The musicians behind Germany's mysterious Basic Channel label are Techno-archaeologists, anonymous electricians inhabiting the wired-up cities of Berlin and Detroit. Biba Kopf tracks down the invisible men of electronic music. This article originally appeared in The Wire 150 (August 1996).
Much has been made of the mechanical side of Techno. What of its sentient aspect? The Basic Channel CD, and utterly absorbing, if somewhat misleading, document of the Berlin label's story so far, is positively crawling with lifeforms. Opening with groaning, protean, grub-shaped sounds straining to burst the constraints of the loop that would contain them, it shifts to a stubborn, twitching slug of noise, alive with guitar mites hived from Manuel Goettsching's E2-E4. Then the music submerges itself into the bowels of the city. Below the surface lies its nervous system of subway lines, dusty, dirt encrusted cables, popes, tunnels, energy and communication. The rhythms feel like severed live wires instinctively feeling their way back to the energy source. And when they finally connect, on the trail-out grooves called, appropriately enough, "Radiance i/Radiance iii", the rhythmic pulses burst, irradiating the city above and suffusing it with a shimmering electronic glow.
On the journey through the bowels of the city, Basic Channel inadvertently cut the clogged veins of the old Berlin underground and let flow whatever lifeforce was left in that venerable corpse into the electronic bitstreams presently connecting Berlin and Detroit Techno. In this sense, the Basic Channel CD is as much a Berlin landmark as the highly influential Liaisons Dangereuses disc from the early 80s, or the famously over-valued, if extremely appealing, E2-E4. Yet its creators seem to have only very grudgingly brought it into being. They have let it out unprotected in a coarse cardboard postal envelope, stickered with a photocopied label containing a minimum of information; while on the back the only indications of its source are a barcode, a Berlin fax number, brief publishing details, and another sticker listing the catalogue numbers of the nine Basic Channel 12" singles form where the music has been lifted and reconfigured anew. The communique concludes with a terse instruction: "Buy vinyl".
If Basic Channel is suspicious of the enthusiasm shown for its
activities by music journalists, it is not without good reason.
When I meet the two men behind the label, Mark and Moritz (single
names only, please), in Berlin's Cafe Einstein, they stare blankly
with stonefaced expressions as I gush forth praise for their
activities (and they ask me not to tape our conversation). That's
all very well, they say, but we think you ought to know where we
really come from. The CD is a prŽcis form some four and a half
hours of vinyl and represents a home-listening edit of records
intended for DJ or dancehall use. The following evening they invite
me to the Hard Wax record shop in Kreuzberg. For three hours I am
blitzed with a brief history of Chicago House and Detroit Techno:
the early Chicago Acid trax of Phuture, Armando and Armani, and
then moving onto Detroit for Cybotron, Model 500, Underground
Resistance, Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, Juan Atkins. (Ironically the
blind reverence they display for this music mirrors the enthusiasm
that is directed at their own releases and of which they remains so
This is the key to Basic Channel. Where Techno hurls blinkered into the future, Mark and Moritz have turned their backs on it. Theirs is an archaeology of Techno, almost, which burrows beneath the future-shock debris to work up new geometric shapes from the music's original architectonic ground plans.
Its a kind of Techno classicism, one best heard on vinyl, sure enough. The duo are so committed to vinyl that they have established their own cutting plant to ensure their records obtain the desired dynamic range. And on vinyl Basic Channel's minimalism does work a wholly other kind of magic. But the CD works well as an entity because Basic Channel has worked a singular groove over the nine records released since the label was founded in 1993. But what you don't get on compact disc is the same dynamic sense that the musicians are exploring every possible rhythmic permutation. Early tracks lock distorted, needle-dirt blocks of noise into hypnotic rhythm loops that gradually push out of phase, compelling minor changes that trigger seismic shifts in the sound layers. Over the course of the label's releases, some of them running longer than the average LP, the sound materials grow cleaner, the outlines more sharply defined. For example, a minimal dub enhancement accords a concussed clarity to their latest and most beautiful single yet. Titled "Phylyps Trak II", it perversely centres an impaired skank, lit from behind so as to cast distorted shadow rhythms dancing at its feet. Since its inception Basic Channel has become a byword for a certain kind of minimalism, where tracks evolve from the basest of sounds, and the records themselves continue to draw attention to their format by dissolving the distinction between recorded and realtime scratches and distortions. They remind you that these records are there to be played, not archived and cherished.
Basic Channel's modus operandi is governed by the DJ Culture in which it is steeped. Mark and Moritz don't do interviews, they say, not because they're into self-mystification, but because they don't have to. Their music circulates through dance music's own distribution and communications networks. Everybody who wants to gets to hear of a new release somehow. In DJ Culture, labels more than the artists define the music. So music that doesn't fit the Basic Channel narrative is channelled through parallel labels: Chain Reaction for more avantish releases form the likes of Porter Ricks (Thomas Koner and Andreas Mellwig); Main Street for, to these ears, uninspired House-y vocal tracks; M for Moritz's earthshaking Maurizio releases; and finally, the CD label Imbalance for more self-consciously 'experimental' projects such as Wieland Samolak's soundscaping Steady State Music. To these can be added the Burial Mix label, which houses their newest 10" release, the attractive if slight, dub-enhanced "Never Tell You" by Rhythm & Sound. The genealogy of Basic Channel-related labels is complicated by the elaborate miscegenation of particular projects that holds the family together. For instance, the deep, reverberant Kodo thump of Vainqueur's "Lyot", a real depth-charge of a track, repeats through Maurizio, Basic Channel (BCO3) and Chain Reaction releases. And "Reduce", which also carries a Vainqueur credit, reprises the "Lyot" method of setting the whole dancefloor trembling to a rumbling military roll beaten out on a giant bass drum.
If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the Basic Channel family's way of working, it is that, in dance as in any other popular music form prone to be despoiled by the raging egos of its participants, a state of grace is best achieved and sustained by pursuing an aesthetic of disappearance that preserves its makers from the distorting gaze of the media and its public. In the process, the label has released a succession of records hallmarked by the kind of beauty which characterised the artefacts produced in utter anonymity by the craftsmen of antiquity.