For all the clubs packed out every weekend, for all the debauchery and chaos, for all the streamlined marketing and PR of the big players, electronic music still remains, at heart, nerd’s music. It’s 30 odd years now since house music first started making an impact on the main stage. With 30 years under its belt rock music went from an oddity to an irritation to a global phenomenon. But leaving aside the empty commercial trap of EDM, electronic music still lingers in the darker corners, rarely rivalling other genres for dominance. For many people house is the sound of a Friday night, with little impact beyond that. With other styles, techno or electro or dubstep, it seems to have evolved beyond that and into something like a lifestyle choice, and one even less likely to be picked up by the casual listener.
As with other scenes (punk, in particular, or the old Northern Soul movement) fans of electronica probably revel to a big degree in the relative obscurity of their taste in music. I know I do. That’s says something about me that I’m not overly proud of admitting – when you reflect on it, claiming one of the reasons you like something is because no one else does seems a bit, well, childish – but it doesn’t stop it being true.
Of course, there are bonds to be made with others who enjoy the same stuff; there is the undeniable thrill of being a member of a gang, and being indoctrinated into the secrets of the cosmos that the greater mass of humanity will never know. This isn’t purely a musical thing of course. Similar attitudes have existed as long as human being have gazed at the dawn and proclaimed ‘yeah, that sun god isn’t obscure enough for me to follow.’
Still, it got me thinking. I’ve been working on a wee project recently, and a thought popped into my head that I couldn’t quite shake. With all other genres that I can think of, be they jazz, rock, country or what have you, there have always been a small number of tunes that every one knows and loves. We tend to call these classics, we think of them as paragons of whatever musical virtues their specific genres hold dear. When you think of rock music, for instance, what tunes do you hear? Is it Smoke On The Water? What about Brown Suger, or Smells Like Teen Spirit? I’m talking about tunes that everyone is likely to know, not A Kid Who Tells On Another Kid Is A Dead Kid by Nation Of Ulysses (which is a great song but rather limited in terms of world-wide fame.)
Does electronic music have tunes that we think of as standards? If we were to create an album with the ten greatest techno tracks of all time on it, what would be there? For a while I thought it would be an impossible thing to do. To paraphrase William Gibson, electronica is musical Darwinism with the researcher’s thumb stuck on fast forward. The creation and splintering of new styles, sub genres and sometimes even single, ill-conceived ideas, is usually at light speed. Given this, can there possibly be any tunes which linger in the mind months, years, or decades after they’ve had their time in the sun? And if there are, the question becomes simpler: Why? The answer to the first part is yes, there are indeed tunes which still retain their power and fame. The second part, while simpler to ask, is harder to explain.
My first choice for this imaginary album of techno standards is Jazz Is The Teacher, a tune first released in 1992 by 3MB, an outfit consisting of Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald, and their old sparring partner ‘Magic’ Juan Atkins. It was a big tune in its day, permanently in the boxes of some of the worlds biggest DJs. The reason it’s here though is even simpler. One of the hallmarks of a genuine and true classic is that it is often a tune you know even if you have no idea who it’s by or what it’s called. While the world continues to turn, and new scenes spring into life, there cannot be many people with even a passing interest in techno who haven’t had a chill sent up their spine by the unfolding drama of that intro, or know to a microsecond when the first beat will kick in. I’m sure there are many thousands more people who have lost their shit to Jazz Is The Teacher than have ever known its name, or the names of those who wrote it.
Personally, I think Jazz Is The Teacher deserves its place at the top table for more than just that. It remains the perfect balance between playfulness, soul, and drive – three traits which have long defined Detroit techno for me. It’s too wonky to be thought of as genuine high-tech soul and too soulful to ever be a true techno banger.Instead it wraps all those facets up tight in its DNA and delivers something magical, memorable and truly timeless.