This is a post in my 1997 series. The first section is part of Chapter IX in my original manuscript, set in mid-1998. Some first names have been changed. For more on this project, read the introduction.


As I neared the end of my first year of raves, I still wasn’t clear what to call the music in general. I stopped calling it, simply, “rave music.” In fact, it started to irk me when my non-raver friends referred to it that way. From reading magazines that catered to the rave culture, like Lotus and URB, and wandering aisles at Tower Records and the Wherehouse, I saw that the rave section was usually labeled “rave,” “electronica,” “electronic dance,” or “dance.” Music reviews in magazines and online postings of upcoming parties on the SFRaves Calendar, which I surfed multiple times a day, used all sorts of genres to describe the music, including trance, house, jungle, and drum and bass, which I started to distinguish from each other. But there was so much more.

I removed “rave” from my vocabulary altogether. I was learning to gauge, from how people talked at parties, who had partied longer than others, which scenes they were into, and, more importantly, if I partied more than they did. I noticed how kids, who seemed to have more experience, talked about the music; sometimes strangers I smoked with in chill rooms busted out names of house DJs I didn’t know, or names of breakbeat parties I hadn’t gone to, and they’d flick their cigarettes with attitude.

Granted, I wasn’t as versed in the lingo as they were. I began to refer to all of the music as “techno,” though I realized, after being shot down for my misuse one night by a stranger at Home Base, that that wasn’t the case for everyone. I later read that “techno” was actually a genre — the pure, minimalist, synthesizer-heavy style born in Detroit in the eighties and nurtured under producing pioneers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson as somewhat of a response to the house music taking over Chicago in the city’s transition from the seventies to the eighties. I knew little about the history and technicalities of techno, and even less about house; Dan and Todd weren’t really into house, and many of the ravers I talked to preferred trance, which I started to like more as the year progressed.

Despite what veterans said and what I read, using “techno” as an umbrella term for the music made sense to me. It originated from computers and synthesizers, unlike most of the rock on the radio I used to listen to in high school. Ever since that fantastic night at Big Floor, when I felt the presence of a machine, I started to hear the beat differently; I didn’t identify it with the face of a guitarist, drummer, or violinist — it transformed into the actual voice of the technology the DJ manipulated, and it talked to me, shapeless and mysterious, so I could mold it however I wanted.


Last week on Twitter, Nathan Jurgenson shared a French documentary from 1996 called Universal Techno. I’d never seen it before, so it was a real treat to watch — it felt like I opened up a time capsule.

Detroit, probably as you noticed, is somewhat of a depressed, post-industrial city. I think that the general attitude here with that powers that be, with the local government, is that industry must die to make way for technology. I think Detroit is a city in North America that’s probably experienced the technological revolution first, and I think that it affects all of the occupants of Detroit, including artists, musicians… We probably wouldn’t have developed this sound in any other city in America other than Detroit. [18:32]

It’s all about Detroit, the techno sound, the scene that was born and has evolved there, and the role of industry and machinery in music and art. It’s worth your time if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including

12 thoughts on “Techno(logy)

  1. I love the idea of s city shaping the music. I’ve found my musical influences morphing as I’ve moved to a new city. Your surroundings absolutely contribute to the development of your sound! Great read, thanks for sharing!

  2. I really like this! For myself, I like all different kinds of music. I have to be in a certain mood to listen to certain types of music. But I have listen to techno kind before and I do like it. Like I said before, I have to be in the mood lol. Thank you for posting this!

  3. Great post! All about music. I enjoy techno music, however it lacks the humanistic touch and expression sometimes. Nothing beats live creativity on an instrument. Though I do enjoy writing music using both methods.

    1. Thanks! Agree — I enjoy both, and watching live music is such a different experience. With techno, I’m listening primarily to conjure memories, to experience a storyline with the beat that’s internal/mental, and — of course, if I’m out — to dance.

      Your comment reminds me of seeing Underworld live (which I recently wrote about in the latter half of this post) –the sound of machines and technology, mixed with the dynamic stage presence of their frontman (Karl Hyde). In a way, it’s its own mix of both worlds.

  4. I thank you for being a writer, a great writer of your generation Cheri. I miss record stores. I miss vinyl and live music. It defines us and our growing up time.

  5. If techno is universal how can is possibly be based in Detroit? It would need to satellite around the ISS and broadcast through at least a hundred radioactive mediums to be universal. It’s completely local, and if you check Google Maps you can clearly see the best techno spot is in Franklin, NJ. The map says so.

  6. Although I’m not familiar enough with techno music to comment about it, I fully agree on the role of certain geographic places for artistic expression in general. No surprise that a city like Detroit could have given birth to a new musical genre to express the human feelings associated with a certain era.

    I think of the British punk band The Clash, in a different musical genre or even to the great Russian classical composer Dmitri Shostakovich who wrote during the Siege of Leningrad, all also creating new music based on their surroundings and the deep changes of their times.

    Of course I enjoyed this documentary with its French subtitles.

  7. Although, of course, even people like Derrick May and Frankie Knuckles, all the way up to Africa Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash all gave full credit to the ultimate techno pioneers; the mighty Krautrock gods that are Kraftwerk.

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