Nobody Listens to Techno

Why San Franciscans are suffering from a case of technophobia

"And Moby, you can get stomped by Obie/ You 36-year-old baldheaded fag, blow me/ You don't know me, you're too old, it's over, let go/ Nobody listens to techno!"

Eminem's pronouncement on 2002's "Without Me" is both correct and incorrect. He's right about Moby. Dude is old and bald and out of touch; his music reeks of opportunism and seems, especially these days, more geared toward paying off the note for his vegan restaurant on the Lower East Side (called Teany!) than exciting his fans. The incorrect part is that Moby does not make techno -- he makes generic sample-based mainstream electronic music, and, yes, there is a difference. The fact that this isn't more widely recognized is one of the more frustrating things for the seemingly small (at least in this town) number of us who do listen to what is really a niche genre, one called techno.

Believe it or not, the word is in the dictionary: "tech·no n.: any of various styles of dance music characterized by electronic sounds and a high-energy, rhythmic beat." But this is wrong, wrong, wrong. The definition may have been true once upon a time, back in the early '80s when dance music was still in its infancy. Since then, however, electronica has splintered off into 101 permutations, from Miami bass to U.K. grime. We have passed the point where "techno" is the catchall term for every kind of electronic music. But, for most people, it still is. Case in point: When I left recently for a night out and told my friend that I was going to a "fun techno party," she replied, "Isn't that an oxymoron?"

It is not.

Flashback to two weeks ago and the fun techno party in question. It was the first installment of "Kontrol," a new club night that takes place on the third Saturday of each month at Rx Gallery just off Fifth and Market. For the inaugural event, "Kontrol" mastermind Greg Bird (with help from whom Bird refers to as our local electronic music "kingpin," Will Linn) was able to book Galoppierende Zuversicht, a Swiss act with admittedly the silliest, most stereotypically and generically "techno"-sounding name I can imagine (to make matters worse, it translates to "galloping confidence" -- whoops!).

When I arrived just short of 11 p.m., DJ Fragment, owner of Bruchstuecke Records, which releases Gurlbydgook Zooverwhatsit, was spinning, and I knew I had come to the right place. Fragment's beats were thick, which I think is a good way of distinguishing techno from other subgenres like house and trance. Techno is in no way fast and airy the way trance is, and it wants nothing to do with the funky histrionic grooves of house. Techno throbs at approximately 120 to 125 beats per minute (house at about 115 to 120, trance at 130 to 135, drum 'n' bass at 150 to 160, hip hop at 80 to 90). Imagine the biggest piece of machinery you can, something gurgling and pounding, unceasing, but imagine this inescapable thrum as having a certain invigorating rhythm, something serendipitously in sync with all the smaller machines around it, the ones that whir and fizz and shoot steam out occasionally, and then imagine all the factory workers slowly realizing that the whole operation has suddenly fallen into a kind of lock step -- that's what techno is like. There's a naturalness to it and yet it sounds utterly machine-driven. It's at once cold and warm, hard and soft, barely there but all around you.

Let us commence with a history lesson. Back when electronic music started out, these distinctions between genres didn't matter. As the sound was picking up steam in the early '80s, Detroit producers Juan Atkins and Rick Davis (operating as Cybotron), inspired by Chicago "house" music (which got its name from the nightclub called the Warehouse where it first gained popularity), titled a track "Techno City." Shortly after that people started throwing the term around to describe the dance music of the time, which was fine because back then it all pretty much sounded the same. Eventually, however, that music mutated; some people started singing over it (vocal house), others slowed it down and incorporated exotic textures (downtempo), and others sped it up and made it sound violent and scary (jungle). Through it all there evolved a distinct thread of techno, one that stayed very much in line with what Cybotron, and the Detroit school in general, was doing: minimal beats, cerebral melodies, and icy, metallic textures. Artists like Richie Hawtin thrived in the Detroit scene and, later, record labels like Kompakt in Germany helped to perpetuate the sound in faraway lands (these days Germany is the world techno capital).

If you paid attention to all of these developments (which admittedly got a little boring) you knew there was a difference between techno and jungle and whatnot. If you didn't, like Eminem, then you stopped learning new classifiers around the time the nightly news stopped running lifestyle stories about this newfangled thing that the kids called techno. Today, then, whenever anyone uses the term, you think of raves and Ecstasy and glow sticks and all the junk that people fixated on back in the '90s when dance music was peaking.

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