TECHNARCHY IS DETROIT TECHNO’S CYBERSONIK ECHO – By Daniel Melfi
After a past of industrial prominence and success, the city of Detroit experienced a rapid decline in the 1980s and ‘90s. Yet, amongst an intimidating landscape of decaying brick, broken glass and lack of foreign interest, Detroit managed to maintain the glow of its shining musical light. From Motown to “Mad” Mike Banks, Detroit’s spirit of peril and musical perseverance has largely remained. By the late ‘80s, artists like Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Jeff Mills had established an overtly aggressive and futuristic sound that would become known as Detroit techno.
Critical to the world’s perception of Detroit and Detroit’s perception of the world is the medium through which these views were communicated: vinyl records. “In time it became possible to associate the vinyl with such cultural tropes as independence, cosmopolitanism and hipness that these urban scenes initially exemplified,” says social theorist Dominik Bartmansk. Unlike their digitized contemporaries, records contain visual information or art that act as a liaison between the artist and the listener.
When Cybersonik released “Technarchy,” to record shops in 1990, the white center label was stamped in bold, red front, “+8 The Future Sound of Detroit” (TFSOD). This was a substantial statement, challenging the power relations in Detroit’s techno culture; it simultaneously established Cybersonik’s identity as a member of this ostracized community. By placing such a definitive text on a record that wasn’t actually made in Detroit, the stamping managed to portray the resistant culture and intimidating character of Detroit in 1990 all the more accurately.
When John Acquaviva, Daniel Bell and Richie Hawtin—aka Cybersonik—wanted to release a record, no one in Detroit agreed to do so. Instead, the Canadians Acquaviva and Hawtin created their own record label—Plus8—and financed the pressing themselves. “I remember that Rich and I were thinking about what else to try and imply or convey with what we thought was a very special record and best track to date,” Acquaviva tells Third Atlantic. “There was a band called Future Sound of London and for us it was becoming clear we too, needed to not only have an eye but also to convey a step to the future.”
Incurring a financial risk, Cybersonik was determined to change the tone of the musical conversation in Detroit— after soliciting a handful of distributors, Acquaviva says the reception was exactly as they hoped. “We simply sent them the white labels and to our amazement and delight we had a ton of pre orders and licensing offers from the get go,” he says. Although DJs were playing the track, “there was perhaps some friction,” Acquaviva says in regards to the record’s reception. “It upset a lot of people who think that Detroit is theirs,” says producer Mike Banks in an Electronic Beats documentary.
The idea of cultural exploration being confused as appropriation is nothing new. Sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu say, “the structure of the linguistic production relation depends on the symbolic power relation between the two speakers,” in this case, the freshly pressed Technarchy and the nomenclature of Detroit. Their respective capital says Bourdieu, determines who has the right to speak.
In Detroit in 1990, the extensive catalogue of records by many other Detroit artists would have served as substantial capital in comparison to Cybersonik’s musical infancy. However, as Mark Poster says, cultures are in a constant state of flux; “origins always occur in a field of forces, with the new struggling and adapting to the old, changing and taking shape only in a historical process of birth.”
As John Acquaviva says, the heart of Plus8 Records was from Detroit so to consider the record from anywhere else would have been incorrect. “It was a sincere and simple way of wanting the world to know that we were a voice and sound to be reckoned with coming out of Detroit,” says Acquaviva. “Technarchy,” in its original pressing has outlasted the nature of the industry that gave birth to it. By stamping “The Future Sound of Detroit,” Cybersonik not only asserted the longevity of Detroit techno but also created a tangible definition of Detroit industrial and musical culture at the turn of the ‘90s. While the vinyl-dominated industry has gone, the artistic identity it created continues to remain.
Today, all three members of Cybersonik are acclaimed members of the electronic music community. Their identities, as a collective and as individuals in Detroit were forever altered to different extremes with the stamping of “TFSOD.” According to Bartmanski, this is part of the vinyl phenomenon; “it demands a synchronic inquiry into the cultural construction of the medium.” As the DJ played an increasingly large role in the cultural development of cities, from Detroit to Berlin, London and Manchester, it unknowingly reaffirmed the cultural symbolism of records.
By proposing links between “Technarchy” and “TFSOD,” Cybersonik also linked their musical catalogue with the city indefinitely. The textual medium of the red stamp would further cement their ties across the Detroit River when they were sent across the Atlantic to England and Germany. Limited to 1,500 copies at first, those who were introduced to Cybersonik naturally assumed the artists were all Detroit locals. The few who owned the record had a piece of contemporary history not unlike the rubble on the shelves of many East Germans playing the track.
Greg Gow was one DJ lucky enough to get his hands on a copy of the original 12”, long before he was considered part of the fourth generation of Detroit techno. Living in Acquaviva’s hometown of London, Ontario—just a short drive from Detroit, Gow was frequenting stores like the famed Dr. Disc and had heard rumblings of what Acquaviva and Hawtin were up to. “When you would go to these stores, they would have five copies of one record, if you were in the know and they knew who you were they would give it to you,” says Gow. “If they didn’t know you, you might never have that record,” he says. Years later, having released on seminal Detroit imprints like KMS and Transmat, Gow is the example of Detroit’s open arms to quality techno music—from anywhere.
The red stamping of “TFSOD” transcends geographical boundaries and finds its home in the sonic soundscapes, which stitch together a cultural fabric of industrial decay and technological experimentation. “If you brought a DJ from Germany here back in 1993 or 1994 the records he would have would’ve been completely different,” says Gow. But not today. Author David Levy feels that in the digitization of the modern millennium, “we’ve managed to create a technological infrastructure that allows us to produce digital forms in a flash and distribute them in unlimited quantities nearly anywhere in the world in an instant.”
In time, by expanding distribution methods through digital music, the individuality of geographically oriented cultures is lost. In the process of infinite expansion, we only serve to further alienate ourselves from the products we are using and creating. Vinyls establish bonds and relationships that outlive the temporality of radio play or popularity; “they certainly create more tangible and tactile love,” says Acquaviva. Although the medium has changed, vinyl survives, as does the strength in the bond between Detroit and techno music.
The stamping of the red ink on the white label acts as a cultural time-mark as well as a sonic locator. According to author Ben Assiter, the original purpose behind DJs playing white-labeled records was to keep the identities of their records secret. The juxtaposition of a plain, white-label against the hand-stamped, “TFSOD” can’t be replicated in modern digitization, simply because of its limited quantity. While the sound might signal the origins of Detroit, the ink binds the sound to a time, to 1990. The tangible vinyl and the viscosity of the liquid would never be used today—and the moniker of “The Future Sound of Detroit,” would have over 30 years of history to contend with.
When “Technarchy” was first released, Detroit techno was still a budding entity, unsure and unsolidified in nature. The musical landscape of technological music is built upon the principles of experimentation demonstrated by the red ink in question and yet it has departed from its method of operation. Cybersonik no longer exists and none of the artists in question play or release exclusively vinyl records. Bartmanski says, “certain formats of expression, preservation and use of artistic works can be construed as vehicles of non-artistic, moral values and instruments of identity-projection.” Detroit echoes his sentiment. In May 2016, the mayor of Michigan’s largest city, Mike Duggan, even proclaimed a, “Detroit Techno Week.”
Today Detroit is a city with aspirations of financial security and the struggle to battle nostalgia. However, touch the dust-filled crevices of an original pressing of “Technarchy,” and feel the texture on the aging, now cream-coloured white label and time will turn back. By expressing art through sounds, Cybersonik matched their output with an equally affirmative cultural edict. Levy says, “To look at our written forms is to see something of our striving for meaning and order”; according to Bartmanski, it’s obvious that Detroit techno has long-been the “[community that] epitomised the hedonistic cool and often the anti-system.”
In time, Cybersonik succeeded in both affirming the sound of 1990 and one of the future sounds of Detroit techno. “We have a deep love and respect for Detroit and the chance, first to be associated with it and then to be acknowledged as a part of it,” says Acquaviva. Over time, as Acquaviva and Hawtin capitalized on their success, their music and culture were financially validated. They have since shaped the development of technological music, eventually signalling the demise of vinyl records. Bourdieu says, “The propensity to acquire dominant usage is a function of the chances of access to the markets.” The market of Detroit techno has changed. Today, record shops in Berlin can go online and order any record they please in unlimited quantity—or listeners can go online and download it for free.
With increased accessibility comes hyper-saturation. Technological music has struggled with how to authenticate the cultural output of fertile music scenes. Today, it would take a significant change in power relations to shift Hawtin’s name out of a position of authority. “What you have to take away from this is that there are a trillion fucking sheep out there willing to copy and do exactly what the next guy is doing,” says Gow. “[Cybersonik] were doing their version of how they saw Detroit techno in their eyes, I think that’s what makes techno cool.”
However, without the initial assertion by Cybersonik of their Detroit heritage, the association may have never come to fruition. “In retrospect it’s a very iconic track both musically and title wise,” Acquaviva tells Third Atlantic. “It was techno anarchy, which spoke a great deal to what was happening and about to happen.” The identity of Cybersonik can be traced, at least in part, to the yearning of validation by their neighbours in Detroit.
Meanwhile, the self-propelling machine of Detroit techno keeps pushing forward, its identity driven by the propensity for music to find its home in the industrial wasteland of burned out buildings and abandoned hotel lobbies. Vinyl records are a crucial form of cultural documentation. Like a newspaper headline after years have past, the red ink of “The Future Sound of Detroit” was young and brave in 1990—it has never aged and never will.
Assiter, Ben. “Basic Channel and Timelessness: Negotiating Canonisation, Resemblance and Repetition in House and Techno.” Andrew Goodwin Memorial Prize. IASPM, 13 May 2015. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.
Bartmanski, Dominik, and Ian Woodward. “The Vinyl: The Analogue Medium in the Age of Digital Reproduction.” Journal of Consumer Culture 15.1 (2015): 3-27. Scholars Portal. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.
Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Economics of Linguistic Exchanges.” Social Science Information 16.6 (1977): 645-64. Print.
The Future Sound of Detroit. 1990. Discogs.com. Discogs.com. Web. 4 Dec. 2016.
Levy, David M. Scrolling Forward: Making Sense of Documents in the Digital Age. New York: Arcade, 2001. Print.
Pearl, Max. “The Week of Movement Festival Has Been Officially Recognized by Mayor Mike Duggan.” Resident Advisor. N.p., 24 May 2016. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.
Poster, Mark. “Authors Analogue and Digital.” What’s the Matter with the Internet? Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2001. 78-100. Print.
Richie Hawtin. Pioneers of Electronic Music Vol. 1. Telekom Electronic Beats, 20 May 2011. YouTube. Web. 5 Dec. 2016.