Various – 20 F#@&ing Years of Planet E

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So Planet E is 20 this year. That means this utterly irreplaceable label – the brainchild and mainstay of Detroit wizard Carl Craig – got started in 1991.

Maybe you’ve noticed there are quite a few 20th anniversaries taking place this year in the electronic music world. That’s because ‘91 was for my generation like ‘77 was for punk and George Lucas. If you were there, you know. If you weren’t, listen to the misty-eyed stories of your salt-and-pepper-haired elders. It wasn’t always Derrick May flying out to play in football arenas, giant video screens and $9 beers. Once upon a time it was breaking into a dirty warehouse so you could play Mayday records while a couple of hundred true believers danced in a black-light.

Is it weird to mark the advancing age of a label that’s supposed to be all about the future? Is that like realising Star Trek is actually a relic of the last century? Is Detroit techno actually a dated sound by now?

Not at all if you ask me. For one thing, C2 and company are still way ahead of their time; few others have even tried to keep up in this world of bad ‘progressive’, crapstep and festival-headlining video-game noise. Like jazz, one of its spiritual forebears, Detroit techno has an undefinable but undeniable timeless quality that will still sound fresh years from now. Simply put, real music doesn’t get old.

The sleeve design of the compilation that celebrates this occasion is a perfect representation of Planet E’s music – Carl Craig frozen in the act of falling backwards on a chair, suspended with a blissful look on his face, in a flattened, unreal space, colourful pop-art geometric shapes clashing with the post-modern architecture and verdant sunlit nature in the vague distance beyond.

But the title is puzzlingly atypical. 20 fucking years – we ain’t dead yet. In yer face, taking it back to the street. Maybe reminding us it’s a real accomplishment to do any kind of business for two decades in the economic wasteland that is Detroit. But that’s never been the classy Carl Craig’s style. (Moodymann, maybe.) C2’s always seemed like a cool ambassador from somewhere beyond our troubled world – a place where the soulful side of machine-made music is taken for granted, where progressive vision, quirky innovation and – most importantly – fun are effortless.

OK, but if I was to put my own spin on the title, it’d be an exclamation of surprise. 20 fucking years, really? Well then. That means it’s been 19 fucking years since I first heard 69’s loopy breakbeat/tech jam My Machines on an Eric Davenport mixtape in LA and wondered where I could find more stuff like that.

And it’s been 17 years since Paperclip People’s Throw became the bizarre but transcendent anthem of a sweltering summer in New York, so thankfully different from all the bloated wannabe garage and hard house. And also 17 years since I flipped that record over and unwittingly exposed myself for the first time to the dark, dark beauty of Maurizio.

16 years since The Climax saved my life. 15 years since I heard Moodymann’s I Can’t Kick This Feeling When It Hits in the basement of the Haçienda, bad progressive on the main floor upstairs, and I started thinking that real music would always be stuck in the basement. 14 years since friendly cops shut down my basement party on the Lower East Side while I was playing My Machines (already old school by then). 11 years since I Can’t Take It by Recloose [listen below] ushered in a millenium of electronic soul fusion – which most in the industry did their best to ignore.

Planet E doesn’t care – they’ll keep releasing crucial sounds that destroy weak nu-jazz and Euro-trash-tech competitors like Jet Li breaking the legs of ten opponents at once. The proof is not in the title’s shrill declaration, but in what’s inside this amazing compilation. Sure it’s chock-a-block with classics, but it doesn’t even get to some of the best-known tunes in the archive, including most of those I mentioned.

And it’s all out of chronological order. Instead of being a typical comp, going from the rough early days through the hits, then declining into forgettable filler as the modern era approaches, 20 F#@&ing Years is arranged by the groove – much like one of Craig’s awkwardly-mixed but musically potent and super-fun DJ sets – and the quality never really flags.

It starts out with Moodymann’s grinding acid-disco jam Dem Young Sconies, which seems an audaciously minimal and modern track to begin a retrospective – until you remember it’s actually 13 years old! On the other hand, the second track, Analysis by Attias, comes across like some unknown gem from the early ‘90s. Turns out it’s from 2007. In a similar vein is the relatively new and unknown but absolutely spanking Club Silencio by Lazy Fat People – sure to whip early-morning floors into a frenzy wherever thoughtful jocks give it a go [listen below to an edited section].

Then we arrive at a bona fide Planet E classic, the pulsating, gliding Hyperprism by Quadrant, and soon after a jacktronic shoulda-been-a-classic (circa 1995) from the criminally underrated Chicago producer Gemini.

It keeps going like this, alternating between the new-but-old-school-sounding and the old-but-futuristic-and-timeless. As the tunes reel off one after the other, with their funky highs, nervous kick drops, acid basslines, jazzy key-pads, hand-claps and crystalline melodies, you lose track of historical context. It’s not about cataloguing and theorising, it’s about getting people up and dancing – this comp is as much for DJs of today as for trainspotters, and the sound is as vital as ever. It’s the sound of the Detroit revolution right now, the future happening all the time. And a couple of things are clear.

First, this isn’t just the Carl Craig show. True, it’s his label, he’s on the cover, and he’s all over this comp in his various guises – Paperclip People, 69, Quadrant, Innerzone Orchestra. And yes, put a few of this guy’s tunes together, and it’s that much more apparent how expansive his genius is. But the 25 tracks here contain a wealth of brilliant material from many others – big dogs like Kenny Larkin, Recloose and Moodymann as well as more obscure names.

It highlight’s Craig’s twin achievement over the years as both musical innovator and underground mogul, enabling dozens of very different artists (and not all of them from Detroit) to work outside the mainstream, all shaping different facets of the Planet E sound.

Second, the music here covers a lot more ground than simply ‘techno’. Yes, there are some quintessential tech tracks here. (One I can’t get out of my head this week is Paperclip People’s Clear and Present – a gem I’d forgotten, originally the B-side of The Climax ).

But unlike some of his Detroit contemporaries, C2 has never been defined by one set of sounds; he’s worked with jazz, Latin, indie and house as well as breakbeat and electronica, making the connections between all forms apparent – and without ever selling out.

Listening to 20 F#@&ing Years, the synergy with house is especially obvious. Many tracks here are almost straight-up house (though edgy or quirky enough to fit in with the rest), among them cuts by Naomi Daniels, Tribe and Niko Marks. As someone who’s always sought the common ground between proper melodic techno and real house, this is very gratifying.

So what do you call it? I’ve tried my best to do justice, but there’s only so many ways you can combine the words ‘future’, ‘soul’, ‘dance’, ‘fusion’, ‘jazzy’ and ‘electronic’. At the end of the day it’s just great music. However you say it, it’s more clear than ever how important Planet E has been in lighting the way forward.