Every February, the United States celebrates Black History Month to honor black history, culture, figures and more. Black culture’s influence upon the mass culture of the United States is undeniable, especially upon the history of American music. From Muddy Waters to Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin to Mariah Carey, Marvin Gaye to Kanye West, the greatest music of the world is imbued with black culture. And, electronic music is no exception.
To honor Black History Month, Your EDM has picked 15 black icons who paved the way for electronic music. From the techno pioneers of Detroit to the house legends of Chicago, electronic music wouldn’t be where it is today without the black legends that gave it soul, rhythm and infectious beats. View our picks for 15 of the most influential black electronic musicians below:
1. Frankie Knuckles
Known as the Godfather of house music, Frankie Knuckles is gone but definitely not forgotten. Knuckles got his start after moving to Chicago and regularly playing at The Warehouse venue, from which the house genre earns its namesake. Knuckles’ went on to collaborate with legendary vocalist Jamie Principle, another influential black artist, for the track “Your Love,” which became one of the first-ever house tracks to be put on a physical release. Knuckles held residencies in Chicago, New York City and even in the United Kingdom. Knuckles died of complications from Type II diabetes in 2014, leaving behind an unforgettable legacy. To this day, Knuckles is regarded as one of the most important producers and DJs of all-time.
2. Juan Atkins
This list wouldn’t be a list celebrating black artists if it didn’t include The Belleville Three, the legendary trio comprising Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. The three attended school together in Belleville, Michigan, fell in love with synthesizers and the rest is history. Atkins carved out his own special brand of techno, being a member of Cybotron, Infiniti and Channel One, as well as releasing music under the Model 500 and Model 600 pseudonyms. Atkins even taught May how to mix, and to this day lucky fans can catch Atkins spinning eclectic DJ sets. Without Atkins and his two close friends, techno wouldn’t be where it is today.
3. Carl Cox
Carl Cox is the face of many hallmarks of electronic music: tech house, techno, the art of DJing, Space Ibiza, “Oh yes, oh yes!” and so much more. His expansive career began in the 80s when he played hardcore tunes, but his style refined as he grew to prominence in the London scene and produced his own tracks. Carl Cox has gone on to accomplish so much in his career, including a whopping 15-year residency at Space Ibiza, a long-running partnership with Ultra Music Festival that just promoted him as the official ambassador to their Resistance brand, an honor as the first-ever #1 DJ for the DJ Mag top 100 poll, a gig as the resident DJ of the Essential Mix and so much more. To this day, Carl Cox continues to innovate and impact dance music as a whole.
4. DJ Pierre
The next artist on our list may be recognizable to some Daft Punk fans, as the robots chant his name during their track “Teachers” to pay their respects for his influence upon their music. But, DJ Pierre‘s influence runs much deeper; the man invented acid house. While using a Roland 303, DJ Pierre discovered a new type of sound. After playing the sounds during his live sets, he committed them to the first-ever acid house release: “Acid Tracks.” Everyone from Boys Noize to Nina Kraviz pays homage to DJ Pierre, who has gone on to release a plethora of tracks, perform countless shows and hold up a strong fist for his hometown of Chicago.
5. J Dilla
Without J Dilla, there may not have been Kaytranada, Ta-Ku, Flume, Disclosure and many others. Born in Detroit as James Dewitt Yancey, J Dilla had an early passion for music and producing. His early career accomplishments found him producing and remixing for the likes of Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest and many others. While his early releases were on major labels, his later releases targeted independent record labels, an early example of the indie releases seen in music today. While the majority of J Dilla’s productions were hip-hop oriented, his impact on dance music is huge. From Disclosure dedicating the first bit of their Essential Mix to him to Kaytranada’s remixes of his material, many dance music figures found inspiration in Dilla’s music. J Dilla died of cardiac arrest from complications of a rare blood disease at the age of 32 in 2006, but despite his death being over a decade ago, his legacy continues to impact music as a whole.
6. Robert Hood
What happens when techno, house and gospel all come together? You get the legendary Robert Hood, a Detroit-born producer with one of the most consistent discographies of any electronic artist. Aside from his own productions, Hood was one of the founding members of the Underground Resistance group, which included Jeff Mills and Mad Mike Banks. Hood also releases music under many aliases, including FLOORPLAN— for which he DJs with his daughterr during life shows — H&M with Jeff Mills, Monobox, The Vision and much more. Hood also helped popularize minimal techno, a still powerful subgenre of underground dance music.
7. Derrick May
One of the members of the aforementioned The Belleville Three, Derrick May helped expand techno early in its development. His hit track “Strings of Life” helped not only put techno on the map, but the Detroit music scene as a whole as well. Along with releasing a steady stream of hit originals and remixes and playing multiple shows, May also tutored Detroit artists Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen, two other very influential black artists. May also produced the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2003 and 2004, renaming it Movement, which it is still named today.
8. Jeff Mills
One of the most enigmatic, mysterious figures in dance music, Jeff Mills is also one of the most consistent producers and performers in all electronic music history. Mills hails from Detroit and initially went by the alias The Wizard, gaining recognition after helping found the Underground Resistance group. Electronic music’s answer to Public Enemy, Underground Resistance members dressed only in ski masks and combat suits, creating protest tracks and distancing from the commercialization of techno. Mills went on to hold residencies at such clubs as the legendary Tresor nightclub in Berlin, start the Axis record label with Robert Hood and even participate in art exhibits and film projects like the documentary Man from Tomorrow. To this day, Mills headlines events, wielding a drum machine and mixers to create one-in-a-lifetime live experiences. When someone like Eminem positively references you in one of his songs, you might just go down in the history books.
9. Green Velvet/Cajmere
Curtis Jones, known by many as Green Velvet and Cajmere among his numerous aliases, is one of those rare artists that continues to remain relevant among newcomers to electronic music despite his long-running career. Examples? Such tracks as “Coffee Pot (It’s Time for the Percolator),” “Flash,” La La Land, “Lazer Beams” and many more have been played, sampled and remixed time and time again. Jones represented one of Chicago’s greatest success stories, and today his collaboration with Claude VonStroke as the duo Get Real has earned him many few fans, a rare comeback story in music. Despite going back and forth between Cajmere and Green Velvet, Jones now uses both aliases to his full advantage: Cajmere for his techno, harder-hitting tracks and sets and Green Velvet for his more radio-friendly, house inclinations. If you’re lucky to catch one of his live sets, Jones will recite some of his most famous lyrics live, a real treat for fans and listeners who may only slightly recognize those universal samples.
10. Smokin Jo
While many black males helped shape electronic music, several female producers and DJs also helped the genre grow. One of those women was Smokin Jo, a British producer and DJ who is in fact the only female to ever top the DJ Mag top 100 DJ poll. She released tracks as early as 1997, going on to host BBC Radio 1‘s weekly Essential Ibiza series from 2002 to 2006. While Smokin Joe hasn’t remained in the limelight the past few years, she did reemerge to collaborate with Nicole Moudaber in 2014, release a new track in 2015 and hold residencies in Ibiza. With the rise of female producers and DJs in house, techno and even EDM, we hope to see Smokin Joe make more of a comeback in the future.
When it comes to quality electronic music, Detroit is the gift that keeps on giving. Moodymann is one of Detroit’s greatest exports, rising to prominence in the early 2000s with a steady of stream of singles, remixes and albums. His soul, gospel-inspired sound showcased how other genres of black music could be integrated into electronic music, inspiring the likes of Claptone and other producers today. Moodymann continues to push boundaries, navigating everything from future garage to orchestra melodies in his entry to the DJ Kicks album series. His live shows themselves are near religious experiences, full of flawless mixing and choir breakdowns. When it comes to style, no one beats Moodymann.
12. Kevin Saunderson
The last but not certainly the least member of The Belleville Three, Kevin Saunderson started out as the more DJ-focused of the trio. After watching May and Atkins produce “Let’s Go,” Saunderson took to the studio, resulting in such tracks as “E-Dancer” under his E-Dancer alias, “Big Fun,” under his Inner City alias with vocalist Paris Grey, “Tranzister” and others. The Inner City group in particular found huge success in the U.S. and the U.K., with two charting albums in the U.K. and numerous charting singles in both countries that both solidified the Detroit sound in America and brought it across the pond. Saunderson’s bassline to the track “Just Want Another Chance” under his Reese alias also went on to become huge in jungle and drum and bass. Saunderson is a true innovator who is still pushing the limits today.
13. Grandmaster Flash
There may not be as huge of an innovator as Grandmaster Flash when it comes to the DJing. While more of a hip-hop figure, Grandmaster Flash’s innovation affected DJs of all types: he pioneered record scratching (used by A-Trak, DJ EZ, Craze and more), punch phrasing (heard today in numerous EDM and bass mixes), the backspin technique (the art of mixing drum breaks, a universal tool of DJing) and more. Flash went to DJ at countless parties in New York, pushing the envelope of DJing and hip-hop and directly impacting both their spikes in popularity in the 80s and onward. No DJ today can argue with Flash’s vital impact to developing the artform.
14. Carl Craig
Following the first wave of Detroit’s techno DJs and producers that included The Belleville Three and others, the second generation of the city’s techno artists revolutionized the genre even further. Carl Craig arguably best embodies the second generation of those artists, incorporating other genres such as jazz into his productions and sets. Derrick May gave him his big break as he was growing up, and much like his contemporaries he produced under several aliases. His drum and bass alias, Innerzone Orchestra, was responsible for “Bug in the Bassbin,” a hugely influential D&B track. Craig was also the co-creator of the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (now Movement) and is still involved in its organization today.
15. Larry Heard
Without Larry Heard, deep house would’ve likely never been revitalized. As house was taking off in the 80s, Heard was inspired to infuse the genre with more soul, adding in samples that gave the genre more of a human flavor. Under his most popular alias Mr. Fingers, Heard released “Can You Feel It,” one of the first deep house tracks and widely regarded as one of the best dance singles of all time. Another pioneer from Chicago, Heard, much like other legendary artists, continues to produce and perform today, showing no signs of slowing down.