This essay was originally in Terraforma Journal #2 (Feb. 2022)
Around 3AM on September 18, 1989, James Stinson woke up in a cold sweat, stood up, and said, “Drexciya.” Later, he said “it felt like a tidal wave rushing across my brain.” From 1989 for the next 13 years until his unfortunate transition in 2002, James Stinson and his musical partner Gerald Donald established a world-building sonic fiction all whirling around this “other place;” a non-organic lifeform realizing itself with each passing day now finding itself spoken about in academic papers, twitter threads, various art mediums, and Discogs comments sections.
Drexciya, a world given life through matrix runout etchings on vinyl records, track titles, and the occasional liner note, speaks of an underwater metropolis founded by the offspring of kidnapped African women, thrown overboard and drowned. Stinson and Donald connect the horror of the middle passage, their home of Detroit, Michigan, to a frame of thought being produced concurrently with their output known as Afrofuturism, and first decide to dive into the seas before heading up to the stars. They create a counter-history that approaches, critiques, and produces language for people stripped of their humanity for the sake of technology and its economic drivers. Born and raised in Detroit, the connection between the automation and obsolescence of a populace for Stinson and Donald was not happenstance. Being raised in the wake of the mass-scale white flight of Detroit, most Black people in the city were under-resourced, unheard, and entirely othered from the concept of the “American dream,” This extreme kind of social class is known as the Subaltern: to be so underneath the society above that you have no voice to speak with. Through the foundation of Black suffering and its linguistic byproducts like electro and techno, Drexciya acts as a pristine looking glass to examine the idea of the subaltern. In other words, if the Subaltern can’t speak, can they make enough noise to be heard? And what of that deep noise? What are we hearing from beneath the depths?
Are Drexciyans water-breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed? Have they been spared by God to teach us or terrorize us? Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River basin and on to the Great Lakes of Michigan? Do they walk among us? Are they more advanced than us and why do they make their strange music? What is their quest? These are many of the questions that you don’t know and never will.
-The Unknown Writer, The Quest, 2001
The sort of double consciousness Drexciya worked within is emblematic of the underneath; for an entire people to be in shadow, underwater. How do we even conceive this idea as a people? These subnautical themes, presented through hi-tech means, such as the synthesizer and drum machine, harkens back to a (sub)textual effect of unspoken otherness.
“Subaltern,” Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s term, expands the paradigm of the triptych superstructure we’ve come to understand capitalism: the bourgeoisie, proletariat, and lumpenproletariat, but adds an underclass beneath all three. The subaltern acknowledges an “underpeople” so forgotten, so on the fringes of society that it’s practically impossible for them to represent themselves—sentenced to only be re-presented for various uses for the other class. As modernism came to Africans in the 1600’s during the slave trade, these people were left without a voice and stripped of any power as immoral white businessmen chose to continue towards their soon-to-arrive economic jubilee. In the field, these humans were forced into synonymization with technology; a more efficient and economical means to expand the southern American industry. Within this hell, they continued to code their voice through musical reverence to their past, call and response tunes to pass the sweltering days.
Through these field tunes, Black musics grew more branches over the years with Gospel, Blues, Jazz, R&B, Rap, and House. It was at the then-newly midwestern sprouts of Techno where Stinson and Donald decided to configure their own sonic space to tune into the forgotten voice, and place it in a fully-realized otherworld. Writer Sylvia Wynter proposed in her 1992 paper, “Rethinking Aesthetics”, that rhythm is a recoding of time. Through albums like Harnessing the Storm and the Seven Storms Series, Drexciya used the marker of the hurricane as a metronome for such a recoding. The Seven Storm Series was James Stinson’s last forecast for Drexciya; to produce seven albums in one year, each one helmed by a different moniker on a different label. These seven records were said to make up a violent storm containing a wide latitude of melodies, rhythms, and concepts. Albums in this sui- generis tropical pattern include the sultry “Lifestyles from the Laptop Café” underwritten by a Stinson handle known as The Other People’s Place; while the much more intense LAB RAT XL’s “Mice or Cyborg” suggests a harsher methodology with techno and his ideas of R.E.S.T (Research, Experimentation, Science, and Technology). Stinson’s interest in water and rhythm produced an application where the use of both can breathe life into a space, fictional or otherwise. This type of thought is reminiscent of a 1996 VirtualFutures conference interview at the University of Warwick where Philosopher Manuel de Landa speaks on how hurricanes are a non-organic form of life:
It lasts long enough for us to give it a name. It assembles itself. It’s not living in the sense that it doesn’t breathe. But to ask it to breathe would be to impose an organic constraint on it. The thing doesn’t have to breathe, it doesn’t have to have a pulse. Even then, certain winds do breathe, say the monsoon, the wind that is most prevalent on the southern coast of Asia. It is a perfectly rhythmic creature: it blows in one direction for six months of the year, blows in the other direction for another six months, and every sea-faring people in Asia that made a living from the sea had to live with the rhythm of the monsoon. The monsoon gave those cultures their rhythm…It even has the beat that we tend to associate with our hearts.
It appears de Landa and Stinson had similar thoughts on how water can be understood as a rhythmic strategy towards a clearer perspective of the many worlds around us. As a submerged state, Drexciya asks us to find the liminality in life and our surroundings culturally, geographically, and geologically. Culturally, by applying a counterhistory of the fates of African people taken from their homes and placing them not as technological agents but back into humans in the eyes of many. Geographically, by granting us the underwater perspective to examine the culture of Blackness as it migrates across the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, through the mouth of the Mississippi up into the northern American continent to then produce a global double consciousness. And geologically by contextualizing water as a force of Black nature, allowing for growth and erosion to be observed simultaneously and without judgment. Water meant a lot to Stinson, in many of his interviews he allows for water to be a primacy in his practice as it is nothing but a material force; nothing to hint at water finding itself in a binary, or even a spectrum for that matter—a discontinuous force. Forces purely can. Forces can simultaneously express both beauty and horror —softness and abject brutality. As one wades through the waters of Drexciya’s discography, one feels this opacity of force.
At its core, techno conventions can be described with the use of synthesizers, keyboards, samplers, and drum machines, and sequences are working around a generally repetitive 4/4 beat. Many techno artists use these tools to find their own voice in the rhythms and Drexciya was no different. They found liquidity within or completely away from this quantization. Outside of often deviating from the convention 4/4 beat or 4-bar structures (making much of their music more difficult to mix with than other techno), the particular use of their synthesizers substantiates their ideas outside of words and weave them into the infrastructure of the song itself at an almost molecular level. Writer Mick Harvey examined this subtextual motif through their use of an obscure feature in 1980s Japanese synthesizers known as oscillator cross modulation (OCM). OCM is the capability for analog synths to have two voltage-controlled oscillators within one body, allowing for multiple harmonics and timbers to be filters through whichever waveforms are being decided. This technique allows for ever-shifting tonalities to happen in place of a solitary wave, something many electronic producers have been using since its introduction with Sequential Circuits’ analog synthesizer Prophet 5 in 1978, but it often came across more so as noise than anything melodic. Drexciya used this technique in the ‘90s in such a unique way that it resulted in melodic phrases carrying beneath it deeply complex neotectonic harmonic bubbling and accents, raising the tension that much more. Said tension could also be inverted to something soothing if need be.
“It’s the difference in degree. Sometimes you might be going through some rough rapids, or there’s a strong undertow or whatnot. Or, better yet, maybe it’s just still,
very calm, a very gentle flow. So, when you’re making music it all depends entirely on which water you’re in.”
-James Stinson, 1999
The obscurity of water also lends itself to both concepts and what you hear on the records. Applying a liquid Blackness into techno through both practice and message aligns with what Dr. Katherine McKittrick speaks to the codes interlaid with Black music in general: “Narratives of imprecision and relationality interrupt knowledge systems that seek to observe, index, know, and discipline Blackness.”
Drexciya contributes to this space of nonlinear liquidity but practices this methodology alongside a form that is almost obsessive in its rote musicality. Doing so arrives the listener to a hyperstitioned soundscape of what it must sound like to divide by zero. And with Stinson and Donald’s deep interest in the sciences, it wouldn’t be a far reach to believe they were trying to find the musical equation that would allow them to figure exactly that out. The subaltern may not speak, but underneath all that capitalist detritus lies a water-laden world connecting the ocean depths, the dance floor, the outer reaches of space by means of some Rolands, Yamahas, and an infinite interior collective knowledge wave jumping throughout the African diaspora bound to erupt any second now.