Has there ever been a pop music movement as well-publicized yet utterly mysterious as the techno craze?
By now, almost everyone who has ever picked up a People magazine has heard about techno music and raves -- those all-night parties featuring frenzied dancing, deafening music, "smart" drinks and funny fashions. Indeed, raves have prompted a few news reports in addition to the trend pieces, thanks to the illicit drugs (MDMA, or "ecstasy," is the best known, but ketamine, or "special K," is gaining popularity among English ravers) that sometimes fuel the partying.
But as much as you may know about techno culture, odds are that you've never heard the music itself. Techno remains an unknown quantity for most pop fans, in part because much of the best techno music springs from an underground network of musicians and mixers, but mostly because techno rejects most of the qualities mainstream pop holds dear.
Melody, for instance. Although it would be exaggerating to suggest that techno records are amelodic at heart, the fact is that most techno singles tend toward short, repetitious phrases -- "tunelettes," if you will -- more than fully-realized themes. Moreover, the dearth of vocals on most of these singles leaves most techno records seemingly indistinguishable from one another.
Then again, techno doesn't need melody the way most pop music does, because it isn't intended for the sort of passive listening experience rock and its relatives encourage. Techno is meant to be moved to, and as such, emphasizes the physical aspects of sound -- the pulsing insistence of sequencers, the gut-wrenching power of bass, and the thumping persistence of drum machines. Even the synth voices used suggest an itchy aggressiveness, tending to buzzing bass lines, shrieking whistles, and a setting that recalls the sound of a tape recorder on fast-forward.
How the style arrived at its pure-function aesthetic is telling. Techno started out in Detroit as a local variant on house music. But unlike thesynth wizards of Chicago and New York, who merely meant to update the soulful intensity of disco, Detroiters like Kevin Saunderson of Inner City wanted something a little harder; their sound built on the same basic beats and diva-driven vocals as house music, but upped the tempo and toughened the textures.
Leaner, meaner sound
This, in turn, caught the ear of club-goers in Belgium and England, who saw the techno stratagem as an interesting alternative to both the sonic assault of industrial dance music and the aural abstractions of acid house. Eventually, what most listeners knew as techno bore little resemblance to the soulful sound of the Detroit original; it was leaner, meaner and far more visceral than any dance music before it.
It also had less to do with soul music -- either as source or influence -- than any pop movement since punk. Although the basic beat certainly derives from the soul-schooled sound of house (and though its mixers aren't above stealing beats from hip-hop and dancehall recordings), few techno records convey the sense of tradition, of connectedness, that house does.
Some, in fact, seem outright hostile to the notion. Take "James Brown Is Dead" by L.A. Style (Arista 2387), the techno single usually credited with "breaking" the American pop charts (though "scraping" might be a more accurate description). An elegy? Hardly. The single is an emphatic rejection of the Brown legacy, from its breathless synths and juggernaut groove to the newsy vocals proclaiming "James Brown is dead." Even the rap version can't resist chortling "The nightmare is over."
Such obvious antipathy is relatively rare, however; apart from a few answer records like Obscure F.M.'s "Michael Jackson Is in Heaven," techno singles tend not to attack the R&B music pantheon by name. More common by far are singles whose lyrical content can be summed up in a phrase -- or even a single word. But then, words don't carry much weight in the techno world; this is essentially a non-intellectual music, valuing physical response over mental engagement, action over thought.
"Jump" by the Movement is typical, boasting even less message than the similarly titled Kris Kross tune. What it does have, however, is sturdy beats, a simple, insistent hook, and a sense of musical drama strong enough to maximize the impact of each shift in rhythm or aural intensity. And those qualities carry through "The Movement" (Arista 8621), from the slowed-down groove and raggamuffin rap of "Jump (Funky Hipno Mix)" to the child-song chant of "B.I.N.G.O."
Soft spot for kid stuff
Techno has quite a soft spot for kid stuff; just look at the enthusiasm sparked by the English hit "Sesame's Treet" by Smart E's (ZYX 6613), which augments the theme from "Sesame Street" with a double-time fatback drum track and a synth figure that sounds uncannily like the noise a phone makes when left off the hook too long.