What is a night out? In my limited world-view as a white kid from western Michigan, I would think it means pregaming with some friends and then ending up in a room that’s way too small and way too hot with a bunch of sweaty people who are listening to the same songs that they heard last night and the night before.
Before writing this piece, I never expected much more from a night out, especially in terms of the music. Songs by artists like Drake, Lil Baby, Dua Lipa are rinsed and repeated every single time. Occasionally, a remix of a song gets thrown in for freshness, but that’s it. I never really thought twice about the music — it was never the center of my night, it was always just a peripheral.
Oh, how I was wrong. Techno showed me the error of my former thinking.
I am by no means a historian or expert in anything, let alone techno. For a true deep dive into techno’s history, I recommend going to Submerge’s Exhibit 3000, the world’s first ever techno museum, and cracking open Dan Sicko’s book, “Techno Rebels.”
I personally had the privilege of speaking with John Collins, a Detroit-based, international DJ, producer, member of Underground Resistance techno music collective and curator of Exhibit 3000. Techno originated in Detroit just 45 minutes away from Ann Arbor. Its founders are four Black men: Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Eddie Fowlkes and Kevin Saunderson. These artists were creating music made by and for Black people in Detroit in the very beginning of the 1980s.
Collins explained to me how techno music was inspired by the legends of Motown, disco artists like Donna Summer, the electronic music band Kraftwerk, funk collectives like Parliament-Funkadelic and a myriad of other musical creators. Other sources of inspiration included science fiction-based art like Star Trek, Star Wars and afrofuturism. Made with drum machines like 808s and 909s, among other electronic equipment, Juan Atkins fittingly dubbed this genre of machine music “Techno.”
“Techno was created in Detroit because of the influences that the producers have found there,” Collins said. “Which is jazz, which is gospel, Motown, which is Parliament Funkadelic, which was also Kraftwerk from Germany. All those elements are infused into techno music.”
Atkins, May, Fowlkes and Saunderson weren’t just inspired by music and popular culture though. Their burgeoning style of music production took inspiration from the city itself.
In the 1980s, Detroit was portrayed as a hopeless city. A New York Times article from 1990, titled “The Tragedy of Detroit,” observed how white flight and a diminishing auto industry had created a severe economic downturn for the city. As Dan Sicko wrote in “Techno Rebels,” Detroit became a symbol for all the things that were wrong with America, reflected in empty buildings and a lifeless downtown. Collins pointed out how the media completely ignored the positive elements of the Motor City.
“I think the media, over many years, has focused primarily on the negative aspects in Detroit and failed to point out the good things that were still happening,” Collins said. “We still had sustainable neighborhoods — Black business and home ownership. We have great (schools like) Wayne State University, University of Detroit, and we have the DIA. They (the media) only focus on the negative parts, so that’s what a lot of people saw.”
This hyperfixation on the negative aspects of Detroit, like the economic struggles and high crime rate, hid the vibrant culture of the city. As this fragmentary view of Detroit was promoted in the media, Black teenagers and club goers throughout the city were gathering for parties and club events. The ’80s Detroit nightlife featured everything from Eurodisco to the emerging house music coming from Black and Queer artists in Chicago.
All the while, May, Atkins, Saunderson and Fowlkes were starting to create techno. With a driving rhythm, techno is at least 130 BPM and can sometimes reach upwards of 150 BPM. It’s a raw and subversive music, filled with emotion despite scant lyrics.
“It’s futuristic,” Collins said. “It’s Black. It’s afro-futuristic. It’s political. It’s soulful. And it’s a music that brings people together.”
Budding from its roots at clubs and parties around Detroit, techno became a more prominent genre as the ’80s unfolded. It gained more and more exposure thanks to radio jocks like The Electrifying Mojo, The Wizard and other mixed show DJs in Detroit. With their help, techno began to grow a community of adamant listeners and devoted dancers.
Even clubs in Ann Arbor were starting to play techno, including the Nectarine Ballroom, now known as Necto, where Jeff Mills had a residency in the mid ’80s. As it spread, techno developed a diverse audience — Black, white, straight, Queer. The genre gained attention and popularity quickly. Detroit artists and labels, many of whom are still producing music to this day, began distributing their music overseas.
“Techno became an international phenomenon,” Collins said. “There were people all over the world dancing to this music … People loved the music that was coming out of Detroit.”
The genre gained a foothold in English cities like Birmingham and Sheffield as the rave scene gained traction across the U.K. The raves were housed mostly in abandoned buildings and were completely underground, but they slowly grew into huge outdoor parties with lights and loud music. They were an experience, to say the least, and drugs were commonly present.
Because of this, techno’s rave scene has many associations with drugs. The use of drugs at techno shows is common, but the music was not created with this intention. Techno is meant to make people dance and become lost in the music without any sort of chemical additive. The first techno club in Detroit and in the world, The Music Institute, didn’t even serve alcohol. These associations exist and many people definitely do use illegal substances while listening to techno, but there are also many who don’t.
Back in Detroit, the techno scene continued to grow throughout the city in the early ’90s as independent labels acquired new artists. Moreover, big names from the beginning of the techno wave like Saunderson, May, Fowlkes, Atkins and others from Detroit were now playing at clubs across the world, including big American locales like Miami, California, Chicago and New York City. Collins said that while the genre did have a significant following in the U.S., it happened to become even bigger overseas, partially because of his belief that Americans are conservative in their acceptance of new music.
“The United States is still a very conservative country, a puritanical country,” Collins said. “And while a lot of people in the United States, in Detroit, love house and techno, it was much bigger overseas.”
In the late ’80s, techno began to cement itself into the fabric of Berlin. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was an explosion of the nightlife scene in the city. Berliners found a new form of music to dance and relate to in the Black-created techno music from Detroit. In 1991, members of Underground Resistance were invited to Berlin by Dimitri Hegemann for a show at his club, Tresor, which was located near the Berlin Wall.
Techno still spread and developed throughout the ’90s, 2000s and 2010s. Groups like Underground Resistance and all the other Detroit-based labels upheld the true identity of techno as Black music from Detroit. Underground Resistance is unapologetically political, as their musicreflects social issues like the Flint water crisis, attempting to educate its listeners about riots and discrimination.
Collins compared Underground Resistance to the rap group Public Enemy because they similarly draw attention to sociopolitical issues in the U.S. through the medium of music.
“Their raps were about social issues in America: Discrimination, how marginalized people are treated,” Collins said. “Political and radical music. It was educational with a dance beat. So you can dance to it but (it’s) also dropping knowledge.”
Today in Berlin, the nightlife scene generates about $1.7 billion in profits and attracts tourists who come for the clubs and the music alone. The popularity of techno in Berlin has even caused some incorrect ideas that the genre started in its clubs instead of Detroit’s. Recently, a museum in Frankfurt has generated some controversy, falsely claiming to be the first techno museum in the world. People address this claim as an attempt to culturally appropriate techno and whitewash Exhibit 3000 out of existence, despite the Detroit museum being 22 years older than the museum in Frankfurt.
Regardless of this controversy, the techno scene has an incredibly large audience and brings people from every end of the world together to its famed clubs. They’re supposedly unlike anything else and impossible to describe unless experienced. Luckily, though, I had the chance to speak to a patron who frequented them.
A Midwest transplant to Europe, Enzo DeMichele, is from Milwakuee, went to college in St. Louis and now lives in Austria. DeMichele is a big fan of electronic music, especially techno; he collects every techno record he can find. He described the uniqueness he found in techno while visiting Berlin clubs.
“It felt like … the DJ was this kind of god figure,” DeMichele said. “They had this control over the sound and his cuts … I think it’s a decentralized and non-hierarchical space. When you talk about techno it’s not just the music, but it’s also the space and the feel around it.”
DeMichele continued to emphasize that in Berlin techno clubs, everyone was there solely for the music, regardless of who they were before they entered the club.
“It’s really dark,” DeMichele said. “Everywhere, people are wearing sunglasses.” he atmosphere seems to lend itself toward incognito, ego-stripped enjoyment.”
From talking to people in Austria and Berlin, DeMichele believes that, worldwide, not enough people recognize techno music as Black music from Detroit. Detroit and its Black artists deserve more attention and credit. “I think it should be said (that) techno is first and foremost Black music. We ought to bear respect to those who have pioneered this (music), and it was all Black artists from Detroit,” he told me.
While DeMichele is halfway across the world in Austria, he still listens to Detroit techno because, according to him, it’s the best techno around.
“I think Detroit should have its recognition and it deserves its recognition,” DeMichele said. “And I think the music speaks for itself as well. I haven’t heard better. I’m out here and I’m listening to Detroit techno; I’m out here and I’m finding records that are from Detroit artists. And I think really good DJs know that too.”
Techno does not only exist in the expansive nightlife scene in Berlin and Europe, or even just the major cities in the U.S. like New York City, Las Vegas or Los Angeles. It exists here in Ann Arbor, too. Techno is alive and well, thanks to the people at the Michigan Electronic Music Collective.
Taubman junior Bianca Trihenea, vice president of Michigan Electronic Music Collective, says their organization’s goal is to keep techno alive in both the local scene and among students at the University of Michigan.
“We mainly target students, but seeing as the original Ann Arbor scene was locals, the music tends to bridge the gap between the two and they can connect and inspire one another,” Trihenea said. “We plan workshops to teach production, DJing and host events where aspiring DJs can showcase their skills and practice in a legitimate environment.”
Trihenea loves techno because of its temporality; it forces listeners to be in the moment, guided by a DJ through a choreography of sensation. “The sentimental value of a DJ (is that he) choreographs this theme, and he’s the guide to your experiences,” Trihenea said. “And it’s about the temporary art form. You create a moment, you have to be there, and you feel it and then it’s done. (You can) try to recreate it later, but being in it, surrounded by people … the temporality is an art form.”
That’s the beauty of techno. It isn’t forever and is about experiencing a moment — one that can have lasting effects. According to Trihenea, feelings are what its listeners congregate around. Despite Trihenea deeming her statements cheesy, I think they ring true. The impact of techno on the listener is a real, tangible phenomenon that’s nearly impossible to put into words.
“It’s just interesting how we congregate in the end just around this feeling,” Trihena said. “It’s hard to put a finger on and exactly describe it. You know, like pushing that limit of bodily sensation of learning about yourself, of liberating your mind. It can be so cerebral a space, beyond physical reality. I’m being so corny, but it’s so real.”
To Trihenea, techno is personal. It’s sharing your art and music with others and helping them and yourself to better understand the human experience. It’s completely unspoken yet unifying.
“You share the art, the music, what else is more personal?” Trihenea asked. “They’re just notes that somehow correlate to sensitivities inside of your body. It helps you process complicated topics (like) trauma. It’s the glue that holds the people together.”
Experience is key to techno as well as a good night out at large. Everyone yearns to form experiences that they’ll remember (and sometimes not remember entirely) forever.
Techno is a form of music that cannot be placed into a single category. It isn’t just used for enjoying a night out. It isn’t just used for solo listening. Its beats encompass everything music can be. It encourages uniqueness. Techno is a fundamentally Black style of music and has something every person can learn from. It’s an everchanging and growing form of music, but its history should never be forgotten. Techno’s roots have spread internationally, but they remain centered here in Detroit just outside our campus, because of the Black musical talents of Atkins, May, Saunderson and Fowlkes.
So now, as someone who recently became more knowledgeable about techno, I urge you to go out and listen to something new. Try to learn something about yourself from the music, but try to learn something about the music, too. Remember that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that the artists who created it had intended meanings and audiences. Art is meant for appreciation, something that everyone can take part in. May, Atkins, Saunderson and Fowlkes created techno for Black audiences in Detroit, but anyone can and should enjoy it. Especially us students in Ann Arbor, so close to the place it all began.
Statement Columnist Miles Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.