Use of the term “techno” to refer to a type of electronic music originated in Germany in the early 1980s. … Detroit techno resulted from the melding of synthpop by artists such as Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Yellow Magic Orchestra with African American styles such as house, electro, and funk.
For a genre often associated with sparseness, or with the foregrounding of machines over musicians, techno has one of the most compelling and profoundly human origin stories in modern music.
It takes in the history of Detroit, the fall of the Berlin wall, single-minded entrepreneurs, and, eventually, a complete revolution in popular music culture.
How the fall of the Berlin Wall forged an anarchic techno scene
For almost three decades, a brutish man-made barrier divided the city of Berlin. The German capital was split between East and West, in the hope of divorcing a capitalist ideology from a socialist enclave.
This metropolitan membrane stood strong from August 1961 until November 9, three decades ago, when it all came down.
What followed was an era of political and cultural unification. East and West Berliners were now Berliners, free to roam as they please.
Clusters of previously corporate-owned buildings were rendered abandoned around the fallen wall, housing the birth of an anarchic electronic music scene that would go on to garner eminent status around the world.
In light of this anniversary, I’ve spoken to those who lived through this period of change to gain an understanding of how, and why, political unrest can prompt the production of such powerful music.
“In the ‘80s we believed in a so-called “no future generation”— Berlin was a Mecca for outsiders, punks and different-thinking people. Early ‘80s German punk and new wave music was becoming very strong
— it was the first time innovative experimental music was in the spotlight with German lyrics. The music scene was very radical at that time. Lots of people in Berlin weren’t fitting into society and created their own world.
“I was in Bavaria when the wall fell. It definitely helped to grow the scene. Suddenly there were thousands of young people from the former GDR celebrating their freedom.
“Techno music in Berlin was political and totally against the system. Most places or clubs had no license or any contract, so it was all illegal — everybody could do it with a sound-system and some DJs.
The alliance of American techno producers and DJs was born at Tresor — they booked DJs from Detroit, Chicago or NYC. The music was new and revolutionary. Underground Resistance (Jeff Mills, Mad Mike, Robert Hood) had a big impact on everybody in Berlin.
The Berlin-Detroit connection was very strong and influenced everybody involved.
“East and West people were creating a new musical and political haven of electronic music and nightlife which today rules the world of techno.
Techno was exploding in Berlin and the unification took force all over. East people became DJs, bouncers or dealers, and brought in a wave of unstoppable power — the party hasn’t ended since 1989.”
“I was born here, and after spending time away, moved back in 1979. Berlin didn’t have a Johnny Rotten or Mick Jagger, but it made up for it in its musical technology, with interesting bands like Malaria — although I did in fact meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie when I returned to Berlin.
“In 1988 I moved to London, which is where I was when the wall fell. My friends in Berlin told me that East Berlin was very claustrophobic before this
“I didn’t see a musical difference between people from East and West Berlin – I just saw people who were into electronic music and those who weren’t. In nightclubs, it was as if nothing ever happened.
“After the wall fell, you could go out without a penny and it just worked. There were no bouncers or rules – anything kind of went. You could just start something.
“Those responsible for Berlin’s scene after the fall of the wall are Tresor and their Detroit connections, Westbam, Gigolo Records, Kompakt from Cologne and Planet club (which is, to this day, one of my favourites). I think Berlin wouldn’t be Berlin without all the foreign people who live here.
“Politically, I’ve always been against government. For me, anarchy is about deciding who is responsible for what, and if they fail you, they lose that position. The politics of unity and interaction would be the politics of nightlife.”
“It almost felt like living in a cage. When the wall came down, I did not believe it. I cried like crazy, it was like a dream. It was a celebration of freedom, like somebody coming out of a prison – I explored East Berlin straight away. It was so different.
“I started playing at Tresor in around ’96 — Tresor is my godfather, my mentor. Acid house actually came first from the UK and America. It was the new underground sound. Then that sound became more minimal, harder and faster, and techno started.
“Young people from East and West wanted to meet each other, and we celebrated our togetherness in the club – we became one. Without the divide in the first place, the club scene would not be what it is today.
It would not be as compassionate as it is now. Berlin club owners were really passionate – they had ideas about free-form living. They loved what they did – it was a lifestyle. This energy comes from the political situation.
“Clubs like Planet and E-Werk were really important for the scene. Kiss FM was also really important – there was a mixture of pop, techno, drum ‘n’ bass, breakbeat. Monika Dietl, in ‘89-early ‘90s, was super important.
She played all the hot shit on her radio show; she was the angel of the scene. I remember asking my boyfriend “What kind of music is that!?” She had a fantastic selection
“I came from France to Berlin in 1982, and everybody I met was an artist. I started to try to prove myself as an artist there. After two years, I started to paint on the Berlin wall – it was such a melancholic life. It was an emergency act, and it changed my life.
“Punk and new wave had similarities to street art. All the punk girls had rats on their shoulders, and they changed the colour of the rat to match their hair each week.
It was very hardcore. All those guys live with their heart – musicians, painters, designers – that movement was very strong in Berlin.
“When the wall came down, we realised there were creatives in the East, too. The two groups merged together.
“I think art accelerated the fall of the wall – it showed the world that it’s not normal to have a big border like that in the middle of the city. This mutation of the border was shown on TV, and the government had to react to it. It was very important that it happened.
“I was happy when the wall fell – it wasn’t an art project for me. It was great to see it gone. The scene was so strong. We were underground fighters all together.”
“I’m a born Berliner – I grew up in a city surrounded by a dark age. As a West Berliner, we felt somehow ‘cosy’ – a big city with lots of space, but not many people living there. We didn’t focus on the wall that surrounded us, we focused on having a good time. To me, a wall was what characterised a city. I never felt locked in.
“Berlin nightlife had no curfews after the war, and because of this we had a lot of people who wanted to have their freedom rather than go to the army. We wanted to have our liberty, our free spirit. West Berlin was filled with artists, painters, musicians and writers. It had a similarity to the way of life in New York.
“When it came to Love Parade, I was together with an American girl called Danielle de Picciotto. We talked about how we wanted to create a Mardi Gras-type event: a street carnival.
My friends had been telling me about underground illegal parties in English cities like London, Manchester and Sheffield – about how somebody just switched on a ghetto-blaster and started dancing in the street.
This is what Danielle and I liked. Our solution was to put on a dancing demonstration march, and when it happened it gave me goose bumps. It was initially quite an esoteric event; we wanted the music to last forever, and this, with the power of the ecstasy – I’ve never felt anything like it before. Ecstasy was the drug of togetherness.”
“I considered Berlin, then, to be a backwater outpost for draft dodgers, gays, punks, artists and crazy people. So somehow, I fitted in, but I did miss the opportunities for glamour that were offered in NYC.
“The music scene gave the youth something they could build together and take equal ownership of.”
In response to being asked what it was like to be homosexual at that time:
“Berlin, for me, has always been a free, open and liberal city. As a so-called West Berliner, I didn’t really feel a freedom change. I am fairly certain that if you posed that question to an East Berliner you would get a very different answer.”
“Little did I know that the geopolitics of the world would shift, and I would somehow play a small part in the resurgence of Berlin. Several months later the wall would fall, techno took its grip on the youth, and as they say, the rest is history.”
“I went to Berlin in 1978 to search for records, and found this totally fascinating, unknown place – especially the East: nobody went there. I discovered this fledgling, wannabe punk-rock scene. You weren’t allowed to be punk – they saw it as the failing of capitalism, and they didn’t want people to think that communism had also failed.
“I had access to all this Western music that those from the East could only dream of, so I recorded my record collection and smuggled it into East Berlin. In the eyes of East Germany, I was considered ‘Subversiv Dekadent’. They were intrigued as to what my agenda was –- but I just wanted to alleviate their misery.
“West Berlin was avant-garde – creatives, transvestites, gays and others could live a normal life there. The scene that I discovered was one of expression –- the mindset was radical. The idea of a dual city definitely spurred bands’ creativity.
“Joy Division elected me as their representative to sell their records in Berlin –- I’d go to the shop that Gudrun Gut worked at to sell them. I ended up becoming the manager of her band Malaria! and travelled around Europe with them. Soon after,
I became the sound engineer of Die Toten Hosen, Germany’s leading punk band, who I smuggled into East Berlin for an illegal concert disguised as a church service.
This created a whole ripple through East Berlin of kids who wanted to be in punk bands. Prohibited music, like illegal drugs, had a kind of natural allure to it.
“In 1989, the band Die Vision asked me to produce their album – I was sat in a studio, as a Westerner, while East Berlin was falling apart all around us. We finished recording on November 2, and on the 9th the wall came down. It made me the last Westerner to produce an album in East Berlin.
“The city that we left on November 8, 1989 was not the same city we returned to. Berlin was suddenly freed up of war – this feeling of peace was essential. With peace, instead of throwing hand grenades, you can dance to records.
“When the wall came down, all these derelict buildings on the border suddenly became locations for illegal parties. Before this, there was only Ufo club in Berlin. It was also the first time East Berliners could take drugs –- ecstasy emerged, and this feeling of unity was available for the first time.
“It didn’t matter where you were from, the colour of your skin, anything. The reunification of Germany happened on the dancefloor.”
Techno begins in Detroit or, more specifically, in the suburb of Belleville, home to Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May. The trio of schoolfriends spent the late 1970s and early 1980s surrounded by the rapid technological advances of their industrial hometown and drinking in the music played on key radio shows like
The Electric Mojo. As May explains, “we were listening to… David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Sly And The Family Stone, and Funkadelic,”
Along with Giorgio Moroder’s Italo-disco and the pioneering electropop of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Gary Numan. The young May moved in with Atkins and his grandmother, and they “used to sit up almost every night and… discuss other people’s music.
We’d lie on the bed, Juan would face east and I would face west…and we’re thinking about how these guys made these records and what they must have been thinking.”
Against this musical backdrop, Atkins, Saunderson, and May began their own experiments. Instruments such as the Roland TR-808 and TR-909 were becoming more readily available, especially in a city enjoying a boom in well-paying manufacturing jobs, and the trio seized on this new technology.
They travelled to Chicago, drawing inspiration from the city’s disco heritage and booming house music scene, and reinterpreting them within the shadow of industrial Detroit.
Atkins was the first to actually release music. In 1981 his duo Cybotron, formed with Richard ‘3070’ Davis, released their single Alleys Of Your Mind/Cosmic Raindance, setting the blueprint for techno and earning Atkins the title of ‘The Originator’.
Soon he shared studio space with Saunderson and May, cementing the musical relationship between what came to be informally known as the Belleville Three.
Although Atkins was first out of the blocks, the others also enjoyed significant success. Saunderson enjoyed a series of chart hits, eventually selling some six million records.
And perhaps most famously, May’s 1987 single Strings Of Life, released under the alias Rhythim is Rhythim, struck a particular nerve in the UK.
The track was seized upon by the nascent acid house community and became a key anthem of the UK’s 1988-89 Second Summer Of Love, which saw the explosion of the rave and free party scene.
Sending out signals
But while the UK was possessed by the spirit of rave, the centre of gravity for techno was shifting towards Berlin. Music entrepreneur Dimitri Hegemann spent the early and mid-80s embedded in the West Berlin experimental music scene.
In 1982 he founded the Atonal festival, and in 1986 he opened his first club. Throughout the ’80s Hegemann released a series of records mainly by industrial bands, and in 1988 made his first trip to Chicago to visit his American distributor Wax Trax!
There, in the company’s offices, Hegemann first came across techno. He explains: “In this office, [the head of Wax Trax!] had a bucket full of tapes he didn’t like, and he said, ‘Dimitri, take anything you want.’
So I took one thing out and I listened to it and there was this number, [with Detroit area code] 313. So I called it from Chicago, and on the line was this group with Jeff Mills.
If there is one name now synonymous with techno, it is likely to be Jeff Mills. By the time Hegemann had made contact, Mills was already perhaps the most important DJ in Detroit. Through his show on station WDRQ, Mills (known initially as ‘
The Wizard’) had helped to introduce the city to key artists including Atkins, Saunderson, and May, and to cement its position as techno’s crucible. But the manner in which he played the records was just as important as the records themselves.
Mills pioneered a rapid mixing style, juggling quickly between tracks. As he explains, this style was initially developed out of necessity: “Over the years, the shows got shorter and shorter.
That’s how radio stations are – they make your shows shorter because of precious time. But still, there was an abundance of music that had to be played, so I had to figure out a way to be able to play all this music in a very short period of time, very smoothly, so that the people would at least hear a little bit of it so they would go to the shop and actually buy it.”
Competition between Detroit radio stations was fierce, and Mills was constantly looking for material that his rival DJs did not yet have. This eventually led him to introduce live instruments to his broadcasts. He would “make the music just prior to the show, play it during the show, and then never again.”
Soon Mills’ shows consisted of his own live performances, combining synthesisers and drum machines with his characteristic three-turntable setup.In 1989 Mills founded Underground Resistance, along with Robert Hood and Mike Banks.
he trio took a politically radical approach to the music and its culture, conceiving the project as a response to deep racial and economic injustices in Detroit and beyond. As Robert Hood explained in 2014, “techno is a movement. It’s a revolution. It’s a culture.”
Underground Resistance hoped to provide new outlets and options for communities that they considered to have been left behind in Detroit, and their work was a self-consciously radical response to what they saw as the over-commercialisation of techno.
The Berlin-Detroit axis
n 1990, just months after the fall of the Wall, Hegemann brought Mills to Berlin for the first time. The following year he welcomed Underground Resistance to his pioneering new club Tresor, which became the nexus for the so-called Berlin-Detroit Axis and for some time the most important site for techno worldwide.
In the years following, a number of key figures in the Detroit scene relocated to Berlin, heartened by the city’s appreciation for their work.Along with Hegemann, the city’s establishment as the home-from-home of techno owes a great deal to producer and entrepreneur Mark Ernestus.
Ernestus’s Kreuzberg store Hard Wax, now perhaps the most storied record shop in the world, was for a long time the only place in which this music could be bought outside of the States, and he played a crucial role in forging and nurturing links between the cities’ respective artists and scenes.
But Ernestus is probably best known for his work as Basic Channel, alongside his musical partner Moritz von Oswald. From their first release in 1993,
Basic Channel took techno into wildly exploratory new directions, melding it with the reggae production techniques with which they were fascinated to create an entirely new genre: dub techno.
“We started to use effects to integrate into the music – to use pedals that work with each other to create a state where the music is not moving, like a polaroid in a way,” says von Oswald. “You have something going on rhythmically but it stands still at the same time. With dub, it’s not really that different.
Meanwhile the duo’s family of labels, including Chain Reaction and Main Street, released landmark records from artists such as Vladislav Delay, Porter Ricks, and Monolake – the latter being a project of Robert Henke, who went on to create the widely-used audio production software
Ableton.By the early ’90s, techno had already spread and mutated to such a degree that it had birthed a whole host of wildly divergent subgenres: the Netherlands, for example, created gabber, while Goa became the spiritual home of trance.
Back in the UK, Sheffield label Warp set the template for what became known as IDM – ‘intelligent dance music’ – with the release of the landmark compilation series Artificial Intelligence.
Between 1992 and 1994 the series mined a rich new seam of techno-derived music that was focused more on the home than the club – or, perhaps, more on the afterparty than the party itself.Artificial Intelligence introduced artists including Aphex Twin,
Richie Hawtin, and Autechre, all of whom continue to innovate at the more cerebral fringes of electronic music. Hawtin, for example, is now widely known for his cutting-edge work in live performance and music technology, beginning with his involvement with the DJ software Final Scratch.
The programme began a revolution in DJing that has seen many performers move away from physical records and towards digital collections.
As Hawtin explained in 2014, “10 years of carting crates of 50 records around, mostly by myself, wasn’t the part of the job that I really enjoyed. To see this technology, where we could… carry around about a thousand tracks, that was [an] epiphany.”
Techno goes global
The ’90s also saw the establishment of the celebrity DJ as both a cultural figure and a profession. Germany’s Sven Väth parlayed early pop music success into a vastly successful career as a techno DJ, label owner, and events promoter, arguably setting the template for the ‘techno entrepreneur’.
There was an explosion in the number of global superclubs during the decade, with venues including Ministry of Sound and in London fabric , Avalon in Boston, and Amnesia in Ibiza all either setting up or expanding.
By the end of the ’90s artists such as Carl Cox had helped to cement the ‘superstar DJ’ as a well-worn trope in popular culture.Techno had now entered the public consciousness so firmly that the word was often used by laypeople as a blanket term for any music made with machines.
But despite the popularisation and rapid commercialisation of the music, there remained keepers of the true flame. 2004 saw the opening of a new club near Berlin’s Ostbahnhof station.
The club, housed in a vast decommissioned power station straddling the neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, took a portmanteau of those areas as its name: Berghain.
In the intervening years, Berghain has become the most iconic club in the world, and the point around which much of the techno community now oscillates.
Its list of resident DJs reads like a who’s-who of the contemporary ‘Berlin sound’, including Ben Klock and Marcell Dettman. For some, though, the draw of the place can be attributed as much to its no-holds-barred approach to hedonism as it can to the music itself.
But whatever attracts the vast queues of punters trying their luck with its legendarily tough door policy, Berghain is a true cathedral for the culture of techno.Beyond Berlin, techno’s position today is contested.
Its impact on popular music has been enormous, and the genre and its descendants are (along with other developments such as the advent of cheap air travel) the foundations of what is now a global industry generating billions of dollars every year.
But outside the superclubs and away from the headline DJs, techno continues to provide a framework for experimentation and adventure. It has become a more egalitarian and diverse place: as Peder Mannerfeld has it, “today in it’s not possible to have a club event in Europe with an all-male line-up”
n bedrooms and home studios across the world, producers and DJs are still taking the foundations laid in Detroit, and using them to build radical and exciting new music.