The Pop Icon's Experimental Album and the Motor City's Revolutionary Musical Code
In ancient Greek the word for bow can also mean life (βῐ́ος) – the bow of a bow and arrow then, as the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus has it, implies a
contradictory play – because its meaning is life and its work is death. But then the bow of the musical lyre is also a freedom
giving means of artistic expression.
Sign o’ the Times, the 1987 album by Prince is regarded by many aficionados as perhaps his supreme masterwork. Uncompromisingly ambitious and at times breathtakingly beautiful, it also marked a
decidedly dark and more experimental departure for an artist of an already unequalled and often gravity defying genius. A distinctively unique aesthetic turn that is hauntingly personified by the album's celebrated title track Sign o' the Times.
This was at the time an entirely original and daring work that exploded convention and broke down barriers : a minmal epic that brought to pop – indeed mainlined – the essence of Detroit techno (pace Kraftwerk)
with an experimental synth loop that at once orders its tempo and shape, while sonorously channelling the dark energy of the
motor city’s newfound musical code. Right from the beginning this is aligned with declamatory lyrics mourning a war-torn
world and the destructive impulse of human nature. And throughout it is this passionate plee – the deepfelt charge of those reporting lyrics – that is so devastatingly contrasted with the cold, punitive, alien synth loop. The deceptively deep textured sound that is so forcefully expressive of a propulsive, adamant technology laced with hypnotic, scientific allure.
Even when this is eviscerated by the artist’s explosive chorus it eerily returns undefeated and reminding, effecting an overall hollowed out
In straightforward terms the song imparts an uncontroversial message on the futility of control and the arrogance of human reason.
We can move within space, but we cannot control time. The worldly artist, Prince seems to say, has since time immemorial
attempted to control both – while instinctively knowing that art is the only means of achieving any freedom at all.
This was Prince’s first album release since the disbandment of his pop group ensemble, The Revolution, and two years after
Juan Atkins had exploded onto the underground club scene with an irreverent, celestial incarnation of Detroit soul. His label,
Metroplex, was urban and futuristic, giving birth to a new genre labelled techno. A term, it should be added, which derives
from the ancient Greek tékhnē, meaning craft, art, and giving birth to (incidentally, the word music derives from mousikētékhnē, the art of the Muses – and dance, chorós, was fundamental to ancient Greek culture). Although Detroit techno artists would have been
undoubtedly influenced by Prince, Atkins and others were also crucially motivated by what arguably lend Sign o' the
Times its most distinctive characteristics: alienation, technology, and the cosmological out there. . .
Detroit techno sounded (and still does) as if it came from distant dark galaxies, pulsing back to us through broad canvased nebulae and
mythically named star clusters. The methods of production, and the singular technical mindset of the techno producer,
equipped these artists with the tools to seek out a certain anonymity and working autonomy (underground, with echos of
Ralph Ellison’s invisible man), meaning the bedroom became a conceptual space for artistic innovation. This then meant
that they could in principle control the means of production and, crucially, the time devoted to it.
The critical importance of this development lies in the fact that these artists could effectively escape mainstream cultural
space and time. A culture which would have invariably stifled their creativity and ignored them because of their African
American identity. At sixteen, Carl Craig could spend endless hours working on experimentations he would later call
Elements. Much of it distilled through the hauntingly introspective masterpiece, Neurotic Behaviour, where technology
and music seem to confusedly merge and struggle for shape and form. This was the birth of a new sort of musical
theatre, and the piece arguably continued the work of experimental German outfit Popal Vuh in critiquing the decadent opulence of western music.
Of course this type of cultural decoupling wasn’t without its immediate forerunners with the obvious examples of early
hip-hop and house. And Kraftwerk, in a mentally scarred post-war Europe, broke with industry convention by creating
their own music studio and effectively presenting it as both an art-piece instrument and concept sculpture.
But the intensified experimental nature of the new Detroit sound arguably allowed for a radically more explosive imaginative
unfolding. In this, Juan Atkins’ label Metroplex delivered masterful stuff – as Game One (Infinity EP), Cosmic Courier, Pick
up the Flow, and, of course, Robert Hood’s iconic Detroit – One Circle, all attest. The pacy, pared back and often lengthy
four-four percussive compositions played on music’s commercial radio utility, or what was
deemed permissible between adverts. This supposedly more direct, minimal tunnelling through time paradoxically
opened up the imagination to different, alternative cultural possibilities and realities. The resulting defiance of which had the
intended consequence of artistically and culturally protesting a more pointed break from society’s predominant liberal
conservatism. A political economy that in the eighties had mutated into Reaganomic neoliberalism and intensified
globalisation – accelerating the interminable decline of Michigan’s auto industries, and continuing the US’s ongoing
failure regarding the African American community.
Critical to enriching the cultural scope of this new artistic endeavour, is that Chicago house (as with disco) had importantly
laid the foundations of a much needed counterculture rubric of alternative love. And by the 90s Metroplex’s EP, Down, by
Aaron-Carl, carried forth the torch, with raw, elemental force. It immediately became an unlikely gay dance-floor classic with
its punked techno attitude, lazy percussive pistons, and gravel-trapped vocals that croon heavy with fervid want.
But if the effect was again to provide an imaginative response for those who suffered extreme social alienation, their silenced
and silent hurting was to be answered through a newly descriptive art. The key difference with Detroit techno is that it was
sculpted through an aesthetic which bore in close to the reality of marginalised existence – closely transmuting or transfiguring
those same alienating forces that people were forced to deal with on a daily basis. The music thus mirrored back dark
industrial, experimentally probing sounds, but in improbably warm, soulful terms. Not to mention the fact that it was
extraordinarily playful. In the instance of Down, the touchingly macho toughing-it-with-vulnerability sentiment is deferentially
cooled by Aaron-Carl, whose tender-felt lyrics shunt soft with an earnest plea: ‘even though we can’t have babies, we can
still have fun’. Detroit techno was not bound by cold experimentation, far from it. It presented a cleverly subtle subversion of
American reality with a variety of innovations – ingeniously repurposing cultural materials and supposedly redundant
technologies. The Detroit factory clock may tell of tyrannical production time, but Detroit artists could up the percussive ante and
transcend the crippling limits of contemporary existence with greater creative, human purpose. Perhaps this is why artist
Jeff Mills’ signature series of early releases comes under the name Purpose Maker. (Tony Cokes is a notably interesting
contemporary artist whose themes consider dance music culture and identity politics within this realm).
This subterranean explorative edge shattered the anodyne regularity of mainstream cultural experience, and the synthetic drug
of choice when listening to the often exhilarating club sets, xtc, likewise warped individual time experience. It elevated a
dancer’s sensitivity to these astral-laved sounds, the kaleidoscopic colours of which were somehow grafted onto the
stems of shuttling, interchanging percussive pathways and counterpoint rhythms. On this drug, in this intensely felt
environment, time moves very fast, almost imperceptible – the body becomes more fluidly warm, free and afloat in
concert with an operatic, spacetime dance. With a track such as Kelli Hand’s Come on Now Baby, with its lassoing
vocals and raucous drive, the effect of this would have been absolutely mesmeric...