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A Beginner’s Guide to All the Music We Used to Call Techno

In the late 1990s, techno was the blanket term for anything that sounded vaguely futuristic. But, really, a lot of it was just dance music

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

Terms to describe artistic movements are often unclear and misleading. What was “mumblecore,” exactly? Just a bunch of movies about twentysomethings discussing their feelings? Similarly, rap-rock somehow made room for both Rage Against the Machine and Linkin Park. As soon as a movement gets codified, it starts to lose its meaning, its specialness. The term becomes a lazy shorthand.

In the late 1990s, one of the biggest musical trends was techno. What was techno? It was, well, y’know, music that sounded … techno-y. Technically, it was a style developed in the 1980s by, among others, a Detroit DJ named Derrick May, who famously (perhaps apocryphally) described techno as “George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator.” Once reflecting on Detroit’s renowned Music Institute, a club where he’d spin records and cut his teeth, May recalled techno’s early days: “It was a spiritual place for music. If you weren’t there you obviously missed something because I think there are only about four clubs in the world that can compare to its power and energy. We had a young, beautiful, Black crowd, and I mean beautiful in the sense of spirit and mind and soul. We had white kids coming, Spanish kids coming, gay kids coming, straight kids coming. Nobody was on drugs, man, kids smoked a little bit of weed, drank a little liquor, they came, had a ball, went home, made love and felt good feelings all week.”

Uptempo and catchy, amplifying the euphoria of disco to a whole other level, techno catapulted from the underground to the mainstream, with a wide variety of electronic acts borrowing elements to craft their own styles. But to the casual listener, all of it was just “techno.” Now, we can see it as part of the first wave of electronic dance music, which was then a “weird” niche genre but is now fully enmeshed in pop and hip-hop.  

Emphasizing cutting-edge technology and often boasting a robotic or superhuman precision perfectly in keeping with an age that was fearful of machines enslaving us, techno felt like an exciting, worrying harbinger of things to come. And 1997 was crucial in the art form’s growing popularity, with lots of diverse artists being lumped into the movement. With the hindsight of 25 years, it’s easier to see how ridiculous it was that, say, Portishead was ever thought of as techno. But as someone who lived through the era, believe me: Anything that sounded remotely un-rock or un-rap and felt vaguely electronic was officially designated techno. 

So let’s do an archaeological dig to break down all the different styles that existed at the time. Today, we can tell how little these subgenres have in common, but back then, we thought, “Oh man, this is what the future is going to sound like.”

French House

Signature 1997 Band/Album: Daft Punk, Homework

Defining Qualities: Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo had been friends since they were about 12, putting together their debut a decade later and naming themselves Daft Punk. Nicolas Hidiroglou, who helped design the artwork for Homework, was one of the first people to hear an early demo. “It sounded so different, and completely new,” Hidiroglou said. “I had never heard anything like it — that mix of disco and funk. They played the vinyl for me in this little room; I had no idea I was listening to history.”

Part of the 1990s’ French house scene, which was the backdrop for the superb 2014 drama Eden, Daft Punk luxuriated in distorted vocals, repetitive but hypnotic beats, and space-age sound effects. Later, Bangalter and Homem-Christo would start donning robot outfits in public, which only amplified their pounding music’s more-machine-than-man vibe. 

How Close to Techno Was It Really? Pretty close. Daft Punk called it quits last year, with longtime fans talking about how the duo were a techno gateway drug for them when they were kids first getting into music. While naysayers may dismiss “techno” as an artificial, soulless music, Daft Punk were never afraid to wear their hearts on their robotic sleeve. “We liked Barry Manilow when we were younger,” Homem-Christo said in 1997. “Too many bands want to look cool, they won’t admit what they really liked. We like everything; we don’t care.”

Big Beat

Signature 1997 Band/Album: The Chemical Brothers, Dig Your Own Hole; the Prodigy, The Fat of the Land

Defining Qualities: If you were a rock fan, big beat was dance music you could get into. With their anthemic sweep and stadium-ready hooks, tracks like the Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” and the Prodigy’s “Firestarter” got played on alt-rock radio stations, catering to mosh-friendly kids who wanted to let loose. Both bands had already put out acclaimed records — respectively, Exit Planet Dust and Music for the Jilted Generation — but their 1997 follow-ups saw them become superstars thanks to their danceable, assaultive sound. “Dig Your Own Hole was a record borne out of where we ended up after Exit — playing a lot of live gigs to bigger audiences,” Chemical Brothers member Tom Rowlands said in 1999. “It’s got big feelings, big emotions.”

Big beat’s maximalism had a huge moment in the late 1990s, but that moment didn’t last long. In 2008, Damian Harris, who started the dance label Skint, recalled, “The sound became, and indeed remains, the compulsory soundtrack for action movie trailers and lost any sense of a cutting edge. The full-on nature of big beat started to grate and the subtleties of it were lost as a more laddish element stomped into the party. Cocaine became much more prevalent — never healthy for a scene. Success meant that we moved from small sweaty clubs to huge arenas and DJ sets got too predictable.” And just like that, big beat — which was also popularized by acts like the Crystal Method and Fatboy Slim — started to become a cliché, a pre-Y2K variation on the mindless jock jams that dominate sporting events. 

How Close to Techno Was It Really? If “techno” has a sound, it’s big beat. Not surprisingly, then, these groups were criticized for taking the fundamental elements of early techno — rave culture, an underground attitude — and making it safe for suburban kids. Funny enough, Liam Howlett, the mastermind behind the Prodigy, was fighting such accusations all the way back in 1992. “We know the music and the scene really well and we try to stay true to that,” he insisted. “We’re not trying to commercialize the rave scene; the records get in the charts because people buy them.” The commercial gold rush would quickly run dry, though. 

Drum and Bass

Signature 1997 Band/Album: Roni Size & Reprazent, New Forms

Defining Qualities: Also known as jungle, drum and bass is more about groove and tempo, eschewing the more accessible elements of other strands of late-1990s electronic dance music. In a 2020 Billboard piece about drum and bass, Rob Gonzalez (aka DJ Machete) laid out the subgenre’s history. “The producers back in the day were experimenting with different variations of tempo,” Gonzales said. “The early acid-house days led to four-on-the-floor and hardcore while also incorporating breakbeats, and it just continued to evolve. The tempos slowly got faster over time — the average BPM for drum and bass is about 174 to 180.”

The most acclaimed drum and bass record, New Forms, is two discs of heavy rhythms, herky-jerky tempo shifts and stoner vibes. “We wanted to make music that sounded like the future,” Roni Size said a few years ago. “So the track ‘Beatbox’ was just us making drum patterns with our own voices. ‘Brown Paper Bag’ started off as samples of double bass licks. I chopped them up on the sampler and suddenly there was a song. The title didn’t mean anything. It was just something that came to me after smoking herb, which I did back then.” 

How Close to Techno Was It Really? If you wanted “techno” that sounded jazz-y, drum and bass was your jam. With its complicated, sometimes dizzying rhythms, this subgenre got away from the musical monotony often associated with techno. “I like Rubik’s Cube, man. … I like the challenge of working something out,” Size once said about his musical ambitions, later adding, “I am not a big fan of simplicity, I like textures and layers and I like edits and loops.” And his meticulous work paid off: New Forms ended up winning that year’s Mercury Prize, U.K.’s most prestigious music award, beating out the likes of (among others) Dig Your Own Hole, The Fat of the Land and Radiohead’s OK Computer.


Signature 1997 Band/Album: Portishead, Portishead

Defining Qualities: Popularized by Massive Attack and Tricky (who’d previously been part of Massive Attack), trip-hop slowed rap way down, crafting something that sounded danker and more ominous. By the time of Portishead’s second, self-titled album, the subgenre could be sexy or scary, with lead singer Beth Gibbons’ slinky vocals offset by her bandmates’ cinematic musical beds. Portishead incorporated samples, synthesizers and scratching to create mini-noirs full of smoky attitude.

“We were into this thing that we called ‘hip-hop tuning’ which was when people like New York hip-hop producers really inspired us,” Portishead member Geoff Barrow said in 2019. “They would take a sample from Shostakovich and have a big orchestral thing, and then they would take a beat from James Brown. Then, they would take a horn riff from Fred Wesley or Miles Davis. But they had drums already in it, and they had bottom end in it. So, they would try and craft these scenes together.” Added bandmate Adrian Utley, “It was kind of two things forced together. ‘Why is that working because they’re actually in different keys?’ It didn’t matter anymore because we were in a new world. … If it sounds cool, then that’s kind of all you need to know.” 

How Close to Techno Was It Really? Not so much — in large part because, often, these weren’t necessarily songs that would make you want to dash out to the dance floor. As trip-hop’s name suggested, this was trippy, moody music, often sung by female vocalists with ethereal styles that served as a perfect juxtaposition to the track’s gorgeous darkness. It felt organic and otherworldly at the same time. The tunes evoked such an arresting atmosphere that it was no surprise that House would later use Massive Attack’s dreamy, anxious “Teardrop” as its theme song — quite often, trip-hop seemed like an imaginary soundtrack to an impossibly cool movie. 


Signature 1997 Band/Album: Stereolab, Dots and Loops

Defining Qualities: This subgenre intersects with a few others — such as lounge and chill-out — but as practiced by Stereolab, who graduated from a more indie-rock sound in their early days, post-rock was a lilting, electronica-based aural landscape, accentuated by frontwoman Laetitia Sadier’s French vocals. (Even when she sang in English, her lack of concrete syllables still made it sound like a foreign language.) On Dots and Loops, coming a year after their breakthrough disc Emperor Tomato Ketchup, they made music that was the perfect white noise to getting a massage — synthesizers and vibraphone were implemented to make you feel like you were floating away, leaving your troubles behind.

Not that Stereolab were bland, easy-listening tripe. Their songs were challenging and adventurous, their prettiness undercut by avant-garde leanings. Sadier’s bandmate Tim Gane, when talking about Emperor Tomato Ketchup, described their sound like this: “It was like you’d come from a cave, or across a mountain, and there was another totally different landscape. Like on the original Star Trek where every day you could look forward to going to a new star system.” And how’s this for an endorsement: Pharrell Williams once declared Dots and Loops’ “The Flower Called Nowhere” “the best fellatio music there is.”

How Close to Techno Was It Really? Not at all, but because of its hypnotic, keyboard-driven aesthetic, it seemed to transcend traditional musical styles, dwelling in some cooler parallel dimension. And where other electronica acts of the time went mainstream, Stereolab resisted the temptation. “I would go so far as to say we were avoiding going overground,” Sadier told the New York Times in 2019. “Because, you know, it’s a pain. … This kind of notoriety is not a particularly good thing. You don’t enjoy it anymore. You don’t enjoy what you do.” 

The chill-out subgenre lived on after “techno” lost its trendiness: After all those hard beats and bro-y attitude, groups like Air and Zero 7 offered a classier, more refined version of electronica. If the 1990s were techno’s feverish, sweaty heyday, chill-out and lounge became the early-2000s’ laidback response. We had reached the future, and we decided we needed a breather.