Dirty Computer

This week's #SundayAlbumClub is only the second time we've followed such a format. We usually reserve these for extraordinary cases (like Frank Ocean's latest hit), but for her, we'd do anything.

 Photo courtesy of  GQ .

Photo courtesy of GQ.

This musician is a champion for everyone who's ever felt marginalised and alone because she knows what it's like to be different. And by taking these feelings into account, she has created a singular world with her newest release where the downtrodden shall inherit the earth.

 Photo courtesy of  The Lily .

Photo courtesy of The Lily.

Her grace and courage in a world that constantly tries to push people into neat, organised boxes is an inspiration to us all. It seems like what we read in the papers lately are only tales about corruption, avarice, and greed. But here is a story about someone who strives to do the right thing, and to emulate what she hopes humanity to one day become.

Please watch, listen, and enjoy "Dirty Computer", the emotion picture by Janelle Monae.

I want young girls, young boys, non-binary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you [...] This album is for you. Be proud.
— Janelle Monáe

 

 

Us vs. Them, part 1: It had to happen here

Originally written for Futurice.

Once, this city laughed and danced and sang like any other. In those days, there were just a few machines, doing the work the people couldn’t or wouldn’t. Lured by good pay and secure jobs, they flocked to build better lives for themselves.

But more and more machines came, and they got bigger and smarter. They didn’t need skilled labour any more, just button-pushers. Pretty soon, the people were working for the machines, not the other way round.

After a while, it was hard to tell where the machines ended and the people started. Everything was a factory. Even the music came off a production line. Theatres turned into car parks. Ballrooms turned into retail shops. The city’s culture started to rust away.

The machines built this city; the machines will destroy it.

********

In a quiet suburban town to the southwest, three high school friends have other ideas. They won’t be enslaved by the machines. They’re going to use them to create the future.

But this is no cyberpunk novel. This is early 1980s Detroit, and our high school heroes are busy inventing techno. And, quite by accident, inventing ways of working which a lot of digital service creators might recognise today.

detroit-techno.jpg

User-Centred Disco

There wasn’t much going on in Belleville, so Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson got into music. Like a lot of high school kids, they played in garage bands, but more importantly, they listened. Every night the airwaves brought the sounds of Charles “The Electrifyin’ Mojo” Johnson from Detroit, playing an eclectic mix of P-Funk, Prince, and… Kraftwerk.

Something about this monotonous, mechanical music struck a chord with these children of car factory workers. “It sounded like somebody making music with hammers and nails”, said May. Where Motown’s music factory embraced the method of Henry Ford’s assembly line, this music captured the feeling of growing up in the industrial decay of Detroit. Listening to Mojo’s show every night made them aware of the power of music to connect and unite people. They were inspired to become DJs themselves, and started to pick up slots on the local party circuit.

Playing records in front of crowds was nothing new in itself. But unlike their contemporaries, May and Atkins weren’t satisfied with merely rocking the party. They wanted to take their audience on a journey.

“We never just took it as entertainment… we used to sit back and philosophise on what these people thought about when they made their music.”, said May. “We built a philosophy behind spinning records. We’d sit and think what the guy who made the record was thinking about, and find a record that would fit with it, so that the people on the dancefloor would comprehend the concept. When I think about the brainpower that went into it! We’d sit up the whole night before the party, think about what we’d play the following night, the people who’d be at the party, the concept of the clientele. It was insane!”

More than just providers of good times, they saw themselves as the bridge between the musicians and the crowd, weaving the records into a narrative that ebbed and flowed, but left the dance floor in a profoundly different state of mind by the end of the set.

Lean Music Creation

Playing other people’s records was all well and good, but Atkins, May and Saunderson felt that to truly express themselves, they needed to produce music of their own.

Traditionally, the process of publishing records was a long and expensive one. Artists might be able to make a first demo on cheap home equipment, but if they wanted to record something they could release, they would need to book time in a recording studio and hire producers, engineers and perhaps session musicians. Next came the process of mixing, mastering and pressing up vinyl. Only then did the song reach the listeners’ ears, and there was every chance our artist had spent a lot of time, money and effort producing something nobody liked.

The Belleville Three took a different approach. They turned to the newly affordable electronic synthesisers favoured by the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk. With their shared pool of second-hand cast-offs, they were able to skip the expensive studio and record in their own homes, directly onto tape. They could tweak instrument sounds and rearrange their compositions on the fly. And when they thought they had something good, they could simply play it at the Detroit Music Institution on a Saturday night and see how people liked it.

Iterative Techno

“Mayday [Derrick May] was the star of the show,” said DJ and producer Alan Oldham. “Many times, he’d play tracks right off a Fostex two-track recorder that he’d just cut hours before at his studio, something I never got over. He’d beat mix between the reel-to-reel and 1200s [turntables] and back, using the pitch control on the reel. Derrick in those days did by hand what many of the current Techno producers do digitally. No DATs. No acetates.”

The effect of this rapid user testing was twofold. For the artists, they could get invaluable feedback on how effective their new material was before they spent lots of money pressing up vinyl records. But for their fellow musicians in the crowd, this early, open sharing of ideas was both an inspiration and a challenge. Juan Atkins’ “Off To Battle”, recorded under his Model 500 alias, was “a battle cry to keep the standards high.”

Future Shock

With the rise of big data and machine learning, the music of the Belleville Three has a renewed relevance. “This city is in total devastation”, said Derrick May in 1985. “Detroit is passing through its third wave, a social dynamic which nobody outside this city can understand. Factories are closing, people are drifting away, and kids are killing each other for fun. The whole order has broken down. If our music is a soundtrack to all that, I hope it makes people understand what kind of disintegration we’re dealing with.”

This was about more than just making people dance: this was their way of standing up against the destruction of their city, their society, their future. Music as a unifying force, a way to bring people together under a shared experience, and putting the people back in charge of the machines.


An Endless Ocean

The definition of an album is something we've always discussed at length.

In an age where artists can put out anything resembling a concept, reduced to a single track, or recycled for a compilation, it's increasingly becoming the norm to not follow the norm.

They can even so far as to spend millions marketing an upcoming release, only to change everything from the tracklist to the title at the very last second. Or make updates to an album after it's already been made public. Or keep the entire thing a secret and shock the world in an instant with their latest creation.

Frank Ocean did all of the above.

In a Sunday Album Club first, we listened to the first of two albums he released this past weekend. Or more to the point, we watched.

Endless is a 45-minute long visual piece shot entirely in black and white. It is the prelude to Blonde, which went live two days later.

Does it count as an album? Absolutely. 

Will we continue to explore more mediums that push beyond the traditional realms of our everyday records? Without a doubt.

Stay tuned.

PS: Here's a nice story about the final track of Endless and its ties to Berlin, featuring the one and only Wolfgang Tillmans.

One Hundred

Yesterday marked the centennial episode of Sunday Album Club.

Two and a half years. One hundred Sundays. One hundred albums.

To mark the occasion, we felt it was only appropriate to return back to the start and commemorate the artist who started it all: David Holmes.

 David Holmes illustration by  Jimmy Turrell .

David Holmes illustration by Jimmy Turrell.

Let's Get Killed was born from David Holmes' forays in New York - walking along the streets and listening to the sounds and conversations happening around him, most of them from the subcultural bedrock of society. He kept those recordings for ten years and used them as the basis for this album. The tracks were often formulated around key snippets which he felt depicted a certain rawness and authenticity of a place usually shrouded with beatitudes.

As a Belfast man himself encountering this city for the first time during a visit with Jessilyn, Neil was inspired to use it as the inaugural pick for Sunday Album Club back in February 2014.

So when it came time for Number 100, Jessilyn selected The Holy Pictures. An album etched in nostalgia and sentimentality, it is a departure from Holmes' other works with its internalisation of the past. Tribute is given to the personal growth that comes as a result of these former experiences. From start to finish, it is melancholic, earnest, and alive.

The foundation of Sunday Album Club rests on the sole belief that music is a universal communicator. It pushes down walls and joins people of all creeds. And sometimes, it even fosters love.

To the next one hundred.

Enjoy the aural bliss that is The Holy Pictures here.

----

Edit: We sent the link to this story to David Holmes and got this response in return. Day made. 

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust

David Bowie passed away last Sunday.

In the face of such loss, we felt that it was only appropriate to hold a special Album Club in honour of the great man who once was. Someone whose career spanned over 4 decades and who spent almost all of that time in the spotlight, only to retreat in his final years to find some much needed quiet and peace.

Yet he wasn't done. And two days before he died, he released his final album, Blackstar (), as a last goodbye for his fans. His magnum opus for the millions of people around the world whose lives were touched by his music.

Between 1976 and 1979, he lived in Schöneberg, a neighbourhood in what was previously known as West Berlin. As the founders of Sunday Album Club live in Berlin today, this connection we share with him is especially meaningful and we are reminded of when he performed here in front of the Reichstag on June 6, 1987, which was right next to the Berlin Wall. At the time, the city was well and truly divided. But in that moment, the wall didn't exist, as thousands of East Berliners pressed up against it to hear David sing and shout back the words.

“I will never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I've ever done. I was in tears. They backed up the stage to the wall itself so that it was acting as a backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn't realise in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concept, where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I've never done anything like that in my life. And I guess I never will again.”

Not a day goes by where this divisive period in the city's history isn't magnified in some way. But through the power of music, David was able to transcend through such barriers to reach those who felt as if they were being left behind. And what he found was a group of people who desired the same things as everyone else. Peace, understanding, and some good old fashioned rock and roll.

Remember and raise a glass to him in tribute here.

Rest in peace.