It can be difficult, in this internet saturated era, to remember a time when finding new music wasn’t always easy. Great tunes heard in the club could all to easily vanish into the ether without you ever knowing who they were or even what they were called. DJ’s, in a time of white labels, were not always very forthcoming about what they were playing, and although a good record shop could sometimes help to cut through the thick smog of confusion, disinterest, and elitism, even their knowledge could be down to the mercy of the occasional savant-like gonk with an encyclopaedic understanding of music.
Compilation albums offered a way for the average idiot to join the dots and connect the differing strands until something suggestive of a complete picture began to emerge from the fuzz. At their most basic a comp was simply a collection of tunes, often the bigger numbers that you had probably heard a million times. In the very early days, house compilations – acid ones especially, for some reason – were almost identical; the same tracks, the same artists appearing over and over with little regard to anything other than cashing in on a particular vibe. At their best, though, they illuminated not only the artists but the labels too, and provided a portal to a larger world. They were instructive as much as entertaining. And throughout the nineties, as the various scenes and genres developed so did the role of the compilation. They moved on from simply being a bunch of tunes brought together on the same records and became something of an artform in themselves.
Underground Resistance’s Interstellar Fugitives album took this to a new level entirely. In its most immediate form, Interstellar Fugitives was a sampler of the various talents who had hooked up with both the band and the label itself over the years, and from that simplistic point of view it can be seen as a jumping-on point, a place for those new to UR to get themselves initiated into what the label was all about. The truth, however, was a little bit more complex.
First released in 1998, Interstellar Fugitives was perhaps the definitive document of an electronic phenomenon then at the height of both their importance and powers. There had been other compilations on the label before: 1992’s Revolution For Change had brought together a number of explosive tunes by the original Banks-Mills-Hood line up that still holds up to the test of time even though its more British/European rave energy now infuses the collection with the retrospective air of a world long vanished. 1995’s Electronic Warfare – built around the fire-starting call to arms of the title track and expanding out into a stellar remix EP (and a later reissue which included the peerless X2 by Banks’ Electric Soul guise) – was a true landmark of nineties electro and technobass; a double EP which explored not only UR’s fury but their more playful and soulful side.
What set Interstellar Fugitives apart from those other releases was the way it brought several important members of the UR into the light. While Mike Banks had always been the driving force of the outfit – even in the days of Jeff Mills and Robert Hood – the fact was that it had always been a collective, a family of like-minded individuals who each brought something unique to the music and to the label. Interstellar Fugitives afforded an opportunity for many of us of to better get to know some of the other members.
Several of them needed little in the way of introduction. By the time of the album’s release Drexciya were every bit as big and important as UR, perhaps more so. James Pennington AKA Suburban Knight was, like Banks, a brilliant producer whose career straddled Detroit techno’s first and second waves. His first release, The Groove, having arrived on Derrick May’s Transmat back in 1987. Others such as Gerald Mitchel were long time Banks collaborators, and an important member of the collective, particularly in a live setting. DJ Rolando, UR’s tour DJ (amongst other things) would go on to have a major breakout hit the following year with Jaguar – a tune that, for a variety of reasons, achieved a certain notoriety (but that’s a story for another time). He would also go on to mastermind another important UR document – the mix CD The Aztec Mystic Mix.
Even the other artists, those who are not perhaps as ‘box office’ as those listed above, are not here to make up numbers. Marc Floyd, operating here as Chaos, is a real great of Detroit technobass, with a slew of essential releases across a number of labels. Chuck Gibson remains a fairly low-key name, but here, as Perception, his addition to the line up adds something thrillingly different and unexpected.
This was more than just a collection of artists. This was UR opening the door on their family, on their community. In fact, this is probably one of Interstellar Fugitives‘ most important factors. Since their inception, Underground Resistance had been about far more than just the music, and their sense of community was one rooted in Detroit’s inner city: a real place, with real people, and real lives. Often across various electronic scenes the concept of community is one which is virtually meaningless. It frequently has no purchase beyond the immediate, and no sense of itself beyond a rather banal and often fairly selfish connection between a handful of friends or like-minded individuals. With Underground Resistance though it was far more than that; it was the foundation of their music, the guiding hand which shaped their philosophy and sound. It’s a reflection of black, inner city communities, their lives and their struggles; it’s about supplying school bags and books to kids; it’s about positivity and strength; It’s music as a form of direct action.
All this fed into the sense of militant-ism which UR remain known for, and shaped their outward image: the bandanna and face masks, the real personas anonymous behind a carefully created image of underground techno warrior-monks fighting a guerilla war against a dangerous and shadowy establishment. Some of it can also be seen in the vistas of Drexciya’s expansive afro-futurism – an entire universe of myths and legends and stories which fed back and forth into the music. But where Drexciya’s world view was perhaps always as subversive as that of UR, it also seemed less concerned with the day-to-day; it promised a utopia of sorts. UR promised no such thing. It was far more direct, the sense of direct action dialled up. In certain ways it was a mirror of what Public Enemy had done a decade before, except here the politics were accentuated with an even stronger visual identity which tied in perfectly with the various guerilla and science fiction motifs.
On Interstellar Fugitives this manifesto was underscored in the cover art itself, particularly on the rear panel where Chuck Gibson’s artwork rendered the contributors along those very strong, strident, and militaristic lines. He took the artists and recreated them in a way that was reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoon superheroes – dangerous but honourable men fighting for something larger than themselves. The accompanying text reads like the charge sheets from the forces of darkness bent of stopping them. Mike Banks becomes one of the ‘shadow warriors (special forces); Drexciya become UR’s ‘aquatic assault unit’ skilled in ‘beach head preparations’. Much of it is tongue-in-cheek; often playful, but in a way that never detracts from the seriousness which underpins every conceit.
Of course, none of this would matter if the music on Interstellar Fugitives failed to live up to the high standards expected of it, but it does so with ease. While later revisions would add tracks, remove others, the original 1998 press of twelve tracks perhaps remains the definitive document of the Underground Resistance collective at their high water mark. Although each track explores differing forms of Detroit techno and electro, as well as drifting out into other, less easily defined areas, and all make great work of individual aesthetics, every one of them echoes with a shared, almost communal ethos and dedication to a particular approach.
At the album’s heart is a deep, intuitive reinterpretation of soul music. And while it might not always be evident, it shouldn’t really be surprising. Banks’ interests in soul, and gospel, had long been part of his personal musical canon. UR’s The Turning Point, released a year earlier in 1997 had taken soul, funk, and gospel as the record’s cornerstones, and Banks’ had reinvented them for the techno age. Where others had similarly delved into these genre’s riches, The Turning Point altered their basic DNA, and emphasised the way their kindred energies had a role in the development of Detroit music. Soul, in particular, remains one of Detroit’s greatest gifts to the world, but it was one where it’s obvious links with techno often remained hidden away and unremarked upon. On Interstellar Fugitives the sound of soul is altered beyond almost all recognition (its most noticeable appearance, if it can even be called that, lies on an uncredited Al Green sample within the wandering funk of Gerald Mitchell’s Soulsaver), but the meaning, that of emotion, place, and humanity, is at the album’s very centre. It informs every groove, every bassline. It provides the futuristic machine-funk with a tangible and solid essence. It understands that soul is both a physical music as much as a spiritual experience.
Perhaps in keeping with this, the music on Interstellar Fugitives remains accessible and welcoming, which is no mean feat considering the differing moods and tempos spread across the album’s six sides. The biggest tunes, Banks’ own Moor Horsemen On Bolorus 5, and Nanny Town, are hard, sinewy, blast of electro which stomp in at 150 and 155 BPM respectively. Yet it is a testament to their craft that neither feels as fast as that. While they both shift themselves at velocities which melt flesh, they refuse to fall into the trap of believing that faster is heavier. Both are strengthened by a lightness of touch, and by making much of a broiling funk which deftly draws you away from their weight. Moor Horsemen… in particular weaves elements of otherness into its explosive movement, the whip-like melody of African flute dousing everything with atmosphere until the tune develops its own narrative; it feels like your witnessing the terrible majesty of a Maghreban sandstorm rising above the Detroit skyline.
In fact, these two tunes feel like outliers against the rest of the material; as big and important as both of them are, they feel almost like book ends. An important role, for sure, and one which serves to emphasise important facets of the collectives work, but their fury, as playful and deceptively warm as it might be, serves to guard the deeper explorations contained elsewhere.
These deeper tunes, in particular the trinity formed from Aztec Mystic’s Mi Raza, Perception’s Mirage, and Andre Holland’s Unabomber, are subtle variations on the central theme. Mi Raza is the most open of the three; a twisting, rolling exploration of next generation funk as much as it is tight, spiky electro, it works its magic through a careful emphasis on a particularly un-electronic sense of movement. The beats are little more than sketches, but they echo something of the straight ahead swing of far earlier Motown music, and these ghostly memories drive a tune which angles itself towards a larger understanding of where electronic music is able to go. In 1998, as with so many of the tracks on the record, it sounded like the antithesis of contemporary techno, being less interested with cutting itself down to appease the constraints of predominately club based music, determined instead to explore the extreme edges of what a musical form based in both physicality and sound could be. Mirage is a similar case, but it lacks much of Mi Raza’s innate warmth. It is far more compressed; rain-swept and colder, it builds itself around swirling pads and Gibson’s ethereal vocals and slowly grows in tight, righteous rage. Unabomber barely moves. It’s a whisper on the edge of night, and it is interesting now to see its shadow across a number of modern records. Its sense of place and understanding of shade and contrast is a forerunner of the angry experimentalism of the likes of Vatican Shadow.
Drexciya’s entry, the wobbling Aquatacizem is perhaps the only tune on the album that feels out-of-place. There is something about it that lacks the natural soulfulness of the other. I’ve wondered before whether this is perhaps down to a clash of philosophy, that Drexciya’s world view was already sufficiently different to that of UR for it to really make sense to have Aquatacizem included here. Musically, it’s a strange piece – pitched somewhere between electro and ambient, and ending up sounding like an abstract of both. In some ways, it’s barely there, haunting the edges of the communal experience as it does. It is rare for Drexciyan material to crop up outside of their own records, and this suggests reasons as to why that might be.
At the album’s heart though is one of the very finest tunes to emerge from Detroit in any era. Marc Floyd’s work as Chaos has always been something for the heads more than for general consumption. His electro is shot through with a strong and profound psychedelic colouring; the tones and textures helping to create something within the genre which remains almost unique. Later releases, such as Dot Dot Dash on Metroplex, and The Safety Is Off, would emphasise this to an even greater extent. Dot Dot Dash especially is a high point for Detroit electro, and is fascinating for the way it harks back to a time when the music was allowed to be playful and full of fun and charm.
Afrogermanic may not emphasise such things in the same way, but isn’t required to. The title sets its stall out perfectly, and is perhaps a reference to Juan Atkins’ old maxim that techno is the music you would get if Kraftwerk and George Clinton were trapped in a lift together. What makes Afrogermanic so special is it is neither of these, and yet it draws heavily on both traditions. Beyond that it falls in a shadowy hinterland between electro and techno – a place where the conceits of genre can forgotten and room made for the actual point of the tune. Its closest sonic kin is not to be found in the music of Mike Banks, or any of the (at the time) other members of UR, but in that of the former member Robert Hood. While sonically Afrogermanic is very, very different from Hoods stripped down minimalist techno, it has exactly the same approach. Afrogermanic has been pared away until all that is truly left is the funk and the vocals, resulting in a track which is simply a burst of soul upon a snarling groove. it is tight and it is insane. And it is the absolute distillation of everything Interstellar Fugitives is about.
UR would release a follow-up to Interstellar Fugitives a few years later. While Interstellar Fugitives 2 – The Destruction Of Order has many great tunes scattered across its vast 2 CD form it is a very different creature. Released originally (I think) for the Japanese market it is far closer to a traditional label sampler. What it does show clearly though, is that the Underground Resistance of the new millennium was not the same as in the nineties. It no longer felt as tight a collective as it once did, and the record (or CD in this case) no longer has that documentary feel. Neither does it feel like a manifesto. Its musical remit is broader, perhaps, but the lack of clear focus, of a unifying and central ethos means that it is almost incapable of reaching the same heights.
This is perhaps unavoidable. The nineties were a high point not only for Underground Resistance but for Detroit techno. While both label and genre have done remarkable things since then, you can never really go back to the glory days – at least not the same ones. Not only do things change, but so do our reactions to them. There has been a growing sense over the last few years that UR’s earnestness, their values, and their music do not quite fit in with a scene that seems increasingly narcissistic and self-absorbed, that the very things which once made them so incredibly important now render them a little beyond the pale and of-their-time. Maybe so, but I think anyone with an eye on the ways of this world can sense that maybe, just maybe, some of these values and ideas might be about to have their place again. Interstellar Fugitives they might be, but if ever we needed a dose of righteous electronic fury, it’s right now. What better place to start with the manifesto, and the soundtrack, to a revolution of change?