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Blak Power 

Oakland's Blaktroniks looks backward -- and forward -- with its Afro-futurist brand of techno

Wednesday, Aug 14 2002
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When Blaktroniks played recently in the former East Germany, a neo-Nazi turned up at a show -- a not uncommon sight in the club scene there. The guy didn't cause any trouble, but he did drink himself into a stupor and pass out -- prompting the promoter and Blaktroniks' Eddie Smith and Badi Malik, both African-American, to carry the skinhead to a nearby bus shelter to sleep it off.

The gesture, while broad-minded, wasn't totally altruistic. "The skins have [clubs] spooked over there," says Smith. "They're like Hell's Angels. So even though he was messed up, we couldn't just dump him anywhere." The incident provides a glimpse at the strange path of Blaktroniks' career -- one that winds through international waterways, black musical history, and extensive laptop circuitry.

Plenty of Bay Area dance music artists have launched careers abroad -- call it the "Big in Japan" syndrome -- and Blaktroniks is no exception, having garnered fervent support internationally while capturing little attention here at home. Active since 1996, the duo has put out four albums, three of them self-released. The most recent, Seduction at 33 1/3, appeared this April on Moving Records, a Heidelberg imprint set up by scene maven Magnus Miller to issue Blaktroniks' output. (Miller chose the label's moniker because, he says, "Blaktroniks' music is some of the most moving music we know.") The German connection testifies to a flurry of interest in Europe: The crew recently returned from a dozen dates in Germany and Austria, where its recordings were championed by leading music magazines such as Spex and De:Bug. The Teutonic exposure isn't surprising, given that the Blaktroniks sound -- a fusion of grainy minimal techno, R&B, hip hop, spoken word, and polyrhythmic funk -- exemplifies the kind of hybrid soul that German audiences crave. Yet there's been virtually no English-language press dedicated to the group, and many Bay Area electronic music insiders know little about Blaktroniks beyond a fleeting recognition of the name.

Not surprisingly, Blaktroniks didn't intend to sell records in the Bay Area at first. "When we sat in our office in '96, we decided that we were going to take it straight [to Europe], and not try it here," Smith recalls. "It's harder to bring it straight to the people here than to bring it straight to the people there."

Having been introduced by mutual friends in the mid-'90s, the pair formed a business plan based upon the frustrations they'd experienced in the music world. Malik, a software engineer and Minneapolis transplant, recalls presenting a project to artists and executives in L.A. and being told that he needed "to learn a thing or two about melody."

"I realized that they had no clue what this type of music was about," he says.

Smith, a barber by trade, had been experimenting with electronic music and hip hop production since 1993. In that same period, he'd worked as a choreographer, a role that helped him make plenty of insider connections -- and left him leery of the expectations of labels, promoters, and even listeners. "Here in the States, or in San Francisco, it's better to push yourself as a rapper and just do a rap album, or R&B, and fit into a bracket, a stereotype, a box," he says. "But then you've got to compete against everybody else that's the same way. And then you've got to sound like somebody that people already like in order to succeed."

Blaktroniks' version of electronic music doesn't fit into this model. Early albums such as 1997's Process of Illumination display elements of robotic electro, steely techno, and rough-edged drum 'n' bass, with counterpoint melodies that bend dance music's linear thrust. Like Illumination, 1997's Return of the Afronaut also projects the group's mission through the twin lenses of technology and black consciousness: The liner notes explain in purposely skewed text that Blaktroniks is "the branch of physics that deals with the behavior of free blaktrons, blaktrons being the darkest known huemans, constituents of all huemans." The recent effort, Seduction at 33 1/3, pushes these musical ideas to new heights. Opening with "Fais Moi Fremir," a fusion of smooth R&B and avant-garde glitch textures, the album veers from the burnished-aluminum feel of underground dance music to the brisk skip of hip hop. While the lush atmospherics of "Serenade" wouldn't be out of place on KISS-FM, the convoluted rhythms of "Teknik Cleansing" could daunt all but the most adventurous of dancers.

"Our albums kind of sound like compilation albums," admits Smith, "but we produced every track on them."

With such a divergent sound, Blaktroniks felt it needed an alternative path to the public, one rooted less in local presence than in what Smith calls "telepresence," the process of using technology to bridge physical distances. After placing samples on Malik's Web site (www.dykon.com), the pair gained greater notoriety by posting clips on MP3.com. In 1999 Malik received an e-mail from Magnus Miller, who runs several independent record labels in Heidelberg. Excited about what he'd heard online -- "I was completely flashed" is how he phrases it -- Miller proposed putting out Blaktroniks' records. Before agreeing, though, Malik wanted to hear what Miller had to offer.

"Magnus and I struck up this dialogue for a year and a half, two years, just back and forth, talking about everything," says Malik. "Social issues, political issues, musical influence, everything. So I started to form a picture of what kind of person he was." As with all things related to the project, the musicians were determined to proceed with caution. "Our music is like our child," Smith explains. "And if you're going to put him in a certain school, you want to know what are the qualifications of the teachers."

Eventually Smith and Malik sent material to Miller -- new stuff, as well as a 1991 solo cut Smith had recorded directly to cassette. When the first single arrived in Oakland in 2000, the two knew they'd found the right partner. Moving's silver sleeves and minimalist logo made a perfect fit for Blaktroniks' own cool, digital aesthetic, and even the decade-old, lo-fi track was mastered to jump off the vinyl. "As soon as we got the material back," says Malik, "the first thing we did was to get on a plane, go over, and start supporting it on tour."

Neither that visit nor Blaktroniks' second trip to Germany earlier this year sold out venues, but both were important steps in the duo's search for an audience. David Moufang, who records as Move D and runs the influential German electronic music label Source, helped arrange the group's most recent tour. "The Blaktroniks really rocked those venues in Germany," he says, "regardless of the amount of people at the individual shows." As a result, he notes, "they are certainly being watched and talked about by some very trendy trainspotters!"

Some of the fuss has to do with Blaktroniks' live set, which has come a long way since early gigs at S.F.'s Java on Ocean cafe. Local artist Jonah Sharp, of the ambient techno act Spacetime Continuum and the label Reflective Records, notes that the group is "one of the few electronic bands around who actually do a truly engaging and live performance." During shows Smith wears a headset microphone and engages the crowd by both singing and acting as an MC in the traditional sense of the term, while Malik sequesters himself behind the equipment and computers. "The rhythms can be difficult to dance to, especially if it's [someone's] first encounter with it," explains Malik. "So Edd's presence helps people understand that they're supposed to be partying and having a good time -- not waiting to see if the guy with the laptop is going to set himself on fire!"

Blaktroniks' live approach may be most valuable when espousing its Afro-futurist message to black audiences unaccustomed to techno. "I think the most important thing is actually being in front of them doing it," says Malik. "I mean, to just go to a black club and spin the records, I don't think people can get an idea of what's actually going on. But when Edd and I have gone to black clubs or black events and performed, we've gotten a great response."

"Nobody really points this out much," adds Malik, "but if you take a look around at any techno music event, you don't see many black people there. We want our peers, black youth, to accept this music and understand it and accept it as black music. That's part of the reason for the name." Unfortunately, Blaktroniks faces an uphill battle, much like the one that Detroit's techno pioneers endured in the '80s, when they found favor with white listeners in Europe but remained marginalized in the African-American communities at home.

Still, Smith see Blaktroniks' "slow-growth" policy as a good thing. "I think people like to discover things on their own. You know, instead of [selling] 20 CDs to Amoeba, you send two or three. And let somebody discover it and tell somebody else. And when they go to find it, if they can't find it, then the search begins."

About The Author

Philip Sherburne

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