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Remembering Detroit techno trailblazer Kelli Hand

A young Kelli Hand sitting on a chair looking at the camera without a smile. Photo is in black and white.
via Instagram (@khand.music)
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Kelli Hand was one of the first women to record Detroit techno

Kelli Hand, who went by the moniker K-Hand, was an artist’s artist. The kind of person who friends say kept her apartment furnished with a bed, a couch, and a swarm of music equipment. The kind of person who preferred hardware over software and was known for insisting that “if it's not on vinyl, it's not final.” She was meticulous in her life, which largely consisted of arranging syncopated rhythms.

The lauded “First Lady of Detroit” techno dedicated her life to the weird and wonderful world of electronic music. An entrepreneur, Hand was one of the first women to own her own label. She’s known for opening the door for other women to follow.

In the last five years or so, Hand was beginning to receive the credit she so clearly earned. She signed to Nina Kraviz’s трип (pronounced trip) recordings, and toured internationally with the label. Detroit City Council recognized Hand for her contribution to techno music and her work is memorialized at the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville.

Kelli Hand (born Kelley Hand) died on August 3 at her home in Detroit. She was 56 years old.

The techno sound

Techno today is often associated with the Berlin nightlife. It’s known as an international genre, but its roots are in Detroit. In the 1970s and 80s, young Black musicians influenced by Motown, disco, house, and funk — as well as the emerging sounds of Kraftwerk — created a new form of electronic music. Techno is often referred to as “high tech soul.”

But like any genre of music, the best way to get a sense of Detroit techno is to just listen to it. Ethnomusicologist Denise Dalphond noted that you can listen to any one of K-Hands 300 or so odd tracks, and you’ll hear it.

“You could think to yourself, I need an example of classic techno or I need an example of techno with some acid sounds in it...and then you could find Kelli Hand and you wouldn't really have to look any further,” Dalphond said. “She has a great musical legacy. There's so much to listen to.”

K-HAND Boiler Room Detroit DJ Set

Hand took risks with her sound. Her music ranged from hard acid techno to more romantic, synth-driven tracks.

Music producer and artist Alan Oldham was a friend of Hand’s, and went to Henry Ford High school with her. Oldham hosted a radio show on WDET called Fast Forward and got a hold of Hand’s first record in the 1990s. At the time, Hand went under the moniker Etat Solide.

“Her use of samples just grabbed me from the very beginning,” Oldham said. “That's my impression of her sound, just very diverse and well put together. The first stuff was...low-fi, but you could feel the passion in it.”

K-Hand’s techno beginnings

Hand was born in Detroit on September 15, 1964. The city was in flux, and so was its music. Motown and disco dominated, and Hand was on the forefront of a new culture.

KHand_TheScene
Credit: The Scene Dance Show
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Kelli Hand (center, holding the microphone) pictured with other dancers on The Scene.

During her teen years, Hand was a regular on The Scene, a popular television dance show that aired from 1972 to1987 on WGPR-TV. She was known for a signature hand move: making two peace signs with her hands over her eyes. Some people thought that her last name “Hand” was a nickname.

The Scene Dancers in 1983 Pretty Faces & Pretty Smiles Close Ups

Kelli Hand dancing on The Scene. (She appears at the 30 second mark.)

Korie Enyard is a long-time friend of Hand. But before she ever met her, Enyard knew Hand from The Scene.

“I happened to be a fan of The Scene when I was a little kid,” Enyard reflected. “She was a star in Detroit for a long time. You know, she was a star when she was in high school.”

But it wasn’t just dance that moved Hand. It was the music, too. Hand’s mother, Lucy Sherman, said that her daughter took to the drums early on.

“I remember she bought the set of drums,” Sherman said. “I did let her do that at home, but it got a little noisy.”

Hand needed to play her music as loud as she wanted to. So after she graduated high school, Hand moved to a one-bedroom on Acacia Street in Detroit that her mother rented out. It’s here on Acacia Street where her techno career truly began. Years after moving out of this apartment, Hand named her record label Acacia Records.

“When she thought of the name — the label Acacia — that's where she got it from: her first place that she went out on her own to be herself and to be independent,” Sherman said.

In the mid 1980s, Hand was going to House music clubs in Chicago and taking trips to New York where she’d dance all night at the historic Paradise Garage. During the week she was working a full-time job at a phone company, but on weekends, she started experimenting with making her own music.

Korie Enyard collaborated with Hand on some tracks. (She sings on “I Can't Take You Leaving Me.”) These were the early recordings: the beginnings of K-Hand.

“At the time, we were just experimenting,” said Enyard. “(We’re) trying to find a sound, I think.”

But it wasn’t just about having fun and partying for Hand. She was diligent about her music.

“She was committed,” Enyard said. “ She was almost militant about it.”

Underground Resistance, a techno music collective and label, offered to release her music. But Hand wanted to learn the ropes herself. Acacia Records was the vehicle to do just that.

Detroit’s influence

Detroit’s influence on Hand’s music goes deeper than the namesake of her record label. You can hear Detroit in K-Hand’s music. It’s the undercurrent of every track. It’s what producer Alan Oldham says is a passion that’s particular to Detroit artists.

“The struggle is in the music,” Oldham said. “So it’s something that was shared among a lot of artists of that generation. But of course it was better, because it was Kelli.”

Kelli Hand wasn’t much for interviews, but she did talk to MixMag in 2018 about Detroit’s influence.

“I noticed there's different moods in Detroit,” Hand said. “You know, there's some days that are not so sunny, some days that are. There's a lot of socio economic issues in Detroit… I actually produce based on my mood. So however I'm feeling at the moment. And whatever comes up in the first 45 minutes, that's what it is.”

You can feel Detroit in the four-on-the-floor hard hitting beats paired with an industrial, guttural squelch, so raw it almost sounds wrong.

Breaking the “boys club”

Hand came up in a “boys club” era of electronic music. It’s still like that in a lot of ways. But Hand was really the first person to start changing the culture. She was one of the first women on the scene.

Although that's not what Hand wanted to define her music.

“She wanted her music to speak regardless of her sex,” said good friend and House musician DJ Cent.

K-Hand - Touchin Me

Like most techno musicians at the time, Hand used a gender-neutral stage name. But for Hand, hiding her gender gave her a certain kind of credibility. It’s the reality of an industry seeped in sexism.

“I think that was hugely important,” said Cent. “Because sadly, she couldn't use her being herself to propel her own music because it's such a male-dominated field and such a sexually-based business as well.”

Whether it was her intention or not, Hand opened the door for so many other women in electronic music.

Music was her "life lane"

People say that K-Hand didn’t get the credit she so clearly earned; that she was criminally overlooked. Not that Hand ever let that get to her. She never complained, not even to her mother.

KHand_MemorialProgram
Courtesy of Detroit Sound Conservancy
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The program from Kelli Hand's memorial service in Detroit.

And maybe that’s because, to Hand, music was more than just the conventional sort of success. DJ Cent says music was Hand’s passion. It was everything to her.

“Sometimes God has put something on you that you don't even know that we can understand. But I think she got it," Cent ruminated. "And that's why she worked so hard to keep it going.”

Kelli Hand was still putting out music as late as last year. She played her last gig just a couple of nights before she passed. This is what she did. She was that rare kind of person, who figured it out early. She knew exactly what she was meant to do.

“This is my path. This is my life lane,” Hand said in an interview with MixMagin 2018. “If anyone can figure out what they're supposed to be doing in their life, [you] just have to start from when you were a child...you'll see everything that's in front of you — what's happening and what's going to happen. You just have to be able to pay attention. If you're not paying attention, you don't figure it out.”

Kelli Hand is survived by her mother Lucy Sherman and her brother Bruce Sherman.

Want to hear more K-Hand? Listen to the MixMag playlist of 20 essential K-Hand tracks.

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Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.
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