A Bullshitter's Guide to Dub Techno
We're taking you deep into a realm where the warmth and humanity of dub meets the cold, precise, mechanistic impulses of techno. And we're all going to learn something have a laugh at the same time.
The world works in three ways. There are things in life that we know work together: fish and chips, Cannon & Ball, Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. Then there are things that could and should never work together: chips and mustard, Hale & Pace, sun, sex and suspicious parents. Finally, and most pleasurably, are those those rare moments of alchemy when the unexpected and that which shouldn't work miraculously does. Think brie and grape, Matthew McConaughey and Janet Jackson. Think dub techno.
Despite being relatively unusual bedfellows, for the last twenty years or so, dub and techno have entered into a longstanding, loving relationship. It's a reciprocal relationship that plays on the convergences and disparities between the warmth and humanity of dub, and techno's precise, mechanistic iciness. They've melted into one another.
Techno is rooted a migration narrative. Techno was the result of German experimentation that Americans imported. Americans then exported techno to Germany, selling ice to Eskimos, essentially, before Germany started selling techno back to the Americans. This process has been repeated approximately 123,877 times since 1990. Dub techno takes that migratory pattern and suffuses it with studio processes inherited from Jamaica. It's arguably unlikely that producers like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry ever thought their booming, bass-heavy, towering towers of experimentation would become so beloved by austere German dudes, but that's the joy of music, and art in general — as soon as you put something into the world, all authorial ownership disintegrates and dissipates into the unknowable, unpredictable, murky waters of audience response and subjective interpretation.
The basic story of dub techno is thus: Moritz Von Oswald and his former production partner Mark Ernestus decided, at some point in the early 90s, that what techno — a genre still in it's short shorts, if not total infancy — needed was a dose of dub's echoplexed studio trickery to exploit the gaps between the staccato jackhammer of the ever present kickdrum. Together, as Basic Channel, they gave the world the gift of dub techno. With their Chain Reaction imprint, they took it to new levels. We'll get back to them shortly.
Now, sadly, a lot of dub techno out there is unbelievably dull — greyscale, unadventurous, utterly and literally generic. It must seem easy to make because after all, all you need is the a submerged kickdrum, a few clanking chords stretched pointlessly out into arching waves of unmoving, unfeeling nothingness, and maybe the odd snatch of tired melodica, snaking around like a cobra that desperately needs to be put out of its misery. The thing is, even this drab, dull, take on dub techno is totally, completely listenable. As it's music that's intentionally drifting — glacially, but still drifting nevertheless — it is borderline impossible to find truly terrible takes on it. In that way, it's a bit like ambient.
In fact, thinking of dub techno as a cousin, or step-brother, of ambient is a helpful way of framing things. Ambient music, famously invented by everyone's favourite brainy slaphead Brian Eno during a hospital stay in the mid-70s, is intentionally unobtrusive, acting intentionally as background music. It's aural wallpaper. It is placid, unquestioning, deeply soothing. Ambient is recreation of the somnambulance of the womb, basically. And so is dub techno.
The best dub techno is distinctly unshowy, never overreaching, never trying to wow or stun. That it can and does both stun and wow is a testament to the power of subtlety. A record like Von Oswald and Ernestus' (as Maurizio) stone cold seminal remix of "Starlight" by Model 500 (aka Juan Atkins) does little but it does the little it does stunningly. It's a perfect example of the power of spatiality: every element in the mix is given breathing space and, accordingly, takes on a sense of the organic. It's a work of architectural, structural, and musical genius.
As the genre wouldn't exist as we know it without Von Oswald and Ernestus, we should spend a little time looking at their masterpieces and why they work. This is, after all, a bullshitter's guide and the whole point of me writing it is so you look like you know more than you did before reading it, and just being able to talk a little bit about Basic Channel should get you through the thousands of conversations about dub techno you're likely to have over the course of a lifetime.
So, then, the basics of Basic Channel. With tracks as boldly stark as "Quadrant Dub 1" and "Octagon" the pair, for want of a better phrase, changed the game. Of course, not all techno before it was as thundering and relentless as Underground Resistance in their ferocious prime, but Von Oswald and Ernestus' minimal approach — a timbral, pulsing, decidedly experimental approach — to both sound design and club construction was revolutionary, genuinely radical. It was dance music that was focused on the micro, on the tiniest hints of hiss and fuzz, on minuscule swatches of sound that burble and reverberate around the sonic field. It was the exact and precise manifestation of what "dub techno" should be — a platonic ideal made real.
The perfect introduction to the world of Basic Channel discography — a blistering run of ice cold records recorded and released in a two year span — is the Tresor released mix, Scion Arrange And Process Basic Channel Tracks which does exactly that, and which you can hear below.
Chain Reaction, the label the pair created from the ashes of the Basic Channel project, was home to artists like Monolake, Porter Ricks, Vladislav Delay. Not everything released on the imprint was straight down the like deep, dubby techno, but that sensibility — the thawing of ice as a sonic aesthetic — ran through the entire operation. Check out the following tracks on a compare and contrast tip:
The Monolake cut is about as dub techno as dub techno can get, whereas the Continuous Mode mode tune sheers a lot of the dubbiness off, lacing everything with a thick, gauzy. sticky fuzz. Both are prime examples of the pungent power of snowblind club music at it's steely, icy best.
A few years later, the German duo went full on dub with their Rhythm & Sound project. Enlisting vocalists like Paul St Hilaire, Cornell Campbell and the Love Joys, Von Oswald and Ernestus tapped into genuine roots and soundsystem culture, creating the kind of smoked out dub that's an approximate aural recreation of the effect that incredibly potent mairjuana has on the brain. The Rhythm & Sound back catalogue is a haunting, haunted, tripped out site of memorial exploration. Everything sounds half-remembered, half-there, half-real.
Dub techno isn't just the story of Von Oswald and Ernestus, though. If you're going to be the overnight expert in the genre that I just know you're desperate to be, you're going to need a few more names in your arsenal.
Dub techno, for better or worse, can take the listener into slightly trickier terrain. I'm talking here about the world of clicks and cuts, and I promise I'll keep it quick. Back in the late 90s, it seems that dub-fixated techno boffins went mad for the idea of combining the kind of theory-led music you'd skim past in back issues of the Wire with the world of the club. Thus we witnessed the rise and fall of the clicks and cuts movement. Spearheaded by Mille Plateaux — yep, a record label named after a classic work bit of French theory that every humanities student in the world has read two pages of before giving up and getting back into bed with a bag of Wotsits and YouTube clips of Keeping Up Appearances — this was dub techno as an academic exercise, dub techno created in test tubes, dub techno that was enamoroued with spatiality and minimalism at the expense of, y'know, tunes. Still, you'll look really clever down the pub if you big up Conforce's genuinely wonderful Presentism, one of the Clicks and Cuts compilations, and a Vladislav Delay LP or two. Trust us. Brainy European electronic experimentation is a guaranteed conversation starter. Maybe drop in a reference to Stefan Betke's Pole project and the rest of the artists he's assmebled on his fantastic ~scape imprint over the years.
The migratory process we mentioned earlier meant that this analgesic take on the rigidty and rigour of techno didn't stay marooned in middle Europe. Eventually Americans started making dub techno too, and any trace of it's roots in roots music from Jamaica drained away. Only joking, dub techno is for everyone, not just stuffy shut-ins with sweat patches, bad beards, and really fast computers. In deepest Michigan, one American man, Ron Modell, has brought the dust and groove of dub techno classicism to a whole new audience with this Deepchord project.
It's a fitting name and a perfect end to our brief insight into a world that drips with sonic richness. Juicy, chewy, tangibly there, tripped out, dubbed out, frittered out chords as the basis of pretty much every good dub techno record ever made, from Modell's own The Coldest Season LP to tracks like Mikkel Metal's "Stephan", or "Dust" by Merv, or "Twelve Miles High" by Burger/Ink. Those records, and a hundred more like them, ride and roll on the kind of blissed out chord patterns that could repeat into infinity. At heart, dub techno, for all it's pretence and bluster, is simple music. Done simply, it's incredible. Put simply it's incredible.