Detroit techno pioneer and certified OG, Stacey Pullen, confidently crosses the lobby floor of Toronto's opulent One King West Hotel & Residence. In a space occupied mostly by suits, here arrives the Kosmik Messenger, clothed in head-to-toe black and sporting his distinctive braided ponytail. He exudes an effortless cool, yet remarkably nothing about his striking presence comes off as especially out of place. But his placement here is suitable, as the same could be said of Pullen's entire preeminent career: he has always stood way out while fitting right in.
Pullen takes a seat near the bar. Straightaway, I share an anecdote about seeing him play at Marquee in New York City last year, only to recently find out that footage from that very gig had been used in a dreadful direct-to-video movie called Club Life (starring one of the actors from Entourage). Shots of Pullen at work behind the decks are used prominently in the film's opening credits…. however, dubbed over the sequence is blaring, mainstream EDM.
"Wait, with me DJing?!" He lets out a bewildered sigh and starts to chuckle. "I should sue them for defamation of character… [laughs] Oh man, that's awful!"
Pullen has every right to take offense, playful as it may be. Considered one of the second generation of innovators that are partly responsible for the Detroit techno movement, he has enjoyed a fruitful career spanning 25 years and counting. In that time, Pullen considers himself lucky enough to have witnessed an era shift and change, which he feels has ultimately helped him to have longevity. Detroit's legacy runs deep in his spirit, yet it doesn't limit him.
The mystique and history of Detroit techno has spawned everything from its own sub-genres to literature and cinema, to academic debate even. Pullen is a pillar in all of that. But a topic of equal relevance that's rarely explored is how he and fellow Second Wave leader Derrick May were some of the first DJs to travel overseas and show the world the Detroit sound.
"I lived in Amsterdam in 1993," he reflects. "I was like the teacher and the student at the same time. I was teaching people about the Detroit sound as it was at its peak, but I was also learning and hearing things that weren't coming to Detroit." This was long before the days of the internet and the digital age of music. It meant going into record stores every day and heading straight to distributors. "That kind of broadened my horizons by seeing and understanding what was going on in Europe, but also being from Detroit and demonstrating the Detroit influence as well."
As Pullen tells it, business for he and Derrick began to pick up at a legendary haunt called Club RoXY, which housed residencies for a trio of DJs named Dimitri, Marcello, and Remy. "The whole scene revolved around these three guys," says Pullen. "They played at all the festivals and wanted a piece of me and Derrick. There were a few politics involved, but they knew we were our own people. We saw the different brands that they had even before the whole marketing thing in dance music became big. We saw it from the ground up. Those three guys had it goin' on, man."
Much like how Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, and Juan Atkins comprised Detroit techno's revolutionary Belleville Three, it could be argued that Dimitri, Marcello, and Remy were their Dutch equivalent. The next thing Pullen knew, he was playing all the big shows with them week in and week out. Some days Pullen and Derrick even had two or three gigs in one day because Holland was so small. They'd play an early set, get in the car and drive an hour, do another in the middle of the night, then cruise to Rotterdam for a closing one.
The reception of Detroit techno across the pond was typically a positive one. It was back at the RoXY where Pullen ever experienced any trouble playing his stuff. "Amsterdam's a little village, happy go lucky… smoking weed… and the RoXY was into more uplifting house. I remember one night I was filling in for Dimitri and Dimitri's boy came to me and said all he was hearing was basslines. He wanted to hear some melody. And you know me, being from Detroit, I'm going to throw some Yamaha DX100 at them!"
No matter where on the globe he finds himself—this year alone has seen shows across Spain, Italy, Mexico, the States, Canada, Guatemala, Colombia, and the United Arab Emirates—Detroit is never too far out of Pullen's orbit. His phone number even retains Detroit's iconic 313 area code, despite the man spending the majority of the last two decades abroad. "The ol' 313," Pullen grins. "It's been 313 since I been 313. To get to me, you got to go through Detroit!"
It's a touching nod to his roots, but it is slightly a misleading gesture, because if there is one aspect about Pullen's career that stands out today, it's that he is not an artist who is stuck in the past. And that's an achievement that has no doubt reshaped his legacy beyond Detroit.
"I've always kept that open ear to music that wasn't Detroit influenced all the time. Being from Detroit, it's easy to get stuck in the traditional Detroit techno sound, which is cool," he says, "but there's so much music out that you have to be able to adapt to. We've always been visionaries in Detroit and I think it's important for us to understand how the music is changing, as well as how it relates to what we did long ago."
While some of his vintage contemporaries are happy sticking to the oldies that made them famous—or rail against new DJ technology—Pullen embraces the notion of changing with the times. It's an attitude that keeps him booked at some of the world's hottest parties (like a regular Music On slot) alongside the biggest talent, rather than collecting dust somewhere as an old Detroit artifact. This is what arguably keeps the years ahead so interesting. Electronic music is still a young progression. We've yet to really see its icons playing in the later stages of their lives or their crowd aging with them.
For his part, all Pullen knows is that he'll still be playing new shit. "This music has been futuristic from day one. It's been geared toward technology and the future since the start. So that's what we have on our side. We can always go into the future and still be current. That's what techno is all about. As long as we've got these different mediums and these different platforms to produce the music in the way that we do, who knows? Who knows, man."
Christopher is on