The radical world of Tekno
Miles from the nearest streetlights, we stumbled into the abyss of a winding country road, following a convoy of dread-headed hippies, trackie-clad scallies and everything in between. Guided only by 190 beats per minute of pounding bass, we made our muddy pilgrimage to a sound system in a barn fuck knows where.
It was quite possibly the coldest place on Earth, but that didn’t matter. The genuine warmth of the vibe and the sheer volume of the tek blasting through the speakers were enough to override the elements (definitely wasn’t anything to do with a cocktail of cheap cider, spiced rum and Mandy).
This was my first free party, and it sparked within me a feeling I didn’t know I had but couldn’t get enough of. I guess it can only be described as the kind of overwhelming sense of acceptance, unity and pride that emerges from knowing you’re a part of something special. Something radical.
Tekno emerged in Europe in the early ‘90s, drawing inspiration from an eclectic range of genres such as jungle, hardcore and, of course, techno. The alternative K spelling started off as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the hardness of the music and the comparative softness of techno, but tekno swiftly became recognised as its own genre. Politically, it stood against the commercialism and elitism of club-based techno and offered a more genuine, DIY alternative.
Characterised by a fast, ear-pulverising kickdrum, tekno’s associated culture is incongruently peaceful. Tekno found life in the free party and teknival scene, where messages of freedom, inclusivity and love prevailed. The music and the culture developed in tandem; one would be nothing without the other and both were referred to as free tekno.
Free tekno came to prominence in the UK thanks to rave legends, Spiral Tribe, AKA SP23, a creative collective and sound system who were the organisers of over thirty known illegal raves, free parties and festivals between ‘90 and ‘92 alone.
Spiral Tribe were some of the main protagonists (or antagonists to some) in the famous Castlemorton Common Festival fiasco. The illegal festival on the common in Malvern, Worcestershire ran for an entire week. The hordes of new age travellers, hippies, squatters and ravers were so numerous the authorities were powerless to stop them.
Castlemorton whipped the media into a frenzy. The dirty revellers, prolific drug use and non-stop noisy tekno created the perfect recipe for moral panic. The peaceful travellers were painted as villains; filthy and violent thugs using their benefit cheques to buy drugs. News reports told tales of sheep mauled by out-of-control dogs and locals fearing for their children’s safety after finding drug paraphernalia in their gardens.
Ironically, the news reports pretty much advertised the festival.
“I remember Radio 1 going on about this huge rave, and thinking ‘This is the best publicity, it’s getting shout-outs on Radio 1’”Lol Hammond of Spiral Tribe to DJ Mag.
Ravers travelled from far and wide to attend, knowing full well the police lacked the resources to do anything. In the end, so many people showed up that there was no accurate recorded figure, but it was estimated somewhere between twenty and forty thousand, making Castlemorton the biggest illegal festival the biggest the UK has ever seen.
Thirteen members of Spiral Tribe were arrested following the event and charged with public order offences, culminating in a lengthy trial that went down in history as the most expensive the UK courts had ever seen. Ultimately, they were acquitted of their crimes, but sadly this would not be the happy ending it seemed.
Whilst it wasn’t the only reason, Castlemorton became the scapegoat for the legislation which developed into the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The new law was a brutal attack on the free party scene as well as the New Age Travellers.
Crucially, the change allowed police to shut down gatherings of more than twenty people where music “includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”.
It was obvious from the lengths taken to try and define rave music that this was a direct and deliberate attack on rave culture. Sure, the drug-taking, noise and potential damage to property associated with raves didn’t sit well with the authorities and most of middle England, but the biggest threat posed by free tekno was arguably much more political.
Raves, free parties and teknivals have often been considered Temporary Autonomous Zones by partygoers and academics alike. The Temporary Autonomous Zone is a concept penned by anarchist writer Hakim Bey:
“The Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself, to re-form elswhere / elsewhen, before the state can crush it.”The Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey
It would be naïve to say that all tek-lovers are politically minded – many are decidedly apolitical, though perhaps this too is a political stance in many ways. Whether or not resistance is always intentional, the free party, perhaps by default, is an anarchic, revolutionary space.
Tekno music itself is radical. Its dark undertones, frequent appropriation and distortion of pop culture references and the unforgiving assault of its kickdrums are all discordant with society’s idea of ‘good’ music. It is music in its most primal form – it’s more than ‘just noise’, it is a bodily experience. And, boy, does society feel threatened by bodily pleasure!
Ravers love to say that free parties are all about the music – certainly, music is the driving force and the reason behind them. However, let’s not pretend that drug use is not also central to the culture. Tekno, free parties and drugs are so tightly intertwined that it sometimes seems like a case of ‘which came first?’
I mentioned my first free party – that sudden overwhelming feeling of peace, love and unity. That same description could as easily be applied to the feeling of coming up on ecstasy. It would be an understatement to say that free parties and MDMA enhance and reflect the emotional experience of one another.
Physically, Mandy is also a mirror to the music. The racing heartbeat caused by the drug and accentuated by dancing is reminiscent of the repetitive kickdrums, making ravers feel at one with the music – though it’s probably time to call an ambulance if your heartrate is 190bpm!
This trio of music, space and drugs together create the TAZ – “of land, of time, of imagination”… Revellers create for themselves a genuine alternative space where there are no rules and no barriers. They are free to indulge in the cultural and bodily pleasure of the practice in a psychoactively altered state.
Hegemony is threatened by this uniquely radical form of resistance. Mainstream society simply can’t comprehend the experience, and in the case of Castlemorton were rendered powerless to fight it.
The implementation of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 has often been cited as crushing the free party dream, but it was by no means the end of the music. Spiral Tribe migrated to Europe, where tekno still thrives and the likes of CzechTek and FrenchTek are some of the biggest teknivals the world has seen.
Here in the UK though, tekno lives on and continues to evolve, incorporating a myriad of genres whilst staying true to its roots. I spoke to hardtek DJ and producer Pure FILTH to find out more on recent innovations in the genre.
“I like to use a lot of ‘90s rave and happy hardcore methods and hardware and use tek as my foundation,” he tells me.
“Tek seems to accommodate a lot of other music styles, like when you get a remix in mainstream genres it’s not quite the same.
“It captures the punk kinda ‘do it yourself’ rave vibe, not giving a fuck, but still keeping its structural integrity unlike breakcore, which is usually the same BPM and mix of genres as tek but the focus is more on experimenting and pushing production techniques, than the kickbass and the structure of hardtek.”
“[Hardtek] has the same creative freedom [as breakcore] but wears a banging jacket, probably Burberry and tracksuit bottoms!”Pure FILTH
It wouldn’t be a fair discussion of UK tekno without mention of the self-professed ‘Queen of JungleTek’, Mandidextrous.
They were one of the pioneers of the fusion subgenres jungletek and raggatek, bringing a fresh sound to tekno. Both stay true to the structure of hardtek, bringing in the welcome additions of jungle basslines and ragga MC vocals to create a sound you can’t sit down to!
In 2011, Mandidextrous founded Amen4Tekno, a label hosting the crème-de-la-crème of jungletek talent such as Vandal, E-Coli, C3B and many more.
In an interview for Vice, Mandi, who identifies as non-binary, speaks of the radical power of jungletek in relation to social acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community:
“I am really happy that there’s people out there who, a while back if you were to have asked them outright about what they thought of transgender people, probably would have said it’s disgusting or whatever, but they’ve since discovered my music and figured out more about me and that’s changed their opinions on the whole issue. Which is amazing.”Mandidextrous in Vice
Much has changed since the early ‘90s, but it’s clear that those core values of peace, love, unity and respect are still fundamental to tekno music and culture today.
In the past, radical countercultures from Flower Power to punk have been inevitably hegemonised and swallowed into the mainstream. Uniquely, tekno has remained underground as both music and culture with impressive longevity.
Organised tek raves in clubs do take place across the country, though often for minimal profit. However, free parties still happen in abundance in the UK, increasingly so since the Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the club scene.
In this period of social distancing, once again ravers have had to fight for their right to party.
Mandidextrous posted on Facebook regarding free parties in protest of the government’s neglect of the creative industries:
“I’ve not chased my dreams for a career as [an underground] music producer and DJ for 15 years to be left out to dry. I will not retrain but I WILL happily play illegal raves until you support the industry and I am sure many others will too .”Mandidextrous
Mandi was one of the performing DJs at a recent illegal rave in Bristol which sparked controversy in early November this year. The party was attended by an estimated 700 people who have been branded irresponsible and reckless. The resulting police intervention left one woman with lifelong injuries after she was mauled by a police dog.
On the other hand, many DJs and sound systems are putting parties on hold for a while, instead focusing on creating and releasing tunes, in the interest of safety. After all, free parties were never meant to harm anyone!
With any luck, we’ll be dancing again next summer. Until then, at least we can enjoy some banging new releases – even if our living rooms aren’t quite the anarchic space we all know and miss!