By Christine Ochefu
Real life is a difficult thing to capture within art. In our modern world where much of our canvases are digital, many of us across the creative fields are striving to capture feelings, interactions and occurrences for audiences that might never be able to recreate the inspiring events themselves. As a writer it’s something I find continuously snagging my own work. Where a reader may never meet the person I am talking to or revisit the moment I’m looking to document, how do you capture and share a feeling with those who aren’t there to feel it?
“In each one of the albums there’s a different feel.” In one of the few recorded interviews available to date, James Stinson said the former to Liz Copeland of Detroit’s WDET FM in reference to Drexciya’s discography. 3rd September 2021 marked 20 years since the release of Stinson’s 2001 album Lifestyles of the Laptop Café, a release outside of the Drexciyan catalogue issued under the moniker The Other People Place. The album came a year before the artist’s passing just days shy of his 33rd birthday, and makes up part of a sizable catalogue left after departure.
Any electronic fans worth their salt will know the story; alongside co-producer Gerald Donald, Stinson made up one-half of electronic duo Drexciya, the name itself maybe being a good stand-in for the word “innovation.” A duo with a near-religious aversion to sampling and self-repetition, they spent their time anonymously pioneering the techno genre from their native Detroit, holding down day jobs then locking themselves in the studio in their free time. It’s this part of Stinson’s catalogue that largely takes centre stage in his wider discography, partially due to the group’s much-celebrated attention to conceptualism and a storyline now a mainstay of the Afrofuturism canon.
Tales of a legendary underwater kingdom populated by the descendants of African women cast off slave ships make up the Drexciyan mythology that’s fascinated listeners for decades and cemented their legacy. Stinson always held a particular attention to motif throughout his work, and one of his greatest gifts as artists was a near-superhuman ability to translate these into sonics, depicting space travel to underwater voyages through melody and tone alone. For example, Drexciya’s releases largely pertain to the aquatic, an element Stinson was admittedly fascinated by. As such, the vividness of images their music conjures up in the mind is indescribable. Humans may never visit Ociya Syndor but I’d like to think we can hear what it looks like.
Drexciya are by no means uniform artists, but Lifestyles of the Laptop Café might be Stinson at his most discordant with the rest of his discography. “It’s still Drexciya but in a different state of incubation,” he had explained of the record, citing the differences in tone with the rest of their work. “We had to…break it up and give it its own identity so it can live and exist in its own world.” It has, for the most part, existed rather quietly; it was only after Stinson’s passing that fans would come to know that he was the sole creator (even now Donald’s levels of involvement in the project are unclear), and a relative lack of availability prior to a Warp re-release means it’s a body of work that’s gone somewhat overlooked. Missing it is deeply regrettable.
The steady digitization of our world comes with its own caveats, maybe too many to name here. A global pandemic which forced the majority of us into isolation has shown us just as much; the web will always be a flawed platform to aid human connectivity, and there’s something about the cold sheen of a computer monitor that can make solitude seem all the more prominent (the phrase “zoom fatigue” might be relevant here). One of art’s many purposes is to provide levity during times of strife, a task made all the more mammoth in times where we have had to rely on something explicitly non-human to make us feel so. Many are grappling with the question of how we can make the web more human, especially in the realm of the arts. It is an incredible gift to translate the scenes of life into art, especially when the tools to hand are so far removed from what they mean to evoke. How does one capture the scenes of human life and emotion through digital machinery?
20 years ago James Stinson managed to do it. Lifestyles is a deliberately understated record compared to Drexciya’s usual grandiose, a compact offering of eight largely-midtempo songs and an unassuming, if not peculiar cover image depicting a computer monitor in a forest. In unearthing the music it seems the perfect imagery; rather than the usual extra-terrestrial settings Lifestyles is rooted firmly here on earth, largely instrumental bar smatterings of vocals. The titles seeming like Stinson’s way of aiding the correct imagery to conjure up in the mind: the ticking and delicate synths of “Sunshine ” will be familiar to those of us who have felt the balm of a sunny day on skin, and “You Said You Want Me”’s tale of two lovers in discord, with voices maybe more humanoid than human, will jar those who have ever felt at odds with a romantic partner.
There is also the opener “Eye Contact,” which is sexual to the point of bordering on perverse. Its tell-tale signs are a repeated audible groan coming in at nearly every 8 count, and the way in which its sleek synth curls and worms its way over hi-hats. The narrator uses some of the best hardware-related innuendos ever written to capture setting eyes on a gorgeous woman (“something’s happening to my transmitters…”) with husky, slow tones similar to ones growled into phone receivers in wee hours of the morning, whilst both listeners near climax.
To capture life via art is an incredible and important feat. Where Drexciya used technology to show us a world not within our realm, Stinson used it to capture aspects of the one we live in, combining digital keyboards, Arpeggio synths, Rolands and 808s to fashion an album to score the scenes of real life. Lifestyles shows us as fellow creators and students of his craft that it might be possible to add an aspect of humanness to the digital sphere, one we may be increasingly needing as time goes on. As artists and creators, our modern reliance on digital tools is perhaps less of a choice and more of a necessity as the internet becomes more and more intertwined with contemporary public and private life. As fans, enthusiasts, or followers in the Black electronic tradition who continue to tinker away at the genre, most of us can only hope to emulate his skills in using it as a way to communicate feeling as he so beautifully did with this record, his “experiment” if you will, in capturing life.
We can only wonder whether he himself had the foresight to know that we’d be relying on the internet as a way to facilitate mock-ups of real life in the way he showed us 20 years ago, as the reliance brought upon it by the isolation of a global pandemic gives Lifestyles and modern aptness bordering on prophetic. 19 years after his passing, what he leaves in his wake is his genius, and his words that ring as a snapshot into how he came to achieve it: “…experiments must continue, even till death.” We must carry the torch of what he taught us about communicating life through the tools we have to hand if we’re to continue to try and make our art more human. We must keep experimenting.
To dive deeper, I sat down with AbuQadim Haqq, the predominate artist for much of Drexciya’s work, and listen to stories of his past, present, and future worlds.
Christine Ochefu: In terms of working with James and Drexciya more widely, I know you met him first if that’s correct, before meeting Gerald in Japan?
AbuQadim Haqq: Right, yeah, you’ve been reading! I met James about 30 years ago, just as an acquaintance. I was working in Submerge quite often and he would be coming and going. I can remember him and Mike [Banks] talking about the first Drexciya release and things like that. But we met more intensely and started talking when I had to do Neptune’s Lair, that was 1999 or 1998. And so we discussed all the concepts behind Drexciya and what his vision of it was, that’s what I tried to convey in the artwork at that time.
CO: I was wondering what James was like as a person, in terms of his demeanor or how you guys worked together. Do you have any stories, or personal anecdotes about the two of you hanging out or anything like that?
AH: Well, when we talked, he was pretty cool and really liked scientific concepts, things like that. He was also a funny guy. I can remember us laughing quite a bit when we met, and we just talked about some cool things. Me being a nerd, it was nice to talk to somebody who was on the same wavelength. We were talking about the album concepts and I had just seen the Phantom Menace, and it had an underwater city. I was telling him about it, he was like, “Lucas, you stole my idea!” I just got the biggest kick out of that. That’s when we decided to go with bubbles instead of dome cities for the underwater city.
CO: I was wondering if there were any other inspirations that you put together to make the Drexciyan story, or any big reference points.
AH: Once I got the assignment I really delved deep into studying oceans. That’s where I came up with the idea of using squids from watching Discovery Channel or National Geographic, something like that. [James] really loved the idea, and I’ve based the whole civilization from my graphic novels on those same ideas that we first talked about in our meetings; using these different sea creatures incorporated into their society, weapons and technology, things like that.
CO: This is probably a good segue into talking about Lifestyles. I don’t know if you knew when James first started putting it together, or whether you were aware he was making the record. Do you remember your thoughts when you first heard it?
AH: I didn’t have any idea he was working on something like that at the time. It was only until years later when I acquired it after he passed did I hear more of the story behind it. it’d have to be… maybe 16, 17 years ago. It’s more of a personal sort of reflective and introspective kind of work I think, that’s the impression I got.
CO: Yeah, definitely. What do you think he was trying to get across with the work or concept in your opinion?
AH: I think it’s sort of romantic, about a romance and the ins and outs of relationships perhaps, though, it does have a happy ending. That last song is just a beautiful… shoot, that’s just a beautiful kind of way to end a record with “Sunrays.” I really love that song.
CO: That’s one of my favorites off the album as well. I always say that it sounds like actual sun.
AH: Yes, yes. It’s just such a good vibe.
CO: I know you’ve spoken before about Techno music having a very extra-terrestrial quality. But I always say that for this album, it sounded like James was trying to make something very human in a way.
AH: Yes, I mean, it’s definitely a departure from the Drexciya stuff and more personal… really showing some of his inner thoughts and who he is as a person more than any other work before it, I believe. Let Me Be Me also tells me a lot.
CO: What is it you get from that one?
AH: Well, I think how in relationships sometimes, the person wants you to be a certain way and you aren’t, you just want to be yourself. That’s happened to me in some of my relationships and I’m sure people could relate to that. People wanting to change you, once you find that girl or that guy.
CO: I know you didn’t do the artwork for this one, but I was wondering what you think might’ve been the intention. Because I know with the monitor in the forest, I always think of being in nature, but you’ve got the electronics there…
AH: Yeah. The artwork is pretty cool, and I think that having it in a woodland area has a meaning of even though we have this technology, we’re still surrounded by mother nature. We have to realize that we have to enjoy ourselves, and not just be so focused on technology and computers.
CO: Thinking about how a lot of the interest in Drexciya’s or James’ own music and artistry revolves around the links to Afrofuturism – which obviously is a massively important part of their legacy as artists and your own as a creator – do you ever feel like some of the other aspects of their music is missed? Like the technical quality, because when I hear this record I feel it’s quite soulful.
AH: Yes, yes. It sure is. I mean, you really don’t hear about this record as much as the others. And it’s like a missing treasure or missing gem in the whole collection. And I think with Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe, [James] showing his inner side, we should talk about it more often because he’s just a brilliant man. These are the kind of things that went on through his mind, and it affected his music. I just think it’s important to try to talk about this stuff.
CO: I don’t know if you have any thoughts on why this one has been missed in a way.
AH: Well at the time, a lot of people didn’t even know it was James and it is a solo album… that may be another reason it’s not as popular as Drexciya the duo. And I believe you really have to reflect on the concepts that this album is touching on to really understand it. I mean, you just can’t listen to it casually. A lot of people might come looking for a Drexciya sound or something like that, and it’s just totally different. Those may be some of the reasons, I’m just speculating. But I think it helps to try to think of what [James] was trying to convey in the music. That might be a reason why it’s not as talked about, because it takes just a little bit more, I think, to really appreciate it.
CO: I always think as well, kind of as you said, Drexciya or James’ own input into Afrofuturism isn’t always as credited as it could be. What do you think that they would have thought of the way Afrofuturism as a concept is considered today? Do you think they would be happy with how the term or the canon has expanded?
AH: I think they’d be pretty happy about it. I’d know for sure, because Gerald is pretty pleased about what’s happening with Afrofuturism, and I think James would be as well. It only expands the awareness of their music and what went on before the term was even thought of, and I just think he would really appreciate the popularity of it all these days. And shoot, [their] Afrofuturism is very deep and they were around even before the term even existed, they’re even beyond Afrofuturism in my opinion. What James did, he should be at the forefront of what we call Afrofuturism because of his contributions, like with this album and also with Drexciya. That’s been one of my goals with these graphic novels; to show the brilliance behind his ideas, his scientific concepts, and wanting to bring that to the forefront as well as the music.
CO: With myself as a listener, I know a lot of other black creators or just music lovers in general, who love the Drexciya story, it’s quite empowering for us. Was that you guys’ intention?
AH: From the very beginning, it was always going to be a strong race of black people underwater, always warriors and scientists. That was the focus he told me. And so that’s what I try to convey in both volumes of my graphic novels. It was very important for him and for me to break the narrative when talking about black people as far as history, the slave narrative you mostly see especially in those days. It would just go back to slavery and things like that. Where with Drexciya with the mother being thrown overboard and giving birth, that whole thing is turned around by these people becoming warriors and scientists and building their own civilization. So I always thought that was a very strong story and would give a good example to people hearing it.
CO: Yeah, absolutely. And obviously I’ve seen the graphic novel and how amazing the story is. What’s it like continuing the mantle after James’ passing and continuing to upholding the legacy?
AH: It’s a big honor for me to be able to try to tell this story in a visual way from this amazing kind of music, the best electro music ever made. I just constantly think about it and all the stories that could be told; it’s just a vast epic of amazing stories that Drexciya can tell. So I’m just very honored, once again, to be able to try to tell some of these stories based on those concepts that me and James discussed.
CO: What’s maybe one thing, or anything you can think of, that you would like James’ fans or fans of the groups work more widely to know, or think about?
AH: I would like them to know how brilliant he was with science fiction, and the concepts we discussed influenced me to this day. I think him and Gerald should be up there with all the greatest science fiction people. Shoot, Drexciya should be up there with Octavia Butler in my opinion. These ideas were just very deep, some of the things we talked about during our meetings.
CO: Can you share any?
AH: We talked about an energy source, which he called Polymono Plexusgel, and it would be a universal energy that could fuel everything and run everything in Drexciya. I just thought that concept was very deep because it sort of touched on what Tesla was getting at, if you know what I mean. That etheric energy source that Tesla was getting at, that’s what he was talking about. So, that’s what I tried to convey in Volume Two. We talked about that and this equation that’s also in Neptune’s Lair, that was very important to him. that equation meant a lot to him so I put that in volume one and when they discovered Neptune’s Lair, that’s how I connected it altogether. But those two things, I remember distinctly being very important; the energy source fuel Polymono Plexusgel, and also the equation, C to the blah blah blah equals the unknown. I don’t know it by heart!
CO: Hearing again about the concepts, they’re just so ahead of their time.
CO: In interviews with James, he talks a bit about the importance of experimenting and pushing boundaries. And I guess for the rest of us who are either making music or big fans of them, how do you think you can tap into this kind of brilliance? How do you put what they taught you or what you spoke with them about into practice?
AH: Yeah. Looking back even 20 years later, you always have to push yourself to try to establish new levels and new boundaries. Don’t remain stagnant, always flow like water. I think that’s very important and I believe that’s what he meant by that. You always have to go deeper and deeper, into the abyss and really try to understand yourself and also try to establish new awareness, new perceptions of new ideas… it never stops. It’s constant, just part of life. I think that’s one of the things that he realized.
You can purchase the Book of Drexciya Vol. 1 & 2 here