No one could have guessed, when Farley Jackmaster Funk released his thumping single 'Love Can't Turn Around' in 1984, that one day sweaty freshers and Hooray Henries would be jacking their bodies to house music at college discos and black-tie balls - or that one day all records would have to be remade this way to have a chance of getting in the Top 10 (witness KWS's faceless cover of 'Please Don't Go' last month). But it's happened. Just as reggae used to boom through party walls and out of shops in the Seventies, so now house in its most virulent strain, techno, is the sound banging through the bodywork of cars and shaking the structure of almost every nightclub. It's rhythm music, built around a bass drum just the way reggae was built around a bassline, something everyone can shake a leg to. A few cheap drugs later and house mutated, under European influences, into the music of raving.
This is all a far cry from the origins of Inner City. The core of the band is Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey, with various others helping in the studio and at their live shows. Saunderson got into electronic music while at college in Detroit, and began crossing more industrial European dance music, such as Kraftwerk, with heavy house beats coming out of Chicago. Working with his college friends Derrick May and Juan Atkins under a series of pseudonyms, Saunderson created techno as a celebration of dancing and the unflinching rigour of the computer.
Saunderson and Paris Grey couldn't be more different. Saunderson is the techno fiend, working entirely from computers in a 'pre-production' room adjacent to his bedroom at home. On a screen he can select a type of percussion, or some sampled chords, then 'stack them up', ranging them across the keyboard so they can be played like different notes. The computers are used purely as sequencers, to record the order in which the notes come out. And that's as far as the instrumentation goes. While making the first two albums, Paradise (1989) and Fire (1990), he'd fly tapes of his work to Paris Grey, who lives in Chicago, so she could write the lyrics and sing them on top, then fly them back.
Grey, who studied voice at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, listens to Aretha, Chaka Khan, Prince and Vanessa Armstrong, and hated house for a long time after she'd joined the group. She's the human element in the techno duo, enjoying her distance from the scientific side of the work. 'Kevin made the music as pure as possible, up music with a positive feel to it and loads of energy. I reflect that in my voice and in my lyrics.'
The bounce and spaciousness of those early tracks, 'Big Fun', 'Good Life', 'Do You Love What You Feel?' and 'Ain't Nobody Better', was something unheard anywhere before. Inner City combined crisp, clean percussion with angelic harmonies sampled into little stabs of sound, all held together by the passionate female voice. All this showed that the hypnotic rhythm that made house music so seductive could be combined with more interesting sound textures and words with an actual message.
This is the direction they've returned to with Praise. Song titles such as 'Praise', 'United', 'Faith', 'Unity' and 'Pennies From Heaven' show that they've left the weaknesses of the Fire album behind and gone for the spiritual, almost religious subject matter. 'I think with Fire we tried to make hits for an album,' says Saunderson, 'but Praise is more of a whole concept.'
Since techno albums are usually compilations with titles like Heatwave and Raving We're Raving, the concept of a concept techno album seems a little hard to swallow. But in the world of dance music, anything that isn't 'love me love me love me' counts as a big idea. In conversation, the duo complain about the usual modern ills - homelessness, Third World poverty, the problems facing children. 'Look at violence,' says Saunderson. 'I bought my child a Michael Jackson Sega game, and it's violent] Michael's bad] He's on the streets kicking people in the face and gangs are shooting off Uzis. Kids are being programmed to be violent.' Fortunately, Sega doesn't figure in their songs. The album works because the lyrics, although sparse, non-narrative affairs (chants of 'Save the Children' and 'One Nation'), are repetitve in a haunting way. The gospel tone, which has always been in house in the form of upright piano breaks, carries the broad spiritual message through, and sets the album way ahead of techno as we know it here.
Which is something Saunderson knows about. Inner City are bigger here than at home, but even here they are fighting to be heard above the frantically paced hardcore scene that they helped create. For dance purists (the 'deep house' and 'garage' fans), Inner City are way ahead of hardcore house or rave music, which, to them, represents little more than new heavy metal.
'I could do a hardcore record in 10 minutes. I have done,' says Saunderson. 'All you need is a sampler and an 8-Track, no people. But I want to show these kids how to do it with some imagination, feeling and originality.' It's ironic that one of the originators of techno now has to come over here to correct and compete with the very people he inspired. The album Praise should be enough to do that, but in the meantime his supplementary career making (good) rave records in Britain under the pseudonym Tronik House is worthwhile insurance.
Derrick May perhaps put it best. 'We're just sitting back waiting for this all to pass. With all these clueless kids and their terrible sample music, I'm embarrassed to be associated with the name techno. When this thing hits America it'll be massive, it'll be Diet Pepsi commercials, and a lot of the wrong people are going to make all the money. I guess Kevin's just trying to salvage something from this mess.'
Inner City's 'Praise' was released last Monday
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