Techno is a form of electronic dance music (EDM) that emerged in Detroit, Michigan in the United States during the mid-to-late 1980s. The first recorded use of the word techno in reference to a genre of music was in 1988. Many styles of techno now exist, but Detroit techno is seen as the foundation upon which a number of subgenres have been built.
The initial take on techno arose from the melding of electronic music, in the style of artists such as Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Yellow Magic Orchestra, with African American music styles, including funk, electro, Chicago house and electric jazz. Added to this is the influence of futuristic and fictional themes relevant to life in American late capitalist society, with Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave being a notable point of reference. Pioneering producer Juan Atkins cites Toffler’s phrase “techno rebels” as inspiring him to use the word techno to describe the musical style he helped to create. This unique blend of influences aligns techno with the aesthetic referred to as afrofuturism. To producers such as Derrick May, the transference of spirit from the body to the machine is often a central preoccupation; essentially an expression of technological spirituality. In this manner: “techno dance music defeats what Adorno saw as the alienating effect of mechanisation on the modern consciousness”.
Stylistically, techno is generally repetitive instrumental music produced for use in a continuous DJ set. The central rhythmic component is most often in common time (4/4), where time is marked with a bass drum on each quarter note pulse, a backbeat played by snare or clap on the second and fourth pulses of the bar, and an open hi-hat sounding every second eighth note. The tempo tends to vary between approximately 120 beats per minute (quarter note equals 120 pulses per minute) and 150 bpm, depending on the style of techno.
The creative use of music production technology, such as drum machines, synthesizers, and digital audio workstations, is viewed as an important aspect of the music’s aesthetic. Many producers use retro electronic musical devices to create what they consider to be an authentic techno sound. Drum machines from the 1980s such as Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909 are highly prized, and software emulations of such retro technology are popular among techno producers.
Music journalists and fans of techno are generally selective in their use of the term; so a clear distinction can be made between sometimes related but often qualitatively different styles, such as tech house and trance. “Techno” is also commonly confused with generalized descriptors, such as electronic music and electronic dance music.
The initial blueprint for techno developed during the mid-1980s in Belleville, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit by Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May (the so-called Belleville Three), all of whom attended school together at Belleville High, with the addition of Eddie Fowlkes, Blake Baxter and James Pennington. By the close of the 1980s, the pioneers had recorded and released material under various guises: Atkins as Model 500, Flintstones, and Magic Juan; Fowlkes simply as Eddie “Flashin” Fowlkes; Saunderson as Reese, Keynotes, and Kaos; with May as Mayday, R-Tyme, and Rhythim Is Rhythim. There were also a number of joint ventures, the most commercially successful of which was Kevin Saunderson’s group Inner City, which saw collaborations with Atkins, May, vocalist Paris Grey, and fellow DJs James Pennington and Arthur Forest.
In exploring techno’s origins writer Kodwo Eshun maintains that “Kraftwerk are to Techno what Muddy Waters is to the Rolling Stones: the authentic, the origin, the real.” Juan Atkins has acknowledged that he had an early enthusiasm for Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, particularly Moroder’s work with Donna Summer and the producer’s own album E=MC². Atkins also mentions that “around 1980 I had a tape of nothing but Kraftwerk, Telex, Devo, Giorgio Moroder and Gary Numan, and I’d ride around in my car playing it.” Atkins has also claimed he was unaware of Kraftwerk’s music prior to his collaboration with Rick Davis, which was two years after he had first started experimenting with electronic instruments. Regarding his initial impression of Kraftwerk, Atkins notes that they were “clean and precise” relative to the “weird UFO sounds” featured in his seemingly “psychedelic” music.
Derrick May identified the influence of Kraftwerk and other European synthesizer music in commenting that “it was just classy and clean, and to us it was beautiful, like outer space. Living around Detroit, there was so little beauty… everything is an ugly mess in Detroit, and so we were attracted to this music. It, like, ignited our imagination!”. May has commented that he considered his music a direct continuation of the European synthesizer tradition. He also identified Japanese synthpop act Yellow Magic Orchestra, particularly member Ryuichi Sakamoto, and British band Ultravox, as influences, along with Kraftwerk. YMO’s song “Technopolis” (1979), a tribute to Tokyo as an electronic mecca, is considered an “interesting contribution” to the development of Detroit techno, foreshadowing concepts that Atkins and Davis would later explore with Cybotron.
Kevin Saunderson has also acknowledged the influence of Europe but he claims to have been more inspired by the idea of making music with electronic equipment: “I was more infatuated with the idea that I can do this all myself.”