Magnetic Music Roots: The Origin of Techno with Juan Atkins

We got back in touch with our roots in the city of Techno- Detroit.
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We got back in touch with our roots in the city of Techno- Detroit.
Juan Atkins

Juan Atkins, 2015

Techno.

This single word has so many different meanings and understandings to so many different people. Dance music. Movement Electronic Music Festival. Detroit. UK. Underground. Even when you Google it, there are almost too many different perspectives, opinions and stories about what Techno is, where it came from and who created it.

Do you really know the history of Techno? After listening to the music and going to shows for many years, I wanted to get back to the basics—the roots, where it all started. What created this massive movement?

So, I sat down with the man himself—the man who is not always remembered for the instrumental role he played in laying the foundation for the genre we know (and love) today.

So, here’s the story—The story of Techno.

Let’s properly set the stage for this tale of rhythm. Back in the early 80’s, pure electronic music wasn’t around yet. Small glimpses of it were popping up here and there. During this time, “the kids” were listening to a lot of music coming out of Europe. Listening to artists like Kraftwerk and P-Funk who were producing “synth-pop” tracks. The inspiration was there; the music world was just waiting for someone to start experimenting even further.

It was immersed in this music that Juan Atkins found himself drawn toward the music industry. Atkins is the originator, the forefather of Techno. He unknowingly started a movement, a global phenomon that we are still rockin’ out to at shows, festivals and in the car.

I always knew this is what I wanted to do. I talked my mom and grandma into buying me a synthesizer.

This was back when he was around 16 and still in high school. It was with this synthesizer that he started experimenting, sampling sounds and producing whole tracks made 100% electronically.

This was early Techno. No one else was making purely electronic music.

While we may not know those early tracks Atkins was piecing together on his synthesizer, this is the foundation (the birth, even) of Techno music. He continued producing throughout high school, as well as college. It was in college that he met Rick Davies and then the infamous group of Cybotron was born.

Together they produced 'Alleys of Your Mind' in 1981, their most remembered release as Cybotron.

[Alleys of Your Mind] was a smash hit. Electrifying Mojo played it. At the time, he was a DJ on FM. He was very popular and if he played your record, it was an instant hit in the city.

And it truly was. The track became extremely popular, pushing both Atkins and Davies into the spotlight. Cybotron and this track, however, are not what we would describe Techno as today. It possessed more of a “funk” foundation.

Cybotron was more Techno-funk and it leaned into an electro area with records like Planet Rock, Electric Kingdom, Electric 22, Egyptian Lover. We were kinda caught in that whole electro-movement.

So it was with this early music that the foundation of Techno was laid. Around this time the other two Techno legends found themselves further integrated into the music scene—Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson.

Atkins reminisced about this—

Kevin and Derrick, being friends in high school, saw the accolades I was getting based on [Alleys of Your Mind], so they eventually wanted to learn music and get into it, as well.

While May and Saunderson began producing more actively, Cybotron had been picked up by a California record label—Fantasy. Shortly thereafter Atkins and Davies split.

My music always took the direction it was in from the start. And that was the reason why me and Rick split, because Rick wanted to go in more rock. Him being an ex Vietnam Vet, he had a real strong rock influence—Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, stuff like that. He wanted to go in that vein—less electronics. And I wasn’t having that, so I left.

Now, at this time in Chicago, House Music was beginning to take root and blossom in the city. May, living in Chicago during this, began to build a strong relationship between Chicago and Detroit. This opened up doors to release and drop their latest tracks because initially Techno wasn't as popular in Detroit as it was in Chicago and even across the pond in the UK.

Because of our relationship with Chicago, when we released records, in particular “No UFOs,” Derrick took the record to Chicago and they wound up playing the record more in Chicago than in Detroit. So our records began to flourish in Chicago when we began doing four to the floor Techno tracks, instead of more electro-based Techno tracks.

What are some of the most remembered tracks from that period? 'Sharevari' by A Number of Names (1981), 'Techno City' by Model 500 (1983), 'No UFO’s' also by Model 500 (1985), 'Goodbye Kiss' by Eddie Fowlkes (1986), 'Strings of Life' by Rhythm is Rhythm (1987)… The early wave of Techno is filled with track after track of deep, rough sounds artfully produced by some of the biggest names in the industry. 

In fact, the name “Techno” was first used by Atkins and his release of “Techno City” in ’83 solidified it.

The sounds I came up with, I just naturally called it Techno music.

With these new, deep, raw Techno sounds streaming in Chicago, as well as Detroit, people began to take notice.

So when London came calling to Chicago, when they came looking at Chicago, they discovered Detroit because our records were playing on their radio remix shows. Therefore, we got noticed by companies like Cool Cat and, subsequently, that led to a deal with Virgin Records.

The track 'Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit' was released on Virgin Records in 1988. Because the label was based out of the UK, Detroit Techno blew up overseas. It further established the genre’s name, as well as it’s popularity within the dance music scene. 

And thus, Techno music was born.

We were just kids having fun. The technology allowed us to make this music. It just happened.

It definitely was not intentional, nor a planned effort. It began with some kids making sounds and making music—doing what they loved and what they wanted to do. In the process they created a global movement that has withstood the test of time and today is still as relevant as ever.