Use of the term “techno” to refer to a type of electronic music originated in Germany in the early 1980s. … Detroit techno resulted from the melding of synthpop by artists such as Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Yellow Magic Orchestra with African American styles such as house, electro, and funk.
For a genre often associated with sparseness, or with the foregrounding of machines over musicians, techno has one of the most compelling and profoundly human origin stories in modern music.
It takes in the history of Detroit, the fall of the Berlin wall, single-minded entrepreneurs, and, eventually, a complete revolution in popular music culture.Related10 classic
UK techno tracks that still sound like the futureLearn about the genre’s beginnings, growth and evolution through Red Bull’s vast archive of lectures and conversations and use the hyperlinks within to jump right to the moment of the quote.
echno begins in Detroit or, more specifically, in the suburb of Belleville, home to Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May. The trio of schoolfriends spent the late 1970s and early 1980s surrounded by the rapid technological advances of their industrial hometown and drinking in the music played on key radio shows like The Electric Mojo.
As May explains, “we were listening to… David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Sly And The Family Stone, and Funkadelic,” [listen to Derrick May at 11:35], along with Giorgio Moroder’s Italo-disco and the pioneering electropop of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Gary Numan.
The young May moved in with Atkins and his grandmother, and they “used to sit up almost every night and… discuss other people’s music. We’d lie on the bed, Juan would face east and I would face west…and we’re thinking about how these guys made these records and what they must have been thinking.”
Against this musical backdrop, Atkins, Saunderson, and May began their own experiments. Instruments such as the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 were becoming more readily available, especially in a city enjoying a boom in well-paying manufacturing jobs, and the trio seized on this new technology.
They travelled to Chicago, drawing inspiration from the city’s disco heritage and booming house music scene, and reinterpreting them within the shadow of industrial Detroit.
Atkins was the first to actually release music. In 1981 his duo Cybotron, formed with Richard ‘3070’ Davis, released their single Alleys Of Your Mind/Cosmic Raindance, setting the blueprint for techno and earning Atkins the title of ‘The Originator’.
Soon he shared studio space with Saunderson and May, cementing the musical relationship between what came to be informally known as the Belleville Three.
Although Atkins was first out of the blocks, the others also enjoyed significant success. Saunderson enjoyed a series of chart hits, eventually selling some six million records. And perhaps most famously, May’s 1987 single Strings Of Life, released under the alias Rhythim is Rhythim, struck a particular nerve in the UK.
The track was seized upon by the nascent acid house community and became a key anthem of the UK’s 1988-89 Second Summer Of Love, which saw the explosion of the rave and free party scene.
But while the UK was possessed by the spirit of rave, the centre of gravity for techno was shifting towards Berlin. Music entrepreneur Dimitri Hegemann spent the early and mid-80s embedded in the West Berlin experimental music scene. In 1982 he founded the Atonal festival, and in 1986 he opened his first club.
Throughout the ’80s Hegemann released a series of records mainly by industrial bands, and in 1988 made his first trip to Chicago to visit his American distributor Wax Trax! There, in the company’s offices, Hegemann first came across techno.
He explains: “In this office, [the head of Wax Trax!] had a bucket full of tapes he didn’t like, and he said, ‘Dimitri, take anything you want.’ So I took one thing out and I listened to it and there was this number, [with Detroit area code] 313. So I called it from Chicago, and on the line was this group with Jeff Mills.”
If there is one name now synonymous with techno, it is likely to be Jeff Mills. By the time Hegemann had made contact, Mills was already perhaps the most important DJ in Detroit. Through his show on station WDRQ, Mills (known initially as ‘The Wizard’) had helped to introduce the city to key artists including Atkins, Saunderson, and May, and to cement its position as techno’s crucible.
But the manner in which he played the records was just as important as the records themselves.Mills pioneered a rapid mixing style, juggling quickly between tracks. As he explains, this style was initially developed out of necessity: “Over the years, the shows got shorter and shorter.
That’s how radio stations are – they make your shows shorter because of precious time. But still, there was an abundance of music that had to be played, so I had to figure out a way to be able to play all this music in a very short period of time, very smoothly, so that the people would at least hear a little bit of it so they would go to the shop and actually buy it.”
Competition between Detroit radio stations was fierce, and Mills was constantly looking for material that his rival DJs did not yet have. This eventually led him to introduce live instruments to his broadcasts. He would “make the music just prior to the show, play it during the show, and then never again.”
Soon Mills’ shows consisted of his own live performances, combining synthesisers and drum machines with his characteristic three-turntable setup.In 1989 Mills founded Underground Resistance, along with Robert Hood and Mike Banks.
The trio took a politically radical approach to the music and its culture, conceiving the project as a response to deep racial and economic injustices in Detroit and beyond. As Robert Hood explained in 2014, “techno is a movement. It’s a revolution. It’s a culture.”
Underground Resistance hoped to provide new outlets and options for communities that they considered to have been left behind in Detroit, and their work was a self-consciously radical response to what they saw as the over-commercialisation of techno.
In 1990, just months after the fall of the Wall, Hegemann brought Mills to Berlin for the first time. The following year he welcomed Underground Resistance to his pioneering new club Tresor, which became the nexus for the so-called Berlin-Detroit Axis and for some time the most important site for techno worldwide.
In the years following, a number of key figures in the Detroit scene relocated to Berlin, heartened by the city’s appreciation for their work.Along with Hegemann, the city’s establishment as the home-from-home of techno owes a great deal to producer and entrepreneur Mark Ernestus.
Ernestus’s Kreuzberg store Hard Wax, now perhaps the most storied record shop in the world, was for a long time the only place in which this music could be bought outside of the States, and he played a crucial role in forging and nurturing links between the cities’ respective artists and scenes.
But Ernestus is probably best known for his work as Basic Channel, alongside his musical partner Moritz von Oswald. From their first release in 1993, Basic Channel took techno into wildly exploratory new directions, melding it with the reggae production techniques with which they were fascinated to create an entirely new genre: dub techno.
“We started to use effects to integrate into the music – to use pedals that work with each other to create a state where the music is not moving, like a polaroid in a way,” says von Oswald. “You have something going on rhythmically but it stands still at the same time. With dub, it’s not really that different.”
Meanwhile the duo’s family of labels, including Chain Reaction and Main Street, released landmark records from artists such as Vladislav Delay, Porter Ricks, and Monolake – the latter being a project of Robert Henke, who went on to create the widely-used audio production software Ableton.
By the early ’90s, techno had already spread and mutated to such a degree that it had birthed a whole host of wildly divergent subgenres: the Netherlands, for example, created gabber, while Goa became the spiritual home of trance.
Back in the UK, Sheffield label Warp set the template for what became known as IDM – ‘intelligent dance music’ – with the release of the landmark compilation series Artificial Intelligence.
Between 1992 and 1994 the series mined a rich new seam of techno-derived music that was focused more on the home than the club – or, perhaps, more on the afterparty than the party itself.
Artificial Intelligence introduced artists including Aphex Twin, Richie Hawtin, and Autechre, all of whom continue to innovate at the more cerebral fringes of electronic music.
Hawtin, for example, is now widely known for his cutting-edge work in live performance and music technology, beginning with his involvement with the DJ software Final Scratch. The programme began a revolution in DJing that has seen many performers move away from physical records and towards digital collections.
As Hawtin explained in 2014, “10 years of carting crates of 50 records around, mostly by myself, wasn’t the part of the job that I really enjoyed. To see this technology, where we could… carry around about a thousand tracks, that was epiphany.”
The ’90s also saw the establishment of the celebrity DJ as both a cultural figure and a profession. Germany’s Sven Väth parlayed early pop music success into a vastly successful career as a techno DJ, label owner, and events promoter, arguably setting the template for the ‘techno entrepreneur’.
There was an explosion in the number of global superclubs during the decade, with venues including Ministry of Sound and fabric in London, Avalon in Boston, and Amnesia in Ibiza all either setting up or expanding. By the end of the ’90s artists such as Carl Cox had helped to cement the ‘superstar DJ’ as a well-worn trope in popular culture.
Techno had now entered the public consciousness so firmly that the word was often used by laypeople as a blanket term for any music made with machines. But despite the popularisation and rapid commercialisation of the music, there remained keepers of the true flame. 2004 saw the opening of a new club near Berlin’s Ostbahnhof station.
The club, housed in a vast decommissioned power station straddling the neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, took a portmanteau of those areas as its name: Berghain.
In the intervening years, Berghain has become the most iconic club in the world, and the point around which much of the techno community now oscillates. Its list of resident DJs reads like a who’s-who of the contemporary ‘Berlin sound’, including Ben Klock and Marcell Dettman.
For some, though, the draw of the place can be attributed as much to its no-holds-barred approach to hedonism as it can to the music itself. But whatever attracts the vast queues of punters trying their luck with its legendarily tough door policy, Berghain is a true cathedral for the culture of techno.
Beyond Berlin, techno’s position today is contested. Its impact on popular music has been enormous, and the genre and its descendants are (along with other developments such as the advent of cheap air travel) the foundations of what is now a global industry generating billions of dollars every year.
But outside the superclubs and away from the headline DJs, techno continues to provide a framework for experimentation and adventure. It has become a more egalitarian and diverse place: as Peder Mannerfeld has it, “today in it’s not possible to have a club event in Europe with an all-male line-up”
In bedrooms and home studios across the world, producers and DJs are still taking the foundations laid in Detroit, and using them to build radical and exciting new music.