Berlin / Location Spotlight / The Industry

Tracing techno’s origins: Honoring Detroit’s contribution alongside Berlin’s UNESCO recognition

16th May 2024

After several years of campaigning, Germany’s cultural ministry and UNESCO commission announced that Berlin’s techno scene would be added to Germany’s UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. However, within the recognition, there seems to be a glaring omission. Berlin Music Business student, electronic music producer and DJ, Makossiri, explores this.

An environment to cultivate a whole new genre

Back in early-1980s Detroit, a collective of young African American musicians began experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines. This collective was The Belleville Three and was comprised of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson.

Detroit, which was often heralded as the ‘Motor City’ for being a renowned hub for US car manufacture, was experiencing significant economic challenges due to a downturn in its automobile industry. This decline led to widespread unemployment, abandoned warehouses and derelict factories.

Against this backdrop of economic hardship and urban decay, a new sound emerged from the city’s underground clubs and warehouses. Drawing inspiration from Detroit’s industrial landscape and the visionary works of artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and Kraftwerk, The Belleville Three created music that blended elements of electro, funk, synthesized melodies and futuristic sounds to create what would be known as Detroit techno.

Laying down techno’s roots

Photo: Aleksandr Popov

The term “techno” is often credited to The Belleville Three’s Atkins, who is also referred to as the ‘Godfather of Techno’. He used the term to describe the futuristic electronic music he was creating. Tracks like ‘Alleys of Your Mind’ by Cybotron (Atkins’ project with Richard “3070” Davis) and ‘No UFOs’ by Model 500 (Atkins’ solo project) are considered seminal works in the genre’s development.

Propelled by the establishment of influential record labels like Metroplex, Transmat, and Underground Resistance, Detroit quickly emerged as a trailblazing hub for techno music in the mid-to-late 1980s. These labels served as platforms for ground-breaking releases that shaped the distinctive Detroit techno sound; legendary clubs such as The Music Institute provided vital spaces where techno DJs and producers showcased their innovative sounds.

Berlin builds on Detroit’s foundations

While techno was born in Detroit, it was Berlin that provided the fertile ground for its growth and evolution. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city underwent a cultural renaissance, transforming abandoned warehouses and industrial spaces into underground clubs.

Even in Berlin, Atkins played a role in exporting Detroit’s sound. Alongside DJs like Jeff Mills and Blake Baxter, Atkins made frequent appearances at emerging venues in Berlin. Tresor, which opened in 1991, was one of these, and the club remains a key pillar of Berlin’s industry to this day. Appearances like this helped to further solidify the influence of Detroit techno to audiences outside the USA.

UNESCO brings new recognition and appreciation of techno?

UNESCO’s recent recognition of Berlin’s techno scene as a piece of intangible cultural heritage marks a historic milestone for techno music. The acknowledgment underscores techno’s profound socio-cultural significance, celebrating its role in fostering inclusivity, diversity, and cultural exchange.

Yet, while we celebrate Berlin’s UNESCO honor, it is imperative to give credit where credit’s due and also pay homage to the artists who pioneered the genre in Detroit. After all, the city represents the foundational chapter in the story of techno: it was where the genre was born, nurtured, and propelled onto the global stage. By acknowledging the city and the contributions of its pioneering musicians, we honor the diverse voices and histories that have shaped techno music.

About Makossiri

Makossiri is a Kenyan-born electronic music producer and DJ. Her music seamlessly blends hard and hardcore techno with elements of folk-punk, trance, industrial noise and African polyrhythms to create an atmosphere of otherworldly sounds.

Alongside her work as a producer and DJ, Makossiri is also the designer of the Nyadungu, a unique instrument that uses a microtonal and non-traditional tuning system.

Instagram | Soundcloud

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