Get Familiar With Detroit Techno: 10 Essential Songs

A Michigan license plate on exhibit at the techno museum run by Submerge and housed in the label's building.

hide captionA Michigan license plate on exhibit at the techno museum run by Submerge and housed in the label's building.

Wills Glasspiegel for NPR

Although widely associated with Europe, techno music was invented in Detroit and its suburbs in the early 1980s by young African-Americans armed with drum machines, futurist ideals and a predilection for Kraftwerk. Artists like Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson used whatever technology they could get their hands on to pioneer a cutting-edge sound made up of growling synths and driving dance beats. In the process, they set in motion one of the essential musical movements of the 20th century.

The music eventually found its largest audience across the Atlantic, but most of the original techno innovators still work out of the Motor City. This Memorial Day weekend most will be in town for the annual Movement Electronic Music Festival.

In the list below originators, producers, DJs, label owners and musicologists pick 10 tracks that define the Detroit techno sound.

Wills Glasspiegel and Marlon Bishop spoke to the musicians and writer below in the course of reporting a story for All Things Considered and producing a radio documentary on Detroit techno and Chicago house for Afropop Worldwide.

The 10 Essential Tracks

  • Juan Atkins on "Cosmic Cars" by Cybotron (1982)

    Juan Atkins at Submerge's techno museum.

    hide captionJuan Atkins at Submerge's techno museum.

    Wills Glasspiegel for NPR

    On "Cosmic Cars," I envisioned being in a car and driving on the highway, and all of a sudden just taking off and going into space. My music has always to a certain degree been about a certain escapist attitude. Because there are times that you can be in a city like Detroit and it can get really bad. You just want to fly away. Sometimes you wish you could just sail off to another time and space. A lot of my tracks allude to that kind of adventure.

    JUAN ATKINS is often considered to be the father of techno. As a teenager growing up in the Detroit suburb of Belleville, Atkins made bold musical experiments with a Korg MS-10 synthesizer and a tape deck, eventually releasing the genre's earliest tracks under the names Cybotron and Model 500.

  • Mark Flash on "Alleys of Your Mind" by Cybotron (1981)

    Mark Flash on the decks.

    hide captionMark Flash on the decks.

    Courtesy of the artist

    Oh, man. I heard it for the first time in my mom's basement, washing clothes, and it came on the radio. And I was like, "Oh. My. God." I was listening to The Electrifying Mojo. That track blew my mind. I turned the washer off and went and just stood there because it felt so good I couldn't even move. That was just the most awesome song I had ever heard. I bought two copies when it first came out. I was like, "What is this guy thinking?" What got me most was the sound, the beat — that was the first time electronic music really got to me. I knew "Planet Rock" already, but "Alleys Of Your Mind" was a different sound all together."

    MARK FLASH is a Detroit percussionist, DJ and producer. As a kid, his musician father moved their family from Brooklyn to Detroit to try to make it in Motown. While his father's dreams failed, Flash made up for it by becoming a name in the local rave scene.

  • Brendan Gillen on "Sharevari" by A Number of Names (1981)

    Brenden Gillen at home.

    hide captionBrenden Gillen at home.

    Wills Glasspiegel for NPR

    The guys who did "Sharevari" told me an anecdote about going to a party in 1980 in Detroit, a high-school party. It was one of these backyard parties where somebody was lucky enough to have a pool. They tried to make the parties seem elite, so they had elite names like "Gables," which was complete with a Clark Gables logo. They even wore satin jackets. There were a bunch of groups and Charivari was the name of one these groups, and that's where the band got the name of this tune. So the story goes that they went to this party and the DJ was doing the trick of playing with two copies of the same record at once. The DJ was doing it with the Italo Disco record, "Holly Dolly" by Kano [the group sampled by Tag Team on "Whoomp There It Is"]. The DJ would play these records and instead of "Holly, Dolly," it would go "Holly, Holly, Dolly, Dolly." That's how they got to "Share, Vari, Share Share, Vari Vari." That's them imitating what the DJ did. Most people say this is the first record of Detroit techno.

    BRENDAN GILLEN fell in love with Detroit techno while attending college in nearby Ann Arbor. Today, he's one half of the experimental techno group Ectomorph, manager of the record label Interdimensional Transmissions and a walking encyclopedia of Detroit techno trivia.

  • Carl Craig on "No UFOs" by Model 500 (1985)

    Carl Craig in Detroit.

    hide captionCarl Craig in Detroit.

    Wills Glasspiegel for NPR

    We had a lot of great music that was on the radio. It was easy as a kid to hear the newest music from Detroit because it was being supported on the radio back then. When I first heard "No UFOs," which was Juan Atkins' first independent record on Metroplex, it was being played at 5 o'clock drive time on weekdays. It wasn't just at nighttime or midday. It was drive time, so it really gave me the opportunity to hear this music as being more than just club music.

    CARL CRAIG is the superstar of Detroit techno's second generation, which came up in the '90s. This year he celebrates the 20th anniversary of his record label, Planet E. He's also a co-creator of the original Detroit Electronic Music Festival.

  • Cornelius Harris on "Strings of Life" by Rhythim Is Rhythim (1987)

    Cornelius Harris at Submerge.

    hide captionCornelius Harris at Submerge.

    Wills Glasspiegel for NPR

    Derrick May [who sometimes produces as Rhythim Is Rhythim] comes up with "Strings of Life" and, you know, it's not called "Strings of Death." It's all about this great future that we're a part of; it's about looking for something else. We're trying to find a place where we can do what we want to do and not be tied into other crap. I think that that's what gets missed — the fact that techno actually served to be a very inspiring aspect of Detroit life, for the whole region actually. I heard it from the radio as a kid, and on television there was a dance show that used to come on called The Scene. That was where a lot of folks heard techno who weren't in Detroit proper or, like me, who were too young to be able to go to the parties.

    CORNELIUS HARRIS is label manager at Submerge and Underground Resistance (UR), a hub for fiercely independent techno run out of a bustling compound in East Detroit. Harris was an activist at the University of Michigan and was impressed by the marriage of politics and dance music put forth by UR founder "Mad" Mike Banks.

  • Anthony "Shake" Shakir on "Goodbye Kiss" by Eddie Fowlkes (1986)

    Anthony "Shake" Shakir in his home, holding up one of his records.

    hide captionAnthony "Shake" Shakir in his home, holding up one of his records.

    Marlon Bishop for NPR

    It was one of them great party records. Eddie and Juan worked together on it. It was the theme song of a bunch of the fraternities. It would come on and people would rush the floor. It was one of them records that you could play in the neighborhood and nobody would come over and say, "Turn that crazy music off." There's something real black about it. ... Black people didn't look at it like it was "weirdo white music," because a lot of times techno in Detroit is looked a as weird white s---. Fowlkes' record is one of those records that bubbled up out of the street. It worked in the hood.

    ANTHONY "SHAKE" SHAKIR is an old-school Detroit producer who also uses the names Sequence 10 and Da Sampla. He appeared on the original techno compilation, Techno: The New Dance Sound of Detroit, released in the U.K. in 1988.

  • John Collins on "Big Fun" by Inner City (Kevin Saunderson) (1988)

    John Collins in the offices of Submerge.

    hide captionJohn Collins in the offices of Submerge.

    Wills Glasspiegel for NPR

    When I first heard "Big Fun" it just blew me away. I met Kevin Saunderson at the club, Cheeks. A group had rented out the club that night. I got there and there was this guy in my booth, and I was like, "Why are you in my booth?" He was like, "I'm Kevin Saunderson." I didn't really know him, and he said, "I want to give you a copy of my record." It was "Big Fun." That was it for me, in terms of techno. It was a techno record that went pop. It just had everything that a record needed.

    JOHN COLLINS will be performing at this year's Movement Electronic Music Festival in Detroit. He's been DJing techno music in the city since the mid '80s, and his tracks are released by the seminal local label Underground Resistance.

  • Brian Gillespie on "Elements" by Psyche (1989)

    Brian Gillespie in front of his home. i i

    hide captionBrian Gillespie in front of his home.

    Marlon Bishop for NPR
    Brian Gillespie in front of his home.

    Brian Gillespie in front of his home.

    Marlon Bishop for NPR

    Carl Craig made a really good record under the name Psyche. If you were a Detroit ghetto guy, a hood DJ, you would take that record and flip that record, playing it at 45 [RPM] and bring it down minus 8. That record had a certain groove to it. When you pitched it up faster, it became a dope jit/footwork record. I remember Derrick May once came in and was like, "Hey, what are you doing? You're playing that too fast. That is not how the record is made." But see those 20 DJs in here? They are buying your record off your label, and they are going to play it at 45. You should be thanking us because we broke records in Detroit. When we listened to a record we listened to it two ways: 45 pitched down and 33 pitched up.

    BRIAN GILLESPIE performs as DJ Starski, one half of the Detroit ghettotech outfit, Starski and Clutch. Ghettotech is a fast, raunchy music pioneered in Detroit in the mid '90s. Other names for it include Detroit bass and booty bass. It mixes Chicago ghetto house with electro, techno and hip-hop.

  • Jeff Mills on "The Theory" by Underground Resistance (feat. Mike Banks) (1991)

    A photo of Jeff Mills "schooling mugs in Germany" at the Submerge techno museum. i i

    hide captionA photo of Jeff Mills "schooling mugs in Germany" at the Submerge techno museum.

    Wills Glasspiegel for NPR
    A photo of Jeff Mills "schooling mugs in Germany" at the Submerge techno museum.

    A photo of Jeff Mills "schooling mugs in Germany" at the Submerge techno museum.

    Wills Glasspiegel for NPR

    If I had to pick one Mike Banks track, it would probably be an older track from his group, Underground Resistance — a track called "The Theory." The chord structure is very elegant. I think that that track really sums up a lot about Detroit and the people, and this idea about the future and the consequences of always reaching further and further and further.

    JEFF MILLS is a second-generation techno producer and DJ. He started Underground Resistance with "Mad" Mike Banks and currently lives in Paris and Chicago. Mills is famous in Detroit for his radio persona, The Wizard. He continues to make techno today.

  • Denise Dalphond on "Dem Young Sconies" by Moodyman (Kenny Dixon Jr.) (1997)

    Denise Dalphond.

    hide captionDenise Dalphond.

    James Rotz

    On "Dem Young Sconies," Moodyman captures that really gritty sound. Sometimes Detroit music is described as gritty and dirty — it's a particular way of using drum machines. There's such an independent aesthetic in Detroit and people didn't have money to buy a lot of equipment. So you just use what you have. If you have a crappy Casio keyboard, then that's what you play around with. If you just have a 4-track tape recorder, then you figure out how to use it in a creative way. And that's how Kenny Dixon (aka Moodyman) has always been to me. He just uses what he has in a really experimental way.

    DENISE DALPHOND is an ethnomusicologist and host of the Detroit music blog, Schoolcraft Wax. Her blog combines written features on local events in Detroit with interviews and academic work in the Detroit techno scene.

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