While there are plenty of folks lamenting the increasing banality and regressiveness of commercial techno, Black artists and labels are quietly reimagining the genre. Just take these recent, massively underrated outings from Black Techno Matters, Black Catalogue, and yes, even under-the-radar new music from a Moroccan artist on the mighty Metroplex Records.
If you need musical direction, even societal and political reinvigoration of the genre, I can think of few better places to look. These folks are leading.
Black Techno Matters
The project Black Techno Matters deserves more of a spotlight, as they’ve been doing a huge amount of work. From their description:
Black Techno Matters is a collective whose mission is to reclaim techno as a manifestation of Black expression in a society that has oppressed it by creating spaces, both virtual and IRL, that celebrate the black roots of techno. An assertion and a reminder that Techno IS Black. It was started in October 2019 when its founder, Bernard Farley, did a google search for “Black techno artists” and was disappointed with the lack resources highlighting black techno artists, especially considering that techno is a genre invented by three black teenagers in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan (The Belleville Three). Since then Black Techno Matters has highlighted hundreds of black electronic music artists through its robust Instagram Take Over series (where black artists highlight other black artists on a daily basis), spotify playlists, radio mix series, livestreams, outdoor events such as the Techno in the Park series, and now also F_X_M_X_L_Y, a three-day event featuring 20 artists, many of whom are local to the Washington, DC area.
In May, they put out “intelligent & technologically enhanced sounds” from New York’s Gladstone Deluxe. That description is apt, as the patterns irresistible grooves effortlessly meld synthetic and acoustic sounds, so once the beat gets going, it’s almost hard to tell where each ends and the other begins. It’s all smart, it’s danceable – as in, you can’t sit still – and that instant feeling also has a message. The social and political are encoded in the rhythms, like a language: “musical rhythm becomes a unique tool for celebrating nonlinearity, asymmetry and difference in society.”
I don’t even think you need any high-minded text, least of all mine – you can feel that in these tracks.
And that feeling perhaps matters more than genre and micro-genre – those elements that become convenient to “production” as you copy-and-paste recognizable musical solutions.
Oh, just stay in it for that B_X_R_N_X_R_D remix at the end – as beautiful as this clean, smooth reverb on this stuff is, the grimy-distorted heaviness of the last one is utterly fantastic.
Black Techno Matters also has a big array of other projects to explore, including a radio project. Take Chicago’s Zvrra, for instance, with an entrancing mix to lose yourself in – the perfect antidote to thirsty Internet-trend slop. I mean, if such a thing were bothering you at all.
And holy crap, is this LP deep from her last year – how did we not hear more about this one? (Don’t answer that.)
More recently, she’s been in some jungle/dnb world, which is also terrific.
Back to B_X_R_N_X_R_D, that’s BTM founder Bernard Farley aka Outputmessage.
And when he plugs in his Roland boxes, it opens a rift in space-time, in a good way. He explains:
“Each time I jack into my tr-8s machines, I aim to create visceral drum music that is rooted in our past, liberates us in the present, and opens portals into an alternate future.”
Yep. Don’t believe me/him? Just watch:
PS, yeah, Gladstone Deluxe does play actual drums. That helps.
Check these artists. Read the bios. They’re doing incredible amounts of work. Take Gladstone, for instance – he’s an engineer, musicologist, composer, essentially mathematical philosopher, the lot:
Gladstone Butler is a New York based artist working with percussion and electronics. His work takes form in recorded music, installations and performances. Gladstone has performed as a soloist at the Kennedy Center, and appears frequently as a live act across the east coast and midwest. He works in fields of research as a technical audio engineer and software engineer, and is an installation artist addressing concepts linking rhythm, geometry, the black body and technology. After spending a couple years away from labels and mainly self-releasing on Bandcamp, Gladstone will be releasing with Black Techno Matters, is / was, DETOUR, Ongoing Box and more in 2023. Gladstone holds a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and an MFA from Columbia University.
I do hope those are the kinds of CVs we see more of in the music scene.
Linking Berlin with the US is the Black Catalogue project. On the US Juneteenth commemoration, they turned to “a side of Detroit’s electronic music scene that is rarely seen.” And yeah, we don’t need a rehash of the same copy-paste history of Detroit techno or its best-known names, because then mainstream attention misses the likes of Craig Sherrad, even though Sherrad should absolutely also be a household name.
Craig’s musical experience was deep in jazz and hip hop alongside techno right from the beginning – as in high school – and it always comes across.
But he just hasn’t stopped. The Technician is yet another new cross-pollination of funk and synths, Kraftwerk and jazz, science fiction and science fact and soul. As he writes in the release notes:
” I never wanted to compromise my abilities. I always wanted to create a zone that sonically possessed the fundamentals of techno, house, hip hop, tribal, nu-disco, dancehall, and soul music.”
Berlin-based Monty Luke also delivers an utterly sexy “Nightdub” of “Hero” that sounds like a hit to me.
Listen to this full release:
It’s all full of chemistry:
Metroplex meets Morocco
Of course, part of what makes techno’s origins hard to pin down is that it was always fundamentally a fusion, and intentionally so. And that brings us to Driss Bennis, as his release from March almost sounds directly like a reboot of classic Juan Atkins material. It’s just barely on the line of become pastiche, when you hit the vocoded “trans human express” – almost too much. But then the “Thx” homage works thanks to a stupidly f***ing good bassline and beat programming. “Global Warming” is dreamy and warm and timeless. “Syntax Error” has deliciously broken rhythms and relentless funk forward motion. It all sounds like a loving return to some of the 80s originals, with beautifully economical and direct production, all bathed in a lush glow, but also manages to sound fresh and now.
And it’s the very opposite of a lot of the techno direction for the past years – it’s openly optimistic.
It’s clear that Juan Atkins has found a torch bearer for some of his own ideas about what forms the music, so it’s a fitting selection for his label.
Don’t stop with this selection of tracks, as Bennis’ Casa Voyager label – as in Casablanca – has an embarassment of riches all its own.