It’s crazy to think that one of the most popular genres of music today is EDM or Electronic Dance Music. This genre has grown out of the warehouse to permeate all genres of music from hip-hop to country. Black EDM artists have made significant contributions to electronic dance music, but their work has often been overlooked or underrepresented.
In this article, we will highlight the top EDM DJs, artists, and pioneers that deserve respect. These individuals have found success in the genre and deserve recognition for their talents and contributions. First a quick overview of how EDM music came to be.
The Best Black EDM Artists
The black EDM artists that paved new ground in the world of techno and electronic music are:
- Kevin Saunderson
- Carl Craig
- Juan Atkins
- Green Velvet
- Derrick May
- Larry Heard
- Carl Cox
- Frankie Knuckles
- DJ Pierre
- Kerri Chandler
- Ron Trent
- Robert Hood
- Jeff Mills
- Stacey Pullen
Without these giants, EDM as a genre would look and sound noticeably different, and would have far less musical and racial diversity.
1) Kevin Saunderson
Now when you think about black techno artists, it’s impossible not to pay respect to Kevin Saunderson. One of the founding fathers of Detroit’s techno scene, Saunderson is known for his innovative sound and DJing skills.
He is a platinum-selling recording artist, label head, and festival pioneer whose influence can be felt throughout the vast spectrum of popular music. As one of the Belleville Three along with Juan Atkins and Derick May (also on this list), he helped change the course of EDM.
Like many DJs, Saunderson has several aliases. The name E-Dancer is one that you may have heard of—but perhaps you were not aware this was indeed Saunderson.
To many, he is most notable for his contributions to the group Inner City for which he produced numerous influential tracks, including “Big Fun” and “Good Life”. Nicknamed, “The Elevator”, Kevin Saunderson is known for his high-energy DJ Sets and will forever be remembered for elevating Detroit sound and electronic music to new heights.
If you’re looking for a true originator in terms of music, and certainly someone that qualitfies as one of the best EDM artists to ever do it, be sure to check out Kevin Saunderson’s body of work.
My favorite Kevin Saunderson song: “Good Life” by Inner City – Paradise (1989). One of the most legendary electronic music tracks of all time. As the founder of Inner City, Saunderson has been blowing minds with new sounds for nearly five decades.
2) Carl Craig
Another Detroit techno pioneer, Carl Craig has been producing music since the 1980s. He has released numerous acclaimed albums and remixes, including his work on Innerzone Orchestra’s “Programmed.”
Craig’s experimental methods of making music have seen him incorporate themes of jazz, soul, industrial, new wave, and other unique sounds for his own brand of Detroit Techno. He is an accomplished producer and label head who has helped develop the careers of talented artists from Detroit and around the world.
My favorite Carl Craig song: “Like A Child” (Carl Craig Remix) – Sessions (2004)
3) Juan Atkins
Along with Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, Juan Atkins is one of the creators of Detroit techno. He has released several classic tracks under various pseudonyms, including Model 500 and Cybotron. Atkins sought to explore what was his vision for futuristic music.
He can be attributed to one of the earliest recordings of techno music with his 1982 track “Clear”. He is one of the most consistent of all the early EDM pioneers. While others faltered at times during the 90s with the rise of hip-hop, pop, and euro-electro.
However, Atkins has been able to steadily navigate the waves of change in electronic music, absorbing more inspiration from the future present. Juan Atkins is truly one of the godfathers of techno.
My favorite Juan Atkins song: “Track Ten” – Back To Basics (Part 1) (2004). This song transports you into a futuristic world of sounds that seem to be taken out of the dopest video game ever. This is a “Drum n Bass” track from nearly a decade before the sub-genre of EDM was popularized.
4) Green Velvet
Formerly known as Cajmere, the Chicago electronic music icon has been blowing minds and moving dance floors with his unique style of Chicago house music. This man is a truly transcendent individual who has heavily influenced hip-hop as well as EDM culture.
One of his most notable contributions to music is the track “Percolator” which has been making people shake and grind their bodies since 1992. That track is so far removed from some of his more recent music but at the same time, it resonates with the same energy that is found in all of Green Velvet’s tracks.
My favorite Green Velvet song: “Preacher Man” (Original Mix) – The Chapters of Green Velvet (2014). One of the most creative electronic music songs of the past decade. This song features a church sermon where the minister preaches the dangers of “playing house”. All over signature Green Velvet, hard pounding industrial techno beats and rhythms.
5) Derrick May
Another Detroit techno legend, Derrick May is known for his futuristic and atmospheric sound. He has produced several classic tracks, including “Strings of Life” and “Nude Photo.”
Along with Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins, he helped pave the way for all electronic music artists to create today.
My favorite Derrick May song: “Strings of Life” – Innovator (Mayday), 2013. This song incorporates orchestral strings and classic piano with an insane techno beat and rhythm creating a unique track unlike any other.
6) Larry Heard
Also known as Mr. Fingers, Larry Heard is a Chicago-based producer who has been active since the 1980s. He is known for his innovative approach to house music, as well as his work on the classic track “Can You Feel It?”
While he is not as well known as his fellow Chicago counterparts, the classic sounds he created during the mid-80s were the blueprint for pretty much any house music to be produced since then.
My favorite Larry Heard song: “Can You Feel It” (1986). It’s hard to believe this song is from 1986. This level of smooth production is what most producers today dream about but never achieve even with all of today’s modern tools.
7) Carl Cox
The loveable Brit is a larger-than-life figure when it comes to EDM songs. The dance music pioneer is one of the veterans of acid house and a producer of insane techno tracks. By the 1980s the electronic sounds that Detroit and Chicago DJs had been cultivating had made their way to Europe.
DJs like Carl Cox who had already taken a step in that direction were supercharged by the validating sound of Western counterparts. Cox soon became one of the founders of the British rave scene helping pioneer acid house and euro rave culture.
As his career progressed, Carl Cox has evolved into one of the most popular DJs in the world, headlining festivals, and hosting his own stages in Ibiza and other festivals.
My favorite Carl Cox song: “Finder” (Carl Cox Remix) (2018). This is a fun remix of the song “Finder,” originally released by Ninetoes. This song is always a favorite when playing during Cox’s DJ Sets.
8) Frankie Knuckles
Known as the “Godfather of House Music,” Frankie Knuckles helped pioneer the genre in the 1980s. He produced numerous classic tracks, including “The Whistle Song” and “Tears.” While many on this list were cultivating the sound of the midwest, Knuckles was a New York-based DJ who began during the 70s ahead of the disco boom.
It wasn’t until Frankie Knuckles arrived in Chicago that he began truly experimenting with mixes of old-school hits using electronic drum machines. He is one of the original kings of the remix and his tracks hold equal weight. Dance music would not be what it is without Frankie Knuckles.
My favorite Frankie Knuckles song: “The Whistle Song” – Beyond the Mix (1991). You have probably heard this song before and had no idea where it came from. Shout out, Mr. Knuckles. His 1991 album, Beyond The Mix, showed everyone he was more than just a remix artist.
9) DJ Pierre
Hailing from Chicago, DJ Pierre helped pioneer the acid house sound in the late 1980s. He has produced numerous influential tracks, including “Acid Trax” and “Box Energy.”
Not only is DJ Pierre a Chicago pioneer, but he also was influential on the sound of New York’s house scene which leaned more towards Disco than the harder sounds of the Midwest.
My favorite DJ Pierre song: “Acid Track” (1987). This infectious song is the catalyst for American acid-house music.
10) Kerri Chandler
A New Jersey-based producer, Kerri Chandler has been active since the early 1990s. He is known for his soulful and jazzy approach to house music, as well as his work on the classic track “Atmosphere.”
Chandler is considered to be one of the innovators behind the subgenre of Deep House which has exploded in popularity over the past decade.
My favorite Kerri Chandler song: “I Feel It”- Finger Printz EP (1995). A classic tech-house banger (once again before it was even classified as such).
11) Ron Trent
Based in Chicago, Ron Trent has been producing music since the early 1990s. He is known for his deep and soulful approach to house music, as well as his work on the classic track “Altered States.”
He began recording that track while still in high school at just age 14! Since then he has solidified himself as a staple in electronic music.
My favorite Roy Trent song: Emancipação (Ron Trent Remix) (2022)/. Ron Trent remixes this track to provide a refreshingly groovy and soulful house cut to this Brazilian gem.
12) Robert Hood
A Detroit-based producer, Robert Hood helped pioneer the minimalist techno sound in the 1990s. He has released numerous acclaimed albums and singles, including his work on the classic track “Minimal Nation.”
My favorite Robert Hood song: “The Greatest Dancer” (2011). If this song doesn’t make you get up and dance you might not have a pulse. See if you recognize some of the themes.
13) Jeff Mills
Another Detroit techno pioneer, Jeff Mills is known for his futuristic and cinematic approach to techno music. He has released numerous acclaimed albums and singles, including his work on the classic track “The Bells.”
My favorite Jeff Mills song: “Fractal Liaison” – Mysterious Traveler (2002). This track sounds like it’s coming straight out of an anime or Final Fantasy cut scene. This is an example of how EDM music can truly transport you to different worlds through sound.
14) Stacey Pullen
A Detroit-based DJ and producer, Stacey Pullen is known for his energetic and soulful approach to techno music. He has released numerous acclaimed mixes and remixes, as well as his work on the classic track “DJ-K”.
Pullen is a techno-purist and is driven to restore the soul of the genre. He is known for his tribal-sounding and often complex compositions and is an accomplished DJ, producer, recording artist, label owner, and activist.
My favorite Stacey Pullen song: “Get Up” (2011). This track is a classic example of Pullen’s tribal rhythms mixed with unique sounds and electronic instrumentation.
Based in Detroit, Moodymann is known for his soulful and funky approach to house music. He has released numerous albums and singles, including “Dem Young Sconies” and “I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits.”
His career began in the 90s as a hip-hop producer but his knack for avoiding the personal spotlight turned him into becoming a DJ/producer of electronic dance music. His anti-promotional stance for the most part kept him in the underground scene.
My favorite Moodyman song: “Don’t You Want My Love” – Forevernevermore (2000). A bit different than other tracks on this list. This is a super groovy house track incorporating vocals of soul songstresses.
EDM and African American Culture
House music was the first direct descendent of Disco, which had taken over the music scene. The midwest was the focal point of the American birth of house music where Chicago and Detroit-based DJs began experimenting with the sound in the late 70s and early 80s.
The signature sound of house music is a repetitive 4/4 beat and a rapid tempo usually around 120 BPM. In the beginning, primarily African-American DJs mixed and adapted disco records to loop the beat break, creating a house sound. This also led directly to the birth of hip-hop as MCs eventually began rhyming over these looped beats.
As time progressed, so did technology and house music, evolving into seemingly endless sub-genres and ultimately becoming Electronic Dance Music. Well before the genre caught the attention of Europeans, African American DJs in Chicago, Detroit, and New York were captivating sweaty crowds in underground clubs and discos alike.
To learn more, check out the video below on how House music was born:
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This article was written by Justinian and edited by Michael.
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