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On March 22nd, 2017, RCAH had the privilege of hosting Cornelius Harris and DJ John Collins for the last Wednesday Night Live of the 2016-2017 season. Cornelius Harris is a label manager for Submerge and Underground Resistance, a hub for independent techno music created in Detroit. John Collins is a DJ and producer for Underground Resistance and manager of Submerge. Collins has been a DJ in Detroit since the mid ’80s.
Harris and Collins visited Associate Professor Chris Scales’ RCAH 291 Arts Workshop class that afternoon and discussed their work with the before the evening presentation.
Crystal Gause, an RCAH third-year student present for the class said, “In a digitized age, all of the tools we need to produce something are at our fingertips. In the beginning of the industry, you had to get out and handpick and record live and lug around all of this equipment.” Gause said that the visit “gave a historical understanding of the work we're doing in Scales’s class.”
RCAH Associate Professor David Sheridan introduced Harris and Collins to the RCAH community and shared his working relationship with Harris. For years now, Sheridan has made an annual visit to Harris at Submerge with his Freshman Seminar Away in Detroit.
Harris and Collins spoke about the origins of techno music and how it’s largely unknown. Techno music was created in Detroit by four African American musicians: Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, and Eddie Fowlkes. This came as a surprise to many in the audience unfamiliar with the origins of techno music. Reflecting on the importance of sharing this information, Collins said, “A lot of people don’t know that techno was created by Black people and we don’t want them to get written out of history.” That in part is why the Submerge museum for techno music exists, to educate the public and preserve the history.
Techno was “started by some young folks who didn’t have any kind of book to follow,” said Harris, “They were able to take their talent and turn it into something that became a multibillion dollar industry across the planet.”
“This music revolutionized music all around the world,” said Collins. Techno was also important right at home by reflecting struggles—like unemployment and discrimination—faced by those in Detroit. “The music was always a bit political. There was more to it than just the dance,” said Collins.
In true DJ fashion, Collins and Harris held a WNL session that fed on the feedback of the audience. “A good DJ can actually unite people and bring them together. That’s part of the power of music,” said Harris. Collins and Harris brought the community together by reading the room and audience. They were able to follow and complement the conversation with samples of techno music relevant to where the conversation was.
The conversation progressed into a discussion on the larger music industry and what principles Collins and Harris held in their respective positions in the industry. Collins and Harris shared their mutual distaste for music programmers (those responsible for the songs we hear on the radio) and the massive power they hold in shaping the listening habits of thousands. That is why Underground Resistance is dedicated to presenting positive and constructive new messages and voices to the music scene.
Closing out the show, Harris gave some thoughts on the current state of our society. “There’s too many things dividing people right now. People need to be united, music and the arts can do that,” said Harris, “Sometimes the most political thing you can do is enjoy yourself.”
Story by RCAH student Caileigh Grant. Photos by RCAH student Samantha Kinjorski.