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A Comprehensive History of Techno and Finding God in the Music With Ellen Allien

When my Zoom call with Ellen Allien connects, at last, I feel weeks of anticipation turn to uncontrollable excitement.

My fingers, sweaty from nerves, and a poorly brewed Starbucks coffee, type out the instructions on how to get her audio configured. Ellen is lounging in her Ibiza flat where she has painted all of the walls completely black so that when the sun shines through her window, the room glows yellow. The first fully formed thought I could pencil down was that her posture seemed to denote a sincere attention to detail and confidence in comfort that most others lack. For the first 2 minutes of the call, we both instinctively laugh, muted, and unaware that our discussion of Techno would soon gravitate toward, and then find unexpected momentum in…

a deep consideration of Techno, God, and religion. 

Ellen Allien Techno

techno

“Rap is where you first heard it… If rap is more an American phenomenon, techno is where it all comes together in Europe as producers and musicians engage in a dialogue of dazzling speed.”

– Jon Savage (English writer, broadcaster and music journalist).

In Hanif Abdurraqib’s 2019 book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, he so beautifully praises “the low end” of a track: “The feeling of something familiar that sits so deep in your chest that you have to hum it out … where the bass and the kick drums exist.” His point rings true across all music that is heavily percussion driven. Take Jazz, for example, in which Abdurraqib explains “the low end is not only desired but prayed to.” As Ellen Allien and I discuss the sound of Techno, the language shifts from “listen” to “feel”— feel the low end, sit comfortably in the vibration, lose yourself to the repetition, find God.

MOMA

Ralf Hütter, of Kraftwerk, explains, “The ‘soul’ of the machines has always been a part of our music. Trance always belongs to repetition, and everybody is looking for trance in life… in sex, in the emotional, in pleasure, in anything… so, the machines produce an absolutely perfect trance” (Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music). In techno, the low end is not only desired but prayed to.

Abdurraqib’s poetry breathes life into the low end, just as Ellen Allien’s description of isolated percussion points to something bigger than her existence:

“I imagine the low end to be a bassline that rattles your teeth, too. But I also consider the low end to be the smell of someone you once loved coming back to you.”

Abdurraqib, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (2019)

“I have flashbacks, that are, just uplifting, or I feel more of my soul because of the experience [I once felt] in the club.”

Ellen Allien

Both seem to access something that cannot be seen. Is this faith?


Kraftwerk performing live in Soest (1970)

Kraftwerk, a German band formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, and the philosophy of an American writer and futurist, Alvin Toffler, were the foreign seeds that cross pollinated with George Clinton’s P Funk repertoire in Detroit to inspire the infancy of Techno. If you don’t know the name, George Clinton practically created “cool” in the 1960s and set the framework for Afrofuturism– “the concept that the future can and will be black.” He continues to break barriers today at 79 years old.

George Clinton and the P Funk crew

“In the inevitable movement of musical ideas from the avant-garde to pop, from black to white and back again, it’s easy to forget that blacks are equally as capable, if not more, of being technological and futuristic as whites…”

Machine Soul

Still, Kraftwerk is positioned at the top of the Electronic Music family tree as they were the first to assemble a futuristic orchestra of synthesizers, drum machines, and vocoders that reached the mainstream ear. With this in mind, all forms of Electronic Music, including Techno, were influenced, in part, by them.

Lastly, Toffler’s 1980, counter-cultural text, The Third Wave, called for “Techno-Rebels” — those outside of “the usual tiny elite of scientists, engineers, politicians, and businessmen” — to take control of technology and information to prevent the “the risk [of] irreversible damage to the planet.” In short, Toffler’s philosophy provided inspiration for the name and established the early intention behind the genre.

The Belleville Three (Left: Kevin Saunderson, Center: Derrick May, Right: Juan Atkins)

P Funk, Kraftwerk, Toffler, and presumably many other variables pushed three brilliant, Black high schoolers – Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson – to expand the foundations of Afrofuturism, experiment with new sounds and song structures, and change the popular culture for good.

These impossible geniuses, later known as The Belleville Three, pioneered a genre and gave it a name with intention: Techno Music. Derrick May’s description of the conception of Techno is random and thus biblical, with the Motor City as its setting: Techno happened “just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator.” The sounds they partied to and discovered on Electrifying Mojo’s nightly radio show, which ran for five hours without format restrictions, were chopped, played with, and reimagined on Roland Drum Machines that would slowly pump life to the night of the industrial city that they called home (MACHINE SOUL). 

NPR

A catalyst for Detroit Techno’s cultural prowess was the momentary renaissance and revolution that the mass-exodus of conservative white people from the inner city to the suburbs prompted just before the 70’s. In 1967, a police raid exploded into a 5-day violent protest in response to the city’s ruthless housing segregation which kept Blacks out of certain neighborhoods, the presence and blind acceptance of the KKK, police brutality against Blacks throughout Michigan, and countless other cases of rampant institutionalized racism.

LA Times

The riot, in which 7,231 people were arrested, 43 people were killed, 2,509 businesses reported looting or damage, 388 families were rendered homeless, and 412 buildings were burned or damaged enough to be demolished, was America’s most violent and destructive protest since the 1863 New York City draft riots (Detroit Riots History).

Techno Rebels

In the city’s search for a silver lining, those empty buildings that were left abandoned in the inner city blossomed like flowers in the concrete and the first Techno events outside of the confines of garages and house parties went off, into the darkest hours of the night. The Electronic Music scene in the US remained new and vibrant but was largely confined to the underground and seemingly kept safe behind closed doors, like much of the country’s creative counterculture at the hands of people of color. 

BBC

Shortly thereafter (the late 80s/early 90s), Europe’s open-minded youth and music aficionados took Detroit’s sound international. Raves in London and the surrounding cities were popularized by “white producers [who] took the music in a harder-edged direction, replacing [The Belleville Three’s] dreamy elegance with aggressive riffs and druggy sample textures” (Britannica). This sonic shift, the emerging drug culture in the UK, and the simultaneous rise of Chicago’s Acid House scene fueled the wild start to live Electronic Music’s international prowess.

Fact Mag

It was Aphex Twin—widely regarded as something of a production mastermind—and his iconic 1992 album, Ambient Works, who “trashed the boundaries between acid, techno, ambient, and psychedelic [and] defined a new techno primitive romanticism” (MACHINE SOUL).

Later, “a rowdy, rock-and-roll mutant of techno invaded the American mainstream in 1997, with the success of albums by the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers” (MACHINE SOUL). And then, Techno almost entirely fell off the US charts at the turn of the decade.

Happy Mag

The emergence of the first UK raves coincided with Ellen’s yearlong escape to London, leaving Berlin (still divided by the wall) to learn English and get her driver’s license. Ellen had recently discovered Kraftwerk herself, recalling that the sound “chang[ed] her hearing completely” and opened a “new dimension [in her] brain [that] created new thoughts.” This coincidental immersion in the infancy of live Electronic Music – my personal favorite anecdote, a story of looking down at Yoko Ono raving the night away – led to a return to Berlin with bags packed full of mind-blowing memories and creative energy. The wall fell in ‘89 and Ellen’s first-hand experience with those disrupting party culture in the UK and her energetic character quickly garnered her recognition as a lead pioneer of Berlin’s legendary Techno scene. Badass.

The Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate as viewed from West Berlin, November 1989
Stringer / Reuters

Just as the mass exodus of white people from inner-city Detroit opened up countless quasi-venues, the fall of the Berlin Wall presented Ellen and other event promoters with a menu of dystopian spaces that could be turned into makeshift wonderlands. Churches, that both sides in the war left untouched, became a favorite setting for the revolutionary Techno raves. “When I started DJing, I started DJing in bunkers and warehouses,” Ellen said.“Like, big ceilings, just some lights, and big speakers… [it] was a very rough time. It was very dirty and loud. The East and West Wall had just come down, so everything was new. The first parties were in empty places, forgotten places with no owners!” 

ID Germany

Despite my extensive research, I take Ellen’s account of the history of European Techno to be more accurate because she was there: “It was 92, 91, 90, 91, 92. Music became faster, more minimal [and then] we had a sellout in Berlin. We had La Masquerade, we had May Day, and people just sold out. La Masquerade stopped. May Day stopped. Many clubs closed… there was nothing anymore. We had no tourists. Nobody wanted to listen to Techno anymore because Techno was not trending anymore, Techno was commercial. The club scene became very small, and actually, DJs started running their own parties. The real Techno lovers, the real party lovers started doing their own part[ies]. I started doing my own party. My friends started doing parties. Because we didn’t want to let it die, because we still were there, and we wanted to continue in the way we wanted to continue…” 

ID Germany

The first mention of God in our conversation resulted from the clear parallel between Toffler’s philosophy and Ellen’s take on that which is divine: “I always say, for me, Mother Earth is God because she produces all the tools I need to live and Mother Earth gives me water and I can eat from it. And then they created religion. And this made a mess. People using it for power, and believing something which doesn’t exist- or maybe it exists.” Ellen finds beauty in that which is tangible, this includes everything from nature to the impressive technology that has come from it and allows her to make her music. “Part of my family is very religious… They are very lovely people, but… it’s crazy. For me, it was always Mother Earth, and I [think about] how I can make [my music reflect this].” Perhaps this framework of philosophy exists in anyone who is a true follower of Techno: get a better grasp on that which definitely exists.

We sit on this idea of what God is, and in turn what religion means, for some time, and naturally discuss her 2019 warehouse masterpiece, “La Música Es Dios.” I say naturally because the song’s title and lyrics translate to “Music Is God.” Ellen recorded the vocals in Spanish as a cheeky nod to the Catholicism ingrained in Spanish culture that often normalizes antiquated values but readily embraces Techno. She chose to make the assertion that “music is God” to bring light to the fact that God can stand for many concepts and experiences. Music, Nature, Meditation, Literature, Anything, and even every imaginable religion practiced can make you “feel free and it just comes [to each of us] how it comes.”

I am so grateful that a friend encouraged me to revisit the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in which he visits Berlin before starting in on this piece. You may recall, Ellen is the dashing blonde he meets at a cafe who gives him insight into the city’s club culture. As always, he went to the resident expert. Ellen and I spoke on June 25th; it would have been Bourdain’s 64th birthday that very day. As we touch on her experience with the late legend, both a bit choked up, I push her to consider whether Anthony Bourdain found a sort of God in food and the culture surrounding it…

Ellen’s description of her experience with Bourdain was beautifully put, while visibly difficult for her to unpack: “He is a very brilliant person. When I met him, I directly connected with him because he traveled a lot, like me… When you travel a lot, you learn a lot… [when] we talked, it was like, ‘Thank God this person is here! Showing the world food… bringing all the world together and showing them something beautiful.’ Now he’s gone… I did the last episode with him… Before it came out, I got the news he died… after six months or eight months, I finally watched it… I hope there will be another person who [finds God] this way. He started this: showing the beauty of the world. You can do this in many different ways.” And maybe finding God is just that, singing the praise of a certain beauty that seemingly only you can see and then surrounding yourself with those who see that same beauty to further validate and share the initial glimpse of the beauty that you saw.

Think of those who center their entire lives around a single sports team- a la Jimmy Fallon in the 2005 Hollywood feature: Fever Pitch- as if it were their religion. Practicing any religion and being an avid Red Sox Fan share certain practices: Give into unwavering faith, recognize superstition as fact, and defend your religion/team’s honor at all costs. Both followers revel in and pass down stories that morph into embellished fables and it could be said that faith would crumble without these narratives.

The Biology of the Sports Fan

For it is the faith that one will win, the remembrance that one is right, and the confidence that life is indeed beautiful that gets us through all that begs us to feel otherwise. For 86 years after the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, Boston did not win a world series and this losing streak came to be known as The Curse of the Great Bambino. Die-hard fans never saw the Red Sox win in their lifetime but with each new season, opening day at Fenway packed out its stadium with nearly five times the number of attendees than the San Fernando Valley’s largest mega-church. In 2004, the Socks were 3 games behind the Yankees in the ACL Championship before making the comeback of the century and going on to sweep the Cardinals in The World Series. Nietzsche famously said, “Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole.” On that gloriously festive night, upon the last out in the 9th inning, upon the Red Sox win over the Cardinals, upon the end of a curse that depressed the eyes of many generations, all throughout New England people thanked God and the system remained intact.

It is fascinating that a singular trade is believed to be the sound reasoning for nearly a century of losses. This is not an isolated incident or even the most extreme case of superstition in baseball. The Chicago Cubs failure to win a World Series for over a century was attributed to a literal goat not being allowed into the stadium despite its owner, Billy Goat Tavern owner William Sianis, having purchased the goat its own ticket. The Curse of the Billy Goat. Techno, like baseball, has its fables, history, and heroes that have shaped a particular system of faith and worship. Ellen explains, “For me, techno is a lifestyle. For me, techno is not a trend. It’s the music of my childhood.”

At first, like any religion or even baseball, Techno is not an easy thing to understand or find beauty in. You must learn to understand it, and only then you will love it. Experiencing a live Techno show is critical to one’s introduction to, and a deeper appreciation for, the sound. One can watch a baseball game on television and by the end of 9th inning understand the nuances and rules of the game. A proper introduction to Techno and the emotional release that it facilitates entirely relies on both the spectacle and space of the event, the pulsating speakers, and the dancing lights. Once it has been experienced in this setting, listening to the music in any setting then provides emotional flashbacks to the live experience. In her studio sessions, Ellen is often brought back to “a very special moment” and goes so far as to prescribe, “If you’re a little bit depressed, [Techno] takes a lot of effects away.”

I bring up the term “Techno snob” to Ellen, laughing because we are both guilty of fitting into this misunderstood stereotype of people who gravitate towards the more perplexing and heavy-hitting drum focused sounds in Electronic Music. “For some people, Techno is too fast, too dark, or too minimal. It takes a while to understand. It’s not so easy to get it directly.” For Ellen, it took listening to Hip Hop and Soul and then Acid House in order to find her place in the Techno scene. For me it took listening to Punk, then Hip Hop, then Dubstep, then all sub-genres of House in order to really understand and appreciate the genre. The reality is, once you get it, the speed, darkness, and minimalism of the sound reveal themselves as beautiful and extremely therapeutic. “I’m a very physical person, so I like fast beats and basslines… I like to hear the bassline clearly and the hi-hat.” Techno is rooted in a deep and isolated appreciation for the low end: “If the track is too full of sounds, it’s just a mess for me in my ear.”

Techno plays with shifting energy, building upon it aggressively before taking it away, and then resurrecting it once more in a roller coaster of percussion that drives a strange sense of pleasure and peace. While there are distinct differences between Trance music and Techno music, trust me that we need not go into that, and believe me when I say that Techno is much more meditative and trance inducing. “[Techno] has something very dreamy and gives you a possibility to dance without [having to smile which] is beautiful… If you feel a little bit like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna put only my T-shirt on today [and not] look good,’ you [can] go out and you feel good with Techno! You don’t need a special set up to go out for techno… This helps many people, [and myself], be how I am.”

Artwork by Ally Soule
Be yourself, don’t bother others, and give others the space to do the same.

Techno would be a low maintenance and inherently welcoming religion, but like any religion, you must learn how to practice it, listen to it, interact with it, and admittedly dance to it. One of the hardest parts of the integration is fully grasping that Techno is all about being yourself, while not bothering others, and giving space to those around you to do the same. This simple rule comes with protecting the experiences and identities of those who created Techno and those who came to love Techno before you.

DJ MAG

One of the grandest fables of Techno is the contrived allure and exclusivity of the most renowned clubs, like Berghain. Many people are driven to go, whether they like Techno or not, simply because it is seen as so difficult to get in. But why is it so hard? “It’s a gay club. Most of the people working there are gay, the owners are gay, many DJs are gay – they prefer having gay DJs play there. So what they are doing is protecting the gays to have their gay club… now it’s mixed, but they let people in who they think will respect the gays.” Clubs like Berghain are spaces in which nudity, sexuality, fetishes, kinks, role play, sweating, finding yourself, losing yourself are all encouraged so long as they are not practiced at the expense of another attendee. Ellen puts it simply, “If you get naked, or look strange, you don’t want people to say ‘you’re strange’ or laugh about you or whatever.”

Only Techno

The second most common fable in Techno culture is that everyone wears black in order to look cool in a cultural display of groupthink. The reality of this trend comes with the communal drive to remove any sense of classism from the dance floor. “Many people don’t have so much money in Berlin and when they wear black, you can’t analyze whether they have money or not [and] rich people don’t want to share [that] they’re rich, so they put black clothes on… they just feel comfortable with black because it has no message. It is a very natural color in that way.” Ellen reasons that across all art forms, creatives gravitate towards black as it is a color without a message and thus it gives them and others space.

As a tenured DJ, Ellen’s career relies on her ability to read energy and vibrations in order to command a room. This also translates to her profound ability to read, accept, and empathize with other humans, much like Anthony Bourdain. Ellen does not view this as a character trait that she learned but rather a trait that most people have forgotten: “I think I was born like that. I think we are all born like that [and] some people just lose it…You can lose it. We are just too busy with things that are not important.” Techno’s significance lies in what it can do for an individual or an entire society and how it can better our reality in showing that “within technology there is emotion, that within information access there is overload, that within speed lies entropy, that within progress lies destruction, that within the materiality of inanimate objects can lie spirituality” (MACHINE SOUL).

Secret Project (Los Angeles, 2019)

While it was created in Detroit decades ago, Ellen confidently asserts that the culture surrounding Techno is still growing up a lot in the US. This excites me because I have felt the same way for years and I think our country could use to embrace the genre as an alternative to popular culture or even religion. In my mind, a widespread appreciation for Techno in America would facilitate an important societal shift. Still today, most Americans would be riddled by or even scoff at Ellen’s belief that Mother Nature is a viable representation of God. I think back on Ellen saying, those who “created religion… made [things] a mess. People us[e] it for power.” Our country is young, patriarchal, self-conscious, and profit-driven. Note that we allow and glorify establishments that profit off of hedonism in the form of strip clubs with nude dancers and even escorts but the thought of an establishment that allows YOU to dance in the nude would be deemed an obscene concept with no place in our society.

Like Ellen, I have seen and experienced the overwhelming beauty that Techno can generate. There is a freedom found in those spaces that I’ve ventured to, late in the night with a select few, to see Techno acts and chase that same feeling that Ellen found and now professionally curates at an array of otherworldly experiences all over the globe.

Looking back on her first experiences with Techno, Ellen recalls: “I could dance, closing my eyes, with my t-shirt off, half-naked, all sweaty, and have a nice conversation! It’s something where you can trip far away, out of your body, or more inside of your body. It’s a community of people having other lifeforms. Gays, people with specific kinds of jobs, or maybe people who I call ‘night flowers,’ [who] like the night more than the day.” I’ve seen countless people close to me, often those who could be labeled quirky or unique, find a home in this setting and with these same people. Ellen admits that she “met all [her] boyfriends, [her] lovers, [her] friends, [the] people [she] work[s] with at [her] label- Bpitch, [while listening to Techno] in clubs. All of them.” This is no different than those who build all of their relationships through their faith in a God… or their love of the Red Sox. Like any religion, “it’s a very strong community of exchanging new ways [of life] or [building] businesses, ideas, lifeforms.”

In religion and sport, one can be a “good Christian” or a “die-hard fan” but never the best. It is never a competition against those who are also rooting for your team. This rings true in Ellen’s sense of self despite her undeniably high ranking in Techno royalty: “I don’t want to be trendy and I don’t want to be a Berghain resident and I don’t want to be looking like, this or that, ‘techno.’ I’m just living it, it’s just a part of Berlin, it’s just [became] a part of my soul when the wall came down.”


There is so much good that comes with faith.

The ability to believe in, or feel, something that is not visible is an integral part of the human experience. Unfortunately, the commercialization of most every religion and the nihilism of younger generations have muddled the importance of “finding God.”

Jesus never experienced the internet and the Buddha didn’t own an iPhone and thus their teachings, while beautiful and filled with wisdom, lack the contemporary perspective and language that makes a story believable. Truthfully, the younger generations need God most, as it seems they have never felt it. And yet, their identities become increasingly complicated and explored in unprecedented ways all while no higher power is there to tell them that that is fucking phenomenal.

“If there is one central idea in Techno, it is of the harmony between man and machine” and while “this idea is commonplace throughout much of avant-garde 20th-century art,” it is not commonplace in our quotidian routines, beliefs, and behavior (MACHINE SOUL). In Berlin, “Techno gave us the feeling of a new community. Where we are one, East and West. And now it’s like, in the scene, its okay to be gay, lesbian, girls kissing girls, whatever we are doing, we are doing. We are one community. We do what we want. It’s actually the same in the more luxurious world.”

Could Techno do the same for you?

There are only a handful of individuals who can speak to Techno quite like Ellen Allien. Ellen has released 11 studio albums, played at the top clubs all over the world, launched the widely respected BPitch records, and gained recognition for her fashion designs that are catered to the Techno lifestyle. Above all her achievements, Ellen validating the beauty of Techno and The Belleville Three’s plight to change the world stands above all else. Ellen found God in Techno and sang the praise of that certain beauty that she saw in it, allowing others, like myself, to see it and share its magnificence with her.

An overwhelming thank you goes out to Ellen Allien for her contributions to music culture and this piece. A second thank you goes out to Jon Savage, whose 1993 article, Machine Soul, has been cited and referenced extensively throughout this piece. It still holds its own as some of the best writing on Electronic Music decades later. Lastly, thank you to Ally Soule for the original graphics that accompany this piece. Techno Es Dios.


Stream Ellen’s latest album, Aurra, and give her a follow on Instagram to keep up with her most recent contributions to music and culture.