The missing link: Electro
by Dan Sicko
Electro-funk, Techno Bass: how ever you delineate it, it's come back strong in the last year. Not that it ever really went away - ask any resident of Miami or passing motorists in downtown Detroit. Resonating from bass bins all over urban America, Electro traces back to the days of Kraftwerk's "Numbers", Cybotron's "Clear" and the proto-hip-hop of Soulsonic Force (listen), Mantronix (listen), and the Egyptian Lover (listen). The music truly bridges the seemingly huge expanse between hip-hop and techno - a musical archetype that still makes sense.
However, Electro is not some kind of vestigial organ or novelty music. While much of it is extremely playful and bordering on silliness (one walks a thin line with a vocoder), there have always been serious artists and a devoted audience. Artists like Detroit's AUX 88 and labels like Clear in the UK, are building on that devotion, pushing Electro into new areas of exploration.
"This is something we've always done, well over 10 years ago," AUX 88's Keith Tucker tells me from his studio. Out here on the East Side of Detroit, Electro/Techno-Bass has come full circle. With new material popping up every week, it's certainly not nostalgia driving the current level of interest. AUX 88 is just one of a growing group of artists including Will Web, Flexitone, Detrechno, and Dopplereffekt. Keith and partner Tommy Hamilton pedormed as the live act RX7 all those years ago covering classic Electro tracks. Keith shakes his head in disbelief remembering their early days: "He (pointing to Tommy) would play the basslines all the way through. And I mean really fast basslines!" "That's how we found our niche," says Keith, "performing in shows and at festivals."
Performing every lick of an electronic dance track live is quite a feat - something that has become a vehicle for a lot of exposure as of late. Flexing their performance skills on stage, Keith and Tommy had the horror of flanking Juan Atkins on either side as he performed for the first time as Model 500. Also wielding a keyboard that night was UR's Mad Mike, who was duly impressed with the pair, "They know those records like the back of their hands. It was an honor to work with people that are that serious about their art." This techno quartet will undoubtedly be part of the Detroit mythos for a long time to come, and AUX 88 is hoping it will elevate live electronic music beyond DATS, triggered samples and the like.
Initially signed to the 430 West label as part of the House act Sight Beyond Sight, Keith and Tommy formed AUX 88 after their new label starred hearing some of their older material. Once their bass-infused past was exposed, there was no turning back. Keith still seems a bit surprised: "It's funny that the techno-bass is the stuff that took off." "Bass Magnetic" was their successful cassette-only debut, bringing raw Miami sounds together with Detroit's futuristic refinements. Staying true to techno form, they've added two pseudonyms (Alien FM and Optic Nerve) to give them room to experiment and build longer, more complicated pieces.
While Detroit seems to be ready to take Electro into its next stage of development, across the Atlantic, the excitement is centered around the music's resurgence. The focal point for Europe's shift seems to fall in London on the Clear label. "All I'm trying to do with Clear is release music that I like and let artists get back to their roots," says the 22 year old Clair - the label's founder and homonymic namesake. Clair broke away from her role at Rephlex Records (AFX, M-ziq, etc.) and started Clear up with friend and partner Hal Udell. Says Hal of the label, "I guess it's music that fits nowhere but that seems to have captured a lot of imaginations."
Musically, Clear is informed by the funky tracks of old, but at the same time absorbing flavor from a wide variety of sources. The label's debut attracted a lot of attention, as many established techno artists saw a venue to have some serious fun. Perhaps that's not as surprising as it sounds, when the first three artists were Global Communication (Jedi Knights), p-ziq (Tusken Raiders), and The Black Dog (Plaid). A label like this was bound to generate a buzz. Sometimes that can be a bad thing as Clear learned from an early run-in with an overzealous British Press. Says Hal of their near-death experience, "NME did this big spread about the electro revival and us having started it... it was blown out, way out of proportion and made us look like clueless idiots, like all we want to do is get some lino out and breakdance! It's the music we're talking about."
At both ends of the spectrum, Electro in '96 seems to be more about waking up its audience than reviving the music itself. Both Clear and AUX 88 seem to agree that diversity is the key, even if it drives you mad keeping track of all the categories. Hal seems to agree with this summation. "Things here have become really fragmented, but there is a really nice tapestry of styles ... it seems to make a lot more sense to people now."
© URB Magazine, No.47, April 1996
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