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Techno in Germany
Who invented it?

A musical style whose place of origin is a matter of discussion: Techno
A musical style whose place of origin is a matter of discussion: Techno | Photo: © Dare Pixel/stock.adobe.com

Frankfurt am Main and Berlin argue about who invented Techno. But the genre, like every art form, has not one source but many.

Berlin or Frankfurt am Main? The question about the birthplace of Techno has been raised again and again in Germany when it is a matter of tradition and the nature of the musical style. In this case, however, a recollection of the remark by German football legend Andy Möller would be more to the point: “Milan or Madrid – the main thing is that it’s Italy”. The question and answer must then be: “Frankfurt or Berlin? The main thing is that it’s Detroit!” As hardly another city, the former car metropolis in the United States stands for the sound of the city “The” sound? No, for several.

It was here, in the 1960s, that “The Sound of Young America” arose (this was the slogan of the record label “Motown”). The former assembly-line work Berry Gordy organized his company on the model of a car factory. With stars such as Diana Ross and The Supremes and Marvin Gaye, Motown became the success story of what was called “Black capitalism”.

Rise of a new music

The decline of the car industry in Detroit in the 1980s was accompanied by the rise of a new music. “At Ford and General Motors, the only thing I’m interested in are the robots”, says Techno pioneer Juan Atkins. Artists such as Atkins, Underground Resistance and Derrick May were soon shaping the new sound of the city of Detroit. Detroit Techno is, to begin with, an Afro-American music, a style that sees itself in a continuity – with Funk, Soul and Rhythm and Blues, all the way back to the Blues of the early twentieth century.

The predominantly male, almost exclusively Afro-American main figures of early Detroit Techno, however, were restrained about making statements as to the so-called roots of their music and the skin colour of its protagonists, and with good reason. After all, they, and hip-hop pioneers such as the New York DJ Afrika Bambaataas, had gone to school with the Dusseldorf band Kraftwerk. Against the cult of persons and stars, Kraftwerk set the concept of de-personalization. Without Kraftwerk’s album Trans Europa Express, Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force would probably never have been. Without the single Die Roboter, Electro-Duo Cybotron, consisting of Juan Atkins und Richard Davis (aka 3070), would perhaps never have been founded.

Quoted, copied, adapted

On the other hand, Kraftwerk never loses an opportunity to emphasize the importance of Afro-American artists such as George Clinton and James Brown for their music. And without the Beach BoysFun Fun Fun, no Fahr’n Fahr’n Fahr’n auf der Autobahn (Drive, Drive, Drive on the Motorway).

Like any art, pop music too doesn’t have a single origin, a single source. Like any art, pop music is a constant process of reciprocal influences. It quotes, copies, adapts, transforms, mixes, borrows, steals. With copy and paste, file sharing, (re-) mixing technologies and digitalization, the attempt to fix a musical style to a definite birthplace, literally to “locate” it, is downright absurd. Thus the claim that Techno was “born” in Berlin or in Frankfurt seems like an attempt to turn back the clock and to assert the validity of copyright over a fluid, highly dynamic mixture of music, culture and social issues.

Techno as location marketing

That Techno is now past its prime doesn’t make the current dispute over copyright between Berlin and Frankfurt any better. Nor that some players are vying for the prerogative of interpretation on the history of Techno to enhance their own marketing position. Thus the initiators of the planned Museum of Modern Electronic Music (MOMEM) in Frankfurt are constructing a supposed historical continuity by focusing on the Frankfurt club and DJ scene: from the good old discotheque Dorian Gray at the airport in the late 1970s to Omen (only a stone’s throw away from the site of MOMEM) in the early 1990s and up to the present with Club Robert Johnson near Offenbach

But very little connects these places. Robert Johnson is still today a creative centre of a lively scene of DJs and producers, with its finger always on the pulse of the times. Omen, founded by Sven Väth, was the biggest discotheque in the city in the glory days of Techno, popular amongst bankers and ravers, who were sometimes one and the same. In the large-capacity disco Dorian Gray, the so-called glitterati celebrated at Miss contests and Formula 1 parties. As far as Techno was concerned, the organizers were rather less than up to date.

In Berlin too the club scene has long been an important factor in city marketing and tourism; after all, Tim Renner, a formal label manager, was Berlin State Secretary for Culture until 2016. The question whether Techno arose in Frankfurt or Berlin is therefore mainly about money, and is in the end superfluous.