Technology is intrinsic to techno – it’s right there in the name. Influences that fed into the Detroit-born genre were already testing new modes of musical expression, but techno heralded a more decisive break away from tradition fuelled by the runaway developments in electronic music equipment.
In modern terms at least, the computer’s assimilation into the trad-techno studio setup was relatively cautious, veering in extremes from a sterile digital purism to anti-laptop hardware elitism. Now, the general consensus seems settled on a mixture of disciplines as the key to fruitful techno exploration. Most producers active since the early days will have ridden at least some part of this wave of popular opinion and studio practice.
Eric Dulan, aka DJ Bone, is one such figure, active since the early ‘90s, releasing his first record around 1996 and relentlessly making mind-bending techno ever since. As a DJ, Dulan is more renowned today than he’s ever been. A three-decks and upwards spin master with the chops and flair to send any room into a frenzy, he’s rightly captured the imagination of successive generations of party people the world over, but he’s equally prolific as a producer. As his label, Subject Detroit, celebrates 25 years in business, we caught up with the Detroit man in Amsterdam to find out how his approach to making techno has evolved in line with the vast technological changes since the mid ‘90s.
Like so many DJs-turned-artists, Dulan’s journey into music-making was as much out of necessity as curiosity.
“I was DJing all around the city,” he says, “and there was a certain sound I wanted to play and I just wasn't able to find enough of it, so I said, ‘OK, I'm gonna start making my own.’ The first thing I bought was an all-in-one workstation – the Kurzweil K2500. I’d saved up all my money and at that time, it came down to the choice of buying a car or a keyboard… and I bought the keyboard.”
The learning curve on the hardware was steep, but Dulan was fortunate to have access to a world-class community of forefathers in Detroit. From afternoon’s spent picking Mad Mike and Juan Atkins’ brains in Submerge to hanging out in Kenny Larkin’s studio, Dulan found the first and second wave of Detroit techno pioneers to be friendly and forthcoming with advice. Initial troubleshooting from MIDI patching to hum cancellation soon progressed to mixdown tips and special techniques such as reverse edits using a reel-to-reel (imparted to Dulan by Mad Mike during a late night editing session).
“I squeezed the most out of that [Kurzweil],” Dulan laughs. “I didn't even have a mixing desk. I mixed it down on the onboard sequencer, EQ'd and everything, and it just went straight to DAT.”
The first time Dulan even got to play with a drum machine was a memorable experience. Around 1993-1994 he was living in a loft on the eastside of Detroit with neighbours including Carl Craig and Kelli Hand.
“One day Claude Young came through with an SP1200,” Dulan recalls. “He's like, ‘You wanna come downstairs to Kelli's place? I'm doing a remix for her.’ That was the first time I'd ever been on any drum machine, and he was showing me how it worked. I ended up doing a remix on the spot for Kelli Hand [which can be found on a rare white label called Love Games]. It was a good community, and in the early days a lot of people did work together. It was more artistic, before the business element came into it.”
In the early stages of his career, access to equipment was relatively limited for Dulan. He did however have a surprise turn of luck through his best friend Paul Staricco, who had always expressed a keen interest in analogue synths and drum machines without being active as a producer.
“Paul moved from Detroit to San Fran around 1994 or 95,” Dulan explains. “I went out to visit him in his small-assed place, and he has his living room full of gear. The freakin’ Jupiter 6, the Juno 106, the JB 2080, the Arp Axe, all kinds of drum machines. He had just been collecting all this stuff. He's like, ‘since I knew you were coming out, I figured you could hook it up for me.’ I hook it all up and I'm testing everything out, and he's like, ‘so if you want to, just go ahead and make some stuff while you're out here.’”
Dulan ended up making trips to the West coast every few months to work with Staricco’s machines, coming up with swathes of new ideas which would go on to form the basis of tracks like “Body Bags”, “Knowhere” and many more besides.
Dulan’s first outing on vinyl was the aptly titled Electronic Birth EP for German label Molecular Recordings in 1996. It was another two years before he quietly launched Subject Detroit with the anonymous pseudonym Subject No. 1. Dulan’s intention was to remove all ties to his established DJ career and see how the music fared on its own merit. Musically, it set out Dulan’s table early on as a fearless innovator seeking to push against the already established ‘norms’ of techno as a genre. His commitment to Black politics was front and centre with the still-relevant mantra of “black lives… poverty… aspiration” running through “Black Lives”. It’s a position he’s maintained ever since, using his platform to confront issues of racism and inequality head on with the same vigour as Underground Resistance or his favourite hip-hop group, Public Enemy.
“When I started creating music it was natural for these songs to have a message,” Dulan explains. “When I did “Black Lives”, those three things were every day for me. ‘Black lives. Poverty. Aspiration.’ If you're Black, you can't hide it. And when you're broke, you can’t help it, but the aspiration… you're always going to want something, whether you want to be better or do better. There's always a hope. Most broke kids, the one thing they all have in common is hope.”
From a production angle, the four-track EP was just as forceful in its declaration of identity, not least with the ear snagging drums. Amazingly, more than 20 years later, the ubiquity of the 808 and 909 still dominate techno music, but it was the same issue when Detroit techno was barely 10 years old.
“[From the beginning] I wanted to use different drums,” Dulan declares. “I didn't want to just use a preset. I wanted to mess with it. That's my main thing I've always loved to do. I love 909 drums, but I don't want to use only 909 or 808 drums. It's so weird that we always use the same drums for a genre that's supposed to be very futuristic.”
To achieve unique drum sounds, Dulan turned to his Akai sampler to layer different timbres into his drum hits, and used other drum machines such as the LinnDrum which he could tweak and process so it wouldn’t sound “so Linn-y”.
“A lot of people tune the drums all the time. I don't mind tuning the drums but the thing to me is more about the impact and the feeling the drums give you as opposed to whether it's in tune or not. To me drums are more a leader as far as a pattern goes. Like James Brown used to say, ‘everything is drums. The horn is drums, the guitar is drums.’”
By his own account, the Subject No. 1 12” sold well and could have launched his production career and record label comfortably in tandem with his burgeoning reputation as a DJ. However, with his increased exposure to the professional dimension of a music career, Dulan found himself disillusioned with different aspects of the industry from financial wranglings to ego-driven politics. His experiences drove him away from pursuing careerist goals in favour of a pure focus on making music.
“The music business is really shocking when you first encounter it,” he explains. “I felt instead of releasing and being in that pool, I'd rather just make music. I was stockpiling songs when I met my wife. She helped me jump-start releasing again. She was like, ‘you should just get in there and let people hear this music.’”
Breaking the silence
DJ Bone re-emerged in 2004 with a tidal wave of releases that revealed just how much progress he had been making in pursuit of his own unique take on the Detroit techno tradition. Tracks like “Wind Slaves (Fog)” eschewed the familiar thump of a 4/4 kick drum while using angular rhythmic figures and lush pads to capture the kinetic energy of techno. “Effects Of Change” bubbled and bumped with a groove as funky as it was weird. “The Hold (Tight Packing)” created a claustrophobic clamour that matched the painful transatlantic slavery subject matter, though from a musical perspective Dulan’s head-on approach to Black politics was shot through with hope and fortitude at every turn in an echo of his earlier sentiment about aspiration. Indeed, Dulan’s politics could scarcely not be detected in his music, sampling the anti-Apartheid radio broadcasts from the African National Congress And The People’s Army Umkhonto We Sizwe for “Cause Of Action” or placing Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 Black power salute at the Olympic Games on the center label for the Struggle EP. One of the few instances where the tone of the music and sampling content tipped over into a more explicit fury was 2005’s “Body Bags”, which matches the grim hook of “I’ve got Detroit on the line, they need 4,000 body bags” to an unhinged synth stab and pummeling, doubled-up beat. The frustration and anger positively leaps out of the speakers.
“It’s sad, but “Body Bags” is a culmination of growing up in Detroit and being around death all the time,” Dulan explains. “Any time you turn on the news, somebody got shot, or even if you don’t turn on the news and you’re watching TV, all of a sudden you hear gunshots outside, it’s almost a daily occurrence and it puts you in this weird state where it becomes normal. Most New Years Eves when I was a child, we’d get instructions from our parents to stay away from the windows and sit on the floor at midnight. And the next day you might hear a stray bullet came through a house and killed a kid. Just stupid shit. Reckless violence. That’s “Body Bags”, pointing out how senseless it is for that to be normal.”
It was apparent with Dulan’s new surge of material that he had advanced techniques at play in his music now. Gone was the raw machine attack heard on breakthrough Metroplex single “Shut The Lites Off”, making way for wildly expressive synth motifs and uniquely textured rhythms rendered with clarity and precision. This comes through no clearer than on “Metallo”, which pushes closer to electronica territory with its jagged angles, sea sick chords and madly modulating threads pulsing away behind the lead beat. When the groove kicks in just past the midway point, it’s pure Detroit, but the execution shows how far the DJ Bone sound had travelled in his time out of the spotlight.
“I think I made “Metallo” right around when I started using Live,” Dulan reveals. “I saw you could drag and drop your samples in Live and it time stretched them for you, and it just flashed me back to all the time I used to spend trimming samples on my Akai S2800. That let me know that I could just mess with everything and not worry, because of the undo and the autosave.”
On “Metallo” specifically Dulan used two Doepfer sequencers running different pattern lengths to trigger his samples in Live in intriguing polyrhythmic formations. Once Live was incorporated into his workflow, his tangled studio set up hinged around a MIDI patch bay, enabling him to experiment with different connectivity, sending CC messages to different machines and daisy-chaining for constantly surprising results. He’d often work on two or three songs simultaneously, testing out different ideas with specific patches before recording a batch of live takes to DAT, rewiring everything again and moving on to the next project.
“Initially I was straight up using outboard gear with Live. I was on a mixing desk and I was just using Live to sequence and for any sampling that I needed and that was it. I didn't even mess with the sounds on Live for the longest time because in my mind I'm like, ‘Presets? No, thank you.’ I just created a bunch of sound banks of my own through tweaking and sampling rackmount gear like the EMU Planet Phat and the Orbit.”
Deeply rooted rhythms
One thing that clearly set Dulan’s take on Detroit techno apart from the outset was his approach to rhythm. Even when, with the steady count of a seasoned DJ, you can lock his tracks to a 4/4 pulse, sonically they move with nuanced polyrhythms that keep the brain guessing and the dancers on their toes. The groove on a track like “Body Bags” can easily throw you off, even if the kick is steadfast at the bottom of the mix, while the percussion whirling through “Motherland” calls back to Africa as explicitly as the tribal chants. It’s no surprise to learn Dulan has taken his grasp of rhythm seriously.
“I started to study a lot of African rhythms,” Dulan reveals. “I got a couple of books and I bought tonnes of CDs of actual tribes so that I could listen to the rhythm and figure out where it was regionally and exactly what they were expressing, and it just sounded so good constantly. Whenever I would hear it, I could feel it. It motivated me. So that's why I like to incorporate a lot of the African rhythms in there, because it's the motherland – the birthplace of the drums, of the beat.”
Club smashes and curveballs
While he may be more of a household name now, for much of his career Dulan’s releases have largely bubbled below the surface – revered by those with their finger on the pulse, but too out-there for the mainstream club scene. But in his back catalogue there are certain tracks that seem to teeter close to the idea of a club smash. Among them is 2008’s “Circus World”, his self-voiced call-out to the aspects of the music industry that had dismayed him in the early days. “Borrowed our soul, return it with interest, you can’t replicate it in your Circus World,” he sings pointedly. As well as having a pertinent message about the appropriation of techno culture, it’s one of Dulan’s catchiest, most potent tracks. Even the intro clap on the two and the four is a head turner, made by layering up three different claps with ample reverb and nudging them apart to increase the size and impact.
Dulan describes the “Circus World” groove as a painstakingly crafted “auditory illusion”, not least the slippery lead made using two separate synth sounds and some light FX. He nudged the compound sound forwards while slipping the beat back to create a unique funk. As he attests, it was the exact idea he had in his mind that just took some careful work in the studio to achieve.
Although you’d be hard pressed to boil Dulan’s style down to one definable description, there are stand out moments in his catalogue where he’s thrown out a curveball. Vocoder-powered cut “Himbot” is one such example that emerged from the same late ‘00s period, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place alongside the crossover electro-techno of artists like Miss Kittin & The Hacker.
“I thought, ‘this isn't like anything I would do, so I have to do it.’” Dulan says of the moment he struck upon the idea for “Himbot” deep into a studio session. “At that time I was ready to ditch my desk and just straight sequence on Live. The sound quality still needed to be better but as far as function goes... With DJ mixers, I'm always about the function over the quality because of the performance, and it was the same with Live. Even if some things were lacking or I could get better quality with my desk, the function of Live freed me up to do crazier shit.”
For more than 10 years Dulan has been progressing his sound in the box, and while there have continued to be DJ Bone releases via labels like Sect and Leftroom as well as Subject Detroit, he’s also been channeling his energy into a new concern. His Differ-Ent alias emerged in 2015 on UK label Don’t Be Afraid, eventually resulting in the It’s Good To Be Differ-Ent album two years later. While Dulan’s music has crackled with electric ingenuity from the outset, he sees Differ-Ent as a markedly different vehicle to DJ Bone.
“[With Differ-Ent] I was embracing the software side,” he explains. “It was more structured, like I was trying to piece together electronic songs. It was more science than it was music. The newer DJ Bone stuff is going to be funkier than the Differ-Ent stuff.”
This notion of new material hangs in the air over our conversation. For the past few years Dulan has been busier than at any other time in his career as a DJ, and it’s noticeable that he hasn’t released any new material since the 2018 DJ Bone albums Beyond and A Piece of Beyond. As we talk Europe is in the midst of the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, and Dulan and his wife have not long been living in their new house on the outskirts of Amsterdam. A new studio space and a significantly reduced gig schedule seem likely to signal a change in direction for Dulan’s musical output to encompass a more “engineered” approach.
“Honestly, 80 percent of the music I've released has been expressions,” he says. “From Ship Life, through stuff like “Circus World” all the way up until now with “All My Heart” and “Rosedale Park”, those are all vibes and expressions. Every once in a while I'll toss in a track like “Dreamers 9” – that was purely me engineering a track, and it ended up being played by everyone from Josh Wink and heavier techno DJs to Peggy Gou. They have no clue what's coming. It's almost like I’m a chef that's been just freestyling in the kitchen with no recipes.
A smile can be heard breaking across his face as he teases. “Wait until I really try and do a strict recipe, and then see what happens.”
Text and interview: Oli Warwick