“Uncompromising” is the best adjective to describe Detroit techno and the people who laid the scene’s groundwork. If house is a feeling, techno is an idea, or perhaps a DIY ethos, made in Detroit bedrooms on whatever drum machines, sequencers or synths its young creators could get their hands on.
Speak with any of Detroit techno's early wave guys, and you’ll hear many strongly held ideas as to what techno – and music – can be. Influenced by Kraftwerk, electro, Bambaataa, Italo disco, George Clinton, new wave, and post-disco boogie (essentially everything they heard the Electrifying Mojo play on his radio show), Detroit techno soon became way more popular overseas than it ever was at home.
In recent years, the rest of the world seems to have given up on Detroit as a city, save for the occasional destruction porn photo essay. But the city's continued contribution to electronic music cannot be overstated.
In the following list, I tried to include a few of the obvious canon and a few cuts that go slightly deeper. It's intended to introduce novices to the genre, and focuses on the first and second wave of Detroit techno, not really ranked but presented chronologically. Criminal omissions were made; there are no selections by Drexciya, Stacey Pullen, Speedy J, Ectomorph, Carl Craig, Omar-S, Theo Parrish, or dozens of other producers who would deserve spots on a longer list.
One more note: Please listen to these tracks on something better than your tinny laptop speakers or for-suckers-only Beats by Dre headphones. This is music meant for proper sound systems.
10. A Number of Names – “Sharevari” (1981)
“Sharevari” is still generally considered to be the first proper techno record, even though there is a camp that argues Cybotron’s “Alleys of Your Mind” is the true first techno song. Bickering about firsties aside, “Sharevari” is still a must-hear sleazy computer funk curio. Based on a sample of Kraftwerk’s “It’s More Fun to Compute,” this funky number was supposedly inspired by watching a hip-hop DJ juggle two copies of the same record: Kano's “Holly Dolly.” Don’t love the OG? Check out The Dirtbombs’ pulverizing cover from earlier this decade.
9. Cybotron – “Cosmic Cars” (1982)
Practically any early track by “Magic” Juan Atkins or his collaborations as Cybotron (with Richard Davis) could be on this list. But “Cosmic Cars” is here because it ties Detroit techno's trademark automotive motifs with the futurist imagery and ideas of a post-industrialist world laid out in Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, a highly influential tome for these young guys grappling with a once prosperous Detroit that was suddenly ailing in the early ’80s. While there still is a debate as to who made the first techno track, Atkins’ work from 1981-1985 laid the groundwork for techno in a way no one else can claim or even come close to touching. That’s why they call him the Originator.
8. Eddie Fowlkes – “Goodbye Kiss” (1986)
Often overlooked as one of techno’s true progenitors because he wasn’t a part of the so-called “Belleville Three” (Atkins and his childhood friends, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, who all came from the Detroit suburb of Belleville), Eddie “Flashin’” Fowlkes is a nevertheless vital part of the early Detroit sound. He made “Goodbye Kiss” after being inspired by an Atkins performance. Borrowing the Originator's gear, he made this gem composed of a wonderfully wonky bassline and a simple vocal sample.
7. Rhythim Is Rhythim – “Nude Photo” (1987)
Derrick May is probably best known for “Strings of Life,” which is for sure a galaxy-shattering classic that bridges the often indiscernible gap between house and techno and transcends both genres altogether. But “Nude Photo,” which May co-wrote with his Rhythim Is Rhythim co-founder Thomas Barnett, is a confident, more restrained jam that sounds like early Chicago house music on Prozac, skipping down some one-lane, abandoned Midwestern road that connects the Windy City to the Motor City.
6. Anthony “Shake” Shakir – “Sequence 10” (1988)
Shake, or Mr. Gone as he’s also known, is the guy-behind-the-guy in the D. He’s been around since the very beginning, but he’s probably the most modest of a very proud set of first and second wavers. “Sequence 10” – his first solo single, released on a compilation called Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit in ’88 – finds Shake doing what he does best: an instrumental that keeps it moving with a sly sense of humor and playfulness.
5. Inner City – “Big Fun” (1988)
Kevin Saunderson aka The Elevator made the first mainstream crossover hits to emerge from the Detroit techno scene: “Good Life” and “Big Fun.” The Inner City project was a collaboration with producer Terry “Housemaster” Baldwin and vocalist Paris Grey from Chicago, and Chicago house’s influences are surely on display here. But is Inner City techno or house? Follow-up question: Who cares? Shit bangs.
4. Octave One – “I Believe” ft. Lisa Newberry (1990)
Biological bros Lenny and Lawrence Burden (sometimes with help from their other brothers Lorne, Lynell and Lance) released “I Believe” as their first 12-inch on Derrick May’s Transmat imprint, one of Detroit’s finest labels. This spoken word jam is still one of the best tracks in Octave One’s discography, who are just as good in the studio as they are rocking a live PA. They’re still one of the best live electronic acts on the planet.
3. Suburban Knight – “The Art of Stalking” (1990)
As Surburban Knight, James Pennington makes menacing, grisly music, and “The Art of Stalking” delivers on the promise of its title. This instrumental cut showcases the dark side of the Detroit style. Heard at 5 a.m. in some dingy, dark warehouse, it gets your lizard brain swirling.
2. Underground Resistance – “The Punisher” (1991)
Underground Resistance makes Public Enemy look like Macklemore. UR is a group, label and militant techno lifestyle. Robert Hood aka The Minister of Information, Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks have all been members of this ever-shifting collective (as has the aforementioned James Pennington). This 12-inch does what it says. No bullshit. And like everyone (who’s still living) on this list, they still know what they’re doing in their fourth decade. Watch them rock a live, sax-filled set from last summer in Croatia.
1. Jeff Mills – “The Bells” (1997)
You don’t get a nickname like “The Wizard” for phoning it in. Jeff Mills is probably Detroit techno’s number one fan of outer space and UFOs, and even though he has expatriated to Europe, his name will forever be associated with the city where he got his start. His work is often concerned with lofty, academic themes (think a better version of DJ Spooky), but much of his output is perfectly suited for the club and, like “The Bells,” can be fully appreciated with no intellectualizing whatsoever.
[Note: An earlier version of this list failed to mention Derrick May's collaborator on “Nude Photo,” Thomas Barnett.]