Techno: Incoherent Noise or a Desire for Expression?
Photo credits: @mojxmma
Misunderstood as incongruous and inharmonious, techno music and its accompanying culture consists of much more than its stereotyped facade. Sadly, many music enthusiasts’ engagement with the electronic music genre seems to end with its misidentification or a desire to get ‘fucked up’ at a festival. Yet, there is much more to be valued and appreciated than thumping kicks and hard drums– although they certainly are a key feature in some subgenres. I would like to shine a nuanced light on my favourite type of music, one centred around its history, meaning and structure, so that neophytes may listen to techno in a novel, euphonious manner. Due to techno’s diverse history and audience, it is important to note that my comments are to be taken with a pinch of salt, since the information I have collected through my research is taken from the position of a cisgender White male.
First, let's start with the history and the importance of techno within marginalised groups. Just like hip-hop and rap, techno is generally seen as a product of American post-industrialisation in the late 80s, the consequences of which impacted the urban communities surrounding old manufacturing hubs. Detroit was one of these hubs, with a sizable Black population, one of its suburbs being where we find the emergence of the first house and disco DJs, precursors to techno, ‘The Belleville Three’. The group consisted of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, who, with Ken Collier, are typically seen as the fathers of American techno. Reduced to a ghost town, the artists returned to Detroit, the decay of which inspired the mechanical aspects of electronic music and its positivist escapist disposition.
In addition to economic changes, this period was recognised for its advancements in music production hardware, with models such as the bass synthesiser Roland TB-303, as well as drum machines TR-808 and TR-909 spreading across the artistic sphere. Ben Williams, a scholar of African American music, points out that techno “music was a response to the painful contradictions of the city’s changing economy, a form of science fiction that provided an aesthetic solution to Detroit’s problems”. In the following years, the trios’ influence reached the likes of Jeff Mills and Joey Beltram, whose releases attracted a lot of attention in the recently reunited capital of Berlin.
Following the fall of East Germany, and its subsequent unification with its Western counterpart in 1990, Berlin became a space where queerness and artistic diversity could be celebrated, after many decades of persecution. Techno culture and parties arose from need - a need for self-expression and deterministic freedom. This is where techno started its trajectory to becoming a more widespread musical style, since other cities across Europe and North America desired a similar liberation movement. It was in the following years that clubs like Leland City Club in Detroit, Fuse in Brussels, Berghain (formerly Ostgut) and Tresor in Berlin, among others, surfaced– I advise you to check them out if you find yourself in their respective cities. From here on out, a strong queer culture accompanied the Black foundations of techno, a culture that is trying to be recaptured today.
Regrettably, the 2000s saw the rapid commercialisation of dance music, including techno, which alienated the genre from its liberating roots. This trend has followed us into 2022, with more techno parties akin to ‘spicy’, White, male dominated audiences. Despite this, techno's popularity has also brought awareness of its imperative meaning to marginalised groups. Therefore, many new organisers have focused on these factors when designing events. Possession (Paris), Meatfree (Manchester), Rave Reparations (Los Angeles), Herrensauna, Ismus and Floorgasm (Berlin/London) are all well-known collectives including queer, Black, and feminist aspects to their parties.
Allow me to propose a way to listen to techno, a subjective tip if you like, but do consider that the genre is very varied, so the advice I give is to be broadly interpreted. Compositionally based on looping, repetition and four by four time (so-called ‘four to the floor’), techno emphasises groove over anything else. The drum rhythms containing over one, two or four bars (containing four beats) make up ‘phrases’ which usually change over eight to sixteen bars. Although techno is generally characterised by an absence of vocals, they have started to make a reappearance with more modern techno producers, with particular use of sampling. The employment of melodies, although usually repetitive, have also seen a transformation; many more artists opting to perfect music theory in creating chord progressions, ethereal pads, energetic leads and burrowing basslines. The automated nature of techno production means that much of the music may be performed live at events, with a combination of synth, drum, sequencer setups becoming more popular with the likes of Blawan, Paula Temple, Yan Cook, and many others. So, to recapitulate, techno is loop based electronic dance music that needs to be appreciated for the way it makes your body groove and mind drift, not for the lyrics it entices you to sing or ‘Martin Garrix’-esque beat drop you jump into a mosh pit for.
So, what are we to make of techno music? Should we delve deeper into listening patterns or hard dance rhythms? Is it more advisable to appreciate the societal pressure loosening at techno parties, or should we investigate its Black and LGBTQIA+ past? I want to encourage non-listeners to overlook what techno may seem like on social media or within heteronormative conditions, and instead want you to make the experience your own, with a fresh set of eyes and ears. You want to listen to dub techno while studying? Go ahead! You desire to feel the sweaty flesh of another at a ‘no-photography’ weekend long rave? Go hard or go home! Techno is what YOU make it, and if you can get others to join in on the action, then the true essence of music participation has been yielded.