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Rise of the Machines 

Some say electronica's dead. We say Tadd Mullinix could be what's next.

Wednesday, Sep 17 2003
Tadd Mullinix can make a fella feel old.

The 24-year-old Ann Arbor-based electronic musician -- who records a startlingly varied array of styles under a number of aliases -- first gained attention in 2001 with his debut release as Dabrye, One/Three (making him but 22 at the time).

That LP, a short-but-sweet collection of intentionally rickety tunes modeled out of buzzing bass synthesizer, corroded bell tones, and drum machines on the fritz, approached instrumental hip hop as a series of etchings and helped distinguish Ann Arbor's Ghostly International as one of North America's few electronic-music labels worth watching.

But One/Three wasn't Mullinix's first outing. Earlier in the year Ghostly had released his Winking Makes a Face, on which Mullinix (recording under his own name) applied the more experimental, anything-goes ethos of Aphex Twin to a surprisingly lyrical song cycle bristling with chimes, ungrounded wiring, and assembly-line robotics. Even before that, in the late '90s, enamored with the rough cuts of classic breakbeat hardcore but put off by the clean-lined drum 'n' bass then in vogue, Mullinix had begun producing ragga-jungle under the name SK-1.

As if this weren't enough ground for one producer to cover, Mullinix has also started releasing overdriven techno and house as James Cotton, whose choppy, Chicago-meets-Berlin style carries a menace rarely heard in stateside productions.

Mullinix and his uncommon diversity (should we call him Multinix?) represent a new generation of computer jockeys for whom genres are as swappable as the faceplates on a Nokia. While everyone from The Guardian's pop critic, Alexis Petridis, to dance-punk buzz band the Rapture's Luke Jenner is busy proclaiming the death of dance music, Mullinix and his multifold identities suggest another possibility: Positively Hydra-headed electronic music is more resilient than ever. While the used-up, one-trick-pony celebrity DJs are being sacrificed in the pages of NME and buried in an Ibiza graveyard, the young guns are coming to their craft with catholic tastes and the skill sets to match.

Mullinix's range, it turns out, is not in spite of, but precisely because of his age: Having grown up in a climate -- the mid-'90s -- in which dance music's genres had already solidified themselves, Mullinix was spared the fractionalization that plagued so many electronic forms in their nascent stages. As a teenager, recalls Mullinix, "I found my liberties to listen to music that people said wasn't the 'right' music to listen to. I got on the rebellious tip and started listening to a lot of hip hop and punk and metal" -- music that was the lingua franca of Mullinix's circle of skateboarding friends. A hop, skip, and an ollie away lay the Midwestern rave scene. "Some of the skaters started going to raves as well, and I went to one and was like, 'Oh shit, this is sweet.' It was illegal, so once again it had my anarchistic approval."

Mullinix soon immersed himself in the Detroit techno scene, buying records from artists like Plastikman, Jeff Mills, and Robert Hood, and learning to DJ himself. But an encounter with DJ Rotator -- a Detroit drum 'n' bass selector known for furious sets played on customized, pitch-accelerated decks -- sent Mullinix down the jungle path. He began playing the genre in the side rooms at Detroit-area techno parties and eventually producing his own reggae-influenced tunes. Meanwhile, his explorations of other genres were providing the groundwork for projects yet to come.

The radically different sounds of Mullinix's various aliases suggest vastly different intentions, but Mullinix says he doesn't typically have a given identity in mind when he sits down to compose. "That's the problem -- I can't stick to one sound, because I like too much music. I think it's almost the opposite: The aliases exist because I can't decide which track I'm going to work on today. It's just sit in front of the computer and go wherever my head's at; that's how I get the best results."

"All the 'practice songs' -- all the tracks I made while I was learning to use the software -- were all different kinds of music," recalls Mullinix. "I think I just accumulated enough that finally I selected the good stuff, and released that on Ghostly." Today, he says, "I'm pretty sure I have enough aliases to account for all my tastes. If something's danceable, it goes to Cotton; if something's hip hop, it goes to Dabrye; if it's experimental it's Tadd Mullinix, and jungle is SK-1."

Dabrye has undoubtedly been Mullinix's greatest success so far. The One/Three album -- the first of a projected three-part series for Ghostly -- drew the attention of fellow glitch-monger Scott Herren, better known as the critically adored Prefuse 73, who released Dabrye's Instrmntl on his own Eastern Developments label, and invited him to contribute to his album One Word Extinguisher. Even Detroit hip hop producer Jay Dee -- a veteran producer of Common, D'Angelo, and Slum Village -- declared himself a fan; he and Mullinix recently completed a collaboration to be included on a forthcoming Dabrye album.

Still, instrumental hip hop is increasingly coming to seem like a dead end. Dabrye's lovingly tarnished production proved that there was still room for a few last tricks, but how many ways can you take a boom-bip drum break, wed it to horn stabs or soundtrack samples, and make it new? (Accordingly, Mullinix will incorporate MCs on his next Dabrye record, possibly pointing the way for further experimentations in vocal hip hop.)

If anything, it's Mullinix's work as James Cotton that hints at the most exciting developments yet. "Beat Ya!" from the forthcoming "Buck!" EP marries the dark aspect of classic Detroit techno to a high-hat-intensive Chicago house template; the whole thing is informed by Mullinix's frenetic jungle programming, and there's more than a trace of late-'80s industrial menace. The fusion of all of these indicates that Mullinix is beginning to dissolve even his own internal barriers, letting his identities bleed together across the drum breaks into a darkly massing sound.

And perhaps this shouldn't be surprising; for a kid who grew up in the cauldron of Midwestern electronic music, there's no reason that nearby home-grown strains -- Wax Trax's EBM ("electronic body music"), Big Black's programmed mayhem, Jeff Mills' elegantly punishing techno -- can't coexist with slinky Euro-grooves and loutish U.K. breakbeats. As Dan Sicko, author of Techno Rebels, points out, Mullinix is "following the trajectory set by [Detroit artists] Carl Craig and Recloose," exhibiting an unprecedented flexibility in the way he can hopscotch across styles.

For anyone who grew up with a specific genre as a sort of musical mother tongue -- be it techno, jungle, or hip hop -- it's hard not to envy Mullinix for his multilingual sensibilities. For several generations of dance music fans, allegiance to a style has been a kind of identity politics -- empowering, sure, but potentially just as limiting. But Mullinix, having come of age in a less restrictive sonic landscape, escapes these traps, and you can hear that freedom in his productions. They're as muscular as they are whimsical; they're bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and above all bullish on the future of electronic music. "I think in terms of the dance music scene, there's going to be a revolution soon," says Mullinix. If there are more young producers like him out there, he might just be right.

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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