Daniel Bell (aka DBX) is someone who has built his name as a minimalist pioneer. But get him started about the state of electronic music culture and it’s clear that there’s a lot more than there is less.
A former Detroiter, Bell currently owns and operates the Detroit-based 7th City, Accelerate, and Elevate labels from his new home in Berlin. He is one of Berlin’s Tresor records’ most popular contributors and his latest mix for that label, The Button: Down Mind of Daniel Bell, was one of 2000’s most thoughtful compilations.
During the 2001 DEMF, his 7th City imprint’s after-party was one of the weekend’s highpoints. Anthony "Shake" Shakir dropped minimal techno over Radiohead’s "Idioteque" and Metro Area unveiled a lush, skeletal house blueprint like Bob Vila on Ritalin — a cool breath of progressive air in the midst of DEMF posturing, confusion and rain.
The following interview was conducted through an e-mail correspondence:
MT: 7th City has carried the torch for the musical side of Detroit techno in a way that few other labels have. What kind of style are you hoping to promote in dance music?
DB: The idea [behind] 7th City was to feature artists other than myself. And although we have producers coming from different cities and countries, most of them have been influenced to some degree by Detroit techno. I guess that is the glue that holds the label together stylistically—a common influence. How they are influenced by Detroit varies, but each record carries some trace of it.
MT: Do you really think less is more when it comes to dance music, or is that not the whole truth?
DB: Less can be more, but not if it's only about being less.
MT: You wrote "Anything that doesn’t sound like the fucking ‘80s" as your #1 pick on a recent top-ten list for Tresor’s Web site and your upcoming Tiny Robot EP promises to "poke fun at techno’s retro-futurists." Why are people so obsessed with updated, kitschy ‘80s sounds these days? What’s your theory?
DB: My theory is that many producers are creatively stuck so they're crawling back into the cocoon of their youth, back where things are safe. Plus there is a lot of money in being retro these days—much more than [is being made] on the cutting edge—so that's where the bulk of producers reside right now.
But I think it's over for [the retro-futurists]. They stopped reaching. So whatever short-term success they are enjoying right now it's exactly that: short-term. With every thrust backward in music there is almost always an instantaneous leap forward going on behind the scenes and that is exactly what’s happening now — you just have to know where to look.
MT: Is this trend just something on the electro side of things, or are techno and house still bogged down with the past?
DB: It's across the board. We need the past. We need those reference points [because] music cannot happen in a vacuum. There are lots of interesting examples of producers taking elements of past styles and putting [those sounds] into a more contemporary context. It's the literal appropriation of the past that I object to—the nostalgia, the skinny ties (Bell laughs "ha, ha" as best he can via e-mail). We've got to move on.
MT: Do you think techno’s past is over-fetishized? Underappreciated? Misunderstood? How is perception affecting its future?
DB: The people involved in the Detroit techno scene have had to fight to be recognized locally. It always takes a while for the general population to gain a perspective, so late is better than nothing, but Detroit producers really suffered locally because the so-called "progressive / alternative" media in town that should've been all over this music ignored it for most of the ‘90s.
When I was first started visiting Detroit, I would hear all this amazing music on the radio and then go to clubs and there would be six white people hanging out in a packed club. I remember thinking "How can any person who is interested in music ignore this?" When I heard Carl Craig's "Galaxy" or Anthony Shakir’s "My Name is Binky," I had never heard anything like [it]. [I wondered why] only six white people out of two and a half million white people in the city think it's interesting enough to come down to the club and check it out?
I would pick up a local paper and they would be talking about the return of goth rock or something like that. When I moved to Detroit I realized exactly how DIY this scene was and how in the face of all the back-stabbing and power struggles within the scene — ultimately, standards were being set. There was a real dedication to making this [music] mean something.
More recently, with the DEMF and when local clubs realized they can play techno and still make money at the end of the ‘90s, white people in Detroit started becoming more aware of what has been happening in their own city for the first time in the past 15 years.
So was this music underappreciated? You bet. Was this music misunderstood? Absolutely.
MT: Has Detroit given you the respect you deserve as an artist?
DB: It's not an issue for me anymore, although there were many years when it was. I'm sure for a lot of people I was the weirdo cracker from Canada with the records that went "blip, bleep, bloop." I didn't grow up in a ghetto. I have my own style and I think it was confusing to a lot of people about what I actually represented.
MT: It almost seems like abstract house is the new minimal techno, or that minimalism just sounds a lot fresher when applied to a quirky house formula. Are the days of sub-genre purism behind us?
DB: My music since 1993 has always had what many DJs consider a "house" tempo. I like house music and when I DJ, I play more in that style. When I make music, it's kind of a house beat with sounds [that are associated with] techno.
There's a long history of this approach going back even before house music, back to disco. More specifically, it was a stripped-down repetitive sound pushed mainly by Chicago DJs based on homemade reel to reel edits of old disco records. These repeating disco loops eventually evolved into raw electronic-sounding "tracks" or "trax." They still carried the arrangements of disco but the sounds became more synthetic and abstract.
When I developed my early sound, I used a more funk style approach to the arrangements. That was the most obvious difference to the Chicago style. I used sparse percussion and a lot of space between the sounds to make the accent on the backbeat heavier — something like what Zapp did on "More Bounce to the Ounce." The sounds and bassline were what pushed the groove, not the percussion in my tracks.
There is no real name for it, but everybody from Herbert to Peter Ford, Atom Heart, Mike Ink, Isolee, Derrick Carter, and Todd Edwards are playing a part on how it’s developed and it keeps getting more popular as time goes on.
MT: In most circles, you're known for your production work more than your accomplishments as a DJ. Your sets seem to be much more focused on record selection than flashy DJ skills. What do you try to do with a crowd when you're DJing?
DB: No, I'm not a flashy DJ by any means. I'm more concerned with track selection and creating an atmosphere. I started DJing really late (at 24), so I never felt 100% comfortable in the role of the DJ, but that’s changing. I'm getting more into it as time goes by.
MT: When's the last time you DJ’d in Detroit?
DB: I don't know. Really, I can't remember. I think it was a Wednesday night at Alvin's many years email@example.com