James Pennington

A key member of Underground Resistance, James Pennington aka Suburban Knight was responsible for seminal techno releases such as The Groove and The Art of Stalking. Overload’s Belgian correspondent caught up with him in Liege in 2000, where the Detroit knight talked about the early days, UR and keeping it real

By John Osselaer

James Pennington acquired much of his love for music through early house and DJing performances from Chicago legends such as Marshall Jefferson. From a young age his involvement with the emerging sound of techno was assured, attending high school with the infamous ‘Belleville three’ of Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. “Those guys were in the classes of Belleville before me," he recounts, "I taught myself how to DJ in my last middle school year. We gave parties in high school for our senior group... that’s basically how we hooked up — going to school, listening to music and DJing. I remember watching Juan mix with two tape recorders before he even had a mixer. It blew me away.”

He explains how influences that shaped the future sound of Detroit were to also come from further afield. “Kraftwerk broke out with a style that was way ahead of anything I had ever heard. I mean Kraftwerk blew everybody out of the water. What really topped it off was that they were German guys who were making soulful electronic music – we didn’t consider it techno then. We had a jock by the name of Mojo who played 40% European for us, as well as with the rest of the US groups. It just clicked – it was really different. Growing up in Motown it was very easy to hear a soul track every ten minutes, but it was difficult to hear Kraftwerk until Mojo came. He opened our scope as far as the world being really small when it comes to the universal language of music.”

As early as 1987 he started releasing tracks that were to be key contributions to the emerging electronic new school. But even today his influence is often overlooked in favour of his school colleagues, Kevin, Juan and Derrick. I wondered if he felt left out or whether he had made a deliberate choice to stay eclipsed from the limelight: “Those guys put more energy in it” he explains. “They graduated from high school to have the opportunity to do everything they did to make their careers big. I chose to stay back because I wanted to start a family and pursue the regular things in life – I really don't feel left out. Just consider that The Art of Stalking came out at the same time a lot of other stuff did, and The Groove as well.”

He was also somewhat omitted from the credits for Inner City’s Big Life - a release that both he and Kevin Saunderson had been jointly responsible for. He openly admits Kevin’s efforts in pushing the project worldwide earned him the right to greater public prestige, but an ill-fated deal with Detroit label Paragon caused James’ name to be deleted from the group while preventing him from releasing any further material for four years. He fulfilled his obligations to Paragon by producing an album, never to be released. But while preparing tracks for a time beyond his contractual burden, he also helped bring forth new talent like Mark Floyd (Afrogermanic/Chaos) and Chuck Gibson (Perception).

Shortly after regaining his artistic freedom from Paragon he hooked up with the UR crew for the first time. “In 1990 Mike [Banks] and Jeff [Mills] made a track called You Can’t Deny The Bass. I did a remix for those guys for Network. We all met in the studio and kicked it off from there. Shortly after, Mike came to me: ‘I’m starting up a label. It’s down man, I’m gonna pay my people.’ I waited for about three years before I jumped on in 1994, but we were friends long before that. I really respected his music, he respected mine and we never bumped heads.”

Along with more classic releases than any techno trainspotter would ever care to recount, UR gained global notoriety throughout the nineties for their robust ideologies and desire to make a difference to the music scene as a whole. Having been an integral part of the organisation for so long, I felt James was suitably qualified to comment on their militant stance. “I think the difference is that you can be a little man and still hang amongst the ranks with the big men, meaning not following suit with everything that is popular. Do your own thing – that’s the number one thing that is important. Not being a person that is always full of drugs, drinking all the time and not having anything constructive to say about anything or anybody. Just keeping the idea real that, hey, this could stop tomorrow. Make the best shit that you possibly can. In Detroit we live in a hard city — hard meaning it is hard to survive. If you don’t have a job you can’t go living on music alone unless you are doing it massively. The resistance is from majors who want to buy you out at the drop of a dime – not mentioning any names. You’re not in this label [UR] to become a massively paid DJ or artist. That’s why the discipline, the militance is a way of thinking, not a way of dressing.”

‘Not mentioning any names’? Undoubtedly a thinly veiled reference to the recent shameless attempt by Sony to rip off DJ Rolando’s UR track Knights of the Jaguar, turning it into a commercial trance record. UR were never going to take this audacious act lying down. ‘The reaction was surprise. The message that has been preached by UR has always been ‘watch out for the majors’. A lot of people were really upset about it. UR has been around for a long time. It’s not as easy as taking candy from a baby. It’s not a label you can just walk over because it’s small.  Speaking for myself, it really made me feel like: ‘Wow, there really is a David [as in ‘David vs Goliath’] in the world.’ Overall it taught everybody a lesson – no matter how small you are, right is right and wrong is wrong.”

Despite the global uprising that forced Sony to abandon the project, the company went on to licence the track to BMG, who have been pushing it heavily in Ibiza and Spain over the summer. But to end on a more positive note, James has been turning his attention to new musical projects outside of the Detroit fold, while continuing to make nightstrikes across the globe with his funky, organic DJing style and ad-lib live sets. He speaks of a planned collaboration with Berlin's Tresor stable schedule for next March (“It will be the first major project I’ve had outside the Detroit camp”), and with an EP release planned on Dark Print, you certainly won’t find this US pioneer hiding in the shadows.

 Photo credit: Wouter Van Nevel
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