Labels That Changed My Life: Relief Records

Of all the labels which formed the cornerstone of my love of electronic music, Relief records is one of the most cherished, and the most infuriating. Cherished because without it not only would my understanding of house music be substantially worse off, but also the chances are that I would have more than likely never have immersed myself quite as fully in the genre as I did. Infuriating because, well, of all the labels which were special to me, Relief most often seemed to fail to deliver on their promise.

Beginning life as an offshoot of Cajmere’s seminal Cajual Records, Relief quickly developed a life and a character all of its own. My own early brushes with them probably came not from house, but from mix tapes by DJs such as Derrick May, Detroit techno people who had long been throwing every style into the mix. Back then I was not quite as sure about house music as other genres. Detroit techno, electro, and the harder variants which certain Chicago producers were beginning to release on European labels offered me something I was looking for. House music didn’t, not really. Not at first.

But there was something in Relief’s sound which set it apart from everything else. The first tune I heard, – and I imagine it was the same for many of us – Green Velvet’s Preacher Man, was quite possibly one of the finest tracks ever created. It wasn’t just that remarkable sample, the ranting, half-crazed sermon by Aretha Franklin’s father C.L that made the tune so great (although, yep, it certainly added to it). The tune itself, a stomping, wonky, building chunk of madness, of searing noise and bar structures not quite getting it together, felt utterly alien to almost anything else which was going around back then. Not only that, but it seemed as if it had transcended Chicago usual style. This wasn’t really house, it was Chicago techno, a sweltering, loose and heavy assault on the senses which had virtually nothing in common with the likes of Marshal Jefferson or Jackmaster Funk.

From the start there was a mix between the more traditional sounds and the harder edged. But even the records which leaned closer to what had come before felt subtly different, blending house tropes with a stripped down functionality where elements such as the basslines or the samples gained a prominence which moved them away from what I guess you could describe as a song structure towards something closer to techno’s machine music movement. Where Cajmere’s Green Velvet continued to kick out dark, almost twisted takes on his own earlier It’s Time For the Percolator sound, others on the roster where beginning to explore further, bringing it all together with an ear for the most contemporary dance floor funk.

And what a roster that was. Paul Johnson, Boo Williams, Tim Harper, DJ Sneak, Gemini and many others – virtually the cream of Chicago’s second wave, and each of them releasing at least one record which has stood the test of time to become regarded as bona-fide classics. With Williams and Johnson in particular creating a house sound which stripped back the genre’s more humanizing elements and replacing it with soulful machines, layering the tunes with beats culled from the deepest and heaviest of the Chicago underground, and with the likes of Harper creating an epic, spiralling take on the same thing, it felt as if house music was launching itself into the future.

This was music which worked best blaring from a stack of speakers across a packed dancefloor in the late hours. While dance music is exactly that, it’s rare to find much of it which is simply not the same beast when removed from its natural habitat. But this was at the heart of what made Relief so special: It was music first and foremost for dancers. You want entertained at home on a Sunday afternoon? I’m sure there’s some worthy IDM instead. Relief is for the club.

While there was a similar, almost kindred, energy, with what Djax was getting out of it’s Chicago contributors half a world away, where the two differed was just how far they shied away from house. Djax’s take on house was fuelled by a much harder European market, Relief’s take, while belting, took greater pleasure in the grooves, in the funk, and in a delicious twisting of what was expected. It was a similar sonic decadence to what Chicago had been doing for a long time, but it was more direct, dressed to sweat, but with a kink in the programming which kept it ahead of the game.

Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to keep them ahead for long. Chicago labels always seemed to have a habit of indulging in release schedules that would terrify even the most hardy and insane of completests, and Relief was no different. The truly great period for the label lay across 95 and 96; a vanishingly small window for such a hugely influential label to have made its mark. While there were great records from the label before this time, and a handful after, these two years were the real home of the label’s classics. The problem was, and the thing that even I eventually grew weary of, was that for every record which sailed close to genius, there seemed a bunch which didn’t even try. There may have been a lot of great records, but the rest pointed to a label which seemed increasingly content with throwing everything against a wall and seeing what stuck.

The special magic which Johnson, Williams, Gemini and others had brought to the label dissipated under the weight of records which simply offered little more than one note disco samples, or straight-to-video rehashes of the percolator style which aped Cajmere’s original sound but without any of the humour or funk. By ’97 there were still occasional blast of special music coming out from artists like Mystic Bill, but they were bittersweet, emphasising the ways in which a label had lost its way, and buried under rafts of older material released as CD compilations for various markets. It all but vanished for a couple of years, and on its return at the start of the millennium it seemed more interested in releasing endlessly repackaged Green Velvet material.

It has relaunched again in the last couple of years, almost entirely in a digital format, and maybe it will get back to where it was before. Maybe. Things have changed, and house is yet again a different beast from what it once was. Perhaps the simple fact was that Relief was a product of a particular period of time, one where everything was up for grabs and new ways of doing things were coming along at an insane rate.

The remarkable drop off the label suffered from shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should it be its memorial for the fact is that even though it shone for such a short period of time, some labels – hell, even some entire genres – couldn’t claim such a run of truly, stunningly, brilliant records as Relief managed across a handful of months in the mid nineties. They were a label that touched genius and changed the way house sounded forever, no matter how flawed they were towards the end. Big Old C.L Franklin had Relief’s number right from the start: ‘You got to watch out when folks are playing house.” That should be their memorial. Amen to that.

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Labels that Changed My World – Plus 8

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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.

Labels That Changed My World: Djax-Up-Beats

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Let’s start with a confession: I didn’t always love Djax-Up-Beats, and even now there are more than a few of the records carrying their logo which simply make me want to turn the record player off and go do something else with my spare time. This isn’t actually that unusual a situation for me – there are tonnes of labels, then and now, I would cross the street to avoid. But what makes Djax different, the reason they are stuck there in my brain even after all these long years, is that when they were on form there simply wasn’t another European label that could touch them.

The original Djax label was formed in 1989 by an Eindhoven record store employee, Saskia Slegers AKA Miss Djax, in an attempt to champion the producers she knew who she felt were being unfairly overlooked by an overly conservative record industry which had no interest in anything but the bottom line. True to her uncompromising vision, the first release was an album, No Enemies, by an underground rap act, 24K.

While Djax would go on to support the Dutch Nederhop scene, it’s the house and techno that made them famous. Djax-Up-Beats was really a sub label to start with, but quickly came to eclipse the parent to the extent that for most people it’s a difference that simply didn’t matter. Those early records, releases largely by local Dutch acts such as Terrace (who would become a label staple), or Boards Of Wisdom, were thick with a sound that was a European distillation of acid house and rave. But even then there were leanings, nascent influences, towards the music filtering through from Chicago and Detroit in increasing amounts.

In the early 90’s Miss Djax spent time in the States, visiting some of the legendary clubs and meeting many of the producers who would grace the label during its most fertile period. There were plenty of labels in Europe which had taken the US sounds to heart and furthered the links between the artists of the two big cities and a scene which took it all onboard. But where outfits like Tresor, for instance, really pushed a far more purist techno sound, Djax brought something new, something that felt like a hybrid of Chicago’s fluid acid and a much, much harder vibe. Several of these early crossovers were licenses of fairly well-known tracks, often remixed by Dutch stalwarts like Speedy J or Terrace, who warped them to their own tastes, altering the basic structures until they gained a surliness that the originals seldom had. In their own way, many of these records pre-empted what Chicago labels such as Relief would later do: Stripped down, machine rhythms; often light on the tunefulness but heavy on the grooves. Beyond the music, the artwork by Detroit illustrator and musician Alan Oldham (best known for his work as DJ T-1000) provided an instantly recognizable visual style with the producers re-imagined as fantastic sci-fi comic book heroes.

The mid nineties, with the US contingent well onboard, and the lessons and information flowing between the Netherlands and the States, was when Djax-Up-Beats moved into a diferent gear. For a period of about five years, there was barely a label on the planet that could touch them for the both the quantity or quality of their releases, and when I say quantity I mean it. For almost that entire period it felt like there was a new record hitting the shelves almost every week, and more often than not they featured the cream of the Detroit and Chicago talent – well, largely Chicago in fact. Claude Young, Robert Armani, DJ Skull, Armando, Steve Poindexter, Mike Dearborn, Mike Dunn, Felix Da Housecat – their release schedule still reads like a who’s who of the electronic underground. What’s more, Djax-Up-Beats came to define what I thought of as Chicago house for a long time to come. Even today I still favour the meaner and dirtier end of the spectrum.

It wasn’t just the American acts who gave their all to Djax though, or the Dutch producers who contributed so much over the years to the label’s sound and soul. Luke Slater’s Clementine project (still his finest work) found a natural home on Djax-Up_Beats, with something in his melding of furious rhythms and ear for a fine Detroit-esque funk sharing a real affinity for what the label was doing. The earliest work of Scottish producer Stephen Brown – who would go on to release some stunners on DJ Bone’s Subject: Detroit – was to be found on Djax, and remain impossibly potent, particularity his very first release, A Function Of Aberration.

Everything changes, though. As the years passed the grooves seemed to disappear from the records and they grew ever heavier, favouring a brutal acid techno style in which the BPM increasingly shot upwards, and left little room for anything but crunching, distorted beats and howling 303s. The more recent records inched into sub-gabber territory that felt alien to anything from the label’s glory period.

The label is still going, although the releases have become far more occasional that they once did. That’s not saying much, mind you. the output of LIES or Lobster Theremin seems occasional compared to Djax in their prime. Brilliantly though, and one more reason to love them if you needed one, is that they remain one of the biggest labels of their era to have got down with digital. You can certainly spend all you cash on Discogs hunting down playable copies of stuff by Acid Junkies or DJ Rush, but almost every release that mattered is available digitally. I could never afford to keep up with the label back then, I would still be paying the debts off even now, but if you have a few hours to spare, go see what’s there and treat yourself to music from a label who really did change our world.

Labels That Changed My World – Fragile

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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.

Labels That Changed The World (Well, My World): Metroplex

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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.