From Juan Atkins to Blawan: our guide to the best Techno
Music that humans can't make without machines. Music that machines can't make without humans.
Techno emerged in mid-80s Detroit as artists like Juan Atkins and Derrick May started to make music heavily inspired by both the Kraftwerk singles that were regularly spinning on Detroit radio at the time (in particular the influential The Electrifying Mojo show) and the funk, electro and jazz music they’d grown up on. The word ‘techno’ itself comes from Alvin Toffler's book The Third Wave where the phrase ‘techno rebels’ inspired Juan Atkins to use it as a description of the music he’d been making - most notably alongside May and Kevin Saunderson.
Stylistically, techno is repetitive, instrumental, electronic music played in 4/4 time, usually long-form and suitable for lengthy DJ sets. But the breadth and diversity of techno ensures the reason why we think it needs a separate discussion to more conventional dance music. Just to give you a mere flavour of its endless diversity:
- the original movers and shakers formed the Detroit techno sound: primarily geographical, but with a particular aesthetic once described by Derrick May as like, “George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company”;
- from those early movements, producers like Robert Hood emerged with minimal techno, stripping away any extraneous sounds leaving just the kick drums, basslines and simple synth patterns;
- in Germany, Basic Channel started the dub techno genre by feeding delays and effects through their productions in the same way King Tubby manipulated reggae back in the early ‘70s;
- the late 70s and early 80s saw the first glimpses of what you might call industrial techno, part influenced by noisy terrors like Coil and Throbbing Gristle;
- techno can be ambient like Wolfgang Voigt’s GAS project;
- it can be hard edged and primal, like Birmingham racketeer Regis;
- it can even sound like it was dredged up from the bottom of the ocean, if you're Porter Ricks.
Basically, there is a Techno for everyone - and you probably like some Techno even if you don't know you like some Techno. Just one of the reasons why we love techno.
Best Techno artists
Alongside Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins is widely regarded as the man who started this thing called techno as part of the fabled 'Belleville Three'. The idea behind the music was to combine Kraftwerk- like electronics and club music, but Atkins himself cites a catholic taste ranging across artists from Yellow Magic Orchestra to The Human League to Depeche Mode to the B52s.
After experimenting with May and Saunderson as Deep Space Soundworks, Atkins formed Cybotron with Richard Davis and pursued the electro-funk direction Atkins was aiming towards. But it wasn’t until he formed his solo project Model 500 that Atkins could achieve what he set out to do. He subsequently released several landmark records under this moniker, earning him the title of 'Godfather of Techno'. High energy bursts of club-friendly dance music with propulsive percussion and squelchy acidy synths met Atkins’ background tastes in funk and soul - a major factor in the danceable, sinewy sound he produced.
He went on to form Infiniti pursuing a more ‘pure’ form of techno, but he is best known for the Model 500 canon. He also founded the label Metroplex - home to many techno classics from 1985 to the present day.
May’s production career began with a bang following his debut ‘Nude Photo’. Then came the classic ‘Strings of Life’ which, in a major breakthrough for the Detroit scene, exploded internationally - particularly in the UK at the height of the drug-fuelled, late-80s house scene. Though further highly influential 12”s followed, in time May became more of an artist working behind the scenes rather than fronting up his own productions. He became a mentor to many upcoming artists, and established his Transmat label, ensuring that it would become one of the most respected labels in the techno scene.
He has always been an advocate of live performances and continues to DJ around the world to this day. His back catalogue may be small in comparison to other artists of the era but its influence is huge.
Kevin Saunderson was the third part of the Belleville Three, but he has worked under an incredible number of aliases - most notably Inner City who scored huge crossover hits in ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Good Life’.
He was mentored early on by Juan Atkins, who collaborated with Saunderson as Kreem with a breakout track ‘Triangle of Love’. But out of relatively inauspicious beginnings came something quite extraordinary as Saunderson hooked up with vocalist Paris Gray. Inner City's first two singles went Top 10 in the UK, and their first five singles reached number one in the US Billboard Dance Charts.
This success put Detroit techno on the commercial map, and the singles perfectly chimed with the late 80s UK house and rave scene. Saunderson continued to release Inner City records, but other projects of his also became influential (particularly a single bassline in his track ‘Just Want Another Chance’ recorded as Reece which has become influential in jungle and drum and bass) and his KMS imprint is home to many techno classics.
Deepchord are lynchpins of ‘dub techno’ - a subgenre of techno that incorporates dub style effects and delays into Detroit-influenced sound. They're known for a highly atmospheric take on the genre, comprising of lengthy repetitive tracks inspired by Basic Channel - the first innovators of the form. Since 2003 Deepchord have produced a deluge of releases, often in collaboration with other artists such as Echospace and cv313 alongside Stephen Hitchell and Waveform Transmission with Chris Troy.
Modell initially created an eponymous record label for his productions, but most often works with Scottish independent label Soma. He later founded the influential dub techno label echospace [detroit] with Stephen Hitchell. His back catalogue is extensive and confusing, but delve deep and you’ll find endless examples of the art of perfectioning loop-based music. Modell’s compositions often have an underwater feel, as if the soundsystem is playing in a swimming pool, but his beautiful cross of four-to-the-floor techno thumps and lush ambient textures is consistently cinematic and immersive. Music to lose yourself in for days.
GAS is an ambient techno project, and probably the most abstract form of techno on this list. From 1996 to 2000, Voigt released four classic albums on the celebrated Mille Plateaux label. Each is an example of Voigt’s long-form mastery of the genre, combining ambient synth washes, orchestral samples, distant horns and field recordings with the ever-present low end thump of the kick drum.
His music was perfectly summed up by the estimable chin-strokers at The Wire as, "an outdoor rave, heard floating through the air from a neighbouring village". Unlike the soothing, relaxing music made by the likes of Deepchord, GAS’s music can be discordant and challenging despite its overall faded beauty. In 2016 Voigt’s imprint Kompakt re-issued all the GAS albums in a box set which provoked much interest in fans who had missed out on the music the first time round. This prompted Voigt to restart the project, resulting in two further albums - Narkopop in 2017 and Rausch in 2018.
Like a lot of the names on this list, Detroit native Jeff Mills' influence is twofold. First and foremost he's a DJ and producer, going under the name the Wizard in his youth. But he was also a critical part of a highly influential collective.
In Mills’ case this was Underground Resistance, along with Mike Banks and Robert Hood. This collective of like-minded artists out of Detroit had a duel interest in grungy, noisy techno and political activism. Part of the remit of Underground Resistance was to inspire young black people to escape the cycle of poverty in Detroit. In this regard they had some similarities to both the rap group Public Enemy and 70s activists the Black Panthers, and their take on techno was hard and unrelenting with elements of acid and industrial techno.
Mills left the collective in 1992 to pursue his own solo career, and gained international success with a more minimal sound. He released a deluge of records on labels like Berlin’s Tresor and his own labels: Axis, Purpose Maker, Something In The Sky and Tomorrow. But Mills is also widely known as a DJ, notable for his three turntable setup, documented perfectly on his Live at the Liquid Room Tokyo set. Mills was a pioneer in hybrid DJ sets, incorporating live Roland 909 drum machine into his sets, blurring the lines between DJing and live performance. His roots in hip-hop lead to a fast and raw mixing style which is simply mind blowing to witness.
His legacy comprises a huge amount of releases under a myriad of monikers such as The Vision, Dr. Kevorkian, Inner Sanctum, Floorplan and Monobox. He ran the Hardwax label initially, before starting the label M-Plant mainly for his own productions. His sound fuses elements of soul and experimentation into a sound that seems to come alive when played over big sound systems. His debut album Minimal Nation (on Axis) took Hood's hypnotic minimalism to entirely new depths and territories, forging a path he has continued to this day with his Floorplan project - a more gospel- and house-influenced entity. He continues to preach the Underground Resistance mantra of using musical enterprises to help inner city communities.
Basic Channel was a production team and record label out of Berlin consisting of Moritz von Oswald and Mark Ernestus. They pioneered the genre of dub (or ambient) techno, taking influence from both the Detroit techno scene and 70s dub records to form a subgenre of techno that utilised the delays and effects that characterized the latter.
As well as their own productions (as Maurizio, Cyrus, Phylyps, Quadrant, etc.) which they invariably released on vinyl only, they formed the Chain Reaction label in order to release the music of like-minded artists such as Monolake, Porter Ricks and Fluxion.
The duo were restless and later formed the Rhythm and Sound imprint - again, like Basic Channel, a vehicle to release their own productions. This saw them move their sound closer in spirit to dub reggae, removing some of the techno influences and working with reggae vocalists such as Paul St Hilaire. They also founded Main Street records, once again for the purpose of releasing their own productions. Though always a mysterious unit, their influence spread far and wide, in particular to the echospace [detroit] group of artists who most notably contain Deepchord and cv313.
Blawan is one of today’s most exciting techno prospects and is notable for reviving the industrial techno sound, moving on from the dubstep-influenced take on techno displayed on his early records on Hessle Audio and R&S.
Born in South Yorkshire, Jamie Roberts was initially a drummer but came to real prominence with the monstrous "Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage" and a remix he was commissioned for the Radiohead track ‘Bloom’. He has released a deluge of 12”s, and one full length album Wet Will Always Dry which uses unusual palettes to raise his music above and beyond the usual four-to-the-floor loopery.
His aliases include Kilner (released on Shifted’s Avian label) and Bored Young Adults (released on The Trilogy Tapes) and is noted, along with the likes of Surgeon, as one of the few producers to switch to modular gear and really do outstanding things with it. He founded the Ternesc label in 2015, named after a series of club nights he started at London’s Corsica Studios.
As well as the usual influences of the Detroit techno scene, he brings to the pot industrial artists such as Coil and Whitehouse as well as kraut-rock, dub and electro. He initially came to prominence with tracks on Downwards, with a sound somewhere between Jeff Mills and Chain Reaction, but has gone on to forge his own very distinctive sound. He records both under his birth name and as Surgeon, and his productions are notable for both their intensity and their danceability, combining monolithic slabs of industrial racket with a surefooted four four pulse and lively funky beatwork.
He was known for using music software such as Ableton Live in his live sets to create improvised off the hoof sounds, and recently he’s incorporated modular synth into his setup. His music is unique in blending a dancefloor-friendly intensity with harder sounds, and his versatility seemingly knows no bounds. Not many other techno artists have collaborated with the likes of Mick Harris and Regis whilst also opening up for Lady Gaga.
In America you had the legendary Detroit scene, but much later something smaller but noteworthy was happening in Birmingham, UK.
Regis (real name Karl O’Connor) continues the trend of being both a musician in his own right and record label owner with his Downwards imprint. Alongside bellow Brummie Surgeon, he forged a sound which blends the tough minimalism of second wave Detroit like Jeff Mills and Robert Hood with darker European electronics, influenced by industrial and synth music.
Since the early 90s, Regis has been working on his productions, which initially comprised of hard minimal electronics but gradually produced more layered tracks. Heavily inspired by the German group DAF who he later produced, in 2001 he made Penetration, an album on which he mixed droning textures with heavy percussion. This led to his collaboration with Surgeon as British Murder Boys - an (apparently) non-techno project known for its incendiary live shows.
Since then Regis has become well known for his collaborations, most notably with the international techno collective Sandwell District alongside Function, Silent Servant and Female. He is also half of O/V/R alongside James Ruskin, half of Sandra Electronics with Juan Mendez (Silent Servant), and was half of Portion Reform with David Sumner (Function).
Luke Slater / Planetary Assault Systems
Like a lot of techno producers and DJs, Luke Slater is known for working under a host of pseudonyms (Deputy Dawg, The 7th Plain, L.B. Dub Corp, Clementine, Morganistic etc.) over the years. But he is most cherished within the techno community under his project known as Planetary Assault Systems, with which he set his most obvious marker on the history of techno music.
Slater has released six albums and countless EPs under this name since 1993, which generally consist of pulverising, intense techno with huge kick drums and strange dystopian atmospheres. This is uncompromising techno, purely for the dancefloor. Repetitive and relentless, his productions are hard edged and abrasive - but his albums also have a mellow side with the sort of futuristic, cosmic, spacey sound that the name suggests.
The quality of his records over the years has ensured that the project hasn’t dated. 1995 productions rub alongside his 2016 album Arc Angel without there being too much distinction in merit - the latter record containing deep drones, alien synth and haywire arps all tuned to twisted perfection, proving that the great techno artists never seem to slow down their output.
Richie Hawtin / Plastikman
He helped pioneer the minimal techno sound with an early series of 12”s, and albums such as his debut Sheet One in 1993. Sheet One was a minimal and spacious acid LP that blended techno with ambient, and has been hugely influential over the years. Hawtin has since released records both under Plastikman and under a huge range of alter egos such as F.U.S.E., Concept 1, Forcept 1, Circuit Breaker, Robotman and has collaborated with a wide array of like-minded artists - most notably ambient and electronic-music producer and composer Pete Namlook.
Hawtin is known for his DJ sets and has regularly received awards for best techno DJ. His music straddles several genres including House, Detroit techno, ambient and electronica making Hawtin known for both his versatility and his highly prolific workrate. Plastikman reached levels of success that eluded many artists in the field. It wasn't uncommon in the 90s to be at a club and see a Plastikman logo tattoo. His earlier labels, Plus 8 and Probe, are home to numerous all time techno classics from himself and also folks like Kenny Larkin, Speedy J, Teste, Vapourspace, Cybersonik and he now runs the Minus label.
New York producer Joey Beltram became an iconic figure in the worlds of rave and techno with his early track ‘Mentasm’ (in collaboration with Mundo Muzique as Second Phase) which first used what would become known as the "mentasm riff" or "Hoover sound": a churning, dirgelike synth sound that has been used in thousands of drum and bass, techno and hardcore tracks in the years since.
His earlier ‘Energy Flash’ single was also hugely influential and is still considered an absolute anthem. He has since gone on to record for legendary dance music labels like Nu-Groove, Tresor, Warp, Trax, Transmat, and R&S and has become a huge live draw for dance music fans headlining festivals across the globe including Coachella. A major influence on today’s DJs and producers, Beltram was namechecked in Daft Punk’s ‘Teachers’ on their debut album ‘Homework’. His back catalogue is a techno goldmine - dig deeper than his obvious classics and there are so many great tracks recorded under handles such as Code 6, Technical Onslaught, etc. - plus his hugely underrated ambient leaning album ‘Aonox’.
Carl Craig is best known for being one of the most important of the second wave of techno artists emerging out of Detroit. He brought a soulful and jazz inspired sound to his productions and, in common with lot of other techno artists, has worked under a number of aliases. He is also well known as a DJ and label boss running Planet E, releasing records by artists like Kevin Saunderson, Alton Miller and Moodymann.
As well as albums made under his own name he has released as Paperclip People and Innerzone Orchestra, amongst other alter egos. His music has been inspirational for many artists in the world of underground electronic music, but higher profile artists like LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Underworld also cite him as an influence. His exploration of sound saw him incorporate jazz elements into records, such as his 1999 Innerzone Orchestra long player ‘Programmed’ which led to him becoming a producer for Detroit jazz collective Tribe. He is known for a wide variety of often surprising collaborations, has remixed loads of artists and takes on projects way outside what you might expect from a Detroit Techno artist - such as improvising live to an Andy Warhol film at Unsound Festival. He remains an unpredictable and fascinating artist, working without any boundaries.
Best Techno albums
"Where Detroit techno began," according to none other than Pitchfork. You may be forgiven for thinking you’d played the wrong record on first listen. It’s a strange blend of cold Kraftwerk-ian synth pop and guitar licks. But, yes, that’s Juan Atkins providing the electro bedrock to Richard Davis' stadium-rock dynamics. It’s easy to see the musical difference that would prise them apart, but this is the bridge between the electronic pioneers and what would become Detroit Techno.
Named after the record label on which Coil released their early records, Force + Form is one of a few awesome albums Surgeon released on Tresor and quite possibly his masterpiece. It mixes Surgeon’s already well-known take on hard, raw industrial techno with ambient soundscapes. It contains everything from abrasive rhythms, monotonous percussion and eerie synth work - creating an infectious dancefloor sound that results in a unique journey through techno. Made in 1999, the record still sounds as fresh and head-cleansing as it ever did.
Joey Beltram - Places
Places was another moment that helped New Yorker Joey Beltram cement his, um, place in the list of techno legends. It signposted the start of a more methodical method of making techno, with obsessive attention to detail. Though not particularly minimal in sound, this 1995 album went on to influence scores of producers in that field. It’s a relentless pursuit of the perfect techno beat, and has been described as “electrified Samba” - which sums up his rhythms on this album. Played to death by many DJs after it was released, and still popular in clubs today.
This was Jeff Mills' first missive and it remains a revolutionary record in dance music history: perfectly showcasing his punishing, repetitive style and providing a dark and intense journey through relentless distorted beats. The simplicity of its composition still stuns, with simply brutal mechanical drum machines and fizzy synths. Barely any light is allowed to seep in to the tracks, making this one for dark, underground clubs. A stark, futuristic, dystopian journey that reinvented the dancefloor.
One of the key components in the development of minimal techno, Robert Hood’s 1994 album is a cornerstone of the stripped-back sound. Each track features rolling percussion, simple electronic squiggles and superb dynamic shifts. It subtracts the hitherto present features of disco and R&B and reduces techno to conversations between machines. Originally issued on Jeff Mills’ Axis label and re-pressed in 2009 with extra tracks, it remains a blueprint of the genre, and highly influential to future purveyors of machine funk.
Sheet One was Richie Hawtin’s 1993 studio album under his Plastikman moniker, cited as the definitive minimal acid LP. It features Hawtin’s atmospheric blend of squiggly lines placed in sinister ambient soundscapes. The album is trippy as hell, a wide-open, spacious, trance-like record that was a breakthrough in the acid sub-genre of techno and house.
Drexciya was the production duo of Detroit natives James Stinson and Gerald Donald (Der Zyklus, Dopplereffekt, Arpanet). Neptune’s Lair was their debut full length release and showcased a unique form of metallic techno and dancefloor funk, featuring a sub-aquatic narrative with heavy afro futurist and political activist influences on top. They eschewed publicity ensuring that they remained a mysterious entity to many, yet their legacy can be heard in generations of producers who followed in their path.
Gymnastics was Birmingham producer Regis’s game-changing debut. The album was a back to basics form of techno, influenced by Jeff Mills' febrile loops but with a playfulness and dark underbelly that recalled the earlier industrial mavericks such as DAF. It’s relentless slog of pounding percussion and primal dance music was totally at odds with the precise clipped programming found elsewhere.
BCD was a compilation of productions by shadowy artists/label Basic Channel. It was a groundbreaking dub techno release, bringing their previous 12”s onto CD for the first time. The digital format perfect suited their long-form investigations into the heart of dubby pounding and ambient techno. Full of minimal, austere soundtracks which gently mutate, this is the place to go to find out the birthplace of the sound later to be produced by the likes of Deepchord and Quantec.
Jeff Mills - Live at the Liquid Room Tokyo
A classic mix from the king of techno repetition recorded, as it says on the tin, live in Tokyo. An unabashed, warts-and-all recording of the set, this is a relentless pursuit of the perfect beat with Mills' energy utterly infectious as he quickly jumps from record to record. There’s no seamless matching here, just a tour de force of pulverising beats as Mills creates something new and dangerous out of his mixes.
Although Aphex Twin appeared in our similar guide to the best electronic music it would be remiss of us not to note the influence Richard David James has had on the techno genre. Classics is a compilation of EPs and features perhaps his most repetitive tracks. It features, most notably, the seven minute pulse of ‘Digeridoo’ - a track ostensibly written to clear the dancefloor after raves. It exemplifies the rave-inflected, energetic feel of these tracks, his most acid-drenched full on collection perhaps. Not counting his work as Caustic Window, of course.
For those who say that techno shouldn’t have melody may we present More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art? It’s a seductive, sweet and timeless album with a beautiful organic feel as Craig matches haunting synths with carefully constructed beats. Pure soulful techno, subtle, dreamlike and emotional - the perfect antidote to the raw machine music seen elsewhere.
Model 500 was one of Juan Atkins' best-known projects. He’d been recording as Model 500 since 1985 but this album, made a decade later, is arguably his best work. It veers wildly from the opening dub techno glory of Milky Way, to more bleepy material closer to his Detroit roots, to almost trip-hoppy tracks with vocals (‘The Flow’). A deep immersive ride through his various moods, and one of many records that earned Atkins his nickname as ‘The Godfather of Techno’.
The Martian - LBH - 6251876 (A Red Planet Compilation)
This is a CD compilation of tracks that came out on Underground Resistance subsidiary Red Planet. Works were credited as by the Martian - widely considered to be Mike Banks - and also featured appearances from Detroit artists such as Eddie "Flashin" Fowlkes, Drexciya, Octave One and Model 500. It is essential listening for anyone who wants to find another side to the mid-period days of Detroit techno. It contains twelve deep and soulful techno cuts (including the classic track ‘Stardancer’), heavy on 90s synth technology, and with sci-fi themes explored within the danceable and hypnotic grooves.
Kenny Larkin - Azimuth
Kenny Larkin should not be forgotten when we talk about the Detroit innovators. He came along a little later (due to serving in the military) but his productions - particularly on this 1994 album - were a little more sophisticated and complex than other records at the time. Both funky and spacey, it’s appearance on Warp confirms a record a little more suited to headphone than dancefloors - but nonetheless a must-listen.
Biokenitiks is the debut album of the production team of Thomas Köner and Andy Mellwig and was notable for being the first release on Chain Reaction. It is an important release in the dub techno sub genre, and a particularly unnerving and atmospheric record with ambient clouds of sound, sometimes with only the merest hint of a kick drum. Stunning stuff, miles away from the original techno blueprint.