On its 25th anniversary, we examine the roots and philosophy behind one of techno's most beloved labels.
Basic Channel and a like-minded crew of artists following their lead—Vainqueur, Torsten Pröfrock (T++), Substance, Porter Ricks—effortlessly navigated the slipstream between techno, house, ambient, dub and minimalist art music. "At this point we are interested in electroacoustic music," Pröfrock said back in 1998, "and part of the electroacoustic scene is more interested in techno music." Basic Channel drilled into the bedrock of dub techno to expose vast new landscapes, traversable via abstraction and minimalism. Without them, techno would not shimmer and hypnotize to the same extent, and would not be taken as seriously as an art form.
But this dizzying list of accomplishments, along with their tendency to avoid interviews, makes Ernestus and von Oswald out to be unapproachable, intimidating figures, techno Wizards Of Oz lurking in some back room behind Hard Wax. In reality, their respective musical journeys are defined by a humble, all-consuming dedication.
Ernestus' recent mania is Mbalax music. As usual, he's gone deeper than most, following a YouTube trail to Senegal, forming the Ndagga Rhythm Force, reducing the music to its polyrhythmic essence, and overseeing the mixing desk for live shows. Ernestus also drives the band around on tours of Europe, a role he took on for Underground Resistance on their first tour of Europe in 1992.
In the decade or so since Rhythm & Sound quietly disbanded, von Oswald has worked like a man possessed despite suffering a major stroke in 2008. His textural improv group, the Moritz von Oswald Trio, subtly expands and deconstructs his trademark sound. Von Oswald also returned to his classical roots, remixing the Deutsche Grammophon catalogue with Carl Craig, and teamed up with Juan Atkins for two albums for Tresor as Borderland. All the while, his occasional solo performances live up to his outsized legacy.
Both Ernestus and von Oswald agreed to speak to Resident Advisor for this piece but preferred to keep their interviews off-the-record. In a nod to the egalitarian streak behind their various enterprises—Dubplates & Mastering, Basic Channel, Chain Reaction—one prefers not to speak without the other present. Neither are keen on laying out a philosophy that should come across to anyone who picks up a Maurizio 12-inch or one of Chain Reaction's immediately recognizable "metal box" CDs.
Instead, Ernestus pointed me towards a few key companions over the years, including Carl Craig, Robert Henke and Hallucinator's Edward George and Anna Piva. These artists discussed Basic Channel's music and legacy in essentially the same language. This is a testament to the sturdiness of von Oswald and Ernestus's philosophy, which favors what is obscured or omitted as much as what exists.
This piece highlights 25 key productions from Basic Channel's extended catalog. We used current and archival interviews in an attempt to shed light on the common threads that emerge and recede throughout the labels' discographies, like a murky, propulsive sequence in one of Basic Channel's timeless productions.
Berlin via Detroit via Kingston
Mark Ernestus: I opened Hard Wax in the fall of 1989. The record store industry was completely new territory for me. Nor did I really know any DJs or about a scene that was clearly waiting for something. But I was 100 percent convinced I wasn't the only one who had this need. At the end of 1990, I decided to fly to the States. I wanted to see where the music came from and meet the people we were dealing with... in Chicago and especially Detroit, they were more surprised that a German would fly over especially to buy their records. [Der Klang Der Familie, 2014]
Carl Craig: Mark Ernestus was here in Detroit, by himself, right at the beginning of when UR was really starting to do a lot. I don't have any memory of anyone else from Berlin coming to Detroit to search out Detroit techno music. I'm sure there was that for Detroit rock and soul, but for Detroit techno, Mark was ground zero.
Edward George (Hallucinator): I was a writer and researcher, latterly a director and presenter with Black Audio Film Collective. There used to be a shop in Camden called Zoom Records and every lunch hour, before going to work and after going to work, I would go there and dig for new music. I had been following house and techno since about '85. That year coincided with a moment in Jamaican music when there was this big transition from analog bass production, especially in regards to dub, to digital with the whole Sleng Teng / King Jammy's thing. So I walk into Zoom Records, they have this single on I think it was Planet E, it was definitely a Paperclip People single and I think the B-Side was called "Remake (Basic Reshape)." I said, "This looks interesting." I don't bother playing it in the shop, I'll take it home. I took it home, and my mind was blown.
Carl Craig: Nobody had ever heard anything like it before. I remember getting calls from Gramaphone Records. They were like, "Who are these guys?" Just really going nuts. It was a sound that came from outer space. It wasn't a sound that was from our galaxy, it was a sound from another dimension, if anything sounded like a black hole it's probably Basic Channel music.
Edward George (Hallucinator): The reason my mind was blown was because this felt like, somehow or other, we didn't know how they'd done it, but something of the dub process and dub technique and dub's image of space was at work. And our thinking was, "They've done it! They've cracked it!" Somehow techno has found a way of intersecting with the excesses and extremes of Jamaican music. The who and the how of it, we weren't sure of.
I started collecting the Basic Channel singles. Because they looked pretty. I like the stamps themselves, I like the weight of the singles, the fact that they're cut at National Sound and have this certain heaviness to them. What I'd do is pitch them down. I never played any of them at the original speed. Especially "Octaedre" and "Octagon" and "Phylyps Trak II." We all thought, "This is African music. They just played it really quick and pitched it down." We didn't know who these people were, where they came from, what they did. Were they two people, two guys, a giraffe and a horse? Nothing.
Carl Craig: The early Basic Channel stuff was something that did have more of a Detroit flavor. Yeah, I would say it has some direct influences from Jeff Mills. The beginning of Basic Channel sounded like Detroit techno but really degraded, sonically degraded. We were doing our music with what we had, but what they were doing was something else. What we were doing in Detroit is we were making paintings. What they were doing was they were making sculptures.
The Hard Wax complex
Carl Craig: That community was how a lot of great styles of music happened. Basically that one source, that one place was Hard Wax records. Hard Wax in the '90s was one of those places where if you came in and asked for the wrong record you might get thrown out. They were militant about the music. If it wasn't reggae music, it had to be really good or it wasn't gonna fly, it wasn't gonna go in the store. DJ Rok, who was working there for years, he was always in fatigues [laughs]. That store was like UR Europe. It wasn't UR Berlin, it was like UR European HQ.
Kodwo Eshun: Meanwhile, still acting as both trading post and meeting place, the Hard Wax shop has become a post-techno gateway, opening out into dub, electroacoustics and two-step jungle, as well as the inspired techno of former UR member Jeff Mills. In fact, a self-sufficient ecology has developed in its building, linking the shop floor to Chain Reaction and its satellite labels: Ernestus and von Oswald's reggae-inflected Rhythm & Sound and Burial Mix; Imbalance, established by von Oswald to release more abstract electroacoustic works and now run by Monolake's Robert Henke; Din, run by Sascha Brauer and Various Artists' Torsten Pröfrock. The building also houses the Dubplates & Mastering room, installed by Basic Channel so they could cut vinyl to Detroit standards. All these activities are independently interlinked, autonomous but related, detachable but connected. [The Wire, 1998]
Robert Henke: This is partly what made the scene so attractive to me. I really had a sense of a community of like-minded people, sharing ideas, talking about releases, talking about music, talking about concerts, talking about performance—all of these things were an essential part of it. The fact that everyone was listening to what everyone else would release was a very unique experience I would say.
Carl Craig: It was always a situation where I went to Moritz's studio first, or their joint studio together, or Mark's own personal space with his gear. For me it's always been like a kid going into a candy store, because they get these rare pieces of gear. Mark had a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet 10, that was a big deal for me to see this thing. It's kind of crazy because he had a Prophet 10 but I think he got it in Detroit. They bought synths from United Sound where George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic recorded their music. For me it was really incredible to go to these spaces that they had, to see what type of outboard gear they were using outside of synthesizers or how deep they'd go on speakers.
Robert Henke: I set up a meeting with Mark and Moritz. We met at the Basic Channel studio, it was the first time I was at their studio. I was impressed because it was a very interesting electronic playground. It wasn't laid out in the way a classic recording studio would be laid out, it was really focused on making percussive sounds with electronic instruments. It had four loudspeakers in four corners and the mixing desk was not the most central part of it. A lot of things were done in a really interesting way.
Moritz von Oswald: Of course, we also changed the equipment all the time... nothing is kept for too many years, except some special custom-made stuff I have. I try to get into new stuff and old stuff. [Moritz von Oswald Lecture (Barcelona 2008), Red Bull Music Academy]
Robert Henke: We had no clue. This is so true for many, many things which came out from the Basic Channel/Chain Reaction group of people. We approached it all in a different way. It was a really good thing because since we defined our own aesthetics, there was no necessity to adhere to certain standards. The only thing that counted was, does the result make us happy?
We approached the whole mastering philosophy and vinyl cutting philosophy in very much the same way. In a normal mastering studio the music stays mostly untouched and just gets slightly better sounding. Our philosophy was what comes into the studio is material, let's make it shine. Completely changing the spectral balance of a track, or compressing a lot, or applying a lot of really dramatic changes was completely part of the game. This was not only due to our inexperience, but it was also a conceptual idea. It had to do with the fact that the people who were our customers at the time, we all had our own home studios. No one from the Chain Reaction crew had a big studio room, and that meant the environments where we produced our music were by no means a professional environment. And therefore Dubplates & Mastering was perhaps the first time you'd hear the track on big speakers. Going to that place and mastering basically meant you put in some raw material and you get something else back which is probably very cool. This was the promise, and I guess in many cases what we managed to do.
There were moments where this completely went wrong, like really epic fails, but most of the time I think we managed to create a consistency in sound and aesthetics that also helped define this sonic brand. The process of cutting the record is a dialogue between the mastering engineer and the music, but also the dialogue between you and the mastering engineer. And the moments I enjoyed the most when I was still working there was sitting together with an artist in the cutting room and trying together to get something new.
Main Street Records
Carl Craig: "I'm Your Brother," of course, is still a classic... amazing. They just found their stride and went with it, they were able to stay consistent with it as well as improving the music.
Kodwo Eshun: No one is quite sure whether Chain Reaction music is house or techno or dub. [The Wire, 1998]
Robert Henke: I had gone to the Basic Channel studio, I was expecting that we would listen to my record right there and I was very excited. But instead, we were just chit-chatting and then we went to dinner and that was it. I was highly confused. Mark told me, "Just get in touch next week." I lived in East Berlin and I didn't even have my own telephone—most people in East Berlin didn't have their own phones—so I went in the rain to a public phone booth and I was waiting in line and I finally got to call Moritz, who wasn't very talkative. He said, "Yeah well, you know there is a lot of this stuff coming out these days. You know most of it is kind of boring and always the same." I was already feeling, OK, this is a polite way of telling me that what I'm doing is complete crap. Moritz talked circuitously about how a lot of stuff is boring, I almost lost focus, the rain was pouring on the phone booth and I was sad.
In between this I hear Moritz saying, "We need to think about the cover." Wait a moment, why are we talking about a cover if you don't want to release it? This was really funny. Yeah, so this was when I first seriously got in touch with them on a business but also on a personal level. And then from there went really fast.
René Löwe (Vainqueur): When I did the first "Elevation" 12-inch in May '95, I had some normal drum sounds from an old sampling drum machine, a Sequential Studio 440, and then I realised the sequence is the thing of the track. Forget all drums. That was really important for me, because I never did before such an ambient track. The first "Elevation" was very emotional. I just did it in three hours. I got completely carried away. I started with some drum patterns, played some sounds and then freaked out because the sound was really powerful, without any other percussive things, just the sound. Afterwards I realised more and more that is what I really like, you know, to just let the sounds run.
For me, it's a bit like flying through the mountains or something. I really like northern territories like Norway. I really like this kind of nature, rough but beautiful, a little bit cold, but in the evening really clear. [The Wire, 1998]
Carl Craig: I think their catalogue has a view that is more within a theme than my catalogue. My catalogue is based around shit that I like, being different, trying out different things. If the right rock record came along I'd definitely put it out. In their case, I don't think that would happen. That wasn't their focus. Their focus was a theme within making their own galaxy of Basic Channel and like-minded music in relation to that.
Anna Piva (Hallucinator): The '90s were a special time because the word "dub techno" wasn't used yet, it only became a label years after it happened. There was an exhibition in Centre Pompidou in 2002 called Sonic Process which tried to bring together what they started calling club music, and how that related to art and artistic practices. People felt it was finished by then, but that period where club music could be anything, techno could be anything... Chain Reaction can contain that, it's open and wide enough that it can contain that.
Rhythm & Sound
Moritz von Oswald: What I discovered doing this reggae stuff, and also the other tracks, is that you feel when it's done. It can be done very quickly, but if you feel it takes another ten minutes, then just take it. I like to finish stuff quickly. If it's done, it's done; if there are mistakes, there are mistakes. But if the vibe is right, or the feeling is right, just go for it and ignore the little mistakes. There are so many possibilities for getting rid of them, but I like them. I really like the little noises when things go wrong, as long as it's not terrible, of course. [Moritz von Oswald Lecture (Barcelona 2008), Red Bull Music Academy]
Edward George (Hallucinator): Kodwo Eshun was doing a piece on Basic Channel for The Wire. He was gonna interview Porter Ricks, Tikiman, and whoever else. He says come along, you'll love it. I went and I did that kind of hyperventilating fanboy thing. "You guys have done this, and this, and this, and this is brilliant, this is wonderful!"
It's like what Louis Armstrong used to call a "secret order." He used to say our music is of a secret order. It felt as if they were part of that order and it was around that same time that they were just starting the Rhythm & Sound stuff. They just had the first pressings of "Music A Fe Rule." They were like, "If you do anything, give us a call." Me? So I brought it back to my people, Anna, Trevor, and said, "You gotta hear this, this is amazing." So we sent some stuff that we were puttering around with for two years and that's how we became part of the family.
Moritz von Oswald: I think it's nice to listen... on the headphones or iPod or whatever, but to hear it played out in the right kind of room, it's a completely different story, a different attraction. [Moritz von Oswald Lecture (Barcelona 2008), Red Bull Music Academy]
Anna Piva (Hallucinator): I think [Rhythm & Sound w/ Tikiman's Showcase] was really successful in that it generated a new narrative in terms of roots singing that felt very fresh, very inclusive and again played with the form while also maintaining that very specific trajectory. Their music is not music for dance in a sense. It's not the sort of music you'd hear in a soundsystem situation. And yet, as you're playing it in a space, it does something to the space, it changes the atmosphere of the space.
I've often wondered what it is, it's generally something to do with dub. But they really hit onto something with "What A Mistry." With dub, what happens when it's successful is that they're opening up a space. It's working in the environment externally, and it's also working in your internal environment. It's generating a depth of field so that other frequencies can come through and my sense is that "What A Mistry" is really talking about that. About that deep space and what comes through that deep space that perhaps is unspeakable and can be retrieved through music.
Edward George (Hallucinator): What's really interesting to me about what Anna's saying is that there's a line in "What A Mistry": "Work the plantations everyday..." Suddenly someone has evoked not just slavery but the place of slavery, the plantation. And you marry what Anna's saying about atmosphere, humidity, temperature, if you've ever been to parts of Ghana, deep South America, Jamaica, the heat is the most oppressive component of everything. And if you think of people who've been in the guts of a ship shackled to each other, sliding about in their own shit and vomit, and they're coming through mud and water into a swampland basically, especially if you come from a dry land space which you get a lot of in Ghana, that sense of density is not existential, it's physical. And it always felt what the pioneers of dub, your Coxsone, Ruddy Redwood, Lee Perry, Erroll Thompson, all those folks perhaps unconsciously had found a way through sound.
Anna Piva (Hallucinator): In the early '90s Berlin really was a special place full of clubs and inner-spaces. Beautiful, internal environments. When I first heard Mark and Moritz's music, what I heard was actually a very melancholic strain of sound. I wonder if it's something to do with, you know, with [Berlin's] history, that also comes across in the music. That you don't find for example in Detroit music, that you don't find in a lot of West African music either. It's a real melancholic strain, there's a minor strain, it's deep... something to do with inner space as being a place of reflection and historical things.
Moritz von Oswald: The approach of doing a remix differs from person to person. You can rearrange the original track, or you can do a completely new work, which at first sight has nothing to do with the original. I like remixes that are done as a new track, that still relate to the original, but making a new track out of it. [Moritz von Oswald Lecture (Barcelona 2008), Red Bull Music Academy]
Carl Craig: With remixing, there's an ownership that I believe has to be taken by the remixer. And then what you get, at the end, is almost like the perfect collaboration. We could call it remixing, but many times it's rewriting music. With Basic Channel, they made it their thing, that whenever you heard anything from Basic Channel, it sounded like Basic Channel, it was undeniable that it was Basic Channel. It helped cement their legacy even more, doing it their way.
No partial, no conclusion
Edward George (Hallucinator): I think with Chain Reaction, but also in the earlier singles of Mark and Moritz's and the Reshape stuff, there's a concern with form before it settles. More of a preoccupation with music before it becomes music properly speaking. It's like, this is what techno sounded like before techno was invented, before the grammar had been defined. At the same time, there's a concern for forms that have present in them their dissipation. What I mean by that is that there's a bit in Lee Perry's "Dub Revolution Part 1" where you can hear the microphone being on with no signal coming up but the EQ and faders are so high you hear a kind of whoosh—it's the hiss in the transfer from reel-to-reel in dub mixing that Sylvan Morris made a motif in his Studio One engineering and mixing, but in the classic audiophile sense, it's the detritus of sound recording. It's the bit where you can't go any further before your technology gives the lie to transparency.
Anna Piva (Hallucinator): My impression is that Mark and Moritz are extremely aware of the difference in boundaries between different genres and styles, and they play with that and work with that. And yet, as they encounter and work with a particular form, it also becomes something different than what it was, which is the case with Mark's most recent project, Mark Ernestus' Ndagga Rhythm Force. My impression is that they've done that by taking some basic element—the name Basic Channel is for a reason—and working with those and teasing something new out of those basic elements. If anything it's really going deep into each form and looking at the as-yet explored possibilities within it to generate something new. They do that by eliminating, like in the case of Mark's recent project. There's an austere quality to the project which comes from the fact that a lot of the elements of the form have been taken out. That's very much a dub process in itself.
Edward George (Hallucinator): It's kind of curious though. I think what we're really talking about is the formation of a space where hybridity could take place. Where all these new kind of formations and different kind of moments of realization can come and take shape. Here's the weird thing—the condition is that you have to stay primal, you have to keep it early as a way of getting in touch with something that's almost prelinguistic.
Anna Piva (Hallucinator): That's another level of understanding of the name Basic Channel.
Edward George (Hallucinator): What I always found really fascinating about Chicago house and especially that Kalamazoo stuff... there's a griminess in terms of the production itself that harks back to early Bo Diddley. If you're lucky enough to find a 7-inch single, not a CD, of something like "Hush Your Mouth" or "Pretty Thing," the cavernous filth of the sound itself is almost the protoplasm from which almost everything else grows. And it always felt before Mark and Moritz and Chain Reaction and Hallucinator came along, there was this forward momentum in techno and house from poor production techniques—mud, dirt, grime, filth—to a clean sound. And what Mark and Moritz and the whole family tried to suggest was that music works in circles if it moves at all. There's something in the indistinct nature of grime and mud and dirt and the uncleared from which the primal takes place. And if they have a philosophical and sonic signature, that's probably something like it.
Andy Mellwig (Porter Ricks, Dubplates & Mastering): The perception of moving is the shifting of perspective. When you shift your head, you shift rhythmic structure over the metronome. When the body is moving, it's a multiple rhythm, a polyperspectivism. The roots of dance are moving patterns from animals. In the Stone Age, people observed the animal patterns. For Thomas Köner and me, dance is a procedure between natural moving forms of animals and humans. [The Wire, 1998]
Robert Henke: I believe a very essential part was this idea of a flow. Potentially something that has no end or no beginning. So many Basic Channel tracks basically fade in and fade out. There is not so much change going on in terms of structure, but there's a lot of what I might call tectonic changes, where large plates are slowly moving towards each other and colliding and shifting. So this music, which on the surface seems to be just simple and repetitive, you listen to it for five minutes and then you notice nothing is where it was before and the mix is completely different. To me, this is one of the big musical achievements of that time. To come up with a rhythmic electronic type of music that really is based on slight shifts in color, in accents, in materials, which gives it this feeling of timelessness.
Mark Smith and Matt Unicomb contributed to this piece.