Now this may seem like a really stupid question. Most people definitely think they know the answer. When you push them for specific criteria, however, it all gets a little fuzzy. It seems that how we decide whether a track is techno or house depends largely on a kind of sixth sense which is hard articulate. Perhaps back in the eighties in Chicago and Detroit, making the distinction was slightly easier but in 2016 it seems the vast majority of club-orientated dance music could quite arguably be both.
Of course a wise response would be ‘does it really matter?’ As long as it’s good music shouldn’t that be enough? This week in Melbourne, Nina Kraviz received considerable criticism for ‘not playing techno’ at a four-thousand-person open air show. “People wanted techno and I offered none in their opinion” she said in a lengthy response on her Facebook. “In fact all I played was pretty much techno at least in my own definition but much of a broader spectrum.” Whilst the majority were happy with the set, a vocal minority issued complaints and even demanded a refund. Clearly for some of us, knowing what your getting is very important indeed. Let’s break it down…
In the beginning there was Jack and Jack had a groove and from this groove came the grooves of all grooves. It’s generally accepted that house came first as a mutation and reinterpretation of disco grooves in the ghettos of Chicago in the late seventies. Techno, in strictest terms, wouldn’t come along for almost another decade, just up the road in Detroit. Even this simple distinction is contentious however as many point to earlier music from the likes of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder which were a huge influence on the Belleville Three in the creation of Detroit techno. Pinpointing what is ‘the first ever techno track’ depends very much on your definition of the genre itself. If your definition is a little looser then something like Donna Summers’ Moroder produced I Feel Love from ’78 could certainly fit the bill.
Right from the start, techno was notably more serious, based around a dark futuristic vision of the world. Early techno pioneers often site futurist theorists such as Alvin Toffler as an inspiration to their unique ethos. House could certainly be deep and reflective too but it was seen as somehow more optimistic and up beat, more in the spirit of it’s disco origins. Still there are plenty of exceptions to this distinction also. Phuture’s Acid Tracks is arguably the first example of acid house, an offshoot of house music that breaks a lot of the rules. Certainly not as deep and pensive as techno but also stripped of the jubilant, celebratory nature of any house music that came before it.
One common notion is that techno is faster than house. There’s not much in it but this is technically true. Most definitions have house starting around 115 whereas techno starts at 125 bpm. House has a smaller range only going up to around 135 whereas techno often goes all the way up to 150 beats per minute. Even within these rules, the bulk of tracks sit in the common ground of 125-135 and, of course, with a small amount of digging it’s easy to find exceptions. A whole slew of Theo Parrish releases, for example, tick all the techno boxes including being very authentically Detroit based but still groove at around 115bpm. By contrast, DJ Rolando’s Jaguar has all the cues of a house track with its upbeat attitude and disco-esque string section and yet it plows on at nearly 140bpm. Tempo might be a scientific way to separate the two but it’s definitely not always conclusive.
Often techno purists will criticise house for being more commercial and accessible. Cue 2 Unlimited and the wave of early nineties techno chart-toppers. It mite seem unfair to bring up someone of their calibre in a serious discussion about dance music but there’s perhaps no better example of techno selling out and achieving huge mainstream success. Some will undoubtedly claim that the 1993 smash No Limit isn’t techno but come on, they say it about a thousand times in the lyrics.
The distinction between these two genres seems to ultimately come down to a certain feeling that each one evokes. Something difficult to put into words and in a sense down to ones personal emotional response. Of course there is a long list of tracks which fit neatly into one bracket but the list of tracks that could go in either is surely the longer. At the end of Kraviz’s recent statement she states that ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion but it definitely takes some time, experience and knowledge to form one. I grew up with a slightly different concept about music as one big sonic space with everything wired into each other.” Still, it’s an interesting discussion and one which we’ve only scratched the surface of here. If it encourages people to think more about what they’re listening to then that can only be a good thing but if it means audiences are ruling out anything which doesn’t fit in their box then that’s dangerous for the future of electronic music as a whole.
Let us know your two cents on the matter. Are we missing a clear distinction? Does it matter? Why should people care?