DeForrest Brown, Jr. is a New York-based theorist, journalist, curator, and artist. He’s created work under his own name and as Speaker Music, and is a representative of the Make Techno Black Again campaign. His writings have appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Afropunk, Artforum and Hyperallergic. His upcoming book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, is out this year on Primary Information. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Brown, Jr. on May 28th about his new albums and book, COVID-19, George Floyd, techno, and empathy.
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello, hello.
DeForrest Brown, Jr.: Hey, how’s it going?
Good, how are you?
I’m all right… you know?
Just all right?
Yeah, it’s just one of those things… You know, the news. Hold on, I’m moving a big ass bean bag chair. (moves chair). I’ve been working on the book, but the book is kind of forming in my life right now, I guess.
What do you mean by that?
So my book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, it starts at the gold rush and I’m trying to tell the history of America through techno and the Industrial Revolution, tying it all together. Between George Floyd and these protests and the economic collapse, it’s kind of a weird thing to see the end of the book. The book wasn’t going to go that far but…
It feels necessary now.
Yeah, it’s weird. I guess I could be more specific.
You don’t have to be if it’s too much.
No, it’s just that my thoughts are so scrambled from making this grilled cheese (laughter).
Let’s descramble then (laughter). We don’t have to go through everything in your book, obviously, but what was your goal behind it and can you walk through the timeline and tell me what the throughline is between the different periods?
Yeah, so it’s kind of funny. I was actually approached to write the book. It wasn’t my idea initially. James Hoff, who runs Primary Information, asked me. We were hanging out in a bar and we just talked about this book idea. I already knew how I was going to approach it. I found techno in the weirdest way—I actually found it through Alvin Toffler and his book The Third Wave where he writes about the transition between the Industrial Revolution over to the data-oriented one that we’re clearly living in right now. The word techno pops up in that as a prefix for the word technocracy and Juan Atkins read that book in a class called Future Studies in high school and that’s where he got the name.
The whole point of writing this book was to sort of dig into… I don’t want to say the deepermeaning of techno because that’s silly, but there’s a lot of implications to a 19-year-old Black kid in a Future Studies class in Belleville, Michigan reading about the next stage of industrial development in a city that has completely collapsed and has been the exact opposite of everything that American utopian futurism was supposed to present.
Since college, I’ve always said that Detroit was like a small-scale version of what America’s collapse would look like, and to see it happening now as I’m finally documenting these thoughts has been a little unsettling. It’s been interesting just listening to the music and going back through archival interviews and making these comparisons. A few weeks ago, I was reading an interview with Mad Mike. I think it was in The Wire with Mark Fisher. It actually wasn’t a very good interview—Mark wasn’t very good at interviewing (laughter). But Mad Mike talks a lot so it kind of works. There’s a section where he’s going on about being a kid in Detroit during the riots and talking about seeing tanks drive down the street. And so I followed that and found documentaries that had old archival footage of those riots and, I mean, those riots were completely necessary and still are now.