“A lot of Black artists that were instrumental in innovation get forgotten,” says Detroit techno legend Juan Atkins, “or purposefully white washed.” His comments play out over footage of Little Richard performing ‘Tutti Frutti’, electrifying, raw and sexy, giving way to the then-more acceptable cover version by Pat Boone, cosy, sexless and dull. The same thing has happened with Detroit’s early electronic music, with David Guetta – white, European, younger – getting credited as the “grandfather”of the genre. It’s a misconception that Kristian R. Hill’s God Said Give Em Drum Machines aims to set right, though it loses its way somewhat on the journey.

New York was the birthplace of hip hop, and Chicago gave us house, but it was Detroit where dance music created entirely with electronic instruments – drum machines and synths rather than samples and scratched vinyl – was pioneered by a handful of young Black men; Juan Atkins, Seth Troxler, Darrick May, Blake Baxter, Robert Hood (whose quote gives the film its title) and more. Between them they created a dance music that went beyond mere DJs. Arguably they were creating the template for all modern pop music, and especially the behemoth that became known as EDM; harnessing the chilly, arty styles of European krautrock and imbuing it with the soul and edge of Motor City. Hill’s documentary is excellent on setting up the emerging scene as its key players drift together to birth a genre.

A photo of Detroit’s biggest hitters, taken by British photographer (and “yoof”-TV presenter) Normski for Record Mirror magazine back in 1988, provides a framing device as we learn the path each of those men takes from their discovery of electronic sounds to being celebrated in a British music magazine, tracing the development of the music along the way. We get a great sense of the building blocks of the genre and the in-fighting, politics and comradery of the scene as it builds, and the soundtrack is, naturally, brilliant. As a celebration of the music, GSGEDM works wonderfully.

God Said Give Em Drum Machines Review 1Where the documentary falls slightly short is in delivering on the premise it sets up in its opening 20 minutes– the social history of dance music and its connection with Black America. The first section touches on the migration of Black families from the rural south to the industrial midwest of the country and the impact on music, from blues to Motown, and the aforementioned white-washing of Black cultural pioneers. It’s fascinating stuff, but that thematic thread is largely abandoned once things get going, only revisited toward the end of the film, briefly, with the discussion of white DJs coming onto the scene to immediate success.

Instead we get into the nitty-gritty of a small scene of DJs and producers, which can occasionally be hard to penetrate for those not already steeped in the music. That’s not helped by the decision to tell us each talking-head’s name only once, on their first appearance, meaning that by the time we’ve gotten into the meat of the story and come to know the faces and personalities on screen, you may have forgotten what anyone is actually called –and thus be a little lost on who is referring to who. For fans and aficionados this won’t be a problem, but newcomers may need a little more hand-holding than White is willing to provide. It’s not entirely surprising – Hill and co-writer Jennifer Washington have been working on this project for several years and are clearly knowledgeable and passionate – it’s easy to for them to lose sight of the layman’s perspective, especially as the film was partly crowd-funded by fans and many of its subjects have been intimately involved.  The invested audience will be in heaven, but the less engaged may find it a little ‘inside-baseball’.