Kirk Degiorgio revisits a groundbreaking dub techno record.
For techno, 1993 was a pivotal year. The influence of the first wave of Detroit artists was lessening as the genre went increasingly global, sparking creative scenes in European cities like London, Amsterdam, Ghent and Berlin. Detroit techno's blueprint was adapted by each community, where sub-genres like acid techno, intelligent techno and ambient techno flourished alongside jungle, breakbeat and other specialised sounds.
It was among this fracturing that releases by a mysterious label and artist named Basic Channel appeared. Information was lacking, so techno fans projected their own theories onto the heavy slabs of vinyl. The releases baffled European techno fans, and equally confused those in the US. "As the actual Basic Channel releases were showing up, I remember I was in Gramaphone Records in Chicago where the kids who worked in the store were tripping," the Detroit techno artist Carl Craig recently told me over email.
Carl Craig was a well-known producer by then, but Maurizio was only known to techno die-hards who, a year earlier, had spotted a Maurizio record called Ploy. (It included an Underground Resistance remix.) Some Maurizio releases appeared on coloured vinyl, and all had NSC stamps in the dead wax indicating they had been mastered and pressed in Detroit. "Everyone was trying to figure out who these Basic Channel boys were, because the records were being pressed in Detroit," Carl said.
I knew most of the Detroit techno producers and nobody had ever mentioned a Maurizio, so it was assumed to be a pseudonym. After speaking with Carl one night, I learned that a German duo, Moritz Von Oswald and Mark Ernestus, were behind the releases. They were Detroit techno fans who had visited the city and engaged with Jeff Mills as he was leaving the Underground Resistance collective, and had exchanged remixes with Carl. They had also delivered an EP's worth of material for Carl's Planet E label, which came out under the name Quadrant.
"I knew Mark and Moritz for a while before Basic Channel," Carl said. "I met Mark first in Detroit at the Majestic Theatre. When we [Planet E] released Quadrant, the boys had already put out Ploy. I just loved what they were doing."
Berlin's love for the second wave of Detroit artists such as Mills and Craig is crucial to Basic Channel's story. Carl swore me to secrecy at the time, but there were stories of how the Basic Channel crew planned to purchase a building in downtown Detroit and have it as a studio base. As more Basic Channel releases came out, so did more information. And far from being aloof, detached men of mystery, Moritz and Mark were the inspiration and driving force behind a wonderfully creative hub in Berlin. Based around the legendary record store Hard Wax, Basic Channel would not only forge links between Detroit and Berlin artists, but also reached out to record stores across Europe to cater for the growing number of techno fans who wanted hard-to-find releases. This respect for the music eventually led to a studio, multiple labels and the Dubplates & Mastering venture. The passion Mark and Moritz showed in those early days has continued over the decades.
Dave Cawley, who ran the influential London record store Fat Cat, spoke to me over email. "I had such a lovely connection with the Hard Wax crew," he wrote. "We were often in Berlin, and they would come to the UK, too. Our connection was based on mutual respect. We used to swap boxes of records. I'd send a box of 500 hard-to-get UK 12-inches, and they would return the favour."
The Phylyps Trak EP was released in those early days of murk and mystery. "Phylyps Trak" burst out of the speakers with a sound unique at that time. It was somewhat frenetic, a fast tempo driving a 909 and conga rhythm track straight out of the early Jeff Mills school of club techno. Combinations of stabs, granular chords and tape hiss-like noise are placed over the rhythm track. In complete contrast to the sparse dub techno genre Basic Channel launched, "Phylyps Trak" is busy, relentless and intense.
"Phylyps Base" was a stripped-down rework, less busy and perhaps more effective for it. Serving as a dub version, it hinted at what was to come from Mark and Moritz
as they further explored their love of Jamaican dub in the following years. The EP picked up the pace again for the final track, "Axis," hitting even harder with explosive snares boldly upfront in the mix and the kick drum more pronounced. The stabs and repeated chords were an innovative application of the anchoring guitar jabs in Jamaican dub. Coupled with the clicks and hisses prominent in the mix, they gave the overall sound experience of listening to a crusty Jamaican dub experiment from the mid-'70s transported to the future. Tape delays and reverb added to this imagery, so it was no surprise when Mark and Moritz's deep passion for dub music became known.
The following Basic Channel releases increased the amount of space in the arrangements, and stretched out over lengthy sides of vinyl. As always with an innovative series of releases, many artists sought to emulate the crackles, hiss, granular stabs and saturated chords. Waldorf's Wavetable synthesisers became sought after when it was rumoured Mark and Moritz were rare owners of the rare Waldorf Wave, where a vast interface and hybrid digital met an analog filter approach.
The meditative sound, honed by mixing down the old-school way with all hands on faders in lengthy sessions, evokes the very best of deep Jamaican dub, spawning an entire sub-genre: dub techno. Listening back to those earliest Basic Channel releases can still feel spiritual, a time when Detroit techno met Kingston via Berlin.