Techno is Black, Tekkno is German

By DeForrest Brown, Jr.

Artwork [Graphic Art] from “Origins Of A Sound,” Submerge – 1995

A preview of Assembling a Black Counter Culture (Primary Information, 2021) and hypertext resource on the origins of a sound; From White Brothers with No Soul to Black Counter Culture, a conversation with Alexander G. Weheliye (CTM, Saturday January 30 2021)

Despite the marketed perception of Berlin as a city overflowing with techno music; until the late 80s, the city’s music scene was dominated by rock music with artists like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Sinéad O’Connor and Pink Floyd performing in celebration of the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. American Forces Network (AFN), a free radio and television service setup by the United States military in Germany in 1945, was very influential to the German people who were exposed to exported American music for the first time; and specifically, experienced the wealth of Black music that had been bottled up, contained and distributed by the American music industry. Jazz, funk, soul, disco, hip hop, house, techno and popular music–as constructed and standardized by Berry Gordy and Norman Whitfield at Detroit’s Motown Records–would pour across the airwaves introducing German listeners to musicians like Donna Summer, James Brown, Marshall Jefferson and others. Black music had appeared in Germany almost out of nowhere in a way that ought to be reminiscent of the counter intelligence initiatives that the United States had been known to use in previous scenarios involving military occupation. 

Nevertheless, the electronic dance music that would emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s amongst the African-Amercian youth counterculture of industrialized cities like Chicago and Detroit–separated from the convention of popular American music–would have a particular effect on the “no future generation” of Germany, offering a surge of life and way of expressing themselves both ahead of and during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. There was no human or culture attached to the electronic rhythm and soul music that they were experiencing, and this anonymity and detached quality would be a key feature of how the Berlin underground rave culture would peel apart the layers of the third wave, Black technological music and drape over it the diplomatic logos of German intellectualism. In a scene from “We Call It Techno!,” a 2017 documentary on the rise of German rave movement–produced by Electronic Beats, an international marketing program initiated by Deutsche Telekom AG–a roaming “rave-voyeur” camera operator surveys a German club space, landing on a pair of skinheads. The cameraman asked the two young men, “What is it that inspires you with techno music?” The skinheads reply, “I think techno expresses the emotion of today’s times in the best way of all, basically the blankness of society.”

Founded in 1959, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records “hit factory”–named after the portmanteau of “motor” and “town”–would parallel the success of Detroit’s automotive industry, earning 110 top ten hits on the Billboard charts throughout the 60s, fulfilling a version of his dream to “educate customers about the beauty of jazz” by selling optimized soul music from African-American ensembles of vocalists, session musicians and studio engineers, who would be recruited and assembled under contract to produce copyrighted populist earworms to be consumed and felt by all demographics under the slogan: “The Sound of Young America.” In 1967, in the midst of the Hippie Revolution and the “Summer of Love,” racial tensions between Black and white Americans boiled over in Detroit–and over 100 other cities in the United States in what would be remembered as a “long, hot summer”–resulting in a riot that would leave 45 people dead and over 2,000 buildings destroyed, leading to mass “white flight” from the city of Detroit to the suburbs. The chaos of social unrest prompted Berry Gordy to relocate Motown to Los Angeles leaving behind a financially ruined Detroit and a youthful Black music scene that would develop a “progressive music” in the aftermath of the “death of disco” well into the 1980s in spite of the dystopian results of a large-scale failure to desegregate and industrialize Black and white communities throughout the United States. 

Around the same time, a 19 year old Juan Atkins was experimenting with his first electronic instruments while also reading Alvin Toffler’s 1980 book The Third Wave in a high school class called “Future Studies.” Toffler’s first book, Future Shock–published in 1970, speculated on the long term psychological and social effects of living in planned environments within a “one size fits all” model of technological production. The Third Wave, the second book in a trilogy, would introduce Juan Atkins to the term techno––a prefix of the word technology and/or technocracy, meaning a society or government run by technical experts. Juan Atkins’ idea for techno music–was to collapse the ensemble structure of jazz and funk bands down to a single person; wielding interlocking machines, particularly rhythm and keyboard based synthesizers that would be routed into mixers where he could fade and pan the captured sounds in real-time as he played these instruments live, improvisationally. In 1983, the same year as Herbie Hancock’s update of Curtis Mayfield’s “Future Shock”, Juan Atkins released his first album Enter in the proto-techno funk band Cybotron with Rik “3070” Davis, a reclusive electronic music connoisseur and veteran of the Vietnam war––he had been tasked to protect the Chiêu Hồi psychological operations program which broadcasted and distributed propaganda and American popular culture to South Vietnam. “Clear,” the lead single from Cybotron’s debut would be a hit selling 50,000 copies and reaching number 52 on the Billboard Black Singles charts in spite of its lyrics based on Scientology and the apocalyptic clearing out of modern civilizations. While in the midst of the economic crisis of Detroit’s supposed city of the future, Juan Atkins took an interest in the information era and Alvin Toffler’s analysis of human history as a “succession of rolling waves of change” from nomadic to agricultural to industrial to information technology-oriented civilizations around the world that are now interwoven into a singular community made up of many electronically connected villages. Juan Atkins considered that, “there had to be more than three waves and extrapolated the necessity of interfacing the spirituality of human beings into the cybernetic matrix: between the brain, the soul and the mechanisms of cyberspace.” 

In the liner notes for the 1988 compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit–which includes Juan Atkin’s aptly named track “Techno Music”–journalist Stuart Cosgrove wrote that techno (or “Hi-Tech Soul”) was “undoubtedly the music of Detroit,” but qualified that the music isn’t as optimistic as the Motown sound that preceded it. The writing acknowledges the “Black American garage funk” aspect of Juan Atkin’s affinity towards Bernie Worrell and P-Ffunk’s approach to synthesizers, but began to steer the narrative into a context more familiar to the Eurocentric musical canon and listening audience:

“The origins of techno date back to the late 70’s to the suppressed identity of European synthesiser groups like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra and to British electronic funk groups like Heaven 17, New Order and the Human League. Their music established the synthesiser as the creative core of new music, encouraging a whole generation of young musicians to turn their basements into makeshift studios. Unknown to Europe the ears of Black America were listening with increasing fascination reversing the age-old flow of musical influence.”

In East Berlin, a regular series of parties called Tekknozid, which combines the words “techno” and “acid,” would be organized by Wolfram Neugebauer aka DJ WolleXDP in 1990, and proliferate what he deemed to be a new German invention from the African-American sound, “tekkno.” Following the reunification of Berlin, the Tekknozid parties acted as a conciliatory format for alternative expression for the German youth. “XDP” (Exstasy Dance Project) was a concept formulated by Wolfram Neugebauer envisioning German tekkno as being distinguishable from Detroit techno as an embodiment of total ecstasy and Kantian sublime––a transcendent, out-of-body journey into something subconscious and related to the aesthetics of early virtual reality in a digital age that hadn’t yet reached Berlin and their drug-induced psychedelic experience. Every flyer for the Tekknozid party came with an instructional message, mandated by Neugebauer:

“Warning: Tekknozid is not a new synonym for disco. The hardest techno beats from house, industrial, hip-hop, electronic body music (EBM), new beat and acid operate on the subconscious in interaction with psychedelic light installations and effects. The boundaries of time and space disappear in total ecstasy. Visions from the subconscious provide a view into cyberspace, that undefined data space behind monitors, synthesizers and satellite antennas.”

Flyer for Tekknozid Rave – September 1991

The appropriation of techno in this time of liberation and unity for Berlin could be seen as a marker of a kind of German nationalism and pride. On the contrary, a major absorption and assimilation of East Berlin into the free-market capitalism of the West world occurred, and as a previously annexed zone, the Eastern Bloc was quite vulnerable to the entrepreneurial spirit of West Berliners. With large spaces being cheap and available along with a completely untapped demographic, the integration of East Berlin into the West took place across a somewhat colonial venture that subsequently created a unique culture that would develop the formerly communist regime into a global tourist attraction. 500 kilometers south of Berlin in the city of Frankfurt, DJ Talla 2XLC worked as a sales clerk at City Music record store in Frankfurt throughout the 1980s where he organized imported Kraftwerk, New Order, and Depeche Mode into a broad section of electronic music he called techno, while Detroit techno, house, disco, funk, jazz and hip hop were classified as “Black music” by German music distributors. In 1984, Talla 2XLC would open Technoclub where he sought to capitalize on the concept of electronic dance music, DJing electronic body and industrial music he called “tech house” to differentiate from disco and other African-American music whereas the Berlin youth counter culture would widely accept the Chicago acid house and Detroit techno sounds being played and replicated at raves like Tekknozid and Tresor. The tekkno that was simmering in the rubble of the collapse of communism would explode more fully in the 1990s completing a long gestating concept of future music from German youth. Imagining a better future in spite of material conditions and economic means has been a remarkable staple of German nationalism since the end of WWII—paralleling the United States’ own postwar expansion into a technologically determined future of capitalist realism upheld by its military industrial complex. Reconstructing physically from the aftermath of the most catastrophic war to have taken place in human history as well as reconstructing existentially, a new German identity was key to moving onward and forward. 

Formed in 1970 in the city of Dusseldorf, the electronic rock band Kraftwerk emerged from the minds and experiments of Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, who had collaborated the year before on the project Organisation zur Verwirklichung gemeinsamer Musikkonzepte, meaning “Organisation for the Realization of Shared Music Concepts”—equipped with the newest electronic instruments available at the time, both for commercial and academic use. Rather than igniting the flame towards an electronic dance movement, the genres of “Deutsch-Rock,” (“German rock”) and/or Kosmische Musik (“cosmic music”) would encompass the technological direction that many German bands like Faust, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, and Neu! would follow, seeking to break new ground with the use of early synthesizers and the theoretical practice of musique concrète, a kind of electroacoustic music derived from the manipulation of audio artifacts and tape reels.

Pictures of Kraftwerk performing at The Ritz in New York City taken by Laura Levine – April 1981

Like most of Germany, Ralf and Florian were tuned into the radio programming of American Forces Network, receiving the signals of the United States music recording industry. Karl Bartos, who would join Kraftwerk as an electronic percussionist between the years of 1975 and 1991, in an interview conducted by the late Dan Sicko in his 1999 book Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, acknowledged that, “We were all fans of American music: soul, the Tamla/Motown thing, and of course, James Brown. We always tried to make an American rhythm feel, with a European approach to harmony and melody.” An article written in the Wire magazine in 2014 by the magazine’s publisher Tom Harrington observed that “Kraftwerk’s genius partly resided in their preternatural ability to instantly detect, absorb and repurpose minute but significant shifts in the fundamental stuff of African-American popular music, which is to say rhythms and technology.” The article was a review of a keynote speech at London’s Science Museum by David Toop, a professor of audio culture, concerning what Harrington called a “startling assertion that Kraftwerk were Dusseldorf’s answer to The Isley Brothers.” Addressing interviews with British DJ and producer Kirk Degiorgio in previous issues of the magazine, Harrington writes that the “source code of ‘Autobahn’ is routinely located in the music of The Beach Boys. Fine, but then analyse the source of The Beach Boys’ sound, which according to Brian Wilson himself, was an attempt to rewire 50s inner city African-American doo-wop and R&B for the car and beach culture of 60s California.” Harrington continues: 

“During his talk David cued up The Isleys’ “Highways of My Life” and Kraftwerk’s “Tanzmusik” and played them back simultaneously to make a mischievous-serious point about shared musical roots. In an even more inspired moment, he dropped The Isley’s 1969 “Vacuum Cleaner” (“My love is like a vacuum cleaner/It keeps pulling me in”) as an example of the kind of techno-eroticism that had long been a part of the imagery of African-American R&B and would become such a key Kraftwerk trope.” 

Kraftwerk’s 1974 album Autobahn opened with a 22-minute self-titled suite composed with the new-at-the-time Minimoog and EMS Synthi AKS analogue synthesizers, operating as an ode to the conceptual freedom found in the accessible technology of automobiles–and its accessory, the highway–just as the German automotive industry was beginning to outsell the Motor City of Detroit. Expanding and upgrading their sound, concept and equipment considerably after opening their own private music recording studio called “Kling Klang,” the band would work in the studio in shifts of eight to ten hours, considering themselves to be “music workers” while recording The Man Machine in 1978, characterizing their labor intensive process as a kind of performance of how to create art in the industrial mechanical age. For their eighth album, Computer World, Kraftwerk scaled the studio down to a more mobile setup to take on a world tour, transcending their initial fascination with radio communication outside of the presumably endless European frontier and verging into the future of live electronic studio performance. Like so many Europeans before them, Kraftwerk began to see the edges and boundaries of the Western continent and developed a taste for world’s beyond their Eurocentric horizon. Upon release Computer World would be a crossover success reaching number 72 on the Billboard 200 and 32 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart with self-titled lead single being nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1982––the song “Computer World” would later be used as the theme for the United Kingdom’s project for computer literacy, “The Computer Programme.” Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” would strike a chord with the Black youth, making its way into DJ sets and even featuring on The New Dance Show in 1991 on Detroit’s WGPR TV. 

Picture of Juan Atkin’s taken from Music Technology – December 1988

The Electrifying Mojo, an infamous DJ and radio personality in Detroit, acting as a telecommunications ambassador for the inner city, played a big hand in Kraftwerk’s success in the Black community of Detroit. The radio host initially came across Kraftwerk in a trash bin left behind by previous studio occupants, telling music writer Mike Rubin in 2009 that Autobahn, “was the most hypnotic, funkiest, electronic fusion energy I’d ever heard,” and started playing it regularly on his show “The Midnight Funk Association.” In a 2012 personal essay published at Deutsche Telekom AG’s Electronic Beats, Juan Atkins recalled how Kraftwerk’s German futurism pressurized the electronic rhythm, funk and soul of Detroit’s progressive music scene:

“Mojo used to play ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘We Are The Robots’ pretty regularly, but the first time I heard ‘Robots’ I just froze. My jaw dropped. It just sounded so new and fresh. I mean, I had already been doing electronic music at the time, but the results weren’t so pristine—the sound of computers talking to each other. This sounded like the future, and it was fascinating, because I had just started learning about sequencers and drum programs. In my mind, Kraftwerk were, like, consultants to Roland and Korg and stuff because they had these sounds before any of the machines even appeared on the market.”

Once Juan Atkins heard Kraftwerk he reconsidered his loose and organic method of playing electronic instruments adding in more controlled usages of sequencers and programming for a “tight robotic feel.” Atkins would note the mark that Kraftwerk’s computerized pulse music would make on his own, “A lot of people think that I was copying Kraftwerk directly, but that’s absolutely not the case. For me, they weren’t any more of an influence than, say, funk—P-Funk especially.” An avid chess player, Juan Atkin’s tactical sonic response under the Model 500 moniker sought to shatter the boundaries of Kraftwerk’s machine logistics with a matrix-breaking electronic funk. Referring back to Tony Harrington’s article on the soul of electronic dance music for the Wire, “the origins of techno and electro and all the musics that flow from them lie in the synthesized basslines, applied rhythmic technologies and Afrofuturist concepts developed in the early 1970s – pre-Autobahn, pre-Radio Activity – by such African-American visionaries as Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Bernie Worrell and Stevie Wonder, which Juan Atkins et al then took to the next level.”

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