I don’t know when I first started paying attention to Metroplex. It was probably a hell of a long time ago now, shortly after someone or other had introduced me to Model 500 for the first time. It wasn’t an immediate thing, and there was no sudden obsession. It was gentler than that – a little kink to the software which runs the part of my brain that governs tastes and loves and interests, a couple of lines of the psychological code subtly rewritten. How long it took didn’t matter, only that it did.
Of all the big techno and house labels which crowded the orbits of Chicago and Detroit in the late 80s and 90s, Metroplex, to me, always seemed like the most authentic. Founded by Juan Atkins in 1985, there had always been an element to both his sound, and that of the acts he championed, which was at odds with what everyone else was doing. Perhaps this was because both of his early bands Cybotron and Model 500 (still of course a going concern), in their electro, felt far less in thrall to the more organic thrills of the recent past, as house was to disco. Model 500 more than anyone else back then epitomised techno’s futuristic interests and obsessions with deep space’s open and unknowable vistas. It had little interest in the world around us, the world in which we all lived and struggled in.
The very early days was a mix of house, proto-techno, electro and even a bit of hip hop. In that Metroplex didn’t differ too much from a clutch of other imprints who were beginning to find their feet. But even back then there was a twist to the work. A record like Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowlkes’ Goodbye Kiss is in many ways straight up, par for the course mid 80s house; rawer sounding, perhaps, but very much Chicago in its genesis. Beneath the veneer was a music that influenced itself with nods to hip hop and electro. A very techno record in fact, and one that would feel like a prototype in the years that were to follow for Detroit’s love affair for soulful techno, fueled by emotion and tempered with hard grooves.
By the 90s Metroplex had really found its wings and was beginning to fly. They were reaching out, releasing music that was harder and often more experimental, and less concerned with what else was happening around them. In actual fact the 90s would never really come to define Metroplex as it did other Detroit labels. There was an air of musical curiosity to many of their releases, and a purity of approach which shielded them from the usual scene-dating. Although Metroplex would always notice the changing light of taste – such as when techno-bass exploded onto the scene on the backs of Aux-88 and the mass of techno commandos under the Underground Resistance banner – it always seemed filtered through a smokier lens. Electro tunes such as Techno Drivers’ The Other Side Of Space, or Chaos’s Find Your Particular Space In Time, took that basic techno-bass framework and sent it into deep space, washing it with a purer electro aesthetic and molding them into perfect slices of hard, cosmic, breakbeat techno.
Even the ‘straighter’ techno seemed profoundly alien to the whims and interests of the time. Not just Europe but in Detroit too. Black Noise’s mass extinction event, Nature Of The Beast, Low Rez’s ghostly, blurred, machine-blues Amok or the shimmering galactic warehouse heat of DJ Bone’s Riding The Red Line were as separated by the growing racket of joylessly hard and loopy sound of Euro-techno as they were from a lot of Detroit techno, a genre that was even then on its way to being reduced from a feeling into a simple cheat sheet of chords, tones and movements.
The pinnacle of Metroplex’s break with conventions was probably reached by Atkin’s himself with Infiniti’s peerless Game One. It’s not a track I listen to very often anymore. I’ve heard hit more times than I care to count. I’m sure you have too. It’s a moving track, not just because of those flaring, sunburst chords, or its arm waving interplay between the chords and its instinctual melody, but because of the way it symbolizes all of the elements that made Detroit techno so astounding. The speed, the symphonic nature and the soulfulness all merging with the groove.
I’ve been trying the think whether or not I have a favourite Metroplex record. I’m not sure that I do. Many of those I have already listed are up there pretty high, but special mentions have to go to Shake’s 5% Solution, a just about perfect example of Shake Shakir’s abstract, tough, funk techno, and Atkin’s Jazz Is The Teacher, produced with his regular collaborators Maurizio Von Oswald and Thomas Fehlman. In its own way a time take on the music that define both the City of Detroit and its era. Buy any of these records if you don’t have them. It doesn’t matter which. They will enrich your life regardless.
Metroplex became quite quiet as the new millennium went on, but with just enough activity to suggest that there was still life there. Releases by Ploy and Population One over the last couple of years have been much welcome injections of fresh quality into the bloodline, and the news that they are to begin repressing many of the old records this summer was greeted with delirious excitement by every single right thinking individual. Oh yes. Where they go from here is anyones bet, but if Metroplex is anything like it used to be, ‘towards the future’ might be a guess worth putting money on.