Detroit techno producer James "Suburban Knight" Pennington is silently bopping his head, tweaking the hard but swinging beats and sequences hes been composing for the last month. Hes silently enraptured between his headphones, preparing tracks for the first-ever live performance of his newer, more R&B-infused techno.
Pennington is best known in Detroit techno history for his work with Kevin Saundersons Inner City a decade ago, as well as producing the underground dance smash "The Art of Stalking." More recently, hes been affiliated with Detroits shadowy Underground Resistance, showing up DJing under the UR banner on rave bills around the Detroit scene. Which, of course, means Detroiters not in the rave scene have probably never heard of him.
But with his live debut of a less Euro-centric brand of techno, Penningtons making a brave and necessary move to bring his sound into musics present tense. And it doesnt get any more present tense than programming swinging 4:4 tweak-beats and rollicking synth-swoops the night before the gig.
Though, from the looks of the two-bedroom apartment, with its standing Tetris game and home studio, Pennington could be in any number of Detroit producers home bases hes actually an ocean away, in Liège, Belgium. Here, he and three other Detroit DJ-producers (Gary Martin, Antwon "Twonz" Faulkner and Wes "Locutus" Herche) are spending the month as part of the first Detroit Technology European tour, organized by Detroit promoter Tony Smith and publicist Jeff Shovlin, late of local scene-zine Motormouth.
Scenesters will remember Smith as the controversial 21-year-old rave scene upstart who stunned the underground party scene by renting out the old Eastown Theatre on Detroits East Side two summers ago. It gave the roaming Detroit scene a base of sorts whether it wanted one or not in the dilapidated venue known for legendary gigs by the likes of Bob Marley and Led Zeppelin 20-plus years ago.
Smith has taken heat in the past for doing things his own way, but part of that has meant bringing such DJs as Indiana-transplant Locutus to Detroit to play his first area parties. Its this originality that explains why the Detroiters are in the quiet little southeastern Belgian town; Smith met some people through Pennington, who plays in Belgium regularly, and saw a chance to make something happen, even if it is, like the Eastown, a little unorthodox.
In the superstar DJ world, Pennington and crew would be home working on tracks all week and jetting off to gigs at raves and clubs across the country on weekends, as do most of Detroits more established artists (i.e. Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Alan Oldham). As Detroit label Direct Beats summer tour, "Electric Entourage," and Planet E and Transmats fall "Time Space" tours prove, there is a small but emerging domestic market for newer Detroit techno.
But for lesser known artists like Pennington and company, techno is still more a global than local phenomenon. And so, for this inaugural "Technology Tour," the Detroit producers are hunkering down in Liège to work on tracks all week (Locutus has even struck a deal with a Belgian label to release his cuts), taking trains from centrally located Liège to gigs all over Europe on the weekends. Liège itself is short on clubs, but its one small record store is a shrine to the Detroit sound; Derrick Mays Innovator box set is in the window alongside Planet Es latest Recloose disc. Even lesser known records, such as Aux 88 releases and the new Comin From Tha D compilation, are in the bins alongside the Euro-trance and hard techno this part of Europe still favors.
Aside from capitalizing on the overseas market, theres a solidarity and kinship the "Technology Tour" brings to the Detroit producers efforts which is itself monumental. As Locutus says, "We all pretty much know each others styles and play each others records, so we can really complement each other."
But besides the camaraderie, theres also the new chapter "Technology" is writing in the Detroit sounds history.
"Its just a matter of time before the clubs and promoters realize what we have here in the new talent department," says Shovlin. To prove the point, Smith is even releasing a "Technology Tour" compilation disc of tracks by touring producers.
Its Friday night at Club Silo in the uncannily Detroit-like waterfront part of Leuven, Belgium, and the "Technology" crew is playing its biggest show of the tour. The club, in an old silo, boasts posters for Detroit artists such as Claude Young and others. Although the place is not quite packed, for which the bartenders will apologize all night, the Detroiters play like its New Years Eve. Smiths video images fill up the screen behind the DJ booth with the tour logo and DJs names.
Gary Martin, dapper in a pinstriped suit, starts off spinning more swinging tech-house. Minimal stuff usually doesnt swing, but Martins taste for the exotic underground 12-inch makes his set a jazzy techno warm-up.
Penningtons live set follows. A fellow producer from Liège helps him call up sequences, while he works the mixing board and effects like a composer DJing which he pretty much is. The tracks are all new, and with their layered percussion, mile-deep grooves and tweaky upper register melodies, they have a distinct live rawness. While there are some bumps with the on-the-fly arrangements, and the set, with its R&B breakdowns and lush flourishes, may not be the hits the crowd expected, its still a success. Pennington beams with well-wishers as Twonz and Locutus mount their respective sets, playing similar, hard-but-melodic Jeff Mills-style Detroit techno. Twonz drops Mills set-staple "The Bells," Aztec Mystics "Knights of the Jaguar" from this past summer and Kevin Saundersons "Velocity Funk" alongside the hard, tribal tracks from his own Hijacked label. Locutus even drops Derrick Mays "Strings of Life."
The track selections seem reverent to the point of being obvious, but they give the Detroit sound a cohesion even its first three waves of producers havent accomplished. And that seems to be the real revelation of the "Technology Tour." Rather, instead of frequent flyer miles and "careers," at this stage it really is still all about the music which is why these guys so unashamedly revisit the Detroit classics in their sets.
After the long night, Pennington drives the gear back to Liège while the others lug their record crates to the Leuven station to catch the first morning train back. The otherwise incongruous trio of the dapper Martin, rave-utilitarian Locutus and gear-sporting Twonz wait, techno and exhaustion their common bonds. No pampered superstar DJ crap here. This is techno the old-fashioned way. This is work. After a few hours of sleep, its off to Zurich to do it all over again and again. Hobey Echlin writes about music and BPM culture for the Metro Times. He is also the associate editor of BPM musiculture monthly, Mixer
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