Techno: Don’t Fear the Robot

TECHNO – a new Detroit sound vibration – is rocking the House of the future. John McCready checks out the credentials of the Third Wave sound merchants.

“The Techno Rebels are, whether they recognise it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead. For they are as much a part of the advance to a new stage of civilisation as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths.” Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave.

“We’re not really interested in tearing you up with the scratches and cuts tonight. We’re most interested in…educating you for the future…” Derrick May, WJLB Radio mix.

NIGHT DRIVE (THROUGH BABYLON)

IT’S 3AM AND the streets of America’s seventh city are deserted as Derrick May pilots his car through a crumbling monument to the Second Wave – the age of industry and mass production – the age of Ford and Gordy who both ran their second wave empires from here.

“This place is fucked, man. It’s finished,” he says shaking his head incredulously. We pass a gutted building filled with holes that were once windows. Detroit is winding down the past and isn’t sure if it wants to be part of the future.

Driving down Woodward Avenue, we pass the wooden house that piloted the carefully-honed pop soul of Motown into the consciousness of a generation. Motown was the musical backdrop to the Second Wave and Motown means nothing to Derrick May.

Via systems dance records like ‘Nude Photo’ – a Techno classic embraced by the House scene, and together with fellow artists like Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson, Derrick has invested his time, money and energy in the future and The Third Wave.

Detroit rolls by like a discarded set from Robocop, a film set in the city’s fictional future. “Now you understand why we make this music,” he says. “We can do nothing but look forward…”

Alvin Toffler’s book is a kind of bible to Detroit’s new musical revolutionaries. This future shock manifesto sees the Third Wave technological future not as a cocktail of 1984 Numanoid nightmares and Robocop lawlessness, but as a place where man can harness the hardware to work for him.

The nightmare of a brave new world where man is slave to machine and robots call the shots has no place in this book. Alvin Toffler, like Kraftwerk, is not afriad of the pocket calculator and if he knew of them, it’s likely the academic would approve of Model 500, Rhythm Is Rhythm and the positive futurism behind them.

The music they both make is not afraid of the future and the view they project is as complex, as contradictory and as plausible as the future world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

TECHNO REBELS

Detroit’s electronic music community don’t fear the robot. Unlike Gary Numan they look forward, incorporating all the technological advancements Roland and Yamaha can come up with in to their uniquely innovative music.

Unlike the ironic acid causalities of Chicago or the scratch fanatics of New York, they have no interest in old records, obsolete equipment or scratch science. They are the Techno Rebels – musical agents of the Third Wave who see the fusion of man and machine as the only future.

If Alvin Toffler hadn’t learned to use a word processor, it’s likely that he would be connecting sequencer to drum machine and releasing records on Metroplex, KMS or Transmat, three of Detroit’s most active dance labels. The sound has found a British outlet through Neil Rushton’s Birmingham based Kool Kat label and Neil has been instrumental in putting together 10 Records’ Techno! compilation.

Names like Metroplex and Transmat are now bywords for a sound which has hi-jacked dancefloors across the world and diverted the spotlight from Chicago – despite the fact that Detroit’s new age electro sound has only a tenuous connection with House. Only House club and DJs are open-minded enough to deal with a hi-tech sound which can find no other home. In common with House it is a machine-driven music. And in common with House it has an electronic music borne of a love for Kraftwerk.

But despite American dance music’s outstanding obsession with Europe – from the Machine and Italian Disco to the popularity of records from artist like Telex and Klan – the new music of Detroit is the first to incorporate the European sound – a mixture of technology, detachment and neo-classicism (mirrored in the synthetic strings of Rhythm Is Rhythm) so that it seems like something more than a strange wooden leg on the wrong body.

From D Train and The System to Bambaata and Arthur Baker, this obsession has plotted its way through US clubland. Every US producer shocked by the starkness of Kraftwerk has since dreamed of a ticket for the Trans Europe Express.

The reasons why the most vibrant musical community in the world should want to embrace Relf and Florian’s Robo pop are unclear. European music isn’t intrinsically the sound of America. In most cases it is uncategorically worse. “Perhaps we have idealised image of Europe and its dance music,” says Derrick May. “I have a certain way of seeing it in my mind. I feel I should be there, I know I’d tonight be there.

JUST FASCINATION

Techno is the sound of America’s final and complete assimilation of the European sound and the climax of a fascination. On Bambaata’s brave ‘Planet Rock’ the joins are not hard to find, Model 500’s ‘Techno Music’ is flawless Eurobeat which draws on its influence without tracing over them, Juan Atkins floats somewhere over Dusseldorf and an integration process which has taken almost ten years is complete.

In this sense Detroit’s new music is not a break with the black tradition (it’s acknowledgement of the influence of The Parliament/Funkadelic axis, the futuristic funkiness of most of its output and Mayday’s hissing hi-hat patterns bear this out) but more importantly, the point at which America has successfully integrated the European idea that sparked the experiment that was electro.

Patrick Cowley’s Hi-Energy Sylvester productions of the early ‘80s show the roots of black music’s fascination with continental electronics. The direct descendents of that sound are the Deep House records made in Chicago – a crossbred of gospel influenced vocals and hard synthesiser trax. Detroit goes on step further.

Records like Blake Baxter’s ‘When We Used To Play’ or Reese and Santonio’s ‘Rock To The Beat’ only use the human voice out of context so it’s strangeness is exaggerated and it’s coldness becomes somehow machine-like. These sounds are a sublime, as ridiculous, as effective and as European as Kraftwerk intoning ‘Showroom Dummies’ or New Order coldly inquiring, ‘How does it feel?’

The traditional understanding of black music and the accepted concept of soul become useless. Techno, black music with a soul which refers rather to the passionate commitment of its protagonists, has upturned these things in a way that House with its allegiance to the Philly Sound never could. While the world has been watching Chip E fry, Detroit has declared itself a Parliamentary satellite state of Germany.

The roots of The Sound, which through the records of Mayday and Rhythm Is Rhythm (Derrick May), Model 500 (Juan Atkins), Reese And Santonio (Kevin Saunderson and Santonio Echols), Blake Baxter and Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes has established itself as the most exhilarating and innovative dance music of the ‘80s, can be traced back to Alvin Toffler’s book, first published in 1980 and a Vietnam veteran called Richard Davies who Derrick May describes as, “very unique and extremely intelligent”.

A NOVEL SOUND

Juan Atkins met Richard Davies at Washington Community College, Michigan. Juan was already making primitive electric records tied by the equipment available. Davies who is also known as 3070 (a futuristic name he devised for himself) intorduced Juan to the book and the concept of Techno.

The past few years have brought at least 50 records from Detroit’s Techno innovators and it’s a measure of the strength of the city’s Third Waves that the combinations of mixers, producers and editors are limitless. Kevin Saunderson was born in New York and moved to Detroit as a child.

Despite his friendship with Derrick and Juan, only two years ago his mind was set on a career in football. But as a DJ working college parties at East Michigan University, he eventually got the bug. Now with his own label KMS, he is the scene’s most prolific creator, turning out seminal Techno like ‘The Sound’, a track used as the basis of influential New York producer Todd Terry’s ‘Back To The Beat’, or more conventional revisions like the version of The Gap Band’s ‘Big Fun’ which appears on 10 Records’ Techno! compilation.

Blake Baxter, as an offbeat vocal stylist who writes songs called ‘Ride ‘Em Boy’ and ‘Get Laid’, is often compared to Chicago’s Jamie Principle. But unlike Jamie, he seems to have little time for the tension between Sex and The Holy Sacraments. Blake has no time for self-denial.

“My music is about looking at things in a sexual way, I like passionate things and I love sex. Sometimes I don’t think my songs go far enough. I wish they could be deeper but I’m not sure if people are ready for that yet.”

The success of Transmat Records and the massive sales of ‘Nude Photo’ and ‘Strings’, have created ironic problems for him.

Derrick May, as an independent in the grip of the big US distributors has to chase his money constantly. He worries about business, when he should be building on his undoubted skills as a musician and a DJ with an innovative mixing style that has to be heard.

As Rhythm Is Rhythm Derrick has just set up The Music institute, a club/studio complex with a name that reflects his serious intentions. “I’m not just some kid with a keyboard.”

TO BOLDLY GO…

On the American dance scene Derrick May is the best-known producer of Techno despite the fact that Juan is the acknowledged originator. But Mayday has taken Techno somewhere else and the term no longer describes accurately what he does.

He is a pure hard and uncompromising sound and his commitment is intense, I mention classic disco and he seizes the opportunity to talk about classical music. Having just moved to a new house, Derrick tells me he can’t make music there, “I need a window, something to look at something to think about.” Driving slowly around the city, Derrick considers the impact his music has had.

“It surprises me. People always thought I was crazy to do it. Some people still do. Why do people connect with my music? I think it’s because the world has made them bitter. They have deep emotional feelings and no way of expressing them. I think the music brings those feelings out.

“They’re out on the floor danced, dancing. But in their heads they see themselves walking on clouds or they see themselves crossing that finishing line. My music makes me cry sometimes. I think of the things I was trying to express. Sometimes I think about my grandfather, my mother, my childhood or my idols. ‘Strings’ was about Martin Luther King. When they killed him, they destroyed the hopes and dreams of a generation. It was about the hope in this message.”

We drive to his old address, a flat on Second Avenue where all of the 110 tracks he has on disc were created. From a window on the top floor he talks through the view that was the inspiration for his music.

“I would work through the night and I would see the city waking up – the face without the make up. At night you would see the heat rising in the air from the stacks of old factory buildings. Now, when I listen to those tracks I see that view, I see the confusion of a city lost in transition from one age to another. The city is dying but Juan and the rest of us are all part of the Third Wave, the future”.

In the new music of Detroit the future is already here.

© John McCreadyNew Musical Express, 16 July 1988

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