Your Groove

DeForrest Brown, Jr. on Kevin Beasley and Underground Resistance

Underground Resistance’s “Man Machine” event at Performance Space New York, part of the Posthuman Series.

THE RIGGED SOUND OF TECHNO is a language, dense with sentiment and context. In October, as part of its ongoing “Posthuman” series, Performance Space New York hosted “Man Machine,” a conversation between the Detroit-based electronic-music collective Underground Resistance and artist Kevin Beasley. Founded in 1989 by Jeff Mills and “Mad Mike” Banks, later joined by Robert Hood, Underground Resistance was militant in its rejection of “programming by mediocre mainstream music and public institutions.” Now they are the inheritors and protectors of the “original” techno sound. They were anti–status quo, citing Detroit radio personality Electrifying Mojo’s eclectic song selections as a starting point for the voracious techno sound. Mojo’s programs introduced inner-city Detroit to a broad spectrum of music, weaving entire narratives connecting the B-52s to Kraftwerk to Prince.

Techno is more than the sum of its mechanical processes; like any machine, it also includes an operator, an inspired soul spurring it into motion. At Performance Space, Underground Resistance was represented by label manager Cornelius Harris and DJs Mark Flash and John Collins. They stressed the banality of twentieth-century utopian thinking in relationship to the black community. America’s harsh transition from Fordist “one-size-fits-all” mass production to the bespoke, individual-focused information age in the ’80s shifted the balance of supply and demand. As businesses either failed or moved elsewhere, working-class, often black families were left with nothing. Techno emerged at this transition’s tipping point; as a sound and cultural movement it was specially equipped to express Detroit’s metropolitan condition. “Working on machines and making them do different things” is how Flash characterized his use of electronic instruments. “In Detroit you either have mechanics, carpenters, or musicians—or all three.”

Making kin, becoming human together, is one of the UR’s main aspirations. In a previous life, Flash was a car thief and a mechanic; Collins had been a corrections officer. Techno might be music for and by the assembly line, but it’s also about that which slips in and out of the groove, the body that can’t always fit. Humans moving like machines, machines moving like humans: The important word is moving.

Prior to the talk, Collins DJ’d classic techno tracks. As the seats filled, the music grew louder. When Collins dropped Danny Krivit’s re-edit of Rhythim Is Rhythim’s “Strings of Life,” the theater transformed into an impromptu club space. Matching Beasley’s slowly swung two-step, Harris took the mic and told the crowd to stand up and dance. It was a cleansing, getting everyone into the groove so we could all get into the details of where the groove comes from. It is said that King David, in awe and joy of the beauty of God, danced right out of his clothes. I think I’ve heard the music to which he danced.

“Man Machine” occurred October 20 at Performance Space New York. Kevin Beasley’s “A View of a Landscape” runs December 15 through March 10, 2019, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.