Techno music is a genre birthed from the combination of European and American urban music scenes in the '70s and '80s, and it even has some Japanese influences. Its origin story is just as colorful as the many genres that trace their lineage back to techno.
Roots and History of Techno Music
Though most clubbers might not think about it while they're raving, they may be surprised to learn that '70s American disco music, German electronica, an eclectic Japanese group, and Detroit urban music--just to name a few of the key influences--have all played crucial roles in forming a genre that millions love today.
- November 1973: German electronica group Tangerine Dream releases Phaedra, the first Tangerine Dream album to feature the sequencer-driven sound that has become their trademark. This launches the genre known as the Berlin School.
- 1974: German group Kraftwerk releases its breakthrough album Autobahn, which made use of new instruments called the Minimoog and the EMS Synthi AKS. The album peaks at no. 5 on Billboard Top 200, to the surprise of the band. Besides inspiring the birth of the techno genre, Kraftwerk would become one of the most influential groups in pop culture history.
- December 1975: Parliament, managed by George Clinton, releases the landmark album Mothership Connection, which proves to be an influence on techno.
- 1976: The first electronic disco albums are released: Cerrone's Love In C Minor and Cloud One's Atmosphere Strut, both precursors to techno.
- 1977: Influential Detroit DJ, The Electrifying Mojo, begins his time at the Detroit radio station WGPR, and he plays an unusual mix of genres--funk, soul, electronic-influenced new wave, and other eclectic selections, such as Prince, the B-52s, and European imports. This is a great catalyst for the launch of the Detroit techno sound.
- 1978: Yellow Magic Orchestra releases its self-titled album, which introduces innovative uses of electronic music to an international audience.
- 1980: A critical piece of music technology, the Roland TR-808 drum machine, is released. This lone drum machine provides the primary sound for an entire genre of music. It becomes the backbone of the first techno and house songs.
- Early 1980s: Inspired by local DJ The Electrifying Mojo, three high school friends and producers from Detroit--Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, the Belleville Three--begin mixing synthpop and Italo-disco with funk. Scholars pinpoint this as the birth of techno.
- 1981: Atkins releases Alleys of the Mind under the artist name Cybotron and NO UFO'S under the name Model 500.
- 1981: Roland releases its TB-303 mini-keyboard, which producers use to create now-standard sound effects and bass lines in techno music.
1981: Kraftwerk releases Computer World, which becomes a major influence on electronic music.
- 1982: Artist Afrika Bambaataa combines the melody from Trans-Europe Express by Kraftwerk with Kraftwerk's beat from the song Numbers and uses the combination to compose electro anthem Planet Rock. Bambaata, as well as DJ Grandmaster Flash, feed this stream of electronic music into the newly birthed genre of hip-hop.
- 1982: Electronic music continues to saturate popular culture. The film Blade Runner is released, which features an electronic score by Vangelis, who also used heavy synth techniques for his landmark score for Chariots of Fire. His music is called "symphonic electronica," in the Encyclopedic of Film Composers.
- 1982: House music also begins to follow an electro-influenced path as the Chicago and New York scenes, spearheaded by DJs such as Larry Levan, Frankie Knuckles, and Ron Hardy, who create synth-driven house music. The Hot Mix 5 on Chicago's WBMX absorbs this new style of dance music and begins to feature it.
- 1988: The historically important album Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit, a two volume album, is introduced by Virgin Records to Europe, especially the UK, and causes a tidal wave of interest from European music fans.
- Late 1980s: As Music History notes about this tidal wave: "Techno and house, which had failed to gain mainstream success in the United States, became a huge phenomenon in Europe... the term techno was popularized by Virgin Records' seminal UK compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound Of Detroit."
- 1989-1990: Raves begin to appear around London, though often in secret at private locations where authorities had trouble breaking up the gatherings. DJs create the techno festival in Berlin called The Love Parade.
- Mid-1990s: Joey Beltram from New York City helps trail blaze a new form of techno called hardcore made popular by Belgian artists, such as 80 Aum and Human Resource. A new wave of Detroit labels--Underground Resistance and +8--also develop this new form of techno. British artists also began new styles, such as bleep-and-bass and breakbeat that drew from hip hop.
- 1995: Techno has evolved and mutated so quickly that it has splintered into a number of sub-genre offshoots. Trance, soundscape music, which is meant for listening enjoyment not dancing (i.e. electronica), jungle, and gabba all emerge.
- March 1997: Techno conquers rock music. U2, the biggest rock band in the world in the 1990s, releases a heavily techno-influenced album called Pop. Its lead single Discotheque reaches no. 10 on Billboard's Hot 100 and Pop reaches no. 1 on Billboard's 200.
- April 1997: Techno artist The Chemical Brothers releases their album Dig Your Own Hole, which reaches no. 14 on the Billboard 200.
- July 1997: Techno conquers pop music. Techno artist The Prodigy hits no. 1 on the Billboard 200 pop charts.
- 2001: Big beat English DJ Fatboy Slim releases music video for Weapon of Choice, which features the famous dance number by actor Christopher Walken that takes popular culture by storm. The song features funk legend Bootsy Collins, one of the original members to play with George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic, one of the original influences of techno in the '70s.
German Sounds: Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk
Tangerine Dream's 1973 Phaedra created a stunning audio artwork of tech-inspired textures and robotic atmospheres. While it did not catch on in the mainstream, it caught the attention of serious musicians and producers.
Kraftwerk's 1974 Autobahn had an even bigger impact than Tangerine Dream, thanks to Kraftwerk's beautiful melodies and simple chord progressions that made their music more accessible to popular culture:
Japanese Sounds: Yellow Magic Orchestra
One of the most surprising developments in the electro evolution is the appearance of Yellow Magic Orchestra, a Japanese trio who innovated electronic music by using instruments in ways that no one had ever imagined before. Often quirky, often beautiful, Yellow Magic Orchestra is a fascinating artist in music history.
American Urban Sounds
George Clinton's Mothership Connection, though rooted firmly in funk, snuck sci-fi electro-influenced sounds into its production that made an impression on the Detroit music scene where techno was born.
Juan Atkins, one of the Belleville Three, released Alleys of Your Mind as Cybotron, possibly the first official techno album, though much less aggressive and mellower in tone than the hardcore techno that would emerge in the 1990s.
Atkins also released NO UFO'S as the artist Model 500, another landmark album that marked the beginning of the techno genre.
1990s European Sound and Explosion of New Sub-Genres
Detroit made its way to Europe through a compilation album released by Virgin Records. Although it sounds very ordinary and dated to today's listeners who are used to techno, this album was revolutionary in the ears of 1980s Europe.
The techno music frenzy that hit Europe led to the creation of the Love Parade music festival in Berlin, Germany in the late 1980s. This video shows the parade in 1990 with one of the tracks played during the festival.
As the 1990s progressed and techno split off into countless sub-genres, the genre finally emerged in popular culture and became mainstream, with top-selling artists like The Prodigy reaching the top of the charts in 1997.
Techno even seeped into rock and roll as one of the biggest rock bands in music history, U2, absorbed the full techno ethos into its 1997 album Pop.
The 21st Century: The State of Techno Today
Techno's explosion into countless sub-genres in the 1990s led to an all-encompassing genre term known as Electronic Dance Music (EDM) in the 2000s. It grew until it swallowed mainstream music and now influences every genre, as music history scholars have noted. Some of the hottest EDM artists of the 21st century include the following DJs and recording artists.
Daft Punk made waves in the industry in 2014 with its Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories.
Tiesto's 2017 set at the Electric Daisy Carnival, one of the biggest music festivals in the world--and a stunning symbol of how popular techno has grown as a genre--demonstrates how the vast variety of EDM can keep an audience entranced for hours.
Deadmau5's song Telemiscommunications, a collaboration with pop singer Imogen Heap, shows how EDM has mingled with every genre and found collaborations with every style of music.
EDM DJ Avicii has been recognized as one of the best DJs in the world, and he has completely high-profile collaborations, including this song with Sandro Cavazza.
Martin Garrix, a newcomer to EDM, was voted the no. 1 DJ in the world in DJ Mag in 2016.
From the Streets of Detroit to Every Speaker and Radio in the World
It's hard to believe that what began as an obscure electronic genre in Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s grew into the worldwide phenomenon of EDM. With so much mutation and variation inherent in techno, and with such advanced technology being created every year, it's impossible to predict where the genre will go next. One thing is certain: it will be unexpected and interesting...and it will be everywhere.