It flowed muffled and mysterious out of industrial areas in America's biggest cities.
It was the sound of the underground.
But now techno music is going pop. And though some say it sounds like car alarms set to disco, several singles have made the pop and dance charts, and U.S. record company executives eager to bring the sound's subterranean ambience to the Yankee masses are buying up piles of 12-inch singles that now hail mainly from Europe.
Techno is the fast, computer-produced music that fuels the dance-till-dawn warehouse parties known as "raves." But now it's also the sound of choice for major dance clubs, where hit-hungry record-company scouts caught on to the trend.
"We go to import shops and buy up techno," says Gary Pini, a vice president of Profile Records, a company whose artists include DJ Quik. "We go to clubs. We talk to DJs."
In fact, several domestic labels are churning out compilations and signing techno artists, many of whom first released their 130-plus-beats-per- minute vinyl on homespun blank labels just to turn on the rave crowd.
Some of those rudimentary jams, such as L.A. Style's "James Brown Is Dead" and Rozalla's "house"-style "Everybody's Free," reached the depths of Billboard's pop and dance charts. In fact, Rozalla's 1991 underground hit is still a Billboard Hot 100 Single, along with the Movement's "Jump!". Techno by groups such as Fierce Ruling Diva, Utah Saints and Transformer 2 dominate the dance charts.
More than a half-dozen American-label compilations are out, and several popular techno and techno-style artists, including Moby, Eon and T99, have LPs out on domestic labels. Though fans once had to venture to big-city import shops to find this sound that hails mostly from Belgium and England, they now need go only to the nearest record store and buy one of the domestic collections. Techno was once designed with extra bass and freaky synthesizer sounds to enhance the trips of hard-core "ravers" drugged out on the pulse- quickening hallucinogen MDMA (known as "ecstasy," "E" or "X"). But now the techno represented by such big sellers as the Movement and 2 Unlimited has been tamed and is boffo in the 'burbs.
And where popular music has become expensive to produce and is marketed to specific demographic groups, techno recalls the early days of rock and roll: It's made cheaply (often by artists in home studios); its rhythms are African American, and its audience includes healthy portions of whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians.
"It has totally spread across the masses," says Darren Ressler, an editor at Dance Music Report magazine. "You can go to a Sam Goody in any mall and buy it."
The pop-music industry now greets techno performers with the kind of buzz once afforded bigger artists. For example, "Sesame's Treat," an ode to TV's Sesame Street by the English act Smart E's, was picked up domestically by Atlantic Records' Big Beat label and has practically skipped the rave crowd: It has been played on pop radio and received 100,000 retailers' orders before it was even released last month to a pop chart debut at No. 86.
The trend has benefited New York's independent Instinct label, which has gained industry respect during the last year by discovering Moby, America's premier techno artist, who has a new self-titled LP out. "We're very conscious of having to balance commercial success with being on the cutting edge," says label president Jared Hoffman.
Like other artists in the genre, Moby is worried about commercialization. The emerging spokesman for American techno (and a descendant of Herman Melville), Moby says the slew of new compilations is "just horrible."
"They just do one or two hits, then the rest is filler," he says.
But it's being bought.
"The major labels realize they can make money off of it," Ressler says.
Markem X, a popular L.A.-based rave DJ, may have put it best: "Techno is the heavy metal of dance music."
It's a form of music that races much faster than 120 beats per minute, the pace of C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," for example. It includes synthesizer overlays and bass-heavy "break beats" that sound like James Brown's classic "Funky Drummer" rhythm played 30 percent faster.
The sonic cliches for techno: Minimal lyrics, hyped-sounding synthesizers,
histrionic slogans ("James Brown is still alive!" or "Hallelujah!") and
piano breaks (where everything in the song ceases except the bouncing keys of a piano). Most techno is made with computers - sampling machines and sequencers - that record sounds and play them back repeatedly to produce a stream of music.
Where did it come from?
Walk into one of those import shops and the debate is likely to rage: It's really just sped-up house (soulful, bouncy 120-beats-per-minute dance music originally from Chicago). No, it grew out of hi-N.R.G. (125-plus-beats-per- minute disco popular at gay clubs in the 1980s). Wrong. It's really a simplified form of industrial (clanky electronic rock). Nope. It's actually a hybrid of "the Manchester sound" (spacey dance-rock out of Manchester, England).
The most popular of techno tales gives it American roots: 1982's Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force set the stage with a new synthesizer-produced sound called "electro." Detroit's Juan Atkins followed in 1984 with "Techno City," a song influenced by the Casio keyboard sounds of the German group Kraftwerk. Though Atkins cohort Kevin "Reese" Saunderson labeled his 1987 house-style sound "techno," what is considered the first true techno song came in 1990 with Manchester group 808 State's "Cubik." It was one of the first to use a hyped wa-wa synthesizer sound, fast beat, no lyrics and no rapping. In 1991, Eon and T99 followed with "The Spice" and ''Anasthasia," - songs that presented sounds so avant-garde that almost no radio formats could incorporate them.
Several genres also influenced the sound: Early "techno-pop" (Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby, Depeche Mode); the fast-beat forerunners to techno called "West Coast techno" (Unknown DJ), "techno rap" (Egyptian Lover) and ''Miami bass" (2 Live Crew); Belgium's "new beat" music scene; house; Manchester dance-rock, and industrial.
Today several subgenres thrive. Among the more popular ones: "hard core," which features the fastest beats; "rave," which samples uplifting gospel lines and high-note synthesizer sounds for a happy, squawky tone, and ''ragga techno," which samples reggae.
Also, relatives of techno called "deep house," "ambient house" and ''trance" use a 120-plus-beats-per-minute house thump with hypnotic synthesizer overlays.
Meanwhile, record executives are on the lookout for the next dance-music trend. "I'm going to be doing a compilation called Future House," says Profile Records' Pini.
"There's a lot more room for this kind of stuff."
This page last updated 08 Jun 98
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