An illustration of Detroit's position on a map of North America, plus the city's famous skyline.
© John Smisson
Music

This is the story of a techno revolution

Chicago house, a late-night radio DJ playing everything from Kraftwerk to funk, and a party-loving mayor – they all played their part in the birth of Detroit techno.
By Sammy Lee
4 min readPublished on
In the late '80s, the relentless, hypnotic chug of techno became a dance music phenomenon right across Europe, soundtracking the UK's illegal rave scene and defining the sound of Berlin's burgeoning club scene. Today its major stars, from Richie Hawtin to Nina Kraviz, headline festivals all over the world and the sound has been borrowed by stadium-filling rock and pop acts. Not too shabby for a genre that was all but ignored in the city that gave birth to it. What follows is a brief history of Detroit techno.

A land before techno

Detroit, for so long the futuristic metropolis of North America, was beginning to lose its lustre in the late '70s. An industrial powerhouse, once famous for its massive automobile factories, that was down on its luck. The city's youth craved escape – and club culture provided just that. Run by party-approving mayor Coleman Young, late ’70s and early ’80s Detroit was awash with huge disco parties and after-hours clubs with open-minded music policies that encouraged DJs such as Ken Collier – “the Frankie Knuckles of Detroit” – and Stacey Hale to play everything from disco edits and European synth-pop to new wave and the early sounds of Chicago house.
An illustration of synth-pop legends Kraftwerk.
European synth-pop had a huge influence on techno

The building blocks of a sound

The key influences on techno, played by Collier and Detroit's late-night radio DJs, were mostly European. The teutonic synth-pop of Kraftwerk, Italo-disco and European new wave was played alongside hard-edged funk by radio DJs such as The Electrifying Mojo, conjuring the idea of dancefloor-focused machine music. At the same time, early hip-hop innovators used these same influences to create their own heavily synthesised sound: electro.
An illustration of three school kids and a Roland TR-909 drum machine synth.
Techno was pioneered by The Belleville Three

The Belleville Three

In the early '80s, high-school pals Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – later known as the Belleville Three, named after the Detroit suburb they lived in – started making their own music, influenced by the gritty reality and industrial sound of their home city. Along with Rik Davis, Atkins, who started making music on cheap early synths such as the MiniKorg-700S and the Korg MS10 in his mid-teens, released industrial-sounding and hugely influential electro as Cybotron. After parting ways with Davis, Atkins set up the Metroplex label in 1985 to further a more rhythmic, bass-driven sound, with Derrick May coming onboard to promote, produce and DJ.
An illustration of cars rolling off a factory conveyor belt in Detroit.
Detroit: Motor City

Techno awakening

With a kind of cultural exchange between Chicago and Detroit, the house music emerging from the former began to have an influence on the new Detroit sound being created by the Belleville Three. Techno began to crystalise and was given a place to evolve at the city’s Cheeks club, and later techno’s spiritual home in the city, The Music Institute. Atkins' Model 500 project, and new productions from May, Saunderson and others, moved techno away from the disco-derived sound of house and towards icy synth melodies with fast machine rhythms played on Roland’s inexpensive 808, 909 and 303 synths.
An illustration showing the link provided between Chicago and Detroit's DJ music scenes by late-night radio DJs.
Chicago gave us house, Detroit gave us techno

First Detroit, then the world

The early records emerging from this Detroit scene were largely ignored in Michigan. But in the late ’80s, thanks to tracks such as Rythim Is Rythim’s Strings Of Life, Model 500’s No UFOs and Inner City’s Good Life, techno, along with house music, was embraced in a big way by European club culture and a rampant (often illegal) rave scene in the UK. Juan Atkins christened the sound techno to both encapsulate its futuristic sound and to also separate it from house music.
An illustration of a 12-inch copy of Rhythim Is Rhythim's Strings Of Life on a record player.
Rhythim Is Rhythim's Strings Of Life took techno overground

Techno legacy

While second-generation DJs such as Jeff Mills and Carl Craig pleased techno purists, a new wave of techno innovators in Europe and the US, including Joey Beltram and Underground Resistance, took the music in a more aggressive direction that gave birth to hardcore. Bleep-and-bass, trance, jungle, gabber and the experimental (often head-bludgeoning) electronica of labels such as Warp and Rephlex also followed. Techno even ended up in charts around the world courtesy of The Prodigy, who, along with The Chemical Brothers and other festival-headlining acts, touted a rowdier, arena-rock inspired version of the sound. From Detroit to Berlin, the genre continues to evolve and mutate. Techno – like hardcore – will never die.