And here's part two, folks, this time from me (Pete).
In 1995 I was a noise rock kid, proudly listening to Fugazi, Shellac, Slint, June of 44 and the like, guiltily listening to Tool, Primus, Pantera, Nine Inch Nails and Prince, and covertly listening to different kinds electronic music: the single of the Prodigy’s ‘Voodoo People’ that I’d bought behind my friends’ back, and a cassette of Rotterdam hardcore that I purloined from a friend whose older brother was a ‘raver’. In a way I’d grown up with electronic music: be it the 8-bit themes of PC classics like Captain Comic, the endless series of Sierra’s ‘Quest’ games, the rap music of Public Enemy, Run DMC, NWA and Tone Loc that had been my first cassette purchases, or the Stock Aitken and Waterman hits of Kylie et. al. that I would dub off the radio each week. During this period of pop awakening that occurred via FM radio countdown shows and ABC’s Rage, I was also introduced to my first explicit understanding of ‘techno’: Technotronic, Black Box, Snap, Dr Alban, M People, and even Prince. I mention the wee purple fella because, retrospectively, I think the ‘Batdance’ medley was the track that had the single greatest impact on my musical development. Yes, really. But I enjoyed them all indiscriminately, until I realised – approximately with the onset of pubes, puberty and the first rising boils of seething self-consciousness – that ‘Mr Vain’, ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Spin that Wheel’ just weren’t cool. At that time, it was all about flanelletes, undercuts and long hair, earrings, and grunge… egad.
1996 marked the turning point at which my musical development curved back into techno, or, at the very least, drum machine music. Somehow, the grunge and pimple-induced stigma attached to listening to machine-generated beats (excepting Big Black, Ministry and even Nine Inch Nails) had lifted, thanks, not doubt to the general crossover success of the Chemical Brothers (and their fantastic albums Exit Planet Dust and Leave Home). On a more personal level, I also became confident of expressing a more strident, less fearful assertion of my own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. The album that clinched it for me was Tortoise’s first (and still amazing) self-titled album. Hearing it as a teenager, stoned out of my gourd as it played loud on my father’s high-end hi-fi during a short parental absence, I realised that something entirely different was possible. Dance music in its pop forms had been with me for years, but what Tortoise were doing completely blew my mind. Then came Don Caballero, Six Finger Satellite, Trans Am, Rome – thanks mostly to my trust in Thrill Jockey and its associated others. There followed the second epiphanic listening: Mouse on Mars’ Autoditacker. The same friend who had dubbed me copies of the Chemical Brothers (one album each side) had it playing round at his place when I arrived for a coffee. ‘What the fuck is this!?’ I demanded. I bought it the next day, then quickly discovered Oval, Autechre, Aphex Twin, 2 Lone Swordsmen, and so on… Armed with pocket money from working graveyard shifts at a service station, a non-skip discman, a voracious curiosity and the earlier (and much, much better) incarnation of All Music Guide as my rough map, I plunged in. I’ve been happily lost ever since.
I mention all this at length to make a short but (for me at least) fundamental point: this was all techno to me. Public Enemy, Technotronic, Rotterdam hardcore, the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, Tortoise, Mouse on Mars – I filed all these cassettes (then later CDs) together in a cluster beside my speaker that was always understood, though never named, as the techno group. I listened to ‘I’ve got the Power’ with the same ears as I listened to ‘Batdance’, ‘Pump Up the Jam’, ‘Fight the Power’, ‘Spin that Wheel’, Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’ and even the Outthere Brothers ‘I like to Move It’. For my ears, what Warp, Sonig and Mille Plateaux were doing with these ideas in the second half of the 90s was just blowing the first half through a transdimensional psychedelic particle accelerator. In other words, it was like somehow, using computers, they’d figured out how to feed drugs directly into the music.
Having left high school, I plunged into the world of 18+ venues in Melbourne: pubs, bars, live venues and, of course, clubs. The egotism and stagnant formulas of every group of Steve Albini wannabe noise rock motherfuckers had me cheesed right off that whole scene. Incidentally, they’re still at it ten years later – check My Disco, if you don’t believe me. Obviously this is a very compeling formula for some people. Hey, I guess I’ve been listening to minimal techno for ten years now, so who am I to talk? But meanwhile, away from the Travis Bean guitars, the Big Muff pedals and the Rickenbacker basses, it was the dance kids that were having all the fun. I thought, ‘I know techno, techno is fun, let’s do some techno.’ So of I went to a whole bunch of different big box raves with the same ‘everything’s techno’ mindset: Eat Static’s goa trance, that was techno. CJ Bolland was techno. Speedy J, the Speedy J of A Shocking Hobby, that was techno. Even drum’n’bass as various as Aphrodite, Storm, Krust, and LTJ Bukem? Yup, all techno to me. House? House I disavowed. House I repudiated. To me at this stage, house was beyond the pail. It was too feminine, too disco, too camp, too cheesy, too gay – although all the while I nursed a secret, raging love of Crystal Waters’ 100% ‘Pure Love’, and if you’d have asked me to distinguish between house and techno, I probably would have come up with something as profound as ‘techno is like house, but good! House is like techno, only cheesy and camp.’ Etc…
While all these things were percolating through my head and filling my weekend hours, techno in Melbourne was going gangbusters. And chief among these parties, at least in terms of perceived prestige, were the Innovator parties. At about this time, I’d just got my hands on a CD-R copy of Derrick May’s Innovator double CD, with all his classic tracks on it. Who was this guy, and why was he so innovative? Was he as good as Autechre? As weird and talented as Aphex? So I went to a few of these parties, and began to sense that something different was afoot. Gradually, as my exposure to this whole scene and sound increased, I was given to understand that my personal, inclusive, idiosyncratic soundmap of techno was wrong. The strong sense was (a la Crocodile dundee’s knife scene), ‘That’s not techno. This is techno.’ The sense was like ‘they’ had tried to tell you that techno was something white, something cheesy, something commercial. Something soulless. But here, so the counter-narrative would have it, was ‘high tech soul’, made by real, oppressed black people (dreaming of space from a post-industrial ghetto). It was, so the riddle ran, a music so unquestionably authentic that to present an opinion to the contrary would invoke an accusation of ignorance, or even heresy, followed by a lecture on the Belleville Three. For white kids from the Melbourne suburbs, this allowed them to be righteously proud of aligning themselves with a noble tradition, which, in turn, allowed them to make peace with the fact that they all grew up listening to…. Technotronic, Snap, and M People, of course. Is it any different to the quiet joy of the Vanilla Ice fan who discovers Ice T and Ice Cube? He who ended up in Wu Wear often began with Twelve Inches of Snow. Never, ever underestimate the power of guilty pleasures in shaping musical taste.
Six months later I was finally coming to terms with a guilty pleasure of my own. I had started listening to house, after a triple conversion: the first was thanks to the house section on Juan Atkins’ still fabulous Master Mix. The second came from a CD copy of Carl Craig’s collection of Paperclip People singles The Secret Tapes of Dr Eich – five dollars in a bargain bin that changed my life. Thirdly, and perhaps most consequentially, was Herbert, whose Lets All Make Mistakes mix introduced me to Perlon, DBX, to Theo Parrish, to Isolée and to Green Velvet. Herbert, I owe you buddy. Anyway, around about this time I began to get the inkling that the history of Detroit was far, far more fraught and entangled a history than the hagiography that had been presented to me. I realised that both Innovator and Hi Tech Soul were brands of Derrick May, and that maybe, just maybe, he (and perhaps even Mad Mike) had some pretty kooky, probably self-serving, and maybe or even totally bogus ideas about who had the right to say who and what techno was. I stopped feeling bashful about ‘my techno’, and started feeling pissed off. I began to get the impression that if Derrick had his way, he would even have trademarked techno, along with innovator and high tech soul. I got the impression that Derrick May was a dick.
With this scuttlebutt in mind, I kept working into the catalogues, back in time. The further and deeper my retrospective colouring and shading of the histories went (and this is still and will always be a work in progress), the more I realised that everyone who’d bought into this whole Innovator thing had been sold a pup: having discovered P-funk, early electro, Kraftwerk, YMO, the Talking Heads, Eno, David Bowie and others, I realised that all the parts were there, lying around. Techno was an invention of Korg and Roland Corp, if anything. I became sure that, although it would never have emerged in the shape it did without Detroit, it would have emerged nonetheless. While the best of the early Detroit records were wonderful creations, no doubt, there was no ‘moment of creation’ – there was no formula in them that you wouldn’t end up arriving at if you had been listening to electro, Italo, krautrock and disco and you owned a synth and a couple of drum machines. The creative, mimetic feedback loops had been in active motion since the early 70s, and it was knowledge that was there for anyone who cared to check. In fact, it would take (and it does take) concerted, repeated acts of active forgetting in order to not acknowledge that. I also realised from this that my own personal mutant genealogy, my map of ‘techno’ was no less biased and discriminatory, not less selective and ordering than theirs – the difference was that I wasn’t insisting that mine become the orthodox account that everyone else had to swallow and regurgitate (without chewing).
So why do it? Why the need not only to claim being an innovator, but to have invented a whole kind of music? This is hubris in the mouth of anyone but Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, Little Richard, or Jimi Hendrix. So why? Well, because you need to, and you need to because you’ve become deeply invested in your myth. The anthropologist Mary Douglas said it best, so I’ll quote her here verbatim: “Institutions create shadowed places in which nothing can be seen and no questions asked. They make other areas show finely discriminated detail, which is closely scrutinised and ordered. History emerges in an unintended shape as a result of practices directed to immediate, practical ends. To watch these practices is to establish selective principles that highlight some kinds of events and obscure others is to inspect the social order operating on individual minds. Public memory is the storage system for the social order.” I felt, and I still feel, that just such a thing had happened in the creation myth that has become Detroit techno, and that continual investment in this has strangled the creativity and dynamism out of the style, turning its proponents into a bunch of cantankerous, conservative has-beens who demand dues and respect on behalf of things that happened twenty years ago. Innovator becomes necessary because of an absence of innovation.
At this point, you can’t avoid talking about America in a much larger, broader way, and I say, (as an outsider who’s never been, and who doesn’t know what it’s like), that if I’d grown up black in Detroit and seen suffered discrimination, neglect, a lack of opportunities and been left vulnerable to arbitrary acts of harassment and even violence (often by the police who are supposed to be there to serve and protect me) I’d probably be pissed and bitter as well. It seems to me that the another reason the bitterness has become entrenched is because Detroit techno has always been seen as a minor music in the US, made by a group of producers who never got the respect, sales and money that others working hip-hop and r&b received. Like their city, they feel discriminated against, they feel like they’re not recognised and respected (to the point of abandonment) and because of that some of the key players have become defensive and antagonistic. But what of the shithead fans in Switzerland, Sweden and Australia who have insisted on spitting bile in the name of their prophets? Interestingly, no, perhaps crucially, this kind of defensive, antagonistic, toxic bitterness has not affected producers like Carl Craig, and from my distant point of view this seems like it’s for two reasons. The first is because CC was never so invested in the myth – he never needed it. And this connects to the second reason, namely, that CC is still relevant, and he’s still relevant because he’s growing, changing, and creatively developing, something that cannot be said of May, who (in an act of monumental irony) is re-releasing Innovator. The distinction between the two artists might offer an object lesson in two possible ways, two different struggles: May’s path of closure (seal the myth and man the barricades), or Craig’s path of continual development and openness. I know which path I’d take.