When this issue of XLR8R came out I was still very enamored of being a newly arrived immigrant in America, a country whose music I loved more than music from anywhere else. One of the types of music that was most dear to me was Detroit techno. Hearing it for the first time in the UK and Ireland in the late ’80s was truly life changing. Tracks such as ‘Nude Photo’ and ‘R-Theme’ spoke to me in a way that even the most far-out funk by the likes of Dexter Wansel or Lonnie Liston Smith did not.
I still love this music and when I was editing and writing for XLR8R I got to cover new releases from artists that I admired, like Octave One and Model 500. I also got to meet folks like Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Laura Gavoor (rest in power), Carl Craig, Derrick Ortencio, the Burden brothers, and Kevin Saunderson. To me these were very special people doing amazing things for modern music. I probably wrote the piece below sometime in late ’95 or maybe early ’96. I can’t remember exactly when, but I do remember that I was completely obsessed with records with the 313 area code on the label. I still am.
Special Transmat ‘trainspotter’ cut-out guide (makes a handy refrigerator decoration).
By Chris Orr
Transmat, like the Metroplex, KMS and Incognito labels, did so much in defining what Techno is about. Metroplex had been putting releases out since 1985, seminal tracks like No UFOs’, ‘Nightdrive Thru’ Babylon’ and “The Future.” Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson who respectively ran the Metroplex, Transmat and KMS labels had been school friends for years, so their seperate visions of music had a lot of common ground. Metroplex got the ball rolling and when Transmat started releasing material people who had been stunned by the Chicago sound suddenly received a double whammy in the shape of records like ‘Nude Photo’, ‘The Dance’ and “Strings Of Life. Below is a reavaluation of Transmat’s best releases so far, many are classics and most have had a serious affect on much of the house and techno that has come after them, all are brilliant and contain a still fresh idea of what dance music is about, regardless of genre.
X Ray – Let’s Go, 1986. The first Transmat release was basically a drunken jam between Derrick, Juan and Kevin. Derrick described this record as a hip-hop tune and basically that’s what it is, a twisted electro record with lots of people shouting the words ‘Lets Go’ on it. It has a very Model 500 feel to it as has that chunky bassline sound that has propelled so many of Juan’s records.
Rhythim is Rhythim – Nude Photo/The Dance, 1987. This was the one that brought serious attention to Derrick May and his label, and this attention was for good reason, as this record is simply stunning, a visionary approach to dance music. The a side ‘Nude Photo’ was a collaboration with a young producer called Thomas Barnett, and was described by Juan Atkins as a space invaders game with a disco beat going off underneath. This and ‘Washing Machine’ by Larry Heard kicked in the term ‘Acid House: When NME finally did a feature article on the genre in February 1988, ‘Nude Photo’ was their number one Acid House tune. On the flipside there’s the deep and surreal ‘BASSLINE !’ number ‘The Dance’, I remember listening to this for the first time in a squat on the 17th floor of a block of flats in Camberwell, South London in September 1987, as I looked at the Battersea power station and the icy strings kicked in, two words entered my mind, ‘fuck’ and ‘me’ with an exclamation mark after them. These were the only two words you could possibly use as the only alternative would be to write a reavaluation of modern music thus far. Serious tunes, every techno collection needs one.
Rhythim is Rhythim – Strings of Life, 1987. This has to be one of the most enduring dance records of all time. Its effortless fusion of the experimental and the anthemic is a lesson to anyone who produces dance music. Derrick supposedly lifted the samples live from a Detroit Symphony Orchestra recital and then placed them over a piano riff that a friend of his had been working on (the validity of this story will be completely clarified when Derrick comes to town on March 1). ‘Strings of Life’ was the archetypal warehouse party record, the ultimate rave record when rave meant something deeper than it does now. It was also the sound of electronic music achieving an expression of soul that it had never achieved before. On the flipside there was a remix of Move It’ and the groovy craziness of ‘Kaos’ .
Bang The Party – Release Your Body, 1988. London garage dj Kid Batchelor was behind this one and it was originally released on the English label Warrior’s Dance. This was Derrick May’s sound colliding with smooth, deep, house and what a collision. Four mixes of surreal house music that is still well playable today and still a lesson to house djs convinced that 3 hour sets of New York dubs punctuated with the odd big tune is the way to go; it never was and it never will be. This record is evidence of that, and on Derrick May’s mixes the soulful and the surreal masterfully collide.
Rhythim is Rhythim -It Is What It is/Beyond The Dance/Feel Surreal, 1988. How do you describe ‘It Is What It Is’, well Steve Hillage of System 7 described it as the real ‘Acid Jazz’. I used to work in a record store in Ireland and one day I was playing this and a very flustered chap walked up to the counter and said, “What the fuck is this called. I heard this in the Hacienda 3 years ago and it blew me away, never been able to find out the name of it.” The look of joy on his face when he read the label was akin to that of someone who has just won the lottery. No need to write a trainspotty description of this or the b-side tracks. Very serious EP, let me assure you.
K Alexi -All For Lee Sah, 1989. Chicago’s K Alexi Shelby was responsible for very smoochy, sexy house music like Risque III’s amazing ‘Essence of a Dream’. On All For Lee Sah’ K Alexi put the same formula into play. A deep, acidic groove with a lot of funk, breathy female vocal samples, and K Alexi getting all aroused in a surreal sorta way. On the flipside are two tracks, including the wicked ‘My Medusa’. Very unmissable.
R-Tyme – Illusion/R-Theme, 1989. One of my favourite Transmats, ‘R-Theme’ being one of my favourite tracks of all time. R-Tyme was a collaboration between Derrick and a Detroit DJ called Darryl Wynn. ‘Illusion’ features one of the loosest baselines in dance music and shows just how smooth techno can be when produced by the right people. This track took the groove of funk and fused it with electronic rainforest sounds, leaving a truly classic, unforgettable and deep slice of aural exotica. ‘R-Theme’ is probably one of the most emotive pieces of techno ever composed, there’s really no point in trying to describe it as anything more than a beautiful, string-driven, neo-classical wonder. Anyone who ever intends to make techno should sit down and listen to this track.
Octave One feat. Lisa Newberry – I Believe, 1990. The Burden brothers, who now run 430 West Records, produced this and it is probably the rarest of all the Transmat releases due to the fact that it was never repressed. The original version appeared on the 10 Records compilation along with other little gems like Infiniti’s ‘Techno Por Favor,’ Psyche’s ‘Elements’ and Real By Reel’s ‘Aftermath’, When I finally got my hands on a copy of this in ’91, all I could think of was getting the chance to play the version that was on ‘Techno 2′, but when I played the Juan Atkins remix the only other sound in the room was the sound of chins hitting the floor, astounding. I have yet to hear a deep house record that goes deeper than Atkins’ mix. Six years on and this still sounds absolutely devestating. Atkins fuses a Marinas Trench deep bassline with otherworldly FX, a garage style piano, lush strings, and Lisa Newberry’s beautiful voice to create the aural equivalent of submerging in the Bathyscape. Another record that prospective techno heads should get the ears around before they program another beat.
Psyche – Crackdown EF’, 1990. This four-track EP by Carl Craig showed that he would soon be a force to be reckoned with. Very deep, moody techno music embodied in stunning tracks like ‘Beyond’, ‘Neurotic Behaviour’ and the title track. This EP unfortunately didn’t contain the track ‘Elements,’ but was ample preparation for when Carl Craig hit the ionosphere with his ‘Evolution’ EP as BFC on Transmat’s excellent sister label Fragile. Track these hard if you haven’t got them, one of the definitive records of Detroit techno’s second wave.
Suburban Knight – The Art of Stalking/The Worlds, 1990. Producer James Pennington released ‘The Groove’ on Transmat as Suburban Knight in 1987, but three years later he hammered home his dark groove with these stunning tunes. Dark is the word with these tracks. ‘The Art of Stalking’ sounds likes its title, a smooth, ominous, and predatory machine propelled animal with serious bassline pressure and a gloomy voice intoning what sounds like the title. On the flip-side there’s ‘The Worlds’ an incredibly groovy, chunky, and yet very dark instrumental that simply decimates dancefloors with its relentless cyberfunk.
Model 500 – Ocean To Ocean/The Wanderer/Info World, 1990. Juan Atkins weighed in with this subtle, dreamy EP just to remind us of how versatile he actually is. ‘Ocean To Ocean’ is the Detroit equivalent of Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Open Our Eyes’, atmospheric and with a melancholic, but positive message delivered in Juan’s deep Michigan accent. This track also came in an instrumental form and the EP was rounded off in classic fashion by the two remaining tunes, one an exercise in contained minimalism and the other a bleep and string symphony.
Rhythim is Rhythim – The Beginning/Drama/Salsa Life, 1990. Another stunner from Derrick that saw him progresss into harder, faster but more atmospheric territory. The British Kool Kat label release carried a piece on the outer sleeve taken from the writings of the Dakota Indians about the origins of music, how it began when beings emerged from the primordial slime and found rhythm in their own hearbeats, externalized it as percussive rhythm, and developed music that would allow them to transcend the limits of life and achieve spiritual contact. “‘The Beginning’ sounds like an auralization of this piece, no point in trying to describe it, listen to it and you’ll get it. ‘Drama’, a collaboration with Carl Craig and ‘Salsa Life,’ a latin version of ‘Strings of Life’, do serious damage too.
Beltram Vol 1, 1990. Joey Beltram blazed a trail in 1989 and 1990 with top notch releases on Nu Groove and Easy Street. His Vol 1 EP, which contained the classic ‘Energy Flash,’ came out in 1990 on R&S. Transmat licensed two tracks from that EP, ‘Energy Flash’ and ‘Psycho Bass’. Need I say more?
Transmat has only released 19 records in ten years, all of them of a high quality, the majority of them classic. This label is a living example of the fact that quantity seldom equals quality. For many this is the definitive techno label; listen to any of its releases and you’ll see why. Also check Alan Oldham’s (now of Generator Records, illustrator for DJax Upbeats and cartoonist for Muzik magazine) label illustrations on ‘ Nude Photo’, All For Lee Sah’ and the original press-ing of ‘Beyond The Dance and see another aspect of what made Transmat so special. Ten years down the road Transmat is back with us (did it ever go away ?). As someone once said writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but there is a need to write about these records, to get the point across that techno is a Detroit phenomena with European derivatives that often pale in comparison, to introduce this music to those who are unaware of it, and to remember, always, how special this music is; the haunting and motivating third wave, surreal, soul sound from Cabaret Seven, the seventh city. Chris Orr