Dan Sicko
Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk

By Tom Magic Feet

Techno Rebels represents the first concerted attempt to relate the history of techno music, a task author Dan Sicko, a Detroit native, is well qualified to undertake having long been one of the most prominent American writers on the subject. Yet as Sicko points out early on, Techno Rebels is not meant to be a complete history of electronic music, neither should it be seen as some kind of definitive last word on techno. Instead, Sicko intends that the book should 'begin the discussion and definition of the genre' and hopes that the book 'will allow for a myriad of personal interpretations'.

Techno Rebels
begins with a brief discussion of the rise in popularity of ‘electronica’ amongst US audiences in recent years and points out that most of the music’s ‘new’ fans are blissfully unaware that the music they had found actually originated in their own country, believing instead that it was a European import. One suspects that, more than anything, this misconception was the primary impetus for Techno Rebels and that if there is an intended audience for the book, it is these new young ravers of America. Inevitably then, the first part of Techno Rebels concerns techno’s birth and development in Detroit. He sets the scene by describing the growth of the city's early eighties underground party scene, the role of key DJs like Ken Collier, Electrifyin’ Mojo and Jeff ‘The Wizard’ Mills, the urban decay of the city itself and the uniquely broad pallet of music those within its boundaries were exposed to. From the first releases by A Number Of Names and Cybotron and the emergence of the ‘Belleville Three’ through to the release of Network’s crucial early compilations and the music industry’s brief love affair with techno, you won’t find a better rendition of the story of Detroit’s ‘first wave’.

Sicko is equally as strong on the city’s so-called ‘second wave’, identifying and discussing key players like as Plus 8 and UR in detail, as well as again bringing the infrastructure behind the music into focus, like the Archer Pressing Plant, Submerge and the National Sound Corporation mastering lab. Yet as the book’s emphasis shifts from Detroit to a global perspective, a more generalist approach is adopted. The contributions of whole nations are summarised in a few paragraphs and Sicko tends to focus on just one or two key labels or producers in each case. This is understandable – he’d need at least another thousand pages to play with to attempt anything more completist – but it does mean that the impression is given that techno’s virus-like global dissemination is down to a few individuals.

The section on Europe is particularly open to criticism. For example, Germany’s contribution is woefully understated, despite the fact that it has been the backbone of the global techno scene for years now. Certain vital labels and producers, like R&S and the Aphex Twin, do not receive the acknowledgments they deserve. Others like, erm, T99 and Black Box are deemed important enough to warrant discussion. Moreover, there’s little discussion of techno’s bastard offspring, such as gabber and trance. Yet if this book has a single overriding fault, it is that too often Sicko fails to make connections or carry his themes through boldly enough. He rightly describes minimalism’s original impetus as an attempt to find the lost funk in techno, but fails to point out that the hordes of minimal loop records that followed have been techno’s undoing and are probably responsible for any current difficulties. He identifies commercially successful groups like 808 State, The Prodigy and Underworld but fails to underline that their success came only by adopting the kind of rock’n’roll trappings many of the music’s originators were trying to get away from in the first place. And while he discusses genres like drum’n’bass, ambient and post-rock, he cannot pin down their relationship with techno. All the same, these are just personal observations, probably the kind of thing Sicko intended to generate in the first place. With such a vast subject, generalisations or omissions are inevitable and everybody with an interest in the subject is bound to find something here to take issue with – if the music didn’t inspire debate and strong feelings it probably wouldn’t be worth listening to anyway. What’s more, as I’ve already pointed out, Techno Rebels is not meant to be an encyclopaedia or a definitive history, simply because such a work could probably never be completed.

At the end of the day, Techno Rebels is a very readable and largely insightful book, one that provides a wealth of factual detail, particularly when dealing with techno’s Detroit beginnings, but manages not to squeeze out the romantic aspects of the story, despite Sicko’s relatively straightforward prose style. Long overdue, Techno Rebels tells a story that needs to be told. Let’s just hope people are listening.
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