As Warp unveils a long-awaited repress of Drexciyan cult classic Lifestyles of the Laptop Café, Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy investigates one of the late James Stinson’s most enduring works.
In June last year, a near-mint vinyl copy of Lifestyles of the Laptop Café, the 2001 album by The Other People Place, appeared on Discogs for €25,000 ($27,000). Barely batting an eye, many saw this listing as simply the next step in the battle with Discogs inflation, the result of a chancer taking advantage of fans’ wishes for out-of-print vinyl. One irritated collector decided to start an online petition demanding that Warp Records repress the cult album, arguing that its limited availability had “driven the second-hand market price into ridiculous territory”.
Pete Blaker, the Dutch DJ and the Discogs user behind the listing, had never intended for the copy to be sold (and it never was, being removed from Discogs soon after the initial furore). He says he would have donated the money to charity if the album was ever purchased, and that his real goal was simply to “get a lot of attention” – enough that someone at Warp would see it and consider a repress “for people who love that album but can’t afford the prices.”
The thousand-strong army of fans who signed the petition hint at the continuing power of Drexciya, the classic electro duo that The Other People Place was spawned from. Lifestyles of the Laptop Café, however, appears to arouse a still more intense level of dedication, as the cultiest classic in an oeuvre of cult classics.
“Water runs fast, water runs slow,” says the voice of James Stinson through telephone crackle in a 2001 interview, “and the best way to put a visual picture in your mind of Drexciya and what we’re all about is that we go hand in hand.”
Stinson, alongside Gerald Donald, are widely regarded to be the two musicians behind the duo Drexciya, but the name was more than simply a moniker. The liner notes to 1997’s The Quest LP establish Drexciya as a utopian ideal; Detroit ally Cornelius Harris (formerly known as The Unknown Writer), posits the theory that during the Middle Passage, some African slaves thrown overboard “for being sick and disruptive cargo” survived drowning and gave birth to babies that could breathe underwater.
Through these “aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed”, Drexciya was the name for an Afrofuturist Atlantis, a modern folk tale that imagines an alternate future from the darkest period in American history, with Donald and Stinson’s music like dispatches from another world. This mysterious combination of mythology, grief and science fiction was matched by the guessing game over their identities – in many cases, we don’t know whose hands touched which records. As far as it is known, Donald and Stinson were the only members, but with only a select number of interviews granted and with so many breadcrumb trails to follow, it’s hard to be certain. Mystery was an intrinsic part of Drexciya, as much 808s and analog synths.
As a solo artist Stinson used various pseudonyms, including Clarence G and Transllusion, but arguably his most enduring guise was The Other People Place. TOPP was conceived as part of a cycle of releases named after the cycle’s first entry, the Drexciya album Harnessed the Storm. Each subsequent album would be a ‘storm’, and there would be seven storms to complete the cycle. In fact, Drexciya’s first entry in the cycle was not the first released to the world; that honour fell to Lifestyles of the Laptop Café, released on September 3, 2001.
Lex Records founder and former Warp employee Tom Browne says that even as Drexciya remained much loved within the Warp office, …Laptop Café’s unveiling “was a really low-key release”. Even its cover – a striking image of a laptop surrounded by woodland, realised by Warp’s much-loved design collaborators Designers Republic – had a relaxed air to it. Browne’s original concept was for a gatefold sleeve that opened up like a laptop. “I wanted it to be the most amazing album sleeve anyone had seen,” he remembers. “Then nothing happened. As the deadline for art loomed and passed I was looking increasingly stupid in scheduling meetings. I was politely bugging Matt [Pyke, Designers Republic co-founder] not to make me look like a dick. The next thing I knew, Matt had taken his laptop into some woods near the office and shot the cover.”
“It was his softest and sweetest album – it emphasized chords and melody and used the 808 in a very raw style”Jimmy Edgar
The way Pyke’s spur-of-the-moment photography relates to Browne’s complex design is reminiscent of the relationship between …Laptop Café and the rest to Drexciya’s music – breezy simplicity over conceptual brain music. Stinson’s record, full of warmth and light, has an easy charm about it. The simple, direct sleeve art matches the album’s lush and often romantic mid-tempo take on Detroit techno. It’s low-key, yet with a sense of subdued optimism; what sounds at first like loose, muffled percussion reveals a quiet confidence on repeat listens. These aren’t Big Songs; they take their time seeping into the environment and into people’s lives.
Stephen Rennicks, who has operated fan site Drexciya Research Lab since 2005, has a theory about what the movements of Harnessed the Storm represent. On the first album in the series, Drexciya are “metaphorically kicked out of paradise,” he suggests, “because they forget the meaning of life.” With Transllusion’s Opening of the Cerebral Gate (released on Supremat Records barely a month after …Laptop Café), the second stage marks the start of a journey towards rediscovering themselves and expanding their mentalities. In Rennick’s opinion, Laptop Café marks the moment Drexciya swim to the surface and come out from inside their heads to explore love and nature.
“Some of the lyrics, right from the opening track, are self explanatory in this regard,” he says of the unexpected loverman-isms in ‘Eye Contact’:
Sitting here in this café
Drinking my latte
Oh… something’s happening to me
What do I see on the other side of the room?
My, my… hmm, that’s what
So let me slide over
Transmission… communication sent
The delivery is clipped, even a little robotic, but where …Cerebral Gate is communicated in a frenzy, this drawled monologue is all about relaxation and sensuality – a lazy afternoon hook-up in a cosmopolitan setting, each “hmm” and “oh” giving off an assured self-confidence. (Here, coffee replaces water as Stinson’s liquid inspiration, casting aside the natural elements for a drop of human-crafted luxury.) Referencing the loverman “soul raps” of old, the opening establishes an emotional connection with us – we’re brought along on the search for love and good vibes.
London producer Alex Bleek, aka Boddika, considers …Laptop Café one of the best albums ever made, having been immersed in it since its release. Even though he was a fan of Drexciya and had actually lived in Detroit, he knew he was “listening to something special,” he says. “For me it’s essential late night listening – the mood of the whole album is very emotional on levels I can’t quite express. It’s incredible.”
“I loved this album because it was soft compared to James’ other work,” adds Detroit native Jimmy Edgar over email. “It was his softest and sweetest [album] – it emphasized chords and melody and used the 808 in a very raw style.” Long a student of Drexciya’s immersive work, Edgar considers …Laptop Café emblematic of Motor City’s musical influence. It’s “true Detroit style,” he says, and alongside Gerald Donald’s Dopplereffekt project, The Other People Place “just had that touch.”
The highlight of Stinson’s masterpiece is ‘Let Me Be Me’ (as far as Edgar is concerned, “one of the best pieces of music ever written”). It is perhaps the most club-ready track, with its skittering hi-hats, pillowy bassline and infectiously yearning vocal loop. “Let me be what I wanna be,” says a voice again and again, transforming from a wish to a demand. “[Laptop Café] was telling us to explore and find love but ultimately to find our true self,” thinks Rennicks, “most obviously in ‘Let Me Be Me’.” It’s a song that doesn’t call too much attention to itself, but subtly makes its presence known. “Let me be me what I wanna be,” the voice says again, confidence reverberating with each repetition, as if the grief of Drexciya’s underwater slavery mythology has been eased somewhat, allowing mental clarity and joy to come through.
Listening to Lifestyles of the Laptop Café over and over can convince a listener that there is some puzzle to be figured out. But its enduring quality comes from the way it washes over you like the water that is Drexciya’s guiding element. “Water is the most powerful element on this planet,” Stinson once said, his voice appearing in the Afrofuturist multimedia mix My Body Full of Stars, as waves crash over a Yoruban praise song. “It comes in many different forms and many different shapes and different weights.” The sample comes from the same December 2001 interview where Stinson speaks of water running fast and slow, an element that goes hand-in-hand with Drexciya’s art. In this moment, he sounds just like the man you imagine to be behind the flowing mood of …Laptop Café.
Stinson passed away in September 2002, a year after the release of …Laptop Café, aged only 32. Many years after his death, the legend of Drexciya and of The Other People Place continues. After the furore over the overpriced Discogs lot, Warp has just released a repress on double vinyl, with an accompanying promo video (above) recreating the album cover for a different age – the green grass is replaced by damp ground covered in autumn leaves, a shiny Macbook replaces the clunky Powerbook and the light through the trees is dim.
In the video, the silence is broken by the chirping of a bird and the gentle thump of ‘Let Me Be Me’; Stinson’s meditative electro seems to flow from water into air. Like Rennicks says, it’s the type of song that subtly makes its presence known – and now its presence cannot be denied its status within the Drexciyan dynasty.
Read next: Demystifying Drexciya’s Gerald Donald