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How Berlin's legendary techno scene has become recognized by UNESCO

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

I'm Rob Schmitz in Berlin, where the techno scene has now been declared a vital part of Germany's cultural heritage. That's according to an announcement this week by the German UNESCO commission and the nation's culture ministers.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM AND SOUND SONG, "FREE FOR ALL (SOUNDSTREAM REMIX WITH PAUL ST. HILAIRE)")

SCHMITZ: After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a growing underground techno scene took root in East Berlin's vacant buildings. Over the last 30 years, the genre has become an integral part of the city's identity. This week's news is a step towards getting international UNESCO recognition for the genre and the scene around it.

Here to talk with us about the Berlin techno scene is Tobias Rapp. He's an editor at Der Spiegel, and he wrote a book about how techno shaped the city. It's called "Lost And Sound: Berlin, Techno And The Easyjet Set." Tobias, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

TOBIAS RAPP: Thanks for having me.

SCHMITZ: So how would you describe the cultural significance of techno culture in Berlin?

RAPP: To put it in one sentence would be - techno, to Berlin, is as important as reggae is to Kingston. It's really the soundtrack of the city. And this is rooted in the years after the wall came down, when this music was the soundtrack of liberation.

SCHMITZ: So Detroit is often pointed to as the birthplace of techno music. Can you talk about how the music there went on to influence techno in Berlin?

RAPP: Yeah, that's a funny story. There was this guy from West Berlin who ended up in Detroit in the '80s and made acquaintances there and hooked up with some of the African American techno producers who just invented this music. He invited them over to Berlin. They loved the city. They found a home there. They - in a way, also, they recognized - in the run-down parts of East Berlin, they recognized something they knew from back home. The great parties, the great places - they were in Berlin. But the music itself was an import from the U.S.

SCHMITZ: So one of the members of Underground Resistance - Jeff Mills, for example - is widely credited for shaping the genre. Let's listen to a moment of his song. It's called "Changes Of Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF MILLS' "CHANGES OF LIFE")

SCHMITZ: So Tobias, why was this song so important in shaping the genre?

RAPP: I'm getting goosebumps when I'm just listening to it now. Well, you know, it's hard to imagine now. But back then, in Berlin, there was emptiness. There was emptiness in lots of spaces and cellars and darkness. So this music - this track was the soundtrack of celebrating in cellars. And people are dancing for hours and hours and hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF WESTBAM SONG, "SONIC EMPIRE")

SCHMITZ: So by the late '90s, techno went from being an underground phenomenon to a huge commercial success. For example, there was this annual citywide festival called Love Parade that attracted over a million attendees in some years. You sent us the song "Sonic Empire" by Westbam to illustrate that period in techno history. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF WESTBAM SONG, "SONIC EMPIRE")

SCHMITZ: So Tobias, tell us more about this song and what was going on in the Berlin techno scene at that time.

RAPP: This music drastically and very, very quickly changed from an underground phenomenon to a huge commercial success. It's much lighter. It's not as dark and not as harsh as the first track. But the thing was that this commercialization was not sustainable. This music grew and grew and grew and grew. The scene got tons of money. There were huge amounts of drugs around. And it wasn't sustainable. It collapsed. At the beginning of the 21st century, techno was dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY LEE")

RICARDO VILLALOBOS: (Singing, inaudible).

SCHMITZ: You're saying techno was dead. And then the music itself took on this more stripped-back, minimalist sound. You sent us the track "Easy Lee" by Ricardo Villalobos. Let's listen to a little of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICARDO VILLALOBOS SONG, "EASY LEE")

SCHMITZ: So this is interesting. This is a very much stripped-down sort of...

RAPP: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: ...Version of techno with a lot of different percussive...

RAPP: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: ...Sort of sounds to it.

RAPP: Yeah.

SCHMITZ: What drove the evolution of this?

RAPP: It's not based on the idea that a dance floor has to have peak moments. This music is based on the idea you have time. You take hours. Ricardo Villalobos is a brilliant DJ, and he famously played DJ sets for 10, 12, 14, 16 hours. And this is music where the idea is - you get into a trance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY LEE")

VILLALOBOS: (Singing) Easy Lee, it's time to run.

SCHMITZ: Berlin is home to Berghain, one of the most famous techno clubs in the world. It's housed in this imposing concrete and steel building that was originally a power plant. It's been hugely influential in shaping the sound of techno. You know, set the scene for us. What's this club look like? What does it sound like?

RAPP: I'd say it's like a dark cathedral. The way this club works for the people who go there is almost like church service, you know?

SCHMITZ: Right.

RAPP: You have to be ready to enter. You have to wait. You have to get into the right mindset. It's a very special atmosphere. And the music - to me, it has a religious aspect.

SCHMITZ: So you gave us a clip of a song called "Dawning" by Dettmann and Klock to kind of capture the essence of Berghain. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DETTMANN AND KLOCK'S "DAWNING")

SCHMITZ: So Tobias, I mean this, honestly, to the uninitiated - that would be me - this sounds a lot like the other tracks that you sent me, actually. What's different about this?

RAPP: The idea of this track - you have to imagine it on a huge, huge, huge, huge sound system.

SCHMITZ: OK.

RAPP: Berghain used to be - or it still is - but the core audience is gay. It's lots of naked, gay men dancing to a very slowed-down, harsh, great, loud, bass-driven techno music. It's a very special place. And it's very funny because, in a way - I mean, my father-in-law knows what Berghain is. It has a mainstream reputation. But it's a very undergroundy (ph), radical, special, wild, dangerous place.

SCHMITZ: So Tobias, where do you see Berlin techno going next now that it has this new cultural status?

RAPP: This new cultural status is just a symbol. It's a symbol for appreciation. So I think the status doesn't mean that much. It won't change the feeling going out. It won't change the feeling on the dance floor. It won't change the music itself. But maybe it changes a little bit the way people talk about it.

SCHMITZ: That's Der Spiegel's Tobias Rapp. Tobias, thank you.

RAPP: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.