"Electro's established, and I think it can only expand and get deeper." Angus Finlayson meets the sound's leading artist.
He means playing regularly. Though he's been active since the late '80s, Ingram's DJ career has only recently reached escape velocity, taking him across Europe and the world. "It's fun," he says in his Midwestern drawl. "Considering what else I could be doing—washing a car, sweeping floors or whatever. It's great, I can't complain. So hopefully I can keep it going for a while." His eyes rove as he talks, scanning the other diners and the brisk April evening outside the restaurant window. At one point he breaks off mid-sentence—"Hey, that's Dr. Rubinstein!" He taps on the window but she walks by without hearing.
Many only know Ingram by his eyes, peering out from his trademark balaclava—a gift from Drexciya's James Stinson, along with his artist name, DJ Stingray. His eyes look quite different in the context of his face: friendlier, but also uneasy. Ingram was more than an hour late for our meeting—he forgot, he said, which might of course be true—and it's taken us weeks of failed attempts to get together.
Whatever reluctance he feels doesn't show during our conversation, in which he's polite and forthcoming. But after decades in relative obscurity, it's understandable that Ingram might feel overwhelmed by the demands of his first major commercial mix, for Tresor's Kern series. The press, the photos, the expectations placed on an artist in the limelight. "I was in completely foreign waters with the entire project," he later tells me via text.
Lately Ingram has got used to swimming in foreign waters. His hometown is Detroit, where for years he worked with, and was often eclipsed by, the stars of the city's second wave: Carl Craig, Anthony "Shake" Shakir, Kenny Dixon Jr., Drexciya. "It's funny because we're close to the same age, but I feel so much younger than those guys," he says. "Because at one time I was in awe, and I studied them very close."
In the '10s, the international scene has come to recognise Ingram's distinctive talents, and this attention has brought him to Berlin. From here, he travels to clubs and festivals across Europe and beyond, presenting a resurgent sound—electro—and a visceral, high-velocity DJing style. "The pressure on me is to play stuff that they're not going to hear for the entire year. They can go out every weekend, twice a week, and they will never hear the selection of records that I'm playing. That's the pressure that I feel."
A few months earlier, Ingram stood onstage in a packed Berghain, manoeuvring his first record onto the turntable. It was a Thursday night event at CTM festival, and all eyes were on his tall figure. He dropped the needle and washes of eerie, paranoid melody filled the room. The stasis was short-lived: two minutes later, Ingram segued coolly into banging techno, the tempo already pushing 140 BPM. His eyes flickered across the heaving dance floor.
For the next three hours, the momentum didn't let up. Normally reserved techno tracks twitched at accelerated speeds, straight rhythms scattered into contorted electro shapes, tunnel-vision loops gave way to flamboyant bursts of post-Kraftwerk melody. The set length, Ingram later told me, posed a challenge. He mixes at unusual speed, throwing on a new record every couple of minutes, beatmatching it in the four bars it takes to bring up the fader, and executing scalpel-cut crossfades that jumpstart fatigued dancers. Over extended periods, the concentration required to keep this going—not to mention the number of records—is vast. But it's the only way he feels comfortable mixing.
"I feel like, 'Man, I should be doing something.' When that record is playing, I can't stand there. I don't smoke, and I'm not going to lift my mask up to take a drink, so I might as well put on another record. You know me, I want to keep it exciting."
For a Berghain crowd, "exciting" might just as well mean ten techno records unspooling over an hour. But Ingram's DJing sensibility was forged in a very different fire. In the early '90s, he spent two years as resident at The Outcast, a run-down motorcycle club in Detroit. "It was a pretty rough place," he says. "You didn't come in wearing your best." Ingram was a techno head, but the crowd wanted the more salacious sounds of West Coast electro and Miami bass. So he took drastic measures, pitching up his records and mixing at high speed, sneaking unexpected sounds and rhythms onto the dance floor.
"If you tried to play a techno track too long, you'd lose the crowd. But if you played it quick, and then mixed in some 2 Live Crew, it would keep the crowd hot. We had black inner city kids doing the Hustle to 'Jesus Loves The Acid,' a straight European acid tune. You know, a rave tune. We would even play 'Dominator' sometimes, Human Resource."
Ingram shared the residency with Kenny Dixon Jr. The two grew up in the same neighbourhood, and Dixon had got Ingram into DJing in the mid-'80s. Before long, they collaborated in the studio. Ingram had been producing fitfully for years, but relied on favours from friends and borrowed gear from the record shop where he worked, Buy-Rite. By the mid-'90s he was working on an album for Mo' Wax under the name Urban Tribe. Carl Craig had given him the keys and alarm codes for the Planet E studio, but he felt daunted by the project.
"There was months where I would sit around and be like, 'I don't have any clue.'" At first he turned to another friend, Anthony "Shake" Shakir. "I wound up with about 20-something tracks, and I was like, 'Shake man, I need your help.' So he came down to the studio, added some parts. And I approached Ken[ny], and he gave me a track and a mix. Then Carl was like, 'Hey, this is Urban Tribe!'"
1998's The Collapse Of Modern Culture, a dreamy downtempo LP, was the birth of Urban Tribe as an collaborative unit, with Shake, Dixon and Craig working under Ingram's direction. The album helped expose him to European listeners, but Ingram wasn't interested in crossing the Atlantic to reach his audience.
"All I cared about was putting out a record. I didn't have those aspirations to travel. As a matter of fact, I didn't really care until I started doing the Stingray thing. And you know, when James passed, I said, 'OK, well that's it.' But people still kept asking me to play. I said, 'OK, I'll do a few more.' And it just kept coming, and I was hooked."
Years later, Ingram has made the crossing definitively. He's lived in Berlin since last autumn, and can be seen in clubs around the city, soaking up the vibe with a drink in his hand. "I like to go out and check the pulse of the scene," he explains. "I think there is a need to keep fresh and not wall myself off completely. You get to see what the youngsters like, what other DJs like to play. I can adjust my style and selection based on my outings."
More often, though, it's the other way round: younger producers following Stingray's cues. Of course, the electro sound he favours—Kraftwerk's Man-Machine aesthetic routed via Detroit, a cyborg assemblage of funk, paranoia and retro camp—never really went away. But in the '10s it has gained broader appeal, thanks to high profile DJs like Objekt and Helena Hauff, and the flourishing of a long-germinating network of labels, among them Central Processing Unit, Frustrated Funk, Klakson, Shipwrec, Stilleben, Solar One and TRUST.
"I know it's a movement, man, I see it. Because when I first started playing, it was kind of guys my age. But now, in every venue there's young people. They give me records and send me demos, they tell me about how they grew up listening to the music. I've had some of the youngsters come up to me and say, 'Don't get me wrong, I love techno, but it's the same, everybody's doing the same thing. This is so refreshing.'"
(When I asked Ingram about the differences between techno and electro, he asked me if I'm familiar with the movie Aliens. "Now, you had the people that were in the control room, right? Then you had the marines. Electro—we're the marines. Techno guys are in the control room. We're on the same team but we're doing different things.)
Ingram's ties to Detroit electro are in part thanks to one of its founding groups. "Nobody knew about Drexciya, except for the underground people," says Ingram of '90s Detroit. "But they were well-respected by anybody who was doing music. You got people nowadays, what, 24-year-olds, who consider that futuristic, they love it. So just think how it sounded back then. It was original."
The duo would come into Buy-Rite, and Ingram played their records at gigs around the city. After they saw him perform as Urban Tribe at the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, in 2000, Ingram got a call from the duo's James Stinson. "'Hey man, I want you to do some DJing. I want you to be an assault DJ for Drexciya, we're going on tour.'" I was like, 'Hell yeah.' So that's how that relationship started."
For this new job, Ingram would need a new identity. "[Stinson] said, 'You're gonna be DJ Stingray. I want you to wear this mask.' It was this real thick ski-mask, and I was like, 'Man, that's too hot.' 'Cause he wasn't a DJ, he didn't know. So we went to the police store and I saw the balaclava. I said, 'Here we go.'"
At this point Ingram had only been to Europe once, in the mid-'90s, playing MPC for a Carl Craig show at Ministry Of Sound. He made his first trip as DJ Stingray in 2002, for Warp's Magic Bus Tour.
"My first time playing in Europe, the first few months, my hands were shaking so bad I could barely operate the controls. I felt like people were more knowledgeable, and I felt a lot of pressure on me because of that. In the States I felt like, 'OK, I'm educating these people.' But here, people know who you are, they know the music, and they've been exposed to so many quality DJs that in my mind the bar is high. So that's where that nervousness came from."
Drexciya ceased operation in 2002, following Stinson's death. But promoters continued to book DJ Stingray. "Really at the beginning it was mostly the UK. It was crazy, it was wild. I'd walk in and the place would be packed. People patting me on the back, yelling, and I'm like, 'Oh my god.' I was getting chill-bumps."
As Stingray's DJing fortunes changed, so did his music. His work rate jumped in the mid-'00s, and two new Urban Tribe albums swapped dreamy downtempo for frenetic electro. Ingram credits the change to a chance discovery. "I was originally exposed to FL Studio 3 at a friend's house. It was a young guy, about 15 years younger than me. He was just playing around, he didn't know how to work it. So I got on there, and within a day I had made seven beats."
Once home from touring, he downloaded a cracked version. "That's what changed it for me. It democratised production so I didn't have to rent studio time. I didn't have to borrow someone's drum machine, I didn't have to go out and spend $4,000 that I didn't have on equipment. And the power: being able to put effects on every channel, being able to automate your own controls."
Those Urban Tribe albums were made without his Detroit peers; in hindsight, Ingram wishes he hadn't used the name. For a subsequent outpouring of material, he switched to DJ Stingray. Particularly since 2009, tracks for labels including Brussels' WéMè, Vienna's Pomelo, the UK's Unknown To The Unknown, Ireland's [NakedLunch] and Italy's Presto!? fizzed with fresh ideas, shuttling between taut machine funk, bleary euphoria and percussive assaults.
Stingray was already decades into his career, but he was still trying to expand and enrich his style. He doesn't always detect this urge among young electro producers. "There's a lot of new stuff coming out that's excellent." But there's also "this trend in electro where... I mean these guys are trying to recapture the '80s. Stop sticking with the paradigms of the past. Sound like the 21st century. Blow our minds."
In the past, Ingram has been reluctant to even accept the term electro. (His Facebook page states, "The problem starts with the word 'electro'…"). Perhaps his view has softened in recognition of its importance to his own legacy and career. For many, Stingray is becoming synonymous with electro. He tells me that he considers himself "an elder statesman" of the genre.
"This year and last year, it has been a personal victory for me to see these young people coming to the clubs, dancing to electro, playing electro, loving it. Man, it's a victory. I think we really have got traction and we've got something established. Electro's established, and I think it can only expand and get deeper."
Ingram's Kern mix works to consolidate this success. It won't surprise those familiar with Stingray's DJing. Instead, it showcases the records that defined his sound, and the breakneck mixing style he's been perfecting for decades. Canonical artists feature heavily: Dopplereffekt, a project from Drexciya's Gerald Donald, opens the mix with the Kraftwerk-loving "Scientist," and Drexciya close it with "Cascading Celestial Giants."
But the mix also highlights the proximity of then and now—as when an Outcast club staple, Professor X's 1989 "Professor X (Saga)," meets Gesloten Cirkel's recent anthem "Submit X." Newer tracks from the likes of Herva, LoneLady and Christopher Joseph blend in seamlessly. It's as if Ingram is carefully transporting a certain Detroit attitude from the past into the future. At one point, he tells me that he feels a pressure to "maintain the legacy that other Detroit electronic music artists have left."
This project has brought Ingram to another continent and confronted him with a bunch of new challenges. But it's also an enormous opportunity, to shape both his own legacy and that of his home city. "I'm going to try to ride it out. If you know the opportunity exists, there's no reason for me to go back. I don't have any kids, I don't have any serious obligations [in Detroit]. I like Berlin, I like the people, it's cosmopolitan. This is where opportunity is, so this is where I'm meant to be."