What Motown and Techno Have in Common

The global electronic music industry is worth $7.1 billion. From house clubs to international music festivals, the industry has amassed millions of fans and cemented itself as an industry soundhouse. Few know the roots of this genre in Black America.

One of the largest subsets of the genre, techno, can trace its origins to a geographic location: Detroit, Michigan (well, the suburbs).

To some accounts, three middle-class African-American DJ-producers are the brains behind techno: Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson. However, other accounts delineate Juan Atkins as the sole originator.

Either way, they eventually would come together to enhance European “synth-pop” tracks with African-American sounds such as Chicago house, funk, electro, and electronic jazz creating a new, completely electronic and fast-paced sound.

Techno encapsulated afrofuturism through sounds that were primarily all-instrumental and with beats more complex than the syncopation of house music.

“We were just kids having fun. The technology allowed us to make this music. It just happened.” – Juan Atkins

The name “techno” was first used by Juan Atkins, who named his 1983 song “Techno City.” Atkins’ songs gained traction on local radio waves and eventually landed him a deal with Virgin Records.

Since the label was based in the U.K., Detroit’s new sound gained immense traction overseas and forever solidified the originators’ place in history.

The dark side of this international attention was an emergence of what NPR calls “blackface DJs”. These DJs were white people who created fictional backstories and presented themselves as Black people to give their music more “authenticity”.

Blackface DJs would create names that “sounded Black”, like DJ Marques, and claim to come from places with high Black populations such as Gary, IN, Harlem, NY, or the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago.

Techno’s influence helped spur the development of later musical sounds. As techno and house music seemed to bounce ideas off of each other, artists like DJ Deeon and DJ Slugo developed a distinct sound through “ghetto house.”

Techno music continues to be both produced and enjoyed by diverse audiences across the globe. Some current top songs include “Remember Pig & Dan Remix” by Matador “System Hack Original Mix” by Carlo Ruetz, and “Zoo Project Pax Remix” by Dennis Cruz.

Though now a global music industry, techno will never completely detach from its rooted Black hands in Detroit, Michigan.