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Published 7/28/1999

Sonar 99: Making
the Impossible Happen

Picture this: You’re in the middle of a dance floor packed with 10,000 people (none in baggy pants!). The light and sound envelop you. The DJ, who’s spinning on three turntables and working a 909 drum machine, has total control as he brings in perhaps his best known record to date, "The Bells" – and the crowd goes wild. Tonight, energy is a visible substance, made malleable by the DJ, in this case, Jeff Mills, who’s able to make a sound so intense and futuristic that even the most hardened critic of electronic music couldn’t deny its power and validity. With a quick start-stop on the 909 and another round of cheers, Mills takes the crowd to another level of both music and performance, delivering an entirely new kind of auteur concert, playing his own records in a unique cut-up style, programming rhythms live, all of it putting the music that much more in the moment.

I mean Detroit’s own Jeff Mills: the man who laid down the style of ghetto-tech as "The Wizard" on Detroit’s radio airwaves in the ’80s, the man who co-founded the groundbreaking militant collective Underground Resistance in 1991, the man who formed Axis with Rob Hood.

Today, he’s the world’s top-drawing techno DJ.

The site of the above-documented time and space transcendence was the recent Sonar 99, the 6th Annual International Festival of Advanced Music and Multimedia Art in Barcelona, Spain. Festival organizers made the impossible happen in one of the most magical cities on this planet. And Detroit was well represented at this festival of the future with some of our own top performers checking in with sets or in attendance, along with European artists who record for Detroit labels. One of our prime movers, Windsor’s Richie Hawtin, headlined on three decks and efx and 909 while his M_nus label was showcased by Clark Warner at the Sonar Lab daytime performances, and a stellar live show by Sigma 6’s Dale Lawrence (aka Theorem), who perfectly married the sounds of Berlin and Detroit.

Detroit-influenced Berliners Basic Channel produced Tikiman performing with Scion (who recently came through Detroit with Pole) to an enthusiastic Rasta crowd, followed by Paris’ prime export Laurent Garnier playing all dub and jungle records. All of this happened in the same space where I-f performed a 25-minute version of its track, "Space Invaders are Smoking Grass," just the night before. Thanks to the miracles of modern luggage handling, my own outfit, Ectomorph, performed live with DJ Godfather without our keyboards in a more improvised dub-echoed scratch performance.

But it wasn’t just Detroit’s techno artists who gathered at Sonar. Detroit and Ann Arbor space rockers Mike Gill of Miss Bliss and Steve Baker of Tomorrowland were there at the end of their European tour with Transient Waves and the London Fat Cat crew. The performance of Chicago’s underground hero Jim O’Rourke with Mego’s Fennesz and Rehberg perfectly juxtaposed experimental powerbook music from three distinctly different perspectives. Visionary duo Suicide showed the connection between rock and electronic music, performing in a dark hall next to the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Arts. All this stimulus and excellence organized made (and still makes) me very hungry for an event of this caliber in the States – better yet something in the Detroit area. Someone (please!) make the impossible happen here.

Until someone does, though, you can catch some of these artists in the Detroit area. The M_nus crew has a weekly club in Windsor every Thursday at 13 Below, and the Interdimensional Transmissions crew (I-f, Ectomorph, DJ Godfather) will be performing at the weekly Family night at Motor, Tuesday, Aug. 3.

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