My first introduction to Detroit techno happened accidentally, in the late 2000s, at the end of an underground party in an abandoned warehouse in the Venetian countryside: a post-apocalyptic landscape just a few kilometres away from the historical buildings that make Venice famous worldwide.
Funnily enough, the area surrounding the Venetian lagoon has been fertile ground for underground electronic clubs for decades.
In hindsight, the similarities between the birthplace of techno and the Venetian hinterland abound.
A once industrial powerhouse, over the years, the area surrounding Venice became home to a multicultural melting pot of a racially integrated workforce that was often neglected by local councils and politicians, too focused on seizing every opportunity for a spotlight in the nearby, worldwide-known tourist destination.
At the warehouse party, one of the resident DJs chose a particular track to conclude the last DJ set of the night: “Hydro Theory” by Drexciya.
Whether because of the ecstatic situation or the song itself, I was transfixed: the mesmerising rhythm, and the simple yet enveloping soundscape, made me realise I came across a song featuring an entirely new sound I needed to explore.
Being a regular clubgoer, I was familiar with techno’s latest innovations and reinterpretations.
However, the primeval sound that originated from Detroit in the 1980s felt powerful, original, and raw in ways modern techno producers can very rarely recreate.
The evolution and ramifications of Detroit techno affected the electronic landscape we’re all familiar with today. Surprisingly, it all started with a small group of artistes who redefined the underground club scene almost forty years ago.
THE BIRTH OF DETROIT TECHNO
Everything began with Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick, a trio of DJs that became known as the Belleville Three.
The three met while studying in Belleville, in the suburbs of Detroit, and their unique approach to experiencing electronic music became the key to creating techno music as we know it.
Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick would spend hours listening to the best electronic sounds from oversea.
At the time, Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Giorgio Moroder were among the pioneers of a new wave of electro-pop that was appreciated by the American middle-class black youth.
The three DJs started using synthesisers to produce their music, like the timeless Korg MS-10, which until then was primarily used in experimental and ambient music.
Over time, the Roland TR-808 drum machine also became a standard tool for their production, allowing them to distance their music from the “warmer” sounds of the Chicago House scene.
The Belleville Three were able to merge the popular electronic atmospheres of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream with the dynamic beats of funk and soul music typical of the Chicago house, creating a successful blend of sounds that spread in no time to all the dancefloors of Detroit’s suburbs in the mid-1980s.
Contrary to most electronic genres at the time, Detroit techno was mostly interested in exploring extra-terrestrial and dystopian themes.
This was a trait reminiscent of the Kosmische Musik that inspired the early techno producers, who’d focus on Afrofuturism and science fiction themes that attracted the often marginalised black youth living in the suburbs of big cities.
Despite the growing interest by clubs and record labels in the US, the Detroit scene was still considered local until the mid-1980s, when the Belleville Three and other artistes connected to the new style began attracting the attention of the global rave scene.
DETROIT TECHNO’S EXPANSION
It took years for Detroit techno to evolve from a local underground music scene to an international music wave.
European dance clubs discovered Detroit music mostly thanks to three successful singles: “Strings Of Life” by Rhythm Is Rhythm, “No UFOs” by Model 500 and “Good Life” by Inner City.
All three hits involved the Belleville Three: Rhythm Is Rhythm is Derrick May, Model 500 is the pseudonym of Juan Atkins, and Inner City is a project by Kevin Saunderson and vocalist Paris Grey.
By the end of the 1980s, the Belleville Three decided to brand this new genre as “techno” to differentiate it from the Chicago house scene and to reiterate the connection between their sound and Detroit’s post-industrial environment.
The new style became extremely popular in the UK, where the rave scene proved to be the perfect environment for techno music to thrive.
Although techno was born in the suburbs of Detroit, this viral genre will find in the rave scene of London's underground clubs its most potent amplifier.
DETROIT TECHNO’S RISE TO STARDOM
The rave scene in the UK was particularly affected by these new sonic atmospheres, with electronic bands that took techno as a source of inspiration to create the big beat genre, which will headline festivals and fill up arenas with their techno-inspired anthems.
Parallel to its worldwide expansion, by the end of the 1980s, a new wave of techno producers came to prominence in Detroit, with the likes of Richie Hawtin, Carl Craig, Robert Hood, and Drexciya paving the way for a new, global wave of techno music.
The second wave of Detroit techno was also an incredible time for electronic music in Detroit, where creativity and innovation were enhanced by the perfect environment for experimenting with and expanding existing sounds.
For years, the global electronic landscape would analyse and admire the sounds coming out from Michigan.
The most popular artistes in Detroit would create their own record labels to produce like-minded artistes they thought deserved recognition.
The Detroit techno ecosystem became an echo chamber for a sound that would expand and flourish oversea.
However, its connection to the underground club environment remains intact to this day, with artistes who often celebrate the roots of techno music with tracks that reprise the moods and atmosphere of the early Detroit scene of the past century.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE OF DETROIT TECHNO
Moving beyond the concept of race and “blackness”, Detroit techno became one of the first genres in the electronic landscape to explore the idea of an alternative, boundless society.
The mid-class black youth that brought techno to life aimed at creating a universal sound embraced by everyone, regardless of race or social background.
While it moved from the local scene of Detroit to the most popular music arenas in the world, Detroit techno still represents a movement that embodies the essence of its first recordings: a sense of community and tribalism that’s hard to find in other popular music genres these days.
Techno has always been capable of evolving and adapting according to the local scenes it’d find on its path.
In London, it became the main source of inspiration for future generations of big beat, redefined rave music and helped make UK electronica the most innovative scene throughout the 1990s and 2000s.
In Berlin, it merged with the existing electro-pop and ambient scenes to create the hypnotising and futuristic Berlin techno sound.
The self-sufficient ecosystem created by the Detroit Techno environment, especially in the early days, is not unlike the one that started the grunge scene in Seattle in the mid-1980s, where the isolation and unique aesthetics of a provincial city became the perfect location for a new genre to thrive.
However, unlike its grunge counterpart, Detroit techno developed into a plethora of different coexisting subgenres that still evolve and inspire each other today.
The hypnotic blend of styles, the minimalist beat, and the immersive soundscapes that define Detroit techno will remain at the core of electronic music for decades to come.
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Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.