No other music soundtracked the world’s dancefloors in such a sustained – and magical – fashion during the 1990s as techno. Beginning the decade as the preserve of a handful of innovative sonic scientists in localised scenes, ten years later it was heralded by many as a futuristic artform, and by all as a global phenomenon. With key contributions from techno’s significant players, Jonas Stone looks back on the end of the century party…
Despite heading into a new decade on the back of a global recession, as the 1980s turned into the 90s a more optimistic – perhaps naive – way of looking at the world was beginning to form. Buoyed by the fall of the Berlin Wall just two months before and the-then USSR premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s drive for perestroika and glasnost (reform and openness), a new era of peace and democracy had begun to melt the icy, iron-clad fist of a decades-long Cold War.
And while the road ahead was not without numerous political, social and economic potholes, this willingness to embrace new ideas and tear down a failing and largely irrelevant old guard was further reflected in the art, film, culture and musical ideas of a new emerging decade.
Acid house had already detonated a resurgence in dance music counterculture fuelled by affordable new technology, a breaking down of music tribalism and a dancefloor unity that was often driven by hedonism and new narcotics. In the formative years of the 1990s the anything-goes eclecticism of rave culture began to splinter into new dance structures as garage, jungle, house, breaks and techno began to find new spiritual homes and legions.
Techno’s sonics can be traced back to the 1950s and 60s via a myriad of influences. These include Juan Atkins’ mid-80s Model 500/Cybotron aliases and fellow Detroit DJ/producer evangelists Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Eddie Fowlkes. Going further back, it also incorporated early, raw Chicago house tracks, 808-driven electro, 70s disco and reggae sound system culture, plus Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Nitzer Ebb, The Human League, DAF, Throbbing Gristle, Silver Apples and the pioneering work of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. However, it was the 90s that saw its galvanisation and proliferation from a word-of-mouth cottage industry into a global dancefloor phenomenon.
As the millennium approached techno had poured out of clubs and into festivals via a network of independent clubs, labels, promoters, distributors, producers, DJs and clubbers all searching for a new dancefloor truth through a shared euphoric experience. Its viral assimilation into the cultural mainstream saw it beam out of our TV screens, our radios, our magazines and ever deeper into our collective conscience. As Underground Resistance co-founder, ‘Mad’ Mike Banks declared to Jockey Slut magazine in the summer of 1994: “Techno to me is the one music that is truly a global music. It might not only be a global music – I think it’s a galactic music.”
Now, 30 years later - and with its own Instagram tribute page called, appropriately enough, 90s Techno - it’s time to assess the impact of techno and its growth into a worldwide musical force during the 90s. How did it go from a dystopian Detroit dreamscape to a pan-global music revolution that permeated into rock festivals, the pop charts and the pan-global lexicon? Some 30 years on, can it still re-invent itself and stay relevant? And in the end did techno really change anything?
"It wasn’t the music that you’d hear on Radio 1 or anything like that. It wasn’t something you could explain to people, or people would know about. I soaked up everything. And I wanted turn it around and start putting stuff out there. I suppose to some degree I was a messenger back then. And there was, I think, at the beginning of the 90s, a slow realisation of that all around the world.” Luke Slater
The beginning of the 90s found many of techno’s pioneering producers and DJs already engaged in various forms of dance culture. These had been running as an underground parallel alternative to what most music media were reporting. X-Tront and Planetary Assault Systems man, Luke Slater had established himself as a resident of the mixed gay night Troll at the Sound Shaft in London’s Charing Cross after handing the promoter a mixtape on his second visit to the club in 1988.
“By the time say, 1991 came around, I’d been really immersed in the whole world for a good few years,” he recalls today. “It wasn’t a new thing to me. But I did witness the sort of catching on of it, flung around the world. It was like this secret world where there’s all these different people dressed up, doing what they want to do. The whole thing was so different from everyday life. That kind of impounded the idea that the music went with that culture. It wasn’t the music that you’d hear on Radio 1 or anything like that. It wasn’t something you could explain to people, or people would know about. I soaked up everything. And I wanted turn it around and start putting stuff out there. I suppose to some degree I was a messenger back then. And there was, I think, at the beginning of the 90s, a slow realisation of that all around the world.”
The genesis of what we now know as techno in the previous decade should not be understated. White labels and rare imports were already causing a stir in Europe’s more discerning dance record shops, as early adopters, mainly DJs, tried to get their hands on these new sounds emanating from across the Atlantic. As Dave Clarke, who in a few short years would establish himself as one of techno’s prime ambassadors via his ‘Red’ series, saw it, the 80s were special because they were the formative years.
“(It was) Almost a dangerous form of the music, challenging with the likes of Adonis’ ‘No Way Back’ breaking the status quo and still nowhere near the general public’s taste. Then the 90s came and with the rise of better technology and an understanding of how to use it, the machine’s rules were being broken. (Joey) Beltram’s ‘Vortex’, (Dan) Bell and (Claude) Young’s ‘Planet Earth’, K-Hand’s ‘Ready for the Darkness’, Gary Martin... and then the English grabbed their own sound: B12, Black Dog, Surgeon to think of a few.
“It started to proliferate outwards at speed. The Dutch with Maurits Paardekooper and Speedy J, and the Germans with Mike Ink etcetera. There was a unity on the dancefloor, a comradery of counterculture pushing back against pop culture, against racism, pro-gay rights at a time when tolerance was very low… people singing Joe Smooth! Yes, it was fuelled by ecstasy but what a great catalyst for change. People were far more politically aware and active then, not by posting on social media, but living what they believed.”
Techno had begun to make inroads into the public’s conscience from the late-80s and early-90s with tracks like Humanoid’s ‘Stakker Humanoid’ (featuring a young Future Sound of London’s Brian Dougans) and Nexus 21-offshoot Altern 8 whose ‘Activ-8’ anthem had Mark Archer and Chris Peat hiding behind their trademark ‘A’ embossed dust masks and hooded, zipped up macs. There was also New York’s Toxic 2 duo (Damon Wild and Ray Love) with ‘Rave Generator’ and Gez Varley and Mark Bell’s ‘speak and spell’-voiced warehouse anthem ‘LFO’. All were beamed into the nation’s living rooms via UK TV chart institution ‘Top of the Pops’. Yet they were still predominantly considered acid house or rave, mainly relegated to the back of the stage and more often than not hidden behind an array of garishly-clothed ‘club’ dancers and someone’s interpretation of an alien that was little more than a mime artist on stilts, wrapped in Bacofoil.
Neil Rushton and Dave Barker’s 1988 Network Records compilation ‘Techno! (The New Dance Sound of Detroit)’ had brought the term to a wider audience by introducing the likes of Rhythim Is Rhythim (Derrick May), ‘Magic’ Juan Atkins, Blake Baxter, Kevin ‘Master Reece’ Saunderson and Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir to a ravenous music and style magazine culture, but few, bar the more adventurous house, rave and electro DJs of the time were aware of the labels behind the releases such as Metroplex, Transmat and KMS. Gradually the ‘virus’ began to spread and slowly the vinyl seeds began to germinate on new terrain as enthusiasts and fledgling producers saw the possibilities in the raw beats and abstract soundscapes as the basic means to make these new sounds came within financial reach.
"There was a unity on the dancefloor, a comradery of counterculture pushing back against pop culture, against racism, pro-gay rights at a time when tolerance was very low… people singing Joe Smooth! Yes, it was fuelled by ecstasy but what a great catalyst for change." Dave Clarke
When Queens native Joey Beltram first played an acetate of the brutally dry, TR-909-driven ‘Energy Flash’ at legendary Belgian new beat institution Boccaccio in 1990, it was notably a combination of Detroit’s Transmat and Belgium’s R&S that brought it to the world. The transatlantic sonic cross-pollination continued to bear fruit as a shadow coterie of emergent artists who were already exploring the field of electronic music began to pick up the clarion call.
Detroit’s so-called ‘second wave’ began to see the value of a label community and identity as the floodgates creaked open. Pioneering techno records subsequently established a label style and ethos, often based around high school friends and small clubbing cliques, such as Carl Craig’s Planet E to Octave One’s 430 West. And then there was the friendly rivalry between Underground Resistance (Mike Banks, Jeff Mills) and Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva’s Plus 8 Records which was situated across the river in Windsor, Canada. A slew of gauntlet-laying releases continued to redefine the limits of what a 909 and 303 drum machine could do. For every silver box pummelling ‘Substance Abuse’ and ‘F.U.’ from Hawtin’s F.U.S.E. moniker there was a UR dance-off in waiting from ‘Acid Rain’ or ‘Punisher’.
“When John and I started the label, we were like, let’s kind of put our lives, our schooling, on hold and just see,” recalls Richie Hawtin. “Maybe this house and techno thing lasts two or three years, let’s have fun. There was nothing to lose.” Having already been DJing for a couple of years in Detroit, most notably as warm-up at The Shelter in Saint Andrew’s Hall, Hawtin had already invited Mills, then locally known on Detroit airwaves as ‘The Wizard’, to come and play at his club in Windsor around 1987-88.
“Everybody knew each other,” he says. “It wasn’t that there wasn’t a little bit of friction here and there. I’m not gonna say it was all like, you know, roses, but on the whole, everybody had their camps. Derrick had his camp; Juan, Kevin, UR, and a lot of them had grown up together in high school and just started making records together. We were accepted as part of the techno family and community by most of the gang, but we were still latecomers. And we were still in our own little bubble.”
It’s localised moments like these that often caused skews in techno’s development around the world. The 90s are littered with many significant regionally contained outbursts in the evolution of techno’s sound structure. In Berlin, Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald’s immersion in Jamaican dub reggae culture was the catalyst for their landmark Basic Channel releases. There was Robert Hood’s Pavlovian reduction on the game-changing ‘Minimal Nation’ that emerged from his and Jeff Mills discussions and refinements amidst a backdrop of increasingly volcanic bpm rave eruptions in the outside club scene.
Additionally, there was Regis and Surgeon’s Brum-brutalism on their Downwards label, Plastikman’s embryonic TB-303 meltdowns at his own JAK parties in Detroit’s abandoned Packard plant and Aphex Twin’s unique, playful wizardry infused with mischievous Cornish myth-making. Elsewhere in Germany there was Frankfurt’s fusion of trance and techno where chief orchestrator of hedonism, Sven Väth held court at The Omen’s legendary endurance fests. And Wolfgang Voigt’s (aka Mike Ink) myriad voyages as Studio 1, Profan, Auftrieb, GAS, Wassermann and Freiland would set the tone for Cologne’s mighty Kompakt empire. While all can stake a claim to moulding techno’s malleable clay into something new and beautiful, bending the world to each’s own futuristic vision, crucially they were all allowed to grow roots within a localised cocoon, shielded from global scrutiny before finally emerging as an artistic fait accompli.
Another transformative moment arrived in 1992, when Jeff Mills relocated to New York to take up a residency at the Limelight. With an office provided in the back room of the Palladium as part of the deal, the premise was to continue to run Underground Resistance alongside Mike Banks but in reality, Mills was beginning to formulate a new label sound and vision.
“Essentially, these were the things that I probably wish we could have done while I was in Underground Resistance,” states Mills. “A type of music that was deeper, that was more spiritual, I suppose. And also what reinforced that was the opposite of what was happening on the night at the Limelight. It was a really hardcore, really heavy type of atmosphere. And I was thinking, what might people want to hear after that? What might they want to hear the other hours of the day? What type of electronic music could that be? And so in many conversations with Robert Hood because he was with me at the label at the time, we were having discussions of a certain type of music that was more ‘mental’. That wasn’t overbearing. Not just a bombastic spectacle type of you know, ‘Punisher’, ‘Seawolf’-type of thing but music that really approached the intricate details of the sound.”
Armed with a small studio set up of a 909 drum machine, Yamaha DX 100, a couple of small synths and a little pocket recorder bought in New York’s Chinatown, Mills set about his new sonic lab. While remarkably also recording definitive techno releases ‘Waveform Transmissions Vol.1’ for Tresor and parts of X-103 in the same period it was this new sound he kept coming back to.
“I would make samples of it and then take it to the club and test it at Limelight and then go back to my apartment and come up with something else. It was a constant system of creating things, testing things. So by the time I came up with the first release I was pretty much sure that the ‘Tranquillizer’ EP was what people needed at the time.”
Not only were his and Hood’s early releases on Axis set to pivot the shape of techno for years to come, the label’s artwork and gold, silver and black palette perfectly reflected the label’s visionary sonic direction while referencing as far back as Man Ray’s 1920’s ’solarization’ process and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 ‘Manifesto of Futurism’. This wasn’t a bastardized cartoon rave sample for the pilled-up ‘E’ hordes. This was techno redefined as art.
While we now live in an era of constant and instant connectivity, the early part of the 90s saw techno communities often growing in small hermetically sealed enclaves, where overseas information was often scant, with only new vinyl releases providing sonic clues and coded messages for others to seek out.
“Everything was very regional,” states Adam X who in the early 90s was running Brooklyn’s Sonic Groove Records shop alongside Heather Heart and his brother, Frankie Bones. “Especially before the internet and before the world became much more connected through it. Many people buying records were unaware of what was happening in other scenes outside of their own city and country. There was little connection outside of the music itself which defined the identity of different places.”
These local identities started to take hold. Techno outposts established further afield as labels, record shops, clubs and distributors built themselves around localised scenes. Damon Wild’s Synewave and Lenny Dee’s Industrial Strength added to the growing New York scene that also featured Frankie Bones’ ‘Bones Breaks’ releases and ‘Storm Rave’ parties. There was Woody McBride’s and Kurt Eckes’s Midwest Drop Bass Network, Sven Väth’s Frankfurt-based Eye Q and Harthouse, the embryonic Soma, spearheaded by Slam and Glasgow’s crosstown record shop/distribution network established by Rubadub, Eric Morand and Laurent Garnier’s Paris-based F Communications and Stefan Robbers’ Eindhoven-based Eevo Lute.
Everywhere you cared to look there was activity. Rotterdam had Bunker and Clone. Chicago’s Relief was under the guidance of Cajmere/Green Velvet’s Curtis Jones and the so-called Sound of Rome was spearheaded by Leo Anibaldi, Andrea Benedetti, Lory D, the D’Arcangelo brothers and Marco Passarani. There were other labels such as ACV, the sonic destruction of Regis, Female and Surgeon on Birmingham’s Downwards, and the network emerging from Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald’s Hard Wax Berlin record shop.
London’s nebulous scene, meanwhile, housed everything from Steve Bicknell and Sheree Rashit’s legendary nomadic LOST parties, Peter Ford and Mark Broom’s Ifach, Akin Fernandez’s Irdial~Discs, Infonet techno upstarts Bandulu, James Ruskin and Richard Polson’s Blueprint and Dave Cawley and Alex Knight’s Fat Cat Records shop. That’s alongside a raft of memorable parties like Andrew Weatherall’s Sabresonic and Bloodsugar, Mr. C’s Subterrain at The End and Carl Cox and Jim Masters’ midweek shebeen at the Velvet Rooms.
Even deepest Cornwall held a ‘Kernow’ seat at the table via Grant Wilson-Claridge and Richard James’ Rephlex. Other labels such as Berlin’s Tresor, Saskia Slegers’ Djax, the (then) St. Albans-based Peacefrog, Sheffield’s Warp, London’s Novamute, Ghent’s Music Man and R&S all cherry-picked and nurtured worldwide talent, making global stars of CJ Bolland, Aphex Twin, Luke Slater, Neil Landstrumm and Richie Hawtin to name a few.
Having bought his first synth in 1985, Downwards Records boss Karl O’Connor (Regis) had grown increasingly frustrated trying to emulate alternative and electronic bands like Coil, Swans and Depeche Mode. It was the rudimentary rawness of dance music that made him realise he could go back to basics with his old equipment and come back from an increasingly isolated electronic hinterland to face a primed audience who were ready to embrace a new brute force.
“Before 1988, electronic music meant something completely different,” he recalls. “Now when we talk about electronic music, people mean dance music, essentially. That’s not electronic music to me, but by the early-90s we were locked. Lots of people arrived at the same place from vastly different directions. A lot of people could have been into hip hop. Lots of people could have been into soul music or R’n’B. And then there was people like me whose idea of electronic music was completely different. But we arrived at this point.
"‘Positive Education’ was us trying to make a Detroit record. But obviously putting the influences we had from playing in Glasgow into that record.” Stuart McMillan
“It wasn’t that it was music without tradition but it was genuinely experimental music that for the first time ever could reach the masses. It broke the whole DNA of rock’n’roll because it was about repetition and reaffirming sound. It wasn’t verse, chorus, verse and for the most part even melody as well. And it used all these very experimental things that people like John Cage and Stockhausen were doing before. That’s what drew me towards it. It had real potential and it had the momentum of this youth kick.”
As with all new forms of music there was a fair amount of fumbling into the unknown, which often led to numerous misinterpretations and occasionally ‘heroic failures’ as Slam’s Stuart McMillan was about to discover.
“I guess your geographical position will always determine at that point, how your music sounded,” he says. “So, you know, something like ‘Positive Education’, for example, was us trying to make a Detroit record. But obviously putting the influences we had from playing in Glasgow into that record.”
Tony Child’s (aka Surgeon) first attempts at making electronic music were essentially deaf, based around the only point of reference he had, a Northampton school library book called ‘Making Music with Tape Recorders’. Having only read about but never heard nor experienced ‘music concrete’ he was subsequently told by a friend that his initial musical sketches sounded like Coil (a band who on further investigation opened up a path of discovery that eventually led to the release of the ‘Surgeon’ EP on Downwards in 1994).
Even with their iconic early Underground Resistance releases, Jeff Mills freely admits that both he and Mike Banks were, basically, feeling in the dark. “There was no real indication that gave me an idea of where this was going to go. I mean, I wasn’t really involved in rave because Mike and I, we were not really invited over. By the time we started I think the biggest, most famous events in Europe, in the UK, in Belgium and in Holland had already happened. We really had not experienced what a rave was to be honest. But we were trying to make music for it. Things like ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Riot’ and all these things, but we really did not know because we had never been to a rave.”
As the globe’s techno scenes grew, in what were essentially loosely connected localised scenes, they also began to split and fracture.
“Slowly as we got into the mid-90s it was full on,” recalls Blueprint’s James Ruskin. “You went to a techno club or you went to a house club. The lines were kind of drawn in the sand.”
Nowhere were these divisions more apparent than the canyon-like fissure that separated Dutch club culture at the time. What had started out as an open and free-moving spirit of acid house adventure was now starkly polarising between two diametrically opposed scenes. The housier-edged ‘mellow’ camp found champions in DJ Dimitri and DJ Remy whose sets at Amsterdam’s Roxy connected with a more cosmopolitan clubby crowd. An hour’s drive down the coast, however, and gabber (Dutch Hardcore) was erupting like a 160bpm jack hammer, spearheaded by the likes of Rotterdam Records’ Paul Elstak, whose first label release - De Euromasters ‘Amsterdam Waar Lech Dat Dan?’ (‘Amsterdam, Where Is That?’) - was a thinly-veiledpop at the Dutch media’s focus on the music emanating from its capital.
“Both scenes were so full of themselves, so to say,” remembers Delsin Records boss Marsel van der Wielen. “Locally, party-scene-wise it (techno) stayed pretty underground, as it was smashed between the mellow and gabber scenes. I was at the first Autechre performance in 1993, and when Underground Resistance performed in Utrecht there were only 30 people. It was always the same guys at these events like Stefan Robbers (Terrace/Eevo Lute) and Jochem Paap (Speedy J).”
And yet by the end of the decade, and against the odds, techno had not only formed a bridge between these two antipodal factions, it had usurped them as dancefloor’s heir apparent.
Key to the viral-like spread of techno in the Netherlands and across the world were the club nights that acted not only as a local hub for an ever-growing community of techno evangelists, but also key stopping points for techno’s winged couriers as an emerging international DJ circuit developed, turning underground mavericks into air mile shredding magazine cover stars. These cathedrals of sound drew people together from all walks of life under a communal euphoric experience, something that Andrew Weatherall often noted went back hundreds of years via the church’s use of smoke, coloured lights and music to coerce a populace under one united thought.
“When we started the club night Slam in 1988,” remembers Soma’s Dave Clarke, “it was people from all over the city (Glasgow). West End students, trendies, gangsters and East End hoodlums. They were willing to get together and not have an angry head on their shoulders. It was all about embracing the new. Embracing each other. There was an initial utopia, I guess.”
“Slowly as we got into the mid-90s it was full on. You went to a techno club or you went to a house club. The lines were kind of drawn in the sand.” James Ruskin
It was this coming together of different tribes that Surgeon recalls as a key part of Birmingham’s nascent techno evolution around 1992/93. Alternating fortnightly between Third Eye at Snobs and House of God at Digbeth’s Dance Factory, he honed his craft with elements of some of the records he had been introduced to through John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show.
“I remember at that time there were a lot of people who were kind of interested in dance music, but they really didn’t feel like they could go to a club. They didn’t feel welcomed or at home there, but House of God and Third Eye were these places where pretty much anyone could feel welcome. It was basically all the different kind of freaks, oddballs and outsiders. You had punks, heavy metal people, hippies, queer people, like just everyone. All of the different kind of outsiders all seemed to feel welcome at this place. And I think that was very special and very unique to that event. Anyone who walked in there was just like: ‘Holy Fuck, what is going on here?’”
LOST’s Sheree Rashit is another to recall the DIY, just-do-it ethic that prevailed at the time. “From a UK perspective, there was this sort of almost punk attitude,” she says. “And when I say that I think of Andrew Weatherall who totally embraced so much. This just get-up-and-do-it attitude. So I think it changed lots of lives because people were able to be involved. They may have previously appreciated music and the effect it had on them but now they were able to be part of that. They made that their careers.”
Such pioneering techno promoters were willing to take the risks based on zero expectations, sometimes taking months and multiple phone calls to finally trace the artists they wanted to work with. This was simply a case of giving this new music a platform and the right environment to a crowd who were also searching for something new.
As James Ruskin recounts: “There were very few businessmen involved at this stage. The nights were promoted by DJs and fans of the music. The labels that were cropping up were run by the artists, the distribution companies were run by the people that didn’t fall into either of these categories. So you have this little sphere of people holding this thing up.”
French techno royalty Laurent Garnier concurs, reflecting upon the importance of community in elevating this burgeoning scene.
“I think to create something strong, it’s vital to have a residency,” he says. “To have a rendezvous, a weekly place or a monthly place where your crew, your crowd, your community can get together, feel safe, or feel at home. I always liked labels that work like a family because I think they’re always more prolific music-wise, like we try to do with Fcom. Like the Rex or a residency or a group of people that work together, put their ideas together, you know, mix their ideas to be able to think in an inventive way to build something. I always believed what built my career was the fact that I kept my residency for all these years. And I’ve been faithful to a lot of places around the world, even though now I don’t have a residency anymore. I feel that I have some kind of connection to some places around the world where I go back often or often enough to make people feel that together we are part of something. I think this is very, very important.”
If one city, more than any other, can claim to have universally embraced techno into the very fabric of its society, then Berlin surely has techno blood pumping through its veins. The 90s were ushered in on a sea of hope as the Wall fell and the city reunited after nearly 40 years of division and suspicion. As the East re-engaged with the West, a multitude of new possibilities unravelled.
A somewhat fortuitous Westphalian, Dimitri Hegemann, found himself at the very epicentre of this seismic cultural shift. Having relocated to Berlin in 1978 (his musical curiosity had already led him to some of Can and Kraftwerk’s earliest live shows in his hometown district of Soest in 1970, at the tender age of 15), the 80s found him hanging out at all-night Berlin parties with Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, tour managing Henry Rollins, signing Sheffield’s Clock DVA to his Interfisch label, putting on small acid house parties for 150 people at UFO and co-founding Berlin’s avant-garde electronic music festival Atonal in 1982.
On a visit to the industrial based Wax Trax label in Chicago in 1989, a rummage through a bucket full of label boss Jim Nash’s unwanted demo cassettes led him to Detroit’s ‘Final Cut’, a new industrial outfit that as chance would have it included Jeff Mills. A life-long bond was formed. If anyone was to find themselves in the right place at the right time, then Hegemann was the right person. By 1990 the stars aligned.
“We had this incredible historic situation of the fall of the Wall, and this was the number one media subject everywhere,” he says. “When the Wall was open, there were a lot of opportunities. The first point was euphoria, incredible euphoria, East and West got together. Second, the police had no time to control anything, you know, they had to check the traffic between East and West and all the trains and all that stuff. So they had no time to stop a club or an illegal club.
“The third thing was we had no curfew in Berlin. Since 1949 we have no curfew. We could have been open all-night-long. That was a law that was a huge advantage. And the fourth point was a lot of empty spaces in East Berlin. And then everybody tried to do something. It was cultural energy, anarchy, you know, and you could do what you wanted to do.”
One such empty space at 126 Leipziger Strasse, an underground bank vault of the Wertheim Department Store, led Hegemann and Achim Kohlberger to establish Berlin’s iconic Tresor nightclub and subsequent label in 1991. Now 30 years later, and after 1000s of incendiary, sweat-soaked parties, 100s of genre-defining releases and a club closure and relocation and rebirth, the institution that was to play a major role in evolving and spreading the gospel according to techno throughout the ensuing decade still stands by its adopted logo: ‘Tresor Never Sleeps’.
If clubs were techno’s night-time home, then the record shops that supported the music became the daytime hubs, meeting points and sources of information for local communities and visiting DJs to forge new links. With hot new releases and white labels paraded on their walls, racks sub-divided into genres and label back catalogues, and the premises’ often strewn with party flyers, the record shop’s role as a connective node simply reinforced the emergent trans-global techno network.
From 1989 to 1997, Fat Cat Records, among a host of others, played a central role in bringing London’s local electronic dance music community together. As shop co-founder and DJ Alex Knight recalls, the connection with other cities’ stores and distribution outlets was integral to their mutual survival.
“There was Submerge in Detroit and before that you had Watts in New York and everyone else that were kind of shifting US imports across the UK,” Knight says. “You had Rubadub in Scotland, but our hook up with Hard Wax in Berlin was quite pivotal in terms of the introduction of new music and new labels. Basic Channel for one. And we had this kind of reciprocal relationship. We would create a box and fill it with music from the kids in London bringing in records – white labels, promos and decent stuff. We would take five of each and we put it in a box up to 100 records. When that box was full, we packaged it up and sent it to Berlin. And Hard Wax would do the same for us. So once a month, we’d get this big box and inside there’s all these German white labels and that’s how we learnt about those records.”
The information flowed. City-to-city, store-to-store, the predominantly lyric-free records spoke one universal and understandable body language.
Techno’s rise through the 90s owed a further debt to its prominence on specialist radio shows such as Colin Dale’s Abstrakt Dance and Colin Favor’s Kiss FM show, whose unsigned ‘Demo DAT’ section showcased a host of new talent including a first airing of Aphex Twin’s ‘Digeridoo’.
The sonic flames were further fanned by printed media, as magazines and fanzines grew, many forged from the same just-do-it attitude that reported first hand from punk’s 1970 front lines. Magazines such as the UK’s Jockey Slut, DJ, Mixmag, Generator, Update and Muzik; France’s Coda, Eden and TRAX; Germany’s Frontpage, Groove, De:Bug, Spex and Raveline; Holland’s Disco Dance, Bassic Groove and EP Connexion; America’s URB and XLR8R all hastened techno’s irrepressible trajectory. Technical magazines such as Future Music began to run features from DJ/producers’ bedroom studios and serious music magazines such as The Wire dissected Drexciyan Afrofuturism.
Elsewhere, the club culture-splattered musings in Leeds’ The Herb Garden owed just as much to the sardonic football terrace witticism of Liverpool’s The End and London’s acid house bible Boy’s Own, as they did to the preposterous silliness of comics like Viz. By the mid-90s, Nottingham’s staunchly techno-based Magic Feet fanzine emerged, dedicated solely to the genre. While primarily a celebration and platform for the music and scene, it critiqued and celebrated in equal measure, unafraid to voice opinion or prick perceived pomposity.
“I had got into techno through rave and I wanted to be involved,” states founder and editor, Tom Magic Feet. “I thought doing a fanzine would be a way to do this, to get lots of free records and to make a living without having to work too hard! At the time, techno was somewhat marginalised in the music press, such as it was, so I thought the music could do with its own dedicated magazine.”
After years of scraping the funds together to produce each issue, Magic Feet finally succumbed to financial inevitability in 1999. A somewhat prescient fate that awaited much of club culture’s printed propaganda in the years to come.
By the end of the 1990s, techno and electronic music had become synonymous. From Japan’s Ken Ishii and Fumiya Tanaka to Stockholm’s Adam Beyer and Cari Lekebusch, via Naples’ Marco Carola and Gaetano Parisio, DJ Hell’s Munich Gigolo invasion and Chilean ex-pats Ricardo Villalobos and Lucian Nicolet, a vast supporting network had globally connected this new sonic ‘revolution for change’.
And while a roll call of essential clubs, too numerous to mention, had created a global bedrock of like-minded communities, festivals such as Barcelona’s Sonar and Amsterdam’s ADE expanded techno’s reach into the wider music industry. Large techno events such as Mannheim’s Time Warp, Fraga’s Monegros and Amsterdam’s Awakenings simply served to reinforce the universal approximation of techno by an ever-growing global following. Techno tents at festivals such as Lowlands, Pukkelpop, Tribal Gathering, T in the Park, Creamfields and Glastonbury were pulling in tens of thousands of new recruits and Berlin’s iconic Love Parade party witnessed one million people uniting on the German capital’s streets every year.
From today’s vantage point, it’s clear techno has achieved some kind of universality. The downside is a rampant commercialisation and homogenisation of a genre that had often been seen as risk-taking, visceral and uncompromising. Techno has always tried to carry the torch of futurism, but is it possible for any genre to break the constraints of time? Can techno really say it is still the future some 30 years later, or has its moment in the sun withered and died? Is anything new and ground-breaking still achievable?
“I think what’s happened is that we’ve kind of arrived there,” ponders Luke Slater. “For better or worse I’m not sure the word techno should relate to the future anymore because everything I could have ever wished for involving techno has happened. Everything has adopted the concept of it. Lift music, restaurant music, every kind of music seems to be based around the original concept of putting electronic beats together. For me it’s everywhere now.”
“For me, there’s no golden age,” adds Laurent Garnier, a man whose lifelong dedication and passion for techno and electronic music now sees him stand alongside such musical greats as Quincy Jones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Miles Davis in receiving the Légion d’honneur (the highest French order for military and civil merit). “I think it was the naive time where we didn’t know where the hell we were going. And it was a time where not everything had been written yet. Not really knowing where the fuck we were going. But it was a bit freer of any conception, I guess. The big difference with now is we have 30 years’ of history of this music and whatever you’re listening to today, cannot any more be super-front forward.
“Even now, the sound is still forward-thinking music-wise, but I feel like all the music I’m listening to nowadays from not just techno but from house and electronic music, I kind of heard it before. It’s not a bad thing. It’s not a criticism. It’s normal. Because after 30 years’ of experimenting with minimalism, noise, hard music, soft music, deep music, whatever you want to quantify it, we’ve gone into all sorts of different kinds of directions. And unless we quit what we’re doing and completely change our way of producing music I don’t think there is much space nowadays to be able to be super inventive.”
It’s a construct that also sits uneasily with Dave Clarke, a man whose DJ and production prowess were to earn him the nickname ‘Red Baron’ from John Peel. “When I was making music from ‘87 onwards I had a ‘computer’. People had word processors, but no-one had a computer, so Juan Atkins’ lyrics would resonate, and we would really feel futuristic as people thought we were strange with our weird equipment. Techno, house and electro led the music production revolution. We all pushed things in ways that were not invented or formalised yet. So yes, we felt like the future, but technology caught up with everyone. Even a basic smartphone today has 100s times more grunt than the equipment we were using. That is not the future, that is the present surely?
“Techno is now mostly a pop music of our time. Of course there are still pioneers, young and old pushing through, but most people rely on PR to get the attention. Tracks themselves rarely have a long shelf life and people that go to the big commercial events are not interested, so long as they have a great time, this is fact. Some artists are feeling it too, to quote The Fatback Band: ‘Worked years perfecting my craft, now my boss is giving me the shaft. Is this the future?’ This is how they feel, but things change and so they should! The status quo has to change, and I am sure that for some, 2020-2030 will be the golden age.”
“There were no rules, there was no industry, there was no handbook on how to make techno, how to distribute techno, how to run a business, how to have a DJ career when we started,” declares Richie Hawtin, a man whose Plastikman alter ego not only helped to redefine the notion of minimalism, but whose subsequent live shows went on to raise the bar in the presentation of techno as a combined audio and visual experience. “We wrote those books over the last 30 years. That was an incredibly exciting time, but I think the ethos of always looking forward in electronic music and techno is still there. I think that electronic music is still based upon synthesised sounds and sounds that are coming or built, created from technology that is also continuing to evolve and move forward, which still allows there to be this life force of the future within the music.
“And I think that’s really the important distinction. I think that the futuristic life force is still there. If we’re looking at techno to be the sound of the future, perhaps it doesn’t sound so futuristic as it did 30 years ago because now we’ve just heard so much of it. And perhaps the sound hasn’t changed as drastically as you would expect because it has become its own artform with its own set of themes and frequencies. But I still think the intention of techno is to push for, explore and create an imaginary sonic universe. That is perhaps by definition, a vision of the future.”
“There were no rules, there was no industry, there was no handbook on how to make techno, how to distribute techno, how to run a business, how to have a DJ career when we started.” Richie Hawtin
As one of techno’s key visionaries, Jeff Mills’ groundbreaking releases on Underground Resistance, Axis and Tresor advanced the concept of techno through the 90s. His lightning, three-deck wizardry brought dancefloors to the edge of chaos, and his pummelling, brain-frying, off-the-cuff 909 workouts are just as likely to sit in the middle of orchestras, live bands, cinematic reinterpretations and A-list attended fashion shows. He remains cautiously optimistic.
“This type of thinking was there before techno,” says the man whose 1997 techno call-to-arms, ‘The Bells’ has now sold north of half-a-million copies. “The more recognisable elements of what people would say techno is all about, were already there long before Juan (Atkins) came around. When Kraftwerk came around, it was there. And so, if anything, techno was a reinforcement of a certain type of ideology that probably started and was more prevalent in the 1930s. This idea of thinking free with art and Surrealism and Dadaism, and in the Futurist Manifesto, and embracing technology, the electric light and all this stuff. It was a systematic reinforcement every 30 years; and then the 1960s. Humans seem to go through this self-reflective realisation and they react to it. So 1930s, 1960s, 1990s.” (A theme explored on 1994’s eighth Axis release, ‘Cycle 30’).
“You can begin to see signs of it now. I mean, we’re in the 2020s. It’s reflective of 100 years ago, in the early 1920s, after the plague, after the war, people were questioning the world and questioning themselves and it began to show up in art and began to show up in music and began to show up in our landscapes. You can kind of see the same thing happening now. Even all the negativity that you see, it was the same thing 100 years ago. And so I think techno music as an ideology, I don’t think it showed us anything new, it kind of reminded us of this need to be able to find yourself or find out what life could be about. Techno is pretty much a romantic way of thinking about the future.”
This article first appeared in issue 1 of Disco Pogo. Buy the magazine here.