Women in Music 2016

Stacey Pullen Talks Blackflag Recordings & The Impact of Detroit Techno

Ko Photo
Stacey Pullen photographed in 2015.

Few know the dangers of the music business better than DJ Stacey Pullen: a bad record deal stripped him of the rights to his own name for a decade.

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Pullen, who specializes in the Detroit techno sound, regained the ability to record as himself in 2012. The post-hiatus phase of his career picked up momentum this year, as he shepherded a series of releases through his Blackflag label. He also curated the latest installment of the Balance mix, which launched last month.

Music is in Pullen’s genes -- he used to attend rehearsals with his father, a Motown-affiliated singer. After a two year stint at college in Tennessee, Pullen returned home determined to make techno. “I used to go to this club called the Music Institute,” he notes. “Before I even knew anybody, I used to go down to the club on Friday and Saturday nights. I went down there to hang out with like-minded people.” Soon he ran into some of techno’s original innovators, including Derrick May. “I still remember when I met Derrick,” Pullen says with a laugh. “He was trying to pick up my girlfriend at the time.”

Like so many seminal Detroit artists, Pullen remembers hearing the wide-ranging radio sets of the Electrifying Mojo. But he also recalls having his insides rearranged by early techno classics. “They made me think about things differently,” he says. “How we are as people, and what path should we take.”

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Several songs in particular stand out. “I remember hearing ‘Nude Photo’ for the first time by Rhythim Is Rhythim,” he explains. “I remember hearing this crazy-sounding synthesized bass line that was so complex and syncopated it was unreal. How did he do that in the context of time signature? I remember being in my living room and goose bumps coming all over my body. Model 500 did a track called ‘The Chase,’ and I sat at the kitchen table and mimicked every track in that song. It showed me a lot about how to program. ‘Big Fun’ and ‘Good Life’ [by Inner City] showed me that you can do this music and have great success. You can play that anywhere around the world to this day.”

The second wave of Detroiters took the template of the original music in different directions. Over time, for example, Moodymann has incorporated more and more live funk texture into his albums -- his most recent record evokes Prince more than once. Robert Hood staked out the other end of the spectrum in 1994 with Minimal Nation, a skeletal, mechanical classic.

Pullen explored the spaces in between. As Kosmic Messenger, he made “no-nonsense four on the floor dance music;” under his own name, he explored his “avant garde side,” aiming “to be that one man jazz group -- if you listened to a track, you wouldn’t know whether it was live or it was done with a sequencer or a computer.”

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This music still resonates today. Listen to “Electric Relaxation,” which appeared under his Silent Phase moniker, and you hear something not far from the second part of LCD Soundsystem’s “45’33.” “Forever Monna,” a ‘90s collaboration with Chez Damier, has plenty of lessons to offer producers about song construction. It’s put together piece by piece; one keyboard lingers, low and wishy-washy, while another starts to peal out a high response like a young child attempting to convince an obstinate parent go to the toy store. The kid wins: the beat enters. The last percussive sound to enter the track is flat “pfft,” a satisfying splat of grainy noise that hits back against the sprightly synth bubble.

Pullen’s success in the ‘90s led to a deal with Virgin Records. “From a financial end it was great,” he says. But “[Virgin] wanted a commercially viable album that needed to be more accessible for pop culture.” That wasn’t where Pullen’s head was at: “I was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography, John Coltrane’s autobiography, listening to crazy amounts of jazz because I was drawing parallels between the Detroit techno cats and the jazz cats.”

He was dropped not long after the release of Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday. Because of a licensing deal, he also ceded the rights to his name and his label, Blackflag. As a result, Pullen stayed away from the studio for a while. “I concentrated on DJing as an outlet for my frustrations,” he explains. “Touring is good to do that -- you’re in a different city every day, being able to touch the people, be on the street, hearing and feeling people’s wants and needs when it comes to our music.”

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During his ten-year exile, the sound of dance music changed a lot. “I listened to something a couple of weeks ago,” Pullen explains. “I saw a video of myself when I was in Chile in 1994. We were playing like 138 B.P.M. I was just like, ‘whoa!’ That was normal! Did we really play that fast? Now I barely can go over 126 B.P.M. The music is much slower, sexier.” In addition, in his early days on the storied Transmat label, Pullen’s arsenal of sounds was more limited. “When I first was working with Derrick, he told me, ‘with Transmat, we don’t use samples. I only want the artist to be completely creating his own sounds.’” When Pullen started releasing singles again after getting his name back in 2012, he no longer limited himself in this way.

The producer’s post-hiatus solo material is audibly different from his ‘90s output. In “Circus Act,” a horn loop repeats with stubborn frequency, resulting in uncaring party music, like a brass band that’s gone rogue and no longer gives a damn about carrying a tune. Then there’s “Sweat,” which belongs to the venerable subgenre of dancing songs about dancing. A voice intones over and over, “the lights, the heat, the stroke, the sweat.” The beat drags as if someone is a pulling a heavy duffel bag across the floor in rhythmic bursts; there is no climax, just continuity.

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His Blackflag label is now back in action, but with a new approach. “I’m doing something different from other Detroit labels,” he notes. “Most of the [Detroit] labels that people know only release Detroit music. I spend a lot of time in Europe, and these artists come up to me and they would love to have a release on a label based in the Mecca of it all. I decided to embrace that, to bring in artists from all over the world.” The roster includes the Cocodrills (Miami), Sergio Fernandez (Spain), and Federico Vieco and Matt Klast (Columbia), who just released the Scare EP. The next release will be Fabio Ferro’s Ravenous in January.

Listen to Scare below, and check out Pullen’s tour dates.

Dec. 18: Stereo, Montreal
Dec. 20: Glow, Washington DC
Dec. 25: Sunsound, Mexicali
Dec. 26: Audio, San Francisco
Dec. 31: TV Bar, Detroit