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Friday, October 31, 2008
History of Techno

Hey Everyone,

The team here at trakAx have been very busy working on the new version of the software which is due very soon, so please forgive the slight delay in the new dance weblog. In this weblog, I am going to highlight some of the history surrounding Techno, the artists who really developed the genre as well as the different styles of techno which have evolved over the decades. And remember you can always check out our Techno trakPacks available from our website.

Techno is a form of electronic music that emerged in the mid-1980s and primarily refers to a particular style developed in and around Detroit and subsequently adopted by European producers.


Techno was primarily developed in basement studios by “The Belleville Three”, a cadre of African-American men who were attending college, at the time, near Detroit, Michigan.

The budding musicians – former high school friends and mixtape traders Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson – found inspiration in Midnight Funk Association, an eclectic, 5-hour, late-night radio program hosted on various Detroit radio stations including WCHB, WGPR, and WJLB-FM from 1977 through the mid-1980s by DJ Charles “The Electrifying Mojo” Johnson. Mojo’s show featured heavy doses of electronic sounds from the likes of George Clinton, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream, among others.

How it emerged:

Though initially conceived as party music and played at parties given by posh Detroit high school clubs such as Comrades, Weekends, and Rumours, the music soon attracted enough attention to garner its own club the Music Institute. The institute, though short-lived, was known for its all night sets, its sparse setup, and its juice bar (the Institute never served liquor). Over what was really a short period of time, techno began to be seen by many of its originators and up-and-coming producers as an expression of Future Shock and post-industrial angst. It also took on increasingly urban, science-fiction oriented themes.

The music’s producers were using the word “techno” in a general sense as early as 1984 (as in Cybotron’s seminal classic “Techno City”), and sporadic references to an ill-defined “techno-pop” could be found in the music press in the mid-1980s. However, it was not until Neil Rushton assembled the compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit for Virgin UK in 1988 that the word came to formally describe a genre of music.

Techno has since been retroactively defined to encompass, among others, works dating back to ”Shari Vari” (1981) by A Number Of Names, the earliest compositions by Cybotron (1981), Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s “I Feel Love” (1977), and the more danceable selections from Kraftwerk’s repertoire between 1978 and 1983.


In the years immediately following the first techno compilation’s release, techno was referenced in the dance music press as Detroit’s relatively high-tech, mechanical brand of house music, because on the whole, it retained the same basic structure as the soulful, minimal, post-disco style that was emanating from Chicago and New York at the time.

The music’s producers, especially May and Saunderson, admit to having been fascinated by the Chicago club scene and being influenced by house in particular. This influence is especially evident in the tracks on the first compilation, as well as in many of the other compositions and remixes they released between 1988 and 1992. May’s 1987-88 hit ”Strings Of Life” (released under the nom de plume Rhythim Is Rhythim), for example, is considered a classic in both the house and techno genres. However at the same time, there is also evidence that Chicago was influenced by the Detroit Three. Allegedly May loaned Chicago producers the equipment they would use to make the classic House Nation.

A spate of techno-influenced releases by new producers in 1991-92 resulted in a rapid fragmentation and divergence of techno from the house genre. Many of these producers were based in the UK and the Netherlands, places where techno had gained a huge following and taken a crucial role in the development of the club and rave scenes. Many of these new tracks in the fledgling IDM, trance and hardcore/jungle genres took the music in more experimental and drug-influenced directions than techno’s originators intended.

Detroit and “pure” techno remained as a subgenre, however, championed by a new crop of Detroit-area producers like Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin, Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Drexciya and Robert Hood, plus certain musicians in the UK, Belgium and Germany. Derrick May is often quoted as comparing techno to “George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator”, even though very little, if any, techno ever bore a stylistic resemblance to Clinton’s repertoire.


True origins:

For various reasons, techno is seen by the American mainstream, even among African-Americans, as “white” music, even though its originators and many of its producers are Black. The historical similarities between techno, jazz, and rock and roll, from a racial standpoint, are a point of contention among fans and musicians alike. Derrick May, in particular, has been outspoken in his criticism of the co-opting of the genre and of the misconceptions held by people of all races with regard to techno. In recent years, however, the publication of relatively accurate histories by authors Simon Reynolds (Generation Ecstasy aka Energy Flash) and Dan Sicko (Techno Rebels), plus mainstream press coverage of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, have helped to diffuse the genre’s more dubious mythology.

The genre has further expanded as more recent pioneers of the scene such as Moby, Orbital, and the Future Sound of London have made the style break through to the mainstream pop culture.

Techno : styles

Early days:
In the early 1990s, adventurous techno producers experimented with the style, spawning new genres that have taken on a life of their own. The most prominent of these techno offshoots are:
Detroit techno : music in the style of early techno from Detroit, not necessarily of that geographical origin. Trance, which now has many subgenres, all of which differ from modern techno in that they tend to have emphasize synthesized, melodic or harmonic figures in the lower midrange frequencies, and often use build-ups and crescendos, among other differences; a short-lived subgenre called hardcore that evolved into jungle, based mainly on complex arrangements of sampled percussion, often at very high BPMs (180+), and often featuring loud, dub-influenced bass lines played at half time;

Gabba (Gabber) : very loud, aggressive techno that was born in Rotterdam. The essence of the gabber sound is, for example, a distorted RolandTR-909 bass drum, overdriven to the point where it becomes a square wave and makes a recognizably melodic tone. The typical gabber track is from 160 to 220 BPM (beats per minute).

IDM : representing techno’s “avant-garde”, a genre often influenced by and crossing over into ambient and experimental music, usually features complex, asymmetrical beat patterns that render it more for listening than dancing; tech house, a fusion that often combines techno with a prominent bass line and other elements of house, at a slightly lower tempo;

Acid techno : Chicago inspired and UK-based style of techno that originally featured the sound of the RolandTB-303 synthesizer; and

Ghettotech : which combines some of the aesthetics of techno with hip-hop, house music, and Miami bass.

Other sub-genres:

Bouncy techno : originating in Scotland in 1993 and influenced by Detroit techno and Gabba genres. Much of its characteristics have been used in the developing Happy hardcore scene since 1995.


Schranz : one of many names for European hard techno: percussive, bass heavy techno with a generally simple, repetitive structure. The name is heavily associated with Chris Liebing as giving rise to its popular usage since at his local record store the owner used to place aside certain records for his visits in a pile which was called the ‘Schranz’ pile.

Swechno : A name arising to describe the percussive sound arising from the Swedish techno scene, generally Swechno is accepted to be something which the prolific Adam Beyer gave rise to with labels such as his Drumcode defining the style.

Tartan techno : originating in Scotland in 1991 and influenced by European techno, using vocals and piano melody hooks.

Yorkshire Bleeps and Bass : a short lived, localised northern English scene in the early 1990s.


Wonky techno : the birth of the term wonky techno can be traced back to London DJ Jerome Hill’s record shop where a section had been setup proclaiming to be full of “Wonky” tracks. The tunes which make up this sub-genre take the name from how they sound, tunes often have harsh industrial type sounds as well as harsh beats, often messing with the beat structure to create breaks. Neil Landstrumm, Cristian Vogel, Dave Tarrida and Subhead are often to be considered excellent examples of this sound at work.

Occasionally some well-funded pop music producers will formulate a radio or club-friendly variant of techno. The music of Technotronic, 2 Unlimited, and Lords Of Acid were early examples of this phenomenon. Established pop stars also sometimes get techno makeovers, such as when William Orbit produced Madonna’s “Ray Of Light”.

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