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A history of techno music

Related: black science fiction - dance - Detroit techno - drum machine - electro - house - Kraftwerk - italo disco - Giorgio Moroder - Alvin Toffler

If there is one central idea in techno, it is of the harmony between man and machine. As Juan Atkins puts it: "You gotta look at it like, techno is technological. It's an attitude to making music that sounds futuristic: something that hasn't been done before." This idea is commonplace throughout much of avant-garde 20th-century art --early musical examples include Russolo's 1913 Art of Noises manifesto and '20s ballets by Erik Satie ("Relâche") and George Antheil ("Ballet méchanique"). Many of Russolo's ideas prefigure today's techno in everything but the available hardware, like the use of nonmusical instruments in his 1914 composition, Awakening of a City. --Jon Savage in MACHINE SOUL, A History Of Techno [originally appeared in The Village Voice Summer 1993 "Rock & Roll Quarterly" insert.]

Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit (1988) - Various artists
image sourced here. [Apr 2005]


Techno is a form of electronic music that emerged in the mid-1980s and primarily refers to a particular style developed in and around Detroit. The word techno is often misapplied to a number of offshoots of the original Detroit style, such as trance, and is sometimes inappropriately used to describe all electronic dance music styles. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techno_music [May 2004]


Techno was primarily developed in basement studios by "The Belleville Three", a cadre of African-American men who were attending college, at the time, near Detroit, Michigan.

The budding musicians – former high school friends and mixtape traders Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson – found inspiration in Midnight Funk Association, an eclectic, 5-hour, late-night radio program hosted on various Detroit radio stations including WCHB, WGPR, and WJLB-FM from 1977 through the mid-1980s by DJ Charles "The Electrifying Mojo" Johnson. Mojo's show featured heavy doses of electronic sounds from the likes of George Clinton, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, among others.

Though initially conceived as party music and played at parties given by posh Detroit high school clubs such as Comrades, Weekends, and Rumours, the music soon attracted enough attention to garner its own club the Music Institute. The institute, though short-lived, was known for its all night sets, its sparse setup, and its juice bar (the Institute never served liquor). Over what was really a short period of time, techno began to be seen by many of its originators and up-and-coming producers as an expression of Future Shock and post-industrial angst. It also took on increasingly urban, science-fiction oriented themes.

The music's producers were using the word "techno" in a general sense as early as 1984 (as in Cybotron's seminal classic "Techno City"), and sporadic references to an ill-defined "techno-pop" could be found in the music press in the mid-1980s. However, it was not until Neil Rushton assembled the compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit for Virgin UK in 1988 that the word came to formally describe a genre of music.

Techno has since been retroactively defined to encompass, among others, works dating back to "Shari Vari" (1981) by A Number Of Names, the earliest compositions by Cybotron (1981), Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love" (1977), and the more danceable selections from Kraftwerk's repertoire between 1978 and 1983.

In the years immediately following the first techno compilation's release, techno was referenced in the dance music press as Detroit's relatively high-tech, mechanical brand of house music, because on the whole, it retained the same basic structure as the soulful, minimal, post-disco style that was emanating from Chicago and New York at the time. The music's producers, especially May and Saunderson, admit to having been fascinated by the Chicago club scene and being influenced by house in particular. This influence is especially evident in the tracks on the first compilation, as well as in many of the other compositions and remixes they released between 1988 and 1992. May's 1987-88 hit "Strings Of Life" (released under the nom de plume Rhythim Is Rhythim), for example, is considered a classic in both the house and techno genres. However at the same time, there is also evidence that Chicago was influenced by the Detroit Three. Allegedly May loaned Chicago producers the equipment they would use to make the classic House Nation.

A spate of techno-influenced releases by new producers in 1991-92 resulted in a rapid fragmentation and divergence of techno from the house genre. Many of these producers were based in the UK and the Netherlands, places where techno had gained a huge following and taken a crucial role in the development of the club and rave scenes. Many of these new tracks in the fledgling IDM, trance and hardcore/jungle genres took the music in more experimental and drug-influenced directions than techno's originators intended. Detroit and "pure" techno remained as a subgenre, however, championed by a new crop of Detroit-area producers like Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Drexciya and Robert Hood, plus certain musicians in the UK, Belgium and Germany.

Derrick May is often quoted as comparing techno to "George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator", even though very little, if any, techno ever bore a stylistic resemblance to Clinton's repertoire.

For various reasons, techno is seen by the American mainstream, even among African-Americans, as "white" music, even though its originators and many of its producers are black. The historical similarities between techno, jazz, and rock and roll, from a racial standpoint, are a point of contention among fans and musicians alike. Derrick May, in particular, has been outspoken in his criticism of the co-opting of the genre and of the misconceptions held by people of all races with regard to techno. In recent years, however, the publication of relatively accurate histories by authors Simon Reynolds (Generation Ecstasy aka Energy Flash) and Dan Sicko (Techno Rebels), plus mainstream press coverage of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, have helped to diffuse the genre's more dubious mythology. The genre has further expanded as more recent pioneers of the scene such as Moby, Orbital, and the Future Sound of London have made the style break through to the mainstream pop culture. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techno_music#History [Apr 2005]

Japanese drum machines [...]

Much has been written about Kraftwerk being the originators of house. While this is a nice idea, the truth is far more complex. Due to the relatively cheap availability of drum machines and synthesisers from Japanese companies like Roland (the feted 808 and 909 drum machines both originated in Japan) something was bound to happen anyway. -- John McCready

Detroit Techno [...]

Because it's now accepted as undeniable history that Carl, Kevin, Derrick and Juan Atkins somersaulted dance and electronic music beyond disco, electro, Kraftwerk, Eno, Kraut Rock, P-Funk, New Romantic and New Order into something new. At the time they called it techno. --mixmag.net [Apr 2003]


The idea of electronic dance music was in the air from 1975 on. Released as disco 12" records in the U.S., cuts like Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express"(1977) and "The Robots" came after Giorgio Moroder's electronic productions for Donna Summer, especially the 1975 "I Feel Love." This in turn had a huge influence on Patrick Cowley's late '70s productions for Sylvester: synth cuts like "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" and "Stars" were the start of gay disco. --Jon Savage

A Complete Mistake

Techno is just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It's like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator." -- Derrick May

A History of Techno

Written in 1993 by Jon Savage for The Village Voice, this article is one of the best documents written on techno, focusing on the fusion of man and machine, machine soul. [...]

Intelligent Techno [...]

"[Intelligent Dance Music] means the opposite of stupid hardcore. And of commercial dance music. Ambient music and intelligent techno were always linked in my mind and the audience largely overlaps. Intelligent techno has got to have more function than just to be utilitarian dance music. It has to give you something to listen to and be intrigued by. It has to work in the domestic environment." --Mixmaster Morris

Machine Soul

"The 'soul' of the machines has always been a part of our music. Trance always belongs to repetition, and everybody is looking for trance in life... in sex, in the emotional, in pleasure, in anything... so, the machines produce an absolutely perfect trance."
--Ralf Hütter, 1991, quoted in Kraftwerk: Man Machine and Music, Pascal Bussy [...]

Avant Garde

If there is one central idea in techno, it is of the harmony between man and machine. As Juan Atkins puts it: "You gotta look at it like, techno is technological. It's an attitude to making music that sounds futuristic: something that hasn't been done before." This idea is commonplace throughout much of avant-garde 20th-century art --early musical examples include Russolo's 1913 Art of Noises manifesto and '20s ballets by Erik Satie ("Relâche") and George Antheil ("Ballet méchanique"). Many of Russolo's ideas prefigure today's techno in everything but the available hardware, like the use of nonmusical instruments in his 1914 composition, Awakening of a City. - Jon Savage in "Machine Soul" [...]

Techno in the US and Europe

The first wave of bands to make synthpop had nearly all been European, names like Telex , Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder will sound familiar.

The second wave was clearly American, with Detroit techno showing the way.

Black Sience Fiction

Juan Atkins and 3070 called themselves Cybotron, a futuristic name in line with the ideas they had taken from science fiction, P-Funk, Kraftwerk, and Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave. "We had always been into futurism. We had a whole load of concepts for Cybotron: a whole techno-speak dictionary, an overall idea which we called the Grid. It was like a video game which you entered on different levels." By 1984-85, they had racked up some of the finest electronic records ever, produced in their home studio in Ypsilanti: tough, otherworldly yet warm cuts like "Clear," "R-9", and the song that launched the style, "Techno City." [...]

Gabber music

Gabber or Gabba (pronounced gahba or gahbuhr in Dutch) is a type of techno music also known as hardcore. The style was born in Rotterdam, distinguished by the loud and often aggressive sound. A weird, freaky sound can make a good gabber track, which usually has either a scary or a happy mood. The music style contrasts with happy hardcore. The essence of the gabber sound is, for example, a distorted Roland TR-909 bass drum, overdriven to the point where it becomes a square wave and makes a recognizably melodic tone. The typical gabber track is from 160 to 220 BPM. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabba [Nov 2005]


  1. The Rough Guide To Techno - Tim Barr, J. M. Kelly [1 book, Amazon US]
    Crank up the keyboards, Rough Guides brings you the beat of the new millennium with The Rough Guide to Techno. This pocket-size reference covers 200 crucial figures in the diverse world of techno, concentrating on album artists and the pioneers like Kraftwerk and Cybotron who paved the way for them. In this ephemeral world, The Rough Guide provides essential, hard-to-find details for any fan, including biographies and inclusive discographies. The guide is organized alphabetically, with more than 200 entries on artists, producers, sub-genres, and other essentials. Black-and-white photos.
  2. Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (1999) - Dan Sicko [Amazon US]
    This book is very decent. It definitely tracks the growth of the techno scene and genre in America very well, especially for the techno enthusiast. This book is NOT, however necessarily appropriate for the person who thinks "techno" means everything electronic. Techno is a specific genre of electronic music that does NOT include trance, hardcore, jungle/d'n'b, or whichever other genres people have been complaining about the lack of in this book. If you note the author's review, he clearly states that the book is first and foremost a chronicle of American techno music. --joseph_ruszel for amazon.com


  1. Innovator - Derrick May [Amazon US]
    Thanks to legendary singles like "Strings of Life" and "Nude Photo," Derrick May is universally regarded as the definitive techno producer; by hijacking the rhythmic sensibilities of house and adding the intelligence of European electronica and the spirit of Motown, he single-handedly defined and articulated the sound of Detroit. But despite (or perhaps because of) his status as a "legend," nary a bleep had emerged from his studio since 1990 before the release of Innovator, a collection of his past work. This double CD contains the aforementioned "Strings" and "Nude Photo" singles as well as other classics like "It Is What It Is," "Salsa Life," and "The Beginning," all of which have been available only in vinyl form on May's own Transmat label. Until he reemerges from a self-imposed musical hiatus, your course in the spirit of Detroit begins and ends here. --Matthew Corwine [...].

  2. Programmed - Innerzone Orchestra [Amazon US] [with the Stylistics cover of People Make the World Go Round ]
    Future-jazz visionary Carl Craig's Innerzone collaboration project highlights his pedigree as a producer, arranger, and all-around genius, ranking him with the likes of Stepney and Jones. Craig has created an album that genuinely manages to break new ground, merging the musical past with the technological future, blurring the textures of the electronic and the organic. "Manufactured Memories" like "Blakula" sets the abstract pace, as breaksmith Fransico Mora executes immense live drum technique (as he does throughout) within an electronic framework. Like some lost studio session tapes of Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, and Max Brennan, "Basic Math" and "Timing" are avant-fusion workouts. As some plunder and exploit, claiming originality, Craig makes no secret of the inspiration drawn from the others' works (including the superb reinterpretation of the Stylistics' "People Make the World Go Round"). By borrowing, reconstituting, and making his own, he has created something very unique and utterly sublime. --Amazon.co.uk [...].

  3. Norma Jean Bell - Come Into My Room[UK]
    UK only, very good Detroit House release on Peacefrog. Classic Moodymann material.

  4. Harnessed the Storm - Drexciya [1CD, Amazon US] [more on Drexciya]
    1. Under Sea Disturbances 2. Digital Tsunami 3. Soul of the Sea 4. Song of the Green Whale 5. Dr. Blowfins' Black Storm Stabilizing Spheres 6. Plankton Organization 7. Mission to Ociya Syndor and Back 8. Aquatic Cataclysm 9. Lake Haze 10. Birth of New Life

  5. Abstract Funk Theory - Carl Craig [1 CD, Amazon US]
    1. Atomic Dog - George Clinton 2. Mesopotamia - B52s 3. Shari Vari - A Number Of Names 4. Alleys Of Your Mind - Cybotron 5. Technicolor - Channel One 6. Forcefield - Reese And Santonio 7. Night Drive - Model 500 8. Lets Go - X-Ray 9. Galaxy - B F C 10. The Dance - Rhythm Is Rhythm [...]

  6. Kevin Saunderson - Faces & Phases [1CD, Amazon US]
    1. Bassline 2. Savage and Beyond - Tronik House 3. Pump the Move 4. Forcefield - Reese 5. Uptempo - Tronik House 6. Funk, Funk, Funk 7. How to Play Our Music 8. Groove That Won't Stop - Kevin Saunderson 9. Bounce Your Body to the Box 10. Truth of Self Evidence - Reese 11. Triangle of Love - Kevin Saunderson Disc: 2 1. Rock to the Beat 2. Feel the Mood 3. Groovin Without a Doubt 4. Let's, Let's, Let's Dance 5. Sound - Reese 6. Just Another Chance 7. Human Bond 8. Smooth Groove - Tronik House 9. Ahnongay - Inner City 10. Straight Outta Hell - Tronik House 11. Velocity Funk

  7. Giorgio Moroder -- E=MC2 [1 CD, Amazon US]
    German reissue of the disco legend's 1980 album for Casablanca. Billed as the first electronic live-to-digital album. Eight tracks including two bonus tracks, 'Love's In You, Love's In Me' & 'Evolution'. 2001 release.
    Digitally remastered edition of the holy grail of most Moroderphiles. This was the meister producer at his peak, with 'Evolution', 'Wanna Rock You', 'In My Wildest Dreams' and of course, the title track. [...]

  8. Trans-Europe Express - Kraftwerk [1 CD , Amazon US]
    1. Europe Endless 2. The Hall Of Mirrors 3. Showroom Dummies 4. Trans-Europe Express 5. Metal On Metal 6. Franz Schubert 7. Endless

    It's ironic that electronica's forefathers include two German bands whom, at least on the surface, were polar opposites. On the one hand, there was Can--shaggy, Stockhausen-trained advocates of trance improvisation--and on the other, Kraftwerk: clean-cut control freaks and masters of the pristine machine groove. Yet, even at their most robotic, Kraftwerk manages to locate the soul of the machine, as they demonstrate throughout this 1977 outing. Hell, the mannequin manifesto "Showroom Dummies" alone is worth the price of admission. For a band so closely tied to technology, it's a testament to Ralf and Florian that their music continues to sound fresh more than two decades down the autobahn. --Bill Forman

  9. Computer World - Kraftwerk [1CD, Amazon US]
    This is the album pundits like to point to when they accuse Kraftwerk of being digital-age visionaries; an all-too-easy assessment to make in the face of tracks such as "Home Computer" and "Computer Love" (not an ode to one-hand typing!). But to saddle the band with the reputation of sages is to completely miss the low-key wit and all-too-human playfulness of this album. "Pocket Calculator" and "Numbers" (the lyrics: numbers one to eight--period) could be read as tongue-in-cheek ripostes to too much bad "educational" programming, but that would smack of creeping punditry. Computer World is Kraftwerk's most lovable bundle of contradictions: at once its most technologically obsessed album and its most human. --Jerry McCulley

  10. Silence in the Secret Garden (2003) - Moodyman [FR] [DE] [UK]
    This has just come out worldwide. I was lucky enough to have been given an advanced copy (thanks Philippe!) and I have played it regularly. Basically, if you enjoy what Moodymann did before, you are going to like Silence in the Secret Garden. All amazon outlets carry it but only France had a review, which is below. Oh and yes, you can listen to snippets at the amazon.de site.

    Kenny Dixon jr alias Moodymann, mystérieux producteur à la coiffure afro, célèbre pour son refus de tout exercice promotionnel, s’applique à donner une touche black à la culture house. Originaire de Detroit (fief des pionniers de la techno) et actif depuis le début des années 90, il s’évertue à incruster l’âme des esclaves dans des échos électroniques. S’inspirant de son héritage blues et gospel et muni de samples soul et jazz, il s’emploie à casser sa réputation deep jazz house. Entre martèlements robotiques et silences hypnotiques, sifflets d’oiseaux et pleurs de nourrissons (plus cool que chez Lou Reed) liés par des interludes vocaux, il construit un chef-d’œuvre de soul électronique. Silence In The Secret Garden baigne dans un downtempo voluptueux célébrant la rencontre de Marvin Gaye et de Carl Craig. --Sabrina Silamo for amazon.fr

  11. Silent Introduction - Kenny Dixon Jr [Amazon US]
    This piece of electronic soul is a true masterpiece of music in any way, shape or form. Moody Man is actually Kenny Dixon Jr, one of the 'new school' of techno producers, and A Silent Introduction is his first full length album as an artist. The cover has a weird photograph of Kenny himself, looking like some sort of Afro-John Lennon(!), this bloke has grooves which could easily cause you to dislocate yr lower vertebrae. With its tempo sitting in warm confines of the 4/4 house beat, Moody Man makes a sound that is as pure and smooth as a blow job on a Sunday morning - concepts that would tickle the willies of you. The 2nd track on the CD - "I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hits" - takes a sample from Chic, slaps down a deep-deep kick & beat, and washes down the concoction with a sonic wash that wouldn't sound too far off the 'ecstasy' sound of Spacemen 3/Spiritualised. By the time the perfect rhythm has peaked, you haven't realized that you've gotten of yr arse and you're dancing, even if it is like a grooveless spastic. There are tracks on the CD, that I know, many listeners will say "gee that sounds gay" - the dippy jazz of "The Third Track" or even "M Traxx" and "Music People" - but for dance pop, they still work better than anything by Armand Van Helden. Before you can say "but I thought he was...," you will have your mind fucked and twisted by the minimal squash of "Oceans," the filtered fuck of 'In loving memory' and the concrete ugliness of "Dem Young Sconies." For you 'purists' - which most of you Mojo motherfuckers are - slap your willy around to the mod-Gospel of "Answer Machine" or the jazz-fusion of "Sunday Morning" Listen to this fucken' CD, which is already two years vintage, and you will get some idea of where dance music will be heading for at least the next 8 years, give or take. -- Aaron Goldberg, Nov 1999 for Perfect Sound Forever

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