The Belleville Three :The complete history

In this post you’ll learn everything you need to know about who the Belleville three are and why they’re so important

  • What techno music is and how it was formed
  • An important sub genre of techno music: Detroit Techno
  • 7 ways the trio have changed the techno music scene forever

Lets begin!

Who are the Belleville Three

The Belleville Three
Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson

Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May form the Detroit techno music group.

If you have heard of Detroit, the motor city, then there’s a bigger chance you have heard about techno and Detroit techno.

And if you have, you are probably familiar with these first Detroit techno DJs.

History on the Detroit techno trio

So where do this trio come from? Juan Atkins was the son of a music promoter and was born on September 12,1962 in Detroit, Michigan.

Having been the teacher in the group, Juan Atkins is known as the initiator.

Derrick May was born on April 6, 1963 in Detroit, Michigan. At the age of 13, Derrick moved from Detroit to Belleville. After beginning high school  in Belleville, he met Juan.

The start of Juan Atkins and Derrick May’s friendship first involved trading music mixtapes. Atkins was also responsible for May’s introduction to their future music inspiration, such as  Kraftwerk, Gary Numan, and Parliament.

As a result of collective efforts, Derrick May and Juan Atkins formed Deep Space Sound works and begin to DJ under the name for their high school parties. Kevin eventually joined Deep Space later on.

Lastly, Kevin Saunderson who was born on September 5, 1964 lived in Brooklyn, New York until he was 9 and then moved to Belleville Michigan.

When Kevin was in high school he met the other two of the three members. They formed a trio and formed a strong bond for similar music.

The group was very close. So close that when Derrick May’s mom had moved to Chicago, May stayed with Kevin Saunderson in Belleville to finish school.Bel

Belleville three roots

So where does the music group name come from? The name stems from their background.

Although two of the group members were born in Detroit, they grew up and went to high school together in the city of Belleville. 

The Belleville Three were from Belleville, Michigan. Belleville is located about 30 minutes away from Detroit.

Due to proximity, the techno music group always had the motor city influence close by. Later, this took a big part in developing the techno music culture.

Detroit the birthplace of techno

Due to the music group being so close to Detroit, (30 mins away from Belleville) this is where they held music events and handled music business and promotion.

As a result this helped give the city the identity of the birthplace of techno.

The trio have been techno pioneers in the music industry as early as the mid to late 80’s while using Detroit as one of their main influences.

They are responsible for creating the music genre of techno and the sub genre Detroit techno.

Since the 80’s, the musical trio have been partly responsible for a techno revolution. So what even is techno?

Techno defined by Dictionary.com, is a style of disco music characterized by very fast synthesizer rhythms, heavy use of samples, and a lack of melody.

Now, you’re probably thinking what’s Detroit techno? Detroit techno is a sub genre of techno.  It is techno music that comes from Detroit based DJs.

Detroit techno’s parent genre is evidently techno, you can use both terms correctly to identify the music of Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson.

Techno is simply a general term to describe the trio’s music and Detroit techno is more specific.

Detroit techno

When people think of Detroit techno, they think of artists such as all members of The Belleville Three,  Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, Eddie Fowlkes, Frankie Knuckles, Blake Baxter, Drexciya, and many more.

While searching for information on them, I came across Detroit techno documentary named “Hi Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno music.”

This film is for you if you’d like to learn more about their history, Detroit techno, and about their first tracks.

The film is from 2006, with that being said, its main point is the message, not the imagery. Don’t expect HD crystal clear quality here. 🙂

Here’s the deal …

There are infinite reasons why these 3 legends changed the techno music scene forever, but here are 7 major things we have to recognize and give them credit to.

1. Creating a name and identifying techno

Juan Atkins had a very significant role in the genre’s identity, he helped formed the actual term for the music genre techno.

This was a big moment in music because before this,  “techno” wasn’t a term to identify anything.

The sound of techno music is much older but its formal musical identity started with Juan Atkins in his Cybotron days. One of Juan Atkins first Cybotron singles was named “Techno City.”

Originally Juan wanted to name his first compilation of the Belleville Three’s early music “The House Sound of Detroit.”

However, after Juan submitted the track “Techno Music” to Virgin UK, things went into reconsideration.

After getting feedback from Virgin UK hearing the compilation, they changed the whole compilation’s name to “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit.”

The first Detroit techno album was released in 1988.

Europe took a major role in this album’s success as the track “Big Fun” by Inner City (Kevin Saunderson and Shanna Jackson) went number one in the UK.

Furthermore, they gave techno music a clean reputation to become something unique. They wanted music fans to enjoy new sounds on the dance floor drug and alcohol free.</p></p></p>

The Belleville three early career

the young belleville three

Though the techno trio has always been identified as a group, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May usually perform by themselves.

In their individual early careers, the members had other stage names.

Derrick May used to record under “Rhythim is Rhythim.” This is when he launched the legendary, “Strings of Life” in 1987. Strings of Life is a monumental song that is played all over the world to this day.

Kevin Saunderson had Inner City with vocalist Paris Grey and reached record breaking commercial success due to this group.

And last, but certainly not least, Juan Atkins, had Cybotron with Rick Davis. Atkins and Davis met at Washtenaw Community College. Though they eventually split because of artistic differences, they made some hits!</p>

Belleville First techno songs

Due to being the first techno music makers, The Belleville three are also known for having take part in releasing many of the early techno songs.

The first techno songs are:

Though all of the songs on this list aren’t exclusively from the trio, you’ll notice a trend that it’s from Detroit based artists.

Alleys of your mind sold over 15,000 singles.  After Juan Atkins and Rick Davis split up Cybotron, Juan continued to DJ. He started recording under the name Model 500 under his own music label named Metroplex.

Shortly after Model 500, came the hit NO UFOS from Juan.  Some other artists that recorded under Metroplex were, Derrick May, Eddie Fowlkes, and Kevin Saunderson.

<p&gt;The Belleville three made negative situations into positive ones.

the belleville three performing at the music institute

Detroit has been a financially unstable city since the 1950’s. Though Detroit still struggles today, the Belleville three was able to make music and bring positive attention to Detroit.

By sharing their interest with others, Detroit quickly became a major hot spot for Detroit techno and similar music events.

During a complicated economic crisis the musical trio managed to turn old abandoned warehouses into music venues.

It brings history into the picture by throwing parties at an old, abandoned, factory. It combines techno, a brand new sound, with the raw industrial history of Detroit and America.

This charm and grunginess is what many fans quickly fell in love with.

The complications and restrictions of this era really shines light on how creative and innovative Derrick, Juan, and Kevin were.

They came together and created something sustainable for themselves and the local community.

Experiencing Detroit techno

Instead of just hoping Detroit’s abandoned buildings would magically occupy, they formed musical experiences and parties in these abandoned warehouses for people to come together and enjoy life over this music.

If you ever get to visit Detroit, you will experience the grungy, rawness, that there is to the city. The parties in Detroit are something else and my experience in 2016 with Movement was epic. The venues look haunted and have a certain charm to them.

It is old and historical, like the venue itself has so much to say. Throw some good music in there and it’s a really unique experience back in time.

During Movement we attended a Moody Man event. It was in the basement warehouse of a jazz club and a restaurant.

Something you would never guess nor combine if you were to look at the place.

Detroit overall is a very unique and quirky city that looks like it’s almost completely abandoned outside of the city center.

3. There was a goal to make techno mainstream

The movement of techno music was not only for economic or personal reasons. The Belleville three mixed and experimented with multiple different types of sounds and mixed it into a unique one to put it on the map.

This wasn’t for them to only gain an income, this was because they really genuinely wanted the music to get exposed.

It was their goal for people to experience new music. They wanted people to listen and for it to become something else other than underground and grungy.

Derrick specifically really wanted it to be extremely accessible to his audience.</p>

<p&gt;The Belleville three has done a great job at bringing techno music into society. The music is taking itself to its next level with the second wave of Detroit techno and all the artists that came after and are still up and coming.

Being so passionate and supportive to each other about growing is inevitably a contributor to their success.

This was a big moment for the Techno movement as they were able to strategize and network with the right people eventually.

Neil Rushton reached out to Derrick May and it was all uphill from there. Once Derrick met Neil Rushton (former British dj and reporter), a lot of doors opened for the Belleville Three and their social circle.

They were individual but worked as a team so all of them privileged from meeting Neil. Once they started working with him he created a business direction.

It also led to major gateway for their music to get exposed in a brand new scene, Europe.

It was a home run for everyone considering, The trio had top talent and knew of other artists that were just starting out, and Neil knew where to take the music. 

the Belleville three’s success abroad

close up of the belleville three

They were able to take music across the world. Things blew up and blossomed quickly.

One thing that is SO interesting that the documentary “Hi Tech Soul” talks about is that the music scene is so big and different in Europe compared to the US.

Taking things to Europe is what actually caused a lot of success for their music.

The Belleville three and other DJs are considered celebrities in Europe where in the US it is possible not everyone would even recognize them.

In the US, techno is so off the grid and underground that you merely cannot compare it to the music scene in Europe.

Why is techno so big in Europe and not as much in the US? I’m not sure, in my opinion I contribute this to culture just because Europe’s dance scene has been so big and established for years.

Anyways, combining British and American forces, Neil and the three were able to take music across the world and make techno more mainstream.

4. the legendary start of the music institute

George Baker at the music institute

With the efforts of many people such as George Baker, Alton Miller, Frank moore, and the three DJing, they were able to create a musical experience as a party they named “The Music Institute.”

They sold memberships to a lot of teenagers and other young people, and would rent out abandoned warehouses in the innercity of Detroit for these parties from 12am -6am.

They contribute “The Music Institute” to bringing techno to the next level. They were extremely innovative musically, they were techno innovators.

The music was new to everyone. At a time where most clubs in Detroit were playing punk, top 40, or alternative, it rocked the nightlife scene.

People loved it and it was a major success. This was home to one of the only places at the time that you could hear that kind of music, techno.

It became such a success that people talked about it like wildfire even with limited promotion.

Yep, that means nobody was putting money behind promoting and marketing, yet this movement was so strong that it attracted the right people and created a powerful experience for so many.

Derrick May has actually mentioned that there has never been a place he has performed like the Music Institute.

This was a very simple venue that actually didn’t even sell liquor nor allowed smoking to keep police at bay. Meaning, it was always about the music.

the music institute was purely about music

music insititute membership card

These weren’t raves with fur and glow sticks with attendees who had no idea what music was playing.

It was a very simple dark venue with good music and a strobe light. Simple, yet effective.

There were hardcore fans. Once this ended, it was really depressing for some. People like Richie Hawtin used to go to the Music Institute.

This place is super historical and monumental. I mean just think of these musicians and DJs who came up listening to this music.

Where would they have gone if things like the music institute didn’t even exist back then?

One other thing I find so interesting is that Richie Hawtin states in “Hi Tech Soul” that the Music Institute reminded him of Berlin and the dark European dance floors.

I can definitely see the comparison as both Berlin and Detroit are super grungy cities with such a tough historical background.

If you want to learn even more about the music institute, you can go here. 

5. continued the musical legacy through a second wave of detroit techno

Stacy Pullen, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig. These people are actually each others competitors but it’s remarkable how they talk about supporting one another in Hi Tech Soul.

The first wave of Detroit such as Derrick May and the other members used to be mentors for the second wave of artists.

It was important for all Detroit based artists to work together and continue the techno revolution for generations to follow.

Some other big support systems were “ The Electrifying Mojo” who was a mysterious DJ and radio personality who wasn’t traditional.

He would play all the hottest tracks on the radio. 

If it was hot it was on his station, if it was not, he wasn’t playing it, no matter the $.

Which again goes back to the fact that this movement was solely for people to find out about good music.

Mojo is another important aspect to this Detroit movement as he was able to really show people a lot of up and coming artist’s music.

He went against modern society and played something different even though he was targeting African Americans.

He wanted people to listen to something new. Some people even contribute Mojo to a lot of how Jeff mills (used to be known as) the wizard was discovered, Mills used to play as a guest on WJLB radio.

6. Kevin being more experimental helped him reach commercial success

Kevin Saunderson the elevator

All 3 of them are very successful yet Kevin definitely differentiates himself because he has the most commercial success out of them.

The documentary credits it to him being experimental and that incorporating a lot of unique sounds helped him attract a much larger crowd.

Derrick and Kevin got into music together. Funny story they actually had a fight before they even became the best of friends. Word on the street in the film is that Kevin knocked Derrick out. (How ironic right? Too funny!).

So what made Kevin so different? You can say the house music, the more dance music vibes, the vocals, and overall just being more experimental.

It also seems like he had a bigger vision for commercial success and for a different sound. All members of the group had a role.

the belleville three

Kevins job was to make sure everyone’s music in his circle got to the masses in other words.

With a lot of eyes on Kevin, this task was simple for him. He sold a whopping 6 million records of Inner City.

In the film he states some of his influences were dance, disco, and music having a consistent pulse.

His group, Inner city is also coming up with a lot of new fun things being that his son is now involved in and they are making more music.

If you are interested in checking out their website, click here.  Just a heads up, there’s music automatically coming from the website so don’t get startled if you hear tunes randomly coming from your computer.

7. focusing on their own separate roles lead to the music’s success.

They call Juan the originator, Kevin the elevator, and Derrick the innovator. So who was responsible for what?

Juan who’s the originator – changed lives. He put all of the complicated ideas together and kept everyone on track.

Him making music influenced Stacy pullen and so many others to make music. It is like a revolving circle of how all of these amazing musicians inspire one another.

Juan also was the first one who wanted to really put techno music on a level for people to know what it was, somewhere it existed.

Derrick who was the innovator, knew Juan since 9th grade. They were both into the music and would have late night dance a thons. (How freaking cute!)

Derrick was also the member who brought the artistic aspect to it. He wanted to make it commercial and went about that in unconventional ways with his attitude and persona which really worked.

Eddie Fowlkes

The film also talks about Eddie Fowlkes having a big part of Techno but he for some reason seems to always get miscredited. Not sure, seems like that is up for debate for the crew’s personal reasons.

Kevin – the elevator. His role was to make sure the music got in front of people.

As someone who had a bit more commercial success, he was on the radar and was able to connect these musicians to where they needed to go.

second wave of Detroit techno artists

carl craig 2nd wave of detroit

As the first wave of Detroit Techno grew, I have to talk a little about the second wave of Detroit artists.

To name a few these are Carl Craig, Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, Richie Hawtin, Stacy Pullen, Mad Mike Banks.

There are an infinite number of artists in the second wave, i’d be here all day to write them all.

Anyways, my point in naming some of these artists is that the second wave was also very important as they started to break techno up into sub genres.

These artists experimented and made their own sound. Jeff mills for example, woke people up to a harder scene.

Actually in the film he mentions that when he finished “Your time is up” with Mike Banks under underground resistance he went back home and his mom said it was good but it needed more bass.

That’s just charming. Way to go mom! Mom’s always right. Anyways, he went back and remixed it and made a killer track!


It’s remarkable to learn more about such talented individuals that had one goal in mind. They wanted to bring people together over music and to make and expose new music.


mp;lThe belleville three managed to do that and then some. No one can deny their musical success and the pioneers they have become.

Dedicating their heart and soul into the music, you can say they are a fan favorite.

Interested in seeing the documentary I kept mentioning? Click here to see “Hi Tech Soul.” If you watch it let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

I hope you enjoy it and thank you for reading.

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