Detroit has two claims to fame. Not only is it the birthplace of that soulful Motown sound; it was also here, in the 1980s, that a group of young kids, The Belleville Three, started experimenting with technology and music in a way that hadn’t been done before. Yes, techno started in these gritty streets and it’s still going strong.
It’s a great time to visit Detroit, a city with a remarkable story: one of the great boom towns of the early 20th century that went bust, spectacularly; its marble-clad towers slowly hollowed out from within, factories left broken and abandoned; half ghost town, half just clinging on. But today, they call it America’s Comeback City for a reason.
I come for a weekend and find cool, independent restaurants and bars, and quirky shops and artisan markets springing up like wildflowers in the ruins. It’s always bred musical stars: Eminem, Diana Ross and Jack White were born here, while Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin are among the legends who grew up in the city.
The club scene is booming, but just as appealing is what came before. I take a tour of what was once the Motown Records HQ: Hitsville USA, as it was known, and see the piano on which Marvin Gaye wrote What’s Going On, the studio where Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and The Supremes recorded their first hits — my group sings along to the music and dances the doo-wop without a care. It doesn’t get better than that.
Except when it does. That night, I head out to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the oldest continuously running jazz club in the country. Founded in 1933, it’s where jazz luminaries such as Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald played. I then hop over to TV Lounge for an old-school Detroit-style rave: blacked-out rooms and lasers, nothing fancy, just big speakers
and even bigger tunes.
Time your visit with the Detroit’s biggest techno party: Movement Electronic Music Festival, at the end of May.
Published in the June 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)