Hi-Tech Soul: Detroit in conversation with Steve Rachmad and Joachim Dahl Houmb

Joachim Dahl Houmb’s apartment is a minimalist cave of sanctity for any discerning music fan. On the one wall of his vast living room, a large kitchenette occupies the space from the ceiling to the floor. It’s new, almost looks untouched, but it’s gleaming whiteness only holds your attention for a mere moment before your gaze is fixed towards the other side of the room where a grittier element to the room juts out from the clean surfaces. Untreated wood panels and makeshift shelves juxtapose the serene whiteness of the opposing wall, and its worn surfaces suggest, this is where the DJ known as Jokke spends most of his time, and probably receives most of his sustenance. It’s here where Joachim’s vast record collection lives, lording over three record players and a four-channel mixer. There’s not a single digital appliance here and the aesthetic is raw. With no distractions like a window, there is only one real function to this side of the room and that is music. Even though the shelves are plenty and their sizes vary to accommodate the 12” and the 7” format, there are still records strewn across the bench, sitting on the floor, and popping out of record bags. Towards the end of our time together, he pulls out a Mono Junk record from one pile and puts it on a vacant deck as an example of where his inspiration lies today as a DJ. Machine-like programming of percussive onslaughts and runaway synth sequences are immediately familiar as one particular genre, Techno and more than that as one particular sound, Detroit.

Jokke is one of the prime examples of a Techno DJ working in Oslo and more than anybody he knows the importance of bringing that history of the sound, the genre and the culture with him everywhere he goes, through his record collection and the tracks he selects for the open-minded audiences he plays to. The story starts in the post-apocalyptic world of a city crippled by a declining economy in the industrial setting of Detroit from the late 1980’s. Inspired by their Chicago neighbours – only three hours down the road – Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins, collectively known as the Belleville Three, set out on a career in electronic music in the hope of making “funky dance music to sweat to” according to one interview with May. The motor city turned out to be the perfect proving ground for dance music made from machines with the “industrial inspiration” playing a significant role according to Jokke. Where Chicago appropriated the sample from hip-hop, Detroit took to machines for a sound that Jokke believes “has a story to tell.” The dystopian environment left over from an oil crisis, which saw the motor industry crumble, in what was the USA’s foremost car manufacturer, had made a remarkable influence on the music. The strict programming of the drum machines and the melodic synth sequences had some resemblance to the industrial factory lines in which some of these characters worked in. “Today the automobile plants use robots and computers to make their cars,” declared Atkins in one interview. “I’m more interested in Ford’s robots than Gordy’s music.” It was a sound that imitated their environment and made for music that was far more robotic and energising than anything coming out of Chicago at the time, but at the same time more melancholic, and “futuristic” according to Jokke. It was music from the future, for the dystopian present.

Aligning with their Chicago neighbours at first, the new music immediately fell under the House umbrella, but for many there was something completely different to it, with Derrick May opting to call it Hi-Tech soul before Juan Atkins coined the term Techno in a NME article. It’s in May’s description of the genre where perhaps a little more of the significance to the core of the music’s appeal. “Detroit Techno is way more funky” than it’s modern interoperation for Jokke, something he ascribes to the “rhythm” that elements of soul brought to the music. The term Hi -Tech soul would prove to have a short shelf life however when a Virgin compilation came out blazing the title: ‘Techno! The new dance sound of Detroit.’ With that too the sound of the music became synonymous with the city and at the same time created an export market that would see the music reach the shores of Europe shortly after and very probably into the hands of an artist like Steve Rachmad.

The stalwart producer and veteran DJ’s thick accent breaks over the receiver when I call him up later in the week. Steve Rachmad was working in a record store in Amsterdam when the sound drifted over the pacific and confronted him head-on. “It was the late eighties when I first came in contact with it. It was sort of a transition for me from the eighties disco/ R&B to something else. I was just looking for new things that attracted me, and soon there was the new music style called House music.” He realised that many of the records he was buying featured the same name, Derrick May and it was in those records he found a unique affinity with the music. “I remember specifically that there was this big hollow bass. I never heard that type of big bass before on top of a 909. It was very open and very empty. For me it was like wow, what is happening?“

Rachmad felt immediately attracted to the “dark strings and mysterious atmospheres that Detroit Techno offered” and it wasn’t long before he appropriated the sound to make it is own like so many of his European counterparts. The industrial sounds of European music in the synthesiser tradition meant that Techno took to the scene effortlessly, alongside the Acid House, which had inspired the rave culture of the UK in the early nineties, and EBM, which had been a front-runner of dance music for some time in Germany. When the wall fell and Berlin became the cool word on the lips of the musical avant garde, Techno became the voice of the frustrated youth of the late eighties and early nineties. They wanted things hard and the sound of EBM and Detroit morphed into the same German military machine of precision and industrial magnitude we know today. Jokke mimics the kick-snare composition of that hard style of Techno at his breakfast table while Mono Junk still plays in the background answering the call of his every expression with a syncopated beat. It’s this sound that Jokke came to know as Techno during his youth after an inspirational visit to Spacehall records in Berlin. “I knew there was a good music scene especially for House and Techno, and I knew there were some good record stores, but I never knew it was going to be so great. I spent 12 hours at Spacehall that day.“ Jokke couldn’t ignore the legacy of Detroit, but it was the Berlin style of Techno, and especially as interpreted by the English in the form of Mark Broom and James Ruskin, that Jokke had found a voice as a DJ. He played Techno at his first gig after the promoter insisted and it was exactly at that gig that a young Jokke bonded with Ole-Espen Kristiansen. The pair quickly struck up a friendship over a shared love for the darker side of dance music and with that set out to create Void, the underground Oslo club night that quickly elevated to legendary status during its existence. The rest is a new history for any club enthusiast in Oslo, but as Jokke continues to delve further into Techno he has found that much of his selection has made a return to the sound that started it all. “As of late I’ve become a little bit tired of the Berlin monotone thing with heavy kicks and shakers. That doesn’t do a lot for me anymore. I’m leaning more towards the melodies, more arrangements in the tracks. As of now I’m more into Detroit Techno.”

During its development in the States, Techno became associated with an intellectualism that hadn’t developed in dance music before that point, a result most likely encouraged by the instrumental machines, but partly also because of the emphasis on melody and arrangement, which derailed much of the functionalism of house. May, Saunderson and Atkins latched on to the idea by releasing beat-less music and delving into the world of sound design, but it was Jeff Mills who truly embodied this view of the music, a view still upheld by Jokke today. “Jeff Mills was always trying to create interesting sounds. The focus was more on experimental new sounds rather than making that next chart hit.“ Mills was, and still is, extraordinary in this regard. His first DJ mixes were compiled around radio sample FX that would form complex musical journeys as he applied the skills he learnt from Hip-Hop and tunrtabalists to these alien sounds. This element in the music is something Mills would later suggest was a mere continuation of the European synthesiser tradition and part of the reason it became more successful in Europe than the states. Steve Rachmad agrees and suggests that “even Techno is not a peculiar thing, it came from somewhere else.”

Jokke disagrees somewhat here with the rhetoric. “I don’t think they should give so much credit to European synth music. I really think they created their own thing.“ It’s evident that it must have been something truly unique since, when it reached the shores of Europe, the genre was anything but mere synthesiser music. With the German, the English and the Dutch all putting their own spin on the genre, the music went off in very different directions, and inspired everything from Warp to R&S, form break-beats to gabber. Steve Rachmad remembers labels like Arp records remaining true to the origins of the sound, but like all genres, it “changes all the time“ and the dark stringy atmospheres would soon make way for the monotonic driving percussion that Jokke believes is slightly detrimental to the genre today, especially when we consider the legacy of Rachmad’s finest hour. It’s in the melodic arrangements and deep stringy atmospheres and not the monotone, where Rachmad’s own unity with that original Detroit sound would emerge in the early nineties, infecting the American sound with that Dutch ethereality. His album as Sterac, ‘Secret life of Machines’ became a seminal work not only in the story of the producer’s own catalogue but in the history of Techno. “You’ll never find badly produced music trough any of his aliases,” according to Jokke, who jokes that many of his friends believe Rachmad is from Detroit, because of his music and the fact that he is black.

I ask Rachmad if he ever felt a particular affinity with the music considering it’s roots as music created by black men and Steve suggests this element never really spoke to him on a personal level. “For me it’s about the music and that’s all, it shouldn’t matter who did it. I grew up with a lot different styles of music in the seventies and eighties. People are inspired by all kinds of things.“ Steve remembers quite vividly the shock that confronted him when he first stepped into Detroit. The Dutch producer had never really been one to find inspiration in Amsterdam for his music and when he arrived in Detroit with it’s derelict ghost town aesthetic, he couldn’t believe the music and the City were one in the same. ”I never thought this music would be affected by those surroundings.” Surprised by the industrial landscape of the city, Rachmad never could really know of the city’s effect from his own removed environment of Amsterdam. There was something more inherent in the music that inspired him. Those hollow bass sounds, the dark stringy arrangements and deep atmospheres were for Steve the appeal of the music and more influential than any idea of a city and it’s something that’s always been there in Rachmad’s productions, a thread that ties all his aliases together.

It’s no surprise then that it’s exactly those elements that the Dutch producer has returned to on Parallel Shopping, his most recent release on Life and Death. The two-track effort is esoterically Rachmad’s and in amongst the very regimental Techno from Germany, Parallel Shopping comes as a refreshing change of pace as melodic arrangements return from “Techno’s roots to the present day. I hadn’t done any tracks with melody and chords lately and I really felt like it when those two came around. It felt good doing some melodic things instead of a repeating riff.”

Jokke takes the needle off the record, and logs into discogs to show me how he keeps track of his vast collection. Right at the top is an unreleased 7” from the Dum Dum boys, a band his father fronted. It’s an aspect of Jokke’s biography I wasn’t aware of, and he tells me how he struggled for a while to come to terms with his father’s success and how he never expected to follow in his father’s musical footsteps. In some ways Joachim Dahl Houmb never really did, and opting for the path of the DJ, he’s managed to cultivate his own success with Void and as a Jæger resident. Unlike Rachmad, Joachim has never been to Detroit, but he talks of the music and the people like he’s lived there, something that has obviously carried through in the music he likes. I ask him if the city might inspire a theme for his set ahead of the Steve Rachmad and he nods in affirmation. “I’m going to try and sound like Steve Rachmad, without playing any of his tracks.”

For Jokke the future of Techno lies in Detroit and Rachmad again, but Steve “can’t answer” the question as confidently, never quite sure where the music will take him next. The line goes quiet for moment while he reflects on that and then recalls that Derrick May has stopped making music. “I can’t imagine a time when I won’t want to touch the machines anymore.” Perhaps Rachmad will play a larger role than he thinks, inspiring a younger generation of DJs and producers, like Joachim to return to the origins of the sound. Parallel shopping might even be the next step for Techno to move away from the monotonic drone of a kick-snare arrangement, and return to the melody and the evocative atmospheres that represented the sound the first time around. It looks like it could be something Levon Vincent could endorse too. It seems that Techno is offering a blank slate again as many producers get bored with the zeitgeist behind the genre, but there will always be only one underlining theme wherever it might find itself and that will always be in Detroit, with May, Atkins and Saunderson at their machines making some Hi-Tech soul.

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