Tang didn't DJ in Europe until 2011, largely because the migration from vinyl to digital stopped him just as he was starting out. He sold 500 copies of Windy City within seven days of its release on his own Emphasis Recordings, but vinyl became unprofitable soon after, and the pressing and distribution deal he had evaporated. "If that hadn't happened things definitely would have worked out a little bit differently," he says. With no more music to capitalise on his promising debut, and too small a profile to hawk his music elsewhere, Tang picked up various jobs on the side to "sustain the studio I had built and to pay for my music habit."
But as the next decade drifted by, making music got relegated to a side project.
Releasing only a couple of EPs in that period as and when he could afford it, he was somewhat trapped. "I'm from humble means. I didn't expect my parents to buy me all the equipment and stuff," he says. He admits he was too attached to making music and uninterested in the alternatives to forget about it completely.
Tang was never one for education. After one semester, he dropped out of music college and a self-funded radio broadcast degree, so other career options weren't readily available. The American Dream, for which his parents left Hong Kong in the '70s, was still just that for Tang.
In a strange way, the global financial crisis of 2008 was a turning point for him. Tang was laid-off from his job at Crosstalk International, where he was "doing everything: shipping, stocking, receiving, then selling to distributers and stores overseas." He therefore had no choice but to while away the days making music, living off the unemployment benefit his adopted homeland afforded him. "I was very inspired and felt free in this period," he says. "I felt I didn't have to worry. My parents allowed me to stay under their roof and I was able to be creative."
Tang secured a new P&D deal with Crosstalk, and slowly upped his release rate. The intervening period saw the release of EPs like Nightfall and Machine Oriented, which both jacked like Chicago's finest, yet oozed the misty-eyed soul most often associated with Detroit. His sound is full of sci-fi synth scenery but remains firmly rooted to the dance floor thanks to the rubbery throb that underpins it all. It's always been this way, from his first release in 1998 right up to his debut album on Smallville, Disconnect To Connect. For someone who has proven himself as a singular artist for more than a decade, he is finally getting the gigs and gratitude his music has always deserved.
Tang had a musical awakening in an affluent suburb of Chicago in the early to mid-'80s. After a few years in New York "passively consuming music," it was going to school with "hip black kids" that turned him on to radio stations like WBMX and WGCI and their lunch- and drive-time house mixes. "It was just normal; it was something everyone in the city got into," he says. "There was no romance about it when you were there. The records that stuck out in my head around '84 were mainly Italo, actually. I really liked the disco synths, it fit into what people like Larry Heard in Chicago were trying to do in terms of emulating disco with electronic equipment."
"[Soon after the initial boom] artists from Chicago were already having residencies overseas, so the scene in the '90s was a little bit different by the time I was able to go clubbing," he says. "House music kinda died for me in '89, after the acid scene. The house guys were doing stuff I felt was commercial… vocals, really cheesy piano chords and stuff like that. I stopped listening to house for a while but at the same time there was also another music scene parallel to the house scene. New wave and industrial was coming out of Chicago as well, and actually when I started spinning records that's what I was playing."
If it was with Chicago house that Tang initially fell in love, it was with Detroit techno's "cutting edge futurism" a few years later that he found his inspiration.
A hazy mid point between the two is what characterises his music and his label to this day. It's worth noting that despite the 15 years between his debut EP and debut album, both records clearly bare the hallmarks of a producer who knew what he wanted from the off. Disconnect To Connect combines music from the last couple of years and material he produced as far back as the late '90s, yet it all holds together as one cohesive experience from start to finish.
"I really don't see much difference between Chicago and Detroit," he says. "There are more similarities than differences, though Chicago always tends towards something a bit more palatable to the masses because it's a bigger city. Also, with gospel's influences, there tends to be more vocal and more song-orientated stuff coming out of the city."
There has also been another unlikely influence on the album from outside of the 4/4 world. "I was really big on indie rock and shoegaze," he says. "I guess the inspiration for this particular album had to have been a lot of the shoegaze I was listening to in the early '90s. My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins—these bands made incredible albums you can listen to from beginning to end. I took from that, I wanted my album to be like that. I was dying to get one out since then, but never wanted to do it just for the sake of it."
For the last five years, Tang has also nurtured another moniker, Obsolete Music Technology, which has spawned a more direct, techno indebted discography on Dolly, Machining Dreams and Emphasis. Plenty more prospective commissions have come in over the years, but Tang is loathe to "establish someone else's new label" given the decade-long effort he put in to establish Emphasis.
"My music [under his given name] is a little deeper, a little more introverted, I guess. It's more a look at myself from the inside. It's atmospheric and I want people to know there is a connection to Chicago, but I don't want it to be a revivalist thing. The Obsolete Music Technology stuff I do much more with the dance floor in mind, and am working on a live show that will be all original OMT material, but I'm much more free with the stuff under my own name."
In an interview back in 2009, Smallpeople declared "the release of a Steven Tang record would be something truly great for Smallville." Of course, it's also an accolade for Tang, but he's determined not to get carried away.
"Doing this for so long and not getting the recognition I have now, I tend to look at the past. I look at others and notice their mistakes. I know all this can be fleeting and might not last forever so I try not to get caught up in the hype and just take pleasure from making music. That's the only thing I had for a long time, so for me to change now cos I get some recognition or get paid to do a DJ gig, it doesn't make sense. I just hope the album will buy me more time to produce more music—that's pretty much it."