Urban Tribe, the pseudonym of Sherard Ingram, a Detroit Techno artist—released his first EP in 1996, Eastward, producing all tracks by himself. Two years later, Urban Tribe released his first full-length but decided to scale out to a global level from the viewpoint of his own kinship with Detroit. With 1998’s The Collapse of Modern Culture, Urban Tribe became a one hour-long downtempo soothsayer alongside his contemporaries Carl Craig, Moodymann, and Anthony “Shake” Shakir.
Through its textures, rhythms, samples, and track titles, Collapse illustrates the feeling of standing at the precipice of a bottomless pit before slipping in. Lo-fi sample artifacts of the then nascent 24-hour news cycle and eerie public access recordings surrounding a call to action to “breed cattle, not humans,” paint a bleak picture of the moment. Track titles like “Decades of Silicon,” “Cultural Nimrod,” and “At Peace With Concrete” make me wonder if this modern culture they spoke of centered more around compression than collapse. Indeed, what Urban Tribe pondered and feared is even more present 23 years later.
This techno-anthropological sound-study may critique the world Ingram and co. saw around them, but through working together, and texturally on the last track “Peacemakers,” they use the prior 13 detritus-as-songs as context for a better tomorrow. Urban Tribe starting as an unidentified persona to shroud Ingram, only to build a collective coat of arms for Detroit’s finest to address the now ever-present shadow of surveillance, misinformation, and technologically-induced hysteria across people, is triumph of collective intelligence and creativity. Through working together, they honed the trouble that faced and the world writ large, exposed these plights, and manifested a viewpoint of a better world before closing what was to be the only Urban Tribe record to include all four members present here.
Urban Tribe did not arrive at this fool-on-the-hill perspective alone. For decades, Detroit and the wider African diaspora worldwide have been approaching their various ends of the world. In Detroit, it was in the late ’60s. Gil Scott-Heron documented the fear of this metropolitan denouement in the song “We Almost Lost Detroit,” speaking of Detroit-Edison’s 1966 Enrico Fermi-1 partial nuclear meltdown caused by a floating shrapnel (now believed to be a beer can) blocking liquid sodium from cooling the reactor. Thankfully, it was rectified but this meltdown feeling was socially transmuted only one year later with the 1967 Detroit rebellion between black residents and the Detroit Police Department. This consecutive release of structural toxicity upon a primarily black population must have been at the forefront of Urban Tribe minds as they looked at the decay of their own world. Even looking further past 1998, The Collapse of Modern Culture feels even more pertinent in this generation where each year feeling worse than the last finally came into culmination in 2020. The never-ending dissemination of disinformation, paranoia, and excess consumerism was already spoken to with track titles such as “Transaction,” “Daytime T.V,” and “Social Theorist.”
But from the ashes comes the grassroots phoenix; Ingram and his collective that formed Urban Tribe understood at a core level that history was coming to an end with environmental crises, 24/7 news networks, right-wing grifters, and neoliberal incrementalism swallowing up a chronological view of progress. Due to the hierarchy of western capitalism and its recent collapse due in part to the pandemic, history has ended… or at least how we understand history has. After sitting with this record, I’ve come to feel that the only way off this merry-go-round is to restructure how we conceptualize history and detach that understanding from synonymizing it with progress—technological or otherwise. Looking back, returning to works such as Collapse, and listening to our elders/ancestors to find a deeper understanding behind the tools and message left for us could be our way out. Techno in particular, through its own musical language of sequencing and subtractive synthesis, suggests and incentivizes horizontality. The technology used in techno is not considered worthwhile because it is purely new but because there is a well-defined appreciation for what the object can do regardless of its novelty. Maybe we almost lost Detroit and we lost even more last year, but the end of history as we know it doesn’t mean we can’t build something better on the other side of time.
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