Drexciya's Imaginary Soundtrack for Science Fiction

Journey Of The Deep Sea Dweller LP cover

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

Two weeks ago, Mutant Dance Moves visited a few recent electronic records made by producers enthralled by ponds, lakes, and the sea, suggesting that dance music has always found inspiration in the waves of big bodies of water. Yet no one was more obsessed with the ocean than Drexciya, the mysterious Detroit duo whose discography doubles as both mythology and sci-fi fantasy.

Rather than the rippling shining surfaces of the ocean, though, the landlocked duo dreamt instead of the unplumbable depths and mysterious darkness of such water. Conceived at the end of the '80s by James Stinson and Gerald Donald (their real names would only come to light after Stinson passed away from a heart condition in 2002), the duo detailed a strange world with each release. Beginning with 1992’s “Deep Sea Dweller” 12” EP, released on their own Shockwave Records imprint, a complex and not always comprehensible mythos was conveyed via 808s and 909s across some of the era’s finest dance music imprints in both Detroit and London: Underground Resistance, Rephlex, Warp, Tresor.

Drexciya itself referred to a race of underwater humanoids, replete with webbed feet and diving masks. You can see a “Drexciyan Wavejumper Commando” against a stark white sleeve on the Dutch imprint Clone’s recent and ongoing Drexciya reissue series, the first installment of which saw release at the end of last year with the second released into the world last week (with four such compilations due in all). While these compilations have been mute on both the deep sea and outer space storylines of Drexciya, simply bringing the music back from the depths of obscurity (and steep Discogs prices for originals) to the surface has been gratifying nevertheless.

And just how did these humanoids get to be on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean? Well … the Drexciyans were descended from the offspring of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard during Middle Passage. So goes the prequel contained in the liner notes of the 1997 compilation CD The Quest, adding: “Are Drexciyans water-breathing aquatically mutated descendents of those unfortunate victims of human greed? Recent experiments have shown a premature human infant saved from certain death by breathing liquid oxygen through its underdeveloped lungs.” While fellow African-American musical visionaries like Sun Ra and George Clinton posit roots on other planets -- rather than Roots -- Drexciya’s dystopian futurism stems from one of the most inhuman aspects of the North American slave trade.

You don't need to know about the gestation cycles of Drexciyans however in order to be stunned by this singular strain of electro that Stinson and Donald crafted in their studios. Volume II of this series again presents a baker’s dozen of cloistered, compacted, alien tracks that remain without peer (or, as Pitchfork recently put it, these reissues reveal how little it teaches about modern dance music). Rather than expansive as most dance music is likely to be, the saw-toothed beats are claustrophobic, close-hitting things, with a track like the ferocious “Aqua Jujidsu” snapping necks in under three minutes, and few tracks even clock in beyond five minutes. For as blunt and acidic as their beats could be -- as on the first volume’s highlights “Sea Quake” and “Bubble Metropolis”-- Volume II has a little more breathing room. There’s an elegant piano line underpinning the burbling bass of “The Davey Jones Locker” and a serene ambient wash mixing with the jittery synth on “Neon Falls.”

In a summer wherein even Alien has undergone a prequel and Total Recall gets its Verhoeven-brand of Holland cheesiness memory-erased, I have come to terms that African-American science-fiction authors like Octavia Butler or Samuel Delaney might never be translated onto the big screen, much less that the bizarre world Drexciya crafted in their decade-plus of work will ever become popcorn fare. A pity. Hearing the intro for “Bubble Metropolis,” originally released on a 1993 EP, makes me pine for Hollywood to truly invest in such an outlier science-fiction vision such as Drexciya manifested. Who wouldn’t want to see a Lardozian cruiser float down the Aquabahn in IMAX? What might a Darthouven Fish Man look like on-screen? The deployment of the Drexciyan Barricuda and Stingray Battalions would be a stirring display in thunderous THX. And to see the ancient art of Aqua Jujidsu practiced would be Matrix-esque. Until then though, we only have Drexciya’s imaginary soundtracks.