|Playing favourites: Alan Oldham
DJ, producer, radio show host, comic book artist, UR PR man: RA's Finn Johannsen plays some records to a Detroit legend that's done it all.
Everyone knows the Belleville Three of Detroit techno. But when digging deeper into the story of how electronic music came to be in the Motor City, there are a few names that were just as important. Alan Oldham is one of them. As a DJ for local station WDET, Oldham helped promote the work of his fellow DJs and producers throughout the city via the show and his own newsletter, both called Fast Forward. This desire to spread the word about the music he loved led him to a job with Underground Resistance. He did PR at the legendary label, one of its first employees alongside Mike Banks, Jeff Mills and Robert Hood.
As a graphic artist, he was responsible for Derrick May's Nude Photo sleeve and went on to fame as the house artist for Djax-Up-Beats, a Dutch bastion of techno throughout the '90s. There's also the matter of his own music. Oldham, both under his own name and as DJ T-1000, has fought the good fight for techno via his own Generator and Pure Sonik labels. Lately, he's even gone downtempo as Inside. RA's Finn Johannsen caught up with Oldham on his latest visit to Berlin to pay tribute.
You once told me that you were raised on jazz fusion.
I was. That was the kind of music of my early and mid-teenage years. In those days that was grown people's music, it was very sophisticated. If you wanted to feel cool and grown up and everything, you were into Weather Report, Chick Corea, Jeff Lorber. Lenny White, who drummed for Chick Corea's band Return to Forever, was one of my all-time favorites. This song, "River People," by Weather Report was from Mr. Gone and (The Electrifying) Mojo used to play it every night. He really made a hit out of that track.
Would you say that Mojo kind of planted a seed in some techno heads with this music?
I would say so. Mojo, for the black community, was it. And this was in the pre hip-hop days where black people listened to everything. It was that open atmosphere that allowed Detroit Techno to form I think. And Mojo was definitely ground zero for the black community. I mean this guy would play The Isley Brothers, Prince, Peter Frampton, Alice Cooper, Weather Report. He was the first DJ to play the B-52s in Detroit. He broke a lot of music to the black community that we would have never heard.
What was the main inspiration of the things that Mojo played for the first wave of techno producers in Detroit?
I would say the real ground zero for this music was Kraftwerk. Which Mojo also used to play. I was in high school—I'm really dating myself [laughs]—and they released "Man Machine" and "Computer World" back-to-back in America. In Europe, there was a gap between releases, but in America they released those two records almost at the same time. That made a really big impact.
I played this because I wondered if there is some kind of connection between a lot of Detroit techno records and jazz. Juan, of course, said "Jazz is the teacher" at one point, and there are a lot of harmonies in Detroit techno that are pretty jazzy, really complex. I was wondering if Weather Report was the source for this connection.
I think it's a source, but not the source. I think that Detroit techno came from a lot of different influences. You have to remember that, at the same time, Parliament/Funkadelic were big. So you had a lot of futuristic connections with those guys; Mothership Connection was a big thing. Kraftwerk brought the electronic element. Detroit was a huge melting pot. If you look back, it's pretty incredible. Everything now is just so market-tested and genre-driven.
"Join in the Chant"
That was a classic. There used to be a club named Todd's in Detroit. It was the big new wave punk rock bar in the '80s. The main DJ was Charles English, and he had the new stuff all the time. When I was in college we used to go every Thursday. He broke that out, and that was it. I was like, "Wow, who are these cats?"
Later, I was hanging out with Derrick May over at his place. Derrick had just gotten back from London, and he was a pop star. I mean, there's pictures from those days with Dave Gahan hanging out at Derrick's loft. I was doing a radio show at the time and he gave me the double pack of "That Total Age," saying "Hey man, take this and play it tonight." He was in with Mute, and they were giving him everything. I still play it out today, the original version.
I don't know how much influence it had on Detroit techno, but back in those days we were listening to everything. So when Nitzer Ebb came down the pike, it was like, "Oh, that's really good." There was a radio show called Brave New Waves out of Canada on the CBC and we used to hear them play Nitzer Ebb.
This track is from 1987, when you began your own radio show, Fast Forward on WDET. That was a really important year for you.
Yes. I had done the artwork for Derrick [May]'s "Nude Photo," got my radio show. The night of my first broadcast, I went over to Derrick's place, his old place on the East Side, and he gave me all these records. He said, "Play these." All of these records are what turned out to be the first techno records, a bunch of white labels. I was playing Detroit techno, what was then industrial and EBM, jazz fusion, a little hip-hop. WLBS, Brave New Waves, Mojo; those guys were my influences. I would go to see Charles play on a Thursday night at Todd's and buy those records and play them on Friday night on my show.
How did you get the show?
Well, I was an intern at the station the summer before. I was putting the records in alphabetical order. That was my job. I was talking to the program director one day, and told her how much I was into Lenny White. She was like, "You know who Lenny White is?" I was super young compared to her at the time. So I said, "Yeah, one of the greatest fusion drummers to walk the Earth. Lenny White, Tony Williams." She was impressed, and she asked if I had a demo tape. Fusion jazz got me the job, so that's why I kept playing it. My show was a whole mish-mash of genres, though.
Were the listeners appreciating that, or did you get criticism for being so eclectic?
I was on super late. It was from 3 AM to 6 AM. The graveyard shift. People dug it, they dug it right away. I'll never forget playing "Acid Tracks" from Phuture, and some guy called me on the phone and was going insane. "What is this called? What kind of music is this?" It was the early days of electronic music, so nobody knew anything.
In those pre-internet days, doing research wasn't easy.
Luckily, I worked at radio stations. So they had all of these libraries where you could go in and listen to whatever you wanted.
Rythim Is Rythim
The next one is a record you just mentioned, "Nude Photo." It was the first artwork that you did for a record.
Yes. I was in college. There was this place called the Student Center at Wayne State University where there was a lounge and people would hang out. One time, Derrick [May] was there. I had known Derrick since we were nine or ten years old. He lived two blocks away from me. Derrick's mom used to work a lot, so he'd come over to our house. He moved away, and I moved away, so we didn't see each other again until college. When I ran into him, he told me that he was starting this label. And he asked me to do some artwork, because he had seen me draw.
You were just drawing for yourself at the time?
Yes. I had an indie comic book out at the time called Johnny Gambit. I was drawing in between classes, so I guess Derrick saw me do that, and said to me, "Why don't you do this label for this record I'm doing?" He paid me like $50. And back in 1987, $50 was a lot of money. Back in those days, you could fill up your gas tank in your car halfway for $5 and go for a week. $50 was like $110 today. Then Derrick had this great idea to put some of the comic books inside the records. So we drove over there with two big boxes of the Johnny Gambit comics and put them in there. He bought them off of us. Derrick, at this time, was Mr. UK superstar, so he had all this money. The next thing you know, the UK magazine The Face had written an article about Detroit techno and the comic book and my name was mentioned. You have to understand that, in Detroit, we always used to look to London. London was the shit. Everything good was coming from there. New Order. The Smiths. The Cure. The Face. Melody Maker. NME. Derrick kind of got me into that world a little bit.
Derrick went first, and then you had it in the back of your mind, "I want to go too."
I have to say that Derrick is one of my all-time DJ heroes. He opened up the world. He opened up the possibilities.
Pages from PLUS8019, a comic book included with F.U.S.E.'s 7-inch single The Unreleased Experiments
What did you think of the music on "Nude Photo" back then?
Back then, it was amazing. It was like alchemy. It was like, taking a box and making it into a car. Or taking this coffee cup and making it into a diamond ring. I went by his place, and it was just a few boxes on the floor. A 909, a DX-100, a four-track, an FX box.
Was it the first track you had heard of his?
Yes. I had no idea these guys were making this music. I would hear the stuff around in record shops. But I didn't know that is was Derrick and Juan and cats that I knew that were actually making this music. These were the days of reel-to-reel. He used to play at the Music Institute every Friday night, and he would be beatmatching off the reel-to-reel. This boy... [shakes head] He would make a track at his place that night, take it to the club, hook the reel-to-reel into the mixer and play it. He would do all the edits by hand with the tape and the pencil. You could see all the back edits. He was smoking, just smoking. He was the first DJ I ever saw that really put on a show. The first guy I ever saw that would take the record off and throw it like a frisbee. He's one of my three Detroit heroes of DJing.
Who are the other two?
Jeff Mills. He's just quintessential. He's the gold-plated standard of what we all want to be. I had known Jeff since high school. One day he told me that he had hooked up with this guy and combined his studio with him. And that they were making some new shit. That guy was Mike Banks. I ended up working for them for a while too. I was doing PR for UR. I got to see how Jeff was able to formulate things, how he came up with concepts and ideas. He was always trying to reach above himself. That's the main thing with Mills. He's constantly trying to reach something else. Derrick is for the show, Jeff is for the concept and Stacey Pullen is for the style.
That's the third one...
That's the third one. He's my favorite DJ for sheer fashion, just how good he looks when he plays. He's amazing. Octave One was in Berlin last week, and we all had lunch. We were talking about how we play, drenched in sweat, and how we wear black t-shirts all the time because when you finish performing you look like God knows what. But then Stacey is up there with a crisp white shirt with a collar, he's wearing a hat when he spins and he's got his headphones underneath his chin. He just looks so cool.
Getting back to the artwork, "Nude Photo" was the first one that you did, but it was the first in a long run. You did a lot of art for Djax-Up Beats later on. What was the influence on your style?
I'm just a comic book guy. I was never into fine art, I never went to school for art. My mother refused to support art school. Radio, TV and Film is my degree. I only did one record for Djax-Up, but when I was talking to Saskia [Slegers, Djax-Up label boss] I let slip that I had done the Transmat stuff and she went crazy. "Oh my God, you have to do some labels for me!" I really didn't think anything of it at the time, that they might be regarded as classics. It really was as simple as me loving comics as a kid, wanting to draw comics and I just happened to have a friend who was into the electronic music world.
Underground Resistance, 1990
I was working at UR at the time that this came out. I was doing the PR. We were in Mike's mother's basement. That was "UR Ground Zero." It was me, Mike, Jeff and Rob.
When I first heard the first Underground Resistance record, it seemed like something completely different. More dark, more massive. Was that a conscious thing? Were they trying to break from the past of what had come before in Detroit?
The first era of UR was shaped by them coming to Berlin for the first time. This was right after The Wall came down. They went to the old Tresor. The rave thing was happening, so that's how you got "The Punisher," the X-101 EP. Then you had phase two when Jeff left and it was all Mike Banks. Then you had World 2 World, Galaxy 2 Galaxy, the more jazz-influenced stuff. Jeff was tracks, Mike was music. Everything with Jeff was DJ-friendly. But Mike can really play. He's just not programming. He can really play.
Mike had been in a band in the '80s called The Mechanixx. I remember seeing him at this rock & roll club way before he was in UR. Mike was also very influenced by Chick Corea, Lenny White. It was really a synthesis of style between Mike and Jeff, and their big student was Rob Hood. Rob was kind of the third guy. He watched both of them, and started doing stuff as The Vision. When those three cats were together, it was a really special moment. That explains how the style of UR has changed. When the personnel changes, the music has changed. But, at this point, Mike is the constant.
I remember some early Underground Resistance productions where Rob Hood was MCing.
Rob was a very talented guy. He could MC. He could draw. Not many people know that. He did some artwork for the first Punisher EP, he did some art for a promotion flyer for the release.
"The Art of Stalking"
Another important guy from Detroit. I checked a few playlists from your radio shows, and this record kept popping up.
I played it every show almost. It's one of the few tracks from back then that has actually a BPM that you can play today. A lot of stuff from back then was 124 or slower. That was always the great thing about Transmat. Derrick was always aggressive, and his tracks were always faster. That's why you can play his stuff today in a techno set. Derrick played that track off a reel-to-reel at The Music Institute for two years before putting it out. It was an anthem, but you didn't know who it was! I'd ask him, and he wouldn't tell me. He built it up. And when he finally put it out on Transmat, it was huge. That was in 1990, because at the time I was doing this newsletter...
The ones you have on our website?
Yes. I was doing the newsletter, and I interviewed local people that had hot records. So I got James Pennington's number, and called him up. He was living in a suburb of Detroit, so he was a bit removed. I said, "You've got this hot record out, congratulations!" And he was like, "What record?" "The Art of Stalking! This is bad!" He was like, "That's out?!" I still have the original white label vinyl, so when you download my sets that's what you're hearing. Which I shouldn't be doing—playing this valuable white label vinyl. But I like having a lot of white labels in my set. I still play vinyl. Too many classics haven't been digitized.
When "The Groove" was released I thought, "OK, this is different. This is really dark. Really menacing." I found it was a really good record, but "The Art of Stalking" was a leap forward.
What's so amazing is that these cats didn't have that much gear. It was just a few boxes. When people are in my ear saying, "Oh, you gotta get this or that," Ableton and the like. And you just think back to all of these classic records, and what they used. And how we can still listen to them.
"I Against I"
I picked this because you sent me tracks from your Inside project, which is really dark. It reminded me of this.
Yes. I used to play the vocal version of this out in sets in 2002. The kids would go crazy, they'd love it. What I liked about it was that it wasn't fully hip-hop, and it still had a dance floor element. When Mos Def's vocals came in, they would go crazy. That track was featured in Blade 2, one of my favorite movies. In fact, that's where I first heard it.
So this downtempo vibe interests you.
Absolutely. I did that album that I sent you. In fact, I'm shopping it to anyone who will put it out. [laughs] It's dark trip-hop with vocals. I always liked trip-hop in the '90s. I was even into the stuff that didn't really make it very big in the States, The Sneaker Pimps, Olive. I always wanted to do it. [1997's] Enginefloatreactor was supposed to be like that, but I was limited at the time. I only had a few boxes. There was no real way to do vocals back then. You'd do them on a four-track, and they never sounded good. I could never make it the way I wanted it.
That was me trying to get that sound a little bit. Because at the time people were saying, "There's only one techno track here, the rest are slow...why?" [laughs] Back then, though, you could do anything you wanted. Things weren't as structured and rigid as today.
Why do you think you've come back to it recently?
I've been doing this Inside stuff because, basically, minimal came in, and techno was dead. So techno was dead, I was dead. I wanted to do lowtempo, but I didn't want to make minimal. Because...I consider what is now called minimal a separate genre. To me, there is no dialogue between my era of techno and what is minimal now. To me, minimal is like drum & bass. It's a whole other thing with its own stars and heroes, who are different than my stars and my heroes.
"Relish" (Shed Remix)
Scion Versions, 2008
I remember when the Basic Channel guys first came to Detroit. They used to press in America, they went to National Sound for mastering. Those were the first cats that I saw that had a track that took up the whole side of a record. Everybody else had tracks that were five minutes.
Did they get instant respect in Detroit?
The cover page of Alan Oldham's Fast Forward, Vol. 2, Issue 2.
They were friends with Mike Banks. And if you were friends with Mike Banks, you were cool with everybody. They did get respect though. I really liked their stuff, the Maurizio stuff, Pete's stuff as Substance.
There are a lot of Detroit producers that have cited them as being really great. But I think there aren't a lot of producers from Detroit that have picked up that dub techno vibe. Obviously there are some. But it was clear that these guys loved Detroit. How were you in Detroit viewing German techno?
When I was doing my radio show, it was the heyday of Westbam, and Marusha was doing the radio show Rave Satellite. Of course this was the Stone Age, before the internet, but someone sent me one of Marusha's tapes via normal mail, and I was like, "This is what's going on in Germany right now?" Because the show was all the big anthems. As a musician, it was always more the scene than the actual artists. You always looked in awe at Mayday, Love Parade. And you just heard rumors, because there was no YouTube back then. You'd hear that there were 10,000 people going to a rave. In Detroit, if you tried to make a techno party in those days, or even now almost 20 years later, you'd be lucky if 50 people showed up. 75 is a smash success.
So there was a fascination with Germany, that you could reach a lot of people.
Yeah. To me, it was more of the scene and the possibilities with the rave era in Germany. Musically, it was Kraftwerk. The Neue Deutsche Welle stuff made it over. Nena, Peter Schilling, George Kranz, "Din Daa Daa." Falco was Austrian and Yello were Swiss but still German-speaking. Those artists were more influential in the USA in my view than Westbam and Marusha. Their tracks never really made it to the States.
We knew something was going on, though. And when Jeff [Mills] and Mike [Banks] came over in 1991, it was just like "wow." Jeff's whole sound had changed. They had their minds blown. Tresor just killed them.
It must have been incredibly frustrating: Whenever you go someplace else it wasn't a problem, but when you play in Chicago or Detroit it wasn't appreciated.
As a younger guy, you go through your frustration phase. But it's replaced by acceptance. [laughs] It's like those seven stages of grief. I'm in the acceptance phase now. America is what it is. You try to make it happen where you live, but it's kind of a universal thing of any art. Nobody gets respect where they're from. You always have to go somewhere else to get big.
I'm back and forth between Berlin and Chicago. Inspiration is in Berlin. Execution is in Chicago. I don't get involved in local politics. I don't really play locally anymore. A couple of people will call me, and if everything is good I'll do it, but it's not a priority. Berlin, though, it's where it's happening.
You do come here regularly.
I do. In fact, I'm questioning why I'm going home this time. [laughs] I've never moved here, though. I've come for long stretches. The longest I've stayed is three months. But I have to go home and take care of business, so I can't really stay that long. Both worlds are very, very nice.
Published / Wednesday, 07 July 2010
Photo credits / Header, photo booth: Sophie Aghia
Comic, newsletter: Alan Oldham