Techno has never been as popular as it is now. In the 35-plus years since the term was coined by Black musicians in Detroit adapting and mutating European electro-pop and experimental music with added jazz and funk influence for their own clubs, it’s had plenty of ups and downs, but through the late 2010s became a truly global force, even starting to rival the ultra-commercial rave sounds of EDM.
Success, of course, never comes without problems. In the months pre-COVID, a new term was coined: “business techno”. This is, after all, a genre that has tended to pride itself in being more underground and gritty than house music or EDM. Where ten years ago, there were only a handful of techno DJs in the megastar league – Richie Hawtin, Carl Cox and a few more – now there are dozens. Naturally, the rise of a generation of international social media megastar DJs making fortunes playing private parties for the offspring of oligarchs in Sao Paulo or Dubai rankled somewhat with the more serious fans who felt their music belonged in strobe-lit cellars.
Latterly the recriminations have become even more bitter as these same jet-setting DJs post videos of themselves playing to large crowds in territories where lockdown has ended. Plenty of other DJs and fans bemoan these “plague raves” as being irresponsible and greedy. And for those whose venue infrastructure remains in a state of extreme peril thanks to pandemic restrictions, that goes double: it feels like they’re having their noses rubbed in it by the scene’s new aristocrats.
And of course, there are also complaints that the music is diluting as the scene commercialises – complaints that aren’t without merit. Even now, with clubs generally closed, the retail platforms are still flooded every week with huge-selling, dispiritingly generic “melodic techno”, “progressive techno”, “tech house” or “hard techno” releases – all a world away from the innovations of early European and Detroit experimenters, all the kind of thing that DJs can blend together seamlessly with their eyes closed. “Business techno” is pretty close to being a definable genre.
Thankfully, though, there are still plenty of people plugging away with the same exploratory spirit that has kept techno going through its other ups and downs. Just as when it went through other formulaic periods – like when banging “loop techno” dominated in the late 1990s, or spaced out “mnml” in the 2000s – there’s endless invention and variety out there. So, to save you the pain of having to get involved with arguing nerds online, here’s a short sampler of the truly exciting music available. Some are dreamy, some are hypnotically funky, some is alarmingly abrasive, but all of it should remind you that techno is still a sound full of possibility just as when it was born.
One of the DJs most often written off as “business techno” is Siberian born Nina Kraviz. But while her mega profile and prolific social media use – even her playing raves during the pandemic – attract criticism, in fact, she remains one of the most exploratory curators around. Her трип (“Trip”) label is consistently gloriously weird, and the debut album by Russian duo Alina Izolenta and Kamil Ea exemplifies all that’s great about it: each track twists and turns, almost hilarious in its weirdness, and above all never predictable.
“Dub techno” is a genre in its own right, influenced by Jamaican sounds, but with its own language of hazy layers of fizzing tonality. Though it originated in Berlin in the 90s, it’s continued to evolve worldwide – see Manchester’s Space Afrika and Detroit’s deepchord – but one of the most beautiful currently operating is Montreal producer Zac MacArthur a.k.a. URA. His tracks frequently almost dissolve into pure ambience, and the rhythms can be irregular, but the techno pulse is always somewhere there, even if it’s buried deep in the mix.
The Afro-Portuguese collective Principe Discos has practically created a dance genre all of its own, with heavy bass and surprising syncopation ever-present. But a lot of their work essentially rebuilds techno from first principles, as with this remix by Principe artist DJ Firmenza of fellow countryman Silvestre. The rhythms resemble classic rave at first, but as the track progresses they become more and more Afro-Latin – and underpinning it all is pure techno momentum.
“Business techno” may sometimes be as mindless and escapist as its detractors think, but elsewhere electronic music retains a sense of its roots – and frequently a fiercely political edge too. The Break The Silence compilation from the Netherlands this year – in support of Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero – was a fierce reminder of techno’s Blackness, and also of its power as a vessel for ideas and passions. This track by first-generation Detroit legend Eddie “Flashin’” Fowlkes shows how techno can be slinky, sensual and packed with jazz elements, while still – with its Malcolm X samples – absolutely uncompromising.
Wisconsin producer / DJ Ilana Bryne is a relatively new recording artist, but not new to the scene – she’s a veteran of many 90s Midwest outdoor raves. Her music is shot through with both the crazed optimism of those times and a real music maturity. The funky drums on this track, out via a Portuguese label, sounds rough and ready at first but the way they evolve and the brain-tickling synthesisers worm their way between them, is anything but basic.
Anna-Marie Odubote – a.k.a. Anz – is certainly not a genre purist. The Manchester musician’s work takes in heavy doses of UK sounds like grime and garage, and this newest release is on the post-dubstep label Hessle Audio. But there’s something about the way she strips things back to basics with both eyes firmly on how dancers will react, and about how she celebrates the synthetic sounds she uses – as well as a strong direct Detroit influence on many of her tracks – that constantly takes her back to the founding principles of techno.
The Netherlands has a split personality when it comes to dance music. On the one hand, they dominate the globe in the most frenzied, ultra-commercial trance, hardstyle and EDM – with the relatively small country dominating the world’s most popular DJ leagues. But on the other, they’ve maintained a deep underground techno scene since the mid-80s, with close links to Detroit, and generations of finely crafted music. Boris Bunnink is one of the younger generations, and the purity and finesse of his expression is testament to how much this sound has become a folk form in his homeland.
The gender shift in electronic music this century has been dramatic. The experimental side, which used to be a safe space for nerdy boys to play with their toys, has especially changed. There’s a long way to go yet, but at least it’s no longer exceptional to see someone like Polish instrument builder and producer Ewa Justka performing at clubs. Justka’s sound is a no-nonsense, often outright humourous, take on hard techno, sometimes ridiculously fast but always with a solid groove.
Sometimes it’s good for techno to be deep and emotional, but other times you just want it to have the funk. Jason Szostek from Philadelphia – the first part of his artist name stands for “Button Pushin’”, the second is quite rude – knows this all too well. His tracks are all about the groove: big fat, bouncy, squelchy noises and drums made to crunch as hard as possible. And if you’re in the mood for dancing, they are perfect.
Új Bála is a Hungarian “hardware fiend”, preferring to use old-school synths and drum machines in place of the laptops most electronic music is made now. And it shows: these noises sound mechanical, physical, raw. It’s very clearly music with passion – and in this case with a sense of mission, appearing as it does on a Polish compilation showing solidarity for the citizens of neighbouring Belarus – and a million miles from any kind of off-the-shelf, mass-produced business techno.
Cover Image: Paula Abu
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs