I write about a variety of themes on this blog, and though I have a deep love of music I try to avoid writing about it because that’s not what the Gyre is about. I’ve made a few exceptions before but this piece almost fits with the site’s other interests.
For over twenty years I’ve loved the musical output of James Stinson. He’s best known as part of the Detroit Techno outfit Drexciya, but he also recorded under a plethora of aliases (including Abstract Thought, The Other People Place & Elecktroids). Drexciya were so secretive about their identity that it was only after Stinson’s tragically early death in 2002, aged 32, that the record-buying public even discovered his name¹.
Although their names were unknown, the duo (Stinson and Gerald Donald) wove an increasingly complex mythology about themselves: a “sonic fiction” that built up liner note after liner note, track title by track title. Kodwo Eshun writes that “their underwater paradise is hydroterritorialized into a geopolitical subcontinent mapped through cartographic track titles”: The Red Hills of Lardossa, Darthouven Fish Men, Sightings in the Abyss.
Drexciya, so the mythology holds, is a subaquatic continent in the Atlantic, peopled by the water-breathing descendants of pregnant slaves thrown overboard from ships traversing the Middle Passage. This evolved across their mid-90s EPs and their three full-length albums. Stinson’s many solo projects touched tangentially on it, as does Donald’s continued output (as Der Zyklus, Dopplereffekt and many other aliases).
Now, to many the idea of “concept” suggests the self-indulgent excesses of 70s (white) progressive rock. But Stinson & Donald’s predecessors were the likes of George Clinton and Sun Ra, and they worked closely with the militant Underground Resistance label of Mike Banks & Jeff Mills. Theirs were not hippy stoner ideas brought to life by noodling guitar solos, but were instead an African-American act of self-creation, a reclamation of origin theories, and as such were a powerful political and artistic statement. Little of which means much, of course, if the music doesn’t match the ambition: but in Drexciya’s case it does. Taking fellow Detroiter Juan Atkins’s early 80s electro outfit Cybotron as their ground zero, Drexciya’s often harsh, often beautiful, always urgent TR808-driven tracks sound utterly fresh, 25 years on. Their programming and their approach to sequencing follow none of the formulae laid down by Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson in the late 80s (and which contemporary dance music – for better or worse – still largely follows).
Why am I writing about Stinson now? Well, I’ve listened to his work since I got Elecktroids’ Elektroworld on cassette back in 1997 but – crucially – I’ve never listened to their music while at the same time reading the fiction of a certain Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
I’ve known Lovecraft for longer – my friend Will loaned me his Grafton edition of The Haunter of the Dark when we were about 14 – but I’d never considered the similarities between the Cthulhu and the Drexciya Mythoi until now. It may be an example of parallel evolution, though Stinson & Donald could well have known Lovecraft’s fiction, but I realised (I’m not the first, but Googling “Lovecraft” and “Drexciya” returns fewer hits than expected) that they’re not so much linked; rather they’re the exact opposite of each other.
The key to my realising this was, perhaps surprisingly, one of Lovecraft’s lesser tales, the appallingly racist The Horror at Red Hook. It’s a story I hadn’t read for years, so I came to it with a fresher eye than if I was encountering The Colour Out of Space for the zillionth time. Everything that’s key to Lovecraft is in Red Hook: hidden rites, a loathing of mixed lineage, fear of the Other, et cetera.
HPL’s racism is abhorrent and not something which, unlike others whose politics we despise, can be easily separated from his work. It’s an uncomfortable fact that however much we admire his tales of cosmic terror – and there is much to admire and enjoy – his prejudices are intrinsic to his work. They are the foundation of the fears his stories seek to generate.
The Afrofuturism of Drexciya is diametrically opposed to Lovecraft’s antiquarianism. One can only wonder what he would make of Drexciya: ambitious, intelligent, urban African-Americans using modern electronics to create rhythmic music for the purpose of dancing (which always signifies sinister rites in Lovecraft’s fiction²) and which simultaneously highlights the slave trade origins of the Black American experience.
For those less familiar with Lovecraft, an overarching theme of his stories is that the universe is indifferent to mankind, and that primeval beings – Elder Gods, Old Ones – existed on earth long before mankind; they may exist right now beyond our perception; and they will rule the earth in the future. They come from dimensions and universes where the familiar laws of nature do not apply. As he says in his typically restrained style, they come from:
“unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms whose mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes” (The Colour Out of Space)
As well as outer space, the earth’s oceans is often a source – an aeons-old refuge – of these demonic entities. Interestingly, Drexciya’s mythology evolved over time to span not only the ocean but also the cosmos. Their 2002 album Grava 4 features a star map on the cover because the duo “bought” a star.
As I said above though, the links between the two Mythoi (yes, it’s the plural of Mythos – I looked it up) suggest that they are reflections of each other, to be studied by means of contrast rather than comparison. Drexciya’s work can be seen as a rejoinder to Lovecraft, or a revisionist dismantling of his prejudices and a re-utilising of the constituent parts.
Lovecraft’s cosmos is famously “indifferent”, which in itself is enough to provoke a chill (and intriguingly aligns him with Existentialism). But he classes people whose lineage is not that of Northern Europe as “creatures”, as subhuman or decadent and therefore not on a par with whites. Given that among these peoples are those who would open the doors to alien beings, what this implies is that the universe is specifically indifferent – hostile, even – to white humans. What it is that truly terrifies Lovecraft, therefore, is Black Agency.
Drexciya’s subaquatic realm is “indifferent” to whites but this is a means of taking control of the narrative (after all, it’s White Agency that’s to blame). We are led through these seascapes by “Wavejumpers” who are (pace Frankie Fultz’s logo design, below) but a stone’s throw from the inhabitants of the “malign” Devil Reef off the coast of Innsmouth.
The Drexciyans, Lardossens, Mutant Gillmen and other denizens of this fictional Black Atlantic are, in fact, Lovecraft’s Other. Fear of the Other is a common – perhaps the original – horror trope, but it need not have the implications it does with Lovecraft. It’s a trope of more progressive fiction – horror or otherwise – that seeks to subjectivise, rather than objectivise, that Other. This de-Othering is what Drexciya is and does.
What HPL reads as miscegenation is, for Drexciya, a form of evolution. Nettrice R. Gaskins, in his analysis Deep Sea Dwellers writes:
“Drexciyans were an evolved race of people, the music was their talking drum to battle forces seeking to remove them from existence”
Meanwhile, the liner notes to the Drexciya album The Quest ask:
“Are Drexciyans water-breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed? Have they been spared by God to teach us or terrorize us? Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River basin and on to the Great Lakes of Michigan? Do they walk among us? Are they more advanced than us and why do they make their strange music? What is their quest? These are many of the questions that you don’t know and never will.”
We can imagine Lovecraft’s response, but Stinson and Donald are more equivocal. Gaskins asks us to:
“Note the similarities between Drexciya’s “Darthouven Fish Men” and the amphibious, fish-like Nommo hybrids from outer space worshipped by the Dogon of Mali, for instance, both of whom require watery environments in which to live”
It’s not a huge leap from this to some of the Cthulhu Mythos pantheon. The fact that Dogon is almost a homphone of Dagon (itself a story by HPL, and also a cult in The Shadow Over Innsmouth) is serendipity.
Eshun quotes Mark Sinker, and flips the concept of alien abduction on its head by looking at it through the prism of the slave trade:
“The ships landed long ago. [Drexciya use] electronics to replay the alien abduction of slavery with a fictional outcome…they have been here all along and they are you…you are the alien you are looking for.”
“You are the Other” brings us nicely to the story that Drexciya has the closest ties to: The Shadow Over Innsmouth, with its own mutant gillmen (and indeed Gilman). The racial inheritance that Lovecraft frames as the story’s ultimate horror is, by contrast, Drexciya’s starting point. This is a further example of Drexciya’s de-Othering: taking that which is feared and shunned, and inhabiting it. The narrator’s final dream that
“We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.”
could equally be the destination Drexciya had in mind for The Journey Home.
Throughout Lovecraft’s stories the same places are referenced, such as the dread plateau of Leng and “Kadath in the cold waste” (both of which are ultimately identified in At The Mountains of Madness). If geography in Lovecraft is cursed, or sick, or suggestive of unnameable fears – and it usually is – it’s because of what was done there in the deep past. All landscape in Lovecraft is a palimpsest.
As for Drexciya, necessarily we are limited to what’s suggested by track titles, sleevenotes and their cover art. Their panoramas are very different from Lovecraft’s: Neon Falls, Bubble Metropolis, Andreaen Sand Dunes, Aquabahn (a nod to Kraftwerk), and though Dead Man’s Reef and Danger Bay may sound threatening, it would seem any peril to be encountered there is as a result of their geography rather than any conscious agency³. Devil’s Reef in Innsmouth, by contrast, is not so named because it’s a hazard to shipping but because actual “devils” congregate there.
The distance Drexciya placed between the creator and listener adds a sense of not just mystery, but actual weirdness. By refusing to explain other than by hint or suggestion, their underwater terrain conforms to Mark Fisher’s definition of “the Weird” as “an irruption”. They manage to make the intonation of the phrase “Rubick’s Cube” on the track of the same name sound like some impossible non-Euclidean geometry such as you’d find in Lovecraft.
Lovecraft made only a pittance from his weird fiction. After his death his large circle of correspondents did all they could to ensure his name lived on. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei founded the publishing company Arkham House, and if Derleth’s own legacy vis-a-vis Lovecraft is chequered, he must be credited with ensuring HPL’s fiction remained in print.
By the 60s and 70s Lovecraft had become a cult figure: his cosmic weirdness chimed with the contemporary interest in psychedelics (the band who named themselves after him are worth a listen, particularly ‘Mobius Trip’). In the U.K., Panther published many collections of his work (and Derleth’s own stories which he contentiously published under Lovecraft’s name). The covers of these are by Ian Miller and as such are instantly recognisable. I have half a dozen which, however tattered they are, and however impressive the scholarly Oxford Worlds Classic edition I recently bought may be, are more in keeping with the pulp origins of the stories they contain.
The rapid, tentacular spread of Lovecraft’s influence in the last decade coincided with the entry of his work into the public domain4. At the same time came the emergence of the “New Weird” fiction from the likes of China Miéville and Jeff Vandermeer as a response to Lovecraft and his peers.
Drexciya were highly-rated in their own time, but electro and techno (like weird fiction) have never been a mainstream genre. “Fame” in this context is relative. The distance they kept from the listener – their level of secrecy – seems heroic nowadays. But Stinson never made enough from his music to support his family, and drove trucks across America for a living. He used this time to come up with ideas for music and the growing mythology of Drexciya.
What’s startling, though, is his forethought. He knew he had a heart condition, and probably knew it would kill him. He seems therefore to have thrown himself into a frenzy of creation and – it would appear – to have left instructions with the Rotterdam-based record label Clone to not only keep his work available but to release, every few years, new material. As he says in a rare radio interview carried out a few months before his death, “even if I die next week or whatever there’ll still be a lot of music left. I have a nice stockpile.”
This drip-feeding of work is, as far as I know, without precedent. It isn’t a case of knocking out unfinished material, or remixing existing work: this appears to be a carefully-planned long-term release schedule of continually stunning music under a variety of guises. I can’t decide whether it reflects badly on contemporary electronica or well on Stinson, but this music (as Jack Peoples, Abstract Thought and others), all of it at least a decade-and-a-half old, sounds completely fresh.
The forthcoming graphic novel The Book of Drexciya by the band’s sleeve artist Abdul Haqq will hopefully spread a little wider the reach of this ground-breaking duo’s music. Maybe it will inspire new explorations of the subaquatic realms of Drexciya in the same way that writers, artists and film-makers continue to mine the Cthulhu Mythos.
¹ That we know so much even now is in part down to the sterling work of the Drexciya Research Lab. If you’re at all interested in their myth or their music, this should be your first port of call, followed by their extensive Discogs entries, and of course somewhere like Bleep or Clone to buy their output…
² Music inspires terror in Lovecraft. I’m not thinking of the haunting violin of The Music of Erich Zann, rather that any sort of rhythmical music (for which read African-American) is a sign of depravity.
“The screaming twilight abysses flashed before him, and he felt himself helpless in the formless grasp of the iridescent bubble-congeries. Ahead raced the small, kaleidoscopic polyhedron, and all through the churning void there was a heightening and acceleration of the vague tonal pattern which seemed to foreshadow some unutterable and unendurable climax. He seemed to know what was coming—the monstrous burst of Walpurgis-rhythm in whose cosmic timbre would be concentrated all the primal, ultimate space-time seethings which lie behind the massed spheres of matter and sometimes break forth in measured reverberations that penetrate faintly to every layer of entity and give hideous significance throughout the worlds to certain dreaded periods.” (The Dreams In The Witch House)
…but who hasn’t had moments like that on the dancefloor?
³ That said, the title of The Journey Home‘s standout piece of dancefloor techno, ‘Black Sea’, is as much to do with race as geography.
4 The highly watchable Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated cartoon is plainly influenced by him, and even features a misanthropic author called H.P. Hatecraft
Eshun, Kodow – More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (Quartet, 1998)
Lovecraft, H.P. – The Classic Horror Stories (Oxford, 2016)
Drexciya – Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller, vols I-IV (Clone Records)