underground resistance

How Underground Resistance Became the Public Enemy of Techno

Photo: Photophunk/Supplied

Funkadelic never said that a lecture is funkier than a party — but they weren’t far off. To wit: understanding why one of New York’s hottest techno tickets this weekend isn’t some 2 a.m. DJ gig in a Bushwick warehouse, but a talk that members of Detroit’s Underground Resistance (UR) collective will give with visual artist Kevin Beasley at Performance Space (formerly P.S. 122) during civilian hours, requires knowing some history. In today’s dance-music discourse, that’s like being asked to eat your spinach.

Yet now more than ever, as Brooklyn’s club scene churns with money (real estate!) and talent (heavy on incredible female and queer DJs and producers) the all-too-rare appearance by UR in the city partly built on commodified beats is a nutritional reminder that those who don’t know their past will have trouble creating a useful future. Maybe not so much musically, as socially and economically. Because the gospel of global, sustainable techno ethics has long been part of UR’s message, whether delivered from a DJ booth or at a roundtable.

Underground Resistance was founded in 1989 by “Mad Mike” Banks, a Detroit session musician of some renown, and Jeff Mills, whose DJing reputation leaped off the city’s FM band to earn him the nickname “The Wizard.” The hard-hitting, machine-subverted dance music they and early members like Robert Hood and Blake Baxter exported to London and, especially, the newly reunified Berlin, gave UR an almost-instant international audience.

In the process, the Afro-futurist, anti-corporate, music-first/ego-never DIY values these young African-American men brought from Detroit — often spelled out on the record labels and lacquered into the grooves of their 12”s — helped define the city’s uncompromising dance scene. Not for nothing was UR labeled, “the Public Enemy of techno,” or that UR T-shirts stand next to only the Olde English font of the Tigers’ D, as the classic, in-the-know fashion accessory signifying the city’s techno heritage.

Central to UR’s self-empowering approach was the collective’s early decision to control all the modes of creativity and production. For that purpose, they established Submerge, a distribution company that over the last quarter century has helped distribute many of Detroit’s great independent dance labels. While the mainstream media narratives typecast the city as poverty-stricken by drugs, crime, and the death of the automotive industry, Submerge showcased Detroit’s undiminished musical side, while also embedding techno rebellion and uncompromising perseverance beside Motown’s DNA.

“The whole idea of controlling your distribution was key to the survival of Detroit as a musical force,” says Cornelius Harris, over the phone. He joined UR in the mid-90s to help Mad Mike write the incendiary verses of UR communiqués; now he’s the collective’s manager, and one of the people who’ll be speaking at Performance Space, along with the DJs Mark Flash and John Collins. “A lot of times, the economic piece of it gets overlooked. People don’t typically look at [dance music] as business — they think it’s just a bunch of fun parties and whatnot. They don’t understand how the economics of it empowers people, especially when there aren’t a lot of other opportunities.”

Handling your own business became among UR’s founding civic techno trademarks. “When UR went to Berlin [in 1990],” continues Harris, “that ended up becoming the framework that Berlin built itself on, a type of model that people looking to do something independently could take and use to build their own scenes.”

Despite the exceptional artists who had laid the foundation for UR, that model was less individualist than collectivist in its mentality. Members performed in masks, refusing to be photographed, and when older artists left for solo careers, they were replaced by new “soldiers.” DJ Dex, a third-wave member, calls UR’s a “blue-collar techno” created for “research and development” purposes. And though they had the odd “hit” — most famously, DJ Rolando’s 1999 smash, “Knights of the Jaguar,” which Sony Germany, seemingly unaware of the collective’s stance towards corporate entities, first attempted to license, and then bootlegged as a cover version, before being issued a cease-and-desist — UR’s inspiration and perspiration trumped the notions of both traditional success and genius.

In true Detroit fashion, these values were constructed on the importance of labor — not preached so much as made precedent. Yet these values were also informed by the social purposes that club spaces developed during the inner-city crises of the Reagan years as defensive strategies. Harris calls these spaces “responses, where people within communities were coming up with something better. It was therapy. People would talk about music being their drug, and the club as a way to escape, as an alternative, [about] a certain kind of freedom that you might not have outside a club.” Then he adds, “That’s something maybe you don’t see as much anymore, and you don’t get as much of this idea of free space, or of liberation.”

That a certain amount of freedom has been lost in broader club culture is not an unfamiliar critique to anyone who’s been paying attention to it for long enough. But Harris refuses to attribute this condition to the money that’s pouring into dance music, blaming it more on “the attitude that comes in with it, the idea that money is the only thing of value, [as opposed to] valuing the culture that people are actually paying for.”

Talks such as the one that will take place on Saturday night — the official title is “Man Machine,” but both Harris and Beasley admit it could veer into any number of directions — are a way to bring other perspectives into view, perspectives that a party can’t provide. “It’s something that maybe will allow you to get more out of the club,” Harris says of the program. “There’s a certain kind of understanding that you’re gonna get in the club situation that I don’t think you could get in a conversation; but, at the same time, there’s elements that are good to talk about and to share — the social and economic impact of this music [for instance] — that I don’t think are given enough credit.”

And though Harris prefers to let UR’s work speak for itself, he’s not without anecdotes as to how the group’s ethics work in real-time, or the purpose he hopes they will serve.

“I recently had someone request that we do a performance in a country that still has slavery and we refused. But it was interesting because this person really didn’t understand what that meant and got a little upset. I don’t see [the refusal] as anything controversial or radical or whatever. At the same time, I’m really proud of being part of this lineage that extends back to people like Paul Robeson and Lena Horne and Ray Charles, artists and athletes doing what’s right and representing things in the ways they should, as opposed to the ways things are often done. It’s really out of respect for that legacy to continue down that path, and I like to think that it’s really just keeping that tradition alive.”

How Underground Resistance Became the Public Enemy of Techno