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Detroit transplant and techno artist Henry Brooks. Credit: Jenna Pomaville of Pomaville Media
Techno, the musical genre birthed right here in Detroit, is all grown up now. Formed in the 1980s through the sonic vision of Black people — the friend trio of Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Derrick May gathering after school to experiment before they were known as the Belleville Three, Eddie Fowlkes expanding influence as a DJ, and musical revolutionaries like Mike Banks and Jeff Mills floating the futuristic soundscapes over the Berlin Wall — techno is old enough to have given way to multiple new generations.
Though molded in the hearts of Black folks from the Midwest, the genre and its music scene transcend race, gender, sexuality and space — crossing continents from nearly the very start and always representative of communities often overlooked: young, non-white, and LGBTQIA.
And the expansion of techno persists, stretching to a new generation of DJs, some born and raised beyond Detroit’s limits, but called to the city to be immersed in the sounds that shaped them as artists.
The Flint born, Detroit-based producer and artist O’Shay Mullins is one such rising star. Professionally known as Huey Mnemonic, he views techno as “an expansive and ever-changing music” that signifies freedom and inspiration for the present and future. His focus on techno has grown in the past five years due to a feeling he says is hard to describe, though the 27 year old has produced music across other genres, including hip hop and house, since age 16.
“When I was listening to these [techno] sounds, every day I’d dig and find new artists from here and far away from here—because that’s just genuinely the power of this music, that it’s reached everywhere,” he said. “There’s this feeling that it invokes… almost like a certain joy, like, when you go to church, and the choir does a selection, and they let the song go on five minutes longer than it should have.”
Mnemonic’s respect and love for techno is palpable, turning him into a budding historian of the genre. Easily drawing threads in conversation from the Belleville Three and their work to the group Underground Resistance and their role in the explosion of techno in Europe, it’s unsurprising that Mnemonic is featured in the “Tresor 30” compilation album, released in October.
Founded in 1991 in Berlin, Germany, Tresor is a legendary techno club and record label thanks to the relationship forged between techno icons like Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks, and Tresor’s co-founders Dimitri Hegemann and Carola Stoiber.
Mnemonic’s contribution, “Transmutation,” is the second of 52 tracks on the album, and offers a glimpse into where techno is headed on a compilation that is both contemporary and a retrospective of the now 30-year Detroit-Berlin connection.
The song, which Mnemonic created specifically for “Tresor 30,” is a departure from his usual sound. “My music has this kind of dark undertone. I don’t mean dark as in a bad way where it’s evil or sinister, or not inherently good. I just mean that, some things that pump people up, don’t do it for everybody.”
“Transmutation” is different. For it, Mnemonic diverged from his norm to compose a “utopian, euphoric, uplifting sound.” The track incorporates a talking drum in a nod to African percussion and to techno as a Black artform. At the same time, the song is futuristic, like the genre itself.
As a creator, he does his due diligence by going to the studio as often as possible, and said that living in Detroit offers a new source of inspiration. With so many different sound concepts in his head at all times, he creates from both “pre-planning and happy accidents.”
There’s also opportunity in the city to expose new audiences to his work in the birthplace of techno, and engage in more conversation about the genre as a futuristic and free artform largely sustained by resisting the status quo and stretching the imagination.
“My music is in line with the beginnings of techno — to make this futuristic music that allows you to open your mind and see new possibilities,” Mnemonic said. “The goal is for more people who look like me to be in this music and to push it forward because I fully believe that since techno is a futuristic music, there should be no point in time where this music dies out or becomes complacent and sounds homogenized. This music is meant to sculpt new sounds, new sonic possibilities.”
Henry Brooks, another fast-rising DJ and producer, said it like this: “Techno as a whole is always trying to push the boundaries of sound around it. It experiments with new sounds and styles that may not always be readily accessible to the average person from the beginning, but it’s always pushing forward to grow, evolve and change.”
Brooks, 24, hails from the west side of Michigan and grew up in Grand Rapids. At age 16, pretty unfamiliar with electronic music of any kind, he encountered it at a music festival. Afterward, he set himself on a mission of sound discovery, finding dance, house and eventually techno. “I just kept digging and digging and over the years, it grew on me to become the only music I wanted to play,” he said.
It’s music of the future and music for now, possessing the power to heal listeners, Brooks said, depending on how it’s played. “The sounds can be pretty hypnotic and just kind of lock you in to where you feel like you’re just another part of the music.”
The DJ doesn’t yet have an album, though he says to be on the lookout for at least a single or two early next year. He got his start on the turntables back in 2016, and for the past three years has traveled nearly every weekend from Grand Rapids to Detroit for a show. “I was pretty much already living down here,” said Brooks, so during the pandemic, he made the move official.
With Detroit as a homebase, he’s continued to expand his audience. In just the last six weeks, he’s shared stages in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and at Art Basel in Miami with international artists like Charlotte de Witte and Chris Liebing.
“I’m really moved by this genre of music in a way that other genres just don’t move me, and I hope to be able to share this love for this musical passion with as many people as possible as I continue to grow as an artist,” Brooks said.
As an artist, he fuses what he calls the timeless and funky Detroit-originated sounds to the aggressive and industrial sounds more popular in Europe. That’s a reflection of his earlier musical influences, which include neo-classical works from artists like Ólafur Arnalds and metal with heavier drums and percussion. Brooks said he is personally moved by melodic techno and combines melodies with faster driving percussion to create an atmosphere with “a good balance of feeling emotion, but also one for dance and movement.”
“I just want people to feel connected to the music,” he said.