Despite some protestations the other way, techno music is still the sound of the underground. Eclipsed in recent years by the interstellar success of EDM, which blends elements of trance and progressive house, techno is the genre of choice for black-clad hipsters and sensitive souls looking for a place to escape. This sound has been honed by a variety of different DJs, who span from the Americas to Europe. With a better gender balance than other electronic genres, techno music has had a few superstars – most notably Sven Väth in 90s Germany and Carl Cox during his Ibiza residency – but they mostly remain cult figures with a significant feverish devotion. Playing at institutions such as Fabric, Ministry of Sound, Berghain, Concrete and Sub Club, these DJs are all about endurance sets, often spanning longer than four hours.
We will lay out who we think are the 15 greatest techno artists of all time. From those right here in Detroit at the very beginning to those who have sprung up in the past decade or so, this is the essential guide to the artists who make techno such a special genre. Do you agree with our choices? If you think we left anyone significant off the list, please sound off in the comments below!
Top 15 | Best Techno Music Artists
1. Ricardo Villalobos
Possibly the most important DJ in the minimal techno and microhouse scene, Villalobos is characterized by his infinitesimal approach to layering small details on top of each other. The Chilean-born Villalobos moved to Germany in the early 70s with his family. He was a massive fan of Depeche Mode and used to follow them across Europe. He played at the university for his own enjoyment and only became a professional DJ in 1998. He is considered a God in the techno music world – for example, when Jamie Jones saw his Ibiza set in 2005, he decided to change his entire style. In 2008 and 2010 he was voted number one DJ of the year by Resident Advisor. If you don’t know where to start, his fabric36 collection is a must-listen.
2. Jeff Mills
Referred to as The Wizard thanks to his technical skill, Jeff Mills is one of the biggest DJs to ever come out of Detroit. His seminal track “The Bells“, released in 1987, is often considered the greatest techno track of all time. Along with Robert Hood and “Mad” Mike Banks, he formed Underground Rebellion, a radical musical collective that intended to use techno as a means of cultural activism. His live sets have to be seen to be believed: using three decks, a Roland TR-909 drum machine and a ridiculous 70 records an hour, he is definitely one of the most accomplished DJs when it comes to mixing tracks together. His influence is so far reaching he was even awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Government.
3. Marcel Dettmann
East German Marcel Dettmann is a Berlin regular, having grown up with the post-punk, industrial and techno scene in the city in the late 80s and early 90s. He has a residency at the legendary Berghain, where he often plays the impossible-to-get-into Saturday Klubnacht. He also has his own record label at Marcel Dettmann Records, where he curates all the latest techno talent. Additionally, he has produced compilation albums for Belgian techno label Music Man and Fabric. A Berlin local, you can catch him working at the vinyl record store Hard Wax.
4. Carl Craig
Detroit native Carl Craig was inspired to DJ from hearing Derrick May’s radio show on WJLB. He met May himself through a friend and slid him his latest tape, leading to his first professional release, “Neurotic Behaviour“. Producing under aliases such as Paperclip People, 69, Designer Music and Innersole Orchestra, his tracks revolutionized the very possibilities of what techno could do. He has his own record label, entitled Planet E Communications, which has released records by DJs such as Kevin Saunderson, Alton Miller, and Moodymann. He has hands-on involvement with the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, often considered the techno mecca for US fans.
5. Ben Klock
Often a symbol of Berlin’s stable techno environment, Ben Klock is the face of Berghain. Resident since 2005, he often plays with his contemporary Marcell Dettmann. To hear the best of his work we recommend the fabric 66 compilation and his Award-Winning BBC Radio 1 essential mix. He has his own label Clockworks, where he releases his more minimal work, as well as productions by artists such as Trevino, DVS1 and Etapp Kyle. His best work is “Subzero“ – which is often considered one of the most seminal techno tracks in the Berlin scene.
6. Sven Väth
Known as Papa Sven by his fans, Sven Väth is one of the few techno DJs who became a genuine superstar. His story has the ring of myth to it. In 1980, he used his jobseekers allowance to hitchhike to Ibiza. After living there for three months distributing flyers, he decided he wanted to be a DJ. From starting out in his parent’s pub at the age of
7. Sonja Moonear
Swiss-born DJ Sonja Moonear has always been playing music, having played the piano since she was four. A David Bowie and Depeche Mode fan in the late 80s, she found her true calling upon first hearing the KLF. A relentless tourer, since the early 00s she has become a hot ticket on the international DJ circuit, playing in clubs such as Watergate in Berlin, E1 in London, and Club Guesthouse in Bucharest. I caught her play basically by accident at Concrete in Paris, and remember a very smooth transition from The Doors “Riders on The Storm” to a deep house cut.
8. Nina Kraviz
Russian-born DJ Nina Kraviz cut her teeth playing in the races Propaganda Club in Moscow while studying dentistry. One of the few women who has made it to top-tier status in the techno world, she is best known for the tongue in cheek track “Pain in The Ass“. Her two albums, Nina Kraviz, and Mr. Jones were well-received, establishing her as one of the smartest DJs in the business. Check out her fabric 91
9. Derrick May
One of the original Belleville Three, along with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May is credited as one of the first originators of the techno sound. He is credited with creating some of the most influential tracks in the business, including the legendary “Strings of Life“. This track was so popular he was one of the first techno DJs to tour England. He also founded the Music Institute in Detroit, which helped to establish the city as the place to be for techno music, and the Transmat label, which put out tracks by artists as diverse as Stacey Pullen, Joey Beltram, K-Alexi and Kenny Larkin.
10. Joseph Capriati
Italian DJ Joseph Capriati started mixing decks in his hometown Caserta, near Naples. DJing under his own name, he released his debut track “C’est La Vie“ in 2007. His techno cuts are deep and price, making him one of the most in-demand DJs in the business. A regular headliner, he has played at events as respected as Mongers Festival, Kazantip, Sonus, and WMC Miami, as well as clubs such as fabric and Berghain. He plays up to 150 gigs a year, including Drumcode events that are attended to the world over. He started his own label, REDIMENSION Records, in 2016.
11. Richie Hawtin
One of the leading figures in the minimal techno scene, Riche Hawtin is perhaps best known for his pioneering track “Spastik“. DJing in clubs in Detroit from the age of 17, his early style blended house music and techno. Along with John Acquaviva, he formed the record label Plus 8, which has gone on to release tracks from artists such as Kenny Larkin, Cybersonik and Plastikman. A true innovator in terms of music production, he also has created his own company. Entitled PLAYDifferently, its MODEL 1 Mixer has been picked up as one of the most essential in the business.
12. Aphex Twin
Aphex Twin, the main alias of DJ Richard David James, is one of the most recognizable names in the business and has made many different contributions to the world of electronic music, but perhaps it is his ambient techno that will be the most enduring. His debut album Selected Ambient Works 85–92, released in 1992, is seen as the forerunner of IDM – short for Intelligent Dance Music. Additionally Analogue Bubblebath Volumes 1 and 2, can be seen as crucial acid techno tracks. One of the few DJs on this list who can be said to have cultivated a unique persona, he rose to mainstream fame with the track “Windowlicker”, the music video of which featured his own face drawn onto busty models.
13. Kevin Saunderson
One of the founding members of the Detroit techno scene, Kevin Saunderson first met fellow DJ Derrick May at age 14. Along with Juan Atkins, they formed what is known as the “Belleville Three”. Under the name Kreem, he released his first record “Triangle of Love“ on Atkins’ label Metroplex. He went more commercial than his peers, forming the Inner City group that combines techno production with a pop sound. Known for his high-energy DJ sets, he is known by his fans as “The Elevator”. He runs his own record label, entitled KMS, which has released tracks for artists as diverse as Blake Baxter, Chez Damier, Derrick Carter, Bicep and R-Tyme.
14. Juan Atkins
The Godfather of techno himself, without Atkins its debatable as to whether the movement would’ve happened at all. The hitherto missing piece of The Belleville Three puzzle, he introduced Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson to the joys of mixing records. From
15. Ellen Allien
West Berlin DJ Ellen Allien is one of the key DJs when it comes to understanding the sound that united the city following the fall of the Wall in 1989. DJing in the 90s at legendary clubs such as the Bunker, Tresor and E-Werk, she has developed a cult following displaying her to be one of the most important DJs to come out of Germany. Her debut album Stadtkind (meaning “city child” in German) was a tribute to the city itself, a homage to the culture that sprung up in the post-reunification years. She is best known for her massively popular We Are Not Alone series, which is now a global event.
The Best Places to Listen To Techno:
To hear these DJs perform at their best, we would recommend checking out their fabric mixes. Creating a mix for the club’s record label is often a badge of honor for many techno DJ’s and these mixes can be found both online and at vinyl stores. For the live experience, we would simply recommend visiting Berlin or Detroit, where the original sound can still be heard in all of its unfiltered glory. If you would rather listen to artists of a different genre, then why don’t you read our top rankings of trance and future bass artists instead?
Redmond Bacon is a film obsessive and amateur music producer who can easily spend all day either at the cinema or making fresh beats. Catch his writing over at redmondbacon.co.uk.