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The History of Detroit Techno and its growing influence on American and European culture and philosophy (2019)


The first part is about the history aspect of Detroit techno, from its musical ancestors (Italo-disco, Kraftwerk, etc.) to its geographical origins (the rubbles of Motor City). The second part is about the culture and influence of this musical movement. It aims at debunking the myths revolving around Detroit Techno, in particular its popularity among the different generations, its connection to drugs, its ideal of community, and so on.


Rarely has a genre of music been so misinterpreted as techno. Contrary to the rest of Detroit's musical past (Motown, modern Jazz, gangsta rap), its history is often misunderstood. To describe techno, many refer to pioneer Derrick May's quote: "The music [techno] is just like Detroit - a complete mistake. It's like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in a elevator". But this simplification ignores techno's complex range of influences, many of which came not from Germany but from the industrial city of Detroit. Its spaces, its old structures, its car factories, even its decay: whether they loved it or hated it, Detroit undoubtedly inspired techno artists to produce this unique kind of electronic music. All of them tried to encapsulate the heart of the city, and firmly believed in producing a music that had a soul.

While techno's roots are firmly in Detroit, it had to travel to UK, Germany and the rest of eastern Europe to make the impact its innovation surely deserved, and greatly benefited from the Berlin's wall crumbling into dust. Nonetheless, some purists would argue that this trip to Europe marked the point where the soul of techno was lost. Indeed, during the 1990s, techno spread to more cultures faster than any type of music in recent history. Then the movement came back to Detroit and the United States, but it would never be the same as in the beginnings.

As the movement rose, many experts tried to label it as just another music genre, following the looming end of the rock 'n' roll era. But unlike rock rock 'n' roll, techno at its beginnings directed attention only to its music - putting live performance challenges, DJ groupies and the star-system aside. The fans don't have lyrics to memorize or personalities to follow. "This is not music for the masses", Peter Wohelski explained (former director of the A&R department of Astralwerks). Techno music is, by essence, underground. Its spread rested upon small independent labels and its pioneers always avoided the mainstream record labels. Lacking the ability to garner massive attention and success, techno has had to find other ways to develop. Some even speak of an invisible industry, composed by raves, almost-illegal clubs, and alternative promoters.

On the other hand, techno is also very much an industry. Its diverse influences include links to Motown soul, Italian disco, or R&B - which were all popular music genre at one time. Besides, many famous techno tracks made it to the top Billboards charts, which is evidence of mainstream success. Therefore, small independent labels competed with big ones, partly thanks to the proliferation of digital music. Digital music retailers such as iTunes and Beatport have created an environment where music genres like techno could spread to every music listener, allowing techno to become mainstream. Ironically, a Juan Atkins song was used in the 2000s for a Ford Focus commercial, which is evidence of the music appeal to the masses.

How did Techno travel from Detroit to Europe and back again to Detroit? From the underground scene to the masses? How did it change America and Europe? Which lessons can be drawn from this particular musical movement?

Full thesis PDF: (mirror)

© 2019 Arthur Gamberini (HEC Paris)