Like house, techno is another genre whose origins are intrinsically connected to a city. And like Chicago house, Detroit techno spread worldwide, developing into the international techno sounds we hear around the world today. This is how it all started.
In the decades before techno, Detroit was known as the birthplace of another genre—Motown. As mentioned by Red Bull Music Academy, most articles about Detroit’s musical history skip over the interim period between Motown’s move to LA and techno’s emergence.
During this time, disco music permeated dance clubs. And though techno may not owe a huge musical debt to disco, this period in Detroit’s history is vital to the genre’s origins. It was during this short-lived disco boom that many took up mixing. DJs such as Stacey ‘Hotwaxx’ Hale, Steve Nader, and Ken Collier (hailed as ‘the Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan of Detroit’ by Hale) made mixing a regular fixture in Detroit clubs, and built respect for the role of the DJ.
As these DJs recall, particularly in Detroit’s gay clubs, they could play any kind of music they wanted, and soon a new style of DJing emerged. At a club named Cheeks, where Hale held a residency, another young DJ named Jeff Mills, later known as Wizard, began to play what sounded an awful lot like early techno.
In fact, it was the openings of disco records played repeatedly in rapid succession. But still, the sound was forming, and the desire for the sound was there. Techno was on its way. First, we have to leave the clubs, and turn to the airwaves.
The Electrifying Mojo is one of the most enigmatic radio disc jockeys in history. Never appearing in public, Mojo’s playlist picks for his Detroit radio show helped put all the pieces into place for techno’s creation. Mojo played everything, from Prince to the B-52s. Crucially, he played the filthy funk of George Clinton’s Parliament and the robotic synthesizer music of Kraftwerk side by side.
The Electrifying Mojo’s radio shows influenced countless young Detroit music fans and future DJs, including a trio who became known as the Belleville Three. Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson grew up in the Detroit suburb of Belleville, listening intently to The Electrifying Mojo’s radio broadcasts. Eventually, they each took up DJing, occasionally under the name Deep Space Soundworks.
By the early 1980s, the three had a reputation on the Detroit club scene, and The Electrifying Mojo himself was playing their mixes over the radio. In 1981 they released their first original production: Cybotron’s ‘Alleys of Your Mind’.
The track was clearly influenced by P-Funk synth riffs and Yellow Magic Orchestra drum machines, so it fit right into Mojo-style DJ sets in Detroit at that time. While it was certainly on its way, it was not quite techno as we would come to know it.
Derrick May’s ‘Strings of Life’ was one of the first Detroit techno productions to shine a light on the developing genre. Released in 1987, ‘Strings of Life’ was named by Frankie Knuckles, signifying the cross-pollination between Chicago and Detroit’s burgeoning electronic music scenes.
By the time ‘Strings of Life’ was released, Detroit techno had an identity of its own, and it started to make waves internationally. In 1989, Kevin Saunderson fused techno with pop and had a worldwide crossover hit with Inner City’s ‘Good Life’.
A year earlier, Saunderson kept Techno in touch with its black roots with ‘Truth of Self-Evidence’, and other Detroit techno artists began to carry the flame ignited by Mojo, the Belleville Three and the post-Motown DJs. Underground Resistance emphasised Detroit techno’s harder edge, and Carl Craig emerged as another producer and DJ to watch, with groundbreaking work like ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’.
As Detroit techno and Chicago house developed young music fans grew up listening to both genres, and drew influence from them both to create some of the greatest electronic music of all time. Detroit DJs like DJ Deeon and DJ Slugo developed ghetto house from these influences, and New Yorker Kerri Chandler began to produce what we now call deep house. Without these early Detroit pioneers, electronic music might sound very different today.