From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Techno is a form of electronic dance music that became prominent in Detroit, Michigan during the mid-1980s with influences from Chicago house, electro, New Wave, Funk and futuristic fiction themes that were prevalent and relative to modern culture during the end of the Cold War in industrial America at that time.
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 Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, among others.
Though initially conceived as party music that was played on daily mixed radio programs and played at parties given by cliquish, Detroit high school clubs, it has grown to be a global phenomenon. High school clubs such as Snobbs, Hardwear, Brats, Comrades, Weekends, Rumours, and Shari Vari created the incubator in which Techno was grown. These young promoters developed and nurtured the local dance music scene by both catering to the tastes of the local audience of young people and by marketing parties with innovative DJs and eclectic new music. As these local clubs grew in popularity, groups of DJs began to band together and market their mixing skills and sound systems to the clubs under names like Direct Drive and Audio Mix in order to cater to the growing audiences of listeners. Locations like local church activity centers, vacant warehouses, offices and YMCA auditoriums were the early locations where the underage crowds gathered, and where the musical form was nurtured and defined.
The music soon attracted enough attention to garner its own club, the Music Institute at 1315 Broadway in downtown Detroit. It was founded by Chez Damier, Derrick May and a few other investors. Though short-lived, this club was known internationally, for its all night sets, its sparse white rooms, and its juice bar stocked with "smart drinks"(the Institute never served liquor). Relatively quickly, techno began to be seen by many of its originators and up-and-coming producers as an expression of Future Shock post-industrial angst. It also took on increasingly high tech and science-fiction oriented themes.
The music's producers were using the word "techno" in a general sense as early as 1982 (Man Parrish, "Techno Trax") and 1984 (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 Records (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 1977 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, Illinois and New York City, 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. At the same time, there is evidence that the Chicago sound was influenced by the Belleville Three — allegedly, May loaned Chicago-based house musician Keith "Jack Master Funk" Farley the equipment to make the classic track "House Nation"; early Detroit techno records reportedly sold well in Chicago; and Atkins believes that the first acid house producers, seeking to distance house music from disco, emulated the techno sound.
Derrick May is often quoted as comparing techno to "George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator". For various reasons, techno is seen by the American mainstream, even among African-Americans, as "white" music, even though many of its originators and 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 the late 1980s and early 1990s, different subgenres of techno music began to emerge including hardcore techno, an intensefied style typified by a fast tempo (160-300 bpm and up) and the rhythmic use of distorted and atonal industrial-like beats and samples, and ambient techno, with artists such as The Orb and Aphex Twin producing dub and ambient influenced techno that later had an influence on IDM and minimal techno artists. In the mid 1990s, acid techno developed, influenced by the heavy use of the Roland TB-303 for bass and lead sounds in the acid house sound. This style also went on to influence acid trance. Tech house music combines the basic structure of house music with elements from techno such as shorter, often distorted kicks, smaller hi-hats, noisier snares and more synthetic or acid sounding synth lines.
Occasionally, well-funded pop music producers will formulate a radio or club-friendly variant of techno. The music of Technotronic, 2 Unlimited, and Twenty 4 Seven were early examples of this phenomenon. Established pop stars also sometimes get techno makeovers, such as when William Orbit produced Madonna's album Ray of Light.
In recent years, 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. Techno has further expanded into the charts as more artists such as Orbital, Underworld and Moby have made the style break through to the mainstream pop culture while producers and DJs such as Laurent Garnier, Dave Clarke Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills have continued to explore newer sounds.
Techno features an abundance of percussive, synthetic sounds, studio effects used as principal instrumentation, and, usually, a regular, 4/4 beat usually in the 130–140 bpm range—sometimes faster, but rarely slower. Some techno compositions have strong melodies and bass lines, but these features are not as essential to techno as they are to other dance genres, and it is not uncommon for techno compositions to deemphasize or omit them. Techno is also very DJ-friendly, being mainly instrumental, and produced with the intention of being incorporated into continuous DJ sets wherein different compositions are played with very long, synchronized segues. Although several other dance music genres can be described in such terms, techno has a distinct sound that aficionados can pick out very easily.
There are many ways to make techno, but a typical techno production is created using a compositional technique that developed to suit the genre's sequencer-driven, electronic instrumentation. While this technique is rooted in a Western music framework (as far as scales, rhythm and meter, and the general role played by each type of instrument), it does not typically employ traditional approaches to composition such as reliance on the playing of notes, the use of overt tonality and melody, or the generation of accompaniment for vocals. Some of the most effective techno music consists of little more than cleverly programmed drum patterns that interplay with different types of reverb and frequency filtering, mixed in such a way that it's not clear where the instrument's timbres end and the added effects begin.
Instead of employing traditional compositional techniques, the techno musician, called a producer, treats the electronic studio as one large, complex instrument: an interconnected orchestra of machines, each producing timbres that are simultaneously familiar and alien. Each machine is encouraged to generate or complement continuous, repetitive sonic patterns that come relatively 'naturally' to them, given the capabilities and limitations of early sequencers — such sequencers, especially those built-in to old drum machines, tend to encourage the production of repeating 16-step patterns with a limited number of instruments being playable at once, yet they also allow sounds to be arranged in any order, regardless of whether live musicians could easily reproduce them. Rather than just mimicking arrangements playable by live musicians, the techno producer is free to prominently feature unrealistic combinations of sounds. Most producers, however, strive to achieve a listenable, dancefloor-friendly balance of realistic and unrealistic arrangements of mostly synthetic, semi-realistic timbres, rather than a demonstration of machine-powered extremes.
Depending on how they are wired together, the machines sometimes influence each other's sounds as the producer builds up many layers of syncopated, rhythmic harmonies and mingles them together at the mixing console.
After an acceptable palette of compatible textures is collected in this manner, the producer begins again, this time focusing not on developing new textures but on imparting a more deliberate arrangement of the ones he or she already has. The producer "plays" the mixer and the sequencer, bringing layers of sound in and out, and tweaking the effects to create ever-more hypnotic, propulsive combinations. The result is a deconstructive manipulation of sound, owing as much to Debussy and the Futurist Luigi Russolo as it does to Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream.
The techno producer's studio can be anything from a single computer (increasingly common nowadays) to elaborate banks of keyboards, synthesizers, samplers, effects processors, and mixing boards wired together. Most producers use a variety of equipment and strive to produce sounds and rhythms never heard before, yet stay fairly close to the stylistic boundaries set by their contemporaries.
The "originators", the "first wave" artists often credited with inventing techno, are as follows:
Other "second wave" Detroit-area techno producers active since 1988–1990 include the following people:
Works that comprehensively explore the subject of techno music and its related culture:
- Simon Reynolds: Energy Flash: a Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (UK title, Pan Macmillan, 1998, ISBN 0330350560), also published in abridged form as Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture (North American title, Routledge, 1999, ISBN 0415923735)
- Dan Sicko: Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, Billboard Books, 1999 ISBN 0823084280