The Soundtrack to Black Ruin
By Taylor Aldridge
The wind-down on Friday evenings often began in the car, riding down Eight Mile toward the Southfield Freeway, with a distinct musicality that became a ritual for my childhood. The soundtrack often administered 120 to 150 beats per minute, similar to Miami bass, but saturated with the grunge soul sensibilities of UK Garage. On Detroit radio in the 1990s, this vernacular music ended each work week by calling you into motion, inviting Detroiters into movement and release from the rush-hour drive well into the midnight-hour club scene. Most often, my mom, my younger sister, and I were traveling somewhere along the Lodge, I-696, I-94, or the Southfield Freeway in bumper-to-bumper traffic listening to this music. Deep growling chants like “back up off me,” “gel … and weave,” and “let me see your footwork,” glided over the high-tech drum-and-bass beats to prompt listeners to move, and to consider how they might fashion themselves before stepping out onto the dance floor. This music encouraged synesthesia, invoking through interior languages, the environment, the clothes, the hair, and the dance that was appropriate for the sound. The 1990s and early 2000s hairstyles that accompanied this sound in Detroit were often coiffed with gel and synthetic weave, offering up sculptural elements atop one’s head that defied gravity, and endured the porosity of sweat released in dance.
The music I would later recognize as Detroit Ghetto Tech was the ubiquitous score of growing up listening to Detroit radio from the 1990s well into the first decade of the millennium. Dance forms dubbed “Footwork” and “Jit” would be performed at basement parties and rented dance halls as I grew out of adolescence. Jit and Footwork consisted of rapid foot movement, often performed by men, with feet and legs bent and shifted in syncopation with the fast timing of the breakbeat. It was smooth movement, but simultaneously a glitch; rapid pops of ligaments mirrored each drum strike. Local DJs—DJ Snowflake, DJ Assault, Gary Chandler, Kim James, Steady Rock, and WAX TAX-N DRE—appropriated techno beats provided a decade or so earlier by Underground Resistance, the Belleville Three, and Cybotron to produce Ghetto Tech. As such, Ghetto Tech was an acceleration of the already highly computerized sound, yet what made it distinct from techno were the colloquial prompts added in tandem with the sound, which became chants on the dance floor. If techno was the musical equivalent of product rolling off the assembly line, Ghetto Tech was the progeny of the assembly line: auto workers trying to keep up with an inevitable automation and the growing disposability of the proletariat. Ghetto Tech music, and the industrial declines happening alongside it, propelled us into a way of work that could not be decelerated. Coming of age in the deindustrialized Detroit in the 1990s prompted a series of questions in retrospect: What are the limits of perceived autonomous work carried out through factory jobs? How can cultural ephemera like music, film, dance, and even the way we wear our hair help us keep score of economic decline? How does one find refuge in such a ruin?
As a 7- or 8-year-old, my first memories of this distinct sound were in the driveway of the first house my parents purchased on 14900 Penrod St., on the northwest side of the city in Rosedale Park, where many middle-class Black Detroiters settled into the American Dream. During the evening ride home from swim practice in Livonia, I would hear Ghetto Tech from the back seat of my mom’s turquoise Chrysler van. The bucket seats in the car were a soft gray, with leather arms on the chair that could be folded up or down. My younger sister and I would stain the light color fabric seats with spills of apple juice, McDonald’s ketchup and other quickly consumed snacks, which left faded browns and sticky residue on the soft surface. In my clumsy adolescence, and despite my disregard for the loaner Chrysler cars that would be replaced every two years by the company my father worked for, I felt a sense of independence in the bucket seats. In previous cars, we had row seating that required shared space between me and my sister, whereby one of us would have to slide over to get a window seat. The bucket allowed for an individualism that made me feel grown. It was my own real estate in a car where I spent most of my time outside of school and home.
I was a dramatic child, one who would listen closely to the lyrics of songs and pretend I was a love interest in the song, or the singer themselves, pining away at the heartbreak that was being conveyed. Alternatively, though, during the rush-hour mixes of Ghetto Tech, I imagined I had rhythm (which I don’t), performing a Jit routine, fast feet, with a remarkable stillness from the waist up, in a dark-lit club. My mom would often change the channel to 92.3, where Sade, or some bland elevator-type music would play, as she was unsettled by the often salacious mantras chanting from the speakers, like “sex on the beach,” “ass and titties,” and “that girl is a nympho.” As I grew older, I mustered the courage to ask her to change it back. Ghetto Tech was the first genre of music that made me curious about where certain sounds were gestated, and the experiences that inspired them, because the authors of these songs were obscure and difficult to identify. They had been chopped, accelerated, and sampled over and over from their origins. I was intrigued by this illegibility. For instance, it wasn’t until I reached adulthood and moved away from the city that I found out one of my favorite samples included in a Ghetto Tech WAXTAX-N DRE mix was from the 1998 Art of Vengeance EP, by Iranian techno DJ Aril Brikha—originally at 33 beats per minute. By the time it got to me in Detroit in the same year through R&B and hip-hop radio, the BPM was sped up by double, maybe triple, and sandwiched between mantras about weave, gel, and local dance that weren’t at all akin to Iranian techno.
I experienced a similar illegibility when I wondered about where my father worked. He was a “foreman” in a Sterling Heights Chrysler plant. He worked the grueling third shift, from late afternoon until about 3 in the morning. A few times, during his off hours, my father would make a stop at the plant with us in the car. At this massive, neutral-colored factory building with multiple checkpoints, only he could enter: Children and spouses weren’t permitted. The clubs that were referenced on the radio where Ghetto Tech would play had this same mystique.
As a child, I often wondered what environments these songs belonged to. I knew they were for the club, but I only experienced them on the radio. Sometimes, a DJ would broadcast live from a downtown Detroit club, allowing some of the ambient noise of the warehouse space to carry over onto the air. Somehow, I knew that there was an underbelly of sociality that I was not yet privy to, and probably too young to know. However, I did know that there was an ecosystem where this music thrived, somewhere beyond my mother’s van. The production details of Ghetto Tech mixes on the radio were never named outright, it would have wrecked the flow of the mix. Similar to the manufacturing world and products made on the assembly line, where uncredited workers produced massive amounts of objects that were shared and utilized throughout the world, without the attribution by name.
The lack of named authorship in Ghetto Tech mixes only heightened my desire to know more about the world this music came from. As the impending millennium drew near, such artists as Missy and Timbaland dominated the R&B and hip-hop charts. As a child, I found myself drawn to the strings found in the “Hit Em Wit Da Hee” video, and traced them back to Björk’s “Jóga.” Worlds were discovered and conflated through music samples and my insatiable longing to locate their origins. Samples crossing genres indicated cross-pollination across national borders and time. I discovered British “jungle” and “drum and bass” after encountering Björk’s remix album, Telegram. On our family’s annual road trips between Cleveland and Detroit, my father would have the first two Massive Attack albums in heavy rotation. I learned about geography through music first, how it can reify and render diaspora. Globalization was not only happening among international corporations to increase industrial capital, but there was also a vigilant global exchange happening across continents through music. I learned Bristol and the UK through Massive, Nigeria and UK through Sade, Iceland through Björk.
As a precocious child who was also a daydreamer (and disenchanted with my immediate surroundings). I would research “Y2K” in the “Ask Jeeves” search engine and discover the potential malfunctioning of the world clocks. Anxiety developed into a mild obsession over what was on the horizon. The film The Matrix premiered during the height of my worry, capturing the aesthetics of the sonic world I had come to envision in my mind that mirrored the inevitable acceleration and disruption of growing technologies, from Detroit Ghetto Tech to Bristol trip hop, and everything that transpired from Seven Mile to the Atlantic and beyond. The film legitimized concern; I was moving into my teenage years soon after the turn of the millenium, and felt an angst brewing, noticing it first after the 2001 World Trade Center attack, the way American news media is often opaque, unassuring, and egregious. I couldn’t locate rational answers to the question of the origins of such violence, just a pervasive fear and uncertainty.
FanMail by TLC would be the first album I bought with my own money. After the purchase, which included a Parental Advisory sticker unbeknownst to my parents, I would listen to it in my room, on my silver Sony Walkman, for hours, marking the ad libs and inflections of T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli. It lent itself to a ghetto futurity that persisted and illuminated despite looming economic declines. Similar to The Matrix, TLC’s approach to FanMail was slick, and included vibrantly colored weaves, patent leather, Hype Williams fisheye-lens views, frequent hi-hats and deep bass sonics. At its center were Black women leading the charge of the revolution to save Zion, as in the fictional Matrix, or to dream up a new utopia altogether that was sex positive, femme empowering, slightly brooding and unapologetic. Instead of Left Eye’s nasal childhood voice, a computer-like femme character narrated and dominated the album throughout, altering my universe and suspending me in an underground world, where I long desired to exist.
I would come to realize that what was happening during the deindustrialization of Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s was the hyper-acceleration of automation, the promise of technological futurity and the human laborer trying to find a refuge in it all. This generated something wholly different for the Black worker in Detroit. Baby Boomers such as my own parents, whose parents came from the American South to work in factories, were in some ways able to transcend the working class and live comfortably in order to maintain a nuclear family structure. However, this upward mobility schema became more complicated in later years. The jobs that many of their children would soon occupy become scarcer after the mid-twentieth century.
In his foundational text, Future Shock, futurist writer Alvin Toffler would write of the time that anticipated this moment of industrial automation: “We have … a stream of change so accelerated that it influences our sense of time, revolutionizes the tempo of daily life, and affects the very way we ‘feel’ the world around us.” Toffler speculated on the psychological and existential effects of automation, dictated by time, technology, and the desire to produce more capital. More recently, the artist and writer Aria Dean has written of the theory accelerationism that it is “known to claim that the only way out of capitalism is through it. Capital is too quick for us. Mutating continually, it is capable of recuperating and manipulating all attempts to thwart it, restrict it, or slow it down.”1 Jit movements and Ghetto Tech embody that rapid racing to route through, gesturing toward the other side of capitalism, under the allure of desires for wealth and prosperity, into an inevitable ruin. Black Detroit is the Zion of the Matrix, that existed underneath the threat of growing surveillance and deindustrialization in the built environment.
After the turn of the millennium, there were multiple economic disasters happening around the world, but Detroit experienced the brunt of that disaster the hardest. The end of the world happened in Detroit first. The sensibilities of Ghetto Tech and the meta-cultures that intertwined and existed alongside this music in the Blackest city in the world, ironically lent itself to a world after ruin, gesturing toward speculation and possibility through imminent grief of homes, jobs, and people after the 2008 Recession. Upon returning to the city in the wake of its bankruptcy in 2014, I would encounter speculative theoreticians and organizers, artists, and elders who sustained networks. They remained clandestine amid trite narratives of blank slates, abandonment, and the erroneous claim of failed Black leadership. The paradox is that life became reified through magnanimous loss—through an ecosystem that thrived underneath, one made legible only to those deserving. Ghetto Tech is that underground that continues to allure, beyond the residue of acceleration and ruin.
Taylor Renee Aldridge is a writer and curator based in Los Angeles, California.
1. Dean, Aria. “Notes on Blacceration.” e-flux journal, Issue 87, December 2017.
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