Detroit Techno

Why it's daunting: It’s a strange irony that techno is regarded as an American music in pretty much every country except America. But so it goes—and all the more intriguingly, once the story of techno's origins starts to make sense. The first thing to know is that, within the context of dance-music, "techno" signifies a specific sound, as opposed any and all sounds that count as vaguely dancey and electronic. The sound of techno proper is like something dreamt up by robots in a bad mood, with telltale sweeps of melancholy synthesizers and beats that drive determinedly, dramatically downward. 

The second thing to know is that techno was born in Detroit, a city whose modernist aspirations and haunting post-industrial decrepitude lent a lot of atmosphere to the enterprise. Such was the case when techno first took hold in the early 1980s. The fabled Motor City—once home to Henry Ford and a thriving automotive industry that birthed the idea of the American middle-class—had fallen into serious disrepair, ravaged by the economic blowback of the Middle Eastern oil crisis and the phenomenon of "white flight" that took hold after a rash of race riots years earlier. It was in that milieu that a group of heady African-American kids, armed with thoughts of Motown mechanization and sci-fi fantasy, leaned into the idea of creating a new musical sound. 

Possible gateway: Derrick May, Innovator

Why: Among those heady kids was the so-called "Belleville Three," a group of friends from the suburbs that included Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and Derrick May. All three proved important in different ways, but May best embodies both the progressive musicality and rhetorical thrust behind techno as a New Thing. May was the one who famously described Detroit techno as like "George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator," and he was the one most feverishly into the scene's shared fascination with things both brainy and fantastical—see: Blade Runner, comic books, the writing of futurist philosopher Alvin Toffler (whose 1980 book The Third Wave gave techno its name). 

May's timeless music evokes all that and more, and the 2-disc set Innovator gathers the most important of it. Abstract tracks like "The Beginning" signal the squirm and angst at work in much Detroit techno, with bashing drum sounds and rhythmically fitful forays into strange realms.

Less constricted May tracks typify techno's capacity for drama—especially "Strings Of Life," as big a dance-music anthem as any after disco. Swells of deliciously synthetic "strings" drive May's best-known classic forward, but a succession of little moments—the piano break at 2:48 chief among them—show how dance music can tell a story by wordless suggestion alone.

Next steps: Crucial to the appreciation of techno is learning how to listen to isolated parts with a formalist's mind for the whole, and nothing helps with that as much as the kind of "minimal-techno" proffered by Robert Hood on an 1994 album called Internal Empire. Tracks like "Parade" find a delicate balance between austerity and madness, with lots of alien sounds that repeat and take time to find their place within frantic rhythmic patterns. It's not necessarily any more "minimal" than other techno; it's best, in the case of music with such a keen ear for detail and sound-design, to think of "minimal" as a directive more than a designation.

Then there's a strain of Detroit techno that aims for nothing more subtle than blistering speed and pummeling intensity—the kind associated with the elusive collective known as Underground Resistance. One of many seismic UR tracks, "Entering Quadrant 5" traffics in seizing synths and drum-machines that struggle to keep up with their (presumably screamed) marching orders. It something decidedly other than a dancefloor celebration.

Where not to start: Just don’t go into Detroit techno closed off to the idea of music made with things other than "real" guitars and pianos and the kind of drums you hit with sticks. Pointing out the illogic of such a prejudice in the 21st-century is a project best saved for another day, but suffice it to say that Detroit techno has a lot of soul to offer anyone with ears to hear it. Remnants of soul lurk in its mournfulness and rage, not to mention its aspirations to be a fully functional social music. That's what most dance music is in the end, especially Detroit techno: a repository for all that goes on around it—in the past, the present, and whatever kind of future it foretells.

Filed Under: Music

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