In the mid nineties Detroit techno suddenly seemed to explode, coming apart at the seams only to be rebuilt into a host of very different styles than those the first wave had shepherded through the scene’s kindergarten days. There were, of course, elements that lingered over from the early years; the strings and a forward-looking, sc-fi tinged vibe were still there, as was the deeply soulful edge that continued to differentiate Detroit techno from the host of new pretenders who were on the rise on the other side of the ocean.
But what the second wave brought with them was a hardness that had not always been apparent before. Underground Resistance, having quickly risen to a place of prominence on the world stage, infused high-tech soul with a fire that was not easily put out. UR alumni, chief amongst them Robert Hood and Jeff Mills, led this new assault – Hood with his tight minimalist approach and Mills with a form of techno that would fuse funk to a furious aural assault – and would alter techno forever and irrevocably.
What tends to get forgotten about now, however, was the reintroduction of electro into a scene that become more and more focussed on slamming 4/4 beats. It had always been there. From the very beginnings of Detroit techno – and even before – there was a silver thread that tied techno to Kraftwerk’s measured robotic movement and beyond via Juan Atkins’ work as Cybotron and Model 500. In truth it was Atkins who had greater influence than the Germans. His pioneering application of the purest grooves to Kraftwerk’s tight machine blueprints became one of the defining moments in music history and it’s doubtful that techno would have sounded anything like it did had it not been for him.
Two acts in particular came to define this renaissance. Drexciya became one of the genres’ great exponents, fusing their take with an Afro-futurist manifesto that gave the music its own world to soundtrack. They were esoteric as much as they were earthy, and although you could always tell their influences if you looked into the shadows long enough, they quickly transcended, ceasing to be techno, or even electro, but instead fully and completely Drexciyan.
Aux 88, however, were a different proposition. They came to embody the ethos of Detroit electro-funk (or techno-bass), a form of electro that had a massive and different kind of effect on contemporary producers than Drexciya did. The output of several Detroit labels from the era bear witness to this influence: Underground Resistance, Metroplex and Direct Beat, an offshoot of 430 West which Aux 88 called home and released most of their best work on, were all full of artists who were cooking up this fierce blend of electro, street tough techno and acid. It was so potent a sound that for several years towards the end of the decade, it seemed that every record to out of Detroit was electro bass in mind, body and soul.
Aux 88 did not have quite as major an influence on the rest of the world as Drexciya, and several of their records sailed a bit too close to the Kraftwerkian sound for some tastes, especially in Europe, perhaps, where people did not always want their Detroit imports to sound like the very thing they had sent out into the world. But these are minor gripes, because when Aux 88 got going, God, they really went for it.
I Need To Freak, a track taken from their début album Is It Man Or Machine, was a bloody banger of a tune and the perfect example of techno-bass in full flow. The Kraftwerk touches are still there, as are little nods to Model 500, but they are consumed by the fire that is lit by the swagger of those destructive, sweeping beats and the snares which are so sharp they cut preconceptions to the bone. What makes the track, though, is the mammoth acidic bass that coils around everything and brings together a sense of mischief and funk that is barely contained. It’s a corker, and it’s a track that still smashes its way through the night after twenty years. My copy is all worn out. Can I get a repress? Please?