Techno has always conjured up the image of Berlin, and Berlin has always sounded like techno.
Although the birthplace of the genre is generally claimed to be Detroit, its spirit belongs to Germany’s capital. Anyone who contends that fact will likely change their minds once they’ve seen and felt the city for themselves. Everything from the stark architecture (“stark” meaning strong in German; striking in a barren or sombre way in English) to the typically frank Berlin persona (the Berliner Schnauze) speak to the inner workings of how techno came to be.
Berlin has always been a magnet for self-described oddballs and outcasts, where the LGBTQ could live normal lives before the term “LGBTQ” existed, where artists and outsiders were the cultural norm. For a city considered as much of a counterculture icon and a haven for “the underground” as Berlin is, living up to your reputation can be an uphill battle. It requires constant evolution, constant rejection of what’s been painstakingly built before. Berlin’s history has set it up for success, though: as the epicenter for much of the West’s physical and political battles over the past century, it’s gotten used to being cleared to make way for something new, over and over again.
Consider the fact that a huge swath of the city was literally built underground, and four-lane subterranean streets plus a network of connecting tunnels wound underneath the central “downtown”. These allowed the semblance of a normal life while bombs fell during WWII. Above ground, reinforced concrete was shaped into over two hundred air raid shelters. The Cold War then added more bunkers to the landscape on both sides of the Berlin wall in anticipation of nuclear bombs. Even more brute concrete poured into the city as part of the rapid, Brutalist movement to rebuild the razed city from the ground up after the 80s.
Consider what all the above-ground concrete, and under-ground caverns have done for Berlin’s identity. After the wall came down in 1989, all the stark concrete remained as empty shells; the authorities had no idea what structure belonged to whom anymore, and cultural activists from both East and West now had a newfound freedom to explore all the basements, power stations, and military bunkers as potential spaces to create something new.
That “something new” was an untamed and radical sound defined by drum machines and four by four beats, brought in straight from Detroit. It’s as if the genre knew where it was meant to go, and it traveled straight to the serious, dark futurism that was ‘90s-era Berlin. If the music that defined Germany in the ‘80s Cold War was punk; the soundtrack of the 1989 reunification was techno.
But techno wasn’t just about the sound—it was also an intense physical and emotional feeling. Witnesses attest that the walls and the air itself shook from the enormous speakers wedged between immovable concrete, to the point where audio equipment literally broke down from mechanical strain. While Berlin was tearing down its borders, it was also literally shaking up its dancefloors. Youth from both East and West rushed in to celebrate with the now-famous parties of Ostgut, E-Werk, and Tresor, with the latter being particularly instrumental in building a bridge with Detroit and adapting the acid house sounds from the UK for their own unique expression.
“When the wall came down, that moment arrived with techno in the early ‘90s,” testifies Dimitir Hegemann, founder of Tresor. “This was the feeling that, hey, we can do whatever we want. An avalanche formed and we went from a couple of hundred to ten thousand people, in about one year.” These new clubs were the one place where no one care which side of the former wall you came from, and where it didn’t matter anyway; the scene was a completely new frontier and everyone was equally inexperienced.
It’s hard for a feeling so serendipitous as the exuberance of Berlin’s 1989-93 techno scene to survive beyond its historical moment in time. 30 years on, the city’s fringe identity is fading fast, its soul being sucked dry by its ever-growing fame and a wave of new investors moving in for a piece of the trending market. But one thing that hasn’t (yet) changed is the Berlin tradition of breaking down walls.
Walk into any club, and the music will embrace you with open arms. All the dancefloors still remain famous for being safe spaces free of judgement, where anyone is welcome, anything goes, and cameras are forbidden. The international community is still fundamental to Berlin’s success as a cultural hub, and club organisers and the music community have banded together time and time again over the years to publicly demonstrate for inclusivity, in the same way that the original Love Parade demonstrated for peace and international understanding through love and music.
The party hasn’t stopped since 1989. And just like how ‘80s punk gave way to ‘90s techno without ever losing its personality and spirit, we must have faith and simply ask ourselves… what will Berlin slip into next?
Cover Image: Adam Kuylenstierna / EyeEm via Getty Images
Writer | Cynthia Chou
Cynthia is a Canadian writer and recent transplant to Berlin. She also likes to paint and sing and eat and drink and stuff while traveling the world.