Hi, before I start with this I’ll introduce myself. I’m Darragh and I am going to pop up on 4fortyfour every now and again to write feature-type pieces on some of the more experimental genres of music of which I’m a rabid fan. I’ll probably end up doing some further writing here too, as the site evolves. For now, I’d like to take you down a rabbit hole into the bowels of Berlin and the world of dub techno.
Where does this slippery story begin? There’s no clear answer, it’s just too slippery; but we need to start somewhere, so we’ll start in Berlin in 1993, and consider a mysterious nondescript twelve-inch production called ‘Enforcement’ that was released by ‘Cyrus’ on a new label called Basic Channel. In spite of a certain photocopied aesthetic, you could clearly make out this information on the record’s sleeve.
But later, as more twelve-inches appeared, under different aliases, the logo became more distorted, faded; it had changed through entropic processes into such a decayed state that the only thing left to identify the releases (apart from the strange, numinous music they contained), was a catalogue number.
Initially shrouded in complete mystery (remember this stuff was released before the internet entered daily life), but later found out to be mostly the work of the producers Mark Ernestus and Moritz von Oswald, the Basic Channel series of releases became the backbone of dance music’s great dark vault, the dub techno genre.
We started in Berlin in 1993, but, of course, the roots of the Basic Channel/Dub Techno sound (I’m lumping them together because Basic Channel and dub techno were really one and the same thing at the start) stretch back further to dub itself. Dub’s technique of creating space by subtracting and wiping elements from production was key to the Basic Channel sound. What they did across those otherworldly releases, in an increasingly sophisticated manner, was boil techno right down to its hissing, pulsing core. The manifesto was already there on the deteriorating sleeve art, this was exceptionally minimal music. This was a consideration of the very innards of techno an as organism; its cellular structure under the microscope, replicating endlessly, abstractly, minutely.
Basic Channel continued to release music between 1993 and 1994, during which they took their stripped-down template of repetitious hard techno and pushed it through every permutation possible. As the series progressed and the cover art dissolved into what appeared to be photocopies of photocopies, the music became more spectral, gaseous and even serene (it is no mean feat to invoke serenity in a listener while maintaining 140 bpm). The hard Detroit contours of ‘Enforcement’ had been blown to pieces at this stage, and tracks such as ‘Presence’ wriggled and coiled towards endless analogue horizons. Indeed, ‘Presence’ in its original edit is over twenty minutes long, and like much of Basic Channel’s music its influence is strongly felt in minimal techno. You can draw a direct line between an expansive track like this and the adventurous minimal producer Ricordo Villalobos’s game-changing, literally never-ending (both sides of the track mix into each other), ‘Fizheuer Zieheuer’.
To the uninitiated, Basic Channel’s music can sound daunting, repetitive, or too abstract; this is understandable, because this is a form of techno that emphasizes rhythm and texture so heavily, that, apart from the odd tiny compressed snippet, melody does not figure in its construction in any shape or form.
To this, I say just imagine for a while that melody is overrated, or at least not strictly necessary for the enjoyment of music. Doubters should try out dub techno the same way they might try out sushi or some weirdly textured Chinese dumplings. In a lot of Asian cookery, texture is valued as much, if not more, that the taste of food and their cookery techniques allow us to experience texture in many exciting ways. It’s just a matter of adjusting our palettes.
Dub techno is, above all else, an exploration of the textures of techno. In the seemingly repeating, but always changing, cyclical forms of Basic Channel’s music the adventurous listener will soon find themselves lost in meditative contemplation, and eventually confronted with moments of insight into the actual ‘form’ of sound, sound detached from signifying elements such as melody and lyrics; a position where sound can be appreciated for sound’s sake. By creating a musical launchpad that allows the listener to do that, Basic Channel have created a body of work of considerable artistic merit.
While the original Basic Channel recordings were never intended for release on CD, two compilations of their releases appeared on CDs with the legend ‘buy vinyl’ stickered on the jewel case. You can check out their back catalogue here. I also hear it is on spotify. Get stuck in…
Part II of this series will look at Ernestus and von Oswald’s later projects and the evolution of the Dub Techno genre on key labels such as Deepchord…stay tuned.