Writer and musician DeForrest Brown Jr. sees techno through a critical lens, drawing on past parables to catapult us beyond the present.
Words: Martin Sigler
Images: Roxy Zeiher
“It’s the first time that techno is actually presented in Europe, period.” Jeff ‘The Wizard’ Mills, ‘Mad’ Mike Banks and Robert ‘Noise’ Hood “are wearing gas masks and yelling at Europeans. They’re protesting about police brutality that was happening in the US. They’re saying ‘MOVE,’ ‘GET UP.’ It’s a protest.” The writer and musician DeForrest Brown Jr. is recounting rare footage from the documentary Public Tranceport, which shows Underground Resistance’s first gig in Vienna for the X-101 tour in 1992. Brown Jr. doesn’t shy away from reaffirming techno’s Black origins – which are often imperceptible, or simply nonexistent, when the genre is situated within the context of a European rave. As he told an audience at Berlin’s Tresor club during a talk last summer, his analytical approach to techno is “about holding the legacy of Black people and what Blackness means – not as an identity, because this is not identity politics. This is materialism, historical materialism.”
Like many encounters since the pandemic, I met DeForrest Brown Jr. virtually. Typically, this would seem insignificant, but it felt apt for a writer whose work explores machines, technology and human connection through music. Brown Jr.’s debut book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, released in August 2022, explores these ideas in-depth through the lens of Detroit techno.
While many narratives have disentangled techno from its socio-political context, Assembling A Black Counter Culture takes a different route, exploring Detroit’s history of automotive production and labor unions. Brown Jr. draws on the works of Black Detroit intellectual and activist James Boggs, who analyzed how, after being freed, Black slaves became the main labor force in developing technological cities like Detroit, the Motor City. Techno was born out of the idea of challenging the oppression of Black bodies, an oppression associated with this new capitalist city and its coercive material infrastructure, characterized by things like the assembly lines of car factories. Infused with Afrofuturist mythology, techno originators’ – Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson, and later, Drexciya and Underground Resistance – approach was to infiltrate the machines, to master them and use them to escape oppression. “All of these Underground Resistance releases are literally about using entrepreneurial techniques to hack the music industry and to implant viruses and messages,” says Brown Jr. Techno provided a cathartic experience for Black cyborgs who, in the radical cadences of hotwired synthesizers and drum machines, found a possible way to a brighter future. “If there’s anything to learn from this, from Black American history or techno, it’s strategies to survive,” he says.
Black music has long built itself into a form of resistance against the logic of exploitation and domination inherent in capitalism, from the emergence of the blue note to the modal approach of improvisation in jazz, both mutations of the Western diatonic scale and tonal base system. Looking at the similarities between the origins of jazz and techno, Brown Jr. highlights a material approach to the use of accessible instruments, “When I found out about Juan Atkins, looking into his usage of a pawn shop 808 and a Korg MS-10, I was thinking about how he and John T. ‘Fess’ Whatley [Sun Ra’s music teacher] were just looking at mechanical devices and hacking them for their needs,” he tells me. Invoking the notion of historical materialism by Marx – according to which history could be read by analyzing the production relations in society – it seems that still today, the Black individual often does not possess the means of production to determine their material existence; most of the time, they are instead subjected to it. “Juan’s vision of electronic music was what it means to be a Black entrepreneur who would own the means of production, use the means of production and be the means of production,” Brown Jr. said at his Tresor talk. To ‘hack’ then, is a form of subjectivation of reality, using, and misusing the material objects at hand to express something greater than their lived experience. “It was about hotwiring machines together, because when they were making music, there was no MIDI, so you couldn’t get things to talk to each other,” Brown Jr. explains, regarding the early elemental set-ups used by the likes of Atkins.
Reinterpretation, re-creation, and the ‘hijacking’ of imposed material reality have been fundamental to the expansion of Black music. But, as Brown Jr. argues, the process of creation transcends mere machines. “They had to inject that spark of life that makes the machine go,” he says. “You know the word soul gets thrown around a lot, but it does have a meaning. It comes from W. E. B. Du Bois., The Souls of Black Folks, where he both gave us soul and also named us Black as a sociologist.”
This impulse is also reflected in Brown Jr.’s own music, which he releases under the name Speaker Music, and which feels like an extension of his writing and research. He uses an iPad with specific connections and wiring that give his music a unique flair. “The iPad, for me, was thinking like Juan Atkins and being like, ‘How can I take consumer technology and scale the entire music industry with it?’ I can manipulate the quality of the sounds and the iPad in much more materialist ways.” The result is a persuasive sonic expression that, he says, “baffles people to the point that they won’t deal with it.”
While Brown Jr.’s restoring work gives context and historicity to techno through a Black lens, it also allows us to question what techno is today. Assembling A Black Counter Culture can, in this context, be viewed as a call to resistance; a call to create more friction with material reality. For Brown Jr. and his music, that can also mean going beyond the limits of techno itself: “Next I want to move towards Sun Ra. After a Black consciousness. Like, now let’s go into the cosmos,” he says. “We’re past machines. Let’s make space music.”
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