Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Juan Atkins' Wax Trax! Mastermix Vol. 1

Few DJ mix cds are interesting, but Juan Atkins' first mix CD is for two reasons.

First, Wax Trax! marks Atkins' first mix CD in his 20-plus year career. Atkins is largely credited for being the forbearer of techno (yep - he's the one to blame/credit, depending on your view of the genre), having been in the band Cybotron, releasing amongst the first techno records (alongside Derrick May) under the guise Model 500, and starting the first Detroit techno label, Metroplex Records (which released the first Derrick May material). The setlist chosen by Atkins largely reflects this fact, and provides an overview of the genre through the 80s and 90s, siding with the more robotic, metallic choices than the more jazzy choices that fellow Detroit DJ Carl Craig might have chosen.

Second, and this is straight out of the comprehensive liner notes written by the Wire's Mike Shallcross, the origins of techno had a "political subtext": "On one level black music futurism describes a desire to enter a utopia where discrimination no longer exists." While this view might be reading more into the stuff than is actually there, Shallcross does make good by pointing out Atkins - and techno's - early preponderence with science fiction, futurism and utopism, making the music as much a descendant of Sun Ra as it is from Giorgio Moroder...well, at least thematically.

The initial space-age sounds of early Detroit techno (Atkins' own Model 500 hit is entitled "No UFOs") is a good mark of African American communities at a crossroads, where one segment of Afrika Bambaataa fans went with NYC and hip hop, and the other segment went with Berlin and techno. Techno might not have amassed into the cultural force that hip hop has, but it - and electronic music in general - has made large impact. Because of this disparity in effect, though, it's sometimes hard to remember that both forms have been around for about the same time.

Outside of its historic context, Atkins' Wax Trax! probably isn't very useful for anyone disinterested in the music, and probably isn't very useful for anyone passionate about it either. The selection is particularly heartless and cold (though sexy in places), and Atkins' own mixing is often inaccurate (this results in what might sound like purposeful polyrhythms, but it could easily be mistaken for not getting the next record on beat). Wax Trax! is great as artifact, but it's unsuccessful as much more.

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