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John Osselaer was inspired by his trip to the Detroit Electronic Music Festival in 2000 and knew that Alan Oldham - one of the few Detroit DJs who spins in the US more than Europe - would have a word or two to say on the city of techno legend
By John Osselaer
Unlike most of your colleagues here in Detroit, your background wasn't mainly electronic music and funk. What were you into before you got into the electronic music scene?
I have always liked all kinds of music from hard rock to classic soul to old-school funk to New Wave to alternative. I went thru a Mod and Ska phase; I was a 2-Tone rude boy. Me and my friends dressed in long coats, pork-pie hats, penny loafers and skinny ties! I was heavy into industrial in the early 80s. I liked some hip-hop, but I was into the more Daisy Age/Native Tongues-type shit. I got hip to Miles Davis in the 80s, in college. I was a pretty weird black kid.
Your first major contribution to the development of the early techno scene in Detroit was when you took over the 'Fast Forward' radio show. What was the show like?
It began in '87 as a free-form radio show on WDET-FM; which meant I could play anything I wanted, from the Lounge Lizards to the Flying Lizards. At the time, though, I was in my industrial dance phase; 242, Cabaret Voltaire, Section 25, etc., the stuff I was hearing at the clubs. It was during this same period that Detroit Techno and Chicago House began, so I ended up mixing everything all together. About a year later, the show went all electronic. Detroit had a great radio scene back then, not like today.
The story goes that you gave a lot artists who have made it to the top now their first break on the radio. Who did you promote and who would come over to the show?
Fuck, it was a who's who of Detroit artists who all big stars now. Richie Hawtin used to hang out all the time, John Acquaviva (I played their very first States of Mind record on Fast Forward), Joey Beltram and Mundo Muzique, Speedy J came on once, Derrick May (I used to play a ton of his unreleased tracks off reel-to-reel, many of which I still have), Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Carl Craig (I played his very first tracks on-air), Blake Baxter, Jeff Mills and Mike Banks used to come over to the show and bring their reel-to-reels, this was before UR! I had the Burden Brothers on when I Believe was hot, I played the very first track Sean Deason ever made off cassette ! It was called "Burning the Flies". I still have the tape ! I had Kenny Larkin on during the time of his first EP for +8, Moby was a friend of the show, I saw him last fall, he still remembers me ! We had A Guy Called Gerald on, Nitzer Ebb, a whole lot of people ! Whenever somebody was in from London, Derrick would bring them by. I still have a few of the shows on cassette and I'm thinking of archiving them on the site when I get a chance.
Besides your musical talent you're also a gifted graphic artist. Where did you pick up this love for drawing and visuals?
I'm a born artist, I've been drawing as long as I can remember. I was a published comic book artist before I even got into music.
In 1990 you released your first EP on the Dutch Djax-Up label. How did you end up on a label thousands of miles away from home?
The first instance of Detroit ingratitude, but not the last. No Detroit label wanted to pick it up. Actually, Juan wanted to release that EP on Metroplex but he was so busy he never got around to it. He did the same thing with a little record called the Sonic EP which turned out to be UR001. Juan sat on it for so long that Jeff and Mike decided to put it out themselves! Juan unwittingly started UR as a label! As for me, I came across the Djax fax number at the record shop. My cousin lived in Holland at the time and I figured that I could send him to Eindhoven if Djax turned out to be shady! As it turned out, I have been friends with Saskia now for over ten years!
Shortly after the release you also started doing the artwork for the label, a thing which you have been doing for some ten years now. How did this come about and why do you still do it?
After I did the Signal To Noise Ratio record, Saskia found out that I was the one who did the label art for Transmat and got all excited. Next thing I knew, I was drawing everything for Djax ! I still do stuff for her, but not as much as before, my schedule's pretty full. She is my number-one artistic benefactor and patron and I love her.
In the beginning of the nineties you hooked up with the crew of UR. How did you get involved with this collective?
It's weird, I've known Mills since forever. One day, he told me that he was hooking up with this guy Mike Banks and they were going to start a label. I started stopping by Mike's mom's house, they were running UR from the basement, shipping out records and t-shirts and what not. Pretty soon, they started having hits and Mike started giving me little stuff to do.
I've read somewhere that you and Robert Hood operated as 'Ministers of Information' for UR. What kind of tasks were linked to that title?
I used to write press releases for UR. They had this terrorist strategy of bombing people's fax machines with cryptic statements and upcoming release news. I used to write the sheets and Rob used to draw and design them. Eventually, Rob moved up to making tracks with Jeff's help.
In '92 Jeff left UR just before the Australian tour and you were called to duty to fill his shoes. How did this make you feel and to what extent has this event influenced your carreer?
I was shocked ! I was asked to be in UR and left on tour two days later! Needless to say it changed my world completely and put me out there on a world stage overnight. I only have Mike Banks to thank for that, even today. Ten years later almost and I'll never forget it. I had dinner with Carl Cox when he was in Detroit back in March and he was telling me that when he was in Australia, they were still talking about the time I played this hotel called the Arkaba, and this was back in '92! I was amazed by this! And that was when I was there with UR! So again, I owe it all to Mike.
At the time of the Austrilian tour you also settled for your artist name : DJ T-1000, a reference to the shapshifting robot in Terminator 2. Why did you opt for this name?
Everybody in UR had a "codename" so I had to have one too. The T-1000 cyborg could do anything, be anyone, shift into any shape, and was unstoppable. After my days in UR, the name just stuck!
Your artwork also is about the gloomy future, lots of robots involved. Are you a science-fiction fan? What does appeal to you in this image of the future?
I like comics and science fiction. I'm a big fan of the retro-future, where old styles like Art Deco are refitted and used futuristically like in the Johnny Gambit comic I used to draw. The reason I drew lots of robots for Djax was because Saskia liked them though.
In what way were you involved in starting up Submerge?
Generator was one of the first labels that Submerge distributed.
Around the same time Mike Banks encouraged you to start your own label. Generator had a pretty open-minded approach and eclectic roster. Why did you choose for this approach?
Good question. It's just that I liked all kinds of music and I was getting demos in all styles, from all over the world, so I decided we should be open in our approach. It wasn't like it is today out there, all hyper-compartmentalised with sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, it was all techno back then. Good music was good music.
Why did you decide to stop the label in 1996? Techno scene splintering up?
The records weren't selling like they had been and a look back at the catalog showed me that the best-selling records were mine, anyway, so I decided to end the label. We had some good guys on Generator who were ahead of their time, like Marco Passarani, whom I loved, but we had to let them go.
After ending Generator in '96 you immediately moved on to start Pure Sonik. Which strategy had you lined out for the new label?
Pure Sonik was 100% DJ T-1000, no other artists. Straight-ahead, minimal, DJ friendly techno, nothing really experimental. This is still the philosophy, although we're more bangin' in our approach now.
With Pure Sonik on track you also managed to strike up an alliance with Tresor. How did this come about?
Well, I got a strange phone call out of the blue one day from Carola Stroiber, who runs Tresor. This is 1997, I think. She was in town doing research on a book about Detroit Techno and wanted to interview me. I told her I'd let her interview me if she agreed to listen to the demos of my new EP. She came on over, we did the interview and she then listened to my DAT. I guess she liked it, because that DAT was the Jetset Lovelife EP and I made my debut at the Tresor club in Berlin a couple of months later. We've been good friends as well as business associates ever since. We just had dinner with her here in Detroit over Memorial Day weekend and we plan to hang out during Love Parade.
Last year you released your debut album Progress on Tresor. What does the album mean to you personally, how do you feel about it?
My God, you have no idea. Progress was such a personal milestone for me, a validation. I'd been through a lot personally during the making of the album and it was good to get it out and have it be successful. I really felt as if I was on the world stage after that. I've been out DJing non-stop since it came out, almost a year!
Rumours go that you are already working on a new album. When do you think it will be finished and will it be much different from Progress?
The tentative title of the new album will be The Best Revenge. It will be more driving and DJ-oriented than Progress. I've got a lot of new gear so there will be an improvement in sound. Other than that, it's too soon to tell!
You are also finishing up a new comic book. What can you tell us about that?
Wow, you are well-informed! It's called The Sexy Adventures of Orietta St. Cloud, completely written and drawn by me. No computers! It will be accompanied by a various artist techno soundtrack produced by some pretty big names, none of which have been formally signed yet, but I have verbal agreements and interest so far from a number of them. The book will launch Pure Comics, our new comic division.
Why is it that techno, as a musical and cultural phenomenon, didn't take off in the US like it did in Europe?
For the same reason that jazz took off in Europe first. Europeans don't have the same hang-ups and resistance to new things that Americans do. Plus, Europe is smaller and new ideas travel better there.
At the moment crossover acts like the Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy and Fatboy Slim are promoted in the US. How do you feel about this and do the black techno artists benefit from it?
I think it's typical of the American music business to promote those acts that most closely resemble traditional rock and roll and no one should be surprised by this. The black techno artists don't benefit from this one bit. So the Chems mention Kenny Larkin and Derrick May in interviews, so what? It's not like the kids put down the magazine then run out and buy their records. At least the Rolling Stones put Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry on tour with them and put some money in their pockets.
According to you, what is needed to give techno its big break in the US?
Techno doesn't sell enough units for US majors to even care. For me, 2500 12" units is a hit, to them, it's not even a promo mailing.
How do you explain that techno was conceived in the city of Detroit. To what extent have the city's history and its decay in the mid-eighties played a role in the development?
Deep question. Detroit used to be very open-minded musically, a big melting pot of sound. We had many radio stations here that played all kinds of music from disco to soul to stuff like Japan and Visage. Great stations that never get mentioned like the old WDRQ or WLBS and New Wave/New Romantic club DJs like Charles English. Shows like "Radios in Motion". Clubs like Cheeks, Todd's and City Club. A Number of Names, Charivari... The black progressive high school club scene. The black gay scene. New Wave TV shows like MV3. Mojo wasn't the only influence in Detroit ! This musical open-mindedness led to those first tracks from Juan, which led to Detroit techno. Plus, there's nothing to do here like New York or London, no good jobs, and it's cold most of the year, so you make tracks or die!
What do you consider to be the most important turning points in the history of Detroit techno?
The release of Model 500 No UFOs.
You were not invited to play on the DEMF. How did this make you feel ? And what do you suspect were the reasons?
Well, it was pretty obvious from my essay on my website www.puresonikrecords.net that I was hurt by being excluded. The DEMF was the complete homecoming for this music to the city of its birth, and was literally history in the making. A lot of people have been working for years, representing Detroit abroad, staying in Detroit when they could have left, making music, flying all over and working hard no matter what, and to be left out like that was horrible. It was a smack in the face with a dead fish. So many people on the bill got to play who never did shit for Detroit, who aren't even really known! It was vindication for techno in Detroit. My mother called me at home because she saw the festival on the news. "Were you down at Hart Plaza?" "No, Ma, I was out of town". My mom has never understood what I do, and now it's on TV, now she gets it. My girlfriend wanted to go on the last day to see Hawtin and Derrick-we were home from Philly by then-but didn't out of loyalty to me, so she couldn't enjoy the festival. I got the "there's always next year" speech from a couple of different people, but this was history, the very first one. It's plain to see how I'm regarded by the people in charge of the festival, and we all know who's in charge of it. I can't say I'm really surprised, though. They've been trying to write me out of Detroit history for years, and they've succeeded. I'm leaving Detroit by end of 2000.
What can we expect from you in the future?
My first Love Parade DJ appearance, the comic book project, the relaunch of Pure Sonik (which is on hold at the moment) and a new EP and album for Tresor. I will also be winding down my DJ schedule so I can stay home and work on all these projects, so if you see me on a flyer, please come and hear some good techno!