Synthesised Soul & Futurist Funk: A Journey Through Detroit Techno

From its roots in early 80s Detroit, techno has grown into a globally successful and highly influential electronic music genre, with numerous sub-genres and local scenes. For many fans though, the techno that originated from its birthplace remains some of the most emotive, powerful and radical music of the twentieth century. 

Detroit techno has had two distinct phases. The first, broadly speaking, spans the early 1980s to the end of the decade, with a so-called ‘second wave’ of younger producers becoming prominent in the 90s. The creation of the genre is generally credited to ‘The Belleville Three’: Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May (who has recently been accused of sexual assault). Along with other Detroit producers like Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes, James Pennington, Blake Baxter and Santonio Echols, they produced a series of groundbreaking records in the mid/late ‘80s which created a brand new musical genre. With a few exceptions, the early years of techno was largely single rather than album based, but as the genre matured, second-wave artists like Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, Robert Hood, Stacy Pullen, Carl Craig and others developed the genre in different directions and techno quickly began to produce high-quality albums.

There were many musical influences that contributed to the creation of techno. The Detroit pioneers were following in the footsteps of artists like early drum machine adopter Sly Stone, futurist psychedelic soul producer Norman Whitfield, Miles Davis and his electronic boundary-pushing music of the 70s, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder’s use of the very latest in synth technology to expand the language of funk and jazz, and P-Funk’s pioneering of the synth bass/synthesised clap sound. 

The early ‘80s playlists of Detroit’s legendary radio DJ The Electrifyin’ Mojo give a snapshot of the kind of records that were popular on the city’s party scene just before techno’s creation, as well as neatly summarising much of the music that influenced techno’s sound and outlook. On his WGPR Midnight Funk Association radio show, Johnson played P-Funk, Prince, Kraftwerk, the B52s, Visage, Ultravox, Yellow Magic Orchestra and genres like electro, synth-pop, Euro disco and Italo disco, along with post-disco/electronic-soul from contemporary labels like West End and Prelude. The uniting factor in his playlists was the use of drum machines and synthesised sounds. Detroit’s kids called this particular blend of music ‘progressive’ and built a club scene based around it. 

As detailed in Dan Sicko’s book Techno Rebels, there were few social outlets for teenagers in Detroit at the start of the 80s. In a city with a rapidly declining manufacturing industry and shrinking population, school kids organised social clubs to hire DJs, lights and venues to put on parties, their clubs taking on “elitist characteristics…centred on somewhat naive ideas of sophistication, class and distinction.” They gave their social clubs names like Plush, Funtime Society, Universal and GQ Productions, names that were upwardly mobile and that linked in with the perceived sophistication of their synthesised, drum machine-led ‘progressive’ music. 

The sleek, streamlined and robotic sounds of Kraftwerk’s pioneering electronic music were a major influence in the development of techno, as was early 80s electro from artists like Afrika Bambaata, Newcleus, Warp 9 and Hashim, who had themselves been influenced by Kraftwerk. Electro reworked the rhythms of funk via drum machines, adopting a futurist, minimal and often abstract musical aesthetic that was also extremely danceable and was a key techno precursor. And the city of Detroit itself also influenced how techno sounded. Author Simon Reynolds in his dance music history Energy Flash points out that “Atkins and May both attribute the dreaminess of Detroit techno to the desolation of the city.” 

All these influences can be heard, or at least felt, in Detroit techno: whether it was a squelching synth bass à la P-Funk, a minor 9th chord straight out of a Herbie Hancock jazz funk track, a Kraftwerkesque arpeggiated synth line or a rigid new wave-style rhythm track, techno reinterpreted and repurposed all these influences via newly available and relatively affordable semi-pro studio equipment. In doing so, the techno pioneers created a revolutionary break with R’n’B history: techno was the next step in a black music lineage that stretched back through electro, boogie, disco, funk, soul and jazz, but in its eventual complete rejection of orthodox instrumentation and song structure and its commitment to futurism, techno also rendered traditional R’n’B music an anachronism. 

From Mike Banks’ blissful marriage of jazz and electronics, to Drexciya’s angular robotic funk, from Robert Hood’s distillation of techno down to its raw, rhythmic building blocks, to the opulent yet melancholy productions of Carl Craig, Detroit techno is a body of work that is progressive, revolutionary and hugely influential — as well as being some of the most powerful and beautiful electronic music ever created.

Lifestyles of the Laptop Café cover

2001 solo album from James Stinson of Drexciya who tragically passed away the following year, Lifestyles… is a mix of down-tempo electronica, electro and techno. It’s futuristic, muted, and subtle with an almost spiritual intensity to the simple, spacious arrangements. Lifestyles… is also highly danceable with the synths, bass and drum machine rhythms locking in tightly, producing a calm yet propulsive listen. An understated Detroit techno classic. 

From the Far Future, Pt. 2 cover

The third full-length album from Dixon, From the… was released in 2012 and is a mix of vastly different techno moods, tempos and styles. You get spiky, trippy minimal techno, abstract soundscapes, off-kilter 4/4 jams and straight-up funky dancefloor tracks. The sound palette ranges from discordant, metallic and atonal to richer more traditionally ‘musical’ moments, with an emphasis on the off-key, atonal and psychedelic. The vast variation between tracks and the musical creativity on show here make From the Far Future Pt. 2 a fascinating sonic-science fiction journey.

Internal Empire cover

Robert Hood’s Internal Empire from ’94 saw him further purging his music of chords and melodies, celebrating repetition, fetishising the sheer relentlessness of his grooves and the musical possibilities of using just one or two notes. Most tracks here are truly lean and stripped-back, a skeletal distillation of techno rhythms, producing bare, functional, mechanical music. It’s so sparse that when, seven tracks in he finally allows a single chord, and then a second one, in Home it’s like an ecstatic relief — but it’s a single lush moment in a sparse, cold album. Intense, influential and challenging.

More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art cover

Craig’s second artist album, released in 1997, is a high point in his extensive back catalogue. It’s confident, bold, progressive techno and electronica; much, but not all of it, targeted at home listeners rather than clubbers. Across sixteen tracks with eight of them coming in over six minutes long, he further developed his own idiosyncratic corner of techno, producing a mix of mournful electronic paeans, 4/4 soundscape techno and moody, brooding synthetic tracks that are difficult to categorise. Alternatively intense and gnarly, then dreamy and streamlined, More Songs… was an alternative view of what techno could be.

Azimuth cover

Great debut ’94 set from Kenny Larkin on influential UK label Warp, featuring lots of intricately programmed techno, sometimes stark and bare, sometimes rich and melodic. There’s lots of variation in the style, tempo, timbre and feel of each track and Azimuth works particularly well as a complete listening experience, rather than just a collection of club bangers. Sleek, haunting and sensuous, this is high-technology soul music. 

Waveform Transmission, Vol. 1 cover

Across eight tracks, Jeff Mills’ 92 album pushed techno into harder, darker, colder places, pulling in industrial influences to craft a metallic, mechanical, atonal, functional sound that was as ceaseless and relentless as the spaceship-factory production lines it sounded inspired by. Waveform Transmission Vol. 1 is a wall of looping machine-generated rhythmic noise, a potent collection of high-tempo, high-intensity robot dance music.

Discovers The Rings Of Saturn cover

A radical, intense techno album from spring ’92 from Jeff Mills, Robert Hood and ‘Mad’ Mike Banks, Discovers… is an Underground Resistance album in all but name. Somehow both widescreen yet tautly restrained, the album moves between classic Detroit synthetic rhythmic slammers and more experimental music, cleverly balancing lean, austere tracks with more rich, epic pieces of music. It’s cold, dark, spacious and uncompromising, containing music from another dimension; Discovers… is the sound of deep space. 

(The Theory Of) cover

Silent Phase was an artist name used by Detroit producer Stacey Pullen in the early 90s and The Theory of pulls together some of his productions from that time. Pullen specialises in a lush, driving, inventive and darkly euphoric version of Detroit techno, and there are plenty of classic Detroit synthetic-strings/chord stab/techno-drums dance tracks here. The Theory of also has a few beatless/downtempo tracks that use the sonic language of techno to create non-dancefloor tracks, and overall, this album is a sumptuous and sophisticated electronic listen. 

Interstellar Fugitives cover

A solid collection of radical, hard-hitting motor city techno and electro from Detroit’s most militant techno collective Underground Resistance. Interstellar Fugitives is grimy, brooding and subversive stuff, ranging from Suburban’s Knight’s taut, stalking opener Maroon, the anxious, edgy electro-break of Soulsaver from The Deacon, the precision-engineered machine funk of Aztec Mystic’s Mi Raza and Mirage’s Perception to UR’s own space-age, ghostly Negative Evolution. Raw, uncompromising and with a frankly spooky aesthetic, Interstellar Fugitives was a further refining of a particularly menacing musical vision. Darkly attractive. 

Paradise cover

With the poppy accessibility of many of the tracks and the inclusion of electro-soul ballad Power Of Passion, Kevin Saunderson’s debut album from 1989 with vocalist and songwriter Paris Grey is something of an anomaly in Detroit techno. Paradise blends the machine beats, synth stabs and icy chord washes of the emergent techno sound with soul vocals and traditional verse/chorus arrangements to create a house/techno hybrid that resulted in two huge crossover hits with Big Fun and Good Life. Quality synthesised soul from an era when techno’s final identity was still being forged.

The Secret Tapes of Dr. Eich cover

The only album by Carl Craig under his Paperclip People persona collects together several of his early 90s 12" releases. So you get plenty of rolling 909 percussion, growling basses and soaring pads, all built with Craig’s distinctive, leftfield production aesthetic. All the tracks here are precision-tooled dancefloor material and it’s one of Detroit techno’s most house-sounding albums, including some disco-cut up jams and lots of low-intensity, funky, abstract half-house/half-techno moments. Although it all hovers around a similar tempo, there’s plenty of variation in mood. Deep, dark and funky.

My Sol Dark Direction cover

Although James Pennington has been a part of Detroit’s electronic music community since the mid-80s, he only released his debut album My Sol Dark Direction in 2003. Made up of previously released and new material, it includes his early 90s classics The Art of Stalking and Nocturbulous BehaviorMy Sol Dark Direction is very much in the urban-ennui/modern-loneliness Detroit techno tradition, with a wonderfully melancholic minor chord palette and generally gloomy outlook, matched with raw, grinding, machine rhythm-patterns. It’s a strong techno collection showing the breadth of talent from a lesser-known Detroit figure.

Techno! (The New Dance Sound Of Detroit) cover

Originally intended to be called The House Sound of Detroit as a complimentary release to the previous year’s influential The House Sound of Chicago, this key compilation from 1988 was renamed at the last moment, helping to consolidate the idea of Detroit techno as a separate, self-contained genre. Gathering together twelve early Detroit techno tracks from artists including various combinations of the Belleville Three and Blake Baxter, Anthony Shakir and Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes, Techno!… demonstrates both the similarities and emerging differences between contemporaneous house from Chicago and techno from Detroit. A classic, and an influential collection. 

Metaphor cover

Kenny Larkin’s second album from 1995 is a superb collection of lush, innovative, complex Detroit techno, full of razor-sharp, galloping drum tracks, smooth chord washes, austere strings and clinical synth programming. Like his previous album, Larkin’s strength here is his ability to produce a series of tracks that veer across many shades, moods and styles of techno, from futuristic machine funk to moody warehouse stompers, intricate space-age synthesised soul and twinkling, shimmering electro. 

Heavenly cover

Detroit techno pioneer Kevin Saunderson’s 1998 Heavenly album collected together some of his 90s productions made under his e-Dancer alias along with new material and remixes from Detroit luminaries Carl Craig, Juan Atkins, D-Wynn and Kenny Larkin. It’s a solid, cohesive album that sums up the classic, musical-rather-than-minimal 90s Detroit techno sound championed by Saunderson, full of his trademark eerie chords, twisted synth sounds, razor-edged percussion and growling bass. 

Neptune’s Lair cover

Detroit production duo Drexciya’s debut album followed a series of highly influential 12" releases and came at the end of a decade they’d spent creating a small but perfectly formed electro/techno discography. Neptune’s Lair has 21 tracks but 9 of them are sub-3 minutes long, creating an album that continually delivers fresh sounds and new ideas. The music is broad-ranging, taking in 4/4 techno slammers, machine-tooled synthetic funk, soundtrack-esque pieces and all sorts of angular, abstract electronics. Ahead of its time, it’s an album that remains extremely influential in electronic music.

Landcruising cover

Over the nine tracks of Carl Craig’s debut artist album from 1995, he stakes out his take on techno, combining futurist rhythms that go beyond the standard drum sounds and patterns, elegiac strings, mournful chords, minor key melodies and atmospheric soundscapes into a rich, emotive, twinkling soundtrack. There’s an overriding sense of melancholy and isolation to many of tracks, Craig doing a superb job of creating and manipulating mood through carefully arranged competing and complimentary synth sounds and in contrast to the minimalism of many of his Detroit compatriots, Landcruising is full of ornate, epic musical moments. 

Atlantis cover

The third ‘X’ project from Jeff Mills and Robert Hood (with no Mike Banks who’d been a part of the first two) was a techno album based around an Atlantean concept, made up of unrelenting, minimalist future-percussion and looping, pulsing electronics, interspersed with spacey abstract interludes and diamond-hard mechanical tracks. There are occasional moments of tranquillity in between all the flexing of synthetic muscles, but overall there’s an intensity to the production, a sense almost that the machines were being squeezed, stretched, pushed right up to their limits and that they were operating at their maximum settings. 

Harnessed the Storm cover

Seminal Detroit techno and electro from Drexciya from 2002, consisting of seven lean, airless, metallic tracks built around either a pulsing 4/4 beat or a funkier electro rhythm. There’s a simplicity to much of what’s going on throughout Harnessed the Storm, but the synthetic atmospheres that are conjured up give it a genuine depth. Each track is created from a minimum quantity of carefully synthesised rhythmic elements and aquatically deep bass over which the electronic chatter of arpeggios, LFOs and chord shards are sprinkled on top. Direct, spacey, haunting, electronic futurism from Detroit.

Galaxy 2 Galaxy cover

Galaxy 2 Galaxy were a musical collective overseen by Mike Banks, and their debut album is quintessential Detroit techno. This is high art, progressive music, deftly melding organic jazz instrumentation with techno, effortlessly uniting the two genres in a way few would ever do so effectively again. The album is a model of how to wrench emotion from machines and how to incorporate traditional instrumentation into synthetic music. Galaxy 2 Galaxy remains a wonderful listen, space-age and classic at the same time, danceable, elegant, raw, sophisticated and a sublime journey into the sonic future. 

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