Draped in Afrofuturist mythology and rarely revealing their faces to the public, Drexciya were an enigmatic presence in electro and remain influential to this day. FACT rounds up the Detroit duo’s most essential releases.
From the early 1990s until 2002, Detroit’s James Stinson and Gerald Donald were exploring the outer reaches of electronic music, fusing the rhythms of ’80s electro with the sickly synthesizer textures of the burgeoning Detroit techno scene.
They worked under a variety of monikers, both together and solo, but the duo were best known for recording as Drexciya. Unlike so many musicians of the era, Stinson and Donald weren’t interested in media attention or fan adoration, preferring to work under a veil of secrecy, shrouded in Afrofuturist myths and richly layered sci-fi concepts. Stinson in fact managed to keep his profile almost completely anonymous until his untimely death in 2002 from heart complications.
But the legend lives on, and the catalogue both innovators have left behind is still influencing legions of younger musicians today on the techno scene and beyond. The following list of records is a place to start when digging into the fathoms-deep Drexciya catalogue – get your diving suit ready and jump in.
Balance of Terror EP
See also: Glass Domain: Glass Domain (Pornophonic Sound Disc, 1991)
These are the first widely available pre-Drexciya releases recognized as being produced by James Stinson and Gerald Donald. L.A.M. is hard-as-nails high speed electro and techno on the Hardwax label, while Glass Domain’s minimal electro shows a more playful side, with whimsical sung lyrics about Lego, hiccups and ‘coming out of the closet’ on the track ‘Fairy’. It could be that the Glass Domain EP was just Donald working alone. These were both reissued later by Clone, as was the case with a lot of Drexciya’s output.
(Submerge Recordings, 1997)
Drexciya’s first releases were a series of vinyl EPs that came out on Submerge, Rephlex, Warp and Underground Resistance. They each had artwork, track titles and messages that hinted at a deeper purpose and mythology.
The center labels were covered in strange images of undersea worlds and creatures, tracks contained peculiar warnings and proclamations and miniature manifestos were scratched into the run-out grooves. It started to become apparent that Drexciya was a place underwater, Drexciyans were a race, and maybe the melodies and pulse patterns of their music were their anti-Morse code, the 808s their war drums. The Quest extended and materialized the Drexciya myth that the EPs had only hinted at.
It’s an amazing album, collecting tracks from the duo’s run of influential EPs and adding perfectly programmed newer material. The names of the tracks alone are enough to send you off into fantasies, but the sleeve information and the artwork explains the who, what and why of the Drexciya mission to shocking effect.
Sadly, the album is now out of print; Submerge stopped repressing it when James Stinson passed away in 2002.
This is another Drexciya-related album where the personnel is unclear, as there are four “Elektroids” pictured on the Kraftwerk-influenced sleeve.
Setting the scene for later side projects like Japanese Telecom and Der Zyklus, the themes explored here are science, fiction and fact and past and present. Tracks like ‘Midnight Drive’ are classic Detroit territory, but ‘Thermo Science’ and ‘Time Tunnel’ are stranger.
When the tracks have lyrics, the quirky words resemble the earlier more cartoonish style of the electro pioneers like Newcleus than Drexciya’s s camouflaged communiqués. The Elektroids don’t want revenge, they just want to play and observe.
(International Deejay Gigolo, 1999)
Around 1995, Gerald Donald began work on a project called Dopplereffekt. The early singles on the Dataphysix label came out with sleeve images of women in laboratory suits in scientific settings, and were credited to Rudolf Klorzeiger and William Scott.
By the third EP the sleeve featured an image of Gerald Donald in office clothes sitting next to a woman, although the record was still reportedly produced by Rudolf Klorzeiger. The third single ‘Sterilization (Racial Hygene and Selective Breeding)’ features a new female scientist, Helena Eichman, replacing Kim Karli, alongside the two male scientists and quasi-fascist lyrics approving of Eugenics. This is a theme which would develop with Gerald Donald’s adoption of the moniker Heinrich Müller – the name of the uncaptured, unpunished head of the Gestapo.
The themes are closer to the classic stuff of industrial music here: pornography, totalitarianism, eugenics, science and sex. Even the harmless electronic voice of Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell game is made to sound bullying and malevolent. The vocals are made up of deadpan female/male phrases, the rhythms are stiff, the synth riffs create a kind of dystopian funk, the mood is cold, and the sex is fetishistic.
A few years after Drexciya’s supposed end with The Quest, this 1999 album emerged unexpectedly and the mission was started again.
The album presented a much more detailed, less aggressive side to the music, as if this was representative of life in Drexciya rather than an attack on the human world above. On each of the early EPs there were always one or two more melodic, musical tracks, with tender, bitter sweet melodies, or strange atmospherics. Hearing a whole album of these tracks came as a pleasant surprise.
6. Der Zyklus
Der Zyklus 2
(International Deejay Gigolo, 2001)
One of the most elegant releases in the Drexciyan catalog, this is Gerald Donald under his Henrich Mueller guise. The second track ‘Mxyzptik’ has lyrics that find Donald playing the character of a kind of supernatural playful malevolent force. Mxyzptik was also the name of a trickster character from the Superman comics.
In mythology and folklore, a trickster is an entity that plays tricks and disobeys normal rules of time and space and conventional behaviour: maybe Gerald Donald, with his stance as techno’s agent provocateur, feels something in common with this archetype?
B-side ‘Formenvewandler’ is blissful and mystical, as the lyrics hint at a supernature: “I’m shape shifting from place to place, bending time, folding space.” The track that follows, ‘Mathematische Modelle’, is Kraftwerk’s ‘Europe Endless’ in a black hole. It’s sublime.
7. The Other People Place
‘Sorrow & a Cup of Joe’
(from Sunday Night Live At The Laptop Cafe, Clone, 2002)
Of course the 2001 album by Other People Place, Lifestyles of the Laptop Café, is essential, one of Warp’s best, but this amazing languid track trumps it; it’s just so gorgeous, very direct, emotional and bluesy in the way James Stinson’s music rarely was, with tender sung lyrics.
Perhaps this is a deep house classic? Deep house DJs might not often play it, but they should.
See also: Lab Rat XL: Mice or Cyborg (Clone, 2003)
Stinson died of heart complications days before the release of this album. L.I.F.E, which stands for ‘Life Is Fast Ending’, is one of the ‘seven waves’ he wanted to complete. He was very aware of his own mortality at this point, and wanted these albums released quickly and without fuss. In retrospect, although very few people knew it at the time, the weary title says it all, as well as the album’s tagline: ‘Message to the World – Life is fast ending. So live!’
The album is the most genuinely weird of the Stinson albums. Songs are a disorientating cluster of atmospheres; weird atonal melodies that come in unexpectedly, clunking beats and strange dissonant noises. If the album title hints at a lack of time or mortality under threat, the music hints at Drexciya, and Stinson himself malfunctioning and deteriorating. In contrast, the song titles combine actions of the human physical and occasional outer space themes: ‘Dirty South Strut’, ‘Jogging on the Moon’, Bump It’, ‘Rolling with the punches of L.I.F.E.’.
Mice or Cyborg, released posthumously in 2003, is one of the strongest and most streamlined of Stinson’s ‘seven waves’. The Lab Rat name could be taken as a disclosure of anxiety regarding the continuing surgery he was having, and the album name hints at feelings of desperation compared with dreams of post-human existence. This is a sombre, but direct album, with occasional moments that hint at erotic day dreams, such as ‘Lab Rat 1’, with its uncoiling lead keyboard and half-sung half-panted female vocal. Tracks like ‘Lab Rat 3’ are as elegant and dreamy as any early Aphex Twin, but with crisp 808s underpinning and giving that signature Drexciyan sound.
9. Cisco Ferreira
‘A Woman’s Scent (Henrich Mueller remix)’
(from T.R.I.N.I.T.Y. Remixed, Tresor, 2006)
With deadpan female vocals that state the chemical reactions of female sexual attraction through the gaze of cold logic, this is biomechanical funk. It’s electronics plus the chemistry of sex – the perfect territory for Gerald Donald to explore under his Henrich Mueller guise. His piece here is so cold the music actually stops and shivers at times, breaking down and restarting. It’s a dark, brilliant remix.
Calabi Yau Space
On an early Drexciya track, a decomposing, highly FX-laden voices asks “Does God really exist?”, only to reply with “God is virtual reality.”
Stinson and Donald were beyond the realms of normal human existence, and after Stinson’s death, it made sense that Donald would end up exploring the worlds of theoretical physics and its virtual dimensions, rather than take the easy resolution of faith and resolve in religion. A runout groove on one of those early Drexciya EPs states that, “Experiments must continue at all costs, even if it means death.” It’s a fitting tribute to both men’s pathological output.
Calabi Yau Space, with its sleeve images of Cern is incredible. Its eight tracks are almost 3D: magnificent sound sculptures, clusters of grainy dots of sound that seem to turn and fold across the stereo panorama, transforming into powerful melodies. Even more now than when Drexciya first started, the music sounds like nothing on Earth.