While Richie Hawtin may continue to draw the ire of black clad techno bores everywhere long after the jokes about floppy fringes, sake, and lilac scarves began to get old, you’d have to be a special sort of nut to believe that the vaguely cartoonish figure he has grown into over the last ten years or so revokes his importance to electronica. Sure, his current productions may not be at the same level of his older material, but the fact remains that he and school friend John Acquaviva were responsible for a marked change in techno and how we perceived it. And a lot of that is down to the label the two of them formed way back at the start of the nineties.
Although Plus 8 were formed a hair’s breadth away from Detroit, just across the border in Windsor, Ontario, and have always been counted in amongst the other labels of the Detroit Second Wave such as Underground Resistance, 430 West or Planet E, they never really seemed to share much common ground other than physical proximity. Paradoxically, this was at its truest in the early days when Hawtin and Acquaviva’s ties to the Detroit Scene were at their strongest. At that time the label’s output was largely their own material, under the Cybersonik guise (a collaboration between the two label heads) or Hawtin’s FUSE project.
Cybersonik remains perhaps the hardest material either artist ever produced – full bore, heavy techno which still seems to have its head not in the silicon coated clouds of Detroit’s high-tech soul, but in the depths of a more European take on the genre; harsher, faster, and more regimented, it paid homage to the sounds drifting out of the Netherlands and Germany, a sound which took the basic framework and injected a far more stomping attitude. FUSE, in comparison, felt closer to their spiritual and almost-physical home, while retaining something of the Sturm Und Drang which Cybersonik evoked. Both projects though, lived up to the ethos embodied in the label’s name: the maximum upward pitch available on a Technics deck.
One of the most important members of the early Plus 8 family was Detroit native Kenny Larkin, a producer of massive talent who would go on to create some of the most memorable techno of the era. His early work on the label, the bouncing half house, half techno of We Shall Overcome in particular, sounds like the missing link between Chicago and Detroit, and it it’s own way pre-empted the second wave of Chicago house which was embodied by labels such as Relief. It’s a more playful take on Detroit techno, less inclined to the philosophical seriousness which often seemed to lie at the heart of the genre in its early days. Likewise, Jochem Paap, better known as Speedy J, lent Plus 8 their first real European connection with the Dutch artist signing on early with a series of 12″ which are still some of his best work. Although each of these artists is very different in sound, there is a common sense of purpose. In fact, this signature vibe was an important element of the early Plus 8 canon. Yes, the records were often hard, but they always kept the groove close, and helped redefine what techno meant as well as what it could be.
This facet became more important to the label as time went on. In 1992, chagrined by an episode in Rotterdam where Hawtin witnessed one of his Cybersonik tracks being played at plus 8 and used as the backing track for an anti-Semitic chant, the label began a deliberate move away from the harder tunage they had originally embraced. In some ways this was the true beginning of Plus 8, and over the next few years as the acts on the roster, as well as the styles of music the released, diversified, the label really began to find its place in the world.
Although Larkin gradually moved on from Plus 8, his place was filled by a host of new artist, each of them bringing something very different to the table. Sysex with their wonky techno, Fred Gianelli’s Kooky Scientist outfit with its warped proto tech-house (so different from what that genre would later become) or the deepening, darkening mood of Hawtin’s own Plastikman all pointed to a label which was just as obsessed in the future of electronic music than it was with the present. No mean feat in electronica where the music rarely looks beyond the immediacy of the dancefloor. Perhaps the most exciting of the lot was Vapourspace, a project which walked the line between the dancefloor and something far more experimental. The phrase ‘ambient techno’ is one which has been abused constantly over the last 25 years, yet here was a producer who simply understood it. Tunes like Vista Humana or Gravitational Arc of 10 brought together the different strands and wove them into a shimmering tapestry of sound which has rarely been bettered.
The label went semi-dormant in 1997 as Hawtin and Acquaviva found themselves drifting away into other commitments. Although it is still going, it mostly once again exists to provide an outlet for Hawtin’s own material, and new music by other producers has become less common, which is maybe not so bad a thing as the handful of newer releases since the 90s has rarely been at the same level. But then, that’s hardly surprising. When you stop and think of the records which came from the banner (either Plus 8 itself or its sub-labels like Probe) Plus 8 were at the forefront for a long, long time of what we think of as techno; The Wipe by Teste, an endless, pulsing, hypnotic force which sucks the light out of the sky, is still one of the most famous and loved tunes ever released. Add to that Speedy J’s Something For Your Mind, the crazed 909 mayhem of Plastikman’s Spastik, or LFO versus FUSE’s sublime and eternally funky Loop and you have a label which not only reflected the techo zeitgeist, but was largely responsible for it.
Just like they were the Detroit label who weren’t really Detroit, Plus 8 were the techno label who weren’t always really techno. They were too interested in the movement of the genres to be ever tied to one thing. They brought to techno a bit of hardcore’s stomp and house music’s colour, they challenged what we thought techno was. They made hard music accessible and gave lighter music the same importance as its more serious siblings. And although the DNA of what would eventually become tech-house or minimal was in its blood early on, Plus 8 often showed how lively and interesting these hybrid styles could be – long before they became the beige Beatport fodder they are now.
It’s hardly fair to damn the label because it’s not as good as it used to be. If we go down that path and strike labels from the Big Book of Holy Techno because they aren’t doing the same thing they used to, it’s going to make for some slim reading. We might not like where they end up, but that doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention to the road they took, especially in the case of a label like Plus 8 who helped build the sodding road in the first place. They didn’t just change my world, they changed everyone’s – and anyone who doesn’t think so needs to go through their record collection carefully and see how wrong they are.