Minimal techno is thought to have been originally developed in the early 1990s by Detroit-based producers Robert Hood and Daniel Bell. By the early 2000s the term ‘minimal’ generally described a style of techno that was popularized in Germany by labels such as Kompakt, Perlon, and Richie Hawtin’s M-nus, among others.
In 1998, the rave scene that gripped Germany after reunification was at its apex. What had started in the literal underground spaces of post-GDR Berlin after the fall of the Wall had gone mainstream, with millions of young people celebrating the colorful culture of electronic dance music all across the country.
But the techno utopia envisioned by many as the new millenium approached was already starting to come undone. The trend was swiftly co-opted – ironically, by some of the same capitalist forces that had defeated the communist system a decade earlier.
The bubble soon burst, and many of those truly dedicated to the music were forced to rebuild. The result was something that was the opposite of rave’s over-the-top excess, a movement that idealized a minimalist aesthetic in sound, visuals and fashion.
It was a lifestyle that resisted the unbridled exuberance of rave in favor of something more sustainable – and sustain it did, with tracks that filled whole sides of vinyl and parties that went on for days at a time.
Berlin became the center for this new creative community, drawing in techno practitioners and aficionados from around the world who came for the party and stayed for the ease of living made possible by cheap rents and easy access to artist visas.
“Minimal” became the buzzword around this scene, and while overindulgences were aplenty in freewheeling afterhours, the “arm, aber sexy” (poor but sexy) slogan coined by then-mayor Klaus Wowereit could not have been a more accurate appraisal of Berlin’s appeal.
The Berlin of today might not offer the €100 rents of two decades ago, but it still maintains an independently-minded music community that is the envy of cities around the world, one that manages to be both pure in sound and a primary economic force for making Berlin an international destination.
20 years down the line, we talked to some of the DJs, producers, label heads and journalists – including Richie Hawtin, Ellen Allien, Break 3000 and more – who helped shaped the decade of minimal that once defined the city
In 1997, Berlin’s annual Love Parade reached a peak attendance of 1.5 million. The hangover that followed would force the infamous party capital to redefine itself, not for the first time.
The American forces abolished the curfew in 1949 to compete with the Russians, to show how liberal and open and forward-thinking they were. This is what attracted Iggy Pop and David Bowie to West Berlin in the 1970s. They could just go on and on and on.
Kraftwerk is the origin of minimal. Hysterical music filled with different sounds is too heavy for me – needless and even deranging. Kraftwerk taught my ears that less is more.
Growing up as a teenager in Berlin in the ’80s was completely uncool, at least in regards to pop culture. You just had the feeling that this was a really grey city with not much interesting happening.
The first techno labels I know from Berlin are Tresor and Basic Channel.We all know the story after the Wall came down. We had an underground techno movement and then we had the Love Parade, we had a Mayday, it became commercial.
That was ’96-’97, when I turned my back, ’cause techno was all over the place. It was on music television and in magazines, everywhere. It was a sell-out.
There was no interest in booking Berlin DJs in London, for example.Berlin had some important DJs in the early ’90s, but a lot of the music came from Frankfurt, mainly, and a little bit from Cologne and Munich. The music that came from Berlin was either early trance like Paul Van Dyk and Energy 52 – or Basic Channel. That was mostly it.
Many clubs were closed in the late ’90s. That’s why I started to take things into my own hands, creating my own events and founding my label. The crash induced me to do it by myself, or everything would die.
As Y2K approached and the global scene continued to contract, a new wave of artists arrived in Berlin and began to construct a sound that defied the euphoric conventions of rave.Ostgut opened in ’98, I think.
Predominantly gay club, very dark. You could already sense something new happening with that club.
There was a new underground developing around that time. My protagonists were people like Tobi Neumann, Luciano, Ricardo Villalobos and a few others who started some kind of new vibes in electronic music.
And at one point, somebody gave that the minimal label.Not a lot of melody, just sort of burbling groove percolating ad infinitum.
This very steady holding pattern became the signature of minimalMusically, the most crucial thing happening was Ricardo moving to Berlin. His Alcachofa album and songs like “Easy Lee” were some of the first recordings he made in Berlin. Easy Lee – Ricardo Villalobos
Dutch DJ/producer and RBMA alumni who established Dirt Crew Recordings in Berlin in 2004
You got records from Villalobos that were like ten or 20 minutes long and really very minimal, not much happening. That was completely different. It was really the sound of Berlin – I think one of the first times that Berlin really had its own sound.