Profile: Kenny Larkin

Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Jeff Mills and Eddie Fowlkes. These were the pioneers of Techno. They were the keys that unlocked the door to this machine music and the people that etched the term Techno into the music history books. If it wasn’t for them there wouldn’t have been Techno. But equally important were the generation that followed them, the second wave of Techno artists out of Detroit, the likes of Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Stacey Pullen and Robert Hood. Techno could have easily come and gone with the first generation of artists, and it was this second generation that kept the momentum going and if it wasn’t for them, Techno could have easily just been a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder. It was this wave of artists that nurtured and fostered what had been born before them and supplanted its legacy forever.

Among this next generation was Kenny Larkin, a producer and DJ that together with the likes of Richie Hawtin firmly put Detroit on the map and took what was essentially a DIY music and made it one of the most revered and respected music genres today.

Mike Banks (Underground Resistance) once said of Detroit; “You’ve got three choices if you want to get out – you got sport and athletics, you’ve got the plant if they’re selling some cars and then you got the army”. Kenny Larkin chose the latter, and after serving in the air force for a couple of years he came back to Detroit in 1986 to find Techno had exploded on the scene. Already a fan of the sounds of Chicago House, Larkin “started going to the clubs” where he “heard the new sound and met Richie Hawtin in a club he was spinning at in downtown Detroit”, he recalls in a DMC world article.

After I met Richie”, he continues “we would sometimes drive around Detroit and listen to the radio and there was a mix show, which was incredible. Every week this DJ would have a new mix. It blew my mind…that DJ was Derrick May. I think that’s when I started getting into the art of DJing, on a more feeling level.” Although by his own accounts his first furore as a DJ “sucked” (interestingly, his first gig was with Carl Craig who also apparently wasn’t great) , he persevered. With Hawtin goading him on and with the May as a mentor, Kenny Larkin found a calling in Techno as a bonafide artist.

In 1990, through Hawtin’s Plus 8 label, he would make his debut as a recording artist with “We Shall Overcome”. Sampling the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Kenny Larkin’s debut was a raw, boisterous track that sounded like Larkin was still finding his feet and getting to grips with the machines.

Splashy hi-hats dominate the foreground with irreverent snares snapping through the chaos. An incoherent synth takes inconclusive stabs at a melody poised as a hook, with a few wispy layers of synths ricocheting between the clattering array of percussion. “Integration” followed in the same year on Plus 8 and much like “We Shall Overcome”, sonically this was still Kenny Larkin finding his artistic voice.

It was and it specifically sounded like the work of a novice and it was the Richie Hawtin’s remixes that were the better tracks on these releases. Still, in less than a couple of years Kenny Larkin had gone from the air force to a recording artist and in another two years the tables would turn again and the world sat up and listened. Ironically Kenny Larkin would opt for a pseudonym to present his unique artistic voice to the world.  

As Dark Comedy, Kenny Larkin released two EPs in 1992 that would ultimately frame the sound of any Kenny Larkin record to come. “Without a Sound” and “War of the Worlds” came out as a whitelabel and although it was initially used to establish Kenny Larkin’s Art of Dance label, it was almost simultaneously picked up by Derrick May’s Transmat label as “Corbomite Maneuver”, and this release would go on to define the Kenny Larkin sound. It contained the more refined versions of those tracks as mixes and two unreleased tracks in the form of “Before” and “Siren”. Comparing these releases to the first two EPs, Kenny Larkin’s production technique has matured with a nascent musical ability flowering along with it.

Jacking percussion still dominated Larkin’s music – possibly those early Chicago influences refusing to let go – but there was a new texturally rich dimension to these tracks too, nd this is even discernible between the whitelabel and the Transmat release, suggestíng perhaps that Derrick May might have had an ultimate hand in shaping Larkin’s sound. The addition of a reverb on the claps, those vast swathes of harmony and melody brought to the fore, and just the way they all combine through the mix on the Transmat release would not only mark the next and ultimate phase in Larkin’s productions, but also the next phase in Techno.

By 1994 the next generation of artists had brought forth a sound of Techno that to this day still marks the most significant eras in electronic music, next only to their predecessors. While nothing could be taken away from its originators it was the second generation that not only held the torch, but installed it as a serious musical movement, a true artform all on to its own. Mastering their craft in the studio, producers like Larkin had fostered the genre from its amateur roots to a very technically and musically acute musical genre. His debut album, “Azimuth” still remains a pivotal moment in this corner of music history as a testament of the more cerebral direction the genre would take in the nineties.

As an album it’s simply remarkable, and today it even lives beyond the Techno parameters. It’s a classic electronic music album, playing on themes of space and the future, as this music was wont to do, and he was able to combine the necessities of the dance floor with a need for the cognizant. Larkin had provided a new soulful dimension to Techno, getting the listener closer to the music. “I’m clearly one of those guys that feel music inside of me”, Larkin told Carl Craig in an interview once and on “Azimuth” there’s this palpable introspective layer to the Larkin’s music. For the first time there was a depth to this very two-dimensional music, something this second wave of producers were able to express more accurately as they became very adept at the tools of the studio.

“Metaphors” followed “Azimuth” in much the same vein with Kenny Larkin etching his name deeper into the electronic music history books, carving out not only his own unique sound, but assisted in the development of the next phase of this Detroit electronic music. Throughout the mid to late nineties he released  EPs for the likes of R&S, Distance and KMS and continued to motivate the genre through his Art of Dance label with an ever expanding discography channeling the infinite boundaries of Larkin’s artistic voice through his other aliases, Dark Comedy and Pod.

It all came to an abrupt halt though in 2000, when Kenny Larkin’s musical output ceased and although he never gave his reasons it might have had something to do with his the other aspect of Kenny Larkin’s creative personality. In the late nineties, Kenny Larkin turned his efforts to becoming a stand up comedian, moved to LA and by 2002 he had announced his official retirement from music. Between the comedy and his music it was two sides to the same coin, coming from the same creative core, which was always going to land up on its end.

After a brief hiatus Kenny Larkin returned to music with “The Narcissist” on Peacefrog records in 2004. The album harked back to a time before Techno sitting somewhere between Prince and Jean Michel Jarre. “For whatever reason, I started listening to older, funkier stuff,” he told Jonty Skruff in 2004. He combined the likes of James Brown and John Lee Hooker with his contemporary playlist on his iPod and it inspired a new take on electronic music. “Then the light went on in my head,” he said “and I thought, maybe I can be true to the music I grew up with, and add a new electronic flavour to it. I wanted to do something different that will totally differentiate this sound from what everybody else is expecting me to do.“

The result was “The Narcissist”, an album that seems to poke as much fun at itself than it does offer a serious musical rebirth for Kenny Larkin. Luckily for the Kenny Larkin fans it was short-lived sojourn and Rush Hour would soon steer Larkin back onto the straight and narrow, re-issuing some of the older tracks from Larkin’s Art of Dance label, and getting Larkin back to the sound of he cultivated during the early and mid nineties. By the the time the highly anticipated and critically acclaimed, “Keys Strings and Tambourines” came out in 2008 Kenny Larkin had re-ignited the fuse that cemented his legacy in the realm of Techno.  

“Keys Strings and Tambourines” was the album that would turn a whole new generation of music enthusiasts and fans onto the sound of Kenny Larkin and although totally overhauled it was a sound that harked back to the nineties. Fusing elements of Jazz, soul and Blues with electronic music, he ventured into totally new territory again, dragging Techno out of its stale resting place and back into limelight, aided in no meagre terms by the likes of Villalobos’ organic sounds and rhythms. The title track contrasted the stark electronic palette of Techno with the organic flow of sampled pieces as large strokes across the audio spectrum. Like the opening scene of 2001, there was something in the very basic hand percussion and the acid stabs of a synthesiser that both looked back and to the future again, encapsulating yet again the unique sound of a Kenny Larkin record.

“Keys Strings and Tambourines”  hold so many cues to Larkin’s earlier music and yet it was still a new phase to his artistic voice. For whatever reason, the conditions had just become right again for Kenny Larkin to make music and like a true artist he’s left it merely at that. That was ten years ago, and who knows if we’ll get another piece of music from the producer. He continues to DJ regularly, but as of yet there is still no news on any new material, but when and indeed, if he ever returns to production, it’s sure to make yet another significant impact.