“The soul of techno is being distorted and it’s lost, and that’s reason for me to have made Mirror Man,” says Robert Hood referring to his new album in this month’s cover story, where he and daughter Lyric discuss the African-American roots of techno, its path into a worldwide industry, and what’s been gained and lost along the way.
Our writer DeForrest Brown, Jr has in recent years been campaigning under the Make Techno Black Again banner in an effort to reassert the genre’s origins. This year, debates about musical appropriation are louder than ever, and Belleville Three techno innovator Kevin Saunderson was reportedly told “I don’t know who you are” by a DJ booking agent. “It feels like Black artists are being eliminated from dance music,” ran a Saunderson pull quote in a Mixmag story that followed.
If techno is to be made Black again, it raises the question how and when it turned otherwise. One major controversy in the dance mainstream in recent years was triggered by Resident Advisor website’s annual Top DJ poll, voted for by its readers, which perpetually returned DJs to prestigious top spots playing techno and house. Winners were overwhelmingly white and male. Resident Advisor ended the polls in 2017. “At best, the lists misrepresented the reality of the scene,” RA said. “At worst, they helped to reinforce some of its harmful power dynamics.”
Like any industry power list, those RA polls said little about anything but global commerce. It might be a surprise if the dance music mainstream were any less riven by elitism and nepotism than any other multi-million dollar sector.
At the other end of the spectrum, boutique record labels have been sketching narratives that are equally unsettling in their own quiet way. The reissue scene of the 2010s often hyped anyone with a drum machine and a synthesizer stringing together a few regular beats sometime in the 1970s or 80s – which often turned out to be white musicians with best access to that equipment in the first place. Record retailers, and sometimes critics who should know better, have lauded a stream of supposed proto-techno artists in a manner that is ahistorical, individualistic and fetishistic, when the real innovators are well-known and still out there.
Between these disparate poles, neatly summarising the cultural arc of a global phenomenon like techno, or its Midwest cousin house, is next to impossible. I’d say that the lifting of techno from its Black roots was less explicit than with the blues, firstly because of the indecent speed with which many 1960s rock musicians borrowed and pimped blues songs of a previous generation; secondly 80s and 90s musicians and producers at least had some access to record pressing plants and other means of production.
In the latter era, Midwest artists like Hood were able to make valuable international connections across Europe, particularly in Berlin. And when it came to the UK dance music magazines I read in the 1990s like Jockey Slut and Mixmag, the originators of techno and house were properly recognised, the futuristic Black music of the Midwest revered, in the process providing a narrative and selling point for those publications.
So how and why have many significant first, second and third wave artists of techno and house been sidelined or even written out of the picture? Perhaps the slowness of the process precipitated a progressive decay of relationships and understanding more than daylight robbery. Black artists, once they were established, were often expected by overseas European labels to carry on doing the same thing over and again, when as creative artists they naturally had little desire to do so. House DJs, whose music connected back to the songs of disco, were more immediately saleable as highly paid entertainers than the techno jocks spinning steely instrumentals.
Most crucially, white electronic musicians in Europe often find it easier to market new concepts to predominantly white labels on the continent, in a manner that’s become grindingly familiar in areas as disparate as experimental electronic music, sound art and modern composition. In a time when music organisations and performance event platforms are being upended, there could hardly be a more timely moment to return to the roots of electronic music. Derek Walmsley
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Issue 442 December 2020 £5.95 ISSN 0952-0686
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