Upstairs Asylum Recordings / Detroit Unity

Brian Eno, what the fuck does he know? Doodling away with a fuckin’ alien haircut mate / Head louse / I built a swimming pool in my living room and I called it “Deep House” / You’re so edgy mate / you’re so edgy” 

Let’s try this for a solid definition of the deep-housesound; largely instrumental electronic dance music with the occasional soulful vocals (often female) with a generously lush aesthetic, slower tempos, ambient atmosphere, muted bass, spacious percussion and soft keyboard pads. The background structure is a sophisticated and complex repetition of rhythmic beats that keep the groove moving forward. Great dance-floor music, of course. But also music that, when done right, can appeals to the head, the body and the heart in equal measure. Interestingly, the Deep House sub-genre is at least partially responsible for moving dance music away from the Kraftwerk-ish electro-funk of early Techno. Taking dance-music back to the origins of discosoul, R&B, funk and tropicana. To put it another way, Deep House humanized dance music while remaining firmly in the underground. Most importantly, the current generation of producers have returned the music to the backyard house-party vibe. Assuring that both the audience and the artist can share an atmosphere of artistic freedom from a truly independent music underground. Any influence or compromise from a corporatized music industry is simply nonexistent. Think of Detroit House & Techno as a soulful, groovy rebellion against a generic and homogenized music industry.

Upstairs Asylum Recordings is the record label/imprint established by a legend of the Detroit house scene, Norm Talley. Often described as the renaissance man of a scene that is exploding across the clubs, festivals and independent music-shops of the city. As if the UAR label was founded with the specific intent of celebrating the tradition of house/techno music AND growing the subterranean music community. Talley managing the near impossible task of pulling together the various styles and influences of the legendary Chicago-Detroit alliance under one unified label. With music ranging from the sharply-textured beats of techno to the cool-dreaminess of deep-house. And the team at USR has certainly has been busy; producing 11 top-quality releases since the labels inception in 2021. Did we say “top quality”? The music pouring out on their various albums, singles and 12’s is classic Detroit electronic music: innovative, melodic and endlessly danceable. USR is a label that deserves our attention.

So were to begin? The freshly released compilation’s Unity Vol 1 & 2 would be a fine, fine place to focus our listening. (Although, all the releases are worth investigating). The two compilations feature a cross-section of music by local producers; Jon Dixon, Darrin Abrams, Rick Wade, Dorian Gig, Kyle Hall, Ataxia, Mike Clark, Kai Alce, Eddie Fowlkes, Santonio Echols, Brian Kage, Gari Romalis, Delano Smith and Tyree Cooper, as well as Norm Talley himself on the outstanding La Beaunienare. Talley brings that special melodic rush with a chilled, hypnotic keyboard-line. The melody sharing time and space with a tight techno-beat that makes standing still an impossibility. This is music that works on the dancefloor, in your car or on the livingroom floor. Other standouts tracks are Kyle Hall‘s Pico with it’s atmospheric 80s synth-riffs. And then there’s Darren Abrams’ amazing Detroit Ur My Star; a track that is everything great House music could be and should be. That is, soulful electronic music. The Unity albums are released separately as two 2×12″ collections; together they are the must-own albums for those interested in jumping into the “deep-end” of the current Detroit House / Techno scene. These are two damn near perfect compilations overflowing with great tracks produced by the brightest stars in the electronic music universe. Each track brings a fresh perspective to the music that will keep the discerning listener interested throughout the summer of 2022 (and beyond). The Unity 1 & 2 albums provided a useful window into the tradition of artistic innovation that has always been at the heart of Detroit’s electronic music underground.

The Detroit Escalator Co. / Soundtrack [313]

The Detroit Escalator Co. / Soundtrack [313]

Neil Ollivierra is the Detroit Escalator Company. Ollivierra first grabbed the publics attention promoting the new sounds of techno music during those strange & beautiful years of Detroit’s (after-)after-hours scene. The music that would soon become an important part of the vocabulary of electronic music across the globe; Juan Atkins, Derrick May, Carl Craig or Transmat and Metroplex. At the time, nobody understood just how important the new “Detroit sound” would soon become. For many Detroiters, techno music was our own exclusive soundtrack. As if, by some incredible twist of fate, Detroit clubs had exclusive access to the music that would soon start a musicial and cultural revolution.

Keep in mind that in the early 1980s Detroit had become a national punch-line for media and politicians. Not only was the city “down-and-out” with high unemployment, skyrocketing mortgage foreclosures and the crime-rate that always accompanies poverty. Nobody, not one national leader, seemed interested in rescuing the city that had once been proudly called, the “Arsenal of Democracy”. The national political climate had shifted away from big cities and now neither public or private-sector was interested in the future of a “post-industrial” Detroit. And don’t discount the role that race played in the abandonment of the city. The term “white flight” was practically invented to describe the racist reaction of the white population toward the election of the cities first black mayor. Almost half of the cities population left the city between 1960s and 1980. The end result is predictable; Detroit was allowed to fall into deep poverty and economic rot. The near disappearance of the automobile-industry was the final wound from which the city would not recovered. And oddly enough, this was the economic, cultural and political climate that gave birth to the innovation of the House and Techno music.

Soundtrack (313) was first released on the Feroz Record label in 1996. During the second phase of Detroit’s electronic music renaissance. Mixing that early techno sound with the more melodic music coming out of London and Berlin. The pacing is different; slower with a deep, more European aesthetic. But don’t get the wrong idea; there is much more happening with the Detroit Escalator Company then the divergence of sounds and culture. Much more. Like the original (313) telephone area-code of the city, Soundtrack (313) is that direct communication into the soul of the city. Ollivierra projecting his brilliantly disintegrating melodies into the smooth nighttime atmosphere that was flourishing during those early years. Soundtrack (313) stands as a vast, glistening shrine to a music scene that somehow found refuge inside the discarded auto plants and abandoned buildings of a declining city. Ollivierra embraces that nocturnal environment; that hidden, after-hours buzz that was inspiring a new generation that was looking past the desperation of economic decline and ugliness of racism

With sparse, ornate tracks like Gratiot (Ave), The Inverted Man and Fate (as a Chasm) the music of Soundtrack (313) is separated only by broken bits of ambient noise; flowing disjointed voices, sampled moving vehicles and random conversations . Although the ambiance of the record is often dark and melancholic, Soundtrack (313) has a mournful resiliency weaving through it’s grooves. tA resiliency that looks beyond the twilight days of a now forgotten love. This is sublime, abstract and cutting-edge music that is so much more then a particular genre called techno, ambient or club music. Soundtrack (313) re-captures that shared feeling that was in the air. A defiant-optimism that nobody even realized existed until it was gone. Unfortunately, life is like that. As the liner-notes of the album reissue mention; “For fans of Global Communication, Black Dog, Manuel Goettsching, Trangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze”. Those influences sums up the music wellMusique Pour La Danse. 25 years after the original vinyl release, the Detroit Escalator Company’s Soundtrack (313) hasn’t lost any of the street magic that made the album so exciting and unexpected in 96. Highly, highly recommended.

Miles Davis / Tutu / 1986

Context is everything. Positioned between the music of 808 State’s Pacific 202 and Rhythim is Rhythim’s Strings of Life, the Miles Davis’ track Tomaas took on a form of it’s own. Freed of the jazz or rock-fusion label, Tomaas became an entirely new creature; combining the heat of Miles’ electronic-funk period with the sharp, new, textured atmosphere of techno. Tomaas pushes ever closer to sound of modern electronic club music. Removed from the context of it’s rather mediocre parent album (Tutu), Tomaas reveals the possiblities of what should have been a bold new chapter for Davis. Tomaas (perhaps) even representing a lost experiment or window into whatmay-have-been; a sound and music never fully realized on Tutu. Allow me to make the case;

Back in those days (89-91), it was our normal habit to listen to Detroit Public Radio (WDET) on Saturday nights between 12:00 – 4:00am. Those may seem like strange hours for tuning into your favorite radio show but our little posse’ were dedicated music fans. And it was not unusual to be traveling from one club to another or heading home during those “wee small hours” after a night of drinking, smoking and clubbing. The travel time seemed perfect for tuning in the brave new waves of the Fast Forward program. Hosted by Alan Oldham, Fast Forward was the premier outlet for those interested in music and sounds that would never be heard on commercial radio. Like myself, Oldham was a college student at Wayne State University who was hired by WDET to host a late-night/early morning “alternative radio program“. Oldham had strong ties to Detroit’s burgeoning techno music scene and Fast Forward was an extension of his considerable knowledge and grasp of electronic dance music. The show was a swirling, adventurous mix of music, beats, noises, sounds and styles; Detroit Techno, Chicago House, European Body Music all sharing the same platform with the more adventurous new wave of the day; Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure, Ministry and Bauhaus. It didn’t matter. Fast Forward made it all work. Throw in the occasional hip-hop track and you get a pretty good picture of Oldham’s show.

Oldman formated the Fast Forward program to pull together all those adventurous sounds into the context of his show. Best of all, he would always slip in some completely left-field song/track just to keep the mix interesting. Such was the case with the Miles DavisTomass. Oldman started playing the song between the “post-industrial, acid-house noise” that dominated most of the show. Oddly enough, the electronic keyboard riffs and avant-funk of Tomaas jumped effortlessly into the Fast Forward mix. The track’s futuristic-funk providing the perfect vehicle for Davis‘ horn to take flight with his free-lance explorations; the music creating a cool yet complex of groove and atmosphere that played perfectly with the adventurous sounds of the program. 

Originally released in 1986, Tutu is largely considered a mis-step in the Mile Davis oeuvre. And while it’s true that most of the tracks have a somewhat generic, overly produced sound, Tutu is worth investigating for the first two intriguing songs on the album; Tutu and Tomaas giving us about 11 minutes of prime music and a brief snapshot into the world of what-may-have-been possible for the record. Remember, Miles Davis had already created a new chapter in electronic music with his 1969/1970 albums, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Together these records shared a vision of a hypnotic/electronic music that rewrote the rules of jazz, funk and electronic music. By the time he released the stunning album, On The Corner in 1972, there was a major audience backlash towards the record. On The Corner combines the influences of fusion, funk and free jazz with the avant-garde compositional technics of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Despite this negative reaction, Davis seemed content defining his music as experimential, complex and difficult. New York guitarist Gary Lucas, who was a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, considered On The Corner as Davis‘ most groundbreaking album. Calling the record a; “ominous, dense, swampy jungle of urban desperation its dub-like grooves”.

And there are further indications that electronic music could have play a significant role in the future development of Davis’ music. Bass player and producer Bill Laswell provides that unique opportunity with the brillant remix album he produced using old tapes from the In A Silent Way and On the Corner sessions. Released in 1999 (after Davis’ death) Panthalassa: The Music Of Miles Davis 1969-1974 takes the electronic influence a step further. By deleting the old-school rhythm sections of the original sessions, Laswell brings in the most obscured elements of electronic-drone music. Constructing moody atmospheric soundscapes for Davis’ horn to navigate. Creating a strange but beautiful new terrain. If you have never heard the Laswell/Davis song, He Loved Him Madly from Panthalassa, then you have some exploring to do. Highly recommended; the album mixes the sound of traditional Indian-drone music with the electronic possibilities of the modern studio. Purist be damn, the music on Panthalassa is far beyond any claim to be called jazz music. More then just a remix album, The Panthalassa provides a window into the possibilities of ways Davis could have moved forward with his music.

Unfortunately, we will never really know what Miles Davis had in mind for the future of his art. Or if a deeper embrace of the avant-garde aspect of electronic-music was ever a possiblity. We do know that Miles Davis was willing to experiment beyond any constraints or exceptions any audience or record company placed on him. Miles Davis was a genius in full bloom until the end of his life; Davis took chances and exploring his own vision even into this later period of his career. Finally, much credit goes to D.J. Allan Oldham for providing a new context and vision for the possbilities of Davis’ music. And for that I am forever grateful.


Carl Craig / More Songs about Food and Revoluntionary Art / 1997

Carl Craig / More Songs about Food and Revoluntionary Art / 1997

Sample – As Les

“Revoluntionary art is not determined by its avantgarde content; nor its formal or technical trickery, its interpretation of reality or its verisimilitude, but rather, by how much it revolutionises our thinking and imaginations. Overturning our preconceptions, bias and prejudice and inspiring us to change ourselves and the world” .

And that was the Detroit of the mid-1990’s for us; classes at Wayne State University during the day. The low-rent apartments on the riverfront. Italian giallo films on VHS. The sticky-sweet smell of opium hovering over the screen. Early mornings drives through the rainy decaying streets of the city. The feel of the car hovering just above the road as we traveled after-hours with the windows down. Block after block of abandon industrial warehouses. The rain touching my face while I smoked a cigarette. And always with a soundtrack. We gravitated towards a certain post-industrial, pre-apocalyptic sound during those years; Cabaret Voltaire, New Order, Neu, Berlin Bowie & Eno, oh maybe Primal Scream. And always the latest 12′ releases on Transmat or Metroplex playing inside the clubs. The clubs? The Leland City Club, The Shelter under old St. Andrew’s Hall, Todd’s, The Alley…the old Packard Plant liberated and repurposed by the Techno Underground for raves and music events. It was a rich time for innovative music and the after-hours life that came with it.

More Songs About Food and Revoluntionary Art is a record full of those secrets. From the Jeff Sawtell quote used on the front sleeve to the album’s title, a play on Talking Head’s More Songs about Building and Food, Carl Craig‘s true motivations seem to be lurking just below the surface and down a shadowy alleyway. Craig was a part of the Second Wave of Detroit Techno that got started in the late 80s and early 90s. After the original Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson & Derrick May), the second wave moved the music beyond the standard limitations of what the people thought techno or dance music could be. Pulling influences from Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany to create highly lyrical themes that touched deeper than the dance-floor. Refocusing the music more on the enviroment of a declining city rather then producing a dance-floor bangers. Techno developed a complex, wide-screen approach to electronic music. The beats fueled by the after-hours life that was developing beyond the eyes of the public. Flipping the melodic optimism of European electronica on it’s head. The cultural aesthetic of Afrofuturism was central. That is “an intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation”. Grinding deeper into the musical foundation of techno to create nocturnal soundscapes that twist, warp and challenge in the most unexpected ways.

More Songs is certainly twisted and warped. Challenging the listener with a uniquely Detroit vision. The sound is a synthesis between the futurism of a far-off street life and the realism of a sharp faded hope. The track, As Time Goes By (Sitting Under a Tree) is a notable example. Featuring a suprising vocal performance by Sarah Gregory (Repetition) over a deteriorating beat with lush waves of liquid bass. The vocal is undoubtedly beautiful but the atmosphere is deliciously dangerous. Recalling the claustaphobic tension of Robert Altman’s film, The Long Goodbye. We are seduced into complacency by the external elegance without truly understanding the forces that are hidden. That theme of hidden truth is layered throughout the album. On the surface a track like, At Les seems simple enough. But the sum is greater than the sparse arrangement would suggest. Interconnecting a raw beat over a weaving synth structure full of nocturnal heat and potential. Forcasting a probable future and grim dystopian reality.

The scope of this album can be difficult or even intimadaiting at first. Pulling elements of old-school funk and soul into a lush world of electronic soundscapes. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by Carl Craig’s ability to bring techno music beyond what anyone had envisioned. A classic.

Comments? Email