Tanz Tanz Revolution

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
One summer a few years ago, Alex Mauro was visiting friends in Berlin, and he made plans to go out to one of the city’s most famous techno clubs, a place called Berghain. The club is notoriously difficult to get into, and so Alex made sure he looked just right.

Alessandro Mauro:
They say like, wear black. So I was wearing everything black. Black T-shirt, black jeans, black socks. I said, you know, just in case, I’ll wear black underwear as well.

Roman Mars:
Even with the black underwear, Alex didn’t think much of his chances, but the doorman waved him through.

Alessandro Mauro:
All of a sudden, you’re in this environment, where the music is penetrating you, and I was just like – wow.

Kevin Caners:
The club is in a former power plant, and it still has that rough and industrial look.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Kevin Caners, who lives in Berlin.

Kevin Caners:
It’s a huge hall with massively high ceilings and different floors. And filling the building, of course, is a sound of techno, pumped out through an enormous wall of speakers.

Alessandro Mauro:
It was just the sound, and I just got fully into it.

Kevin Caners:
Alex lives in London, and he’d been clubbing there plenty of times, but this was something different.

Alessandro Mauro:
Everyone can do their thing as long as everyone respects each other. If you see someone naked dancing next to you, cool. If you see someone wearing a suit, cool. If people are having sex… okay. I could have done whatever I wanted in that club. But I made my decision to just dance.

Kevin Caners:
14 hours later, Alex was still dancing. It was like he’d been put into some kind of trance.

Alessandro Mauro:
And I danced until about 6 in the morning. That was my trip. It was a very joyous, introverted experience for me.

Kevin Caners:
Now Alex tries to come back to Berlin every year, in large part to visit the clubs, and there are millions of people like him. Berlin has become a destination for techno fans from all over the world.

Roman Mars:
In this music scene that the city is most famous for, it developed because of the thing the city is most infamous for — the Berlin Wall, that divided the city into East and West for almost 30 years. Germany was divided at the end of World War II, and so was the city of Berlin. East Berlin was socialist and controlled by the Soviet Union.

Kevin Caners:
West Berlin, on the other hand, was capitalist. It was a strange island outpost of democratic West Germany-

Roman Mars:
That was floating in the middle of socialist East Germany. Then in 1961, the city became divided not only politically, but physically as well. The East German government built a huge wall with checkpoints to prevent its citizens from fleeing into the West.

Kevin Caners:
Soon, divided by a wall, and living under completely different political and economic systems, two distinct cities emerged, each with its unique culture and music scene.

Mark Reeder:
Yes, hello. My name is Mark Reeder. I’m British, now German.

Kevin Caners:
Musician and record producer Mark Reeder was a young man from Manchester when he came to West Berlin 17 years after the wall was built. And he immediately fell in love with this strange, divided city.

Mark Reeder:
What I found was a city that was unlike anywhere I’d been before. I was like, wow, what’s this? I have to stay a few more days.

Roman Mars:
For most West Germans, West Berlin was not considered an attractive place to live. There was hardly any industry, and you were essentially cut off from the rest of West Germany, surrounded by wall on all sides.

Kevin Caners:
And so eager to attract people to the city, the West German government dangled a few incentives to get people to move there. The first was money.

Mark Reeder:
The city was heavily subsidized because it wanted to be attractive. Food was cheap, rents were really cheap. For my hovel, I paid 18 Marks a month. It was just 40 Euros today.

Kevin Caners:
The second incentive was that if you lived in West Berlin, you were exempt from the otherwise mandatory military service in West Germany.

Mark Reeder:
If you didn’t want to be drafted into the West German army, you could go to Berlin, and then you were exempt from the army.

Roman Mars:
All this made West Berlin a haven for misfits, hippies, queer people, and artists of all kinds.

Mark Reeder:
So anybody here who was kind of weird or didn’t fit into what was perceived as West German society, you went to Berlin, and you met everybody was just like you.

Kevin Caners:
West Berlin became a place where you could experiment.

Mark Reeder:
The artistic side of the city was kind of really off the wall. You could do whatever you liked, and no one kind of questioned that, because we were all in the same boat.

Roman Mars:
West Berlin hadn’t really been known as a musical city. It was known for its Wall and its Cold War politics. But by the early 1980s, with these new arrivals, an eclectic scene started to develop.

Mark Reeder:
Loads of little clubs and bars started to open. It just kind of started to manifest itself into something which was really a proper scene.

Kevin Caners:
On any given night, you could hear disco or hip hop or new wave music, and then there was the experimental rock scene, full of a constant lineup of bands.

Mark Reeder:
In West Germany, they called it the “berlinkrankheit” – Berlin illness – because it was so unconventional. It was kind of just kind of this crazy art-rock music thing. And it was a thrill.

Kevin Caners:
But while people like Mark were playing in bands and throwing parties in West Berlin, just behind the Wall; in East Berlin, it was a completely different world. In socialist East Germany, music was viewed as a potential to the state and was heavily regulated. The only publisher of music was the government-run label. They didn’t allow anything subversive.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Um eine als Discjockey aktiv zu werden, musste man Eine Ausbildung machen und dann musste man das vorführen, dass man es kann. Und dann bekam man eine Einstufung.

Kevin Caners:
Wolle Neugebauer lived in East Berlin back in the 1980s, and he said if you wanted to be a DJ, you had to be officially trained and licensed by the state. The same was true if you wanted to own an electric guitar or perform in a band. And you couldn’t just hold a private dance party. Wolle said that also required official approval.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Es war ja eigentlich nichts privat. Und Tanzen und Diskothek gab es nur vom Staat organisiert.

Kevin Caners:
There were still parties though. Wolle, for example, got a job helping to organize dances for the official socialist youth organization of East Germany. But he says there was a crazy bureaucracy you would have to navigate to make one of these parties happen.

Roman Mars:
First, you’d have to explain to the powers that be exactly what you would be doing, and what political and cultural goals you hoped to achieve.

Kevin Caners:
So Wolle would write up an official justification. Something along the lines of “We’re helping to make the youth better socialists through the ecstasy of music.”

Roman Mars:
The application would wind its way through official channels, and often months later, you’d be approved to host one of these dances. Everything in East Germany took its time.

Kevin Caners:
So two different Berlins, West and East, meters apart, but inhabiting starkly different realities, both musically and culturally.

Roman Mars:
But while they couldn’t take part in West Berlin’s club and music scenes, many East Berliners, like Wolle, knew about it. And that’s because they could pick up the West Berlin radio stations, which beamed over the wall.

Kevin Caners:
One show, in particular, was “SF Beat” with Monika Dietl.

Monika Dietl:
Hostos with the mostus Monika Dietl…

Kevin Caners:
Every Saturday night, Monika would play acid house music, which had started becoming popular in West Berlin. The music was electronic, repetitive, and perfect for dancing.

[TECHNO MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
And during these shows, Monika would often say where this music was being DJ’d live. She’d say, come tonight to the UFO Club if you want to party.

Mark Reeder:
And all these kids in the East, they were thinking that there’s a massive techno scene happening in West Berlin, and they imagined this kind of club thing that happened. They had no idea what a club thing was because they just heard the music.

Kevin Caners:
But even though the UFO Club, that Monika most often mentioned, was only 100 meters from the border, it was completely out of reach for Wolle.

Roman Mars:
For him, West Berlin felt so inaccessible, it might as well have been the moon.

Kevin Caners:
But that was about to change. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev favored an approach called “glasnost,” the Russian word for openness. He was much less authoritarian than earlier leaders, and he started allowing for more transparency and dissent.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
[THE MAIN ACHIEVEMENT FOR GORBACHEV’S POLICIES WAS THAT IN THE SPACE OF A YEAR OR TWO, HE MADE THE FEAR DISAPPEAR. AS IF BY MAGIC, PEOPLE HAD LOST THEIR FEAR OF SPEAKING AND ACTING FREELY.]

Roman Mars:
At first, the ruling East German socialists didn’t share Gorbachev’s enthusiasm for openness, and they were in no rush to follow his example.

Kevin Caners:
But as the 80s dragged on, the East German government was being put under more and more pressure by its own citizens to make similar changes.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Man wurde auch mutig. Mutiger und hat auch sich getraut, etwas zu sagen.

Kevin Caners:
Wolle says people were becoming braver, and more willing to speak out.

Roman Mars:
By the fall of 1989, there were increasingly large public demonstrations taking place, something that until recently would have been unthinkable.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Man hatte das Gefühl, man könne jetzt. Etwas verändern.

Kevin Caners:
And Wolle says there was a growing sense among citizens that they might be able to actually change things. But when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Wolle says it still came as a complete and utter shock.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Diese Mauer Eröffnung die war aber trotzdem überhaupt nicht in der Vorstellung.

Kevin Caners:
He says he can still remember the night very clearly. He and his girlfriend had been out at a party when they decided to call it a night. When they got home, he turned on the TV, and they saw the news.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
[GERMAN ARCHIVAL NEWS]

Kevin Caners:
What they learned is that the East German border guards, overwhelmed by huge crowds that had gathered at the border crossings, were simply letting people through to West Berlin. Suddenly there were no more controls.

Kevin Caners:
And although it wasn’t clear what exactly was happening, Wolle’s feeling was, finally, we can visit the moon. Finally, we can see for ourselves all the things we’ve only heard about. He said to his girlfriend-

Wolle Neugebauer:
Lass uns im Westen Fahren.

Kevin Caners:
“Let’s go the West.” So they went to the border, and with thousands of others, they crossed over into West Berlin.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Ja, das war ein bewegender Moment. (laughs)

Kevin Caners:
They bought a bottle of champagne from a gas station and went to look for a friend they knew on the Western side.

Roman Mars:
In the days and weeks that followed, everyone was euphoric and parties started happening everywhere.

Mark Reeder:
Right at the very beginning, right after the fall of the wall, the first thing that people wanted to do was go out clubbing.

Kevin Caners:
They wanted to visit the clubs they heard so much about on the radio.

Roman Mars:
Wolle was filled with an enormous sense of freedom and possibility. He says suddenly everything that had been so strictly regulated, including music, was now open.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Die alten Regeln galten nicht mehr. Und. Auch wenn das alles, was reglementiert war, war auf einmal offen.

Mark Reeder:
For the first time, these kids in the east had the opportunity to choose what kind of music they wanted to listen to. It wasn’t music which was being dictated to them by the state of East Germany, this was music they could decide for themselves.

Kevin Caners:
And the fall of the wall happened to occur at a moment when music was going in a brand new direction.

Roman Mars:
The acid house scene of Berlin was quickly moving towards what’s known as techno — a darker, more propulsive style of music, created by Black electronic musicians in Detroit. The harder Detroit sound had a huge influence on European musicians, especially the Germans. And a few weeks after the wall fell, Wolle heard these new harder sounds at a small party at the UFO club.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Diese Musik war. Rein elektronisch kalt, hart…

Kevin Caners:
As he remembers, this music was hard, driving, and psychedelic.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Und unglaublich treibend und psychedelisch.

Kevin Caners:
And he knew right away.

Wolle Neugebauer:
Ich wusste in dem Moment, das ist meine Musik.

Kevin Caners:
This is my music.

[TECHNO MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
The whole political system had just crumbled. The future felt unwritten, and this new techno music fit that sense of newness perfectly.

Kevin Caners:
But these techno parties were still relatively small. UFO, the main Wester Berlin basement club where this new music was being played, was tiny. It couldn’t hold more than 100 people at a time.

Roman Mars:
Wolle wanted to organize something bigger. Freed from the restrictions of the East German state, he wanted to throw huge parties — with fog machines, and strobe lights, and with techno music that would play all night.

Kevin Caners:
He called these parties “Tekknozid” parties. And as anyone who was there will tell you, it was on the dance floor that East and West really came together.

Mark Reeder:
The unification of Germany happened on the dance floor. It didn’t happen in politics until much later. Everybody was on the dance floor together, and it didn’t matter where you came from, whether you were from the East or the West, how much money you earned, what kind of job you had. Didn’t matter. Everyone was dancing on the same drug to the same music, on the same plane mentally, and everybody loved each other. And we were all unified in that way. For me personally, I think techno is definitely the sound of the Berlin Wall coming down. It’s definitely the reunification soundtrack.

Roman Mars:
But as the scene exploded, party organizers faced a problem. They need bigger and bigger venues to accommodate the growing crowds. And unlike West Berlin, which was cramped and claustrophobic, East Berlin had plenty of space.

Tobias Rapp:
Everybody was exploring spaces all the time. That’s basically what we all did. It was like a sport for people, to run around and check out where do we have empty apartments.

Kevin Caners:
Der Spiegel journalist Tobias Rapp was a teenager from West Germany who had just graduated high school when he decided to move with a friend to East Berlin, just a few months after the Wall fell. They quickly found a place to squat.

Tobias Rapp:
It was just empty, and we went in. It was like a big house.

Kevin Caners:
Actually, an entire apartment building.

Tobias Rapp:
So all in all, it was like 30 units. That’s how this went down (laughs). Pretty basic. Empty building — get it!

Kevin Caners:
For Tobias, the whole city was like a big playground of derelict buildings. It wasn’t just the abandoned apartments. There were also former military sights, and factories that had been shut down, and buildings that had been condemned.

Tobias Rapp:
You’re in a huge space. You just discovered it. It’s empty. You open up the door, enter a building, looks fantastic, and it’s empty. Nobody asked any questions. So you have to ask yourself a question. What do I do with it? The easiest thing to do is, “Oh, we make a party.” That’s the core impulse where this whole Berlin nightlife club scene comes from.

Kevin Caners:
Not only were there tons of empty buildings, usually it wasn’t even clear who owned them. That’s because decades before, the Nazis had seized property from Jewish citizens.

Tobias Rapp:
Then after the war, the communists took away lots of real estate from what they thought were Nazis or bourgeoisie class.

Kevin Caners:
So you had these multiple layers of expropriations, going back decades.

Tobias Rapp:
Everything was theoretically cleared in the contracts that led to the German reunification. But to clear on the ground which property belongs to whom, that took years.

Roman Mars:
And while this chaos over ownership was a headache for the state, and of course, for the descendants of the people whose property had been seized, it was a godsend for the underground techno music scene.

Mark Reeder:
Yeah, we had a lot of people from West Berlin who had experience of making parties in West Berlin and doing events in West Berlin. They realized that now we have places we can do parties, and we don’t have to pay any rent, don’t have to pay any fee.

Kevin Caners:
With a huge amount of abandoned space, parties started popping up everywhere. Usually just for a night or two, and then moving on somewhere else.

Mark Reeder:
At the beginning, it was always like changing locations. It would just be a one-off party, a one-off event, then never again kind of thing.

Kevin Caners:
And you would find out about these parties through word of mouth.

Mark Reeder:
And sometimes you have secret things where it’d be just like call this number at this time. You’d phone up a friend to find out where the party was at.

Roman Mars:
But while all this was fun for the people involved, it could only really happen because Berlin’s economy was so messed up. There was all this confusion about the ownership of these old derelict buildings, and there wasn’t a lot of demand for them.

Kevin Caners:
Many older East Germans struggled through this period. They watched as the whole system they had grown up under collapsed.

Mark Reeder:
Sometimes, the 90s in Berlin looked so idyllic, and ahhhh, times of freedom, and blah, blah, blah. For lots of people, it was not like this at all. They lost their job, they lost their status, and they felt overwhelmed by historical development that nobody had seen to come.

Kevin Caners:
Entire industries were shut down or sold off, as the East was converted from socialism to capitalism at breakneck speed. Lots of people had their lives completely upturned, while the techno kids had their run of things.

[MUSIC]

Roman Mars:
Berlin’s techno scene might have been just a blip, something that disappeared as the post-wall euphoria faded, were it not for a guy named Dimitri Hegemann.

Kevin Caners:
Dimitri helped turn the city’s chaotic underground techno movement into a permanent club scene that would change the landscape and economy of Berlin completely.

Roman Mars:
Dimitri was a West Berliner. And it was his tiny, illegal basement club, the UFO club, that had been at the center of the small club scene in West Berlin. But now that the Wall had come down and the techno scene was expanded, he wanted something bigger.

Kevin Caners:
And so with a couple of friends, about a year after the Wall fell, he started exploring East Berlin, looking for a larger venue where he could put on his parties.

Roman Mars:
Lots of buildings in East Berlin were empty, but many of the most interesting to explore were those that were right by the now unguarded Berlin Wall. And one day in 1990, while Dimitri was stuck in a traffic jam with two friends, right by the former Wall, they noticed one of these buildings and thought, “Why don’t we try here?”

Dimitri Hegemann:
We went there, and there was an elderly person with these big keys, and he let us in.

Kevin Caners:
The building was small, concrete, and kind of shoddy. It was nothing special. But the elderly maintenance man left them with the keys, and that night they went to check it out a second time, which was when they happened to notice some stairs hidden behind some shelves.

Roman Mars:
These stairs led them down to a massive iron door, beyond which was a strange underground room.

Dimitri Hegemann:
We smelled the old air, and we touched the old lockers, and it was mysterious. It was like opening a pyramid. For me, it was completely clear, this space has the quality for something great.

Kevin Caners:
What they’d found was an enormous vault filled with safety deposit boxes. It had served as the in-house bank of a grand department store called the Wertheim.

Dimitri Hegemann:
The wall was like one meter thick. There was just concrete and steel, and it was impossible to breakthrough.

Roman Mars:
The Wertheim had been the largest department store in all of Europe. And while the huge main building had been destroyed by bombing during World War II, this underground vault, with its meter-thick concrete walls, had survived.

Kevin Caners:
They asked the maintenance guy, so, who’s responsible for the building? And he gave them the East Berlin address of bundesvermögensamt, which was the federal property office.

Roman Mars:
When East Germany joined with West Germany and began transitioning to capitalism, all the communal property and state-owned industries of the former socialist country had to be sold off, or managed in the meantime.

Kevin Caners:
And the address Dimitri had been given was one of the government agencies that had been put in charge of this task.

Dimitri Hegemann:
They were unorganized and they said, “Okay, if this the address, then we work out some for three months.” They told us, “You cannot expect that you can say longer if the owner comes and says, it’s mine.”

Kevin Caners:
But even armed with a three-month lease, Dimitri was ecstatic.

Dimitri Hegemann:
I was so happy that I could find in the heart of Berlin this space.

Kevin Caners:
They spent the next few months cleaning it up, and in March 1991, they opened up a club. They called it Tresor, the German word for vault.

Roman Mars:
Now, you didn’t have to call a secret number to find a techno party. On a Saturday night, you knew exactly where to go. The scene was evolving from fleeting parties and scattered places to something bigger and more established. Large, unusual spaces like Tresor were starting to take hold.

Kevin Caners:
Tresor quickly came known for its hard Detroit-inspired techno parties that would go all weekend. With the fog machines and strobe lights and loud beats, people seemed to forget time and space.

Roman Mars:
Tresor didn’t just help popularize this new harder version of Detroit’s techno sound. It also helped build a real connection between the Berlin and Detroit techno scenes. Dimitri started the Tresor label and began releasing the work of many of these Detroit musicians throughout Europe.

Kevin Caners:
For many visitors, like Tobias, going to Tresor for the first time was like a revelation.

Tobias Rapp:
I thought, “Okay, this is our zero.” Everything that I used to believe in musically is the past, and I’m right here, right now in the present. This boom, boom, boom. That wipes away everything else. That was my feeling.

Kevin Caners:
Tresor’s three-month lease was extended for another three months, and then another. And meanwhile, a whole network of clubs began to develop nearby, in the empty buildings right by the former site of the Berlin Wall.

Roman Mars:
And over time, the techno scene continued to grow and began driving an economic revival in Berlin. Dimitri says people felt empowered to experiment and to use the city’s empty spaces in creative ways.

Dimitri Hegemann:
Nobody made big plans — we do something for the next 20 years or so. We just said, “Okay, for one week, that’s great. For one month, or just for one day, let’s get together and have a good time.” That was the beginning of many, many small startups.

Kevin Caners:
People began opening not only clubs, but bars and art galleries, and all kinds of small businesses. And all of these new businesses could basically fly under the radar. There was so much else going on with the politics of reunifying the city, that for the most part, no one was really checking to make sure anyone was paying taxes or getting the proper permits to put on events or serve alcohol, and that was the case for years.

Roman Mars:
In many ways, Berlin hadn’t had a stable identity since World War II. The city had been occupied, then divided, and never had much of an industry. Plus, the shadow of being the capital of Nazi Germany still lingered.

Kevin Caners:
But the new culture that started to grow up around the techno scene helped to change that. And as techno migrated from the underground to the mainstream, it began to draw people from all over the world.

Roman Mars:
Word had gotten out. If you like techno and sweaty dance parties that last until dawn, you’ve got to check out Berlin.

Dimitri Hegemann:
You hear that a friend of a friend of a friend of yours tells crazy stories about this crazy club he was to, and then you go and check out for yourself, and you realize, it’s really amazing. The more crazy the stories are, the more power they tend to get.

Kevin Caners:
This was helped along by the fact that in the early 2000s, flights within the EU had gotten significantly cheaper. You didn’t have to be rich anymore to visit just for a weekend. And while tourists used to come to Berlin for the historical monuments-

Dimitri Hegemann:
Where’s the wall? Where’s the Brandenburg gate?

Kevin Caners:
Now they were coming for the clubs.

Dimitri Hegemann:
Where can I go out? Where are the techno clubs?

Kevin Caners:
Over time, some of those travelers decided to stay. And with all the new energy, the nightlife became a real economic force.

Mark Reeder:
2018 generated 1.4 billion Euros. It’s the only thing that we have in this city, is the entertainment industry.

Roman Mars:
And it wasn’t just the direct impact of the club scene that was changing the city. There were lots of additional effects as well. Tech companies related to electronic music, like SoundCloud, Ableton, and Native Instruments were founded in Berlin. Other tech companies, not always related to music, followed.

Kevin Caners:
And finally, after years of being famously economically challenged, Berlin was growing faster than the rest of Germany. And for Tobias, much of the credit goes to techno.

Tobias Rapp:
I think the influence of techno music and the subcultural nightlife that comes along with it is much, much bigger than anybody imagines.

Roman Mars:
Today, the techno scene is so important economically to the city, that even the conservative Christian democratic party of Berlin talks about the need to support Berlin’s club culture, despite all the drugs and hedonism that it involves. And just recently, the German federal parliament decided to reclassify nightclubs as cultural institutions, meaning they’re granted the same legal status as museums and opera houses.

Kevin Caners:
This kind of mainstream recognition can sometimes be weird for the people who were involved in the scene back when it was just starting. When everything felt wild and subversive, and completely new.

Tobias Rapp:
Techno is 40 years old now, so it has grown up.

Roman Mars:
The people who run the clubs now, they’re professionals. They know exactly what they’re doing.

Tobias Rapp:
Most of them are really smart businessmen. They know who their audience is. They know that they’re not planning just for today, but they’re planning for their life, that it’s a real career.

Kevin Caners:
Which is not how it was back in the 90s. Back then, Tobias said, you never really knew what was going to happen next.

Tobias Rapp:
I’m sometimes nostalgic for the 90s because of the freedom and all the craziness and chaos, but I’m not nostalgic for the Germanness of the 90s. I find this international city that we have now way more attractive than this German city I had back then.

Kevin Caners:
And he’s just waiting to see what this new international generation of Berliners comes up with.

Tobias Rapp:
Berlin is a very inviting city, and techno is one of these tools that gives out an invitation to the world and says, “Hey, you can come here, and you can be part of what this city is about to become.”

Roman Mars:
That story was produced by Kevin Caners and edited by Delaney Hall. Coming up after the break, we talk with Kevin about the origins of the Detroit techno scene, and how the music eventually made its way to Berlin.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So we’re back with Kevin. And you know, Kevin, the story that we just heard was all about Berlin and techno’s influence on the city. But we also mentioned how the sound originally came over from Detroit, and that’s like a whole other story.

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, so techno first emerged in Detroit in the 1980s, and I was curious about how that happened. So I called up two of the important early techno musicians from Detroit, Juan Atkins and Blake Baxter. And they both described Detroit in the 80s as a rough place to live. It was an industrial city that was quickly becoming post-industrial. The population was shrinking, there was a lot of white flight, and people were losing their jobs. Here’s Blake Baxter.

Blake Baxter:
Detroit was dark. I lived downtown, and it was like an abandoned city with tall skyscrapers. I mean, at 6 o’clock, you didn’t see no one on the street. The storefronts were all closed, totally empty downtown. So yeah, Detroit was a hot mess in the 70s and 80s.

Kevin Caners:
While the city around them was economically depressed, Blake and Juan both came from middle-class Black families, and they say that they and their friends were part of a very particular social scene. They were into all kinds of music, including a lot of stuff from Europe. Here’s Juan.

Juan Atkins:
So they would do these parties where they played disco music and Italian import music and stuff like that. I think Black teens were just like into whatever was good and creative, and for me, I was just soaking it all up, trying to incorporate it all.

Roman Mars:
And so what kind of stuff were they listening to? What is he talking about?

Kevin Caners:
Well, a lot of it was electronic core synthesizer-based. Everything from Parliament, Funkadelic, and Giorgio Moroder to new wave bands like Devo and Depeche Mode, and they really loved the German band Kraftwerk.

Juan Atkins:
We loved Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk was one of the main engines that fueled electro in Detroit. Everyone was Kraftwerk.

Roman Mars:
I love Kraftwerk too. It doesn’t seem like it’s very much like the techno music that we heard in the piece. How did they get from Kraftwerk to what they were creating?

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, it does seem like a pretty big leap. So right around the same time, the early 1980s, was when all these new consumer electronic instruments started becoming available. There were new synths from manufacturers like Korg and drum machines like the TR808 and 909.

Roman Mars:
Sure.

Kevin Caners:
While synths and drum machines had existed before, these new models were cheap enough that a lot of people could actually afford them. And this opened up a whole new world for kids like Juan and Blake. It meant that they could make music at home.

Blake Baxter:
Yeah, because before that, it was like going to a studio, having a drummer play the beats. Then when the 909 came out, it made music production affordable. It had everything on it, and it had a big sound too.

Juan Atkins:
I would record a rhythm track on one cassette, and play it back, and record a baseline, and catch it on the other cassette. And I would ping pong back and forth until eventually, I had a song.

Kevin Caners:
And Juan and Blake were by no means the only ones. Tons of young kids were experimenting.

Blake Baxter:
Every kid my age I knew, they were doing the same thing. Like wanting to make electronic music.

Juan Atkins:
Yeah, it just caught on like wildfire, and it just got to a stage where just everybody started making music. The manufacturers made this technology available, and we picked it up and ran with it.

Roman Mars:
So there’s all these technologies like drum machines and synths, but what was it about Detroit? Like all the musicians and people who were promoting parties in Berlin in your piece are talking about Detroit. What was distinctly happening in Detroit?

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, well, it’s not like these machines or instruments were only being used in Detroit. There was also a Chicago house music that used these devices, like the Roland 808 and 909. But Chicago house music was more influenced by disco and soul music, and there was this really big party scene around Chicago house music. But musicians in Detroit seemed more attracted to harder, more industrial sounds.

Blake Baxter:
That was just what Detroit was into from day one, this electro, hard, industrial combination.

Kevin Caners:
And there was this one Detroit collective in particular called the Underground Resistance, and its founders, Jeff Mills, Robert Head, and Mike Banks were really pioneers of this darker Detroit sound. It was kind of like their city’s answer to happier Chicago house music. This was a distinction that became really clear in 1988, when Virgin Records from the UK decided to put out a compilation album with artists like Blake Baxter and Juan Atkins, featuring this new Detroit music.

Blake Baxter:
They were going to call that album the House Sound of Detroit, and I submitted a track called “Techno Music.” I said, “No, my music is techno music. My music ain’t house music.” So that submission made them change the album to the Techno Sound of Detroit.

Roman Mars:
Wow. Rarely do you get a moment where, okay, we’re going to call everything from techno from here on. That’s just great.

Kevin Caners:
Yeah. I mean, it’s a bit unclear if it’s this moment because in Germany, they also used the word techno. But techno was more like Depeche Mode. It wasn’t like what we think today as techno.

Roman Mars:
That’s interesting.

Kevin Caners:
So, yeah. So techno, the new dance sound of Detroit came out and helped solidify techno as this unique genre.

Roman Mars:
Is that album how the music made its way over to Europe and Berlin?

Kevin Caners:
Well, it certainly helped. But maybe more importantly for Berlin was the fact that there was a record store owner here named Mark Ernestus, and Mark had a really big hand in getting many of these Detroit records over to Berlin and noticed by the DJs here.

Roman Mars:
So the music comes over, and you also mention in the piece that musicians eventually came over too. How did that all happen?

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, so March 1991, Tresor opens and quickly becomes known for its love of hard Detroit techno, and already within the first few months of the club’s existence, its owner, Dimitri Hegemann, this is the guy that we met in the main story, he invited many of these pioneering Detroit techno artists over to come to Berlin and play at Tresor. Juan came, Underground Resistance came, and Blake came.

Blake Baxter:
Berlin was messed up. I mean, it looked like right after the war because the buildings were tore up. The Wall was still partially up, but I really loved the look because I came from Detroit. So I always saw beauty in decay, and just looking at how Berlin was, it was amazing.

Roman Mars:
So did they say what it was like playing their music across the ocean in this completely different context?

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, so it was definitely somewhat strange for them. When they played at Tresor-

Blake Baxter:
It was mostly, if not all, white crowd at Tresor. Whereas in Detroit, the parties we played in Detroit was all Black kids.

Kevin Caners:
But they say it was also exciting to see the enthusiasm that this other culture had for their music.

Blake Baxter:
There was so many more people into what we were into, and we were shocked to see that. Then how they partied in these old, dirty spaces, finding old bunkers, old basements, these loud sound systems. We were doing that in Detroit, but they took it up to an insane level. Yeah, it was like Detroit on steroids. I really loved it.

Kevin Caners:
At least for Blake, he found this kinship between the vibe of Berliners and Detroiters.

Blake Baxter:
It seemed like people in Berlin, they were on the same wavelength. Detroit wasn’t into formulated sounds. It’s like, you get a keyboard, you mess it the hell up. You mess up the parameters, the frequencies, and you just find the most (beep) up sound you can, and you make it work. And the German people, they love experimentation. So it was a great match, and the crazier we got, the more they loved it.

Roman Mars:
He’s so good. I mean, obviously, as he mentioned, Detroit had gone through sort of this strange abandonment downtown and difficult times, and Berlin was going through this. I mean, is this is what he attributes to why they were all on the same wavelength?

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, I think so. Because Detroit had racism and job losses while Berlin had the division and the war. Both really kind of dark, difficult pasts. Blake says that created a shared desire of the young people in both cities to kind of step out from those shadows.

Blake Baxter:
Wanting to express yourself, and wanting to let go of the past and step into the future, I think that was something being from Detroit and being from Berlin, I think we had that in common.

Kevin Caners:
Almost from day one, this bond between these Detroit musicians like Blake and Juan and the city developed into something much more than just coming to play for a night and then leaving. A lot of this was specifically because of Dimitri Hegemann. He ended up putting out albums of theirs on the Tresor label. So they stayed to make these albums. So some of the Detroit guys ended up spending a lot of time in the city.

Roman Mars:
So what was it like for them to go back and forth between two cities?

Kevin Caners:
I mean, well, one kind of difficult part of it was that while Detroit and Berlin were both in rough shape at the beginning of the 90s, when they first started coming, Juan and Blake watched as Berlin started to rebound while things in Detroit stayed pretty much the same.

Blake Baxter:
Berlin kind of went leaps and bounds past Detroit since then. I mean, when the first time I went, it was like it looked around the same size of Detroit, kind of bleak, cold all the time. Then the next time I came, a year or two after, it’s like the sky was full of cranes. Like everywhere you look in Berlin there was cranes, and now you don’t even recognize the place.

Roman Mars:
So Berlin is rebuilding with all these construction cranes, but the same thing isn’t happening in Detroit.

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, exactly, and while Berlin is becoming this techno city world-famous for its clubs, this was also not happening in Detroit.

Blake Baxter:
To this day we don’t really have a real purpose-built club for techno music in Detroit, of all places.

Kevin Caners:
And Blake and Juan say that while the Berlin government sees the value in the nightlife and its club scene, the city of Detroit doesn’t view it nearly as favorably. Of course, unlike Berlin, where there’s no curfew and you can sell drinks all night, Detroit has a last call of 2 A.M., which makes it far harder to open up a financially successful club.

Roman Mars:
You can’t have the three-day parties that you talk about, if you have to close down at 2 A.M. But are there efforts to change that, to enliven the techno scene in Detroit?

Kevin Caners:
Yeah. So for a while now, Dimitri Hegemann has been involved in efforts, along with local Detroiters to bring more of a nightlife economy to the city. As we talked about in the first half of the show, he’s a strong believer in how the night culture has helped Berlin and its economy, and he thinks at least to a degree, it could do the same for Detroit. So he’s visited Detroit many times over the years, and worked with local politicians there to see how they can bring more clubs to the city.

Dimitri Hegemann:
So I said, “Let’s try it out. Let’s make an experiment. Let’s get an art zone, zoned area where the venues open till 6 in the morning or 8.” Because you lose the night, and the night is an important time. It made Berlin very popular and attractive, and it would create a lot of jobs. A lot of jobs. They have space. What city has space? And it’s still available, I think.

Roman Mars:
That’s fascinating. So what do Blake and Juan think about these efforts to create this nightlife mecca in Detroit?

Kevin Caners:
Well, they both are pretty positive and think it’s a good idea, but also acknowledge that there are definite hurdles standing in the way.

Juan Atkins:
The problem is the amount of people. See, Berlin has way more people living in the inner city and way more young people going out than Detroit has. Detroit is still young in its renaissance stage. So it can happen, and it’s a really great concept, but it would take time, and a lot of funding, but Dimitri’s a guy that comes up with ideal and some work, some don’t. But when they work, they really work. And people here in Detroit, they really love him. I mean, when he walks down the street, he can do no wrong. This quirky guy. People love him.

Kevin Caners:
So yeah, we’ll see what happens. These efforts have been underway in some capacity for years, and there’s even an official organization called the Detroit-Berlin Connection that works on these things. But whatever happens, the bond between the two scenes is still strong. Juan, for example, lived in Berlin in 2018 for half a year because it makes sense with his DJing work. You can fly to London or Paris in just an hour or two. Compare that with a whole day trip from Detroit. Blake regularly visits Berlin, and at least in non-corona times, deejays at Tresor several times a year. Actually, it turns out that he has a daughter with Dimitri’s daughter.

Roman Mars:
Okay. So they are close.

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, so there’s the real Detroit-Berlin connection for you. So yeah, however you look at it, the 30-year connection that techno forged between Berlin and Detroit is here to stay.

Roman Mars:
Well, that is so cool. Well, thank you so much for bringing this other aspect of the story, Kevin. I really appreciate it.

Kevin Caners:
Yeah, it was my pleasure, Roman.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Kevin Caners, edited by our executive producer, Delaney Hall. Music by our director of sound, Sean Real. Mixed by Bryson Barnes. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Katie Mingle, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars. We are a part of the Stitcher and Sirius XM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building, in beautiful uptown Oakland, California.

Roman Mars:
You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can find other shows I love from Stitcher on our website 99pi.org, including “The Dream.” Season one is a brilliant investigation of multi-level marketing. Season two takes on the wellness industry. Search for it wherever you’re listening now, or follow our link at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

Reporter Kevin Caners spoke with Tobias Rapp, author of Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno und der Easyjetset; Dimitri Hegemann; Wolle Neugebauer; Mark Reeder; Ellen Allien; Alessandro Mauro.

Special thanks to Matthias Pasdzierny of the Berlin Arts University UdK, and Beate Peter From the Manchester Metropolitan University, whom we spoke with for background. Thanks also to Felix Denk and Sven von Thülen, authors of Der Klang Der Familie.

This episode was edited by Delaney Hall.

  1. From Horrible Unfree Eastern Bloc

    Who would’ve thought 99pi would become a platform for trite Cold War propaganda of Eastern Bloc = bad, Western Bloc = free. Goodbye 99pi, who taught us to look at the built world in a completely new light and with this episode failed to live up to your own standards.

  2. Rainer

    “Rent was incredibly cheap in West Germany, and anyone who moved there was exempt from the otherwise mandatory military service. ”
    This sentence is (well, should be) about West BERLIN, not about West GERMANY.

    And while Love Parades started in Berlin, the photograph shows a float from Tunnel club in Hamburg,

  3. Hae

    I’m actually living the outros being different every time. Low-key hope they never give you the real thing

  4. Ben Bachelder

    Thank you so much for this piece! I developed a deep love for techno in the mid-90’s and was drawn to the Detroit and Berlin sounds stronger than anything else. I was inspired to become a DJ myself as I was finishing high school, and collected soooo many records, a significant portion of them being on the Tresor label. When I finished college, I made Berlin a priority stop in my obligatory post-graduation backpacking trip. I knew there was a Tresor club, and the workers at the hostel I was staying at knew exactly where it was. So on Saturday night, I stashed my belongings in a closet at the hostel, made my way downtown, and stepped into a space I had only imagined. It. Was. Wild. My most vivid memory is from the vault (which I had no idea was part of the club until I discovered it whilst wandering around). There was one chaser strobe on the ceiling providing the only light. It was as minimal as the music, and I loved it all.

    I have always appreciated the way 99PI sheds light on things that could easily go unnoticed. I knew a fair amount of what was included in this piece, more than usual, but the parts that were new to me were fascinating!

    Thanks again for the story. I was inspired to write a short story about my adventure, something I haven’t done for years. It was fun!

  5. jenn

    Hor Berlin /the Boiler Room have been my pandemic project. Good to hear about some context.

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