God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines: Movie Review
by Michael A. Gonzales
Back in the mid-1980s, I lived in Harlem and dated a Detroit woman who had come to New York City to be an actress. A soul sister whose daddy was a former 1960s radical, she also had a southern cooking grandma who banked numbers and mother who was a doctor. Girlfriend had diverse music taste that ranged from Iggy & the Stooges to Nancy Wilson to Prince, and never tired of calling out her friends, including me, whose musical taste she thought was lacking.
While a part of me thought her Detroit pride bordered on arrogance, there was another side that believed that she was simply dropping science. Certainly, on both sides of the colorline, Detroit has always been about musical innovation. Although, by the 1980s many declared the city dead, a victim of the 1967 riots and industrial collapse, there were others who believed that the Black metropolis still had some life left.
As we learn from director Kristan R. Hill’s masterful documentary God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines, in the 1980s, that life came out of the imagination of the young sound seekers who created Techno, a music made solely with electronic instruments. As inspired by Kraftwerk and David Bowie as they were by Motown and George Clinton’s funk posses (as well Star Trek episodes and Future Shock by Alvin Toffler), D-boys Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and amongst others, were the roots, the damn foundation, of what would morph into EDM.
Nevertheless, in a story that’s as old as Little Richard, Ike Turner and Chuck Berry being swiped by white artists appropriating their sound, white-washing it down and making a mint, none of the originators ever became as well-known or rich as their paleface spiritual protégés. Still, God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines isn’t used as a soapbox to be bitter, but simply as a vehicle to celebrate the futuristic Motor City music, the city and the men behind the machines.
“We wanted to be part of the next thing,” says Derrick May, whose 1987 track “Strings of Life,” a collaboration with Michael James, was the first Techno record I bought after reading about it in the English music weekly Melody Maker. May went to high school with Atkins and Saunderson, and the trio formed a soul sonic coalition that released music under several names and labels. It’s was the Atkins 1981 track “Alley of Your Mind,” a song he made with mentor Rik Davis under the name Cybotron, getting played by radio DJ Electrifying Mojo, that helped propel Techno productions beyond the underground.
By the time I got turned on to the sound six years later the music was already being played in clubs in the States and abroad. The machines used included the Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer, which we see at the beginning of the film, and a TR-808. Around the same time Techno was beginning to take off so was hip-hop/rap, Brit synthesizer pop and Minneapolis/Prince grooves.
Noting that no new musical movement is created in a vacuum, production legend Eddie Holland is brought in to discuss the usage of drum & bass in Motown productions and cultural critic Greg Tate to rap about heady stuff including the Great Migration and the various musical genres from the our southern past went into creating the sound of the future.
Towards the end of the doc the filmmakers bring to light the sexual assault charges leveled at Derrick May in 2020 as reported in Resident Advisor, but note that no criminal charges have been filed. The articles and allegations were disturbing and remain so today.
God Said Give ‘Em Drum Machines is the best documentary I’ve seen on the subject of Detroit Techno. Director Kristian Hill put his foot in it, as my grandma used to say, and his film should appeal to both aural aficionados and Black noise novices unafraid of stepping into the future.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music and culture since the 1980s. He has written for Vibe, Essence, The Source and Spin. Currently he writes true-crime features for CrimeReads, a book column (The Blacklist) for Catapult, essays for LongReads and music features for Wax Poetics. Forthcoming essay subjects include Octavia E. Butler, The Wire and Isaac Hayes. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.