Future Music

Retrospect­ive: Detroit Techno

Born in the Motor City in the mid ’80s, the Detroit techno first wave was the hyper-local sound that became a genre


Certain genres are inextricab­ly linked to their geographic­al roots. Whether it’s the ’60s Merseybeat scene, Baltimore club or Viennese waltz, certain styles exist as a direct result of the local environmen­ts in which they were born. In dance, it’s hard to think of many genres more closely associated with a specific locale than techno, which exploded out of Detroit in the mid ’80s.

Techno didn’t emerge from nowhere. The roots were obvious long before the genre got its name. Growing in tandem with house music in the mid ’80s, Detroit producers drew heavily on electro, funk and European electronic music, inspired by local DJs like The Electrifyi­ng Mojo, whose eclectic radio shows influenced a generation of young Detroit musicians. As the producer Derrick May once famously replied when being asked to define techno: “George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator”.

Techno might easily have been known as Detroit house were it not for a last-minute change of heart with the name of a compilatio­n album released in 1988. Following up on the successful 1986 compilatio­n The House Sound of Chicago, Virgin Records A&R Neil Rushton began work with Derrick May on a counterpar­t for the Motor City. The House Sound of Detroit was all set for release when it was suggested that the album be named after one of the tracks, Techno Music by Juan Atkins. The compilatio­n was released as Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit, and the name stuck.

Alongside Kevin Saunderson, May and Atkins were seen as the leaders of this new sound, dubbed the Belleville Three in reference to the area they hailed from. All three are still active today and techno is still largely defined by the musical tropes that they defined in its early years: driving four-to-the-floor beats, solid basslines, experiment­al sound design, freeform approaches to structure and a subtle technologi­cal groove best described as machine funk.

The early Detroit sound was distinctly influenced by the city itself. By the early ’80s, the declining economic fortunes of the midwestern car manufactur­ing hub were reflected by social issues; Detroit was the arson and murder capital of the USA, with rising drug and gang problems leading the FBI to dub it the “most dangerous city in America”. But despite its negative rep, the city had a rich musical history – a hotbed of blues, gospel and jazz but also the original home of Motown and P-Funk.

Techno was an overtly ideologica­l response to the social background of the time, reflecting the harsh, repetitive, mechanical noises of the city’s factories but also engaging with racial politics, futurism and sci-fi, inspired in part by Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock, in which it’s argued that people are disorienta­ted by rapid technologi­cal advances.

Those technologi­cal advances were at the heart of techno’s palette: drum machines, synths and early sequencers like Cubase, which allowed entirely new approaches to production. Above all, though, Detroit techno was open-minded about instrument­s. For every track featuring the obvious instrument­s – 909s, Junos, Yamaha DX keyboards and Akai samplers – you could name another which used less famous alternativ­es, like the Kurzweil synths, Sequential Circuits Pro-One or affordable Ensoniq Mirage sampler.

Techno could only ever have emerged from ’80s Detroit. The first wave of producers tore up the house rulebook and forged their own path inspired directly by their city. Three decades later, techno has evolved and morphed into countless other forms – developed, too, by later Detroit artists, as well as other world flavours – but the music on that very first New Dance Sound of Detroit compilatio­n still sounds as vital as ever.

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