Techno is a style of electronic dance music pioneered by African American musicians in Detroit, Michigan. While techno never became a large commercial success in the United States, in Europe, this Detroit-born musical style became a multi-billion-dollar industry. Dance clubs in cities like Amsterdam, Paris, London, and Berlin became popular destinations for people who like to dance to techno’s electronic rhythms and futuristic sounds. Cornelius Harris manages Detroit-based record label Underground Resistance. “Electronic music is a $6.5 billion industry globally,” Harris explained. “It was created here.”
Detroit is proud of its homegrown musical style. In 2003, the Detroit Historical Museum opened an exhibit called Techno: Detroit’s Gift to the World. This exhibit included artifacts that reflect the history of this music. The city has also named one of its streets Techno Boulevard in honor of the many early techno record labels once located there. Each May, people will come from around the world to dance and listen at Detroit’s annual Movement festival. One recent attendee was Helen Stevens, a techno music fan who came to Detroit all the way from Australia. “For people who know their techno, they know that Detroit is the birthplace,” she explained.
In 2016, Detroit’s City Council honored the Belleville Three—three of techno’s innovators—with a Spirit of Detroit Award. The three producers were nicknamed after the Detroit suburb where they met. They include Detroit musicians Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, and Juan Atkins. Although not a band, in collaboration, these three producers would have an enormous impact on electronic dance music around the world. “I would like to pay honor and pay tribute to those who helped found this genre,” said Detroit Councilman Scott Benson. “Most of the music is seen in dance clubs and around the world. The fact that it was established here in Detroit needs to be reflected here and identified as well as just celebrated.”
The Motor City in the 1980s
Techno music has its roots in early 1980s Detroit. Detroit is the largest city in the state of Michigan. It is located on the Detroit River, directly across from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Between 1850 and 1950, Detroit grew into a leading world industrial center. At first, its prosperous shipping and manufacturing industries attracted European immigrants. Later, it attracted African Americans from the South. By the end of the twentieth century, around 80 percent of Detroit was African American.
After Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1914, Detroit grew into the automobile manufacturing center of the world. However, even with this economic prosperity, tensions grew between white and African American residents. In 1943, fighting broke out between Detroit’s whites and blacks. This continuing racial tension resulted in white flight, a term that sociologists use to describe the departure of white citizens in a city’s center to its outlying suburbs. Also, the loss of automotive industry jobs starting in the second half of the twentieth century strained Detroit both economically and socially. By the time Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, and Juan Atkins met in high school in the early 1980s, Detroit was well past its commercial peak. By the mid-1990s its population was half of what it was in the 1950s.
“Everybody Was Equal”
Saunderson, May, and Atkins grew up in the Detroit suburb of Belleville. Located 30 miles from the city center, Belleville was a prosperous community. It was located near several automobile factories, which provided jobs to a racially integrated workforce. “Everybody was equal,” Juan Atkins remembers. “So what happened is that you’ve got this environment with kids that come up somewhat snobby, ‘cos hey, their parents are making money working at Ford or GM or Chrysler, been elevated to a foreman, maybe even a white-collar job.”
Like many other African American teens in Detroit, the three musical friends grew up listening to an influential urban radio disc jockey named The Electrifying Mojo. Unlike other deejays, The Electrifying Mojo—the radio name of deejay Charles Johnson—played a wide range of music. One of his radio shows might include the latest hits by popular African American funk musician Rick James, along with the German electronic music band Kraftwerk. While listeners could expect to hear the well-known African American rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, they might also hear music by modern classical music composer Philip Glass. The Electrifying Mojo didn’t care whether artists were black or white, trained or self-taught, American or European. He helped put in place the influences and attitudes the Belleville Three would combine to invent techno.
In 1981, the Belleville Three member Juan Atkins recorded a song called Alleys of Your Mind. For this recording, he used the name Cybotron. As the name suggests, the young musician was obsessed with science fiction and technology. Instead of using traditional instruments, Atkins created Alleys of Your Mind using a tape deck, keyboard synthesizer, and electronic drum machine. When The Electrifying Mojo played Cybotron’s music on the radio, listeners liked what they heard. “Mojo dropped Alleys of your Mind on his radio show and it just blew up,” Atkins remembered. “It was like a breath of fresh air on the radio. And nobody knew that this was some black kids from Detroit making this record. They thought it was from Europe or somewhere.”
The Belleville Three continued to collaborate with one another. They also shared recording equipment and studio space. Atkins and Derek May started deejaying parties in Detroit under the name Deep Space Soundworks. At the same time, the Belleville Three started producing music by other artists. Techno had arrived.
Around this time, the three musicians traveled to Chicago to investigate that city’s music scene. Chicago clubs were becoming known for a new style of dance music called house. House music was influenced by disco music of the late 1970s. However, while disco featured traditional instruments, house music featured drum machines and electronic basslines. While the Belleville Three were inspired by house music, they didn’t copy it. Techno often focused on futuristic themes—it was a product of Detroit, and the way the city was from the end of the twentieth century.
In their publicity photos, techno artists would frequently pose in front of one of many of Detroit’s run-down or abandoned buildings.”It reflected what was going on—it was scary, it was dark, it was deep,” said Detroit-based deejay and music producer John Collins. “But the music was futuristic—it’s giving you hope for the future, that things will get better.”
The Michigan city had long been one of the world’s leading centers of African American pop, soul, and jazz. These sounds influenced techno. “There’s computer-generated sounds [in techno], but there was a soulful element in it as well, which you would only be able to do if you were from Detroit,” Collins said. “When the music migrated and went overseas, they couldn’t do it the same way as these guys [here in Detroit].”
Success in Europe
The music the Belleville Three created was only moderately successful in the United States. However, Saunderson, Atkins, and May, as well as other American techno artists, would find success in Europe.
By the late 1980s, electronic dance music had become very popular in Great Britain. The Belleville Three were approached by British businessman Neil Rushton about licensing their music for release in Britain. In order to distinguish their music from Chicago’s house music, the Belleville Three chose the name techno. Saunderson had been using the name techno for a single named “Techno City” that he released in the early 80s under the name Cybotron.
While they were mostly unknown at home, the Belleville Three soon became musical celebrities in Europe. “Detroit exported nightlife culture,” said Adriel Thornton, who conducts techno-themed tours of Detroit. “You go to Europe and ‘Detroit Techno’ is a genre of music. But here at home, the idea that it is actually generating real dollars and creating reasons for people to move here hasn’t been sufficiently recognized.” Today, organizers of Detroit’s annual Movement festival estimate that international visitors make up 20 percent of its attendees.
Cornelius Harris, who is also one of the organizers of the Detroit techno museum Exhibit 3000, admits that he has mixed feelings about an African American-pioneered musical genre finding more success abroad than at home. Harris said, “People come here and do all these documentaries that are being shown to big crowds in Europe, but no one here has seen them. All we’re doing is enriching what’s over there, and none of it comes back this way.”
Ultimately, Harris hopes that Detroit techno can reach the ears of younger listeners, who are much more familiar with hip-hop rhymes than techno rhythms. According to Harris, “What we’re hoping is that these kids can see how people just like them refused to fit stereotypes and made their own future. That’s what we’ve used the museum for: to offer an alternative view of what you can do. If I want to innovate in medicine, maybe I can learn from techno. The music is a tool. It leads to other things.” Kevin Saunderson, meanwhile, said that he sees techno as a way to unite people around the world through music and dance. “I envisioned the world would dance to our music. All cultures, all races, I believe this music is meant for everybody. It’s what we do. It’s how we live. We inspired the world.”
Discover more African American musicians who have made an impact on the world’s music at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and PBS.