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.
Marc Hollander's Aksak Maboul have released one of the albums of the year and his Crammed Discs label have consistently provided a wide-ranging soundtrack to the globe. He guides David McKenna through favourite albums in this week's Baker's Dozen.
A couple of minutes into the interview with Crammed Discs and Aksak Maboul founder Marc Hollander, the fan in his computer whirs into life. For the rest of the time it sounds like I'm speaking to someone on a remote, windblown seashore.
"Well I haven't left home for about two months, it's not easy. I'm in Brussels, doing everything via Skype – my two colleagues are back in the office now but I'm old, I'm in the at-risk group!" He's been busy though – preparing for the release of the quite brilliant new Aksak Maboul album Figures (I'm inclined to agree with Sean Kitching in his review for tQ that this is their finest work) and other new Crammed releases, and writing the next album: "See!" he says, gesturing to his left at the array of equipment laid out under a protective cover. "I'm sort of half-way through the tracks but it's going to be something quite different."
This opening of the floodgates is all the more heartening given how long Aksak Maboul lay dormant. But, as Hollander tells it, the issue was much more to do with the burgeoning success of Crammed Discs, his richly eclectic and ground-breaking label, than any creative block.
Crammed is the logical extension of the ideas that had started to cohere with Aksak Maboul - 'world' (or 'fourth world') music before its time. It sought not only to connect diverse global influences but to imagine hitherto unsuspected pathways between them. The Crammed catalogue covers Franco-Congolese soundclash Zazou/Bikaye/CY1 and Congolese phenomenon Konono No1, the rousing Romany music of Taraf de Haidouks, US techno, Yasmine Hamdan's Lebanese alt-pop, home-grown acts like Hoquets and more recent French signings like Aquaserge and Acid Arab - and that's barely scratching the surface. The approach was summed up by an earlier Crammed project, the potent Israeli post-punk band Minimal Compact: "we wanna go much higher, we want to build you Babylonian tower" they sang, in reference to the biblical myth of a human society speaking a common tongue before being plunged into confusion by a typically OTT Old Testament God. As with Crammed, this poetic vision is ambiguous – although Babel's monoculture in a sense represents a prelapsarian utopia, the story can be seen as a celebration of the profuse variety (and even, to a degree, the misunderstandings) that were unleashed.
"This multiplicity of sources is a function of growing up in the sort of no man's land that was Brussels, a place situated at a crossroads between several mentalities, languages and atmospheres, but with no dominant culture to hang on to, or to be overpowered by. When you're not immersed in a national culture which heavily colours your vision - as is the case with the English, the French and the Americans - and you have a curious mind, you are driven to look around, to explore music from all genres and places and build your own pantheon, create your own musical mythology, your own tradition."