Issue #132 Don’t Techno For an Answer

Don’t Techno For an Answer

Tavia Nyong’o

The Roland TR-909 Rhythm Composer, a drum machine released in 1983, was used by early house and techno producers.

Issue #132
December 2022

Growing up in the predominantly white suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in the 1980s, the soundtrack of my daily life was rock, and the face of rock was always a white dude. As a brown, proto-queer teen with nerd tendencies, it was natural then that I would gravitate towards techno instead. Rock was the triumphant voice of my parents’ generation, and therefore deeply embedded in the human, all-too-human dynamics of oedipal rebellion. Rock was an ear worm that followed me everywhere; it was the row of preening dude faces on the covers of new albums in the display window of Schoolkids Records.

Techno, on the other hand, was a faceless, wordless music that seemed to emerge directly out of the inhuman void. Techno was hard to find in the record store and had no household names associated with it. It emanated from DJ booths staffed by introverted guys in sunglasses and baseball hats, hunched over knobs and platters. They weren’t making the music in any traditional sense; they didn’t even seem to be controlling it. It seemed like they were being controlled by it. And so were we in those places where I found it, on the dance floor, late at night, in some illegal rave or club I was too young to be at. We were its ecstatic recipients. We were the robots.

Joy in depersonalization is sweet amongst the teenage, who have just discovered the terrible burden of being an individual and are quick to shirk it. But there are different ways of merging into the masses, and I did not fit into the most common ones. I held as active a fantasy life as books could take me: which was anywhere in the known universe and beyond. I was almost a complete nerd except for one grace: an eye for the horizon that had me always wandering off looking for trouble.

Dancing into the ecstatic was to be another fortune of mine from an early age, when my older brother helped me sneak off to Bubbles discotheque at thirteen or fourteen, in Nairobi, Kenya. It was at Bubbles that I first heard Chaka Khan and Black Box, Madonna and Rick Astley. I tasted lager, decided I was wholly uninterested in “tuning chilays” (flirting with girls), and turned instead to the dance floor to find the true love of my life: getting lost in music.

Bubbles was a proper disco, part of a casino no less. There was no enforced drinking age (nor driving age it seemed) at that time and place, so the children of privilege got to pull up in daddy’s Benz and swagger through Kenya’s best approximation of Casablanca on the way to a round dancefloor, rimmed with booths and spinning lights. I recall some half-hearted tension between us and the “tyutes”—aka the South Asian kids who all excelled in school, we grumbled, because they hired tutors. Who was truly Kenyan, and who just an outsider? Don’t ask me the answer to these questions since I don’t ever want to know. This was too brief a flash of time for me to remember anything gay about it other than me. But chatting with age mates about it now surfaces a more indelible memory of partying two, three times a weekend for the better part of a decade before the casino finally closed it down.

Back in Michigan a few years later, I took my little sister to see Bruce Springsteen in a stadium. I was impressed but unmoved. I too had been born in the USA, but I didn’t identify with going to kill “the yellow man.” (Springsteen, I later learned, was being ironic, something tricky to pull off in the 1980s.) Mainstream, Midwestern, white America was an embarrassment to my teenage self. And its dialectical negation, gangsta rap, valorized a form of black masculinity to which I could not aspire. So it was techno (and later house) that provided my escape into a shared dreamscape of complex synchronicity. Instead of studs with guitars on giant stages, or lyricists freestyling in studios and clubs, we had ravers in dank warehouses in sketchy neighborhoods. You did not watch this music (in those years before the DJ booth itself became a stage). The music surrounded you. Luis Manuel Garcia-Mispireta’s work captures these surrounds perfectly in their ethnography of the contemporary techno scene, pointing out that the “dancefloor” can be everywhere.1

The placement of the DJ booth in most of the places I danced at in the late 1980s and early 1990s was elevated, but in shadow. This offered the DJ a secluded view of the club. From that vantage point, as I would come to appreciate, the DJ was interacting continuously with the activity of the crowd. These crowds—who were mostly white working-class, punk, and/or queer in my estimation, wilder by far than my sheltered middle-class family of origin—were gathering in spontaneous rejection of “cock rock” culture. In those early years of self-discovery, techno was everything rock wasn’t and never could be. Except for one detail: it was also largely white.

This image spread appears in Dan Sicko, Techno Rebels: The Renegades Of Electronic Funk (Billboard Books, 1999). 

That I understood techno to be white (and house and disco to be black) was an understandable mistake. To my later chagrin, I was not quite in the right time or place for the early 1980s Detroit party scene lovingly detailed by Dan Sicko in Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk.2 Those parties that he details were the Afro-American matrix out of which techno as we know it today emerged. My family had spent those years bouncing back and forth between the US and Kenya, and trips to Detroit were largely limited to visits with my grandmother. Through a cruel twist of fate, I, a Michigan native and budding techno fanatic, did not really know the social origins of the music were just a half hour away.

Sicko recounts the subcultural rivalry in those years between “preps” and “jits” (terms I myself never actually heard, but that resonate uncannily with the distinction at Bubbles between “us” and the “tyutes”). At these parties Sicko describes, you were either college-bound (a “preppie”) or you were a cool cat (a “jit” dancing—yes, the jitterbug). When my parents moved us to Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, in the 1970s, they made that choice for me. I was so preppie I hardly knew there was another way to be. (I even had a brief brush with the notoriously boogie Jack & Jill Society, but that is a story for another time.)

1970s Ann Arbor (“Detroit’s nerdier younger brother” as Sicko waggishly calls it) was a weird mixture of aging hippies and white flighters from post-industrial Detroit. The social geography of the greater Detroit area was and remains so rife with American contradiction. An imploded “inner city,“ that we were trained to avoid for fear for our lives, surrounded by a half-abandoned suburban wasteland dotted by telephone poles and liquor stores. When I read Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren years later, it all made sense: Detroit was a post-apocalyptic dystopia that only a work of science fiction could make sense of.

Delany’s protagonist, an “Indian without ancestry” out of a Deleuzian fever dream, adds a layer of significance in placing Dhalgren in palimpsest over Detroit (even though Delany himself assures me he was not thinking specifically of Detroit when he invented Bellona). Known as Waawiiyaataanong in Anishinaabe, this region “where the water turns around” has been a meeting point for first nations peoples for millennia. Delany’s “Kid” wanders a landscape from which he has been dispossessed of everything except the bare fact of his stolen indigeneity.

And then, beyond the city, tucked away in the hills, accessible only by car, were the McMansions of the auto company executives. When you got past these gate-kept fortresses of whiteness, you landed in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor disrupted the gradient of poor to ultra-rich somewhat, firstly by being a college town built around a prestigious state school with a popular football team. And, relatedly, for being one of the places the members of 1960s counterculture went to raise their children.

A white middle-class utopia, Ann Arbor had food and housing co-ops, a lesbian feminist bookshop, environmental justice warriors, and annual public pot smoking bashes. The first community activity I remember taking part in was a bike-a-thon for the environment. I loved grapes as much as any kid, but we never ate them because we observed the United Farm Workers grape boycott. We were “woke” back when it was called being “crunchy granola.”

As a child I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else; as a teen I couldn’t wait to get out.

Techno was a passport. I didn’t know what a rave was, but I knew that I wanted to go to there. Ecstasy, the hug drug, gave us Gen X children of hippies a psychedelic of our own. This drug was not cheesy and moldy like LSD or magic mushrooms, nor was it tie-dye and hacky sack like marijuana. It was futuristic, quasi-medical, and love-oriented. Fashions followed suit.

While techno heads today prefer “minimal athletic gear in all black,” as McKenzie Wark notes, the Gen X look was bright colors, baggy clothes, and creative regression (in retrospect, some of us were proto-furries). It was aviator sunglasses at night and drug dealers dressed as school crossing guards. It was barrettes for boys and glitter for everyone. And it was dancing for hours, dancing to depletion and beyond.

To this day, and despite all its manifest limitations, rave culture will remain special to me as the first scene I embraced that was consciously and directly organized around collective, physical love. Raving came with a political utopianism that is worth noting: even as we disidentified with 60s flower power, we had our own aspirations to combine sex, drugs, and music into a new reality. Unlike the dissociative party drugs that were favored later in the 1990s (like G and K), E was an empathy-enhancing drug. On E, we became a body without organs, joyously relinquishing our fears and inhibitions to playfully touch, hug, and dance with each other. It is very embarrassing in retrospect. Today, I cannot look at raver pants or glo sticks without wincing. But when I get into it, that old time religion comes back. And then I wonder why I ever deviated from the good doctrine of PLUR (Peace, Love, Unity, and Respect).

The PLUR rave scene was, as I said, very white in the Midwest. Its aspirations to define a generation through music came to grief over the failure of a planned Rave on Washington—the imagined counterpart to the Love Parade then rising up in Germany. Corporate music in the US quickly turned rave into “EDM,” propped up a few acts they aimed to slot into the same rock star, stadium selling slot, and basically ruined everything.

By the time I was out East for college, I was already dancing into a more blended, multiracial, and finally queer set of spaces. The first kids wearing raver pants on my college campus in Connecticut, by the way, were Black and Queer. Now in the orbit of New York City, the beat of salsa, disco, and house was powerful. Yet techno kept a niche in the club scene with crossover acts like Dee-lite. Techno and house were the main music played in gay clubs (this being the golden age of the dancefloor remix).

That techno had started in Detroit was something I never remember discussing. In those pre-internet years, music came at you from nowhere. And when you found the music, you could not “Shazam” it to find it again later. You had to get “lost in music.” You had to find some way of keeping in touch with it, to keep in step, or you would forever lose track of it. I spent years of my adolescence pining after songs I had heard once, been transported by, and then despaired to never hear again. These songs were as vivid in my memory as the memory of another person, more real in some way.

I picked up Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style in my college bookstore. It was my gateway drug to the land of Theory (a copy is still never far from my writing desk).3 Reading Hebdige, I produced an imagined and remote intimacy4 between my life and the “mods,” “rockers,” and “punks,” whose revolt through style, Hebdige argued, became the means through which they contested cultural hegemony. Already a bit Anglophilic by way of my postcolonial heritage, I latched onto punk as an object lesson in negative dialectics: a damaged sound for a broken world. Reggae apocalypticism was an immediate connection between my world and the world of the British punks. Bob Marley was our universal icon, the demigod before whom all races and tribes bowed.

But, just as Hebdige paid little attention to punk’s Detroit origins in Iggy Pop, The Motor City Five, and the White Panthers, his history of subculture failed to tune me into the fact that, just thirty minutes away from Ann Arbor, a whole competitive dance and dress formation amongst young Black teenagers was doing much the same thing as their British imitators. Dance music only made it into his brief tome in a single dismissive reference to ”vacuous disco-bounce,” but that minor lapse was more than made up for by the major theoretical breakthrough of the book, which seems durable and largely true to me today: “It is on the plane of aesthetics; in dress, dance, music; in the whole rhetoric of style, that we find the dialogue between black and white most subtly and comprehensively recorded, albeit in code.”5

Being a black kid of bi-racial parentage, I lived Hebdige’s “dialogue” as a cacophonous sound clash of the mind, body, and spirit. What is weird about reading that sentence again in 2022 is how much the idea of a dialogue sticks in my craw. The white/black dynamic in dance, dress, and music has been much more “love and theft,” as Eric Lott put it, than a dialogue. Having said that, techno is indeed one musical form where a true dialogue might be said to have occurred. I am tempted even to venture the claim that—speaking purely from the perspective of advancement in musical form—that techno is the primary site for this coded dialogue amongst the new musics of the late twentieth century. But I will leave that provocation with you.

A CD compilation released in 1992 inspired the title of these reflections: Don’t Techno For An Answer.6 It’s a brilliant title: memorable, commercial, tetchy. It places the genre right in the center of a title which is a sentence (and a performative at that). The irony of this title was layered in all the ways Springsteen’s “gonna kill the yellow man” wasn’t: don’t take no for an answer when you ask for techno. Don’t take techno for an answer when you are searching for any permanent name for the groove that is always in movement from one genre to the next, always morphing and transforming.

Still, as I boot it up on my twenty first century speakers—via the YouTube music archive with every song from anytime—I am thrown back on another question about culture I only really learned in graduate school. It was in a seminar taught by Michael Denning, a second-generation cultural studies scholar, that I first read C.L.R. James masterpiece Beyond a Boundary.7 In that book on sport, James asks a question that is as profound as a Zen koan: what do they know of cricket, that only cricket know? Knowing nothing of cricket but what I learned from reading James’s book, I nevertheless have always felt gripped by this chiasmic question. Because it was not rhetorical, but profound, it lacked an obvious, ideological answer like “nothing!” Over the years, I have tried to apply this question to my own communities of affinity and participation, like comic books and, later, dance music.

What do they know of techno, that only techno knows? This is a good question to ponder, I suggest, even though or perhaps because it has no answer. The very act of asking it, without the capacity of a satisfactory answer, delivers us to that paradoxical space of affirmative negation. This is the space, I think, that is in turn necessary for “unlocking the groove” wherein the difference that techno is and still might yet be lies.8 I am thinking of course about the utopian margin of a music that so insistently and improbably raises our expectations of an oceanic feeling of oneness with humanity, all life, and the joyous rhythm of the cosmos.

What did I know of techno, who only techno knew? I knew the names of artists and labels, the microgenres and synthesizers, and the competitive circle jerk of tastemaking, trendhunting, and other sordid nastiness. I knew about burnout and freak out, about getting sorted and distorted. I knew the sad men of the left would never take our joyous dancing as seriously, which is to say as lightly, as we did. Unlike us, they could techno for an answer. We couldn’t, and we also couldn’t take the gendered division of intellectual labor on the left.9 Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, I even hoped that Techno Studies was about to launch itself alongside Jazz Studies, Hip Hop Studies, and Rock-centered music writing. Anytime now, we would declare ourselves, name our commitments, and enter the terrain of intellectual debate.

It was not to be. But perhaps it may yet be.


See . This essay was completed before the author had the opportunity to read DeForrest Brown Jr.’s comprehensive new work Assembling a Black Counterculture (Primary Information, 2022).


Dan Sicko, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk (Wayne State University Press, 2010).


Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (Routledge, 1979).


See Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011).


Hebdige, Subculture, 44–45.


See .


C. L. R. James, Beyond a Boundary (Pantheon, 1983).


See .


Lisa Duggan, “He Does Class and Race, She Does Gender and Sexuality (and Class and Race): Heteronormativity in the Left Academy,” Bully Bloggers, April 4, 2015 .

Music, Gender
Transgender, Blackness, Black Studies
Return to Issue #132

Tavia Nyongo is a professor at Yale and the author of multiple works: The Amalgamation Waltz (2008); Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (2019); Black Apocalypse (forthcoming); and Make-up Tips from Little Richard (in process).


e-flux announcements are emailed press releases for art exhibitions from all over the world.

Agenda delivers news from galleries, art spaces, and publications, while Criticism publishes reviews of exhibitions and books.

Architecture announcements cover current architecture and design projects, symposia, exhibitions, and publications from all over the world.

Film announcements are newsletters about screenings, film festivals, and exhibitions of moving image.

Education announces academic employment opportunities, calls for applications, symposia, publications, exhibitions, and educational programs.

Sign up to receive information about events organized by e-flux at e-flux Screening Room, Bar Laika, or elsewhere.

I have read e-flux’s privacy policy and agree that e-flux may send me announcements to the email address entered above and that my data will be processed for this purpose in accordance with e-flux’s privacy policy*

Thank you for your interest in e-flux. Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.