Without question, Detroit’s techno scene revolutionized the notion of what electronic music could do in the 20th Century. Taking their cues from everyone ranging from German futurists Kraftwerk to avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to Chicago acid house, Detroit’s immensely-talented producers crafted a unique style that combined elements of Latin music and Brian Eno’s ambient synth explorations. Here are seven tracks that revolutionized Detroit techno, and why DJs the world over are still playing these incredible tunes.
1. Rhythim Is Rhythim, “Strings of Life” (1987)
Under the auspices of legendary Detroit producer Derrick May, “Strings of Life” revolutionized the sound of Detroit techno and electronic music as a whole. The song’s instantly-recognizable piano intro brought the syncopated keyboard style to the masses, but it was the tune’s emotional content that really captured the attention of techno fans at the time: At once melancholy and uplifting, “Strings of Life” remains a stone-cold classic in clubs across the world.
2. Psyche, “Elements” (1989)
Way ahead of its time, Carl Craig’s “Elements” (made under his Psyche alias) set the stage for ambient techno to revolutionize dance music in the 1990s. Deeply influential to artists like Aphex Twin, the ethereal synths of “Elements” and Craig’s mastery of the Roland 909 drum machine haven’t dated at all in the intervening three decades since the song was released. That timelessness of “Elements” alone is a testament to Craig’s now-legendary skills as a producer.
3. Underground Resistance, “The Theory” (1991)
Underground Resistance was always one of the most highly-respected acts coming out of Detroit’s fierce techno scene. On “The Theory,” the best elements of this unique production team were on full display: The tune’s solid 909 programming, compelling vocal samples, Latin percussion elements, and acid-influenced 303 bass-lines remain staples in the dance music world to this day.
4. Jeff Mills, “The Bells” (1997)
Without question, former Underground Resistance member Jeff Mills changed the Detroit techno game with “The Bells” in 1997. His signature bass-heavy 909 rhythms and syncopated synthesizer chords put this tune in a different league from everything that was happening in Detroit’s music scene in 1997: To this day, the song remains a staple in any good techno set.
5. Inner City, “Big Fun” (1988)
More laid-back than many songs on the list, “Big Fun” is nevertheless energetic to its core. Instrumental in bringing the Latin percussion sound to Detroit’s fervent techno scene, “Big Fun” sounds just as fresh today as it did back in 1988. Played on a big club sound-system, the song takes on an almost epic feel; it’s little wonder this tune made serious waves after its release.
6. Model 500, “No UFOs” (1985)
One of the defining tracks of Detroit techno history, “No UFOs” sounded like it had been made in the future when it was released in 1985. Its heavy acid house bass-lines and rollicking 808 drum beats still make the song sound like it was recorded in a dystopian society. If you’re looking for one of the first launching points for Detroit techno as a movement, “No UFOs” is a great place to start.
7. A Number of Names, “Sharevari” (1981)
Even before “No UFOs,” Detroit’s best producers weren’t afraid to experiment with futuristic sounds. It’s hard to believe that this track could have been made in 1981: Equal parts Kraftwerk pastiche and futuristic acid house template, “Sharevari” and its distinctive sound would usher in a new age of electronic music within Detroit and in the world at large. Its influence can still be felt today in everything from Squarepusher’s music to the newly-vibrant independent house scene.