Techno — From Kraftwerk to Kalkbrenner
The following article is an edited version of an essay I had to write for university.
One easily stumbles into a terminological muddle when inquiring into the development of techno and similar genres. Trance, House, Electro, Dance – which style was first and who created or named it? This question, however, is misleading as there have been several processes involved which established techno music and its culture. This genre was always connected to a lifestyle, which influenced the music and, conversely, the music influenced the lifestyle. In this essay I explore the development of techno as both a music genre and a form of lifestyle. Furthermore, I will argue that what has been labelled as “techno” since the mid 1980s has had an impact on newer genres of music and has led to new articulations of a lifestyle connected to music.
Techno is a “dirty word,” as DJ Laurent Garnier once claimed. Even today, House or other genre names seem to be much more favoured by electronic music aficionados than the techno label. But where do the names house and techno come from? House is a shortened form of warehouse, thus it refers to the industrial place where electronic music became popular. Similarly, techno is also described as having its roots in industrial environments, such as Detroit and Düsseldorf. The genre name house incorporates the space where the music is perceived and techno refers to its electronic production side, but also to the technology dominated environment of Detroit, which has been nicknamed as “Motown” or “Motor City.” Thus the genre names house and techno both carry their industrial origins in their names and equally refer to the place and the manner of electronic music production and consumption.
Before techno was a buzz word in the mid 90s, the electro genre emerged as a distinction to hip-hop in the early 80s which then led to the first tracks being explicitly labelled as Techno in Detroit. Later in the 80s, Detroit Techno artist Juan Atkins also used the techno label as a deliberate distinction to Chicago’s harmonic House music, thus the more dissonant and harder techno reflects the more desolate social situation of Detroit. All in all, Techno is a contested term but generally is understood as a movement of music that first spread in Detroit along with hip-hop and house.
Techno is a contradictory reaction to industrial innovations in the 80s. In his telling book title “Techno Rebels: the renegades of electronic funk,” Dan Sicko sees Techno as a genre under the electronic music umbrella with “the most impact worldwide and [which] has the largest story to tell” (2). His title alludes to Alvin Toffler’s notion of “Techno Rebels,” which describes people who are cautious of the great speed of technological developments and argue that technology does not need to be “big, costly, or complex in order to be ‘sophisticated.’” (Toffler qtd. in Sicko 12).This quote sounds misleading, as techno did not rebel against technology, but innovates music with new electronic production devices, which are easier and less costly as compared to the technology that is required when a rock-band plays on stage. The “sophistication” of techno refers to the non-futuristic and non-technologic ‘basic’ ideals of many electronic artists such as equality and the belief in the positive potential of individuals in modern society (Sicko 12). Also, Sicko’s phrase “electronic funk” possibly relates to statements of DJs that the proto-techno group Kraftwerk was praised as being “funky” which undermines the original notion of “funky” as being played with soul and heart and not sounding as sterile and repetitive – at least superficially – as Kraftwerk.
The New York hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaata is also seen as one of the pre-techno artists. Bambaata is one of the early artists with an “electro-funk-sound” (Sicko 20) and his early single “Planet Rock” (together with the Soulsonic Force) is based on two Kraftwerk tracks (46). As with techno, which is interpreted as a counter-movement to Chicago’s house music, Detroitʼs Techno is seen as a renegade of Bambaata’s electronic funk flourishing in New York. In 1983, one year after “Planet Rock,” Cybotron from Detroit released “Enter,” the “blueprint for today’s electro and techno records.” Interestingly, Cybotronʼs following release “Techno City” was one of the reasons why the group split up, because the sound was becoming too little “rock-based” for one of the group members, Richard Davis (46-47). The success of the drum&bass sound in the mid 90s evolved as the mid-way or the compromise between techno and hip-hop. Particularly the Prodigy epitomises such a hybrid form: The founder Liam Howlett had his musical roots in hip-hop and as a “brit-hop” DJ mixed breakbeat and house music in his tracks (116-17). Also, the parallels to rock music are hard to miss regarding the bandʼs sound, as they perform like a rock band on stage and have a drummer. If one looks at Bambaataʼs music video of “Planet Rock” today, almost thirty years after its release, one notices a similar stylistic eclecticism on the level of the artistʼs clothing: The black artists on stage wear native Americanʼs clothing, one man is lightly dressed up as a woman with a pink hat, another band member wears a space suit with bull horns like in a science-fiction movie. Not only does this ʻqueerʼ carnevalistic scene call electronic musicʼs stylistic eclecticism into attention, but it also foreshadows the efforts of techno listeners to dress up at techno parades.
The many influences and articulations of techno outlined so far already suggest that it became a genre which takes a positive position towards living in a technology-dominated environment, or it fills the voids that industry leaves, such as filling warehouses with house music. The technological lifestyle required a new ʻspiritualityʼ of a post-industrial age, when machines partly replaced human labour, as it was the case in the formerly heavily labour-dependent automobile production plants in Detroit. Possibly for this reason, the Kraftwerk album “Mensch-Maschine” is credited as a great influence on Detroit artists (Sicko 9-10), as it metaphorically circumscribes the situation of locals being dependent on the industry in Detroit and which were searching for a reconciliation of the notions of man and machine. Even later, when techno music and computer technology developed further, techno-rebellion remains a helpful concept to explain why Techno music was becoming popular: “Techno Rebels” are “neo-hippies” that fight for more humaneness and followers of the techno culture, such as “cyberpunks” and computer “hackers” try to rescue the subject and the “me” in the industrial world, whose subjects increasingly felt threatened by the emergence of robots (Poschardt 378). The rebellion of the subject is particularly practised at techno festivals, whose visitors often wear individual and colourful costumes with an ‘anything goes’ attitude: thus they reclaim the individual in urban and – to speak with Marx – ‘alienated’ environments.
As figured out above, the techno culture implemented new digital tools in the production process but it has been open towards inspiration from established genres. Techno evolved before the internet era beginning in the 90s and could broaden its popularity and influence because of the internet. But there are critical voices: Jaron Lanier complains in his recent internet critical book about the “first-ever era of musical stasis” because popular music produced between the late 1990s and the late 2000s has no uniqueness and is “retro, retro, retro” (128-29). He admits that new styles evolved, but unfortunately “there’s an elaborate nomenclature for species of similar electronic beat styles,” for example dub, house and trance. This nomenclature leads to an easy method to figure out to which genre and era a track belongs (130). It is true that there is a great ‘category battle’ over electronic music styles. The internet facilitates such category discussions due to the amount and the instant online accessibility of electronic music, but this does not mean that this is inherent in the music or its quality. A producer criticises the fragmentation of electronic music and calls it a “pigeon-holing obsession [which] primarily comes from journalists and forum-heroes, and generally only serves a negative purpose” (Gresham qtd. in Sicko 137). Lanier has a point when he says that there is a loss of uniqueness and that electronic music is retro in the sense that it overtly makes use of other styles, or even whole samples and elements that DJs incorporate in their sets. However, this remixing of old elements and mashing them up is a consequence in a post-industrial culture with an abundance of images and sound. One of the the insights of modern art was that one can be creative with reproduction. Avantgardist artists of the 20th century such as Duchamp, Picabia and Warhol created art works that question the author-centered understanding of art (Poschardt 16). What Lanier also fails to see is that electronic music culture, particularly techno, is not so much about individual tracks, but about DJs who play their music for long hours and attempt to achieve an effect that exceeds the quality of an individual track. Good DJ’s have an intuitive understanding when a track has the best effect in a particular position of their set, which gains importance in repetitive sounding techno tracks. It remains a matter of interpretation whether one sees the repetitiveness and remix culture of techno as a strength or a weakness, but techno is a response to a culture that recognized that there are no ʻoriginalsʼ anymore and the creative challenge is rather in creating something new from something old.
In conclusion, techno is a new stage of music that resulted from technological developments in both a negative and positive sense: the increasingly automatized post-industrial landscape of Detroit led to the redundancy of many employees, but this gave room for new forms of experiencing music, such as in warehouses. It was felt that there was time for a techno-rebellion, meaning that people used technology creatively and thus becoming renegades of the old, pre-techno understanding of “funk.” Nowadays, the heritage of techno is still visible, as it influenced today’s pop and rock music. Hybrid forms such as the Prodigy and Pendulum are a strong example of the impact of techno music and its development into new genres. The DJ star cult and great marketing efforts by music corporations undermine the original understanding of techno with its focus being entirely on the music and experimenting with it. As a negative example, former underground ‘legends’ such as Paul van Dyk and Moby turn their gigs into performances evoking the same starcult as Rock bands did before. Significantly, DJ Paul Kalkbrenner’s recent international success is also due to him being the main actor in the film “Berlin Calling” which resulted in subsequent bookings and international fame, rather than that he became famous with the music itself. Moby, Paul van Dyk and Fritz Kalkbrenner were children of techno’s popularity in the 80s and 90s, but now take own ways in the more popular “dance” or “electronic” music genre. Techno, however, remains the most influential of the electronic music genres.
Article on Detroit, Techno and Kraftwerk, New York Times
Short Interview with Dan Sicko, Wired.com (Sicko is the author of my main source used above)
Or grab the books that I quoted above (Some are on GoogleBooks as well):
Poschardt, Ulf. DJ Culture: Diskjockeys und Popkultur. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1997.
Lanier, Jaron. You are not a Gadget. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Sicko, Dan. Techno Rebels: the renegades of electronic funk. 2nd Ed. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2010.