Ambient House/Techno

Arriving after the Second Summer of Love, Ambient House/Techno grew as an offshoot of Acid House, and was usually played in the chill out rooms of all night dance clubs, or at home with headphones. It developed during the 90s in the UK, alongside rave music, jungle and many other genres, and many artists incorporated a lot of those sounds as the decade wore on. Mostly listened to off the dance floor, Ambient House/Techno grew out of London clubs and into a leisure activity with a reduced focus on the groove and an increased appreciation of music that could not be danced to altogether.

Ambient House

One of the first subgenres to emerge from the UK during the emergence of Acid House, Ambient House took inspiration from artists like Brian Eno, Pink Floyd and the dub music of Lee “Scratch” Perry. The beginnings of the music can be traced to the late 80s in the London nightclub Heaven, with Paul Oakenfold hosting the “Land of Oz” events and Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty playing ambient music in the club’s “White Room” where punters could relax and take a break from the frenzied pace of more beat-driven music. The duo DJed and produced under the name The Orb, and would often spin Acid House tracks without percussion and layered with BBC samples and other material to produce an audio/visual experience heavy with effects.

The culmination of these performances is The Orb’s 1989 A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld, a 19-minute live mix recorded for John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 program and originally titled “Loving You” from the Minnie Riperton sample used. Jimmy Cauty also produced Chill Out, taking some material from the same production sessions with Paterson at The KLF studio Trancentral, and released it with KLF partner Bill Drummond under the KLF Communcations label in 1990. With their DJ sets and work in the studio, Alex Paterson and Jimmy Cauty created the template for Ambient House and inspired nearly everything in the genre that followed.

However, a falling out between Cauty and Paterson over whether to release more of their work under Cauty and Drummond’s KLF label resulted in Jimmy Cauty’s Space and Alex Paterson to continue working under The Orb name with Martin “Youth” Glover, bassist of Killing Joke, childhood friend of Paterson and one of the original DJs of “The White Room” sets. Glover also performed in the band Brilliant along with Cauty, which was managed by A&R person Bill Drummond, years before Acid House became popular in the UK.

The Orb would go to continue making music for decades with a rotating cast of musicians, but with Paterson mostly at the center. Cauty would continue a little longer with The KLF before selling the most singles of any British group in 1991 and then burning a million quid, but that’s another story.

Ambient House was not a genre that produced a lot of singles, because most of the first musicians releasing music in this genre were DJs, refining sets down to EP length songs like The Orb’s Blue Room, which peaked at #8 in the UK in 1992 and at 39 minutes is still the longest single ever to chart. The KLF’s Chill Out is also meant to be listened to straight through, its 45 minutes a musical journey through the American Southeast features samples of Elvis, steel guitar and a traveling salesman’s pitch.

Considering how small this key group of artists was and its genesis in a single club, its influence on the music scene in the UK is very impressive.

The Orb – Little Fluffy Clouds (1990)

The first track on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld LP, Alex Paterson worked with Martin “Youth” Glover to create this track blending a Steve Reich/Pat Metheny guitar piece with a Rickie Lee Jones interview and the drums from Harry Nilsson’s Jump into the Fire. One of The Orb’s best known songs, Little Fluffy Clouds proved so popular Rickie Lee Jones sued the group and Steve Reich negotiated a settlement for the use of his music. What were the skies like when you were young?

The Irresistible Force – Flying High (1992)

Mixmaster Morris released three albums as The Irresistible Force in the 90s but is mostly known as an eclectic DJ who continues to perform chill out sets, carrying the ambient dance music torch for about 30 years. He is often saddled with the unfortunate quote “I think therefore I ambient”, which expressed more of an optimism for the music and a reaction to the debilitating drug intake of The Shamen, for whom he performed as a tour DJ before achieving his own success. Flying High is a classic album of the genre, and the title track is a great example of synths, effects and light percussion.

Amorphous Androgynous – Mountain Goat (1993)

The Future Sound of London were one of the major acts of 90s British electronic music, and the Amorphous Androgynous name features more psychedelic influences and ambient sounds than much of their other music. Their 1993 LP Tales of Ephedrina displays a shift from Acid House/Rave to a more ambient sound, one that would reach its best expression in the FSOL double album Lifeforms. Mountain Goat is still one of their most popular songs and shows the duo’s proficiency and attention to detail in the studio.

The KLF – Madrugada Eterna (1990)

Chill Out is an album that must be listened to in its entirety to be appreciated, but there are some definite highlights like Madrugada Eterna. See also the club mix featuring excerpts from the unfinished film The White Room that they produced during this time. A classic album from an inimitable group, Chill Out remains one of the best albums of the 90s. While much of the music came from the sessions between Jimmy Cauty and Alex Paterson, Paterson is not credited as a songwriter.

The KLF – Neptune (1990)

Released on The KLF’s Space LP, Neptune is another example of the genesis of Ambient House in the early 90s. Space was released by KLF Communications after Alex Paterson left The Orb, and was originally to be the duo’s debut. A disagreement over who would release the album, and whether it would be another of The KLF’s projects rather than an independent entity led to the professional split of Cauty and Paterson. As a result, Cauty took all of Paterson’s parts out and replaced them and released this as a KLF album.

Ambient Techno

In the early 90s, the growth of Acid House and dance music in the UK produced a very fertile scene for all kinds of electronic music and greater numbers of listeners. Ambient House music catered to an audience who wanted to chill out, and the influence of House, Techno and Dub music continued to grow on the artists and DJs in the UK. In the northern city of Sheffield, Warp Records became known for the “bleep” Techno of LFO and Forgemasters in the early 90s but would be more successful promoting what it termed “Intelligent Dance Music” in the middle years of the decade. This post will focus specifically on the Ambient Techno/IDM being produced and released on Warp Records.

Seeing an opportunity created by Ambient House, Warp began catering to an electronic music audience wanting to listen to the music at home, Warp created the Artificial Intelligence record series showcasing up and coming artists who made “post-Rave” music for more “cerebral” listeners. The album cover of the first compilation, released in 1992, shows a robot reclining in a chair with a brew, a smoke and copies of Dark Side of the Moon and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn. For better or worse, the term IDM caught on and the artists on this compilation all became very successful, despite or because of that label.

The contributing artists on this compilation make up the primary artists of IDM, including Aphex Twin, Autechre, Black Dog, B12, Speedy J and Alex Paterson again, with a live version of Loving You to close the album. What distinguishes this music from the work of The Orb and Ambient House is the prevalence of rhythms, crisp percussion and bleep-y synths in place of the loops and vocal samples. The presence of Richie Hawtin also cements the imprint of Detroit on this music, who would inspire and release albums by these artists.

Warp released some of the best albums in electronic music in the 90s as the original artists of the Artificial Intelligence began to release drastically different music on the label, with classics like Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, Autechre’s Tri Repetae, The Black Dog’s Spanners and B12’s Electro-Soma all very different. The label also released Squarepusher’s jazz/breakbeat fusion in the 90s after Richard D. James vouched for Warp, and would eventually land one of the biggest acts in Ambient Techno when they signed Scottish brothers Marcos Eoin and Michael Sandison, or Boards of Canada. They are one of the most successful acts in all of electronic music, and their work is probably the most realized example of the electronic listening music that Warp began to promote in the 90s.

Most of the artists and Warp moved beyond the Bleep and Ambient Techno released in the early 90s, and amazingly became very successful blazing their own trail after the explosion of Raves and electronic music. Warp went on release all of Boards of Canada’s albums, and now releases music from a diverse set of artists like Flying Lotus and Oneohtrix Point Never. The other artists on the Artificial Intelligence compilation would continue to expand “IDM” music, influenced by Jungle and enabled by samplers and music production/sequencing software to produce glitch, drill’n’bass and other music that would be unbearingly tedious to produce any other way.

B12 – Hall of Mirrors (1993)

Taking influence from the Windsor-based Plus8 label, Steven Rutter and Mike Golding released many songs in the 90s under a variety of aliases, on their own label and on Warp. Of all of the music in this post, B12 most closely resembles the music coming from Detroit and its production by Roland drum machines and synthesizers. The duo is again recording music together today after a long period of inactivity and personal turmoil. While they never achieved the fame that some of the other artists here did, B12 was very influential in the early to mid 90s and a major name on the Warp roster.

Squarepusher – Beep Street (1997)

Tom Jenkinson displays his love of jazz most prominently in the electric bass that appears throughout his music, but the musical and digital sample chops place his music often alongside Aphex Twin in the IDM category. Not an early artist on the Warp label, Squarepusher fits in with the mid to late 90s breakbeat scene that took the influence of Jungle and computer sequencing to produce very dense and undanceable music.

The Dice Man – Polygon Window (1992)

Richard D. James is probably the face of Ambient Techno under the Aphex Twin name. After releasing Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Aphex Twin immediately became very popular and remained very prolific. James released the Surfing on Sine Waves LP under the Polygon Window name in 1993, SelectedAmbient Works II in 1994, and a ton more material for the next decade and a half. Aphex Twin achieved a great deal of crossover success in the late 90s, with some of his videos made with Chris Cunningham getting airplay on MTV. Aphex Twin’s music veers from frantic, drill’n’bass rhythms to very sunny melodies and has been at the forefront of many musical innovations. He’s still making great music and believing his Truther beliefs today.

Autechre – Eutow (1995)

Adopting more of a noise/glitch sound, Autechre produced a lot of very unique and challenging music throughout the decade. Eutow is an example of one of their accessible songs, while songs like jatavee c are unlike any of the early music they produced for Warp, but still have some of the same sounds heard on Artificial Intelligence.

I.A.O. – The Clan (1992)

I.A.O. is The Black Dog, and this song was also released on their debut album Bytes in 1993. The group would develop the sound over many aliases, but the thin percussion and repetitive melodies usually characterize their music. Even their alias Plaid’s Scoobs in Columbia follows the same formula with completely different sounds to great effect, demonstrating the group’s talent and range.

Boards of Canada – Telephasic Workshop (1998)

Music Has the Right to Children is the album that broke Boards of Canada into the mainstream, and it remains a fascinating listen. The Sandison brothers are arguably the most famous group in electronic music in the 21st Century, and the universality of their music makes it pretty easy to understand why. Clearly electronic, their early music was produced with only a couple samplers, Yamaha synthesizer, reel-to-reel tape machine and a Roland SH-101, but the achievement is so great that its hard to believe the music came from such a small amount of gear. Boards of Canada managed to genuinely evoke a sense of nostalgia and childhood that perhaps no other artist has done so well, and long before nostalgia came to be a selling point itself for a lot of electronic music, or kitsch in this case.

Bandulu – Revelation (1993)

While Warp released a lot of very influential albums, their artists weren’t the only ones releasing this type of music, and Bandulu could sound very similar to contemporary acts like B12 and The Black Dog. While Revelation is an example of the straightforward Ambient Techno also promoted by Warp in the early 90’s, along with the dub and jazz influences becoming popular in techno from the time.

Speedy J – De-Orbit (1991)

Jochem George Paap is a Rotterdam-based DJ and producer whose early releases were on Richie Hawtin’s Plus8 label in Canada and on Warp in the UK. While De-Orbit is a pretty standard Ambient Techno track with a bleepy synth and a breakbeat, Speedy J’s other work sometimes sounds like a brutal Belgian version of the other music on the Warp catalogue. Along with Autechre and Aphex Twin, Speedy J pushed the boundaries of Techno music in the mid to late 90s and helped to define how the music would sound into the 2000s.

Additional Material

Spotify Playlist

San Francisco-based Rave culture website that once hosted the IDM mailing list and Brian Eno’s official website. Such an artifact, Wow!

Red Bull Music Academy interview with Warp co-founder Steve Beckett

Dutch TV interview with Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher)

John Peel interviews Richard D. James and Luke Vibert

Acid House

Acid House is one of the first types of electronic music I listened to, along with a lot of the music that was coming out of England in the early to mid-90s. Acid House may have exposed a distinct youth/party culture ready for new music, and new drugs, or the experience itself created many new converts in the UK and started rave culture altogether. Either way, Acid House was what people in the UK listened to in the late 80s during the “Second Summer of Love”, a high point in the permeation of the counterculture, and a critical time in the development of electronic music.

While listeners of Acid House did use drugs when dancing to the music, mostly LSD and Ecstasy, Acid House is not distinguished by its audience’s hallucinogenic use as most of the people dancing to House music at the time were on drugs. But the music’s odd sounds, particularly from the Roland TB-303 bass synthesizer, characterize the music and make it sound a little psychedelic when paired with studio effects. Simply put, the TB-303 is the Acid House sound.

The TB-303 in original packaging, produced 1982-1984

Musically Acid House is a variant of Chicago House sound that emerged after disco, but dropped most of the good feelings and heavily employed the TB-303 and its resonant filter. The TB-303 was released in 1982 and intended to accompany guitar players during practice, and for this purpose it was a failure and discontinued two years later. However, it did show up in some songs like Shannon’s Let the Music Play from 1984, and Charanjit Singh’s Synthesizing: Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat from 1982, which is the exact template for the Acid House sound. These songs were created years before this sound became popular in Chicago, and were inspired much more by the Roland drum machines and synthesizers used than any copious psychedelic drug use.


Venues like the Warehouse, designed to recreate a spiritual experience and frequented by the gay Black and Latino population of Chicago, became very popular in the city. Acid House first became popular as a variant of the Chicago House sound played in the nightclubs there, particularly the Music Box, opened in 1982 by the eponymous Warehouse’s owners after Frankie Knuckles left. There is enough story there to fill a book, but for the purposes of this blog post was a major club catering to the House music audience in one of the House capitals of the U.S., if not the House capital, and Acid House is just one of the styles of House that arose out of Chicago.

As House music caught on it became more diverse, moving beyond its disco foundations and into deeper electronic territory and exploring darker sounds with a sinister mood uncharacteristic of popular House music. The “first” Acid House song is either Phuture’s Acid Tracks or Sleezy D’s I’ve Lost Control, both helping to define the genre by utilizing the TB-303 and TR-808 drum machine to produce a groove. Both songs feature the contributions of Marshall Jefferson, an integral part of the larger development of House music, and were introduced to the dancers of the Music Box by DJ Ron Hardy. Phuture’s Acid Tracks received its title after the song became so associated with Hardy that it was known as “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track”, who reportedly played it four times in one night to a confused but gradually more receptive audience, and it became a hit.

Ron Hardy

The use of ecstasy (MDMA) and LSD was common at the clubs, and a law passed in 1987 forbid clubs from operating after hours, which led to the closing of the Music Box, among others, driving the music underground. The House scene and its many subgenres in Chicago would eventually move on and inspire musicians in every country, and one genre, Acid House, would particularly resonate in the UK and grow to a wider audience.

Phuture – Acid Tracks (1987)

One of the early foundational acid house tracks, and possibly the first one. Phuture was composed of Chicago artists DJ Pierre, Earl “DJ Spank Spank” Smith Jr. and Herbert Jackson and produced by Marshall Jefferson. Acid Tracks is one of the first songs to feature the “squelchy” sounds of a resonant TB-303 bass and was a big hit in Chicago, inspiring every one of the Acid House records that followed.

Fast Eddie – Acid Thunder (1988)

A great example of the later Acid House tracks that Chicago was putting out, though the genre began to stall in the U.S. Fast Eddie had success as one of the creators of “hip house” and later failed to repeat it as a gangsta rapper, but his Acid Thunder is a typical Acid House song and exists in many mixes, such as the “Smooth Thunder” album mix with strings and diva vocals.

Sleezy D – I’ve Lost Control (1986)

The first time I heard this song I laughed at the level of anguish it expresses, including a man screaming in pain, turning to laughter. The lyrical repetition of “I’ve lost control” and “I’m losing it” along with a TR-808 drum pattern is pretty hypnotic, and the “Space side” of the track features the TB-303. Created by Marshall Jefferson and Derrick Harris, I’ve Lost Control was made to sound like a nervous breakdown and was recorded by the two after a night of clubbing and a probable bad trip inspired this classic. In my opinion, the House side is better.

Space Side

Mr. Fingers – Washing Machine (1986)

Larry Heard recorded Washing Machine along with Can You Feel It in 1986 after buying a Roland TR-909 and Juno 60 and recording some of the enduring House tracks of the 80s. Heard drummed in progressive jazz fusion bands in the 80s before becoming successful with his Mr. Fingers alias and is largely credited with creating some of the first Deep House tracks. But Washing Machine is characteristic of the burgeoning Acid House sound that was growing more popular among the electronic musicians in the city.

DJ Maurice – This Is Acid (1988)

Originally produced by Chicago DJ Maurice Joshua, This Is Acid was remixed by British DJ Les Adams, who added sirens, female moans and a subtitle (A New Dance Craze) to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Dance charts in 1989. Also features the stabs from Inner City’s Big Fun.

Adonis – No Way Back (1986)

Another classic Acid House track, Adonis Smith’s No Way Back is again comprised of the sounds of a TR-808 and TB-303. The subject material is also dark, with the vocals repeating “Too far gone” and “no way back”. Adonis worked on a number of other tracks and is considered a pioneer of the acid house sound.

Charanjit Singh – Raga Bhairav (1982)

Bollywood composer and electronic music visionary Charanjit Singh’s 1982 album Synthesizing: Ten Ragas To A Disco Beat features the TB-303, Roland TR-808 drum machine and a Roland Jupiter-8 to reproduce some classic Indian Ragas completely electronically. Truly amazing.

The UK

Acid House is said to have been born in the UK following a 1987 trip to Ibiza by DJs Danny Rampling, Nicky Holloway and Paul Oakenfold, where they took Ecstasy at the club Amnesia. According to Rampling, the experience was “a complete revelation” that led to their opening or running some of the most popular clubs in London in the late 80’s: Shoom (Rampling), Future (Oakenfold) and Trip (Holloway). The Hacienda, taking its name from the writings of Situationist philosopher Ivan Shcheglov, also opened in Manchester and helped break the music into the mainstream. An appreciation for Acid House and MDMA was cultivated in clubs throughout the UK and the same formula would continue to gain more and more adherents.

A Shoom flyer showing the yellow smiley face, the first use of the icon that would come to identify the genre.

Dance clubs and appreciation of Black music from the U.S. had grown in the UK for decades, and along with historical engagement in fads like the mod scene, punk rock and 2-tone, the groundwork was laid for a cultural movement to spread across Great Britain. Additionally, a decade of Thatcherism and the Conservative government had created an environment ripe for counterculture, and combined with the pacifying effects of Ecstasy a repeatable and easily produced phenomenon was created.

Initially, UK Acid House borrowed heavily from the Chicago Acid House sounds, and the audiences mostly heard the same records pressed onto vinyl in Chicago. However, musicians started to produce their own music in the same style, and one of the groups to produce Britain’s first Acid House records were 808 State. Composed of Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson and Martin Price, 808 State combined the same Roland drum machine and synthesizer sounds with digital samplers to carry the sound into new territory. With their studio album Newbuild in 1988, the group released an early example of the music in LP format and influenced electronic music producers all over the country.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson and Martin Price of 808 State, 1988.

The early nights of Acid House began drawing larger crowds as the scene became more popular, and eventually outgrew the London clubs. The period of 1988-1989 is commonly termed the “Second Summer of Love” as partiers would flock to the suburbs and countryside of London, where promoters held unlicensed parties in abandoned warehouses or vacant farms, by the thousands. The drugs and music produced a euphoric response among the dancers, and is often credited with drastically reducing football hooliganism with positive feelings and empathy among people amplified by the experience.

The music also began reaching mainstream audiences, with artists like S’Express and Brian Dougans of Stakker Humanoid appearing on Top of the Pops. Laura Snapes, Deputy Music Editor of The Guardian, writes:

To watch Top of the Pops as 1987 gives way to 1988 is to watch the freaks taking over the asylum: after MARRS and Bomb the Bass’s earlier acid house hits, S-Express’s sample-heavy track affirmed the sound’s chart coronation, making the Stock Aitken Waterman stable look even more square, and stuck one in the eye of London’s throttlingly cool club scene with its euphoric, queer collage.

The size, noise and drug use of the parties began inspiring a moral panic in the late 80s, and the tabloids of the time represented the music scene as dangerous and wicked.

The government responded with the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act of 1990, which aimed to punish the organizers of parties and only served to drive the music further underground. The youth responded by adopting less surveillable methods of communication, typically systems of recorded messages directing crowds to locations far from London and the authorities. Eventually, the Rave scene would spring up as a result of Acid House’s growth and repression by the authorities.

A Guy Called Gerald – Voodoo Ray (1988)

In 1989 Gerald Simpson left 808 State and went solo and produced possibly the definitive UK Acid House track. Growing up in Manchester, Simpson was inspired by a lot of the early hip-hop/electro coming from the U.S. like Afrika Bambaataa along with music from his Jamaican background and the sound systems of the city. Voodoo Ray is often considered the first UK Acid House record, mostly because of its enormous success, reaching No. 12 on the UK singles charts. A fun fact about the song is the title comes from the sampled vocal heard throughout, truncated by memory limitations from its original full “Voodoo Rage” to “Voodoo Ray”.

808 State – Pacific State (1989)

A classic tune from 808 State, the song was created by the original trio of Massey, Simpson and Price and released after Simpson left the group. The dispute over ownership of the song continued long afterward, with Simpson claiming he wrote some or all of the song. It remains a great track and sounds fresh today, and there are about a thousand different versions of it following its release in 1989 on the Quadrastate EP. Pacific State also features a sample of a Canadian loon that subsequently become very popular in dance music.

Stakker – Stakker Humanoid (1988)

Created in 1988 by Brian Dougans, later of Future Sound of London fame. Stakker Humanoid was a favorite of the clubs in the UK at the time and even reached #17 on the top 40 charts, leading to an appearance on Top of the Pops by Dougans. In this clip, you can see the show basically just turn into an imitation of a club, though the audience is very much into it. This was the early stages of the Second Summer of Love, Dec. 1 1988 and shows the energy around the music at the time.

S’Express – Theme from S’Express (1988)

A classic of the UK Acid House scene, Theme from S’Express features the trademark TB-303 sound but you can also hear the beginnings of the Rave sound in the overt use of samples and collage. DJ and producer Mark Moore created the song with collaborator Pascal Gabriel, reaching No. 1 in the UK in April 1988, and 91 on the Billboard singles chart in the U.S.

Additional Materials

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – SF-UR (2004)

The soundtracks have always been a critical part of the Grand Theft Auto videogames, and SF-UR is a station from the 2004 game that features a lot of the music in this post. A well curated playlist of house and Acid House sounds from both sides of the Atlantic, better than one I could have come up with.

The Chemical Generation – A Channel 4 documentary produced in 2000 that examines the British dance movements of the 80s and 90s, featuring Boy George.

NYTimes: In 1988, Acid House Swept Britain. These Fliers Tell the Story.

Detroit Techno

Techno is one of the most popular genres of dance music, and has been around so long it’s unlikely that your average listener would share the same touchstones in conversation. It can be considered unapproachable and repetitive, shrill or harsh and listened to while flailing around dark rooms with strobe lights. Which isn’t wrong, but there’s a reason that this image exists and has endured through decades of development and variation. In my opinion, it’s not possible to listen to the music and ignore the groove, and just because the combination of Techno on a good system and some colored lights is a simple one, that doesn’t mean its not effective.

The music itself is characterized by pounding drums, usually created with a Roland TR-808 or TR-909 drum machine or from drum samples, and the popular synthesizers of the 80s, particularly digital synthesizers and samplers that were becoming more accessible as prices were falling from the exorbitant levels of the 70s. The musicians were mostly using whatever they could get their hands on, with some instruments passing through many of the same hands, and building small studios in their bedrooms. Despite this, the Techno music still sounds quite good and has aged better than a lot of electronic music styles, a testament to the accomplishments of artists not constrained by their equipment, but really embracing its sounds.

Techno remains one of the most popular styles of electronic dance music in the world, and its influence can be seen internationally in pop music. While inspired by music from all over the world, Techno is a distinctly American form and is probably the music the motor city is most associated with today. The best introduction is a look at its origins in Detroit and the 1990s when it gained its greatest exposure with the rising popularity of raves in Europe.

The Belleville Three

Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May

Specifically, Techno is the name attributed to music that was produced by a small group of Detroit musicians known as the Belleville Three in the 80s. Belleville was a middle-class suburb of Detroit, with many families of employees of the industry in the Motor City, and was home to Juan Atkins, the “Godfather” of Techno, Derrick May, the “Innovator”, and Kevin Saunderson, the “Elevator”. Atkins was the first to achieve any success making music, forming Cybotron in the early 80s with Richard Davis and later forming his own label in 1985 to release the solo project Model 500 and seminal No UFOs track. He is also largely credited with coming up with the entire concept, taking the term from the writing of Alvin Toeffler and the idea of “techno-rebels”, people that would embrace technology during the information age.

Atkins also performed a major role in the development of Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, who were friends and shared a passion with Atkins for dance music and that of Parliament, Yellow Magic Orchestra and most obviously the machine music of Kraftwerk. A key figure in Techno music who is not an artist, however, is the Detroit DJ Charles Johnson, aka Electrifying Mojo, for his popular radio shows. The Electrifying Mojo is referenced by seemingly every Detroit musician for his eclectic shows and for presenting an impressively diverse collection of music to the listeners in the area, offering some explanation as to why the music that came from there is so unique.

As the music began to spread to the clubs in Detroit, Chicago and NY, many listeners in Europe were exposed to Techno when Virgin Records released the Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit compilation in 1988. When asked to describe the sound, Derrick May offered the marketable quote “George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company”, and that’s largely the quote that has characterized perceptions of early Techno.

Of course, the Belleville Three story doesn’t really reflect the greater music scene in Detroit and its artists, particularly the role of Eddie Flashin Fowlkes, and mostly fits a simple narrative about Techno’s origins in Detroit in the 1980s. It also omits the like-minded music coming from artists like Afrika Bambaataa in NY or Egyptian Lover in L.A., but it helps establish the legacy that Techno artists would carry on and expand.

Major Songs

Cybotron – Clear

After releasing Alleys of Your Mind and Cosmic Cars in the early 80s, Juan Atkins and Richard Davis released Clear in 1983 and it immediately became a huge influence on the burgeoning electro and hip-hop sound. Clear is definitely on the list of perfect Techno tracks, and was the first one.

Derrick May – Strings of Life

Derrick May released Strings of Life on his Transmat label under the Rhythim is Rhythim name. Known as the “Innovator”, Derrick May has made and released some of early Techno’s most unique records. His Strings of Life is one of the most influential of all of the early Techno records and notable for not feature a traditional bass line in any sense.

Inner City – Big Fun

One of the most straightforward pop songs to come from the first wave of Detroit Techno, Big Fun launched the career of Kevin Saunderson when it was put on the Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit compilation in 1988. I found a good video from Saunderson talking about how he made the track here.

Eddie Flashin Fowlkes – Goodbye Kiss

Fowlkes was a roommate with Derrick May and released some of his records on his Transmat label, and his contribution to the development of Techno music is enormous. It is unfortunate that he is not mentioned as often as “The Belleville Three” but he was every bit a part of the music’s development, and his place in Detroit music history is well established. This song was released in 1986!

The Second Wave

It is during the second wave of the 90s when Techno was established as a dominant form of electronic dance music and the next generation of musicians that listened to Derrick May and other DJs spin at the Music Institute club in Detroit started making their own music. The group with possibly the biggest influence, conceptually and musically, was Underground Resistance. In its earliest period, UR was primarily “Mad’ Mike Banks, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood along with a large supporting cast of DJs and artists, and exhibited an astoundingly anti-corporate ethos that earns frequent comparisons with Public Enemy. While its members are famous today, UR refused to personalize their music to the point of wearing masks and avoided photographs while DJing, consistently letting the music speak for itself.

Footage from a UR performance in 1992

Underground Resistance had its most successful period in the early 90s when Banks, Mills and Hood were playing integral parts in the groups rise and became superstars in Europe. The organization paved the way for many Detroit artists from the city to succeed, and were often the ones to promote their music, though many moved to Europe to earn a living from it in a way they could not in America. Their music still sounds very current and it’s easy to see how much UR contributed to modern Techno and why they are so revered. As any interview with the original members attests, the groups’ commitment to the music and to its principles was total and its goal of changing the minds of its listeners sincere. Especially American listeners, which the group struggled to reach with its message despite the exposure they received elsewhere. UR still occasionally releases records as a label and operates a Techno music museum in Detroit while its many former members still tour and release records.

There are many artists that thrived during this period, and their music illustrates the diversity of the Techno coming from Detroit during that time. Notably, Gerald Donald and James Stinson formed Drexciya in the early 90s and conceived of music produced by and for a race of mermaid/merman descendants of pregnant slaves thrown overboard ships traveling the Middle Passage to America, giving birth to creatures that created a technologically advanced civilization in the Atlantic. Two of whom traveled the rivers of North America to the Great Lakes. Donald and Stinson refused to ever publicly acknowledge that they ever created Drexciya, again letting the music speak for itself. Stinson died suddenly in 2002 from a heart condition, and Gerald Donald continues to make music and tour with his wife under the name Dopplereffekt, among others.

Carl Craig is another enormous figure in the second wave of Detroit Techno, working under the early tutelage of Derrick May and releasing albums under a lengthy list of aliases including Innerzone Orchestra, Paperclip People and 69, along with his own name. The variety of music produced by over the years Carl Craig is incredible, with 1999’s collaborative effort Programmed being an amazing example of how much musical territory Techno artists covered.

On the other side of the Detroit river was Windsor, Ontario, a similarly industrial city and home of Richie Hawtin, who formed the Plus 8 record label with John Acquaviva and released some seminal Techno records in the 90s, including Hawtin’s own music under the Plastikman and F.U.S.E. aliases. While not from Detroit himself, Hawtin is a figure that is as a part of the growth of Techno, and the Detroit sound, as any of the founders.

Major Songs

Underground Resistance – The Final Frontier

One of Underground Resistance’s most popular tracks, and a great example of their uncompromising sound. There is not one ounce of fat in this song, it starts with just the drum machine and adds a TB-303 bassline, and builds the rhythm before a grainy string sample comes in about a minute in. And it’s a combination of the few elements that make its extended length compelling.

X-101 – Sonic Destroyer

Underground Resistance released Sonic Destroyer and it quickly became a rave classic. It was the first release of the newly created Tresor label, which was formed along with the Tresor nightclub opening in East Berlin in 1991. Hugely popular in Europe, Sonic Destroyer helped establish Tresor as one of the biggest Techno labels and was released during a landmark period in Underground Resistance’s history. Banks and Dimitri Hegemann of Tresor discussed the record during an interview at the Berlin based Red Bull Academy here.

Robert Hood – The Struggle

Robert Hood is still very active in Techno music, splitting time between preaching and DJing while also releasing music under his many aliases, including Floorplan, a group that now includes his daughter, Lyric. Hood’s music ranges from the minimal Techno that he helped pioneer to gospel house tracks.

Drexciya – Bubble Metropolis

Released in 1993 under the Underground Resistance label, Drexciya’s Bubble Metropolis is one their earliest records and is a great example of their “aquatic” sound.

Innerzone Orchestra – Bug in the Bassbin

Carl Craig released this song in 1992, and it proved to be highly influential for electronic artists, particularly in the UK where it was played by DJs like Mac and Dego of 4Hero and Fabio and Grooverider, and sometimes spun at 45 rpm to make it sound like an early drum & bass track. Regardless of the tempo, this song incorporates a wealth of jazz influences to produce something that doesn’t sound like any other Techno from the time. It sounds very modern, and demonstrates why Carl Craig is considered one of the most successful and innovative producers of the Second Wave.

69 – Ladies & Gentlemen (1991)

I couldn’t have just one Carl Craig track on here, 1991’s 4 Jazz Funk Classics is still pretty stunning. The man is just fearless and so talented, the music is inimitable.

Plastikman – Spastik

Spastik, probably Hawtin’s most famous track, is an extended demo of the Roland TR-808 and an example of the hypnotic rhythms that Techno is known for.

Jeff Mills – The Bells

Originally known as “The Wizard”, Jeff Mills was a legendary DJ and formed Underground Resistance with Mike Banks in 1989 before working solo in the early 90s and releasing classic tracks like The Bells. He is also an accomplished artist. Mills is held in such high esteem for his contributions to music that he was bestowed the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres in France and held a four-month residency as DJ at The Louvre.

The Aztec Mystic – Knights of the Jaguar

Released in 1999 by DJ Rolando, a member of Underground Resistance, Knights of the Jaguar was UR’s greatest commercial success and proved to be such a big hit that Sony Germany attempted to bootleg and sell it, but ultimately relented after UR incited boycotts and protests of Sony BMG.

Underground Resistance – Jupiter Jazz (1992)

Another classic from Underground Resistance, when I first heard this song I couldn’t believe it was over 25 years old. It still sounds better than most Techno you’ll find, or really any other dance music. A great example of the simplicity in sound and assuredness that the group had in the early 90s. The chord stabs date it a bit, but don’t take away anything from the song.

Recommended Additional Material

I have made a Spotify tracklist for you if you want some additional listening beyond the tracks listed.

The High Tech Soul documentary is about an hour long, and includes interviews with many of the pivotal figures in Detroit Techno.

I Got a Tour of Detroit’s Techno Museum, and Found a City That Still Dreams

The Ones That Got Away

This post is dedicated to the records that got away, ones I saw and did not buy due to being foolish and miserly. Life is short, and in many cases there are a finite amount of records left, so you should not feel conflicted about spending the money, even if it is difficult to justify. And buying records is difficult to justify for any rational person. But even rational people are attracted to totems, and the money that remains in your pocket is never enough to dispel the regret for letting something special slip away…

On a more general note, if there is something you find that you know is valuable, just buy it. We’re all going to leave this shit behind anyway.

The KLF – What Time is Love 12″

I will never find this record again, and its seemingly more and more unlikely that I will find any KLF records. I love The KLF, and they hold a special place in my heart since they served as one of my early introductions to electronic music. And for deleting their entire catalogue, and either making a spectacle of the money they had made or just outright burning it. I planned on returning to Rasputin a week later or so to see if they had marked it down, but it was probably sold soon after I found it. I even took a picture because I wasn’t sure if I would find it again and wanted to just have some record. I should have just bought that damn thing, but I didn’t think it was worth $6 and I was already buying a bunch of others. It doesn’t make a lot sense to buy records at all, but it makes even less sense to collect them and not buy KLF records on sight.

The JAMs – It’s Grim Up North 12″

Another KLF 12″, this time under the JAMs name. Slightly more costly at $8, but well worth it. If you’ve heard this record, you know the enormity of my mistake. If not,!

Rasputin Haul – July 31

This week, I took a trip to Rasputin to specifically pick up one album, A Taste of Honey’s self-titled debut. I had passed on it a week earlier or $4, and I really like the group, and I regretted not buying it because it seemed like $4 was too much to spend. I’ve since come around to rethinking what I am willing to pay for records and the chances I will take. And it has absolutely paid off, because I’ve picked up so many more records that I love and I rarely skip on records because they might be a few extra bucks. A Taste of Honey’s album is worth the $4, and has had a lot of plays in our apartment since it is right up Carla’s alley too.

A Taste of Honey – A Taste of Honey

Groove Holmes – Shippin’ Out

L’il Kim – The Jump Off 12″

Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown 12″

Ohio Players – Contradiction

Sylvester – Rock the Box 12″

Steely Dan Discogs Haul

Steely Dan is one of the reasons that I got into records, and after buying these records I want to buy a better record player to get as much out of these records as I can. The quality can’t compare to perfect digital versions, but with this band and its obsessive attention to the sound of the album, I am sure there is a lot that I am missing. What I am saying is, listening Steely Dan is a great way to test out your audio system, and for that alone they are a great purchase for any record collector. I love the group, and found a seller on Discogs that had Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied and Gaucho so I got all three, along with a couple others. Since I was only paying a few bucks for a Manu Dibango album and Miami Sound Machine’s Primitive Love, I thought I got a good deal on all five for less than $30.

Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic

Steely Dan – Katy Lied

Steely Dan – Gaucho

Manu Dibango – Ambassador

Miami Sound Machine – Primitive Love

Discogs Dance Haul

After having little success finding dance tracks in record stores, I decided to grab a bunch on Discogs, finding this entire collection for about $25. I was happy to have about 20 minutes worth of dance tracks, and ones that audiences would recognize and have broad appeal. If I had to produce a bunch of music and only had vinyl records to play, I thought I’d be on my way to being covered. Especially if I had to DJ a wedding, an opportunity I should have insisted on but missed. I’ve collected more 12″ since this Discogs order, but this was fun to grab a bunch of records for a few bucks and collect some classic singles and get a couple classic albums while I could bundle some records to save on shipping.

Bananarama – Venus 12″

Basement Jaxx – Remedy

Earth, Wind & Fire – That’s the Way of the World

Soul II Soul – Keep on Movin’

M/A/R/R/S – Pump up the Volume 12″