Juan Atkins

Juan Atkins: The Man-Soulmachine
Machine Soul Innovator

Not much to add to what I said here, but within the context of what we've got lined up in the August heat, it seemed high time to throw a little more love Magic Juan's way. Of course the Deep Space LP is machine soul's stone tablet, and early records like No UFO's and Night Drive were the crucial bridge between the electro space jams of the early 80s and the sleek austerity of 90s techno, but there's an awful lot going on in the spaces within the spaces that merits further investigation...

Juan Atkins Future Sound EP Underground Level

Take a record like The Future Sound EP (released under his own name), an utter one off on Underground Level Recordings that finds Juan Atkins gathering together a selection of tracks from Martin Bonds and Mike Huckaby (alongside his own track Interpret) that showcase the brittle Motor City sound of his Interface imprint, splitting the difference between the sleek futurism of the People Mover and the tactile reality of the freeway underpass. A track like Urban Tropics seems poised between the early Metroplex records and where Atkins would take things into the 90s.

Infiniti The Infiniti Collection Tresor

This 90s sound came to be embodied in the Infiniti records and Atkins' fruitful collaborations with Basic Channel's Moritz von Oswald (see also Deep Space and their more recent Borderland records). Tunes like Flash Flood and Skyway set their sights on the infinite horizon, achieving trance states with an aerodynamic precision, while Never Tempt Me squared the circle between Atkins' micro-house innovations and his machine soul foundations.

Model 500 Mind And Body R&S

Appropriately, the latter was explored to its fullest on 90s Model 500 records like The Flow, I Wanna Be There and large swathes of the Mind And Body album 1998. Tracks like Tipsy, Be Brave and Just Maybe ran parallel to Timbaland and The Neptunes' own post-Deep Space innovations, aligning itself with chrome-plated r&b futurism (with strong undercurrents of drum 'n bass) at the turn of the millennium. Of course, he'd already begun flirting with such sounds in 1989 with Visions' Other Side Of Life, a house-inflected machine soul hybrid shot through with Atkins' trademark synth mirage.

Juan Atkins, wearing headphones, looks on

Indeed, one of Atkins' greatest gifts is his way with a synth, coaxing these great multi-faceted prisms of texture from his machines that sound like nothing so much as rays of light streaming through a raincloud. Infiniti's Impulse, Model 500's The Passage and Incredible all showcase that sound from various angles (and within strikingly different contexts). I've often thought that Timbaland's production for Aaliyah's Rock The Boat bore a striking resemblance to Atkins' synth architecture.


So beyond the obvious currents of innovation and influence that spread through dance and street music in the intervening years, it's fascinating to return to the man's music and hear the blueprints for the future, drawn up far in advance. In truth, it seems that even with the passage of time, decades in fact, we're all still catching up...

Kleeer

The Renegades Of Electronic Funk

Richard Lee, Woody Cunningham, Paul Crutchfield & Norman Durham

The story of Kleeer is in essence a microcosm of soul's evolution from silky disco into the computer blue sounds of machine funk, embodying the spirit of a time when late 70s dancefloors sheared boldly into the 80s. Alongside purveyors of fine funk like Prince, Zapp and Mtume, they set the stage for funk's neon-lit transformation into the new wave-inflected sound that would come to define large swathes of the decade. Reverberations of those future shock vibes could be felt across the following years, with artists like Timbaland, The Neptunes, SA-RA and Dâm-Funk all drawing inspiration from the crystal clear waters of machine soul. Even now, it's a wave we're all still riding...

The early big band Kleeer (circa 1981)

The nucleus of Kleeer lie in the trio of Woody Cunningham, Richard Lee and Norman Durham. After time spent as the afro rock band Pipeline and then as the funky Jam Band, the group transformed into the disco-era studio proposition The Universal Robot Band1 for a couple years before ultimately becoming Kleeer with 1978's chart-bothering disco burner Keeep Your Body Working. This culminated in the group's debut full-length, the aptly titled I Love To Dance, which was full of peak-era gossamer disco like the aforementioned Keeep Your Body Workin' and It's Magic. What you notice immediately is the presence of lush strings and a Gaussian-blurred production, the combination of which are simply blissful to the ear.

Kleeer Winners

Atlantic 1979

However, for the purposes of today's excursion I'd like to descend on three particular records — my favorites, incidentally — to tell this tale, since they manage to paint such a perfect portrait of what Kleeer were all about. The group's sophomore effort, Winners, is our first port of call. Just look at that sleeve! A perfect representation of the sounds within, which bring the previous album's silky grooves into focus on a tighter, neon-lit plane.

What you find within is the peak of the group's disco escapades: the aspirational flavor of the title track showcases the group's oft-cited positivity (think UR's Transition), while Close To You places Norman Durham's throbbing funk basslines front-and-center to a greater degree than on the debut. However, it's mini epics like I Still Love You, Open Your Mind and the guitar-heavy2 Rollin' On that steal the show here, imbuing their disco with strong shades of the dawning decade's sense of drama.

Kleeer License To Dream

Atlantic 1981

Our next record comes the very next year, with the follow up License To Dream. This sort of furious productivity actually turned out to be standard operating procedure for Kleeer, who managed to unleash an album every year they were together (1979-1985). License To Dream features sharper edges than before, these rude grooves shot through with an ever-increasing presence of synths (starting to give the string section a serious run for its money). There's no getting around it, the 1980s have arrived. De Kleeer Ting and Running Back To You both betraying serious new wave damage, the latter's rhythms eerily prescient of the nascent electro sound.

Still, there's plenty of starry-eyed disco memories lingering in this record's grooves, with the guitar-kissed Hypnotized and Say You Love Me's slowjam high drama both connecting with the crushed velvet stylings of the first two records. In many ways, License To Dream is the axis at which the group's discography hinges, with yesterday's disco boogie on one side and the machine funk of tomorrow on the other. With its seamless fusion of the moods and grooves of both eras, License To Dream manages to offer up the best of both worlds.

Kleeer Intimate Connection

Atlantic 1984

After two more albums of exquisite post-disco electro boogie (Taste The Music and Get Ready), the group delivered their masterstroke with Intimate Connection. This is machine soul avant la lettre, SA-RA before SA-RA, Dâm-Funk before Dâm-Funk and The Neptunes before swingbeat had even happened... future shock warnings are in full effect.

Tonight (famously the basis for DJ Quik's g-funk touchstone Tonite) is a (mostly instrumental) liquid machine funk groove that features a heavily vocodered android loverman on the chorus. The track is remarkably stripped-down and linear — minimalist even3 — gradually unveiling an electronic mantra that stretches five minutes out toward infinity. This is Derrick May's Kraftwerk + George Clinton equation worked out beneath the bright lights of New York City, like some twisted vision of techno beamed in from a parallel dimension.

Vector science unspools on many planes

Equally computer-damaged funk is in evidence on Next Time It's For Real, a backwards-moonwalking, slow-motion electroid jam that finds Norman Durham and co. in sparkle-suited Hall & Oates mode, its expansive synth architecture shimmering in the moonlight. Similar luxury sonics are in effect on the title track, a distant cousin to The Isley Brothers' Between The Sheets that was later sampled by Diamond D. to great effect on the lovers rap of Confused.

In a strange twist, the casually rolling funk of You Did It Again finds the lead vocals of Woody Cunningham somehow predicting the sound of Nate Dogg's smooth-flowing soul man approach on Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era. It's just another one of the many ways Intimate Connection casually laid out blueprints for the future...

Kleeer circa Seeekret 1985

Case in point, the group's swan song Seeekret opened with the Nu Groove/Burrell Brothers-predicting jazz chords of Take Your Heart Away and closed with the taut new wave guitar attack of Call My Name. Throughout the record — which was to be their last — the group also managed to pick up on pre-echoes of swingbeat in their tightly-arranged group-chant vocals and certain shades of techno in the textures and rhythm. Seeing as Seeekret hit the shelves in 1985 and both forms would ultimately ring in the 90s, it was a fitting way for this band of forward-thinking renegades to bow out on top and in fine style.

Kleeer The Very Best Of Kleeer

Rhino 1998

It's not often that I recommend a greatest hits-style round up, but The Very Best Of Kleeer is truly something special. I remember back when this came out, in the spring of '98, against a backdrop of afternoon Atari 2600 sessions (more on this next month), the reign of Timbaland/Missy and Moodymann's unstoppable ascent. In short, it was a revelation.

Housed in an appropriately luxurious sleeve and offering a thorough single-disc overview of the band's career laid out in chronological order, the compilation even manages to feature most of the highlights discussed today. Truth be told, it's a bit of a rush hearing it all in one place. If you're at all interested in the paths of intersection between g-funk, machine soul and the post-disco dancefloor, then it belongs in your collection. Utterly indispensable.

Kleeer circa Taste The Music 1982

Upon further reflection, the reason Kleeer mean so much to me — beyond their striking consistency with penning a killer tune — is the way their music seems to split the difference between predicting techno and the nexus of g-funk/r&b. Machine soul, to coin a phrase. It's tempting to imagine the group doing their thing in the early eighties as only they could, rewiring their funk up to the machines and spitting out vector grooves across the globe's post-disco dancefloors.

They're precisely the sort of group you'd need to invent if they'd never existed. One can almost imagine an alternate dimension where they'd stayed The Jam Band and sunk into obscurity, leaving a void to be filled in hindsight by someone connecting the dots between Heatwave, Prince and The Neptunes and picking up the pieces. You can almost hear them say If only there had been a band like that...

Thank goodness that there was... in this dimension, we got the real thing.

Footnotes

1.

Interestingly, a later incarnation of The Universal Robot Band (with Leroy Burgess and Patrick Adams in the fold) was responsible for the post-disco staple Barely Breaking Even.

2.

Featuring Eddie Martinez — also known as the man behind the awesome metallic riffage on Run-DMC's Rock Box —  tearing it up on guitar.

3.

Interestingly, this remarkably stripped-down track was later reworked by none other than SA-RA themselves for the Atlantiquity compilation, which featured a brace of electronic musicians re-imagining selections from the rich back catalog of Atlantic Records.

The SA-RA Remix of Tonight (featuring The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcello) found them playing against type and pulling out all the stops, turning in a big room version of the original's minimalist Kraftwerk-meets-Funkadelic groove. You see, the original already sounded like SA-RA... so they really had no choice.

Geoffrey Oryema

Geoffrey Oryema in an introspective mood
Sometimes I feel I'm a nomad

I was just researching some details for an upcoming feature when I happened to discover that Geoffrey Oryema has just passed away at the age of 65. It's such a shame to lose this true ambassador of Ugandan music, a man who had been through so much over the years but never lost his unique vision of what music could be. This vision was transcribed across seven albums (recorded over the course of twenty years), a discography full of vibrant twists and turns through music both traditional and a fusion of forms.

His second album, Beat The Border, was my introduction to African music back in 1996, when a good friend of mine brought the record to a party and played a couple tunes. Needless to say, I picked up the album the following week. That wonderful juxtaposition of the traditional — with Oryema going mad on the nanga — with the post-Ocean Of Sound moody pop of The River was quite simply revelatory and opened up a whole world of music to my 15-year-old ears.

Geoffrey Oryema Beat The Border Real World

Beat The Border was also the second in his Real World trilogy of albums — sandwiched between Exile and Night To Night — which spanned the 90s with that same deft high-wire balance between those twin worlds, just as he was caught between his adopted European home in exile and his homeland of Uganda that he had been forced to flee over a decade earlier.

At the height of dictator Idi Amin's brutal reign, Oryema's father — who was serving as the Minister Of Water And Resources — was murdered by the apparatus of an increasingly paranoid regime. The then-24-year-old Oryema smuggled himself out of the country in the trunk of a car into Kenya, before ultimately settling in France (in large part due to his love of the language).

It at this point that a tape of his music wound up circulating at the WOMAD festival — organized by one Peter Gabriel — which resulted in Gabriel's enthusiastic signing of Oryema to his Real World label. It was here that Geoffrey Oryema began to make his mark on the global consciousness, first with the Real World trilogy and then with another trio of albums that stretched up to the dawn of the present decade.

Geoffrey Oryema performing live on guitar
Paint me a picture of the river

His music was possessed of a gently passionate nature, a beauty in the delicate folk stylings of Hard Labour, the bleak intensity of Lapwony and Umoja's joyous celebration of unity. The River brilliantly expanded upon Gabriel's ethereal downbeat framework (actually this was the very first song my friend played from the album), while the heartrending acappella performance of Nomad is simply too beautiful for words. It's as fitting an epitaph as one could ever hope for...

But when he strolls, he hears music. And he swears that sometimes, sitting in a meadow or on a tree trunk, playing his harp, he disappears. He is conversing with his ancestors.

Frank Tenaille (Geoffrey Oryema, or the Sorrow of the Great Lakes)1

Footnotes

1.

Tenaille, Frank. Music Is The Weapon Of The Future. Toussaint, Stephen and Hope Sandrine, translator. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2002. 187-190. Print.

Kevin Saunderson

Kevin Saunderson deep in the mix, with trademark headphones
The Master Reese in full effect

Where does one even begin?!? I've gone on record putting the man in my upper echelon — alongside Tricky and Adam Ant — with my absolute favorite recordings artists ever. That's a pretty odd bunch, I'll admit, but without question the figures that have done the most to shape my own musical path. In the twin worlds of house and techno, the man stands like a towering colossus astride the realms of chart-busting post-disco dance and the deepest recesses of the underground (both of which he's long ago mastered). So like I said, it's hard to know where to even begin...

The Belleville Three up on the roof
The Belleville Three: Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May & Juan Atkins

Well, you could begin at the beginning: in the early 80s when he was mixing it up in the shadows of Detroit with the Deep Space crew (which included similarly storied figures like Derrick May and Juan Atkins, among others). Then, in the wake of No UFO's, venturing into the studio to begin a recording career (and his KMS imprint, which has been doing it's thing for nigh on thirty years now) in earnest: first with the Kreem record — Triangle Of Love in a post-New Order/Into The Groove-stylee — and then the minimalist techno of Intercity's Groovin' Without A Doubt (recorded with Derrick May). A preview of things to come, to be sure...

Reese & Santonio The Sound KMS

This kicked off a series of heavy underground records, raw traxx released seemingly from beyond the dawn of time like Keynotes' Let's Let's Let's Dance and the Reese & Santonio records — recorded with one Santonio Echols — rough-and-tumble tiles like The Sound, Truth Of Self Evidence and Bounce Your Body To The Box that surfed the interzone between house and techno before just about anyone else. This era was masterfully anthologized on the Faces & Phases compilation, a veritable treasure trove of the rawest techno one could ask for.

Kevin Saunderson Faces & Phases Planet E

So at the dawn of 1988, the table was set for the Reese records — where Saunderson's knack for vibed-out productions really began to take flight — burning hot techno sides like Just Want Another Chance, Rock To The Beat and Funky Funk Funk. These were probably the heaviest electronic grooves laid down down up to this point, each of them were built on a towering structure of bass, percussion and the sort of strange, funky synths that one never forgets. Kevin Saunderson had a vision of massive, floor-filling electronic dance music before just about anyone else. It's his calling card, really... but then so is the undeniable sense of vibe that he imbues his productions with. And that, as they say, is what makes all the difference.

Reese Just Want Another Chance Incognito

Just Want Another Chance seemed to be his take on the heavy-breathing atmospheric style of Jamie Principle (prefiguring the likes of Blake Baxter and K-Alexi Shelby), with spooked electronics and a ten ton bassline that remains one of the deepest to be found on wax and would go on to fuel decades of darkside excursions to come. Rock To The Beat took a left turn into cinematic territory, especially in its warped Mayday Mix, but the flipside's traxx like the pure acid frenzy of Grab The Beat and You're Mine's emotive Clash sampling epic were equally revelatory techno par excellence. And Funky Funk Funk is just sick, with that sawing bassline and whistling synths nailing the buzzing mayhem of the rave.

Tronikhouse Straight Outta Hell KMS

He continued down this path with the ardkore madness of the Tronikhouse records, with awesome proto-jungle tunes like Up Tempo, Spark Plug and Straight Outta Hell Back To Hell Mix, anchored by the more straight up techno of The Savage And Beyond and Smooth Groove (techno perfection in 3½ minutes). The flipside to these rave excursions were the deep techno missives unleashed under his E-Dancer guise, with the (just as hardcore) stomping electric madness of Velocity Funk (which started life as a Cameo remix, doncha know?) and the killer digital disco of World Of Deep serving up dancefloor perfection.

Reese X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio Studio !K7

Both of these tunes anchored Saunderson's epochal X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, which essayed the Detroit-area broadcasts of no-nonsense techno that Reese and crew had been unleashing for the better part of a decade. Featuring DJ Minx as the master of ceremonies, it boasted appearances from Detroit techno stalwarts like Octave One, Carl Craig and Sean Deason alongside Outlander's Belgian techno, the widescreen garage of D.C.'s Deep Dish (in their Chocolate City guise) and a whole brace of tracks from Dutch techno mainstays Dobre & Jamez. The whole affair remains a high water mark in that interzone between deep, moody house and dirty Downtown techno.

E-Dancer Heavenly Planet E

It was during this era that Saunderson released E-Dancer's Heavenly LP, a stone cold classic that scooped up a decade worth of tracks like The Human Bond and Pump The Move (along with the aforementioned Velocity Funk), juxtaposed with new killer cuts like Banjo, Warp and Behold. There was even an awesome Juan Atkins Re-mix of Heavenly, which put a deeply moody high-desert spin on the original version's delicate electronic groove. This whole trip culminated in the widescreen cinematic techno of The Dream, which seemed to draw from the same filmic corners of Saunderson's sound as Rock To The Beat had: this was Saunderson scoring films yet to be made.

The Wee Papa Girl Rappers Heat It Up Jive

And then there's the matter of his remix work, which found the man redefining the possibilities of what could be achieved on the b-side of a single (much as King Tubby had done about a fifteen years earlier) with his complete reworks that crafted totally new grooves around a few of the song's original elements (as opposed to the more common edit-style remixes of the day). People usually point to the Acid House Remix of The Wee Papa Girl Rappers' Heat It Up as the moment where it all took shape, which found him transforming a little hip-house ditty into a well-deep slab of moody acid decked out with a monster bassline.

Inner City Paradise 10

The man's most mainstream guise, Inner City (with dancefloor diva Paris Grey), took on a life of its own with killer pop-inflected cuts like Good Life, Pennies From Heaven and Praise, storming the dance charts again and again. I remember hearing dubs of Good Life on Jammin' z90's afternoon dance show, which would hold sway after the station's usual hip hop and r&b bread-and-butter, and the frisson of hearing Reese productions on the drive home from school (this before I even had a tape deck) was palpable. Be sure to check the awesome Power Of Passion (left off the U.S. version!) for a rare example of the man at his most delicate, with a singular take on r&b-inflected machine soul that's nestled somewhere between Kraftwerk, Roberta Flack and The Neptunes.

Inner City Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin' Virgin

Inner City's cover version of Stephanie Mills' Watcha Gonna Do With My Lovin', which reached its sublime peak with the 8½ minute Def Mix by Frankie Knuckles and David Morales, was a masterstroke of impossibly lush house music that seemed to predict Massive Attack's Blue Lines in its languid, downbeat grooves. And then there were all those garage sides by The Reese Project, which managed to smuggle remixes by the likes of Jay Denham and Underground Resistance onto high street like a Trojan horse.

Inner City Ahnongay 6x6

Bringing it all back home, the man unleashed the awesome Ahnongay, a techno outing of the highest caliber replete with remixes by Dave Clarke and Carl Craig. Still, it's the original version that remains the standout. Deep and spiritual techno soul, it's a prime example of Saunderson at his absolute finest. One could imagine slipping it on amid things like SA-RA, 4 Hero, Underworld, J Dilla and Moodymann without too much trouble, like it was the most natural thing in the world.

A tower of great records, featuring artists like E-Dancer, 4 Hero, Moodymann, Underworld and SA-RA Creative Partners
At the end of the day, it's all machine soul...

This is part of the reason why Saunderson's work means so much to me: he routinely squares the circle between the worlds of post-disco dance, rave, techno, r&b and even hip hop — worlds that are often treated as if they were light-years apart — folding one over the other like an origami crane as everything overlaps with the casual ease of a Venn diagram. He traverses these worlds like a man who's seen it all, expertly crafting those singular grooves with style and finesse.

Kevin Saunderson mixing it up live
Kevin Saunderson with his son Dantiez @ Movement 2018

Because above all else, that's what he'll be remembered for: conjuring up heavy, atmospheric, stomping sonix like no other (no matter how often the imitators may try to flatter sincerely). Take Esser'ay's Forces — a one off under that alias, no doubt for Saunderson just another day vibing out in the studio — and you'll find a wild, weird and deeply funky slab of killer dancefloor madness... techno as only the Master Reese could do it. Seeing him decked out in a sequined jacket, holding court last weekend at Movement (aka the Detroit Electronic Music Festival), it's clear that he's gonna keep right on doing it for years to come. And thank goodness for that.

Bandulu

Bandulu out among the stars
Bandulu map the cosmos

The gang who metamorphosed into a group,1 purveyors of dubbed-out techno come creeping out the caves, mystics in the firelight like Altered States. Deep space b-boys on the Black Ark tip.

Percussion rolling through High Rise Heaven dub sway in the rainstorm, clouds creep like blanket cross the sky and a Presence hangs in the air. Carl Craig's Innerzone Mix of Better Nation like deep space dancehall coming through the radio, electronics in the sand the Black Ark looms large in the rear-view mirror. Selah's dub hollowed out and scraping shards of metal as the microphone switches on, New Foundation the diamond-perfect fusion of dub and techno, raw rough edges at every corner and the street-level underbelly of Basic Channel's kosmische symphonies.

Were they The Clash?, I heard a voice wonder and deep down felt what they were saying. Original Scientist Infonet Bisness, seen. Thunderground and the Illegal Rush coursing through feet planted on concrete running like wires into structures and out into the world below. Graffiti say Fight The Apressers, turn Chapter 6 descend the staircase where Redemption Dub plays and two 7" tiles take flight, Jahquarius and Detention swirl slowly into the sky.

Sons Of The Subway and Space DJz sidewalking on the electro tip, hip hop beats, New York What Is Funky? All of these sounds make sense of the city, life in the Heights, the place where we dwell. Palm Grove against the moonlight, bass pressure knock you in the chest and decks tapped into the power grid. Now you're cooking with dynamite.

Footnotes

1.

Barr, Tim. Techno: The Rough Guide. London: Penguin, 2000. 32. Print.

Jah Wobble

Jah Wobble materializes in the Sahara
Shaman of the bass

From PIL to Primal Scream. The Legend Lives On... Jah Wobble In "Betrayal".

Do you remember last night I sat down and you got up? I do.

Sessions with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, some fraction of Can lose themselves inna haunted dancehall.

I think I'm Bogey... living in Casablanca!

Fly the Bomba Nonsonicus Maximus, sailing Higher Than The Sun A Sub Symphony In Two Parts... Weatherall and The Invaders Of The Heart grooving in the Blue Room with The Orb and Aisha as starships creep across the desert sky.

40 years pass by slowly, the bass still pulses on & on & on...

Mick Jones

Mick Jones in a film strip, chillin' out in a leather jacket
The guitarist who picked up a sampler...

...and became an informal emissary between the worlds of rock 'n roll and the dancefloor.

From The Clash to Big Audio Dynamite and beyond, there's a whole world of dancefloor mayhem to be found within the grooves of those records.

As the man once said, the hardcore life is where it's at.