Throwback guide: minimal vs. maximal techno

This month we’ve released two sub-genre guides, one on minimal techno and the other focusing maximal techno. The aim is to give a bit of a background to the two sub-genres and also throw out some pretty mint tunes from the past 30 years or so. This week, we’ll be looking at the two sub-genres together, and discussing a little bit about their origins and emergence.


It all started with three guys who went to high school together in Belleville, Michigan, a predominantly white and fairly middle class suburb of Detroit.  Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May would become the ‘Belleville Three’ and are for all intents and purposes, the creators of techno.

Before we go into that, we need to give a shout-out Kraftwerk – one of the most influential bands in musical history – it shouldn’t be that surprising to find out that their repetitive melodies and general sound was very inspiring to the Belleville Three. Secondly, we must take note of the industrial aesthetic of Detroit as a city and lastly of course, the increasing ease at which machines such as synthesizers could be obtained. There were other factors and musicians involved, the likes of James Pennington and Eddie Fowlkes were important and the Belleville Three didn’t only listen to Kraftwerk and live in grey apartment buildings, but these were the early building blocks that led to the emergence of techno.

In 1985, Juan Atkins released ‘No UFO’s’ on his pseudonym Model 500, via his record label Metroplex and techno was truly born. ‘No UFO’s’ is accepted by most to be the first proper techno production and Juan Atkins is viewed by most as the true originator from the group of heads who were getting together and making ‘techno’ in the mid-eighties.

After this, things began to gain traction pretty quickly – Derrick May’s ‘Strings of Life’ was seminal in introducing European audiences to techno, especially in the UK. The collaboration group Inner City would become extremely successful commercially and Music Institute nightclub opened in 1988 to host all-night sets from the likes of Derrick May that would become the stuff of legend. The sound originating at this point soon diverged into an innumerable amount of strains and varieties and became a sub-genre in its own right called ‘Detroit techno’. Whilst it isn’t maximal or minimal, neither sub-genre could exist without the sound that came from Detroit in the mid to late eighties.


Maximal techno

Detroit techno grew in popularity at an exponential rate and it took itself over to Europe where it gained a strong underground following in the UK, Germany, Belgium and Holland throughout the late eighties and early 90s.

It is at this point that we start to see the emergence of the ‘maximal’ sound and it is near-impossible to pinpoint its origins. In Belgium, you had the Major Record Label R&S Records, with the likes of C.J. Bolland and Joey Beltram pushing the Belgium techno scene to heavier and ravier heights. It was on this record label that Beltram would release both ‘Mentasm’ and ‘Energy Flash’, both of which were greatly influential to the early hardcore scene around the world. In Germany, the opening of Tresor in 1991 and the likes of Tanith pushed the harder ‘Tekkno’ sound. In the U.K., interest in pure techno faded pretty quickly after only a few years in about 1992 and the hardcore rave scene exploded, leading to the emergence of other sub-genres such as jungle, which moved the needle a pretty long way off of techno.

All of these developments occurred in the early nineties but the one I would like to focus on in particular, is the U.S. movement because it is here that maximal techno would find it roots. Hopefully, it is quite clear that the ‘maximal’ sound didn’t have one specific origin point – it came from all over – and in the U.S., the case was no different. Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva founded the Plus 8 record label which pushed a heavier and harder sound, Underground Resistance with their anti-establishment tendencies and political activism were a natural fit for the rave culture and tracks such as ‘The Fury’ showed they had the musical clout to support their sentiments, and finally Frankie Bones helped bridge the gap between Europe and America with his Storm Rave series. Nevertheless, none of these people were the originators of the ‘maximal’ sound, so you could argue (quite successfully) that the ravier, harder edge of maximal techno was actually a European import that was lapped up by the American market.


Minimal techno

Whatever the case was, by the mid-nineties techno and rave had become synonymous and the Detroit sound that was so indebted to funk, soul, disco and synthpop had largely been eschewed in favour of the harder, ravier sounds. The infatuation with maximizing everything had gone overboard and the original techno sound had been lost. With this in mind producers such as Robert Hood and Daniel Bell, both of whom were working in Detroit, decided to go in the opposite direction. They took the active decision to move away from the heavier aspects of the music and to strip everything down to its basics but also, very importantly, to try and re-inject some of the funk and soul back into techno. A main point of interest is that these producers were aiming to throwback to the original Detroit sound, but this time in a slightly more reductionist fashion. In essence, minimal techno was born out of a frustration with the hardcore sound and it is equally indebted to the rave scene as it is to the Belleville Three.

Robert Hood will always be regarded as the godfather of minimal techno. The work he put in during the early part of his career and the active thought he put in to help construct the minimal sound affords him this title. Some time and thought however, must be given to the boys from Berlin, Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, also know as Basic Channel (and other aliases). It was under the Basic Channel alias however that they began to explore the minimal aesthetic, in 1993 no less they were producing music that was distinctly not hardcore or at all worried about the next rave.

This of course was before Robert Hood’s ‘Minimal Nation’ dropped in 1995 and so credit must be given to Basic Channel for the experimental tendencies, at a time when most of the U.S. was still absorbed by the rave culture, they were making music that would make Ricardo Villalobos swoon. It would be a few years before the minimal sound really took of in Europe but when it did, it exacted a vice like grip on the world of techno that it would not relinquish for years to come. The Detroit sound was a result of musical heads pushing boundaries to create a new sound, the maximal sound was a result of the maximization (in all ways possible) of this original sound and then minimal emerged as both a throwback to the original sound in a reductionist fashion, in essence the two sub-genres, whilst wildly different in style, share many of the same origins. And techno, with its many sub-genres, is organically linked, you can’t have one without the other and this only adds to the intrigue of the music.

Hamraj Gulamali


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