Let me tell you prejudice hurts especially when its associated with the music you love and the city you were raised in.It is for this reason UR is in this war with the programmers – those kidz were by the sight of 20 heavily muscled brothers who yes some were gang members some x-members and now musicians,they were in- timidated because the programmers taught them that all Brothers that didnt have on silver shoes and didnt smile or laugh at bullshit jokes and small talk were probably criminals ask Mumia,Rodney King or Malice Green who effects programming has on people.I am a very serious brother nothing that I do or have done with UR is funny or entertaining,I am not a clown and I will never tap dance on cue – I have never been pimped and neither has my company,the moves and strategies that I use are for one thing and one thing only – and that is to guar tee that the programmers agendas and stereo-types do not proceed into the next century!! Because it is these same agendas and prejudices that nearly extreminated my mothers peoples(blackfoot indians) and forcibly inslaved my fathers Peoples for 400 years – so believe me when I tell you UR some DEADLY serious shit!!!! there is very little for me to smile and be happy about with the condition my people, my city,my EARTH – MOTHER EARTH is in.All I can hope is that music from our label can without words or explanations knock down all the barriers (racial,economic,religous,etc) that the programmers have cleverly set before us in order to keep us from understanding that catergories and definitions separate and with separation comes exploitation and profit! I hope you can feel what I am saying – as I stated earlier I am not very good on the net and I tried to xplain as efficiently as possible what me and my label stand for so that there would be no misinterpetations or people putting words in my mouth.I am 33 years old and fully capable of speaking for myself but I choose to use music because men have been talking for years but always with FORKTONGUE music is true and ultimately much more efficient than all writtien language to this date – tribal people have known this for thousands of years.WE are all tribal people but some of us have strayed away from the talk of the drum and they talk with words and languages that mean nothing!
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.
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.
On June 27, 2020 something inspiring happened that gave hope in a time where there is little. On a 7th generation console from 2006 on 5-year-old multiplayer server, every nuclear warhead was dismantled for PlayStation 3 in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. This was done without any given objective from the developer nor was any infrastructure put in place to do so. Subreddits were made and alliances were built, R/Philanthropy and R/MetalGearPatriots, respectively. Nuke watchers were ever present hoping to reach a virtual world free of nuclear weaponry. After the impossible was achieved they were treated with a previously known but never authentically unlocked 8 minutes cutscene around the fight against nuclear proliferation and to leave the world as we found it for our children. Although the PS3 reached nuclear peace, the other servers seem to be in a perpetual nuclear age with PC servers carrying 1193 and the PS4 showing an astonishing 2479 nuclear warheads. With both subreddits having over 5000 posts and countless discord replies, why go through all of this effort in creating sides, narratives, friends, enemy, and rallying cries? What do you do in the aftermath of a completed myth?
Jack, the protagonist from the second game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 2, said it best, “It’s like being a nightmare you can’t wake up from”. The decay of the world seemingly reaching terminal velocity all happening behind our screens is a particular dystopia I don’t think we saw for ourselves; at least so soon. In this techno-psychedelia where certain truths only makes sense depending on what timeline you find yourself on. Mass social labor movements as you click through your stories, race wars centering around a white womans bantu knots on another, and the full transition of a site we used to find our old middle school sweethearts now a swamp of fascist leetspeak. Life can begin to feel like just another day in a war without end where to imagine a world worth fighting follows the law of diminishing returns like driving a car off the lot. The one space we first enjoyed with the bright optimistic potential of a digital utopia was co-opted as the largest vehicle of manipulation through ad-sensed misinformation. The shattered black mirror only presented another empty room to us all.
Hideo Kojima, an artist seemingly obsessed with this technological anxiety behind and in front of us has been wandering in these Bladerunner backrooms since 1988. Games he made prior to Metal Gear Solid like Snatcher (1988) and Policenauts (1994) spoke of fears surrounding state sanctioned violence spreading past our atmosphere, but it was with Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation in 1998 that elevated his text surrounding the slow, granted stripping of agency in a world that takes the reign of our future and places it in a government funded hard-drive mount. A game about the choices of a hard-nosed veteran, Solid Snake, assigned what was to be his final mission of taking back an Alaskan nuclear warhead testing facility from a group of terrorists, Metal Gear Solid predominately carries theme centered around genetics, political/military corruption, nuclear proliferation and disarmament, cybernetic prosthetics, gene therapy and genetic engineering, child soldiers, and post-traumatic stress disorder but carries a torch in fighting to take back agency in our own lives. That our futures are not dictated by our genes but in our choices. Such comments examined at length in a video game was unheard of at the time in 1998 where the other top games at the time being Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Banjo Kazooie. Now we have Kojima’s offspring in the ways of Bioshock (2007), Spec Ops: The Line (2012), and just about any game that speaks of player agency in their own postmodern metafictional ludonarrative dissonant ways.
A series about genes shifted to a series about memes in the follow-up to Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Without falling into the endless hypertextural rabbit hole around what the game is and what it’s about, 2001’s MGS2 is a game about the inherent failings of a sequel but it’s also siren cry around the perils of the Information Age we now face today. How the rapid flow of information rids us of any context to understand the world around us, it speaks of echo chambers on forums that carry their own truths while never being able to see other truths in other subcommunities. All this information is “junk data” but who could or should be the curators of the ideas worth passing on? They can’t all come with us and given to future generations. In 2001 (!) MGS2 believes that choice was never in our hands in the first place but in artificial intelligence. That AI term has been moved into the present day under the guise of The Algorithm. Deciding what will be show to us on our feeds. The canary in the coal mine was already dead in 2001 and we’re only coming to terms with the smell in 2020. For almost a two-decade old text, they really nailed it on the head. Honestly, I’ll let the colonel, the who’ve you follow all your order from through all games in the series, say it better than me. (Spoiler warning as this is easily THE cutscene of the entire game; if you do wish to play it then you maybe shouldn’t be reading any of this anyway?)
first documentation of a video game blackpill?
MGS2 moves its theme from the prison of the body to prison of the mind but still believes in a fight towards living with your own agency in life. That the stories we tell ourselves, and not the ones we’re told, are ones worth fighting for. That words don’t mean so much. We should look past the words to find our own meaning in a world filled with symbols only given meaning by those before us. In all its truth telling, this game still believes in a story; it still thinks the empty room that we awaken in after the nightmare is salvageable.
14 years later, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain shows us what it’s like to live in that empty room where all we face is our own ineptitude. MGS5is the terminal conclusion of a dream denied. A game about blind revenge and the lies we tell each other to keep that fire alive at all costs, it tells us what a nation-state does when it run out of enemies to supplant their jingoism into. When the memes we tell ourselves run their course. When the flow of information is so fast that history can’t keep us. When poor intentioned American sentiment of solidarity turns into paranoia and imperialism overseas becomes at-home authoritarianism. The two games really document to the pre and post 9/11 American objective quite clearly in my eyes: as MGS2 came out weeks after 9/11 (and had many parts of the game taken out due to taking place around New York), it heeded warning over information, unmediated spread of memetics, and hypertextual discombobulation. MGS5 looks at the carcass of a culture that once stood for something, albeit violence against others, and the endless spiral that can be strewn in every direction, including your own, when your enemy is a just another phantom.
Culture used to be a very small thing. Whole countercultures distilled into street names, bricks thrown, and seats taken on buses. Now we don’t know how to cope with how much history happens to us every day. The names, the protests, and tragedies coming at such a rate where it’s impossible to reconcile and place within a greater context. So how do we cope? We don’t! They wash over us as we create our own slower, smaller fiction that makes more sense than reality ever could, not unlike what the colonel spoke to in games prior. MGS5 is an ode to the third act of America, where we are no longer the scrappy nation fighting from tyranny nor are we the king of the hill for the rest of the world to look up in jealousy, we’re the snake eating its own tail since we’ve run out of food to eat. How can we create meaning in the abyss?
The players on the PlayStation 3 version of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain created their own meaning in the abyss by creating a problem worth believing in. On R/Philanthropy (now r/metalgearantinuclear) and r/ThePatriots vicious sentiment travelled between cross posts, many would take shifts in the middle of the night to see if nuke we’re being made under the shroud of darkness. Private discord had watchdogs figuring out next steps towards how to avoid hackers and moles infiltrated into their own voice channels. The names are based off of in game organizations: The Patriots Philanthropy being Snake and his partner’s anti metal gear NGO and the Patriots, the metal gear’s equivalent of the deep state. Started in earnest back in March, reddit user u/thehunghorse created a discord server to round up anyone will to get the war count to zero for the first time ever. In an interview with arstechnica, thehunghorse admitted to the beginning issues ,”At first, nothing got done because we simply didn’t have the numbers. But slowly, our numbers grew to 60, 70… It was heartwarming to have everyone come together for this goal. Me and a few other members actually bought a PS3 copy [of Metal Gear Solid V] just to help out”. Planned coordination brought the number of warheads in the thousands in June to just 100 by July and to zero by the end of the month. After they reached the number they had been fighting for all of lockdown, Japan’s Metal Gear twitter account responded quickly but in the way they had hoped. “A nuclear abolition event has occurred in PS3 version of MGSV:TPP from July 28, Japan time, but we are currently investigating this matter.” Was posted the very next day and have yet to confirm Philanthropy’s efforts. Some people feel as if getting confirmation of nuclear abolition day will unlocked some new content in a game that is widely considered to be unfinished, but this is all hearsay and will most likely result to nothing. A discord server can dream, I suppose.
This journey shows that when your dreams are denied you construct your own approval. And even through all this inane hardship they were still rewarded with Kojima hiding a 8 min cutscene in the game only seen once by hackers fooling servers into thinking the nuke count reached zero over two years ago. Echoing the same sentiments as MGS1 we have a role in not bettering the world but leaving it be for our children to allow them to make their own choices. MGS5 continues to show its prescience even half a decade over in other ways too. A large story beat surrounding MGS5 is the spread of a vocal cord parasite that grows only when certain languages are spoken from the host. In this case, it’s the English language, the world’s lingua franca, to liberate society from the social consciousness of how our brains are shaped by the English language. The coincidence of how predominately English speaking countries refuse to come to grips with our own reality’s global virus where the more we talk the faster this virus spreads is not lost on me through replays of this Sisyphean game about forming an enemy in an empty, endless war. These phantoms also have their own analogs in modern times. In MGS5 its “Cipher” and “Zero”, but in real life its Qanon, the Deep State, and Antifa. We must create our own myths to fight, even if nothing is really there.
The reason this series is in the medium of video game in the first place is due to Kojima’s ideas on player agency and how the form of video games can supplant textural narrative, elucidating the passivity of storytelling other media showcase. The character will not progress in the story unless you do, unlike a movie where the story will unfold the same way every time with or without you present. Form and Metal Gear Solid go hand in hand. These games not only speak of agency, but alsomaterially confront what it means to control an avatar that being controlled by higher power both in game and in real life. In MGS1, the only way to beat a particular boss battle was to switch controller ports from player 1 to player 2 so he could no longer “read your thoughts.” You were expressly told in game by a character that you could only find the phone number for another character by reading the back of the game disc case. These fourth wall breaks were impressive at time but MGS2 took it a step further. Multiple times through the last act you are ordered to turn the game off. That Jack will face continuous hardship as long as we play. That we enjoy all the killing. By holding the controller, we aren’t just a part of the conflict, that we are the source of it. MGS5 provided a more subtle examination with the nuclear proliferation multiplayer component. The only way to stop this is if both side stop playing. Why are the servers still up for a lesser version of a five-year-old game on a console no one plays anymore? Why we’re subreddits and discord servers created for dismantling virtual nukes? Why does this make me happy that people fought for something? Do we enjoy all the killing, the posting, thee tweeting, the in-fighting? Maybe because even if we never arrive at an absolute reality, the joy of believing in something was worth it.
On June 27, 2020 they’re were 0 nukes, touting a small victory in a subset of an already tiny microcommunity. By August 2, 2020, 40 nukes were back on those PS3 servers,106 at the time of me writing this. In 2021, the START treaty initially made in 1963 will expire, leaving us with nothing towards supervision against facing the second nuclear age. Nuclear proliferation as it happens on servers can now happen in real life with the US and Russia’s arsenal now left unchecked. As Putin states that he happy to extend the treaty without any precondition, the US stalls on signing the extension. The mirrors of conflict face each other in an empty room- battling for a decaying world stripped of its resources and wonder. Do we continue to stare in a never-ending brinkmanship? Do we break these mirrors, or do we walk out the room and build a better one? Whatever we do, we must something. Lest we face just another day in a war without end.
A tonal geologist from the Northern Gulf Coast, Ryan Christopher Clarke notices the passage of time as both a trained sedimentologist and artist-researcher as co-editor at dweller electronics, a group dedicated towards providing black counterpoint within an otherwise eurologically dominant music industry. His works have been included in Rhizome, Frieze Art Fair Los Angeles, Arena Annual, Terraforma Journal, Louisiana State University Digital Commons, Boiler Room Festival New York, and YesWeCannibal. He is a member of the American Geosciences Union, a co-recipient of the Allied Media Critical Minded Grant, and is studying ethnomusicology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA.
Knowing intimately the ways his home is at great risk of physical and cultural erasure, he finds ways to not only document this loss quantitatively in scientific research, but qualitatively with works that try to articulate the shared knowledges his people have with the Mississippi Delta and its tributaries. Through the lenses of Jazz, New Orleans Bounce, Detroit Techno, Chicago House, and the geologies underneath, he views the progression of technology and culture at-large as a depositional process sourced by black innovation under the theory, “Southern Electronics”.
Never really introduced myself on my own website; here’s a scrapped intro for an interview i was asked to do but things happen. Reading this in hindsight of how proud i am of the people ive connected with between reaching out and where we all are now does the heart some well needed good. Enjoyed reading inner reflections on how I came into the electronic critical sphere & the work i’m up to at dweller. Maybe you’ll find some joy in reading it too. Staring at my thoughts and feelings in the mirror hurt most of the time, hoping this transparency makes the squinting a bit less tumultuous in the quar void. As the layers of myself show themselves to myself, this blog will surely decompose into more personal writings through the lens of the music that shines their light on me just so you know. Love yall
“In my childhood drifting into adolescence, my experience with techno was a triptych of insularity. My brother and I spoke our language of music with no one else, late nights on bulletin board systems online, and imagining sonic worlds bootlegged from limewire onto CD-R’s for the bus ride home. Over the years I had felt secure that this was the only area where the electronic realm could have a black kid from the Deep South. Thankfully as the internet ceased to be purely a space for me to print out DragonBall Z power levels and Stones Throw records forum posting, access of stories untold finally reached me. Techno flourished within my identity and shattered previous reflections for a genre that I always loved but felt this ethno-Berlin wall delineating my racial outsideness to a genre well documented to be white. We now all know this not to be the case. That techno is something created, for, and sustained by Black people. This sense of pride resulted in a reflex to connect my personal roots with my ancestral ones in showing the relationship between Southern Dance Music like New Orleans Bounce to Techno as the rituals rhyme well together.
Those mental connections finally coalesced with making the pilgrimage to Dweller earlier this year. Making it out to ~90% of the shows over the course of 4 days, I had finally broken the dual-seal of both never going to a rave and finding a real communion alongside family. Finally, I had met friends only seen across the internet; I danced alongside smiling known only before behind pixels. Knowing this was something worth investing in I decided to meet up with Frankie, the showrunner of Dweller and Discwoman, in hopes to do build some sort of relationship. Thankfully what came from that is the Dweller blog. As I cannot be “on-site” in New York (who is right now?) I am thankful to write, edit, and bring together those alone as I once was. We strive to be a Black lighthouse; a siren in the storm for those who know the isolating whitewaters of electronic all too well. In this particular time we’re in, the authorities controlling this current sees to drown the voices that can reverse the flow of power back into our hands. We must be vigilant towards persisting as to not just speak for ourselves but redistribute resource, equity, and justice in a space that has long made its worth on the backs of the silenced.”
Communication is really hard. Not just getting across your message across, but the tone, emotion, posture, context, meaning, etc also wants to be nestled in between each letter and space within and between those words. Even with these acts of good faith, words often if not always fail us. Being in agreement with such a statement with the main verb I do is “to write”, it’s an acute pain to realize your reality is that of an errand boy in a fool’s dream. But these failed words are in me to the point where I need to get them out unfortunately, usually in a hurried frenzy. Today’s hurried frenzy comes out due to Darren Cunningham, or Actress’, most recent release, 88. Released as one whole piece, Actress’ new work is a prelude to his upcoming sonic love letter, Karma and Desire.
The worst failings of communication come about when expressing the seemingly inexpressible, love. How can one show the intangible product of external joy from another now internalized within you? Or your own internal love cultivated into something larger? How can you get it out in a way that doesn’t feel inauthentic, like you’re not giving the emotion the medium it deserves? Many feel like art is the only way as we’d otherwise burst from emotional pent-upedness. For many, going abstract feels closer to reality than taking the literal route of word. Words are a rough and often harsh language, I’d consider (the good) writers and poets the true magicians of our time; able to translate the ethereal into something legible. In our daily lives, we feel our own limited capacity towards translation by including an “lol”, “LMAO”, or an emoji. In certain tough text conversations, the inclusion of a period or not tells the true emotion of the operator on the other line moreso than whatever paragraph came before it. In the world of the Message App, we may feel like this sort of thing a somewhat new phenomena but its goes back (probably farther) to the early 1800’s. Morse code telegraph operators used various number successions to communicate a sort of short hand to the operator on the other line. “73” stood for ‘best regards’, ’21’ meant ‘stop for meal’ (the ‘brb’ of the 19th century), and ’88’ for ‘Love and Kisses’. These numerical protocols emoji consolidated such a powerful feeling into muffled beeps and tones. This abstraction probably felt just as strong as we felt sending our first hearts to our gradeschool sweethearts across T9 keyboards back in the day.
This counterintuitive idea of how the abstract can get us closer to our feelings rather than spelling it out is the prevailing theme of 88. The record seems to be split up in three or four parts, giving homage to Darren’s past output that those who took the time to crack the code needed to access the file for 88 are surely well versed in. The first large suite feels like a fugue state coda for his last release, 2017’s AZD. Sounds straight from that album’s prime jewel, “Dancing in the Smoke”, are on full display as well as some snippets from his Rinse FM show back in 2017 (still yearning for that first tune, geez). Here, these sounds feel like an old friend who came home for Christmas to see his family, but found time to grab a drink for a bit before they gotta rush home. The second chunk of the record reverbs the mood of a dance floor much moreso than what came before with the mere input of a 4/4 from Actress immediately begins a remembrance of 2010’s Splazsh. As the four on the floor gives way to swelling violins and generous arpeggios, the concept album loosely based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 2012’s R.I.P, comes to mind.
You get five seconds of a groove here, a quick melody with a counterpoint there; the experience of this album begins to feel like piecing together a morse coded message and as you piece together your dots and tones together, you start to crack a smile. The signal may not strengthen but your love grows with each subsequent transmission. Many speak to Actress’ more later works post-Splazsh as sketches, but if 88 is galvanizing anything for me is that the message isn’t to be found in the fog and haze, it is the message. The in-between we decide ourselves is whats worth fighting for, not whatever structure we we’re told is necessary to best get your feelings across. What we feel in the in-between is our native tongue. The ’88’ at the end telegraph received in 1871 most likely is what let the heart swell to lovers apart. Morse code and radio signal in general can reach further at night as the signals can bounce off of Earth’s Ionosphere allowing much farther transmissions to reach. In 6th grade, we did this sort of thing for our HAM radio operator club (on brand, I know) where in the afternoon our puny device could reach China with my teacher speaking Mandarin to students on the other side of the world. Not much could be heard so shorthand like ’88’ was used and was responded by excited yells from children on different continents. What was said is not what matters, but what was felt.
I must say, even piecing this writing began to feel like a code, hearing bits of side projects like Levantis and smaller releases like the Xoul EP in small songs where I had to write down timestamps as track titles we’re given but in a tweet with no numbers, its hard to feel solid on when a song begins and ends. The nostalgist in me related it to IDM Newsletter contributor Greg Eden piecing together names for Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume 2, with the track titles merely being pictures with name. Like Richard, this connect through the abstract felt different, like having a conversation with someone through design instead of dictating feeling and meaning on the back of a jewel CD case.
The last suite reflects a monster work and namesake of this blog, Ghettoville. The beeps from AZD are ever present as they then form into a haze of desolation until ending on a murky but hopeful melody. Something that I’ve always felt about Actress’ mainline releases is that I feel like he’s carries the desire to end his work on a hopeful note. IWAAD, Visa, and Rule are the examples where each monochromatic tone poems surrounding Hell, cybernetic otherness, and poverty oft speaks towards a brighter future and 88 does something but a bit different, it speaks. The last few moments of the record before being driven back into the digital haze are words. Hard to decipher, yes, but you hear a voice. It feels like we can see the lighthouse just barely on the horizon after being out in the cold for so long. Maybe we’ve finally begun to get through and can understand what he’s been trying to say to us this whole time but we hadn’t the language to hear it really. Karma and Desire’s tracklist (once given in a ig story but is now switched from letters to triangles/the real ones know what’s up) suggests the jump from non-word into something spoken is on the way. Excited to hear what Darren has to say in his newfound tongue.
This will be a general rambling in a way to produce something that merely isn’t falling into the void of “no one is bored, everything is boring” loop of social media. It carries such a numbing effect in a plethora of ways that within the absence of never being bored, we’ve “decided” to substitute that with anxiety for a future with no horizon. All of this is in tandem with the writings of Mark Fisher and his ideas of the slow cancellation of the future. Although he predominately used music and its surrounding culture as his example of how cyber-capitalism has squeezed the idea of a singular moment to align with cultural production, I think the present moment of George Floyd’s murder and its subsequent result on our timeline can be another mark on this idea of a watching any semblance of a future merely become an dated aesthetic, like 80’s day for spirit week. The “future” in so many way is behind us. We’ve been delegated to a hamster wheel of the same hot takes, death videos, responses, appeals to humanity towards a system explicitly designed to strip any idea of exactly that, calling congress people who could care less about us, urges to call police station to fire their own fellow blue bloods. I’m exhausted, enraged, and numbed out simultaneously.
I honestly got up and decided to type this after watching the same James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Malcolm X instagram excerpts that almost begin to feel like a sociopolitical Punxsutawney Phil that communicates a summer of Black Death two weeks early ahead of time. This combined with how there’s truly nothing new or at least cogent ahead of us is most seen in these clips. Imagine those in 1968 purely referencing those that came before them 50 years ago for a moment that is intimately happening to them. I believe in ancestors like the rest of us but when I look around to a movement, or a moment or a group that we can singularly define us I find myself at a standstill, at a loss. Who will our children look to as a guidepost when their world is burning (and it will be burning, make no mistake)? This is not to place blame or the onus on us singularly as the compression, horizontalization, and blurring of any actual time markers (this becoming even more clear in the lockdown) produces such a structure where we as a people have no means to rise up. There is no culture to place in context of this pain so the only thing that makes sense to people to revert to a time of coherence. We have no choice !
How do you speak about the credit sequence of a movie? The era we find ourselves is the empty wake of when things actually happened and carried weight. America has begun to treat black people like marvel movie characters. Completely flat, static characters we either emulate or plea to exterminate. “Black girl magic” and “black boy joy” place us on pedestals where we have been yaas’d and king’d into unhumanity. Racial politics in America is so warped where those who outright call for our executioners because they don’t want to leash their pets are granted a light, euphemistic nickname. We historically police our own blackness in so many ways that we strip our own people from finding some sense of happiness in this hellscape through revoking black cards for one reason or another (this is a whole conversation that I am only willing to have over drinks). White people that have no black friends are obsessed with a people they know nothing about. Kids in the suburbs fantasizing about living in Staten Island with the Wu Tang Clan. This isn’t our fault but due to the structure of capitalism, we end up commodifying ourselves into a flattened object. One to be passed around and spread across the world through memetic virality. Nothing new of course, but we’ve reached critical mass where instead of the new hot Jazz tune, our views of our own deaths are now hitting billboard-like numbers.
The compression of blackness on the world’s stage will almost always lead to the result we’ve see before. This is something we too are complicit in but only because we’ve been stripped of the agency to do otherwise. Late capitalism has rendered us without the toolset to produce anything accelerated as we cannot formulate our own awareness in our bouts of constant collective trauma. We have nothing but the past as there’s nothing in front of us. America in so many ways is on the locked groove of time that keeps looping. Unfortunately that needle keeps eroding this record with each revolution; each cycle eating into the material we’re tuning into. Interested when we’ll finally break the record and put something new on. Please ACT in the ways that institute REAL CHANGE in your surroundings, as small as that can look like. It’s only way we can break this incessant loop and listen to something truly new.