speaker music is helping make techno black again

December 10, 2019
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Though there is a great deal of overlap in dance music, electronic music and Black music — there is also a great deal of separation between those spaces as well. And the mutating tension between the social, sonic and historical layers of information that surround and propagate this Venn diagram are core to DeForrest Brown Jr.’s various creative practices. Of which there are a few: Deforrest is a critic and journalist (a regular contributor to AFROPUNK), a cultural theorist and curator, and even an occasional clothing designer — all of which feed into that same tension. 

Yet even though Brown doesn’t think of himself as primarily a recording artist, it is the murky, highly textured and abstract sounds he records under the name Speaker Music that best encapsulate how he makes and engages rhythm music, while also grappling with its meaning in contemporary culture. There’s a lot to take in on the pair of 20+-minute tracks that take up the entirety of his debut album, of desire, longing; they are sketches of concentric and speculative timelines of the Techno-Dub diaspora, invoking everything from the escapalogical afrofuturist discourse of Kodwo Eshun, to the spiritual speaking-in-tongues of free-jazz horn players, to the self-generating beat discourse of algorithmically inclined machines. It is wave after wave after wave of informed sound design, but also of natural beauty. digitally rendered. 

But don’t take my psychic filtering of what Speaker Music means. Though I’ve come to know and understand DeForrest well over the past few years, the person best equipped to communicate where of desire, longing fits next to his championing to “Make Techno Black Again” and his critiques of the colonized Brooklyn dance scene, is Brown himself. So we asked him to explain himself to the folks who may not be on his wavelength.

Speaker Music is a kind of techno, but not necessarily dance music. It also falls into a long tradition of Black American artists — and artists of the African Diaspora — who experiment with sound. For folks who are experiencing this sonic space for the first time, how did you arrive here? And what is, for you, this music’s purpose?

Speaker Music is a digital audio and extended media praxis that has been floating in the back of my mind for a long time. I’ve always experienced music in very spiritual or nutritious ways, so my approach to sound is often more about its effect, how the sounds work on the mind and body as opposed to genre and generic expectations based on pattern recognition and attention span. Techno is a unique music within the Black American cultural landscape because of how far away it can seem from the everyday lives and imaginations of the Black identity. At present, my work as Speaker Music is designed to reengage electronic instrumentation from specifically Black theoretical perspectives. With each release or performance, I often acknowledge a member of the Black music canon. I try to be diverse and thorough about my influences to reflect expressions of Blackness that may not otherwise be thought of in relation to one Black form of art-thought or another. James Stinson of Drexciya is a particular person that I point to, as, more times than not, his work tends to be sonically expansive and intellectually speculative. His tracks also tend to be recorded in single takes. His method of using sound and rhythm to project an aesthetic narrative or a state of being reminds me quite a bit of traditional Black oration and storytelling, which lead me to thinking of how to produce a collection of frequencies that would transfer information or a feeling to the listener —perhaps in my own experience, what’s being transferred is a distress signal.

Talk a little bit about the process of making and performing this music. Like dub, it seems to be about making the machines come alive, controlling them (to a degree), but also letting the computers chart their own way. Is that correct?

It’s really important to me that my music remains gestural at all times. I’m not really interested in the strict and stringent ways in which the white Western world teaches people to make music, so I try to be as live and improvisational as possible. Music is always happening; and as perceptive, empathetic beings in time and space, I feel that we have a responsibility to move with the culture of frequencies that a moment or environment offers. So yes, I’m very taken by dub’s ability to locate the space between sounds and sort of smear them in an organic way that draws from the fabric-like nature of sound, allowing for a lot of tugging and folding that can maximize physical impact, while also deepening the depth of aural perception. of desire, longing is specifically about this kind of multi-textural composition, which can be traced from soundsystem culture to Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders’ liquidizing sheets of sound. Thinking of Kodwo Eshun’s concept of “energy music,” the emotional conditions of the audience or performer can be placed inside of the stream of sound and force of will that’s flowing from person to person, as well as seemingly static in a room.

My performances have been called “psychedelic” because of this. I suppose I do try to take listeners on a trip or to a specific experiential place. There are moments in techno or jazz when the mood of a piece suddenly takes off; and before you know it, your body is full and your eyes are welling up because a space has been filled both in the composition but also in yourself.

Last year you began representing the campaign to “Make Techno Black Again.” Can you speak a little bit about the roots of that idea, and its relationship to the original music you create as Speaker Music?

“Make Techno Black Again” began as a meme made by Luz Fernandez who co-runs a sustainable gender-fluid apparel line called HECHA / 做 with my partner Ting Ding. The meme grew into a limited collection of hats produced by Luz and Ting, and as they were preparing for a reissue and redesign, I got involved as a representative and was commissioned to interpret that project as a mix. In the statement for the mix, I wanted to highlight the less formal elements of techno and explore its structure with a much-needed openness that diverges from the understanding of the European dance-music culture industry. There is no four-on-the-floor beat factored into the piece, but there is a loose stereophonic conducting, and real-time beat-matching that occurs through techniques of dubbing and resampling that I hope made the mix pulsate in a way that’s reflective of the energy inside of techno. To quote my written statement: “The ‘Make Techno Black Again’ mix is a tribute to the extended thoughts and techniques that went into the composition of Detroit techno […] designed to be a self-reflective and non-linear tour of Detroit techno as a machine of momentum and an expansion of Black music with the aid of newly acquired technology.”

The hat transfers information in a direct and discrete way — as memes and other forms of propaganda tend to. As I develop my music and conceptual work, the hat works as a kind of formative ground for signaling and hopefully collectivizing Black people who are and aren’t aware of this section of our history, as well as triggering white and European people with an entry point to a new perspective. 2019 has felt like an aggressive year towards historical revision for me. It has been a joy following Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, which has provided so much information for the American (and hopefully global) public to chew on. The disgusting and psychotic beginnings of America, and its system of oppression-fueled industrial capitalism through the selling and torturing of human bodies in the Transatlantic slave trade, needs to be examined from every angle possible as a matter of public safety and awareness. It must be known that the savagery which went into the enslavement of Africans is directly tied to every aspect of what we call “everyday life.”

The history of techno — and the most potent influence of my music practice as Speaker Music — is deeply embedded in the circumstances of the development of the American workforce and production market. The logical step after slavery was to move to assembly line labor, as it could replicate the same functions and results of slave labor within somewhat humane and governmentally regulated conditions. I’ve been working on a book called Assembling a Black Counter-Culture for Primary Information, which has given me room to elaborate on techno as it stems from the term “technocracy” (or “the governmental control of society and industry by elite of technical experts”). To factor labor and monopoly capitalism into the history of techno, I worked through the writings of auto worker and political activists James Boggs, particularly “The Negro and Cybernation” and The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. His “on-the-ground” experience with the assembly-line manufacturing process worked well in conjunction with [original Detroit techno artist] Juan Atkins‘ reading of Alvin Toffler’s book, The Third Wave, which covers America’s transition from assembly line production to the data-driven information industry we know today. In the book, Toffler refers to “techno rebels,” who would use technology in unconventional ways against the intention of the technocratic elite. For a talk at Unsound Festival in Krakow Poland, I spoke on this idea of techno as a means of re-interpreting our technological present, and tried to offer very sober examples of how white European notions of progress naturally filter out Black involvement while extracting as much from Blackness and Black people as possible. With Speaker Music, I want to close this production loop, and advance with a premise of Black radicalism.

Related: If there was a way to connect what your critical, stylistic and artistic practices all have to do with one another, what is that throughline?

When presenting work, I try to create an entire package that can be accessible through engagement as opposed to being readily consumable. That is to say, there is an inherent originality to my approach that comes from being myself. At my core, I’m a theorist. I think to think of — and through — concepts, not ideas. I avoided making music for the last 10 years, after putting down the trumpet in college, to focus on my double major in philosophy and film theory. I’ve played music since I was six, but felt I wouldn’t get another chance to have the time immerse myself in the logistical pitfalls of the Western canon. I wanted to write within the known colonial industrial canon, really touch it and move it with a sense of ethicality that I felt was lacking as publications (especially in music) reverted to small, consumable, poorly paid content over informative cultural profiling. My making music comes out of not being accepted into the publications, but having been in that particular labor market too long to simply back out. After things got really rough for me last year, I made Wages of Being Black is Death with Kepla as a way to layout and cope with the reality of speaking to institutional bodies (legitimate or not) as a Black person. One night, and excess of emotions lead me to compose “of desire, longing” in a single sitting in what felt like a religious rush of experience… I hadn’t used Ableton before, but I had a cracked version of it and intuitively knew what to do, working until the sun came up resulting in 50 minutes of continuous audio. So, I pulled out the Speaker Music project as a mode of critical engagement that would come from the content being sold itself.

After signing to Planet Mu shortly after, Kepla and I began to tour our project at a few places around the world — Cafe Oto in London, Lampo in Chicago and the Milan Triennial. The performances were all improvised, Kepla on piano and electronics, me speaking and using what electronics I knew to use at the time; and through an engagement of absolute trust, Kepla would play and play as I’d begin to use the stage to shout about the circumstances surround Black oppression and the industrialization of human labor for corporate/national profit. These moments were shambolic, but I quickly learned to lean into the feeling of “being in the moment.”

What does 2020 hold for Speaker Music — and for DeForrest Brown, Jr.?

My plan for the future actually starts this Friday at a group show I’ve curated around “of desire, longing” at Artists Space called “drape over another.” I want to start with myself and the people I’ve been working with as I transitioned into a reluctant musician over the last year. The event will be a few hours long ritual in which people can come and experience the accumulative sketches that went towards the “world” of the album as well as me working inside of its architecture in real-time. Luz from Hecha / 做 will paint on fabric that will eventually produce a limited collection, and REMEDI FOOD will present bio-remedial hors d’oeuvres. Ting and I’ve also written a book of rhythm and statistical analyses of this past year, called QTRLY Report, which we hope will offer a larger notion of where we all are in the chaos of current political, social and economic relapse. The hope is to create a community within an elongated moment, to touch one another with energy and vibration.

At the beginning of 2020, I will start work towards completing Assembling a Black Counter-Culture, and doing on-the-ground labor with organized cultural events, and more writing to situate the history of techno in preparation for the book’s summer release. I will also be taking part in the Rauschenberg Residency, where I’ll be meditating on the final stages of the book and further developing my theoretical practice. I suppose you can say I’ll be learning how to be a better me, utilizing the resources left behind by a previous generation of artists and thinkers.

Speaker Music debuts his new show at New York’s Artists Space on Friday 12/13