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Overload Media 's John Osselaer talked at length to techno pioneer and Detroit native Blake Baxter, back in 2001
By John Osselaer
Blake, before you became a musician you were a street poet. Can you tell us a bit about this life?
I used to write a lot of things about the way I think about everything, from political things to things about love or whatever. I used to go to bars and write and recite poems.
Who are the people who have influenced your musical style, your idols?
Of course you know I'm gonna say Prince right? Barry White, Unlimited Orchestra, Teddy Pendergrass... I like a lot of the classic guys like Marvin Gaye and of course Stevie Wonder. As far as dance I started getting into alternative stuff like Depeche Mode and also Funkadelic. I saw my sisters growing up on Funkadelic so…
Who or what opened your eyes to electronic music and its possibilities?
Funkadelic actually because they were a band that also used keyboards. From there I grew into disco music ; Giorgio Moroder. I was really obsessed with him when I was younger because his music was really different from anything else. Giorgio Moroder used Moogs and things like that. I didn't understand the whole keyboard thing yet, but I just knew there was something different about his productions.
You are one of the pioneers of techno music, but few people know that you were already releasing music before Juan [Atkins] and all the others. What can you tell us about that period?
Actually, Cybotron was a major influence on my life. They were out a little bit before me as far as records are concerned, but I was working on music since I was sixteen and my first track came out when I was nineteen. It came out in Chicago because I was really influenced by that sound and I was commuting back and forth. I wanted to do a combination of Giorgio Moroder and Prince, but with a poetic influence. That style never really come out because house came and then Detroit techno.
You were there in the early days when techno was being forged as a new musical style. What was it like those early days with Juan [Atkins], Derrick [May] and Kevin [Saunderson]?
The thing about that was Detroit was always commuting to Chicago because they had a better scene than we did as far as their underground Chicago style house. Derrick May was going there a lot and he was working for Juan's label Metroplex. He used to help with the distribution. I used to drive Derrick and we were really good friends back in those days. We all basically hung out and lived together. I was in Chicago at that time. Things weren't going well for me with DJ International. Derrick was delivering records for Metroplex and he was like : 'Come back to Detroit, we have a new sound we are working on.' I was really curious, so I came back to Detroit and he was right. Just the chance to work with Juan Atkins you know… It presented itself as an opportunity to do something unique.
When Juan, Derrick and Kevin started to get picked up in Europe, you decided to stay in Detroit. Why?
That was different because I was working a lot in the clubs. I was one of the first major dj's to play techno, house, acid house and everything. A lot of people remember Detroit for the Music Institute, but before that there was the Majestic Theatre where I had between 900 and 1500 people every Friday. I used to play alternative and at midnight I would play electronic dance music. Two years later the Music Institue opened up and that was really big so people would come to the Majestic Theatre and then they would go to the Music Institute. Richie (Hawtin), before he was a dj, would always come to the Majestic Theatre. When he got his first decks he brought a picture to me and showed me. He worked really fast. As soon as he got his equipment, six months later he had a track out and his first track was really brilliant.
What can you tell us about the atmosphere in the Institute and the Majestic?
It was mad because people were going for it, they were free. At that time the majority was black, but there was white as well. My following was mostly suburban white kids and a lot of black kids were into the house movement. The Music Institute had a mixed following. There was magic. People didn't care and hung out. There were warehouse parties, loft parties, all kinds of parties and everybody was free. I remember when Derrick started playing at a club, which is basically the city club now, they totally loved him, but the punks were rebelling against the new technosound. They would stand or sit in the middle of the dancefloor to protest. Derrick would get really upset by that. You know Derrick is a really outspoken person so there were always conflicts. On the other hand there was a big underground scene that was really tight and creative.
Didn't you get into trouble with all these parties?
Well, the police were not tipped up on that back then so there was not a lot of trouble or raids. Derrick was really into giving juicepop parties where there was no alcohol. You didn't have liquor and there were not a lot of drugs back then. It was mostly people going for the vibe, a lot of artists, a lot of creative people.
You used to be Derrick May's roommate for a while? What went wrong?
Before I say anything : I'm a lover, not a fighter. The thing about Derrick : he's quite high-strung, anyone who has ever met Derrick knows that. I do miss our friendship, but I also think that our friendship was not real and not honest on his part. When the industry came to Detroit we didn't know anything about the business, and then there was money. Money got misplaced and he didn't take care of me on certain tracks, those kind of things… Virgin 10, Techno, the New Dance Sound Of Detroit, that's where the trouble started, I guess for the whole Detroit scene. Virgin 10 was the first techno compilation and I had written four tracks for it. I had worked and produced more than any other artist on that album, but I was the one who was pushed back. I was willing to be down with Derrick, Juan and Kevin, but all of a sudden you hear about the 'techno three', then the 'techno five' and then that became the 'techno three' again. Everyone wanted their share of ground. Derrick and I were really good friends and I have done a lot for that guy. And then there's a girl as well…
There was a girl that Derrick used to date and then he decided that he didn't want the girl. So I started dating her and he found out about it so he used that as an excuse not to pay me the money that was owed to me through Virgin 10.
And then you guys got into a fistfight…
That was later. We were kids, we were really young and we all were dirtpoor. We used to do whatever we could to make money. People accepting us as artists was a breath of fresh air. I think if it weren't for techno there would be a lot of dead black men in the streets of Detroit and I think Derrick would defenitely be one of them. What happened with that was… The fistfight was at St. Andrew, which is a famous hall, a really popular spot in Detroit. I was working at Majestic and I was passing out flyers, putting them on cars. Derrick was also promoting a party which was at the Music Institute. He saw my flyers on the cars, took them off and threw them on the ground and put his flyers on the cars. All he had to do was put his flyers next to my flyers. It was during an 808 State concert ; they had come to St. Andrew and Derrick went to meet them. I went in to talk to Derrick, my girlfriend said : 'Don't go in there.' I said I was only going to talk to Derrick because the whole thing was so stupid. Derrick was sitting at a table with 808 State while they are signing autographs and I went up to him and said : 'Derrick, why would you do such a thing ?' He totally ignored me. I said : 'Derrick, this is stupid, we need to talk.' He looked at me like he didn't know me at all and I didn't exsist. This was my best friend at one point. I used to drive him to Chicago, London Ontario,… My car broke down taking him to Toronto. He said he was going to help me, but never helped me fix that. He owes me loads of money and 'Kaos Juice Bar', the flipside of 'Strings of Life', that was my song. I played the bassline, helped out on the drumtrack and Derrick did the flanging effect. He never paid me for that, he never put my name on the record. These were beefs we had leading up to this point. Derrick didn't acknowledge me or speak to me so I just threw the flyers in his face. He growled like a madman. He jumped on the table, insanely, and this guy leap frogged in the air. I'm looking up at him thinking : 'Ok, I can throw him down the stairs, I can punch him…' Before I know it he's on top of me. Derrick is a little guy, but he's stocky, he's well-built. I just got on top of him and punched his head back and forth a few times and I really didn't want to fight him so I left. As far as me and Derrick fighting : I don't like to fight, I'd rather love and support someone. I studied martial arts most of my life and I have a black belt. I had training in the military on martial arts. I constantly stay in shape, but so does Derrick. As far as physical confrontation: anytime, anywhere.
I'm not going to put that in because it's going to sound like an invitation!
No please, put that in!
You also got involved with Underground Resistance. How did you meet up with them and what attracted you?
When I heard their stuff I thought it was industrial, quite hardcore, it wasn't appealing to me at all. At that time I was an outcast. My dj-ing career was not going well and basically I was running out of money. Derrick saw to it that I was blackballed. Kevin wouldn't work with me anymore, nobody would work with me because of Derrick. At this time I was quite sick because I have epilepsy. Derrick knew this but he didn't give a shit. I don't know if you can identify with this, but seeing a group of people who were friends splitting up, and then you see this one person in the magazines the whole time and you think : 'How could this happen when we were friends ?' That's what I was going through. Two years went by and I was trying to put out stuff with Incognito. Thomas Barnett also, he was in the same boat. Derrick basically used him to put out tracks. Derrick never really produced himself. He has always been a remixer. He's a brilliant dj, I will go there and say he's a brilliant dj. He's an innovator. and an innovator is someone who takes a project that has already been done and manipulates it in a way where it's different and influential. Derrick is not a composer, he's more of a remixer.At that time UR approached me and asked me if I would do a project. If it wasn't for UR I don't think I would be here. I had no opportunities, no outlets and they asked me to do a track for them. They said : 'You do whatever you want,' but they wanted it to be a bit along the lines of what they were doing. Mike and Jeff came to me and gave me artistic freedom.
But you still only released one record on UR.
Only one. For them it was an experiment. UR was starting the label. They had the group already : Rob Hood, Jeff Mills and Mike. The experiment went well and then we went to Germany. If it weren't for them… They got me over to Germany. Dimitri (Hegeman) was doing a UR-tour and they let me dj. If I had wanted to I could have done more projects, but I wanted to be a solo artist and do more housey stuff.
You started a long-lasting relationship with Tresor. What attracted you to the club and the label?
At first Tresor didn't want me to be on the label. We had to convince them. Dimitri was really into the UR sound, the industrial sound, and he wasn't sure I could fit into that type of sound. He wasn't too familiar with the Detroit sound back then. He had worked with Jeff in the past on some industrial projects : Final Cut. Dimitri gave me a chance to work in Moritz Von Oswald's studio and I produced ten tracks. I tried to use the UR-sound, but my own as well and we called it Dreamsequence I. After that it went well and I stayed in Berlin for a year. I lived with Mark from Hardwax and that was really good.
Berlin seems to have a pull on US artists. What makes the city so special for you?
Berlin? It's dirty, it has a lot of nightlife and was a bit similar to Detroit, sort of industrial. The people were really up for whatever you gave them, they really appreciated your music. When I left Detroit the scene was sort of changing, but in Berlin it was just starting. It was like a timewarp, like you were still in Detroit, but in darker, even more underground clubs.
Like Prince, a lot of your tracks refer to sexuality, love, relationships etc. You also like to profile yourself as a sort of sex god. How much of the real Blake Baxter is hidden in there?
I just want to say: 'the Prince of Techno' was not my invention. When I first heard it, I didn't like it and I still don't like it today. Today I accept it and I see the humour of it. How that came about: Cliff Thomas and Kevin Saunderson wanted a gimmick or name to call me. It came about because I use sexual things to compose music. Like I said, I'm a poet and a lot my poems I just stuck onto songs. I do think about sex a lot, love, relationshops, things like that so I put it in my songs.
A lot of your work contains vocals many done by yourself, ever had any ambition to get more commercial and enter the pop market?
All the time! There are techno purist people who probably think that my music is somewhat of a sellout. They don't want me to say: 'Yes, I would like to make videos and be acknowledged as a singer…' I speak over my tracks in a soft manner, but I do like to sing and I play drums and percussion. So yeah, I would like to do more R'n'B/hip hop type of things.
How did your colleagues back in Detroit react to your involvement with more commercial labels?
Mike didn't sit well with the Logic thing, not at all. Basically I was part of Submerge. At that time Submerge was starting and that's when Logic was interested in me. Mike was not having that at all. He was like: 'No, not Logic, you can't do this Blake.' This was a way for me to generate money and start projects of my own. If a record company offered me a million dollars tomorrow most of that money would go back to Detroit. I wouldn't buy a Bentley or this type of thing. I like nice clothes, but I'm not flash and I would support Detroit.
Would you agree that part of the philosphy of UR is to support your own community and to be fair?
Exactly. That's the problem with Detroit: we have no industry. NY has an industry. Detroit had Motown and that was it. Motown went to LA. Everyone in Detroit either has to come over to Europe or to LA or NY.
You had some very successful 12s on Logic and even made an album for them, but why did it never come out?
The thing about Logic is at the time I was working for them I really enjoyed my work. I was actually doing a lot of trance things under other names, which I won't bring up. I did a lot of video hits where I played the keyboard lines. If you really listen you'll hear Blake Baxter in there, but I won't bring these names up. I really enjoyed the production work because they taught me a lot about computers and how to work in the studio. At the same time they wanted to be the sexgod, they wanted me to dress a certain way, they tried to make me over. I'll never forget that : they wanted me to shoot a video in the Limelight. The lady was telling me : 'Move your lips more sexy, do this, do that,…' The whole thing was spinning in my head. I thought : 'This is commercial!' I would like to have commercial succes, but being me, not being someone else. That was my real first exposure to the N-Sync/Backstreet Boys kinda thing. I just wasn't having that. I don't want anyone telling me how to be, how to act. Either accept me or don't.
In Berlin you have worked with Moritz von Oswald. Moritz and his friends are among of the few European producers to have gained acceptance and respect from Detroit artists. What makes them so special?
They are really particular in what they do and how they do it. They are really low key, they keep to themselves. They are selective and they do things on their own and in their own way. The Basic Channel stuff, the Maurizio stuff, it all had a certain style. I think they were really influenced by the Detroit sound. The effects that they chose and the way they process the beats and the rhythms is really unique.
You started Mix Records and Phat Joint – are they still running?
They still exist, but I'm regrouping everything. Back in the day I had to pay the bills so I was dj-ing a lot. Mix Records and Phat Joint originally, were supposed to be distributed by Submerge, but when Mike didn't like the idea of me working with Logic and I didn't like some of his ideals and concepts we really didn't connect on that whole thing so I had to make a choice. Either dj and pay the bills or put all the money in the labels, which I chose to pursue at another time. A lot of the Mix Records stuff, which is very housey, I put out on Tresor to generate money and then put it out in the US. That never really worked out because I was always djing.
You've always had an ambivalent relationship with techno, sometimes abandoning it to concentrate on house. Can you explain the struggle that goes on between the two styles?
Sometimes I feel like a nut. I like hardcore music to a certain degree if it has style. I think a lot of the hardcore music that comes out is basically the same, it's done in the same way. I'm one of those people who don't like trance, but there are some trance songs that I like, but most people won't admit that. There are hardcore songs that I like, but most of it I don't like. I feel more housey, I feel more at home doing house. I love house music, but being from Detroit everyone expects you to play techno. If I dj and I'm playing house and everybody is grinding their teeth… You know, I don't want an empty dancefloor. I want the dancefloor to be filled because after all they are the ones who pay to get in the club. If the dancefloor is not filled you are not doing your job. I think if Mike Banks was a dj he would stand his ground and say : 'Fuck 'em!', but I'm not that way. I like a little bit of everything, but I'm more of a househead than a technohead.
You were born in the wrong city then?
Yeah, definately. Actually Detroit house is more disco-influenced and more funk then it is hardcore techno. It worked out this way because of the influence of UR. Mike was kind of a new wave descending from rock, Jeff was making industrial and Rob was a bit of everything and they all came together. UR, through their merchandising and music, had such an impact on house as far as Europeans are concerned that they re-established the Detroit sound and made it harder.
You also worked with Orlando Voorn. How did you meet and why did you want to work with him?
I was doing a tour with UR and I came to Amsterdam. Orlando came to one of my gigs. I was playing at the Roxy. Orlando came up to me and was talking to me. At a certain moment he said : 'I did that track you are playing.' That was Solid Sessions. I looked on the record and thought : 'Damn, it sure is.' That song to me was one of the most brilliant tracks at that time. I absolutely loved that track. I didn't know he was Dutch ; I thought he was English. We connected. He's really a great producer. He's fast, he's creative. He's a madman when he's in the studio. I love his music. Some of it is crazy, weird, but whatever he does is brilliant.
A less happy relationship was the one with Low Spirit. You even refused to play at a Mayday rave. What was going on there?
Mayday is the exploitation of techno to me. I did Marusha's first 12-inch. She approached me for the whole project and I was really up for it. She was working on a radiostation at the time and she wanted to save the radiostation. I left the studio as the producer and Marusha was the artist. I came back three months later and I saw that DJ Dick had done a remix and put it out and he took producer's credit. He was not the producer, he was the remixer. They wanted to take the whole track. Just pay me or have a discussion with me on how things are going to go, but don't just do it. That to me was commercial exploitation. I had no idea how big Low Spirit was. I thought they were a creative underground label. At that time Mayday was really big and getting even bigger. They asked me to play more than once and I agreed, but when I saw how big it was and how the music was and after what they had done to me… Most people who play at Mayday they become really big in a commercial way. You can't catch a vibe with 10.000 people on drugs, there's no vibe, no communication. The only people who get rich are the Low Spirit people. Everyone has to make money, but at what cost? Techno, to me, is now a new form of music, but there are ways to kill music… I don't like raves too much. Originally they were a good concept, but once they got the sponsorships from guys like Marlboro, people became money hungry. Even the governement sponsors raves which is really crazy to me. They even pass out political pamphlets after the party. This kinda thing is more an exploitation than it is a creative vibe.
Recently at the American Music Awards they had a brand new category for techno with three nominees: The Chemical Brothers, Moby and Fatboy Slim. How was that?
That kills me. It really hurts me. You know, Fatboy Slim came to Detroit and he came to my recordshop and spoke to me. He didn't know who I was or whatever. He was really cocky and said : 'Do you know where the Heidelberg project is?' I asked why he wanted to know. 'I just wanna go there. So I asked him if he knew anything about it or understood what was going on? He said : 'No, I just heard it's something to see, it's got a lot of fucked up stuff in front of the building.' I didn't help him out. I knew the street, I even know the guy who's involved in the project, but I didn't help him out. I didn't even know who he was at the time. Later I saw pictures in a magazine with him posing with Detroit places. So I went : 'Who the fuck is this guy?' And then all of sudden I saw a video and heard the music. I heard ancient breakbeats and was thinking: 'Is this coming back again? Didn't Prodigy already use that avenue?'
Does it show America's views on techno music?
Exactly. The other part that really kills me… When Moby first started out he was pretty underground. Then all of a sudden he probably saw the succes of Fatboy Slim and thought: 'Hey, I can do that.' He's following that lead too. I'm not going to say too much about all that.
What will it take for techno, both the music and the culture, to be generally accepted in the US?
It would take Backstreet Boys and N-Sync to collaborate with Mike Banks.
Six months ago the DEMF attracted over one million visitors. What do you think about the festival?
It's long overdue. I think it's really great that it happened and I hope it will continue forever. I applaude Carl Craig for taking that step. He's a real thinker, he's a really creative person. Actually, Carl Craig met Derrick through me. Carl was over at my house and he was obsessed with Derrick. He wanted to play some things on the keyboard, but he was really shy and really reserved. He knew he was creative, but he didn't know how to go about it. He really wanted to meet Derrick and he just pulls up when Carl is leaving. So I said : 'Derrick, I want you to meet somebody…' And Derrick went : 'Get him away. I don't want to meet him. Blake, you work with too many people, stop doing that.' Carl went up to him and Derrick said : 'I don't want to meet nobody,' and just pulled off. Later Carl kept going to the Music Institute so they hooked up. Carl is really grown now. I think Derrick really manipulated him, but he finally grew as his own individual and now he's doing some great things.
What can we expect from the new album coming out in the new year on Tresor?
Expect a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a lot of house, expect some hiphop things, some trip-hop type of things. Expect a versatile album and also that will be my last techno album.
And after that?
After that I'm going to take a year and not put out any music. I want to work on production because I'm more into producing and production work, much more than being an artist. I'm not going to put out any more techno. It gets on my nerves, I can't stand it, it's agravating. I just don't like it anymore. Guys like Joey Beltram, Dave Clarke, Ben Sims, Cristian Vogel, Neil Landstrumm, these type of guys are good at what they do so I'm going to let them do it. I'm not disrespecting them because I like what they do, but I can't follow that avenue. I'm different. I like vocals, I like a good instrument or sample track, but I want to work on more soulful elements. Techno is becoming to electronic for me. I'm not a robot, I'm a human being.
What other plans do you have for the future?
Well, I like biking, hiking, camping, love snowboarding… I'm going to do more of that. I'm still going to DJ, but not so much. I was DJing at least three to four times a month, but I'm cutting it down to one or two times month. I still like it. I don't want to play full on techno. The majority will be house. I like hard beats though, the bass pumping… As far as albums are concerned: no more techno.
One last question purely out of interest, has your stay in NY already influenced you?
It has already influenced me a lot. I've been going back and forth to NY since I was nineteen. I love NY and when I'm away I miss it. When I'm in NY, after a month I got to get out and go to Detroit. But when I'm in Detroit I have to leave after a week because it's too mad and chilled. I don't want to live in NY, but I want to spend enough time to get to know the industry and make some connections. After that I want to go back to Detroit. I love Detroit.