Everything has a beginning, and house and techno culture is no exception. Learn about the key cities around the world that have helped make house and techno a global dancefloor phenomenon. From Los Angeles to New York and across the pond, the genres changed the music landscape and have helped create a global, interconnected community. Every game has important players, so it’s time to get to know some of the key cities that have contributed to the strong presence of house and techno music around the world.
The origins of house music start in Chicago, and thus it’s the first pitstop when digging into the vault of underground music in the house and techno culture. The electronic music movement has strong roots in the Midwest region of the United States. House music is disco’s offspring and took flight in the 1980s throughout the Southside of Chicago. “In the beginning, we didn’t know it was house. Nobody knew. It was dance music coming from disco,” said house music originator Jesse Saunders. Born in the Bronx, Frankie Knuckles may not be from Chicago but the Windy City certainly became his second home. While the question of who actually created the genre is hard to answer, he almost single-handedly shaped it. Joining in Knuckles’ league are Marshall Jefferson, Larry Heard, Paul Johnson, Ron Hardy, and Steve “Silk” Hurley. They were also instrumental in helping define house music. Thanks to them, house music has served as the bedrock of electronic music inspiring artists for forty years and counting.
The house music spirit continues to run deep throughout the city. From early spaces like The Warehouse, some tie “house” music’s name back to an abbreviation of the venue, to the modern-day influential venues like Smartbar, you could get your house music fix at any time on any day. Looking to get down on a Sunday? Queen! was your answer. The independent music venue, before COVID-19, hosted a weekly dance party gliding you into a fresh start to your week. Resident DJs included hometown talent and beloved figures Derrick Carter and Michael Serafini. If you’re ever in the city, make sure to visit Gramaphone Records where you might be lucky enough to catch Serafini behind the counter. It’s not unusual for touring artists to make a pitstop at the iconic record store that has served as a musical incubator. The dance music shop has survived the music industry’s volatile environment selling music in all its formats (CDs, cassettes, and vinyl) from all over the world for more than 50 years.
As the influence of house music grew, another city was paving the way for a subgenre of the house and techno culture just east of Chicago. Detroit became the birthplace of techno. Drawing inspiration from the city’s other musical creations (Motown, funk, jazz) as well as European musical artists like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder techno an industrial musical experiment. Why industrial? Its actual physical surroundings influenced the sound that characterizes techno.
As many know, Detroit flourished in the 1950s largely due in part to it becoming the heart of the American automotive industry. Attracting manufacturers and mass production large buildings were needed to assemble cars. As Detroit’s economy declined in the 1980s the once budding warehouses filled with automated processes turned into vacant structures leaving behind empty rhythms of factory life. Drum machines became an integral part of techno like Roland’s TR-808 and TR-909 that seemed to replicate the droning, repetitive soul that used to inhabit the city. The Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson) captured the gritty, gnarly sound characterized by their city helping create a cultural exchange overseas.
If there’s one techno event to catch in the United States it’s Movement, and surprise, surprise it’s held in the same city that birthed the genre. Movement Music Festival is one of the longest-running dance music events in the world committed to showcasing authentic electronic music. An experience dedicated to the genre and its fans but also inviting artists who characterize the city’s musical innovation including hip-hop and rap. Jeff Mills, Danny Brown, Luke Slater, Nicole Moudaber, and Jamie Jones have been among the DJs to perform since the festival’s inception in 2000.
Techno is from Detroit, but its synth melodies and repetitive four-on-the-floor beat quickly caught the attention of a foreign crowd. Berlin adopted it and gave the moody genre another home. The history of these two cities is deep and long, and similar to Detroit in the 1980s, Berlin went through a cultural shift. Berlin picked up on the foundation Detroit laid and added onto it creating darker, heavier undertones. Clubs like Ufo (now known as Tresor), Der Bunker and Berghain have contributed to techno’s appeal helping position Berlin as a clubbing capital. Some of these clubs like Berghain and Tresor branched out and created their own labels. Ostgut Ton and Tresor Records respectively have been pivotal in the exploration and expansion of techno in Berlin helping put the city on the global techno map.
The Big Apple kept the fire going to the house and techno culture explosive evolution. New York’s Frankie Bones was at the helm of the East coast house and techno movement helping expand its presence overseas. Known as “The Godfather of American rave culture,” he cemented its motto of PLUR (peace, love, unity, and respect). Alongside him were his brother Adam “X” Mitchell and Heather Heart who together created a community for the underground dance music scene in New York. Bones’ influence to recreate raves stemmed from the time he spent playing abroad in England during the summer of 1989. At that time, “raves” was still a foreign concept Stateside. If you wanted to dance your best bet was clubs.
It’d be remiss to highlight house and techno culture in New York without paying a nod to Paradise Garage where dance music innovator DJ Larry Levan would spin house records. He held a decade-long residency at the New York City night club that later became a prototype for clubs to come.
Southern California (SoCal), specifically Los Angeles, can be seen as the cornerstone to the explosion of U.S. rave culture. Raving, during its peak years between 1996 – 2002, reached new heights from audience and event size to its impact on the house and techno culture. With house and techno flooding ears overseas thanks to the groundwork of cities like Chicago, New York, and Detroit, focus shifted to the West Coast.
When you think Los Angeles you think Hollywood. It holds its ground as one of the entertainment capitals of the world inviting creative talent from radio and music to film and TV. Pop, rap, and heavy metal dominated airwaves in the 1990s thus controlling what (and who) would get stage time in music venues across the country particularly in LA. With no seat at the table, the house and techno culture went underground setting up secret parties in all sorts of locations: abandoned buildings, lowkey clubs, and even the desert. With constraints for where a rave could organize, after all, all you needed was DJ equipment, speakers, and a crowd, the world became one big playground. This opened the door for the house and techno culture.
I think there’s always been a weird music scene in LA; it’s mutated in a lot of different ways. I used to go to Hollywood to see bands like Medicine, The Faith Healers, the Breeders, Sonic Youth. There’s always been a pretty strong club culture that was very rooted in house music from early on. There’s a lot of British expats that would play acid house or house, some Detroit techno and stuff like that. LA also had a really big culture of freestyle music.
Imagine house and techno culture as a relay race, and Doc Martin receiving the baton to start the momentum for the LA leg. He helped introduce house music to the City of Angels bringing inspiration from the work he had been doing in his hometown of San Francisco. It has long been known that Los Angeles can be a creative paradise for those who are ready to take the bull on by the horns. Whether local or transplant, the city has been giving the house and techno culture some of its most influential artists. Truncate, Drumcell, Silent Servant and Developer are among the DJs and producers who are pioneers in their own right. Truncate (born David Flores), formerly known as Audio Injection, was DJing in warehouses and deserts as the DIY rave culture was on the rise. His style has since evolved exploring a deeper, more raw side of techno. Drumcell appeared on the scene at the same time as Truncate and were heavily involved with one another. They organized local warehouse parties while also producing the kind of techno that saw them tour the world and become regular names on Berghain flyers. Born in Central America, Juan Mendez aka Silent Servant later moved to LA, and started DJing at the tender age of 16. He rose to prominence in 1999 when he met Birmingham techno producer Regis and became part of Sandwell District. His signature dark techno sound shines through in his label Jealous God. His style has influenced many artists and attracted many fans throughout the years. Developer, another veteran of the underground scene, who also emerged in the 90s and is still active within the rave circuit. He was a pinnacle force in establishing techno culture organizing underground events. These were some of the first parties that welcomed international acts helping elevate the LA house and techno culture.
Care to take a trip down memory lane? Check out this Instagram account dedicated to underrepresented 90s L.A. backyard parties, rave, and underground scene.
The UK has birthed several subgenres of house and techno including hardcore, jungle, drum & bass, dubstep, and garage. The trio Black Dog set the techno groundwork in the UK for artists as well as B12. As Detroit techno arrived in the UK, members of each group recall wanting to recreate its sound while integrating local musical influences. “When I heard ‘It Is What It Is’ by Rhythim Is Rhythim, I was crying like, ‘What the hell is this music?’ said Steve Rutter of B12.“I just wanted to emulate that. Not plagiarise it, but do the UK equivalent of it. It planted a seed and it’s still there.”
Three cities take the driver seat for leading the house and techno breakthrough in the UK: London, Birmingham, and Brighton. These cities were fertile soil for the rich electronic sounds of house and techno across the pond from Chicago and Detroit. It was also in the UK where the “acid house” scene fully flourished. London became a hub for music venues attracting club-goers and also invited American talent to perform for the local crowds. The “Birmingham sound,” a sub-genre of techno, emerged at the turn of the decade in the 90s. It is characterized by a hard, fast, and uncompromising style that strips the music of the bassline funk made famous by the techno of Detroit and Berlin. Rebekah and Regis are DJs who fully embrace their hard-driving hometown sound.
Last but not least is the City of Brighton, home to “The Baron of Techno,” aka Dave Clarke. “Brighton was one of [these] places where people came from all over, and ended up there because it was the end of the train line,” said Clarke in an interview. “The clubbing scene basically involved people that were coming down from London for the weekend.” It played an important role in showcasing emerging DJs, but also introducing other subgenres to the local dance scene. The Arch (formerly known as The Zap) hosted everything from trance and progressive to trip-hop and garage. Sasha, John Digweed, Laurent Garnier, and even “The Godfather of House Music” himself, Frankie Knuckles, graced the club’s decks.
Ibiza also holds its own when it comes to cities that have shaped house and techno culture. The island’s charm has had a certain appeal attracting people from all walks of life. Dating back to the 1930s, its magnetic pull of “eccentric” characters included hippies, musicians, and painters. However, it wasn’t until the ’80s that opened the floodgates to non-stop parties in Ibiza and Europe as a whole. The parties during the 1980s were also a catalyst for the acid invasion in the UK. DJ club culture became the main staple in the White Isle birthing one of the most illustrious clubs within the industry: Space. After 30 years of what were almost non-stop parties and winning several industry awards, it permanently closed its doors in 2016.
Melodic house and techno parties thrive on the Spanish island. Well-known for its lively nightlife where top-notch artists have held longtime residencies throughout its clubs. Steve Lawler, Carl Cox, and Pete Tong are among some of the well-known artists who’ve anchored down for multi-decades. Their residencies on the island helped them cement their careers making them household names in the dance music circuit. Ibiza has embraced its house and techno culture giving it a spin of its own with “Balearic beat” characterized by its slower tempo and fitting to its beach living lifestyle. Paul Oakenfold is one of the DJs credited for popularizing the downtempo style.
It also hosts the annual International Music Summit, a three-day electronic dance music conference. This platform is an opportunity for global players to unite under one roof for business, culture, and education. You know what they say: work hard, play hard. The island does both.
Western culture holds an undeniable influence in everyday life in Japan. From fashion to fast-food chains, even beer and spirits, the American presence is seen and felt in Japan’s offerings. However, the country’s long-standing American obsession extends beyond these areas. It has been producing some heavy-weights in the house and techno scene despite its infamous ban on dancing past midnight that was only recently removed in 2015. However, local authorities didn’t heavily reinforce the nearly 70-year old law instituted initially to crack down on prostitution during World War II.
Tokyo, Japan’s capital, is home to prominent underground artists that have sparked a wave of interest in dance music culture among locals. Japanese don’t just recreate something, but they embrace it. Some would even dare to say they learn how to make it better. They pride themselves in integrating aspects of their culture to enhance a craft, experience, flavor, etc. It’s no wonder why Tokyo has the most top-rated restaurants in the world. They boast 14 three-star Michelin restaurants, you know, in case you were wondering. Perfection at its finest. In Tokyo, there’s something for everyone, as with many global cities, they also have vibrant nightlight scene. You just have to know where to look. Who are the ones at the helm? Let’s take a look.
Ko Kimura was one of the very first DJs in Japan to introduce house music in the late 1980s. Spanning a career of more than 30 years, Kimura holds many firsts to his name. Not only did he create the first mix CD known to the country, but also became the first Japanese DJ to be part of John Digweed’s Bedrock compilation. He remains one of the most influential house music figures to date.
A trailblazer in the techno community, Ken Ishii has wielded influence over the Japanese electronic music scene. Coming from a family with no musical influence, his self-taught passion was further fueled when the sounds of Detroit techno reached his ears. After signing to Belgian techno label R&S Records, his career saw more opportunities. One of them being his first European gig playing in front of 30,000 people in Amsterdam that helped put Japan on the radar for techno lovers.
Deep, hypnotic techno has become synonymous with Tokyo. DJ Nobu, one of Japan’s most relentless DJs, is leading this wave. Originally he played more in the house music realm, but after seeing Jeff Mills, another Detroit techno staple, Nobu realized he wanted to recreate a similar experience for people. “It was the most electrifying experience that made me want to do the same. What he played was the sound from future.” He tapped into his early musical influences of hard punk to channel a new musical journey. “I want to present ‘my’ world, which is definitely more hypnotizing than throwing-hands-in-the-air.” Nevertheless, he shows respect for his craft and fluidly covers all spectrums of house and techno music in his sets.
While this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, it highlights how house and techno have been able to travel around the world. The dance culture has not only inspired but continues to grow. It borrows elements from the cultures it finds itself in. The Chicago and Detroit sister genres laid the foundation for a cultural movement yet continue to allow for innovation. It has become a global dancefloor inviting people from all walks of life to create a community. Whether in a warehouse in Los Angeles or a tiny underground club in England, the indescribable yet tangible energy continues to bring people together under one roof for the love of the culture.