DeForrest Brown, Jr. is a media-theorist, curator, and self-described rhythmanalyst. He releases digital audio as Speaker Music and under his own name. While he’s been based in NYC for the better part of the last decade, he was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, which also happens to be where Sun Ra first landed on Earth. Brown’s upcoming book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, traces the cycles of American history through the Great Migrations from the Deep South to the industrial centers of the north and back again. In this episode, Brown discusses his profound sense of future shock, the meaning of rhythmanalysis, and the making of Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, his critically acclaimed 2020 album.
Episode 20: PLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY
Interview recorded between Montreal and Manhattan, January and June 2021
Produced and mixed in Montreal, June 2021
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SP* at Anchor
“A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Fall 2021 will see the release of DeForrest Brown, Jr.’s first book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture (Primary Information). While on the surface this is a book that re-inscribes Black culture as the genesis of techno (no surprise from the representative of Make Techno Black Again), it is also a story about the role played by infrastructure in influencing the cyclical rhythms of America. And it is through his own family history that Brown begins to bring these broader cycles of history into relief, of the Great Migrations that have shaped (Black) culture in America, revealing a colonized nation within a nation, a people whose labor has been stolen, time and again, whose culture is subverted and repackaged to be sold to a global audience. Never forget that America’s first popular music took the form of minstrelsy.
Brown was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a city made infamous by the 1963 white supremacist terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. But Brown points out that that bombing was preceded by dozens of earlier bombings and attacks, and that his own aunt could have been a victim had her family not relocated to Detroit. As a child three decades later, Brown too experienced bomb threats aimed at his community, which he later realized were the continuation of those earlier acts of terrorism. But he also began to trace the continuity of the Black nation, up from the south and back again. Like its namesake in England, Birmingham was an industrial city with a prominent steel industry, tying it to the rise and fall of Detroit’s auto-industry. In Detroit, Brown’s aunt became a music teacher, where she worked with students who would go on to be members of Carl Craig‘s Innerzone Orchestra.
Birmingham is also the place where Sun Ra is said to have first touched down on Earth. Continuing the narrative of endless connections, Brown’s grandfather owns the home that once belonged to influential music educator John Tuggle “Fess” Whatley, known as the Dean of Birmingham Jazz, who taught Sun Ra to play the trumpet at Carrie A. Tuggle Elementary. That is also where Brown himself learned the trumpet, setting him on the musical path that he is still exploring, one entirely rooted in his home in Alabama rather than in New York City, where he relocated nearly a decade ago to get a front row view of the collapse of America. While there are hints of this in the trumpet playing that appears on Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, his 2020 record for Planet Mu, those roots are on full display on “Magic City Classic,” a recent mix of Alabama marching band music for CRACK magazine. Perhaps after this pandemic is behind us, we’ll be able to see Speaker Music live backed up by a drum line and horns.
Carrie A. Tuggle was herself an influential educator and social activist, and the school that bears her name was founded to educate homeless Black boys. Brown points out more parallels, as his mother, a social worker with roots in New York, continues to work with at-risk populations in a continuity of displacement and abuse that Brown traces back to slavery. The music of Detroit techno duo Drexciya, who are important to Brown’s book, was rooted in their own powerful narrative linked to the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Scholars such as Paul Gilroy have argued that enslaved Africans were the first moderns, bearing all the hallmarks of modernity. Drexciya took this further, as explained in the extensive liner notes to The Quest (1997), in which they speculate that the pregnant women in labor who were tossed off of those slave ships could have given rise to an underwater nation hidden in plain sight.
This has become a powerful speculative narrative, the source of further fiction and a recent series of graphic novels. But Brown seems more interested in this story as a fairly transparent metaphor for the world in front of us. He’s not particularly interested in the cosmic sci-fi that permeates so much afrofuturism. Forget the white man’s fantasy of Wakanda, he tells me, he’s concerned with the material conditions of his community. Brown’s afrofuturism is better represented by his father’s solar panel business, which makes the tech affordable for low and middle income communities.
In our conversation, Brown points out the common mistake of situating the emergence of Detroit techno in technologically deterministic terms, of Black autoworkers responding to the inhuman rhythms of the production line and new music technologies (step-sequencers, MIDI). The story is so well-worn by now it’s a bad cliché: new technology, German electronic music, American funk. This old narrative puts Detroit’s pioneers in a reactionary position, erasing the long continuity of Black music that preceded the birth of techno. In the 1960s, Italian Workerism developed the axiom that “resistance comes first.” But they were inspired by Detroit’s Workerism of the 1930s-1950s, by figures including James Boggs who play a prominent role in Brown’s thinking in his book.
Another key text for Brown is Alvin Toffler (and his wife, Adelaide Farrell)’s Future Shock. That book helped Brown put a name to his own sense of disorientation, one exacerbated by his move to New York after college, which he describes as feeling like moving to the future. Future Shock was also a crucial influence on the young Juan Atkins, who read it as a high school student in Detroit. Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson were known at The Belleville Three, commonly cited as the originators of what we now think of as Detroit techno in the early 1980s. But in glossing over the music of the 1970s, the genealogy becomes muddled in order to present a narrative that was more friendly to Europeans who wanted to center the history of electronic dance music in Germany. That telling conflates the history of techno with house music, of David Mancuso’s hedonistic New York loft parties of the 60s and 70s, and a broader global electro-pop movement.
Instead, Brown points out that in the 1970s, this Black dance music was all simply “Progressive Music,” and that the early techno pioneers made reel-to-reel edits, but that they played tracks to completion in clubs and on radio, not necessarily interested in the mixing culture that developed from house, garage, and hip-hop, at least until Jeff Mills made it a part of techno. Again, Brown looks to material infrastructure to ground his analysis. Motown is synonymous with Detroit in the cultural imaginary, but the label started to make moves to leave the city following the 1967 rebellion, which saw Black residents confront the city’s racist police force, leading to the bloodiest event in a summer of widespread rebellion across the country. By 1972, Motown had relocated to LA, leaving behind recording and mastering studios that would soon find new use in the emergence of Detroit techno.
Ron Murphy, who mastered records for Motown, later mastered records for Underground Resistance, the label founded by Jeff Mills and “Mad” Mike Banks that was central to the second generation of Detroit techno. Mad Mike had been a studio musician working with Parliament-Funkadelic, several members of which worked as uncredited session musicians on Motown records. With Motown gone, and new technologies like sequencers and drum machines taking the place of larger ensembles, you start to see the emergence of techno. And while Atkins and co. were in high school and college figuring this stuff out, Brown points to the role of Rick Davis, a tech-savvy Vietnam vet who founded Cybotron with Atkins in 1980, as a link to an older generation.
Detroit hip-hop producer Sterling Toles has gone on record stating that a liberated relationship to time is the thread that runs through the heterogeneous traditions of Detroit. (Refutation of Quantization) I have no doubt that this is true, but I suspect we can broaden that claim beyond Detroit. I’m reminded of something Arthur Jafa said when profiled by the New Yorker: “in trying to think about what I consider fundamental Black aesthetic values, one of the things that came up was rhythm. Most people will say Black people have rhythm—they seem able to do things with time. So I became interested in how cinema could be inscribed with a more idiomatic sense of timing.” Brown calls himself a rhythmanalyst, a term coined by the French theorist Henri Lefebvre, but what he’s analyzing is far closer to the terms laid out by Jafa. Still, like Lefebvre, Brown is not thinking about rhythm in reductionist musicological terms, but the rhythms of the city, the rhythms of history.
I first encountered DeForrest’s work in August 2014, when he and Nora Khan published an essay for Avant.org. Impressed, I struck up a conversation on Facebook, and we met up a few times over the years when I would return to New York. I think we went to a exhibition at Paula Cooper or the Kitchen sometime around the summer of 2016, and he was excited to start a position as an editor at Mixmag. But his opinion of the music industry quickly soured as he learned that such ad-driven “journalism” wouldn’t support the kind of work that he was interested in, the calling out of which has become a refrain in his work ever since. (here, here, here) That fall he was also a curatorial fellow at Issue Project Room, which perhaps signaled a turning point for him as he began to produce music of his own.
First came the release of Absent Personae, followed by The Wages of Being Black is Death, both collaborations with Kepla that featured Brown reciting deadpan observations about the hypocrisy of white Americans. This approach to ‘white studies’ reflected his Twitter presence, which often seemed design to provoke by means of mirroring, polemically challenging clichés that get thoughtlessly repeated, but also turning the observational gaze upon those who prefer to be the ones doing the observing and classifying.
Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, released on Juneteenth 2020, could be seen as continuation of that strategy, but that would be to miss the essential shift that had taken place. Speaker Music excavates American history from a Black perspective. Constantly shifting beats are anchored by a steady tempo, but completely resistant to the 4/4 beat that we’ve come to expect. Haptic triggers result in skittering beats moving across the stereo image, a grid-resistant ether against which a chorus of powerful voices are suspended. The opening poem from Brown’s young cousin remains one of my enduring memories of 2020, so much so that I include the track in its entirety in this episode.
Which brings me back to Assembling a Black Counter Culture. Any word in the title could generate a long exegesis, but I want to focus now on “assembling.” If Brown’s earlier work could seem provocative and polemical, the shift I mentioned above seems to me to be a more affirmative gathering of forces. Of Desire, longing, Processing Intimacy, and Percussive Therapy, (the latter of which was recorded during a Rauschenberg Residency and released less than two months before BNSW) all strike me as more personal records, or at lest more focused on interpersonal relationship. But BNSW and a bitter but beautiful struggle, both released following the police murder of George Floyd and subsequent uprisings across the country, signaled an engagement with politics and history that constitute a call to assembly.
Brown’s most recent release as Speaker Music, Soul-Making Theodicy, should bring the theological elements of his work into clearer relief. That quality has long been present in his work. And the title of a bitter but beautiful struggle, comes from Dr. King’s radical “Beyond Vietnam” speech from 1967. Like most public figures, King had speech writers, and “Beyond Vietnam” was penned with Vincent Harding. The line Brown takes as a title was itself a paraphrase of a poem that had had an important influence on King during the years leading up to his assassination. I point this out not to diminish, but as further evidence of the importance of collaboration, of assembly, and history, as Brown himself deploys the voices of his predecessors in his music. Just as Jafa located being able to do things with time as a fundamental Black aesthetic value, we might also add this practice of citation. It’s another way of analyzing the rhythms that Brown traces in his work.
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Speaker Music – “Ex-American Blues (excerpt)” (Soul-Making Theodicy, Planet Mu, 2021)
Speaker Music – “Ex-American Blues (excerpt)” (Soul-Making Theodicy, Planet Mu, 2021)
Drexciya – “Depressurization” (Deep Sea Dwellers, Shockwave, 1992)
Speaker Music – “Amerikkka’s Bay (ft. Maia Sanaa)” (Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, Planet Mu, 2020)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – “Beyond Vietnam” (Riverside Church, NYC, 1967)
Speaker Music – “Techno is a Liberation Technology (ft. AceMo)” (Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, Planet Mu, 2020)
The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow” (Barton Hollow, Sensibility, 2011)
John Coltrane – “Alabama” (Live at Birdland, Impulse!, 1964)
Sun Ra & His Myth Science Arkestra – “Space Loneliness” (We Travel the Space Ways, El Saturn, 1967)
Nina Simone – “Mississippi Goddam” (Live At Carnegie Hall New York, 1964)
Speaker Music – “Magic City Classic” (CRACK magazine, 2021)
Kepla & DeForrest Brown, Jr. – “sunken place in reverse…a cancelled future, a horizon of a pipe dream” (The Wages of Being Black is Death, PTP, 2018)
Carl Craig – “Dreamland” (More Songs about Food and Revolutionary Art, SSR, 1997)
Moor Mother & billy woods – “The Blues Remembers Everything The Country Forgot ft. Wolf Weston (of Saint Mela)” (BRASS, Backwoodz, 2020)
Sterling Toles – “6/19” (Resurgent Cinerbus, Sector 7G, 2017)
RADIOLAB sample from Vanishing of Harry Pace episode 2
Gang Starr – “1/2 & 1/2 (feat. M.O.P)” (1/2 & 1/2, TVT, 1998)
Dakim – “Typeofblue” (Ntoo, Poo-bah, 2011)
Yusef Lateef – “Woodward Avenue” (Yusef Lateef’s Detroit Latitude 42° 30′ Longitude 83°, Atlantic, 1969)
Underground Resistance – “Riot” (Riot EP, UR, 1991)
Cybotron – “Techno City (vocal)” (Techno City 12”, Fantasy, 1984)
Carl Craig – Party/After-Party (Dia:Beacon, 2020)
Theo Parrish – “Dreamers Blues” (Parallel Dimensions, Sound Signature, 2000)
Ethel Waters – “Down Home Blues” (Down Home Blues 78, Black Swan, 1921)
Speaker Music – “An Expression of Hi-Tech Soul” (Percussive Therapy, self-released, 2020)
Model 500 – “Future (instrumental)” (No UFO’s, Metroplex, 1985)
Axine M – “sᑦ⍺𝜼 (s⍺𝗩𝐢Ơ𝑟〕(Speaker Music Remix)” (SBVRSV.press, 2021)
Speaker Music – “Black Compositional Thought––Torkwase Dyson_s Evolving Theory of Environmental Liberation” (a bitter but beautiful struggle, PTP, 2020)
Sun Ra – “UFO (Mike Huckaby Reel-2-Reel Edit)” (The Mike Huckaby Reel-To-Reel Edits Vol. 1, Kindred Spirits/Art Yard, 2011)
John Akomfrah / Black Audio Film Collective – excerpt from the last angel of history (1996)
J Dilla – “Welcome 2 Detroit” (Welcome 2 Detroit, Barely Breaking Even Records, 2001)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – “Beyond Vietnam” (Riverside Church, NYC, 1967)
The Roots – “Something In The Way Of Things (In Town) [feat. Amiri Baraka]” (Phrenology, MCA, 2002)
Kanye West / Gil Scott-Heron – “Who Will Survive In America” (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella, 2010)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.