talkin' techno: the detroit debatewords Calvin Bush pictures James Harry source Muzik
THIS month, React Records issue "True People - The Detroit Techno Album", one of the most comprehensive Detroit compilations since Ten Records' definitive late Eighties documentary, "Techno - The New Dance Sound Of Detroit". As well as featuring the first and second wave of original techno artists, like Eddie "Flashin" Fowlkes, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, "True People" also includes tracks from startlingly innovative newer talents such as Claude Young, Keith Tucker, Suburban Knight and Little Joe. If you want to know what the cream of Detroit sounds like right now, this album will show you the way. But these are tough times for Detroit. There are many who would dispute its continued dominance in the global pantheon of electronic music. As they would have it, the city is too mired in its past, too entrenched in one sound to count. For others, it was, is and always will be the midi- man's Mecca. Either way, few places inspire such slavish devotion and heated debate, such awe and reverence, such distaste and disinterest. Rather than offer our views on the subject, Muzik travelled to Detroit to debate some of these essential points with the artists on "True People". It was an historic gathering. Never before have so many of the city's musical creators sat down in one room and thrashed out the issues, without coming to blows! There's no question that "True People" is an excellent I album. But is Detroit still important as an arena for music productions And if so, why? Juan Atkins: "Detroit is important because it's a unique city. There are lots of black people doing something, not negative or positive, they're just doing something. New York has hip hop, Chicago has house, and there are .. a million things happening here, too." Stacey Pullen: "First and foremost, it's the birthplace...' Shake (Anthony Shakir): "Yeah! Stacey: "...and the beginning is a always important. If it hadn't been for what happened then, we wouldn't be having this conversation now." But is it still as important as it was back in 1987, 1988 and 1989? (a chorus of "Yeah!" and "Yup!") Alan Oldham: "What I've noticed in this business is that it goes in cycles. Different cities in Europe become the European birthplace of techno. Like Brussels was big, London was big and now you've got Paris with F Communications. But I think it always comes back to Detroit because people will always buy our records to get ideas. Rotterdam and gabba was real big, but it's still all came back here. Even with jungle, even stuff like Reinforced, it comes back here. Dego, Mark and all of those guys come over here and hang out with us." Kenny Larkin: "But that's shit, because what they put out in Europe is track-based, it's not music. We stand apart from everyone else because it's a music thing. Over here, you can feel the emotion." Claude Young: "As someone coming in a bit on the late side, it seems like they take chances here. I've worked with people in other countries, I listen to other DJs all the time, but I find I just tend to play a lot of records from home because this is a place where it's okay to take risks. You get lots of producers in Europe who are afraid to do that because they're worried it won't sell, or because it doesn't sound like Dave Clarke, or like somebody in Detroit. People here have always thrived on being themselves. It's a self expression thing. A Kenny Larkin track is a Kenny Larkin track and a Juan Atkins track is a Juan Atkins track. We're individuals doing individual things. Collectively, that's Detroit". Stacey: "I think that, because we're so faraway, what happens is we get isolated from Europe. We don't have the support we need and want here in the city, so we already have a different mind-frame." Kenny: "It's kind of like being with your parents and your parents don't recognise shit that you do. You've got to keep trying harder to impress people." Juan: "I think a certain standard was set by Cybertron, Transmat and KMS. And for a lot of the newer artists who came in, the standard was so high that everyone who came along afterwards had to hit that mark. It was such a profound thing that Detroit still has a very important place." It has been said that, now Detroit has established itself the present generation of producers are more concerned with protecting the legacy of the Detroit of old than moving towards the future. In a recent "Jockey Slut" interview, for instance, even Derrick May said he felt techno was no longer capable of being radical. Is that true or is it still capable of being new and innovative? Shake: "Firstly, that comment came from a guy who's not even releasing records. When I walk out the door there are only three guys whose records you are guaranteed to hear within five minutes of standing on a street corner. I'm talking about Juan Atkins, Carl Craig and Jay Denham. They are the people who influence what I do. Secondly, look at the way rock 'n' roll was based on rhythm 'n' blues. We based techno on the black experience and that whole sound. It's not based around a bunch of people trying to be big. It's just a question of what can we do with our sounds to make them stand out? To me, it's the British press who are keeping the legacy. Somebody described the Dave Angel album as the best Detroit album never to come out of Detroit. Now I've listened to that album and, yes, it's good, but it sounded like something someone made 1O years ago. But there are other people making tracks here with a completely different approach, because nobody over here is licking dick trying to be in that fucking magazine. And radical is determined by the listener anyway. It could be as simple and as easy as a guy whispering into a microphone and 1O people buying it." Is Detroit techno now a formula that anyone can learn, or is it still evolving? Shake: "l know that I'm still evolving. You've got to remember that all black music was started, not for the mainstream but for the people making it. It wasn't black people getting mad at the system. It was like, 'Damn, it's Saturday night, I'm trying to get my freak on, fuckit, let's just have a good time'. And then it's these white people trying to sneak in the club, like, 'Can I do that?' Then they head back and do their own thing. It evolves into something else, but it's easier to package and sell. Then it gets blown up to the point where we're saying, 'Wait a minute, that's my idea, but it's not me'." Juan, you've watched techno develop for longer than anyone. Do you think it's still evolving in the same kind of way it was 10 years ago? Juan: "I think so, definitely. That word, 'techno', is just a name which was put on a movement and anything within that has the capability of being anything it wants to be." Alan: "My expression is through synthesisers, so I'm not going to try to come up with some innovative sound to get off this so-called bandwagon and banish myself. The British press has got far too wrapped up in that shit. Almost every single record which comes out gets reviewed and just about the first thing y'all motherfuckers write is, 'Well it's typical Detroit, it ain't breaking any barriers'. Like, what the fuck do you expect us to do?" Brian Bonds: "What is this 'Detroit sound'? All I ever hear is good music. Period." Alan: "I think the whole thing with the European press is just a matter of biting the hand that feeds it. And Europe probably resents the fact we won't go away and we still make records (general laughing and cheering! Because they want to be able to say CJ Bolland started techno, they want to be able to say techno started in Ghent, they want to be able to say Moby started techno. But they can't, just as they can't stop us making music. They want us to, because the day that we do stop, Luke Slater and all of those other cats can have it all to themselves." Shake: "This whole thing is starting to sound like we're mad at the British and the Europeans..." Alan: "Oh, I'm not, I'm not... I love Europeans!" Most of you guys record for European labels. If you had the choice, would you prefer to record for your own labels and exclusively in Detroit? Kech: "Having dealt with Detroit labels and European labels, I figure I could more or less trust someone I know more than someone I'm just faxing to." Shake: "Let's take this a step further. This is Detroit, the home of Motown, 3O years and still going on. Berry Gordy created something very big, but it only happened once. The same with rap. It's black economic self sufficiency. You have a group of people who want to employ themselves, so what they've done is create an entity they can employ themselves with." Kenny and Stacey, would you prefer not to have made your albums for R&S? Kenny: "Of course! That's not even a question! Who wouldn't want to be self-sufficient? Nobody is able to push your shit stronger than you can, nobody can look after you better than you do yourself." Juan: "Unfortunately, nobody in America wants to give us the money for these projects." Alan: "I disagree. What we're working at now will become the next alternative movement in the States. Indie rock used to be alternative, but it was the same old guitar shit and it's gone mainstream now. So you had waves of radio stations across America alter their formats, just to kind that black music is what their sons and daughters are buying. We are the next alternative. So by React putting out this record, by Tresor and R&S setting up shop here... The six major record companies in the world are not just going to go away. They're going to say, 'Oh, you now how to sell this, we'll I give you 10 million bucks to sell it for us'. It's going to happen and it will happen soon. That shit is a reality." How effectively have European producers, who have clearly been inspired by Detroit, reinterpreted the sound which you originated? Alan: "There's some very good stuff coming out of Europe at the moment. Neil Landstrumm is slamming. Dave Clarke, Dave Angel and David Holmes, too." Claude, you've travelled around Europe a lot. What do you think of the stuff you hear when you're over there? Is it a misappropriation and an abuse of the Detroit sound? Claude: "I think it all comes down to good and bad music. I really don't like the idea this is some kind of a Eurobashing session. In America, you can get so much respect and so much press, but if you look at the situation more closely, Muzik is over here from Britain to talk to us, but we can't get a fucking interview in "Rolling Stone". "Keyboard" magazine did an article about Juan last year, but I feel they should have been there a long time ago. It took the attention of Europeans for those motherfuckers to come around. I have a real problem with America. They'll push Moby, they'll push The Prodigy and they'll push Keoki and those other motherfuckers, because they're easier to sell. You know, pretty-faced, fucked-up hair, funny clothes. I don't wear that shit. And the thing I really appreciate about playing over in Europe and selling records in Europe, is they don't give a shit about that kind of stuff." But on a musical level, what you've sent out. Claude: "Listen, there are some great things coming back, like Alan has mentioned. I like Reinforced, I like jungle stuff, Neil Landstrumm, Cristian Vogel, some of the cats from Holland." Keith, Aux 88 are exponents of killer authentic electro. How do you feel about the so-called electro revival and the way everyone in the UK rushed to get in on the act last year? Keith Tucker: "Well, believe me, they're not looking at me as being someone, they're looking at Juan, and that's frustrating for met I'm not trying to knock Juan. I'm just making it in a different way." Kenny and Stacey, Claude has pointed out that people have copied you wholesale. Does it bother you? Kenny: "It only hurts if it's booty music. They like saying, 'Yo I was listening to my man Kenny, and I came up with thiiiiiis!' But the shit is like booty. Hey, go back to the drawing board. I think when you have, like, 1,000 records coming out in Europe, it's so difficult to pick out the good shit. Going back to your question about whether or not techno is evolving, I'd say, hell no. You've got so many stink-ass records coming out. How can you sift through all this shit?" Alan: "The challenge for us is to be able to run our businesses and labels so that, at the end of the day, we're still here and we outlast a11 the bullshit records. I think if it wasn't for these bullshit records coming out, it wouldn't be a struggle and it wouldn't be worth it." How frustrating is it that the average American kid is more likely to grow up getting into r&b and hip hop than techno and electronic music? Alan: "I'm doing most of my DJings in the States now and I've seen the underground here. It's not frustrating that we don't sell as well as other musical forms here because what we do is still seen as underground. I just see long-term growth all the way. Nobody is trying to get independent promoters to push us, nobody's trying to get publicity for us. It's all strictly word-of-mouth, strictly Internet, strictly underground." Juan: "Counterpoint. Counterpoint. Do you mean to tell me you would refuse a 5O,OOO seller on Generator?" Alan: "I'm not saying that. Not at all. I'm saying the potential is here in America for that. And there will come a point when you will be able to." Is part of the problem the attitude of the mainstream media and music industry? Do the major labels have difficulties dealing with what you're doing? Alan: "The fact of the matter is the mainstream record labels can't deal with our kind of music for the simple fact that it changes too fast. It's not personality driven, so you can't seize on an image, you can't make a video of it. A lot of these artists are studio rats, they're not pretty and you can't put them on album covers. They tried it with Moby, they tried it with Joey Beltram. They can't adapt because they're too top heavy and they're not able to react to the changes in the market place." Shake: "I don't really have a problem with the mainstream American market. I think our medium allows any body to I make music. But if you're approaching it from a business standpoint, there is a system in place and if you want to have a million-selling record, you have to go with it. And you can do it even if you have an instrumental record. It's just a system which has to be followed if you decide you want to play the game. That's life itself." Do you feel what you are doing and what you're part of is a movement which is getting bigger and more popular. Is techno's audience continuing to grow? And how big is it going to get? Shake: "l believe it will keep growing. I can see a point where you'll get black kids listening to nothing but this. You've got to remember that there's a whole community which is tired of the way radio has been formatted, the way things are just pushed on us, and they're going to seek out something which is their own." Stacey: "But I don't think we've got the proper support. We don't have radio support over here and how are people going to listen to the music if they don't have that? We don't have clubs for them to go to, so how are they going to get a visual aspect? We don't have magazines, so how are people going to read and learn about it? I agree it can get bigger, but I think it's going to be a gradual process." Alan: "In my mind, those aspects Stacey is talking about, although they're true, they fuel what we do. The very fact you can't go into any record store and pet it. The very fact you can't go to any club and hear it and even if you could, only a certain amount of people would understand this music. Even if you put it in front of mainstream America, I only a few people are going to actually get it. It's just not for everybody and, to me, that in itself is the fuel." Stacey: "But if we had big companies who dedicated their time to the music we're doing, it would make a whole lot of difference, wouldn't it?" Alan: "That's true." Shake: "But you know what? Look in the mirror. That's why it's not happening. And that's why it will never happen in this country. Never. This is America, man." (assorted cries of "What about hip hop?"). Alan: "But you have to remember hiphop is what's expected of us. Making experimental music like Coil or Wire or Can is different. We're not supposed to be doing this." Juan: "Here in Detroit, we've never had that support because of the racial separation and the radio marketing. When I go into the American record labels, they automatically point me in the direction of the r&b department. But talk to some A&R guy in Europe and he's covering everybody." Kenny: "I think our music has got good support at grassroots level, but the reason it's not bigger is because there are a lot of DJs who are playing some very limited shit. They are playing lots of European shit, so most of the kids out there don't even know the fucking music. They don't know whether this shit came from Detroit or from wherever. And I honestly believe that, if anything is going to happen, it has to happen through the American DJs." Juan has done a jungle mix for Jacob's Optical Stairway. And Shake has been playing out drum 'n' bass lately. What effect is the continuing spread of jungle going to have on people making music in Detroit? Juan: "I think, indirectly, jungle is probably an outgrowth of Detroit anyway. When you hear a lot of the sounds in the music they've been doing lately, you can identify with stuff made in Detroit in the early to mid- Eighties, the more electro sound. I'm not talking about the breakbeat stuff, which was around here four or five years ago, or the hardcore sound. I'm talking about the stuff which has come out over the last year or two, the drum 'n' bass." Shake: "When I met A Guy Called Gerald, he invited me to his studio. He learned from us, just as we're learning from him." Claude: "The really influential individuals who are doing the innovative jungle in Britain, you ask them and they will tell you the records they have listened to. I'm doing this EP of straight up jungle stuff for Reinforced. I've known Dego for years. To me, he's an innovator. Reinforced are innovators. Like us, they're the only guys taking sound somewhere. And if you talk to him or read his interviews, he makes all kinds of records, hip hop records, techno records as Nu Era. It's a cycle. It's just respect all around." Keith: "I'm not trying to knock jungle, but when I heard it it just sounded like speeded up electro-meets-reggae. It's just taking bits and pieces from somebody else's music." But now jungle is a fully-fledged phenomenon, is it going to have any bearing on your production techniques? Stacey: "I don't feel it's my calling, even though I like it and I respect it. It's their thing. I'm into doing what I do and doing it the best I can at what I'm doing." What are the main difficulties and problems you've had to overcome in getting your music heard and recognised? Kenny: "I haven't really had any. But I've had other problems like... my girlfriend's left me (pretends to cry)." Stacey: "When I was growing up, my generation was really into house. We grew up listening to people such as Colonel Abrams. I'm just wondering what the musical tastes of the generation below me will be like? I want to get the music to them more and more because, after al1, they're our biggest consumers. For me, not to be in touch with them in the way I want to is frustrating." Juan: "I've been making music for a long time and I've seen my records have success in places I didn't think they would. And then bomb in places I thought they wouldn't. So I'd say it's always been a struggle, particularly when you are doing something a little different from what you're supposed to, something different to what is seen as normal. It's always going to be a challenge." Keith: "For me personally, what's frustrating is you make the music and you want to be seen as an individual. None of us here, except for Juan, wants to be judged on Juan, Kevin and Derrick. We want you to say this here is Keith's music, this is Shake's music, and so on." And finally Juan: "I'd just like to say to all of the people who pick up this magazine, that you should really, really listen to this music. There is a lot more feeling in Detroit music than in a lot of other music coming out at the moment. But the problem is so many people don't know the difference because they're not really listening. I spin 60 to 80 per cent Detroit in my set and I get people coming up to me and saying, 'Hey, man, that was a wicked set, but I've never heard none of those records before'. So I'm like, 'Hell, man, this is all Detroit, you don't know this?'. And the DJ before you and after you, you hear them and they both sound the same. I want people to just take a real... close... listen."