Don't Tech No For An Answer
Last winter record industry trade magazines began hyping techno as the next big thing. In techno (or, as it was dubbed, "electronica"), record companies saw a potential phenomenon to boost sagging post-grunge record sales and steer music from one-hit wonders to one long groove. But there was a catch. In the pages of mainstream mags such as Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly, critics pondered just how faceless techno, with its dance-floor orientation and European club-culture idiosyncrasies, could be sold to a rock market not used to its Stone Temples without the Pilots.Whether or not techno can succeed commercially in America as it has in Europe is a thorny question. More to the point, though, for those who remember when techno was synonymous with Detroit, is the question of just what sort of techno will succeed. And can Detroit's techno artists, the granddaddies to the new genre, compete in electronica's new mainstream future? Pure Detroit techno is urban, mathematical and, to a large extent, faceless, whereas the newer mass-marketed genre, electronica, with its nods to hip hop and funk, has more suburban mosh pit tastes (read: rock) in mind."The American audience has a challenge to allow itself to be sold on something that doesn't have a face. The tag line is 'next big thing,' but it's not going to be 10 bands selling a million records, it's gonna be 100 bands selling 100,000 records. But whatever, the labels are making big money; they're not going out of business if this music doesn't sell," says Todd Mueller, a 28-year-old Rochester native who produces "Amp," MTV's six-month-old weekly program devoted to the new genre.There's no question about Detroit techno's influence on the most visible practitioners of electronica. Play the Kevin Bacon, six-degrees-of-separation game with any of the music's new champions and they're all indelibly linked to Detroit's techno pioneers: The Chemical Brothers sample old-school Detroit techno artist Blake Baxter on their 1996 debut Exit Planet Dust ; Orbital, as Detroit techno artist Carl Craig observes bluntly, "sounds like Detroit 1989"; Josh Wink's Roland 303 tweaking is simply the 313 sound updated for export to the mainstream. MTV's new Amp compilation, released by New York City's Astralwerks/Caroline Records, essentially a sampler of major label electronica signings over the past three years, spends a large portion of its press release praising Detroit techno. The liner notes proclaim, "It is from here that all progressive electronic music has grown." But Detroit electro-musicians are more than merely the source. They have also influenced each successive European dance subgenre (rave, acid jazz, hardcore, jungle, ambient, etc.) since the birth of techno a decade ago.Such influence and praise are enough to allow 40 or so area DJ/producers to earn middle-class incomes selling releases 3,000-10,000 copies at a time to a primarily European DJ underground. But is it enough to push Detroit techno over the mainstream hump? And, some would ask, why the hell would Detroit techno want to be pushed there in the first place? "The music we're doing is more refined; it's still too far ahead to ever be mainstream. If electronica brings people to our kind of music, great, but it hasn't meant more sales for us yet," says Richie Hawtin of the local Plus 8 label.Caroline Records' publicity director Dan Cohen, who worked with Craig and the other Detroit artists featured on the label's Detroit: Beyond the Third Wave compilation released last year, contends, "I see how this underground thing is all they have and they're afraid to give that up. But Detroit's always been just too underground. I mean, I think Carl Craig's a modern-day composer. I really think 10 years from now people will say 'Wow, I missed the boat.' Only 10 years from now isn't going to pay his bills."Pushing the college marketBut optimism is not entirely ruled out. Both Plus 8 and Craig's Planet E Communications labels contract independent college radio promoters to push their records to U.S. college campus stations, just as major labels do. Craig has sold an amazing 25,000 copies of his More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art through high-profile spotlights and mentions in very above-ground magazines such as Details and Rolling Stone . And through successful remixes for Tori Amos and Caroline Records artists, Craig has leveraged distribution for his Planet E records through Caroline, which also distributes the Chemical Brothers. What this means in record-buying terms is that wherever you can buy a Chemical Brothers record, there too you'll find Carl Craig. And an ingenious video from More Songs, "Televised Green Smoke," is scheduled to air on "Amp." "Hopefully, kids'll be just like I was Ñ and still am," Craig says. "I'll look for a particular record, then I'll buy everything else in that genre."But for those assessing Detroit techno's crossover potential, the discussion always returns to the fact that what the music isn't is charismatic. "We're some of the dorkiest guys you're ever gonna meet," laughs Octave One member and Direct Beat Records head Lawrence Burden. Dorky or not, the black, middle-class, dance-music makers aren't quite being singled out as stars for the next millennium. In fact, last month a major European distributor of Detroit techno met with Birmingham's Kenny Larkin and other visible techno figures to discuss American distribution through Sony, which would have meant higher visibility for Detroit records. "But he wasn't talking about selling 10,000 techno records anymore," Larkin says. "He was like, 'Forget this stringy techno stuff; why don't you guys start making R&B?' "Larkin's not the first to doubt Detroit's crossover potential. Feedback from college radio promotions finds even Craig Ñ perhaps the Detroit artist with the most visibility in the mainstream Ñ facing his share of rejection from adventurous student programmers who find it difficult to cross over to Craig's brooding sound-track impressions from the Chemical Brothers' Brit dance-floor, Beastie Boys shtick. "America's just a color-divided country," Craig says flatly. "What I'm doing is more urban."Puresonik's Alan Oldham also plays the race card. "It's taken a bunch of white guys to get it to a level in this country it's been at in Europe all along. American kids never tire of seeing their Beatles waving and getting off the plane."Reverence and new directions While electronica's neo-techno can be faulted by the underground as music made by sellouts, the other side of the coin reveals reverent new-school techno artists who know how to play the game. For example, the French duo Daft Punk has signed to major label Virgin for its latest release, Homework, benefiting from mainstream distribution. Daft Punk, however, stays at least somewhat connected with the roots of its music by continuing to press underground, vinyl-only, blank white label issues of its records. Some traditional Detroit techno artists have responded to electronica's new buzz by staying the course, but others have begun to hurry their music's development along to take advantage of the hype. Matrix Records' Sean Deason has updated his take on the colder, instrumental Detroit sound with jungle and trip-hop elements, even (gasp) vocals."I'm known as a DJ/producer for the dance floor, but now I'm concentrating more on being a recording artist," he says. "It's time techno got faces and personalities. Detroit had a distinct sound, but now other countries have cracked the code. It's really caused me to re-evaluate what I think techno is."The group Aux 88 is also countering techno's confines as a faceless, unperformable, instrumental music. In a city of DJs and producers, Aux 88 is an actual band, replete with dancers, stage show, vocals, the whole nine yards. "We can actually play," says Tom Hamilton. "A lot of techno's just there, but we like to show more than just the music speaking for itself; we perform it." Aux performed with Kraftwerk (!) at last month's Tribal Gathering outside London, England. And the group is having some success. While much of techno's market power gets dismissed as largely radio-unfriendly, Aux's Is It Man or Machine? CD has already moved half of its total sales (4,000 copies) domestically and the record is being played on WJLB's and WCHB's mix shows. "Amp" has also slated the as-yet-unfinished video for play on the show.Other artists are taking the shake-up of techno's sometimes cliquish underground as an opportunity. One-time Charm Farm backup vocalist Taj Bell is one of the city's few techno musicians who has performed the music live, as she did with former collaborator Blake Baxter in Germany in 1995. But she's also one of the few artists who actually goes to Detroit's underground parties where she aspires to perform with her ethereal electronica band dBass. "Techno was cool when these guys innovated it, but I think what they're showing now is that they're not that educated musically; they don't play out because they can't play."Other artists like Neil Ollivierra and Tony Drake have made nondance electronic records, occasioned by the same expanded post-dance-floor markets that inspired electronica.But if Detroit techno remains a little behind the mainstream gold rush, in its own way, it remains ahead of it as well. When MTV's Mueller says of electronica, "It's not about a rock star attitude; it's about how a sequence makes you feel," Detroit's techno community must be thinking, to paraphrase fellow Detroiter Bob Seger, "Shit, I have known that for 10 years."SidebarDetroit's above-ground CD offeringsCarl Craig's More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art (Planet E) is, to quote Todd Mueller of "Amp," "fantastic, quiet, subdued intensity," a late-night drive through dance floor textures, sound tracks and sequences. Craig's The Secret Tapes of Dr. Eich (Planet E) predates Daft Punk's Homework with its disco flair and house exuberance. Kenny Larkin's Dark Comedy (Art of Dance) blends inventive percussion with eerie synths for a strange brew of gadgetry and chilly soul. Look for the upcoming Exhibits compilation, which frames Larkin's sparkly dance floor hoverings into a surprisingly cohesive record.Sean Deason's Razorback (Matrix/K7) blends jungle into techno for great drama, while his newer Freq (Matrix) is more linear but propulsive techno flair. Caroline Records' Detroit: Beyond the Third Wave may be a year old, but it represents the first major U.S. label notice of such talents as Kelli Hand, Claude Young, Sean Deason and Alan Oldham. Aux 88's Is It Man or Machine? bridges the gap between Miami bass/electro and Kraftwerk (feat enough to scoop this one up!). Plastikman's Musik CD (Plus 8) is hip-hop-influenced techno a full three years before its time, while his Fuse (Plus 8) is the minimalist funk-free techno future today.