes of last year, it almost seems like manifest destiny that the festival would expand in its second year. Marvin says that while she didn’t want to change too much, one of her goals with this year’s festival was to “just build upon everything, make all the processes more streamlined, the presentation richer, bring more activities and broaden our presentation in general. I’m hopeful that when people come on Hart Plaza, they’re going to immediately be hit with the fact that that’s what happened.”
Marvin describes it as a “true multimedia presentation” with plenty of video projection, a DJ tower on the riverfront, a gallery operation run by CPOP and internationally recognized graffiti artists painting to music throughout the plaza.
Expectations and speculations
Anticipation is high. Marvin says that people are constantly approaching her, saying, “They have five people staying in their house. It happens all the time. I think that not only are the hotels filled, but I think everybody’s turning into a hotel for their family and friends this weekend, which is unusual for Detroit and pretty powerful for our community.”
May, who’s only home about four days a week, spoke to me shortly after returning from some performances in Greece and Belgium. He says that many people were asking about the festival. “They’re looking forward to it — Greek kids and Belgian kids and German kids and Dutch kids, everywhere, all over the planet.”
With this year’s large-scale corporate sponsor, Ford Focus, many have speculated that part of the internal conflict was due to creative vision and artistic integrity getting transformed into commodity, especially in today’s corporate culture. However, insiders on all sides deny this claim and explain the conflict as internal: “It happened because (Marvin and Craig) can’t get along,” May says. “She has one opinion. He has another … The sponsors have nothing to do with this. Everybody’s got this misconception. I know exactly the truth and it’s not the sponsors, so everybody who thinks that, they’re wrong. That’s unfortunate. To be honest, on the corporate side of things, they’ve been very cool. They admit they don’t know shit about techno music and they’re not trying to act like they do. They’re not trying to act like they know the people involved. It’s not like we’re on television and we’re big pop stars and they know exactly who’s who. They don’t know. So they’ve completely entrusted this to the artists.”
What it comes down to, May explains, is human nature. “At the end of the day, I’m hoping that we’ll all realize that it’s stupid. I’m gonna take care of my friends and myself, and I’m hoping that my friends feel the same about me. But right now, the most important thing is the festival.”
Looking back, moving forward
One can attempt to put things in perspective by remembering the best moments from last year.
“For me it was opening night with Stacey Pullen’s performance,” Marvin recalls. “There were a lot of memorable moments, but for me, that was the moment we all had worked for and visualized that we kept holding out in front of us through the difficult process of the first year. And when I finally got up to the main stage area and was really looking out at the crowd. And everybody was dancing and Stacey started spinning in Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and everyone in the plaza cheered. And I just looked at it and I said, ‘My god, this is heaven on earth.’ Because it’s every type of person, every age and race and style and lifestyle and walk of life, everyone all dancing together because it’s free. It’s a gift to everyone. It’s not a ticketed event. It’s an opportunity for everyone, rich and poor, to come together and dance together. How beautiful is that? Without judgment or issue. For me it was like witnessing heaven on earth and it was very inspirational and it continues to be inspirational in the further development of the festival. When I stepped off that stage, a member of the media came up to me and said, the beauty of that is that we were living King’s speech out there, by what was being achieved. And that he had delivered that speech just steps away at Cobo Hall for the very first time … . I just felt a great sense of pride in our city and in everyone who helped make the festival happen.”
May’s favorite moment came from onstage. “I could see all my friends. It was almost like, we finally made it. Everybody was cheering. The crowd was moving like one gigantic, living being. It was beautiful. We all just looked at each other. That was wonderful. Finally, we had done it. That was it.”
Right now, May says he’s working on rebuilding his studio and getting back into producing at a point when a much larger audience is beginning to discover his past work. “Time has caught up to us. Which is kind of cool, but it’s kind of sad because it means our time will come and then our time will go. Or, our time has come and then our time will go. That’s the way I look at it, because that keeps me from believing this will last. It keeps me fresh and keeps me on my toes. Any other way, I’ll get fat and lazy and I’ll start believing my own shit don’t stink. … I think we’ve all worked so hard. I’m not just talking about myself and the four or five guys everybody knows, but there’s the unsung heroes, the guys that have been with us for 15 years. We worked so hard. We were working 24 hours a day making music and we loved it. All we ever thought about was making music — to the point where we made so much where we’re only starting now to realize the true impact of what we had done.”
The rapid pace had something to do with anger, May says.
“We were so angry, we didn’t have time to think. We didn’t have time to realize what we were doing. That anger sort of fueled an ambition. That ambition sort of fueled the imagination and the imagination sort of fueled the determination to where we are today.”
He says that it’s possible they saw the music reaching these proportions. “We had a vision. We set out to make a change, to make a difference. We’re agents of change. We didn’t know we was doin’ it, but we did it. We still don’t know what we’re doing. We didn’t even know we did it until we done it.”
Craig’s favorite moment from last year is comparable to May’s. “When I was standing up on stage and Terrence and Stacey Pullen playing, and as it got nighttime, all the people in the bowl, it just became this feeling, it was all spirit. The last day, standing up there with all the artists, we’re all looking and we’re all choked up and we’re all just, ‘Wow.’ We never believed this would ever happen. We’d been traveling all over the world, never saw the recognition here and then this is what it is, firsthand.”
He says after the festival he’s going to start working in the studio again, something he hasn’t had much time for the past two years. And he’ll cope with the possible reality that he might not be up there next year by taking some time for himself and his wife.
“Every day is an experience and a thrill. I can’t really think of anything that has been worse, and I can’t really think that this is the worst. It’s just part of life and I kind of have to get on with it. The most important thing here is the music and the performers and a great festival.”