By the start of the nineties Detroit’s reputation had spread out from the mid-west to almost every corner of the world, and had long since crossed the fine line which separates the legendary from the mythical. Several of the early labels, Transmat, KMS, and Metroplex in particular, had already become larger than life, and their importance to fans of the exploding techno scene was perhaps even greater on this side of the Atlantic than it was at home. These three labels (and a handful of others) were the pioneers of the sound and championed not only the music of their owners (Derrick May, Kevin Saunderson and Juan Atkins) but many of the producers who would soon go on to launch labels of their own which would further document, cement, and codify the city’s place in the history and heritage of electronic music.
Fragile was a strange beast in relation to what else was happening in Detroit. Ostensibly a sub label of May’s Transmat, it began to take on a life of its own. Formed in 1989, even before the likes of 430 West, Underground Resistance and Planet E had begun to kickstart the second wave into being, Fragile was a label that quickly seemed to separate itself from what else was going on in its home town. It’s first release, Cisco Ferreira’s Why (Don’t You Answer?) was, from the point of view of more standard Detroit work, an oddity; a record by a young British producer that – while certainly containing noticeable strands of Motor City DNA – felt subtly different, skewed perhaps by a take on techno that had been refracted through the prism of a UK musical culture that had a long history of retooling music from across the pond for its own needs. Britain was still in the grip of ACID HOUSE OUTRAGE at the time – free parties, questions in parliament and smiley faces, and Why seemed to take all that and knead it in to the basic material supplied from the states.
While the choice of record and producer may have been seen as a brave move for the new label, it showed several important facets of May’s talents and skills as a label owner. Although the next handful of releases were from Detroit alumni such as Carl Craig, Jay Denham, and Stacey Pullen, the records are all departures from the classic Detroit sound – more open, lighter; playful, experimental and less beholden to the city’s slightly insular sound. The Pullen record in particular, the superb Bango EP was unlike anything he has done before or since, with Fragile allowing him the room to push his sound into a very different direction.
Although the Detroit contingent lent the young label an air of authenticity, it became apparent that simply creating another outlet for local talent was not May’s agenda. In Europe labels like R&S and Djax Upbeats had begun to sign numbers of US talent. In fact, the bulk of the records released by Djax during their mid nineties heyday were largely by producers from Detroit or Chicago – themselves taking advantage of the way European listeners were falling in love with their sound in a way that wasn’t necessarily true of audiences back home – particularly outwith their immediate environs.
Fragile noticeably reversed the trick, offering European producers an outlet that hadn’t really existed before. Techno has always thrived and been at its most interesting when the various schools and scenes have been allowed to cross-pollinate, and this was especially true with Fragile. Some of these artists, Orlando Voorn for instance, already had strong ties with Detroit. Other links, like Fragile’s licensing of Choice’s Acid Eiffel from Laurent Garnier’s FNAC label opened up the music to an even wider audience (to a huge extent in this case. Most people seem unaware that the tune began life elsewhere.) And as with the Detroit producers who had already been on the label, it allowed the artists to explore other elements of their sound. This sort of thing is fairly common nowadays. Labels such as the Trilogy Tapes have long offered fairly well-known producers the opportunity to do something a little bit different. But it was rare, very rare, back then for a label to make it central to its ethos.
It’s the music that is important though, and the sounds that came from Fragile were less easy to pigeonhole. Detroit steel, tempered with a wider view of the world, many of them drawing on influences which seemed incredibly diverse for the time. A record like Digital Justice’s Theme From It’s All Gone Pearshaped is emphatically one of the all time great techno records, but its one informed not only by Techno – Ambient, IDM or otherwise – but by the sweep of sound that grew out of Balearic tinged house and other, less tangible factors. If there is a commonality to the music that Fragile championed, it’s to be found in its refusal to sit still and be categorized as one thing or another, always at its best when playing with convention. When other labels grew heavier Fragile seemed to become lighter and deeper, and as techno became more aggressive, Fragile seemed to respond by becoming ever more playful.
It seems strange now to realize that Fragile only really existed for a decade, fading out as the millennium arrived. Even stranger to look back on their listings in Discogs and see that there were only ever twenty or so records. While other labels (then as now) seem to release that amount before breakfast, very few can lay claim to Fragile’s hit rate. Close your eyes and stick a pin in the list – I guarantee you’ll stab one you’ve probably loved for years even if you didn’t know its name. It never seemed to enjoy the fame that many of the purer Detroit labels received (even if that fame was sometimes undeserved) but very few people could deny the influence Derrick May’s second child had on modern electronic music. 15 years on, Fragile still sounds like the future of techno.