The Black History of House and Techno

Chicago House / Detroit Techno

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Welcome to the other side folks. Initially this month’s episode was going to feature our host Feu du Camp alongside fellow house, techno, and vinyl enthusiast Terroir on the decks for two hours of selections on wax. With all that is going on in regards to the current civil rights movement, it seemed inappropriate and performative to carry on with the usual house and techno shenanigans.

The history of house music and techno are both deeply rooted in foundations laid down by Black artists and musicians, many of whom have yet to receive the recognition and credit they are due. With this in mind, Sam and I decided to compile a list of articles and documentaries that speak truth to the history of Detroit techno, featuring also an article from our friend Grace (aka Nagini), who was featured on last month’s Peace Portal broadcast, which talks more specifically about the history of house music in Chicago.

To truly understand the roots of Detroit techno is to recognize The Great Migration, beginning in 1917, when African Americans moved from the rural South to the urban Northeast and Midwest; it is to understand the Detroit race riot of 1967; it is to understand the role that Motown Records played in Detroit’s music community; and it is to understand the development of the automobile industry of Motor City into the 1970’s; all of which you can read more about in the articles linked below.

Essentially though, the roots of techno were laid by Black people who settled down in the Detroit area, and upon whose backs the Motor City was built upon, fusing man and machine into an autonomous industry. The parents of children who eventually became the first techno producers would come home telling their children stories of working with robots, laying the groundwork for some of the first techno productions to feature samples of machines, further establishing the spiritual, creative relationship between man and machine.

Only recently have Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Jeff Mills, and countless other black musicians who coined the term “techno”, originally including Motown, New Wave, Disco, Funk, and more begun to receive attention for their contributions to a genre that is so strongly associated with Berlin and the UK, where white listeners and music-goers co-opted predominantly Black techno parties into the rave scene of the 1990s and early 2000s. By the time the “EDM” scene returned to United States in the 90s, it heavily catered to white youth, and was used to further the agenda of the War on Drugs, demonizing the underground techno parties, and Black talent that laid the foundations for a now bastardized scene.

As a platform for house and techno that has featured, almost exclusively, young white men, I encourage you to explore the articles and documentaries linked below to understand better how the history of house and techno music is, as inextricably linked to Black history in the United States, not to mention the rest of the world, and entirely indebted to Black artists and musicians, along with many other musical forms and genres.

Immense thanks to Sam Fox (aka Terroir) for helping to dig up this information, and for paying homage to the creators of this musical art form that we’ve come to love and appreciate so deeply.

Links from Feu du Camp:

This article talks about the history of Detroit Movement Festival, starting with it’s roots in the Detroit race riot, and development of the Motor City.

In this thesis, the writer explores the foundations and influence of Detroit techno, and how it was co-opted by white listeners and music-goers in Europe and the United States, pushing out the Black community that created these foundations.

High Tech Soul: The Creation of Techno Music features interviews with key Detroit players Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, and Jeff Mills in their development of techno.

Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit is one of, if not the first commercially successful album of exclusively techno, featuring Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins, and more, released by 10 Records in the UK in 1988.

An article from last month’s featured Peace Portal selector, Grace Taylor (aka Nagini), highlighting the Black history of Chicago’s Disco and House music scenes.

God Said Give Em Drum Machines had not yet been released publicly, but is a documentary that features Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and others to tell the story of Techno in Detroit and beyond.

Links from Terroir:

This article addresses the complex conceptual framework of Drexciya, an electronic music duo from Detroit who established an origin myth based on the Middle Passage, the route for ships carrying enslaved African people from one geographical location to another across the Atlantic Ocean. Whereas the origin myth of Plato’s Atlantis ends in a permanent submersion into the sea, the world of Drexciya begins with the creation of an underwater country populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off of slave ships. Drexciya exists as a sonic third space characterised by embedded myths, the construction of culture and the invention of tradition. I will highlight the development of this sonic fiction that spans several decades, influencing many artists, musicians and scholars, by focusing on the Drexciyan concept of an intercultural, transnational network that shows the movement, migration, or scattering of people away from their homeland, and newly created spaces that transform identities and cultures. This article draws on obscure artist interviews and well-known sources about Drexciya, including essays by Kodwo Eshun and Ben Williams, while advancing the notion of non-physical, sonic islands that sit in spaces between the island and the ocean.

A vital document of the deep roots of techno music alongside the cultural history of Detroit, its birthplace. The film connects the race riots of 1967 to the underground party scene of the late 1980s, and follows its spread to Europe and continuing development through later generations of producers. As well as in-depth interviews with techno’s creators – Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – there’s input and anecdotes from Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, Carl Craig, Eddie Fowlkes, Kenny Larkin, Matthew Dear and many more.

BLACK TO TECHNO is a music documentary charting the anthropological, socio-economical, geopolitical roots of techno from Detroit and how it travelled and translated into becoming the soundtrack to the fall of the wall in Berlin.

Mike Banks, Carola Stoiber & Dimitri Hegemann on Detroit and Techno

When trying to explain how Berlin developed from a cultural wasteland  into a flourishing techno hotspot just a couple of years after the fall of the Wall, the “Berlin-Detroit Axis” is often invoked. Truly, Berlin’s scene wouldn’t be what it is today if not for the creative exchange between a few forward-thinking figures on both sides of the Atlantic. On the Berlin side were early techno enthusiasts Dimitri Hegemann and Carola Stoiber, who together with Achim Kohlberger founded UFO, Berlin’s first acid house club, in the late ’80s. In 1991, Hegemann then opened Tresor, a club that would significantly contribute to the modern aesthetics of techno. Both Hegemann and Stoiber had been inspired by the raw sound that developed during the ’80s in Detroit, a city facing massive structural change after ongoing de-industrialization. Drawing parallels with the newly reunited city of Berlin, which at the time had hardly any infrastructure at all, they felt their city would be uniquely receptive to Detroit’s utopian techno sound.

Originally broadcast on TV, this documentary is a celebration of the sound of Detroit with contributions from some of the seminal figures from the techno canon.

The film is a studied look at the evolution and subsequent dispersion of Detroit Techno music. This term, coined in the 1980s, reflects the musical and social influences that informed early experiments in merging the sounds of synth-pop and disco with funk to create this distinct music genre. Shot on location, the film also includes coverage of the inaugural Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2000.

– Kevin Saunderson on the history of techno – Ash Lauryn of Underground & Black took over club quarantine to curate the CQ platform and draw attention to black artists, art and culture.

Commitment to the culture is the driving force behind my art, and it is my hope that this project celebrates, enlightens, and inspires. Some of the various resources featured in this collaboration shine a much needed light on everything from the sensitive subjects of cultural appropriation to performative allyship. It also features information on some pivotal moments in black history and culture like the Black Arts Movement that came to fruition in late 1960’s Harlem.

House and Techno are Black Music, and I find a deep sense of pride and strength in that fact. These topics can be explored through some of the resources included, like writer Imani Mixton’s piece “Detroit is Techno City and Techno is Black”, or director Jenn Nkiru’s powerful short film “Black to Techno”.

Collectively, I chose these pieces for anyone who would like to dig a little deeper into the black experience from our perspective- the good, the bad, and the uncomfortable. One of the most beautiful things about black art in my opinion is that even through the struggle we continue to create; we continue to rise. Black art isn’t simply here for the sake of consumption, it is actually rooted in much more than that, and I would advise those that simply consume without understanding to take a serious look at the information provided. My platform “Underground & Black” has always been about celebrating black culture, much long before blackness and black lives were trending topics. I encourage you to continue educating yourself even once the protests stop, and the public outrage settles. This a collective fight, and it’s far from over.

Sending peace and strength to all.

— Ash

Larry Levan is known as perhaps the greatest DJ to ever grace the decks. Best known for his decade-long residency at the New York City night club Paradise Garage, which has been described as the prototype of the modern dance club. He developed a cult following who referred to his sets as “Saturday Mass”. Influential post-disco DJ François Kevorkian credits Levan with introducing the dub aesthetic into dance music. Along with Kevorkian, Levan experimented with drum machines and synthesizers in his productions and live sets, ushering in an electronic, post-disco sound that presaged the ascendence of house music.

Kenny Dixon Jr., AKA Moodymann, is one of the most enigmatic and charismatic figures in house music. Despite his refusal to give interviews and play the press-and-promo game, Dixon Jr.’s voice has been clearly amongst the loudest when it comes to preserving the rich heritage of Afro-American music while fighting the industry powers that be. Blessed with an immaculate way of sampling, he takes stems from blues and soul, and respectfully takes them onto the next level. From his dark and dusty deep house tunes on Peacefrog, Planet E and his own KDJ label, to R&B-drenched outings on the Mahogani Music imprint, Moodymann’s fingerprint is unmistakable.

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