By Steve Furay
Special to the Michigan Citizen
“I make sure to have Detroit artists all up in my playlists. I get international artists but I have Detroit all up in there,” says Chris Campbell, host of the Progressive Underground, which airs on Detroit’s WDET. Campbell offers one of the most eclectic mixes of new music on the radio dial. Airing throughout the week with new shows every Sunday from 8-11 p.m., the show features some of Detroit’s most legendary techno music along with the world’s most exciting new artists in soul, electronic, funk and hip hop.
“Everyone from the original tastemakers and innovators, Derrick (May), Carl (Craig), Kevin (Saunderson), Juan (Atkins), Eddie (Fowlkes), to the new school — Pirahnahead, Moodyman, Stacey Pullen, all those guys — no matter what I play, you’ll always find those guys in my playlist,” says Campbell.
The Progressive Underground has been on the air at 101.9 FM for a little more than a year, and Campbell and his producers have developed an international following by featuring Detroit electronic music artists in their playlists, many of whom are world renown for being pioneers of the style.
“They’ve caught on; they’ve embraced us,” says Campbell. “And the beautiful thing is, because we’re based in Detroit … they’re embracing Detroit and bringing it to an international audience. The synergy has just been beautiful, just beyond anything I could have expected.”
Having the show on WDET, a public radio station, allows Campbell the freedom to develop a playlist of independent artists much different than commercial radio. He says his shows resemble the playlists of European commercial radio stations, where the shows will mix different styles of music together.
“That overseas market, it’s just different. Even the way they program their radio is different. Over here, everything is homogenized. You’ve got the rock station, you’ve got the Black station, you’ve got the hip hop station, the R&B, the country; everything has a label and a box. You go overseas and turn on a radio station, they’re playing everything. They’re playing electronic, R&B, reggae, ska, rock, all under one umbrella. And that really is how radio used to be.”
Campbell was born and raised in Detroit, and began to explore the electronic music scene early in the 1980s. As a younger student he listened to jazz, but as a teenager he began hanging out with older friends like Mondo Blaze and DJ Squid who introduced him to the world of Detroit techno.
“I’ve always kind of had a global view on music,” he says. After returning home from spending several years in New York City, he explains that his international vision has brought him to being in the position of an ambassador for Detroit music.
“Detroit has always been to me one of the most eclectic and iconic music hubs. People know their music here, you can’t pull the wool over other peoples’ eyes. They know good music, they embrace good music, so that colors my playlists and my sets. It makes me say ‘I’ve got to bring it every week’ just to dignify this audience of music aficionados.”
Beginning in the early 1980s, Detroit techno went from the basement studios of Detroit musicians to a massive global influence in a matter of a few years. Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” record, for example, introduced techno to the United Kingdom in 1987, which led to Europe’s massive rave scene.
“(‘Strings of Life’) was a game changer,” says Campbell. “Electronic music, in the 1980s, was kind of in its infancy. You had these pockets of people doing things. Detroit was doing things, Chicago was another enclave. We were the techno, they were the house music, so you had these pockets of people doing something. But I think to me, once you had Derrick May ‘Strings of Life,’ you were able to say ‘ok, that’s more than a song — that’s a movement going on here.’”
He says the soul of the music, the classic Motown ingredient of the best Detroit songs of all time, was what made the local pioneers of techno different from those that mimicked the style. To this day, many local electronic music artists enjoy tremendous fame overseas while staying relatively anonymous in their home city. The Progressive Underground show is a great way to experience this music, whether on the radio or through their online podcasts.
“What separated Detroit from all that in terms of feeling, I mean there were other people making electronic music, but Detroit had so much soul. I mean Derrick, Juan Atkins, their productions were so soulful and it incorporated that Detroit soul into it. It was electronic music you could feel.”
New episodes of the Progressive Underground air every Sunday from 8-11 p.m. Repeat episodes run every Monday through Friday from 1-4 a.m. and on Saturdays from 3-6 a.m. Find episodes online at www.wdet.org/shows/progressive-underground.