Black Music Appreciation: The History of House & Techno

Black Music Appreciation_ The History of House & Techno

Although Electronic Dance Music (EDM) now has a predominately white audience, it wasn’t always this way! In honor of Black Music Appreciation Month, we’re taking it back to the 70s and 80s. Join us in a brief history lesson of the Black community’s influence in the creation of EDM!

House Music & Frankie Knuckles

When raves first came around in Chicago, Illinois, they weren’t technically called “raves” yet. They were simply nightlife, warehouse gatherings where people could dance the night away… specifically, Black and gay people.

The Warehouse

Local Black and gay communities in the area began frequenting a members-only club called The Warehouse in the 70s. Here, they felt safe to express themselves authentically in the racially tense and homophobic environment of 1970s Chicago. The Warehouse was a sanctuary free from judgment.

In 1977, Frankie Knuckles started DJing regularly at the Warehouse. He noticed the audience’s enthusiasm toward songs that felt almost electronic and robotic, such as the song “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, and eventually, he became well-known in the community for mixing revolutionary disco, soul, and Eurosynth records by making reel-to-reel edits.

House is Born

After a while, Knuckles, along with other Black artists, such as Steve “Silk” Hurley, Ron Hardy, and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, started adding cheap drum machines to their sets.

This style would eventually be known as “house music”.

House Music is considered a style of disco and is characterized by deep bass, 4/4 rhythms, and the periodic use of piano, synthesizer riffs, and vocals.

It is thought, though not proven, that this name came from record stores across Chicago by people continually asking for the records that were played at the Warehouse. The record stores then simply started calling the records “house”.

Techno & the Belleville Three

Meanwhile in Detroit, the violence of the 1960s was ebbing. The city had taken a toll from the 12th Street Riots, the 1960-61 recession, the White Flight, the collapse of the auto industry, and a drastic increase in unemployment rates.

Many white people moved to the suburban outskirts of Detroit or to other U.S. cities, and along with them went their money.

With collapsing buildings and abandoned skyscrapers lining the urban streets and newly wide-spread machines replacing assembly line workers, the streets began to look like a dystopian future wasteland.

This collapse, however, was a perfect atmosphere for a new sound: techno.

The Start of Techno

Techno is generally characterized by a repetitive, centric beat, typically varying between 120 and 150 beats per minute.

Techno has also since claimed three founding fathers – high schoolers Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, three Black friends living in a predominately white neighborhood in the small, fishing-centric town of Belleville, 30 miles outside of Detroit.

They soon became the Belleville Three and started creating a sound that no one had ever heard before.

They used instruments that were completely synthesized combined with electronically modulated voices and played in abandoned warehouses and other buildings scattering Detroit. The new music gave the people of Detroit hope that there was more in life to come than what they were living through currently.

Atkins eventually separated from the group, and in 1988, named a track “Techno Music.” This is when the style was formally named “techno”.

Shaping Modern Day EDM

With Detroit and Chicago influence moving into European countries in the late 1980s, and then subsequently coming back over seas to the U.S., techno, house, and a number of other subgenres eventually spawned a new genre: EDM.

“Detroit techno was Detroit techno. Chicago house is Chicago house. It is inspired subconsciously by something, nothing just… comes from nothing. Everything comes from something.”

– Derrick May

So the next time you are listening to some good EDM wubs, send a silent thank you to these gentlemen. Because without them, the EDM we know and love today may never have been born.


Modulations: A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound edited by Peter Shapiro

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