Taking flight with Juan Atkins, co-originator of Detroit techno

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Man or machine?

Juan Atkins will perform songs from the Cybotron and Model 500 catalogues with a four-piece electronic group, including “Mad” Mike Banks of Underground Resistance, Mark Taylor, and Milton Baldwin, this Friday at No Way Back's three-year anniversary party at Mezzanine.

When I first Googled “Model 500” the search results surprised me. I expected to find a clue as to why Juan Atkins named his mid-1980s solo music project after what sounded like a blueprint for a piece of consumer technology, like some sort of hyper-evolution of the Model T.

But the choices between a rotary telephone from the post-war period and a newly minted Smith & Wesson revolver, both model 500s in their own rights, left me wanting. When I ask Atkins whether there was any story behind the name, he suggests another way of reading it: “It was something I used to repudiate ethnic designation. It wasn’t named after any model or any particular piece of equipment.”

A more illuminating answer.

For it’s telling that one of the originators of Detroit techno — who first together with Rik Davis as Cybotron not only exploded what was expected of black American music, but also reinvented the possibilities for machine generated music — would substitute android names for human ones.

Already the word Cybotron contained the material trace of the cyborg, spun into rapid particle acceleration by the cyclotron. “Not that I was hiding my name,” Atkins clarifies. “When I first started making music in the ‘80s, the music industry was still really racially polarized. Even in America it still is that way to a certain degree. It was harder to cross over to certain genres, so I wanted to put more emphasis on the music as opposed to the person behind the music.”

Atkins put emphasis on the music in part by releasing it independently on his own imprints, Deep Space and later Metroplex, which is still operative nearly three decades later. But apart from the prejudices held by the industry, Atkins’ music reminds us that the production, distribution, and consumption of music is already caught up in an artificial network of mass production, even on independent labels.

At the very least, it’s contaminated in advance by the prosthetic apparatus that makes possible recording, listening, and performance. The name Model 500 then uncovers another achievement of techno as a genre: it refuses cheap illusions of authenticity by calling into question any pure separation between human creativity and technology, between feeling and artifice.

It’s strange that the sole contender against Cybotron’s “Alleys of the Mind” for the first techno single is A Number of Names’ “Sharevari.” Apparently they were both released only weeks apart in 1981, and no one has properly settled which came first. Once again, the human name, the proper name of the artist, is put under erasure for the benefit of the machine, this time a number: a number of names.

On the one side, we have the deep recesses of the mind mapped onto the neglected alleys of an otherwise manufactured and pre-programmed city. “Alleys” conjures images and feelings corresponding with a post-industrial wasteland, tempered in the shadow of Motown’s ghost and Detroit’s crumbling automobile industry, or as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner would come out only one year later, a devastating post-human condition in which all life is gradually but inevitably devoured. On the other side, we have charivari, a word associated with all sorts of discordant music, disarticulated syntax, and mutilated proper names.

Yet, Atkins finds a hint of autonomy in disembodied music, especially in the robotic voice, freed from the social constraints that would root the lyricist in a localized body, and thus delimit its possibilities in a determinate space and time. Working with drum machines and synth keyboards that were made newly available and affordable, Atkins freely allowed the new instruments to guide the course of his music.

“There was no real plan or formula. Even the choice of the words was predicated on how well you can work the software,” he explains. “I used some primitive software — not even a vocoder; it was electronic speech software used for the Commodore 64 computer. The actual delivery of the lyrics was limited by the software, and our vocal skills, to make it work properly; it was really more of a mistake that the lyrics sounded as robotic as they did.”

Chance encounters between human and machine produced unheard possibilities. In “Clear,” a mechanically fissured voice repeatedly calls for the destruction of old programs in order to make way for the new. But an ambivalence wavers throughout; when the electric speech “tomorrow is a brand new day” emerges over a tremendously explosive rhythm, they invoke an anxious threshold between terror and hope.

As a friend of mine, whose intimacy with “Clear” cannot be overstated, put it: I get the impression that tomorrow has gone dark. Ever hopeful, I still have the impression that this darkness bears the promise of a new dawn.

“There’s a whole ideology that goes hand in hand with techno music, or electronic music,” Atkins says. “My way of thinking is that the ideology comes out in the lyrics. They had to be just as profound as the music.” A recently recovered Cybotron song, “Dreammaker,” depicts at least one of the ideological dimensions of Atkins’ machine-generated music: a cosmic escape.

Over drum sequences snared in delay and worming synth lines, an intoxicated voice addresses the maker of dreams to let him take flight “to the stars.” His appeal repeats, whirls, intoxicates. Punctuating the narrative, sound effects of a spaceship taking liftoff to a distant star culminate the song, calling us to imagine an escape from the disappointments and frustration wrought by planet Earth. For only the workings and unworkings of the imagination are able to resist the pressures of our reality. Perhaps Atkins’ music then becomes the vehicle, an unreal piece of futuristic technology, for the flight of the imagination.

The interconnected thread of speed, flight, and escape is also weaved into the more muscular configuration of sound underwriting the signature of Model 500. In “Night Drive (thru Babylon),” the mechanized refrain of “time, space, transmat” buzzes over speeding sub-bass frequencies, as if the intensified acceleration of the song itself could dematerialize and transmutate our own bodies captured in the web of rhythm.

Kraftwerk’s mark is here unmistakable but calibrated to the propulsive swing of funk. The drums reach such overwhelming claustrophobia in “No UFOs” that it violently increases a growing desire for release. But where could we find this release? When listening, I gather the sense that these injunctions for flight don’t invite the decadent escapism that is so often associated with electronic dance music; rather, they subtly indicate the possibility of the unknown, a world foreign to our own, not yet in being.

Much of Cybotron and Model 500 fuels this desire for the unknown, nourishing a nearly forgotten hope, dim and repressed, for renewal, even for the collective transformation in which proper names would no longer evoke exclusion and carry the weight of injustice. “As long as the theme and the recurring thread is the new, or the future, then basically, the future is what you make it,” Atkins reminds us. “Synthesis means to make something from nothing—almost.” He paused, before qualifying the almost. “I would never put a formula onto what the future is.”

No Way Back with Model 500
Fri/16, $20, 9pm
Mezzanine
444 Jessie St, SF
www.mezzaninesf.com

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