Several times throughout recent history, Detroit served as the birthplace for musical innovation. Fueled by post-industrial malaise and racial tension, Detroit experienced sonic revolutions on a nearly once-a-decade basis. In the early 1960s, the city was host to the rise of Motown, at the time an important record label marketing African American music. Motown and other similar independent labels of the time laid much of the groundwork for the contemporary pop music scene. The early 1970s saw garage rock in Detroit assume a more confrontational stance, with the rabidly political MC5 and the seemingly sociopathic Stooges prefiguring bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols who would dominate the punk boom during the later years of the decade. The 1980s saw another major music movement take place in Detroit. In 1981, Juan Atkins and Richard Davis recorded a song called "Alleys of Your Mind" under the name Cybotron. With this record, they ostensibly created Detroit techno by merging the Kraftwerk's stripped down electronic pop with the bombastic funk of Parliament. Throughout the 80s, Atkins and his peers, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, continued to experiment with dance music that resonated with a quasi-religious fervor. In the early 90s, the second wave of Detroit techno manifested itself as a more obdurate, more aggressive, and more politically charged sound. Mad Mike Banks' Underground Resistance record label began releasing records in 1990. Fiercely independent, UR militarized the Detroit techno sound. Social change was to be brought about 'by any means necessary,' as evidenced by track titles such as "Attend the Riot" (1991) and X-101's "Sonic Destroyer" (1991). Crucial members of UR's early incarnation include Blake Baxter, Jeff Mills, Rob Hood, and Drexciya.
Steeped in the macrocosmic mythos of Sun Ra, the utilitarian-wonderland rhythms of Kraftwerk, and the smoldering aggression of Public Enemy, Drexciya plumbed the deeper depths in search of 'sonic truth'. Flange-heavy electro rhythms gyrated in geyser-like spurts while gurgling synths warbled and washed over whirlpools of submarine bass, seemingly evoking the most primal physical qualities of water. Tracks built slowly, ebbing and flowing gently like a warm tide before striking with hurricane-like fury in syncopated 808 snares and bullet-like bursts of treble-heavy hail. This was a liquefied expression of urban discontent.Wavejumpers
Drexciya's nautical fixation is not only evinced sonically, but linguistically as well. Track titles like "Digital Tsunami" or "Jazzy Fluids" are accurate descriptions of their liquefied electronic frenzy. "Temple of Dos De Agua" (1999), "Bubble Metropolis" (1993), and "Vampire Island" (1997) serve as a map of the Atlantean aquatic society that Drexciya's James Stinson and Gerald Donald created. The mythology is deep and confounding, revealing itself through song titles and liner notes over the course of many years. The name "Drexciya" itself refers to a country; its inhabitants, the "Drexciyans", are the offspring of pregnant slaves cast overboard in transit from Africa. Part sci-fi wet dream (Drexciya's members once appeared in Star Trek costumes during an interview!), part militant political statement, this aquatic utopia is technologically advanced and in possession of such powers as "Quantum Hydrodynamics" (1999) and "Antivapor Waves" (1994). The Drexciyans practice "Aqua Jujitsu" (from 1994's double EP The Unknown Aquazone) as a combative dance ritual in addition to operating massive sub-aquatic vessels which travel the "Aquabahn" (also from The Unknown Aquazone, the song title is a cartoonish reference to Kraftwerk's 1974 proto-electro epic "Autobahn"). The Drexciyan Wavejumpers (introduced on 1994's Aquatic Invasion EP) are noble, water-breathing warriors, armed to the gills with harpoons and prepared to strike anywhere, anytime. The mysterious figure of Dr. Blowfin often appears, presenting strange new technological devices that range from "Dr. Blowfins Watercruiser" (1997) to "Dr. Blowfins' Black Storm Stabilizing Sphere's" (2002) to aid the Wavejumpers in combat against the "Darthouven Fish Men" (1995). There are many cities within Drexciya's borders. For instance, Stinson describes the city of Lardossa as "...a very calm tranquil place where things are very easy-going [and] there's not really that hustle and bustle and it's more or less carefree and mellow, like you're in a trance" (Duke 2006). The Drexciyan fantasy world is full of wonder and mystery, and is occasionally slightly baffling. Take, for instance, Stinson's explanation of the "Polymono Plexusgel" (featured on 1999's Neptune's Lair): "That's the gel that is alive but not alive. The energy that makes it live is from the energy that lives in Drexciya-the magic-and it comes from the Earth. The Polymono Plexusgel and the strands tap themselves right down into the planet. The planet actually gives itself life" (Duke 2006).High-Tech Nomads
While it is easy to place them among Detroit's techno vanguard-the long line of post-urban, high-tech mystics-Drexciya prefer to downplay such affiliations. "We've never looked at Drexciya as a Detroit act. We exist in our own separate world and this city never had an effect on what we do. I mean we could have come from New Jersey and we would have sounded exactly the same." The denial of their roots in a particular city is illuminating and somewhat mystifying. Urban alienation engenders a sense of dislocation from place, perhaps in this case enhanced by James Stinson's job as a truck driver. Forging fictitious space and fantastic personalities is an escape from an often less-than-ideal reality. This has been a trope of cutting-edge African-American music since legendary free jazz innovator Sun Ra (who claimed he was born on Saturn, and yearned for otherworldly escapes on albums like 1972's Space is the Place and 1973's Atlantis). Drexciya take this impulse to its cartographic extremes, sonically mapping out the geography of an entirely imagined country. In addition to creating a very specific sense of place, many of Drexciya's songs convey a sense of spatial movement akin to long distance traveling. "High Tech Nomads" (2002) traverse the "Fusion Flats" (1999) to reach the "Red Hills of Lardossa" (1994). However, their loyalty to the Detroit techno tradition is unwavering, as is evidenced by their frequent references to Detroit techno forefather Juan Atkins, and other Detroit-based luminaries such as Eddie "Flashin" Fowlkes and Jeff Mills. Additionally, Drexciya vocally opposed the exploitation of techno, which began in the early 1990s, by those of the "Caucasian persuasion" (i.e. Moby, Richie Hawtin).
The technical procedures that Drexciya employ contribute to the aquatic aesthetic-the sense of movement and fluidity-they actively cultivate. All of their work is, reputedly, recorded "live", giving songs a chaotic, haphazard feel often absent from carefully planned and sequenced electronic music. Though Stinson and Donald remained anonymous for most of their career, it is easy, in retrospect, to identify the music of Drexciya as the product of two considerably different producers, both of whom have ample bodies of solo work. After 1999, the duo largely parted ways, with Stinson taking control over the Drexciya project (as well as assuming several new pseudonyms) and Donald going on to record as Dopplereffekt, Arpanet, and Japanese Telecom, amongst other names.Gesamtkunstwerk
Gerald Donald, aka "Heinrich Mueller", champions a more geometric techno-pop sound -rigid, quantized basslines interlocking with simplified, grid-like beats. The product is a sublime form of Lego-like music. Using this Spartan structure, he conjures eerily ambivalent images of monstrous control states where technology has taken over and private identity becomes impossible. Fascistic imagery is recurrent in both cover art and song titles. In this world, normally benign objects, from the "Cigarette Lighter" (2002) to the "Cellular Phone" (1999), assume menacing or hyper-sexualized roles. It is the seedy, paranoid underbelly of Kraftwerk's neon-lit utopia-these robots fuck and these robots kill. More inclined towards vocals and pop-structure, Donald's solo work includes such techno-noir/cyber-erotic masterpieces as Dopplereffekt's "Plastiphilia" (from 1999's monumental Gesamtkunstwerk in which the line, "I want to make love to a mannequin", is repeated in unnerving deadpan) and Der Zyklus' "Formenverwandler" (2001). There is a biting sense of humor to Donald's work, which, at times, verges on kitsch (for instance, the utterly cheeky Casio-pop jingle "Pagoda of Sin" from Japanese Telecom's Virtual Geisha, released in 2002).
In recent years, Donald has moved into more experimental terrain. With both his long-standing Arpanet and Dopplereffekt projects, he has expanded his musical approach considerably, introducing haunting, atonal digital elements, occasionally sounding more like avant-classical composer Iannis Xenakis than the electro-pop of Kraftwerk. The playful-yet-rigid Lego-like quality remains embedded within foreboding subject matters.Harnessed the Storm
Stinson's most interesting work can be found during his prolific period, beginning in 2000, and ending in 2002, with his untimely death from a heart condition. Stinson, the truck driver, has a more sprawling, exploratory approach to sound. If Donald envisions dystopic control states, Stinson imagines routes of escape, exalting open space and freedom from society's limitations, freedom even from the biological and perceptual limitations of the self. In the few years preceding his death, Stinson released eight albums (two as Drexciya) in which these themes were explored in varied manners. Appearing on a variety of record labels scattered throughout the globe, these albums were referred to as "Storms", although Stinson largely dispenses with the fixation on aquatic imagery. On Drexciya's Grava 4 (2002) and Shifted Phases' Cosmic Memoirs of the Late Great Rupert J. Rosinthrope (2002), the focus becomes interstellar, with the Drexciyans emerging from the ocean to reclaim their cosmic utopia, the planet Drexciya. Under the name Transllusion, Stinson explicitly investigates the nature of his own mortality. "Memories of Me" (2002), "I'm Going Home" (2002), and "Crossing into the Mental Astroplane" (2001) are claustrophobic and agoraphobic-simultaneously on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of their cluttered frames and exploding out into the horrifying unknowable of open space. But Stinson does not give in to existential dread. "Don't be afraid of evolution" is the advice he leaves with us on the sleeve to Transllusion's (2002) L.I.F.E. (an acronym for "Life Is Fast Ending"). Surprisingly, what is perhaps Stinson's most at-peace moment is from this era as well. The soothing "Sunrays", from The Other People Place's Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe (2001) reminds us to indulge in one of life's simplest pleasures: "Relax your mind/Slowly unwind/Catch some rays of the sunshine."
Since his departure, James Stinson's brother Tyree has begun releasing music on Underground Resistance, under the name the Aquanauts. The run-out groove on The Spawn EP (2003) reads: "U R GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN - THE X-PERIMENTS WILL CONTINUE AT ALL COSTS EVEN DEATH. YOUR WORLD WILL LIVE ON THRU US." Although the Drexciya project has officially ceased, the full range of its effects on music culture remain to be seen.
Duke, Andrew 2006 "Drexciya." Electronic document, http://cognitionaudioworks.com/drexciya.html, accessed April 15.