‘Club Berlin’ explores the city’s techno scene

With 'Club Berlin' bringing the German capital’s legendary techno scene to Singapore, we compare the genre to its forefathers in Detroit

If you can’t tell your techno from your trance, Club Berlin will make it easy for you. The event, put together by the Goethe-Institut Singapore, traces techno’s lineage via the city that made it the de facto dance music genre today. The event comprises an exhibition of archival images and videos from the German capital’s club culture in the ’90s, as well as an after-party featuring local DJs Debbie Chia, EJ Missy, FAL:X and teamcake spinning their homages to Berlin techno.

But while Berlin is today considered the techno capital of the world, you can’t mention it without bringing up Detroit. The Motor City is the actual birthplace of the genre, with clubs and DJs banging out 4/4 beats in the mid-’80s before their European counterparts took the baton and added influences from the continent – gabber, Krautrock and musique concrète among them. So what are the differences between the two titans of techno?

The origins

Detroit: Techno was born here, or more specifically, Belleville, a city near Detroit. It was an extraordinary movement that emerged as a reaction to the Motor City’s post-industrial malaise – techno reflected a desire for change and escape. Producers Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, better known as The Belleville Three, were the first few to experiment with the sound and later even coined the genre’s name.

Berlin: Much like Detroit, Berlin’s techno scene began after a long history of struggle and fascism. When the Wall fell in 1989, many local youths took advantage of the abandoned buildings that lay along the stretch, using them as venues for illegal ‘squat parties’. These parties, meant to celebrate and unify Berliners, mushroomed all over the capital. Iconic clubs like WMF, E-Werk and Tresor took root in such derelict venues – and such was the birth of cool.

The influences

Detroit: Ironically, the techno pioneers acknowledge that one of their biggest influences came from Europe, in particular the robots themselves, Kraftwerk. The ‘motorik’ beat of Krautrock and the synths of kosmische music, both from the ’70s, were also two important cornerstones of Detroit techno.

Berlin: Back atcha, Detroit. In a reversal of roles, Berlin’s DJs count the American city’s techno phenomenon as their biggest influence. Underground Resistance, a collective co-led by the great Jeff Mills, Mike Banks and Robert Hood, were arguably the German scene’s most significant inspiration. From the continent itself, gabber – an aggressive dance music that originated in the Netherlands during the early ’90s – cleaved Berlin (and German) techno into two main forms: a faster ‘rave-y’ style and a sparse, minimal one.

Berghain club member and photographer Sven Marquardt

The sound

Detroit: Two main styles define Detroit techno: one is a mellow, soulful strain that owes a debt to the city’s Motown heritage. And the other, a dark, gritty, growling style that adopted Afrofuturist ideals of the ’50s – acts like Cybotron would rely on any electronic gear they could find to cut (rudimentary) tracks.

Berlin: Its techno producers were interested in experimenting with speed, and identified their sound as more hardcore than its Detroit cousin, stripping away the melodies and African-American-influenced rhythms. Minimal techno – characterised by average tempos, sparse beat patterns and an undying devotion to repetition – was also (arguably) founded in the capital, with production duo Basic Channel laying the groundwork that record labels like Kompakt, from Cologne, would build upon. 

The scene

Detroit: Sadly, the social and economic problems of Detroit have led to the decline of its techno scene. Yet, old and new techno artists continue to churn out choons there, keeping to its roots and continuing to issue the best machine-music.

Berlin: Techno is much bigger here, and is currently considered the mecca of the genre. It’s a world-class party central with its lavish and unique venues (not to mention its lax restrictions on clubs/parties), like the legendary Berghain club. And guess what – the work of Sven Marquardt, a photographer who also ran the door at the club since its opening, is shown at the exhibition.