Tag Archive: Detroit


Continuing from the opening section of Three Decades of Techno, the second will focus on techno’s development in Detroit and Germany during the 1990s and cover a selection of the artists and labels that made it happen. This was the decade when techno was both consolidated and fractured. As a musical form its identity and popularity strengthened, spreading to Europe and developing in the hands of the second generation of Detroit producers yet techno, the idea, became increasingly difficult to classify. Its precarious nature and dispersal across countries evaded definition. Its accidental formation resulting from an infrequent overlap of geography, technology, time and individuals, the division into subgenres and reactions to reactions can make the genre’s pinpointing its history challenging. This piece should provide a compact timeline of techno, clarify how new artists expanded the music and idea of the genre and why this matured so neatly in Germany.

Germany’s techno scene was conceived while the country began to redefine itself in 1990. With Detroit techno serving as their main influence and Berlin as the natural capital, Germany’s youth built their first dance music scene. The no-man’s land that sandwiched the Wall still existed after its collapse leaving many buildings uninhabited during the year-long reunification process; as such the unclaimed and derelict spaces served many with the opportunity for club locations. Dimitri Hegemann and his Interfisch label peers found a series of underground rooms punctuated with iron bars in the redundant Wertheim Kaufhaus (once the largest in Europe), next to the Potsdamer Platz artery. The group took on their newly discovered space and named it Tresor (meaning vault or safe in German). Hegemann recalls in Dan Sicko’s expert book ‘Techno Rebels’: “We were the place where East and West kids came together, musically. We found our style – it was definitely orientated towards minimal Detroit sounds, and then after a year and a half we had our own crowd.” Hegemann also felt a need to strengthen the connection between Berlin and Detroit. Tresor released several works by Detroit artists, starting with Underground Resistance’s project X-101 and the 1993 compilation ‘Tresor II: Berlin-Detroit: A Techno Alliance’, distributed in the US by Nova-Mute (a sub-division of Mute) was the catalyst for plans to open a sister venue in Detroit, which eventually died out.

The genre’s etymological origin and its sound distilled from factories, intellect and subtly expressed emotions naturally found a home in Germany. The country’s decades-long utilisation and innovation of technology and industry, its rich artistic history and, importantly, its predilection for looking to the future, made Berlin Detroit’s European counterpart. By the mid-1990s, the city was getting closer to strongly defining its own techno identity as the Detroit-Berlin sound bled into each other. The controversy, however, over techno’s heritage – whether it stemmed from tekno (its spelling with a k being a joke illustrating the hard, industrial style popular in the Netherlands and Belgium: ‘That record is tekno with four ks!’) or Detroit’s techno – occasionally kicked up though its Detroit origins won out eventually, with people accepting the ‘techno’ spelling and soft pronunciation.

Hugely important in the timeline of the genre is Hard Wax, a record shop at the core of Berlin’s techno scene. With a high regard for Detroit techno and its principles, Hard Wax is known for being central to one of the most important happenings, not just in Berlin but for the entire genre. Mark Ernestus, the shop’s owner, and Moritz von Oswald formed the seminal Basic Channel whose slim but revered catalogue subtracted all but techno’s most essential ingredients then reconstructed them to merge Jamaican dub, 4/4 bass drum pulses and dissonant synthesisers buried by rippling delays, even the releases’ distressed artwork mirrored the murky, tense tracks. Their pioneering work would go on to inform the work of Monolake and Hard Wax associate Pole, who, alongside Basic Channel, both form an important family from which minimal techno was born. In this article I explore these artists and minimal techno further.

In 1993 Wolfgang Viogt, his brother Reinhard, Jörg Burger and Jürgen Paape, who were later joined by Michael Mayer, opened Delirium, a techno record shop in Cologne. Combining the shop and distributor with a few existing labels and event organisers, Delirium became Kompakt 5 years later. Though their dominance took hold fully in the 2000s and will be discussed further in the last chapter of Three Decades of Techno the label’s importance for German techno in the 1990s needed to form part of the second chapter. In opposition to the typical cold precision of Berlin techno, Kompakt’s musical signature of blending texture and techno’s rhythmic intensity with rich ambience has been consistently heralded. Similar to Hard Wax, Kompakt provided a community by releasing and distributing German artists’ material into the 2000s aiding the genre’s  evolution and giving artists an identity on home soil.

Meanwhile in Detroit, DJs such as Richie Hawtin and Carl Craig (a student of Derrick May) were introducing the next wave of techno to fresh audiences. Mirroring the move from DJing to production made 10 years previously, Hawtin established the record label Plus 8 with John Acquaviva, after being unable to break into Derrick May’s Transmat label. Their third white label release was stamped with the phrase ‘The Future Sound of Detroit’, which projected the idea of Detroit having a regional sound character. This backfired however as established artists and the African-American community saw Plus 8, run by two Caucasian men, cashing in on a status others had built. The indignation and suspicions surrounding the now-renamed white label release ‘Technarchy’ ironically made it one the label’s best-selling, shifting around twenty thousand copies. By mid-’91, Plus 8 had matured considerably and released its first compilation ‘From Our Minds To Yours, Vol. 1’ and their ability to deal with the early faux pas and erudite business acumen would be integral for the label’s success.

American independents pursued Cybersonik (who produced Technarchy), a collaboration between Hawtin and his friend Daniel Bell, seeing them as a compliment to the noise and industrial acts on their rosters. Hawtin and Bell declined offers after realising their intense and drum-machine driven sound was unintentionally being perceived as aggressive. Stunned by the discovery, which was reinforced by news that their tracks were being played at a notorious anti-Semitic dance/football club in Rotterdam, the two the two dissolved the project and Hawtin explored his interests in the studio further, resulting in Plastikman, who ventured out with the four-album arc released on Plus 8 between 1993 and 1998, with a resurrection in 2003. He used the pseudonym to describe the pliable, bouncy noises emanating from his TB-303s and celebrated Kraftwerk’s influence with his use of the Germanic k in his song titles (‘Helikopter’, ‘Spastik’, ‘Kriket’ etc.). As a reaction against hardcore techno, Plastikman’s ‘sound’, which arguably ran parallel to Basic Channel’s, was more atmospheric and distinctly slower and deliberate yet thrillingly intense and emotive.

Through continuing the techno characteristics of employment and abuse of technology, stark aesthetics and unrestricted emotions etc., Hawtin, one of Plus 8’s most successful artists, has built a dedicated fan base with continent-spanning acclaim and his influence on techno in the 1990s and 2000s as Plastikman and the leader of loved/loathed M_nus label is incalculable.

Germany’s newly established sound/s and continuing confidence marked the start of techno’s decentralization. As pioneers existed in Detroit, figureheads like Hard Wax, Tresor and Kompakt and their associated DJs and acts emerged to push the genre forward and add their own interpretations and each sound. Predictions of where techno would go next as it spread from nation to nation, how the genre and the Detroit sound could evolve and where the next artists and labels would emerge from were impossible to make.

Three Decades of Techno

Part one: The Conception and Development of Techno

A “complete mistake…like George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”

This piece will explore the beginnings of techno and the effect European music and artists, in particular Kraftwerk, had on young Detroit inhabitants and the parallel that runs between the group and the city and how this cyclical influence evolved into the genre.

Kraftwerk’s music was informed by the clanging, rhythmic noise emanating from the factories of their native Dusseldorf and the funk of James Brown and Motown, in parallel to the mechanical repetition heard from Detroit’s car factories that inspired Motown’s unique backbeats. The four-piece replaced traditional drums and guitars with machine drums and synthesisers which were utilised to create metronomic and melancholic yet funky odes to Autobahns and cross-European train travel perfection. Their propulsive grooves drove them into dance music territory and a dedicated rhythm section in Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur brought them close to soul music and thus to Detroit. Bartos recalls, “we [Kraftwerk] were all fans of American music: soul, the whole Tamla Motown thing and of course James Brown. We always tried to make an American rhythm feel with a European approach to harmony and melody.”

This futuristic sound appealed to young Detroit inhabitants whose teenage rebellion forced them away from their parents’ R&B and jazz records towards Kraftwerk and other European artists like Giorgio Moroder. They believed they had found the polar opposite of R&B yet in truth they were still listening to soul music only through unfamiliar sources. Genre pioneer Derrick May recollects in 1992, “Kraftwerk was always…culty, but it was very Detroit too because of the industry in Detroit, and because of the mentality. That music automatically appeals to the people like a tribal calling … it sounded like somebody making music with hammers and nails.”

The sonic aesthetics of mechanics and industry are fetishes of the genre, which is reflected in the soundscapes created – robotic, precise and harsh. The exact drum beats and melodies written in step patterns with perfect quantisation, which would be unplayable by a human, feed into the obsession with impersonal industrial ‘hammers and nails’ clangour. Timbres are deliberately synthetic and multiple sounds are layered and affected to further convey the austere ‘machine music’ feel.  The atmosphere of techno is also indebted to its obsession with the future, whether this is one of streamlined technological perfection or an inhumane dystopia. A signifying code of techno and what defines it from disco and its cousin Chicago house is that its producers were, and still are, driven to find the limits of the technology. They experimented with hardware like Roland TR808 and TR909 drum machines, made deliberate errors and used them for roles they weren’t intended for. For example the Roland TB303 was a bass sequencer designed to accompany guitarists yet it was soon realised that it could be manipulated to create eerie, other-worldly sounds and effects, which have become a foundation of techno’s sound. The genre grew in popularity because of its ability to induce emotion. House was commonly viewed as emotionally vapid whereas techno producers prided themselves on communicating ‘intelligent’ thought.

The early flourishes of the genre thrived in Detroit’s environment because it lacked the fickleness of large cities like New York or Los Angeles and was analogous to Dusseldorf’s industry-based economy. The Northwest of the city was the wealthiest part of Detroit and in 1979 the average income was 34% higher than other areas. This was mainly due to assembly-line workers at car factories gaining promotion to office-based jobs. The children of these newly-wealthy employees felt a need “to distance themselves, says Juan Atkins, from the kids that were coming up in the projects, in the ghetto” and the negative stereotypes surrounding them. With few social outlets the NW youths filled the void by organising formal clubs, booking DJs, lights and equipment and hiring spaces. These had an elitist personality and were based on their beliefs of sophistication and exclusivity.

The city’s empty halls were tapped into with two or three club nights per school being established and multiple parties every weekend. At these teenagers were exposed to new wave and Italio-disco and as the attendees got older and bought cars they were able to visit night clubs further afield including ones that had been established by youths living in the East of the city, which tended to be more inclusive so more could attend. The music played was more funk-orientated and eclectic. Similar to the youth’s entrepreneurial approach to creating social opportunities they also realised the importance of radio programming and worked to conserve the variety of music played. New sounds were presented to the city’s residents and the young people fought to keep it available by petitioning radio DJs and stations, which opened the channels for discovery and acceptance of European dance music.

Three of the most noteworthy names in techno met at school in Belleville, an area outside Detroit. Inspired by the cold European music of Gary Numan and Georgio Moroder they had experienced listening to the local radio stations Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson (known as the Belleville Three) would theorise about how the artist made the songs and the steps the genre might take. Growing up financially comfortable they were able to buy turntables and a tape deck to learn to DJ and started remixing records and performed at friends’ parties, gaining experience and fine-tuning their knowledge of equipment. Atkins declares, “When I first heard synthesisers dropped on records it was great … so I got one.” From this Atkins, May and Saunderson began releasing music under various pseudonyms and each was playlisted on influential radio stations. They later founded the Music Institute, a club in Detroit’s centre that became a home for the second generation of techno DJs like Carl Craig, Stacey Pullen and Richie Hawtin.

In 1981 the triumvirate set up the record label Deep Space Soundworks to provide a platform for their music. Atkins’ project Cybotron sold 15,000 copies of the first single ‘Alleys Of Your Mind’ in Detroit alone and ‘Clear’ from the debut ‘Enter’ is particularly influential. A Kraftwerkian balance of techno-pop and club oomph the track set the template for Detroit techno: moody machine music to be appreciated nocturnally. After ending Cybotron Atkins progressed to releasing under the guise Model 500 and founded Metroplex Records in 1985 with releases ‘No UFO’s’, ‘Interference’ and ‘Nightdrive’ selling well.

After reconsidering a professional American football career, Kevin Saunderson turned to DJing and formed the record label KMS. Known for a denser, more mechanistic sound his releases as a member of Kreem and Reese & Santonio were well received in the UK underground and his house-inspired group Inner City gained eight appearances in the UK Top 40 and four number ones in the American dance charts. Derrick May gained the most commercial success of the cadre, producing tracks which are considered some of the most original and influential in techno. The classic sound incorporates streamlined percussion and string samples with a warmth that he had picked up on while spending time in Chicago. His Transmat record label was home to some of his best known hits like ‘Nude Photo’, ‘Strings of Life’ and ‘Kaos’, which were produced between ’87 and ’89 as Rhythim Is Rhythim. Though his releases nearly stopped during the ‘90s he maintained his profile as a DJ and positioned Transmat as arespected techno label worldwide.

May was the first of the Belleville three to tour the UK and was quickly followed by Atkins and Saunderson who were recruited for remixes and visited numerous times to perform at outdoor raves. By 1988 the UK had caught up with these futuristic sounds and artists such as the Black Dog, 808 State and LFO formed in large part to the Belleville Three’s influence while the second wave of Detroit techno grew momentum as the decade merged in to the ‘90s.

The second instalment of Three Decades of Techno will discuss the genre during the 1990s, focusing on minimal techno and its growth in Germany while neatly sidestepping rave.

Vier

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Three Decades of Techno: The early years

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