Beyond the Hood? Detroit Techno, Underground Resistance, and African American Metropolitan Identity Politics

Christoph Schaub,

Columbia University

“Even the most hardcore and militant-sounding techno groups, like Detroit’s Underground Resistance, have lofty ideals at heart – scenarios where race is no longer an issue, let alone a problem.” (Dan Sicko 1999, 28)

“Hip Hop never abandoned its original audience. It spoke to the hood first and it stays in the hood and expanded outward later which is beautiful! Detroit Techno and Chicago House never had time to root themselves as deeply into all the US cities. They were diverted to Europe at the height of their inner city influence.” (Mike Banks, quoted in Thülen 2007a)

That experiences of place and imaginations of space play a decisive role in identity formations and their aesthetic negotiations within popular culture can well be considered a common place in cultural studies. It is, however, still highly interesting to study such processes and their cultural variations in detail. In regard to contemporary African American metropolitan identity politics, pages have been filled exploring the connections between experiences of inner-city life, identity formation, and hip hop culture. African American hip hop artists often foreground their allegiance with subaltern metropolitan spaces, understanding them as the crucial reference points of their identity, while mass media (mis)portray them as authentic voices of an often monolithically conceived Black urban culture (Kelley 1997). Consequently, a now nationally and globally powerful discursive formation has been established which links hip hop to spatial conceptions such as the ghetto, and more recently, the hood (Forman 2002). It might thus be not too audacious to argue – as, for example, Adam Krims has done – “that some (largely American) image of ‘real’ African American hip-hop (and the ghetto) will probably never be absent from any local rap context” (Krims 2001, 157; my emphasis).

A similar discursive association of African American urban culture with techno music, however, is absent from popular imagination. Despite the fact that, in the mid 1980s, techno has been ‘invented’ by African American middle class youth in Detroit, it has been received by an US-American mass audience mostly as a White European musical genre; a perception largely due to the fact that techno was only commercially promoted in the U.S. for the first time in the early and mid 1990s as a musical style imported from the U.K. and associated with British rave-culture (Sicko 1999, 19-21, Butler 2006, 44). Moreover, early techno artists were not too concerned with the question whether their style was ‘Black music’, or not. As Sean Albiez has pointed out, “the pioneers of techno … clearly felt ‘race consciousness’ or an overtly ‘raced’ identity was largely irrelevant to their music, though not necessarily irrelevant to their lived experience in the United States” (2005, 145; emphasis orig.). Thus, from the very beginning – and in contrast to dominant political articulations in hip hop, such as Black Nationalism – identity politics in Detroit techno can be seen as having been “informed by a progressive desire to move beyond essentialized ‘blackness’”(143; emphasis orig.). Apparently, techno identity politics are also intertwined with a spatial imagination that differs from a dominant strand in hip hop by going beyond realistic, or authentic, depictions of contemporary subaltern metropolitan spaces. In Hellblau (2001) – a novel by German writer, dj and pop musician Thomas Meinecke – a character, who is researching relations between Detroit techno and Paul Gilroy’s conception of the Black Atlantic, argues: “It is interesting that, to us, techno, whose effectively invisible city has almost no streets […], no street credibility, existing in this sense also far beyond any myths of social reality perpetuated in rap, appears nevertheless as a radically dissident political medium”(21; my trans.).

My article will trace the relations between African American metropolitan identity politics and techno in regard to the Detroit group and label Underground Resistance (UR) which is generally credited for offering the most explicit and radical political articulations in Detroit techno. First, I will discuss some aspects of early Detroit techno and characterize the context of UR’s intervention within the cultural field of techno in the early 1990s. I will then proceed to discuss both the cultural and political beliefs involved in Underground Resistance. My argument is that the identity politics of Underground Resistance can best be understood as an attempt to situate itself in regard to a Black radical tradition and to (re)establish allegiance with African American inner-city communities while, simultaneously, promoting political and cultural identities that explicitly move beyond ethnicity and race. In this sense, my article is primarily concerned with the self-understanding of UR and not so much with the actual effects it has had, or has not had, on identity formations beyond the people involved in this project. In a concluding remark, I will reframe my argument by linking the spatial imagination involved in Underground Resistance’s identity politics to discourses of the hood in hip hop culture.

Early Detroit techno and the context of Underground Resistance’s intervention

To understand Underground Resistance’s intervention within the field of techno, some basic social and cultural circumstances within which early Detroit techno developed as well as some of its aesthetic characteristics need to be recalled first. Beginning in the early 1980s and having its founding artistic ‘manifestation’ in 1985 (the year of the release of Model 500’s track “No Ufos”, which is generally considered the first techno track), techno’s emergence must be seen in the light of a musically cosmopolitan part of Detroit’s African American population and the urban situation at that time. The three high-school friends Juan Atkins – who was behind the pseudonym Model 500 and had been part of the popular electro group Cybotron, a direct predecessor of techno – Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, along with Eddie ‘Flashin’ Fowkles, have been the founding figures of techno; their independent record-labels Metroplex, Transmat and KMS released the key-records of Detroit techno’s ‘first wave’/generation (1985-1989). These artists’ approach to music was crucially inspired by the local radio dj Electrifying Mojo who “refused to pigeonhole music by race in his show programming at a time when such racial categorizing was commonplace” (May 2006, 336). Consequently, contemporary European music – e.g. Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, New Order, Gary Numan – was played along with African American musical genres, such as funk and soul (Sicko 1999, 87-90, Albiez 2005, 135f., May 2006, 336f.). The thus experienced open-mindedness influenced both the aesthetics and identity politics of Detroit techno’s first generation and has been characteristic to this genre ever since. Electronic music, British electro-pop, funk and soul, along with disco and Chicago house, also make up the musical elements out of which techno was built – as Beverly May suggested – “as a conceptual and experimental style of electronic dance music that combines prominent rhythmic programming with newly crafted sounds and soulful or melodic counterpoint elements”(2006, 331). It can be argued that these artists’ effort to move beyond conceptions of race, and ethnicity, was put on stage in a musical aesthetics that blended these seemingly oppositional elements. As Juan Atkins has put it: “I hate that things have to be separated and dissected [by race]… to me it shouldn’t be White or Black music, it should just be music”(quoted in May 2006, 348). However, Sean Albiez has shown that it would be rather simplifying to see this kind of aesthetics as an “attempt to escape racial designation” only, since it was at the same time “a political act that encourages black cultural expression to break free from what may be regarded as the conservative, self-imposed limitations and closely guarded musical borders of hip hop and R&B”(2005, 143; emphasis orig.). Early Detroit techno artists thus claimed the indebtedness of their music to an African American musical heritage while simultaneously rejecting any limiting notions of what music made by African Americans should sound like (May 2006, 347f).

When considering the social and cultural context of this aesthetics, it is necessary to emphasize straightaway that Detroit techno was much more than an aesthetic response to social, economic, or political constellations, e.g. a Black/White dichotomy in the categorization of music. As in most youth cultures, the production of pleasure played a crucial role with techno developing out of a vibrant high-school party scene eager for new sounds (Sicko 1999, 32-51) and thus functioning primarily as part of a dance culture. Nevertheless, even this party scene has to be understood as filling the “cultural void”(33) caused by Detroit’s urban situation. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Detroit was heavily marked by processes of de-industrialization and suburbanization which resulted in an impoverished inner-city, an abandonment of downtown as well as racial and other social tensions. In addition, the 1972 relocation of Motown Records to Los Angeles seemed to have symbolically confirmed the city’s cultural decline (Sicko 1999, 59-66, Albiez 2005, 132-35). Early techno artists experienced Detroit as a territory characterized by aggression and violence, as a – in Derrick May’s words – “totally devastated city [… ] [in which] the whole order has broken down”(quoted in Kuhn 1995, 31). Nevertheless optimistic in their outlooks, these artists were at the same time aware of Detroit’s former ‘glory’ as both the home of Motown and a thriving industry, and, as Dan Sicko suggested, driven by “a sense of wanting to restore some of downtown Detroit’s artistic nucleus” (1999, 63). They set up their record studios in this area while techno as a cultural alternative within an unsatisfying social and cultural environment was “institutionalized”(92) in the Music Institute (MI), a downtown techno club established in 1988 (92-94). Beverly May describes the extent to which this new electronic dance sound was welcomed within parts of Detroit’s African American population: “[…] several Detroit radio stations and speciality shows supported the music, which had a sizeable local African American fan base. Techno was also being showcased not only at many legitimate local club venues in addition to the MI, but also at dance parties held at the Black fraternities of the local universities, where many of the artists had been attending college”(2006, 340). In this sense, techno’s emergence enriched the cultural and aesthetic choices available in the cultural landscape of metropolitan Detroit for both artists and consumers.

In the context of this article it is moreover highly remarkable, that on a narrative level the engagement with Detroit’s metropolitan situation was not formulated in terms of a realist tradition, but through science fiction imagery. While such a futuristic imagination of change is certainly not new to African American cultural expression and has been associated with Afrofuturism (Kelley 2002, 29-35), in Detroit techno the US-American metropolitan condition stays the ultimate reference point in a double-sense. First, it serves as a catalyst for the formulation of such a transformative vision, and, second, it is the place where this vision should become reality. In opposition to a tradition that used science fiction to imagine an escape from the present repressive condition in the U.S., such as Sun Ra who – as Robin Kelley suggested – “promoted a kind of interplanetary emigrationist movement”(2002, 31), early Detroit techno artists employed science fiction imagery to articulate their vision of a transformed society: “Techno also represented an idealistic vision of music and a future culture that could exist free from the types of limitations, prejudice, and preconceptions that the Detroit urban environment manifested”(May 2006, 333). While the blending of musical styles originating from European and African American forms thus created a sound aesthetics that aimed explicitly at refuting racial categorization, on the narrative level, science fiction made possible an imagination of identity formation that went beyond the limitations of past-focused racializing and ethnic narratives (Albiez 2005, 136-143).

Despite this inclusive transformative vision, as all cultural practices and imageries, Detroit techno has been formulated out of a socially and culturally situated, “limited location,”(Haraway 1988, 583) and thus in regard to experiences and concerns of a particular social group. Consequently, it would be wrong to identify Detroit techno as the representative cultural expression of Detroit’s African American population of the early and mid 1980s. Its protagonists and its narratives were male, resp. masculine (Butler 2006, 46), and while race was certainly a big issue in Detroit techno’s imagination of alternative identities, gender and sexuality were not (Albiez 2005, 145). Most important to my argument, however, is that techno has to be seen in the context of class differences within Detroit’s African American population. Having been raised in Belleville, a Detroit suburb, Atkins, May and Saunderson had a middle class background and were socialized in some distance to Detroit’s economically hard struck inner-city (Albiez 2005, 135). Moreover, electronic music served as a cultural means “to distance themselves from the kids that were coming up in the projects, in the ghetto”(135), as Juan Atkins has put it. A statement by Alan Oldham, another protagonist of early Detroit techno who is also know by the pseudonym DJ T-1000, makes it even more clear that techno was not so much about solidarity in a homogenous ‘Black community’, but reflective of class tensions within Detroit’s African American population, and shaped by different experiences of metropolitan culture: “I have this educated, middle class, resentment of all this ghetto shit that’s come out … the whole myth is, to be urban it has to do with poor people … [and] the ghetto, but techno was never like that … it’s not about the hard times … It’s about these middle-class kids who never starved …”(May 2006, 348). So, it is crucial to point out that – in contrast to hip hop, for instance – subaltern or working-class African American inner-city populations neither were techno’s intended, or actual, audiences nor its protagonists’ social background. In terms of class, early Detroit techno has to be considered “part of a black middle-class subculture”(Albiez 2005, 146). While it would be reductionist to infer techno as an aesthetic form directly from Detroit’s metropolitan condition, techno as part of a middle-class life-style partially practiced through this new aesthetic form is, however, hard to separate from its metropolitan context of emergence. Not only did an unhappiness with suburban life drew these artists to downtown Detroit where they hoped to restore cultural vitality (Sicko 1999, 68f.), but that they expressed their vision of future metropolitan life through electronic music depended itself largely on an urban cultural history in which class, aesthetic choice and party culture converged: “In the wider Detroit area by the late 1970s, the cultural capital most prized by the middle-class segment of the African American post-soul generation, whether in music or fashion, was European. […] They formed exclusive and elitist high-school social clubs […] Sicko maps this scene, highlighting the social antagonism between middle-class ‘preps’ and working-class ‘jits’ and the efforts made by party organizers to enforce this divide. Within this milieu, Atkins and May, and later Saunderson and Fowlkes became DJs and musicians” (Albiez 2005, 135).

For the politics involved in early Detroit techno, musical aesthetics and narratives that allowed an imagination of identity formation beyond race and ethnicity were crucial. Aware of Detroit’s urban decline, these artists did not take sides with the ‘urban poor,’ but made metropolitan spaces the subject of their own vision of alternative societies. This relates, I suggested, to the experiences and concerns of a certain part of the African American middle-class youth coming of age in a U.S. society still marked by racism, but as well by class differences within its African American population and access to diversified cultural resources. Given techno’s “aesthetic of anonymity”(Butler 2006, 43), which does not foreground the artist(’s identity), but the music and its accompanying narratives, it needs to be remarked that premises historically important to identity politics movements, i.e. “that identities are often resources of knowledge especially relevant for social change, and that […] oppressed groups need to be at the forefront of their own liberation,”(Alcoff/Mohanty 2006, 2), were not crucial for the self-understanding of early Detroit techno artists. Rather, these artists emphasized a political and cultural vision to which – at least in their understanding – an insistence on the link between identity and social location was not too important.

When Mike Banks and Jeff Mills formed Underground Resistance during the years 1989 and 1990, the cultural field of techno was undergoing crucial changes due to its transformation from a local to a more global one (Sicko 1999, 95-120). In short, following the release of Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit in 1988 on Virgin records, a compilation initiated by British record-collector and label-owner Neil Rushton, techno was introduced to the UK market and became part of the then emerging British rave-culture, with some first-wave artists becoming “overnight stars”(May 2006, 339). Dan Sicko has described the repercussions this dissemination has produced in the U.S.:

In 1991, raves finally crossed the Atlantic […]. Detroit lost its exclusive claim to being the country’s only techno capital […]. Thus began techno’s ironic existence as an import in the country that had supplied the music in the first place. […]

[…] In the meantime [i.e. between 1988 and 1991], no one had been serving the club circuits back home. The aging African American audience of techno’s past had gone back underground, to smallish close-knit house parties in local halls […]. By the time techno and house DJs began getting booked in the United States again, they faced significant culture and generation gaps. The rave culture had become a youth-oriented movement, centering on primarily white kids […]. (1999, 117f.)

This process of export and re-import thus had at least three consequences for Detroit artists. First, they and their ‘original’ local audience ended up being more and more disconnected. Second, the power to define the genre’s aesthetical and political ‘agenda’ was no longer exclusively concentrated in their hands, but distributed to a variety of agents. Third, having started out as a musical practice with a foundation in both African American audiences and musical traditions, techno was now most appreciated by White youth who perceived it as a European (read: White) form of cultural expression.

Partially in response to these developments, Detroit techno entered its ‘second wave’ of artists by 1990. While the following two aspects did play a decisive role in the cultural politics of most second wave artists, they were of even more importance to Underground Resistance. The first is more or less restricted to the logics of the cultural field: As a reaction to the ongoing commercialization of techno, the Detroit scene re-formed itself by emphasizing its artistic integrity and economic independence from major record-labels and mainstream audiences. ‘True techno’ – the problem might be paraphrased – was an underground thing (Sicko 1999, 122-160). At the same time, however, being underground, i.e. representing the ‘real thing’ and being independent from the record industry, may also have helped to position oneself within the now more competitive field. The second aspect important to the context of Underground Resistance’s emergence has to be seen as corresponding to US-American race relations. At the same time as techno had become a White genre in hegemonic nationwide perception, Plus 8 records, a label mostly featuring White artists, emerged as part of Detroit’s underground. When Plus 8 records claimed on an album cover in 1990 to be “the future sound of Detroit” and a year later did no take the label’s only African American artist, Kenny Larkin, on an UK tour, they were confronted with “the growing regional resentment in techno’s shrinking African American community over the music’s changing racial composition”(May 2006, 351; Sicko 1999, 125-135). What was happening to techno on a regional, national and global level was perceived as just another exploitation of an African American musical form. As Mike Banks, the owner of UR, put it: “I have often been accused of being difficult with European Record Companies[,] as being racist or not liking white people. The truth is I would simply ask for something that would give back to our community from these people. A simple reciprocal deal […]” (Thülen 2007a).

It is important to stress that this re-formation of Detroit’s scene did not involve an anti-global stance; on the contrary, a dissemination of techno was welcomed. What was rejected, however, was that this globalization took place by taking away the definition of what techno was from Detroit‘s artists and other artists affiliated to early techno’s vision. Thus, ‘second wave’ artists did not only respond to the initial globalization of their music by reframing the local scene via an ‘underground-narrative’, but also by establishing creative connections with artists in Europe themselves. The title of the compilation Tresor II: Berlin-Detroit: A Techno Alliance, released, in 1993, on the Berlin label Tresor Records, testified to this development. It did feature first and second wave artists along with artists from Germany, and even included collaboratively produced tracks. Underground Resistance itself can be said to have been heavily involved in this ‘alliance’ because the sampler featured tracks of Jeff Mills, Underground Resistance, as well as Mills’ and Bank’s project X-102, and since some of the key-releases of both artists were released on Tresor Records. Moreover, Underground Resistance used the Berlin record store Hard Wax, established in 1989, to promote its music and manifestos (Sicko 1999, 174). At least in retrospect, however, the ‘uncontrolled’ commercial dissemination of techno in Europe through major record labels was cited by Mike Banks as one reason why Detroit techno did not resonate with African-American inner-city populations. In an interview from 2007, Banks argued that instead of using their financial powers to promote techno in the U.S. and to help developing the music’s local base, European record companies “chose to not even try selling into our communities” – fearing competition with hip hop, for instance – but “sold hundreds of thousands of records into the U.K. & Europe only!” And Banks continues: “Of course the artists and DJ’s were financially benefited […] But the dream of electrifying the inner city with hi-tech, sci-fi thoughts and dreams was negated and we haven’t recovered since” (Thülen 2007a). In Bank’s understanding, the commercial globalization of techno did thus play a crucial role in preventing techno from becoming a powerful cultural force in African American inner city communities (“our communities”). Somewhat in opposition to early Detroit techno artists, who aimed at distancing themselves from ‘the ghetto’ by aesthetic means, Banks directly names African American inner-city populations – and, as will become more obvious later, especially the ‘urban poor’ – as an intended audience. This attempt to ascribe techno a function within ‘the hood’ marks a shift from early Detroit techno to Underground Resistance’s metropolitan identity politics which I want to trace, among other things, in the following section.

Underground Resistance: “Electrifying the inner city with hi-tech, sci-fi thoughts and dreams”

The 23rd record released, in 1992, on UR – of about 80 until 2009 – bears a title that has often been seen as programmatic for the label’s anti-commercial politics: Message to the Majors. Scratched into the vinyl itself – a technique used on UR-releases to communicate messages to those who know where to find them – another line makes the message delivered to the record industry most explicit: “fuck the Majors.” In his seminal history of techno, Techno Rebels, Dan Sicko has consequently claimed that UR should be understood as “a kind of covert musical operation set on toppling the industry establishment” (Sicko 1999, 144). It is less often mentioned, however, that the same record contains another message, printed openly on the record’s label: “Message to all murderers on the Detroit Police Force – We’ll see you in hell!” And: “Dedicated to Malice Green,” an African American Detroit citizen who, in November 1992, died in police custody after a violent confrontation with two White officers during a traffic stop. Message to the Majors was thus a record, as Mike Banks put it, “done as a result of a specific situation” (Coultas/Johsnon). And if an anti-commercial stance has been often recognized as characteristic of UR and its artists, the commitment to metropolitan politics and the criticism of its racist dimension seem to be at least equally important. Such a sensibility that links music politics and African American metropolitan concerns resurfaces, for instance, one and half decades later in the hook of another track by Underground Resistance: “Kill my radio station / That does my hood no good.” This claim of allegiance with the hood, i.e. an African American subaltern metropolitan space that is most often associated with hip hop culture, is new to Detroit techno and specific to the identity politics of Underground Resistance.

However, before I elaborate on this point, some more general remarks on UR seem to be helpful. Underground Resistance, or UR, is both the name of an independent record label and the pseudonym of a group composed of Mike Banks and Jeff Mills, the founders of UR, resp., after Mills left the group in 1992 (Kösch 1995, 55), of Banks alone. Before joining to form Underground Resistance during the years 1989 and 1990, both have already been participating in Detroit’s early techno scene. As ‘The Wizard,’ Mills performed as a locally renowned radio-dj; Banks has been part of Members of the House who had a track on the earlier mentioned compilation Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit (Sicko 1999, 90f., 143). While, as the label’s manager Cornelius Harris explains, UR understands itself as a collective whose members support themselves artistically as well as socially (Thülen 2007b), the label’s owner Mike Banks (=Michael Anthony Banks) plays the most significant role. On the label’s official webpage, it is announced that “[i]n rare and carefully calculated interviews Mad Mike [Bank’s nickname] spreads UR’s message worldwide.” Consequently, in this article, Bank’s statements are taken as of most importance to the (re)construction of the self-understanding of UR. Furthermore, if, as stated earlier, Detroit techno is male-dominated and its narratives are masculine, Underground Resistance’s narratives are the most masculine ones. Phantasmagorias of power, such as takeover phantasies, as well as a militaristic vocabulary and imagery dominate parts of UR’s self-representation and conflict with the groups’ social and cultural vision that foregrounds peacefulness, self-invention, and even questions models of ‘masculine hardness.’

In this section, I will not draw too much on sound aesthetics, but concentrate on reconstructing UR’s self-understanding through interviews, manifestos, self-naming, etc. While it is therefore mainly concerned with the linguistic framing of UR’s music, some remarks about sound are nevertheless necessary. This is all the more important since Underground Resistance’s anti-commercial stance was not just a linguistically expressed intention, but was perceived in the techno scene as being articulated also in a new sound aesthetics which fused early techno and ‘industrial music,’ or ‘EBM’ (Mills had a background in this genre as a member of The Final Cut), to produce an aggressive sound that – in contrast to early Detroit techno – “supplant[ed] melody with simple abrasive riffs”(Sicko 1999, 147). I suggest that this sound fusion is a further aspect of the musical transculturation involved in techno since Mills and Banks made use of a genre that – although African Americans have sometimes been involved – was dominated by White musicians. However, it would be mistaken to identify UR only with this kind of sound. Instead, it has to be pointed out that UR demonstrates the ability to provide a musical output that is characterized by aesthetic diversity and includes, for instance, tracks foregrounding melodic elements, similar to early Detroit techno, and a constant involvement with techno jazz fusions. Cornelius Harris has accordingly stressed that UR is in a constant process of transition, and Frankie Fultz, who is providing artwork for the label, explained that he sees Underground Resistance as “an eclectic, undefined frame to be again and again revitalized anew”(Thülen 2007b; my trans.). The self-representation of UR thus emphasizes self-exploration, the ability to change (oneself and one’s circumstances), and experimentation. Their ‘creed’ is consequently all about the need to liberate ourselves from cultural and social boundaries, understood as being imposed on “the inhabitants of Earth” by “the programmers” (record industry, mass media, etc.), through the creation of sounds that help to develop humans’ imaginative potential and that are less identifiable through stereotypical presumptions, such as racial categorization. While ‘the creed’ is structured by a dichotomous understanding of social relations (underground and the people/programmers, resistance/oppression, production of truth/brainwashing), it is equally obvious that Underground Resistance’s aim is to move beyond categorizing, and restricting, human beings and their potentials due to stereotypical conceptions of what humans are, or should be:

Underground Resistance is a label for a movement. A movement that wants change by sonic revolution. We urge you to join the resistance and help us combat the mediocre audio and visual programming that is being fed to the inhabitants of Earth, this programming is stagnating the minds of the people; building a wall between races and preventing world peace. It is this wall we are going to smash. By using the untapped energy potential of sound we are going to destroy this wall much the same as certain frequencies shatter glass. Techno is a music based in experimentation; it is music for the future of the human race. Without this music there will be no peace, no love, no vision. By simply communicating through sound, techno has brought people of all different nationalities together under one roof to enjoy themselves. Isn’t it obvious that music and dance are the keys to the universe? So called primitive animals and tribal humans have known this for thousands of years! We urge all brothers and sisters of the underground to create and transmit their tones and frequencies no matter how so called primitive their equipment may be. Transmit these tones and wreak havoc on the programmers!
Long live the underground…

While race relations are definitely an issue in these lines, they are not in the sense that a racialized identity is foregrounded or affirmed; the movement, and its sound exploration, are not identified with blackness. Much to the opposite, the ‘creed’ proposes to “smash” the “wall between races,” and UR states elsewhere on its webpage that “interracial mixing is part of the human experience.” While it thus appears to be difficult to move completely beyond references to race – which is, as I will show shortly, grounded in experiences of racism and a Black radical tradition – there is the simultaneous attempt to value a perception that sets itself free from such categories. Mike Banks explanation of why he and other Detroit techno artists were so much fascinated by Kraftwerk is a good point in case: “To their credit, I always say great things about them, because in the early days, I never heard anybody say anything about their race. They weren’t Germans, they weren’t white, in fact we thought they were robots”(Fisher 2007). There is thus a strong sense in UR, as in early Detroit techno, that racial identity should not be important to the valuation of music and the vision communicated through its sound, and – as the example of Kraftwerk demonstrates – that a sound and a visual politics which contest such identifications are progressive. Identity formation is here not so much understood as having to be enabled, or restricted, by a social position in the first place; what is emphasized instead is an ability to explore the possibilities of identity formation beyond any seemingly natural coordinates, and the prime medium proposed by UR for this is electronic music. To Mike Banks, young UR artists are thus constructing hybrid identities, being “environmentally evolved young sonic mutants”(Coultas/Johsnon). There is even a tendency – similar to the science fiction imagery in early Detroit techno and probably traceable back to Kraftwerk’s song “Die Roboter” (1978) – to question the necessity of a strict separation between humans and machines when UR self-describes its concerts as “an exciting blend of man and machine” and states that “UR evolves as tec[h]nology evolves.”

Taking these expressions of self-understanding seriously, there is no ground for claiming, as Wendy S. Walters has done (without providing any evidence), that “[p]roducer Mad Mike Banks continues to produce black nationalist techno through his label Underground Resistance”(2006, 130). Nevertheless, UR’s commitment to an African American tradition of resistance is undeniable. I argue that what makes Underground Resistance’s identity politics most interesting – and distinguishes it from early Detroit techno – is its attempt to simultaneously promote a vision of identity formation that goes beyond race and ethnicity as its reference points and to explicitly situate Underground Resistance in a Black radical tradition. I believe that this argument also disputes Dan Sicko’s imprecise claim that “as early as 1991, UR had sensed that the African American component of techno was under siege”(1999, 145). It is rather the case that Underground Resistance considers itself part of an African American struggle for liberation. This becomes quite obvious when the associative frame opened up through song-titles and self-naming is considered. Three examples should be sufficient to demonstrate this point. On the label’s first compilation, Interstellar Fugitives (1998), an Underground Resistance produced track entitled “Nannytown” follows a track called “Maroon” by The Suburban Knight. On the latter a voice is heard: “I / am the voice from the past /standing in the future /forever haunt you. / You / should have never done this to us / cause now / we can never rest. / We are!” Although these lines might seem enigmatic at first, they are perfectly readable when seen in the context of the song-titles. Both reference the Black resistance against slavery during the seventeenth and eighteenth century when fugitive slaves, so called maroons, founded settlements in the Caribbean and Brazil. One of the most famous of these settlements was formed by the Jamaican Windward Maroons, a movement lead by a woman who “had left her name on the map of Jamaica, Nanny Town”(Robinson 2000, 160, 130-140). The release of music on UR is thus self-understood as the continuation of an African American collective tradition of resistance beginning during slavery, culminating here in the self-affirmative statement “We are!” The name of the label’s studio in Detroit, ‘Black Planet,’ can be read as a further allusion to a more contemporary example of Black Radicalism, namely Public Enemy’s classic recording Fear of a Black Planet (1990). While this self-naming might also be seen as playing on the science fiction imagery generally involved in Detroit techno, a relation to Public Enemy seems not too farfetched since Mike Banks references them as an example of how music have been the most lasting and powerful voice in promoting African American concerns: “Our people have consistently only had music as a voice. Whether it was Field Work songs, or coded shit like ‘Wading in the Water’, whether it was John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye or Public Enemy music has been one of our few tools to access mainstream media with in the USA. Other than that we have no consistent voice”(Coultas/Johsnon). The Black radical tradition within which Underground Resistance locates itself is thus understood as a political and cultural one. My third example is the initials “UR” themselves. At first glance it might seem to be completely arbitrary to claim that these are the same initials as of the ‘Underground Railroad’, the famous nineteenth-century movement that organized the escape of fugitive slaves from the American South (Finzsch/Horton/Horton 1999, 244-254). But the assumption that the initials “UR” allude to this historical movement within the Black Radical Tradition is well supported by a 1994-flyer of Submerge, a distribution company of electronic music and merchandise closely affiliated with Underground Resistance, which headline says: “Submerge Underground Railroad.”

Taking into account this network of allusions, it is not surprising that Mike Banks contextualizes the making of Underground Resistance in regard to, as Cedric Robinson has famously defined Black Radicalism, “the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being”(2000, 171):

The spirit of resistance survived in us African Americans throughout the ages and manifested itself into me and Jeff Mills as kids as it did in many of our friends. Our parents were educated and had survived the turbulent 60’s and supported the ‘resistant’ Dr Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement and anti-war campaigns. Consequently both Jeff and myself were AWARE.
We both had grown tired of seeing the 80’s era commercial media portraying African Americans once again as they were in the 70’s Black Exploitation movies as happy clowns who wanted nothing more than a big fat ass, Diamonds, Furs and Gold, and a pocket full of cash earned from ‘Hustlin’. […]
We wanted a label and a sound that depicted brothers in a different darkness and a different light. UR wanted something that would inspire others to create technologies that would enable us to compete with this stereotypical audiovisual ‘mind beam’ being broadcasted daily 24/7 by ‘Programmers’ who didn’t give a fuck about us. And obviously still don’t. We wanted to build a better community by expanding, inspiring and transporting minds and spirits via unexplored sonic potential. We want a ‘Sonic Revolution for Change’[,] something that would affect our neighborhood positively […]. (Thülen 2007a)

While a gender-bias in Underground Resistance’s identity politics surfaces by Banks referring to ‘brothers’ only, it should also be obvious that it is less about expressing some Black identity conceptualized in essentialist ways and more about opening up opportunities for the exploration of identity formation beyond race and ethnicity as restrictive reference points. Underground Resistance’s identity politics is thus situated in a Black radical tradition that is simultaneously understood as a collective social liberation of Black people, providing a base for coming to terms with experiences of contemporary US-society, as well as a liberation of (self)representation, one that contests stereotypical images and ideas based on racialized and ethnic presumptions and consequently foregrounds humans’ potential to make and remake themselves.

The above-quoted passage does, moreover, also testify to the metropolitan component of Underground Resistance’s politics. The music and the vision communicated through it are meant to help ‘build[ing] a better community.’ While two major urban politics issues have been constantly emphasized by artists affiliated with Underground Resistance – Detroit’s need of mass transit and an independent radio station (Fisher 2007, Thülen 2007b) – the question to what extent techno and the economy connected to it could function as providing alternative ways of life to subaltern African American youth dominates the reflections of Mike Banks. In several interviews (Fisher 2007, Thülen 2007a), he is providing accounts of his own work with subaltern male youth as a baseball coach, stressing how he looses too many of his players either to the military or to “the drug life,” and the extent to which it is difficult to be respected by them: “It’s hard to reach em. […] This is the only thing they respect: something that can physically dominate them or scare them, because they ain’t too scared of anything, because of the environment, because they’ve seen it all. Everything is done in front of them, so the only thing they respect is a guy who’s been in prison and survived, and come out and tell them the real deal”(Fisher 2007). The task, that Banks sees, then is to powerfully communicate alternative identities that question a culture of hypermasculine hardness and violence that he perceives as dominating the lives of inner-city African American male youth. It needs to be stressed that although Bank’s reflections can be understood as a search for alternative, less dangerous models of masculinity, he does not reflect on effects the current modes of masculinity have on women. It is also in this sense that I want to emphasize a gender-bias in Underground Resistance’s identity politics which focuses on the concerns of men in the first place. In Bank’s view, however, it is the possibility provided through techno to travel and experience other parts of the world, to broaden one’s horizon, and to communicate these experiences back home, and thus to step out of the close confines and the restrictive as well as self-endangering life-styles of Detroit’s inner cities, that opens up new reference points for identity formation:

Like on this trip, we brought the sax player who is 19, one of the keyboard players is 22, the two dancers, one of the dancers newer flew on an airplane before. So with us man, what UR has been in the city, is a hope, and the young people, it’s a great opportunity for them, it’s hope for them […] it’s way more than a performance for us, because all these guys go back, and they tell stories to kids. ‘What’s Norway like? What’s Holland like? What’s Japan like?’ Here’s this flow of information from guys that’s really been there, and now the dope man ain’t so powerful.
[…] So to the kids, I’m much more powerful than some drug dealer, and to the kids these guys talk to, yeah they might know the local drug dealer but my man right there he just back from Norway, you ain’t even been to Colombia where they make the cocaine. It diminishes their power, and gives someone doing something positive more power (Fisher 2007).

For Banks, young techno artists thus do represent by their examples the possibility of alternative ways of life which foreground creativity and “something positive,” e.g. not acting self-destructive or violent against others. They illustrate through their biographies that the narrow spatial frame of the hood must not be the limit of one’s self-exploration. On the very grassroots-level, it is this aspect that Banks refers to when he is demanding that “we need hi-tech Dreams and thoughts in the hood” (Thülen 2007a). However, it is not just Bank’s personal opinion, but a shared sense among artists of the Underground Resistance collective that one should be committed as much to work within and for one’s community as to one’s artistic development, and that much more people within Detroit’s techno scene and beyond should do so (Thülen 2007b). The metropolitan component of Underground Resistance’s identity politics can therefore be detected in the first place in the hope that techno can function as a catalyst for identity formations among (male) African American subaltern youth, as a frame that allows both artistic and personal re-invention.

In her Prophets of the Hood, Imani Perry states “that hip hop offers the first popular cultural space in the African American community that celebrates, rather than rejects as an embarrassment, one’s origin in the projects (that is […] the projects as they are today, the dwelling place of the underclass)” (2004, 89). She argues that testifying to these lived experiences of African American subaltern metropolitan spaces and affirming allegiance to inner-city’s inhabitants is most important to hip hop artists (86-89). Therefore I suggest that rap has in the first place a representative function and that it is about documenting and interpreting some reality. Such a claim does of course neither deny that these ‘represented realities’ are, at least in parts, poetically constructed nor that alternative realities are imagined in hip hop culture. It only holds that the latter aspect is of less importance when compared to the seemingly paramount desire ‘to represent.’ As shown by Murray Forman (2002, 173-212), the paradigm of the ghetto has become less important during the late 1980s and early 1990s within discourses about the inner-city in hip hop culture and has been more and more replaced by the spatial imagery of the hood. Being understood as “’home’ environment” (xix) and having a sense of solidarity to it, the hood – despite all its different interpretations – provides the primary reference point for identity formation within most contemporary hip hop and is strongly characterized in terms of race and class: “By the end of 1992, the trend toward closely demarcated spatial parameters enunciated within a spatial discourse of the ‘hood had become a common characteristic in rap lyrics and videos. Place, identified with the ‘hood, was on the verge of becoming the preeminent signifier of ghetto authenticity and black identity” (212).

If early Detroit techno – due to the class concerns of its pioneers – can be said to have been beyond the hood (and in a strict historical sense also before the hood), this is certainly not true for Underground Resistance. UR is, however, not in the same sense about the hood as a lot of rap is. Its sound and identity politics neither serve a representative, or documentary, function in the first place nor do its artists consider the hood the most important reference point for identity formation. Still, UR’s identity politics are only understandable when the function the hood plays in it is not underemphasized since it is both the place where UR locates its most desired audience and the place to which its protagonists refer when they point out the need for social change. Moreover, Detroit’s inner-city is the place where they were socialized and live. In contrast to a lot of hip hop, UR does not locate the resources of identity formation only within the hood, but stresses humans’ imaginative capacity, the ability for constant self-invention, and a desire to go beyond what one is used to. Underground Resistance is thus also less about speaking out of the perspective of the hood than about providing new visions of identity formation for people in the hood; it is less about representing the hood, or distancing oneself from it, than about “electrifying the inner city with hi-tech, sci-fi thoughts and dreams.” This is what distinguishes the African American metropolitan identity politics of UR from both early Detroit techno and most contemporary rap music.


1. So far, techno has not been a ‘hot topic’ in scholarly writing on late 20th century African American cultures (Albiez 2005, 135). More recently, however, techno has been at least acknowledged as a distinctive genre in African American music (May 2006) and has also been discussed in relation to the Black Arts Movement (Walters 2006).

2. I agree with The Future of Minority Studies Research Project that, “[l]ike identities, identity politics in itself is neither positive nor negative. At its minimum, it is a claim that identities are politically relevant, an irrefutable fact. Identities are the locus and nodal point by which political structures are played out, mobilized, reinforced, and sometimes challenged”(Alcoff/Mohanty, 2006, 7). From a political perspective, the question then is if certain identity politics are emancipatory, or not.

3. In other words, I am primarily interested in a critical discussion of the (collective) self-understanding(s) of artists involved in UR. Understood as one foundational element of identity politics, ‘self-understanding’ can best be defined as “one’s sense of who one is, of one’s social location, and of how (given the first two) one is prepared to act”(Brubaker/Cooper 2000, 17) – needless to say, self-understanding in this sense is not an entirely conscious process.
4. I will stress aspects important to my argument. Comprehensive accounts of Detroit techno’s emergence and global spread can be found in Sicko 1999 and May 2006

5. On the issue of periodization see May 2006, 337. Besides “No Ufos”, other key-releases of this period were “Strings of Life” (1987) and “Nude Photo” (1987) by Derrick May alias Rythim is Rythim and “Big Fun” (1988) by Kevin Saunderson alias Inner City.

6. See also Eddie Fowkles, as quoted in Bachor 1995, 80.

7. This is also true to the high-school party scene which was techno’s breeding ground (Sicko 1999, 38-42).

8. I write ’partially’ since techno aesthetics, resp. electronic music, were only one among many means of social distinction within this middle-class metropolitan life-style. Fashion would be another (Albiez 2005, 135).

9. Prominent artists and label co-founders were Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva.

10. Today, this ‘alliance’ still holds. The recent mixes Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald did of compositions by Ravel and Mussorgsky are a prominent example hereof: Recomposed by Carl Craig & Moritz von Oswald. Universal Music Classics & Jazz 2008.

11. Here, I am referring especially to X-101. Sonic Destroyer. Tresor Records 1991; X-102. The Rings of Saturn. Tresor Records 1992; Jeff Mills. Waveform Transmission Vol I. Tresor Records 1992; X-103. Atlantis. Tresor Records 1993.

12. See the catalogue on the label’s webpage:,com_virtuemart/page,shop.browse/category_id,1/Itemid,61/ (accessed March 17 2009).

13. Cf. Underground Resistance. Message to the Majors.

14. Underground Resistance. “Kill my Radio Station.” Electronic Warfare 2.0.

15. 1989 marks the year of the first encounter between Banks and Mills, 1990 the year of their first release as Underground Resistance (Sicko 1999, 139, 144f). The label’s webpage gives November 2, 1989 as founding date of UR: (accessed February 26 2009).

16. (accessed March 17 2009).

17. Cf. Sicko 1999, 145f; (accessed March 17 2009); Underground Resistance. “Code of Honor.” Revolution for Change.

18. Examples of this sound, such as the songs “Riot,” “Punisher,” or “Sonic Destroyer,” can be found on Underground Resistance. Revolution for Change.
19. On industrial music, techno and race relations see: Sicko 1999, 139-143.

20. Cf. Underground Resistance with Yolanda. Your Time is Up; Underground Resistance. “The Theory” (1991). Revolution for Change.

21. Cf. Underground Resistance. “Jupiter Jazz.” V.A. Tresor II – Berlin Detroit – A Techno Alliance; UR presents Galaxy 2 Galaxy. A Hi-Tech Jazz Compilation.

22. (accessed March 19 2009). The creed is also documented in the linernotes of Underground Resistance. Revolution for Change.

23. (accessed March 19 2009).
24. (accessed March 17 2009).

25. Cf. V.A. Interstellar Fugitives.
The flyer is documented in May 2006, 344.

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