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Hieroglyphic Being Wants You to Know About the Racist Undertones of 90s Rave Nostalgia

The Chicago native explains the message behind "This Isn't Your Typical 90's Era Techno / IDM Revisionist View," his latest 12" for Ninja Tune/Technicolour.

Michelle Lhooq

Michelle Lhooq

(Photo by Matthew Avignone)

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The titles of Hieroglyphic Being (AKA Jamal Moss)'s releases always sound like poetry—like cryptically-written codes gesturing towards a message that's as elusive as the murky soundbaths and multi-textured rhythms on his productions themselves. His latest 12" on Ninja Tunes' Technicolour imprint—"This Isn't Your Typical 90's Era Techno / IDM Revisionist View"—is no different. According to its press release, the record is a "reinterpretation or a revisionist's retrospective of the early 90s electronic music based in Chicago during the rise of rave culture from a sonic anthropological narrative."

When I first read that description, I had no idea what it actually meant. But I knew that Moss—a Chicago native who discovered the city's nightlife at age 12, became heavily involved in its 90s rave scene, and even traded his TV for a pair of turntables touched by Ron Hardy—would have something interesting to say. So earlier this month, I called him on Skype, and from his current home in Scotland ("I'm just based here to take a change of pace," he told me), he gave me the full rundown—dissecting the racism inherent to 90s rave culture that is often overlooked, and why his new record is a political statement about giving the scene's real originators their proper due.

THUMP: I was really intrigued by the title of your latest 12", This isn't your Typical 90s Era Techno / IDM Revisionist View. What does it mean?

Hieroglyphic Being: It's satirical, and a satire is political because I'm basically giving a point of view as somebody of African descent, having experienced what I've seen and know of the people and [90s rave] culture itself, giving my revisionist view on that time and era. [Many of today's producers] are so far removed from Chicago or Detroit, but all of a sudden they're acid house or they're the new deep house. They're basically carbon-copying the sound and giving this whole generation of people this concept that it's them and their style. It really waters and skews everything down. And I've seen artists who were actually the progenitors of that come into that same arena and get treated like shit. I have a problem with how the media will spin it a certain way and not call it for what it is, so at least when I do this project, I'm being honest from my perspective: it's not your typical 90s-era music, because it's my revisionist point of view.

Can you explain what you mean by your "revisionist point of view"?

I know cats who came up in the 90s or even in the early 80s in Chicago, creating this foundation for something and they don't profit from it. They can't profit from it because technology, humans, and perception has moved forward leaps and bounds, and forgotten about them. Then when they come forth and try to acclimate and adapt to how the culture is now, there's almost like there's a brick wall put up saying you're not allowed. So they have to basically reprogram themselves, and restructure a [new] approach to be accepted in the culture they helped create, which they are not fully accepted in now.

THUMP Mix: Hieroglyphic Being

I notice how every couple years, something is being regurgitated but left out from the people who created it. So all of a sudden now you have this whole drum and bass thing that started to creep in the last two years, and some of the faces who were involved with it are far removed. The same thing happened with dubstep. So all I'm doing is giving my take, because I was actually behind the scenes [in the 90s in Chicago], helping some of the biggest names of that era that came through Chicago and other promoters who had the big names secure and solidify venues, making sure that the area that events were put in were safe for people to venture into.

When it gets to the point where bottles get thrown at Jeff Mills, we need to have a discussion.

A lot of the parties that happened in Chicago happened in black communities on the South side, where it's supposedly so dangerous. You know, that was a period of time in 1995, 1996, you would see 3000 non-blacks in Englewood, in the hood, safeguarded, protected by the police to go in the venue, and gang bangers on the street trying to figure out what's going on. But if those same gang bangers wanted to go out into the suburbs and party in their environment, the popo would arrest them and just send them back where they came from. I'm just giving you a dichotomy of the situation.

Can you explain the title of the first track, "This is 4 the Rave Bangers"?

"Rave bangers," believe it or not, were white kids with big wide-leg pants, Atari shirts, and glow sticks who ran around, thinking they were thugs, trying to be hard, and selling drugs! And the cops would let them do it. I remember a couple years before that, black folks, wearing the same jackets, the clothes, whatever, would go kick it when they have no drugs, and try to go party under the same music a couple years before hand, like up to '91. And we'd just get persecuted by the police officers. So [the track title] is kind of satire, it's also a political statement for people to really look at what was going on back then compared to what was happening now.

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So when you say "banger," do you mean like a banging track, or are you referring to these white gang bangers?

Back in Chicago, there were these kids that would come from the suburbs into the city over the weekends because they thought they was doing their urban safari. We called them rave bangers—it was always a joke. Behind mommy and daddy's back, [these kids] would walk around trying to be hard and thuggish, but they were wearing Mickey Mouse on their T-shirts with their hats cocked, throwing up gang signs and dancing Daft Punk or Carl Cox or Miss Kittin or Mike Dearborn, saying "we're dancers from video games." It was kind of tripped out.

Then you look down the street, cops harassing people that live in the neighborhood, trying to figure out why there's 3000 white kids dressed like them looking thuggish! I had a chance to experience it and see first hand what was going on.

I'm gonna play devil's advocate. Couldn't you say that the music has evolved and other people are allowed to put their own interpretations on it? To say that only people in Detroit or Chicago, or only the originators, are allowed to have claim on this music genre seems impossible?

Berlin created their own thing, Holland created their own thing, the UK created their own thing. At least when the UK took up the mantle, they acknowledged Chicago and Detroit influences in regard to building their scene. But I noticed that when it got more into the interior of Europe, that starts to dissipate. All I know is, when it gets to the point where bottles get thrown at Jeff Mills, we need to have a discussion. A person like Jeff Mills that put a lot into the scene culture, that's disrespectful for the stuff he has to go through. He tells me he doesn't have to do this anymore—he does this because he has love for [the music] and he wants to keep sharing as long as he can with the people, and try to educate them.

Tell me about the other track, "Home 95."

Well "Home 95" is basically dedicated to promoters who came together to bridge all the sub-genres of rave culture in Chicago and the Great Lakes triangle, so the people that took [the culture] and brought it to the masses. I would say '95 in Chicago was the pinnacle of when [these promoters] helped open Chicago in a way that gave it a more international feel. You had promoters in Chicago who did Viber Live, did Incredibeats, Pure Productions—I'm just dropping these names so people discuss it and do research.

What do you think of the wave of 90s rave culture nostalgia that's become really popular in dance music recently?

That's why I had to go ahead and try to put this record forth in a satirical and political way. I want people to have the discussion: what does it really mean? Will it still have the same meaning and connotation as it did back in the 90s for the people who were doing it before them? Will it return to "peace, love, unity and respect" or will it be this weird fractured space of harassment, racism, division, homophobia—how can you have this revisionism of this culture when you got this dichotomy going on at the moment? Back in the day, one of the biggest tunes was Romanthony's "Let Me Show You Love." So what would be the anthem now for this day and age, for the so-called revisionism when it comes to it?

It seems impossible to ever be inspired by a previous era without having a revisionist view. What you're saying is that it's not the revisionism itself that's bad, but rather, the sort of blind revisionism without any idea of context and history.

Exactly. This whole thing is just to start a discussion, that's it. Look up Woody McBride, look up Hyperactive, they were doing their thing back then, like Dearborn, DJ Skull. I don't mean to be extra about it but it would be good to have a real discussion so people today can really learn about the people that [originally] built [the culture]. So if [these new producers] want to have their own revisionist perspective on it, just do it right. Treat it right. Don't just burn it out.

This Isn't Your Typical 90's Era Techno / IDM Revisionist View 12" is out now on Ninja Tune/Technicolour

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