RUSSELL BUTLER’S TECHNO FIGHTS RESPECTABILITY POLITICS
By Piotr Orlov
January 15, 2019
There’s many reasons to regard Russell E.L. Butler as one of the great young talents in American techno — and if you’ve been paying attention, the reasons have been there since Russell’s first tape, 2015’s Octavia Butler-quoting God Is Change, which was one of the best dance albums of that year. Now, after releases on a handful of excellent U.S. and UK underground labels, the Bermuda-born, Oakland-based producer is set to drop what is probably their (Russell identifies non-binary) best distributed record so far, on Ghostly’s Spectral imprint. And damn if “I Know I Am Petty” hasn’t been completely worth the wait, reaffirming Russell’s skills at bringing the emotive ruckus.
“Petty” continues Butler’s love affair with the sound of Black Detroit techno auteurs such as Underground Resistance, in which the auto-plant, the church and the afrofuturist imagination all share creative space. Hence, while Russell’s 4/4 kicks are woofer-busting in scope, they also leave plenty of room for echoes of dubby synths, for tambourines and for staccato beats, transforming what may at first seem like a monochromatic heart-pounding pulse into a much broader community survey. Through it all, a melancholy keyboard figure — at first reminiscent of Arabic African melodies, then through repetition to something out of Derrick May’s catalog — adds another complex layer to the story.
In a quote that accompanied the track, Butler explained some of this narrative, as it pertains to their experience: “The title, Petty, is a reminder to myself to reject the performance of respectability. As a light-skinned, educated, able-bodied, Black person that grew up in financial privilege, there is an expectation that people like me should be ‘safe’ Black people to interact with. Some of us can pass as white, some of us can code switch from one vernacular to another, depending on who we’re around, some of us can perform the expectations of white supremacy, in order to get ahead in this world. To me, Petty is a rejection of this performance.”