Though Kraftwerk, P-Funk and Prince are often regarded as the holy trinity that most influenced the style and substance of techno, history will likely place another relatively obscure figure somewhere close to their side.
Dust off your mix tapes from the 1980s and find tracks by Alexander Robotnick representing gracefully alongside the early pioneers. Hear him turn up in the sets of the Electrifyin’ Mojo and the then-boy wonder from Cooley High, Carl Craig. Flip through the record collections of Adam Lee Miller of Adult. and Ectomorph’s Brendan M. Gillen and search for “Problèmes d’amour,” still in club rotation after 21 years. Jack the volume and grab the beat of a wacky dance-music hybrid Robotnick made not-famous-enough called Ital Disco, which mindful DJs shoehorned beautifully in between what the black science-fiction kids were creating in Detroit and Chicago.
Robotnick (real name: Maurizio Dami) was an Italian music producer who helmed a regional cabaret dance band in the early ’80s, then broke through in an emerging international dance underground that was largely paced by the feverish production going on in this city.
His résumé could make a glamorous coffee-table book of its own: Living in Florence in his late 20s, he danced to Anglo-punkoid music made by Human League, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and by Dusseldorf-based Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF). His other influences were also cool: Joy Division, the Cure, Yello, the Contortions and Tuxedomoon among them. Soon after, the ubiquitous song “Problèmes d’amour” was recorded, making him, in his early 30s, an electrostar. But by 1984, he looked away from the dance floor and began composing music for live theater works, videos, video installations and feature films. He produced ambient soundscapes for fashion exhibitions. Then, a deeper shift occurred: Robotnick/Dami came under the influence of African, Kurdish and Indian musicians living in Italy, eventually forming a band called Music For Meditation. While virtually no one was watching in the early 1990s, he recorded with an Indian-Italian band named Govinda, producing two tracks, “Devotion” and “Transcendental Ecstasy.” New Age Disco? Not quite.
He was still reaching for new epiphanies when he played with the Third Planet, which added pre-millennial tension to traditional folk music from Kurdistan, Algeria and India. His global style continued with projects called Alkemya and Masala (actually Music For Meditation under another guise) and he recorded for labels with the charmingly silly names Hot Elephant Music and Hot Banana.
It wasn’t until 2002 that he put out another dance record, and the following year he began performing live — and, for the first time, mixing in DJ sets — with the use of a laptop. This burst of renewed vigor came as Robotnick was turning 50.
In an interview earlier this year, the often sharp-tongued musician (he’s openly criticized Carl Craig for material he said was bootlegged without recompense) said this about the current electronic dance scene: “You very seldom come across something really new. I must say that I’m tired of techno in all its variations. I acknowledge its power to make you dance, to put you into a sort of trance where you forget about all your trouble. But I’m sick and tired of one-measure bass lines played over and over again. In a few minutes, I give up dancing and head to the bar.”
For the first time ever, Detroit will get a chance to dance (or belly up to the bar) with Alexander Robotnick in the elegant, minimalist basement club at Oslo. Detroiters who recently witnessed his seamless live/DJ performance in Amsterdam were in awe of his command. (His appearance comes thanks to the enterprising promotion team Soft Curls, which has been bringing artsy international talent to Oslo since early spring. Theo Parrish, DJ Highfish and Barbara Preisinger played there in May; more left-field surprises are planned for the near future).
Robotnick — a pseudonym chosen because it means “worker” in Russian — said he always imagined himself an émigré from the East working on his music in Parisian clubs. Now he’s about to experience the real thing in the Paris of the New World, in a stylish club in the belly of this famously decaying workers’ paradise. For some, it could be too overwhelming to imagine, and, for the uninitiated, too impossible to ignore.
Alexander Robotnick appears Friday, July 2, at Oslo (1456 Woodward Ave., downtown Detroit). Call 313-963-0300 for info. Doors are at 10 p.m.Walter Wasacz is a writer based in Hamtramck. E-mail [email protected]