At the beginning of Assembling a Black Counter Culture, the debut book from writer, cultural theorist and musician DeForrest Brown Jr., is a map taken from a project by Detroit electronic duo Drexciya, titled The Quest. It is placed next to a chart from Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave, creating “a timeline of events that tells the story of Juan Atkins, Underground Resistance, Drexciya, and to some extent, myself,” says Brown Jr. “Imagining an afrofuturist mythology.
Mythologies are fundamental to both Drexciya’s discography and Brown Jr.’s book, which was published in 2022 and intertwines history and science-fiction to explore Black contributions to electronic music via Motor City – once at the center of the world’s automotive industry.
Drexciya, composed of James Stinson and Gerald Donald, crafted a complex world in the liner notes and artwork of their releases, which themselves spanned a seven-piece series titled The Storm. The mythology was that of the Drexciyan race, who were underwater dwellers descended from pregnant slave women thrown overboard while experiencing trans-Atlantic deportation. Drexciya’s first full-length albums, Neptune’s Lair (1999) and Harnessed The Storm (2002), were released on the Berlin-based Tresor label, and were recently reissued.
Created by Brown Jr. for this month’s episode of Carhartt WIP Radio, The Myth of Drexciya is a mix which features a sprawling selection of the duo’s discography from 1991 to 2002, revealing the “sonic fiction of the underwater civilizations’ aquatic invasion of the surface world.”
The mix is accompanied by an interview with Brown Jr., who discusses collaborating with Detroit visual artist Abdul Qadim Haqq on his recent book, the influence that Drexciya have had on his work, and the best scenarios to enjoy their music in.
DeForrest Brown Jr. (picture: Ting Ding)
In August 2022 you published your first book Assembling a Black Counter Culture. What is it about and what part does Drexciya play in it?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: Assembling a Black Counter Culture is a historical science-fiction book about Black contributions to the electronic music industry, with a central focus on Detroit techno's innovations in DIY "studio performance music" that produce sonic fictions. At the beginning of the book, I place a map from Drexciya’s album The Quest next to a chart of Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave – together they create a timeline of events that tells the story of Juan Atkins, Underground Resistance, Drexciya, and to some extent, myself, imagining an afrofuturist mythology.
How did you go about selecting the Drexciya tracks for your Carhartt WIP Radio show?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: The Myth of Drexciya is an abridged mix of the duo's discography in chronological order, to reveal the sonic fiction of the underwater civilizations’ aquatic invasion of the surface world from 1991 to 2002, with an additional message from Kodwo Eshun's Drexciya film Hydra Decapita and an unreleased song from Dopplereffekt. Because I don't know how to DJ, I've developed an alternate way of creating mixes by rhythmically layering and weaving together music files in Ableton's narrative mode. I've been thinking of this as a kind of optimization of the type of reel-to-reel remixing techniques created by the Electrifying Mojo, Kerri Chandler, Frankie Knuckles, and Tom Moulton in conversation with DAW dubbing and spatial audio effects, making it feel like a z-axis pulse was going through speakers or headphones.
What was the first Drexciya song you heard and can you remember how you felt?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: I heard Depressurization on YouTube around 2008, and was blown away by the way in which they were able to create such dense yet sparse funk music.
What are three things that are perfect to do while listening to Drexciya?
DeForrest Brown Jr.:
Driving (Both James Stinson and I were truck drivers).
Laying down in a cozy environment.
"Surfing the Web" – see: Arpanet's The Analyst from Wireless Internet.
What are your favorite Drexciya songs and why?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: I opened the mix with my favorite Drexciya track ever Aquaticizem, which was an exclusive on Underground Resistance's Interstellar Fugitives album, and which I consider to be like the Avengers: Endgame of the Detroit techno mythology. I love the gurgling voice that tells the listener to prepare for a global flood that Drexciya summons in an event they call Surface Terrestrial Colonization – a correlating track from Neptune's Lair. Drepressurization and Wavejumpers are obviously classics. The Unknown Aquazone tracks are some of my all time favorites because of how they combined two EPs to create a journey across two sides of the vinyl. Separately, James Stinson's productions as Transllusion and Shifted Phases are really special to me, as well as anything Dopplereffekt has ever created – his track titled Ascension of Genetic Intelligence closes out the mix, which originally soundtracked a project that he worked on with Haqq and myself, while I was still writing the book.
Abdul Qadim Haqq, who published the graphic novel The Book of Drexciya Vol. 1 & 2, also designed the cover for Assembling a Black Counter Culture. What was the creative process like between you both?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: The cover artwork for my book takes place in the year 2100, and is a view into the fictional world that exists inside of Detroit techno records. Haqq’s artworks were one of the first things I saw when I started researching Detroit techno in college, and I always knew that I would have to find him if I ever had the opportunity to write this book. I was really excited that he wanted to do the cover! We started discussing the mythology behind his artworks first, to get a sense of how to tease out and interweave a fictional story from the Detroit techno tracks themselves, to be placed alongside factual citations and quotes from interviews, liner notes, magazine articles, business reports, and news reports.
Drexciya were initially secretive about revealing their real identities. How much do you think this secrecy influenced the development of their ideas and universe?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: From what I understand, James Stinson was very intentional when he talked to journalists and how that interacted with the maps, liner notes, and track titles of each release. In my conversations with Gerald Donald, I found that the scientific potentiality of Drexciya was a philosophical theory similar to how Plato used the lost city of Atlantis as a way of thinking about societies outside of Athens on a kind of game board. This type of game theory and speculative fiction is what initially attracted me to techno – as a writer, avid listener, and musician, I wanted to explore the world that they built together while jamming in Stinson's mother's basement.
"I think Drexciya were ahead of most producers in terms of recording in single takes onto 8-track recorders on pre-MIDI-synch equipment, as well as distributing their music and communicating with press to craft a mythology around their sounds."
How far ahead do you believe that Drexciya were in terms of their musical and technical abilities?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: There's a funny quote from Keith Tucker of Aux 88, in which he says to James Stinson that they're the only people besides Mike Banks that actually tried to make techno the way that Juan Atkins had envisioned it: as a sonic fiction that paints a picture in your mind. They were meeting at Submerge Records, also home of Metroplex, which Atkins imagined to not only be a record label, but a city of the future for creative class workers to meet, collaborate, and create sonic fictions to populate an afrofuturist parallel universe. But specifically, I think Drexciya were ahead of most producers in terms of recording in single takes onto 8-track recorders on pre-MIDI-synch equipment, as well as distributing their music and communicating with press to craft a mythology around their sounds.
You also make music under the moniker Speaker Music. Do you have any upcoming projects?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: My next album is coming out later this year. It's called Techxodus, or (Black) technological exodus which I developed over the last year or so with Haqq after finishing the book. Besides enjoying working together, we felt that there were a few more details of the mythology that had yet to be explored, so Techxodus became a new way and different medium to work with, as a sequel to Assembling a Black Counter Culture.
To what extent did Drexciya influence your own work?
DeForrest Brown Jr.: Drexciya's maps and track titles really inspired me, as someone who grew up drawing pictures and writing stories. I enjoy the idea of music that can transport your mind elsewhere, but Drexciya’s method of production also influenced the way that I record my tracks and play live. Techxodus was recorded across a year of performances in different situations such as clubs, concert halls, and libraries. I wanted to take this ‘rhythmanalytical’ approach to writing an album to see if I could create a world that builds off the clues embedded in Drexciya's seven Storm albums, which were all recorded in a small town outside of Atlanta, Georgia. There’s a track on Techxodus called "Holosonic Rebellion", that is definitely influenced by Drexciya in terms of production and storytelling within the composition. This one takes place in Africatown, a small Black owned settlement south of where I grew up in Birmingham, which is built around one of the last known slave ships. This connects with the liner notes in The Quest, where the Unknown Writer speculates whether the Drexciyans had infiltrated the United States through the Gulf of Mexico by swimming up the Mississippi River, along the same path as blues and jazz.