CALL IT A MANIFESTO: Frankie Bones’ Techno Classic Still Rhymes to the Future
“It Started In Detroit / But I Had to Exploit / The Way I Hear It! / Techno House Is the Sound / From the Dance Cult Underground / I Know You Feel It!” —second verse from Frankie Bones’ ‘Call It Techno,’ June 4, 1989
Before the last hurrahs of the 20th century, from the first Gulf War to the Monica Lewinsky affair, a Brooklyn rebel laid down words for a movement that was short on them. Scrawling on paper, he devised a message with the force of a freight train, giving it a rhyme and flow that struck across the distance: “Detroit,” “exploit,” “techno house,” “sound,” “dance cult,” “underground.”
But who was this Frankie Bones? There’s no way of answering that without the word “techno” and everything it means: techno of the past, techno of the future, techno now. His story, which encompasses the American journey of breakbeat grafted to the metronome — the hybrid of polyrhythm and the 4/4 beat — that has defined popular music, from jazz to rock, disco to electro, onto hip hop, house, techno, rave and “EDM,” evolving without end, is critical to understanding the direction of Western music.
For Bones, it goes back to his childhood. He was a white hip hop kid whose father was murdered by a black man. The young idealistic Bones was steady in his forgiveness. And so, in 1989, he declared his love for a mixed up sound. He wrote lyrics that talked about a new beat that was so strong it was all he could talk about. He described how it was mutating and where it was going. He put his finger on the wire.
He could do that because he knew the shock of loss. Techno was his salvation: Frank Mitchell, who became “Frankie Bones,” survived tragedy through his love of black music, and that’s how he made it his own.
Now, almost thirty years after its initial release, in honor of his enduring contributions and the fiery urgency of Bones’ career, Carl Cox’s Intec label picked Bones’ landmark anthem ‘Call It Techno’ for a remix E.P. The new edition, which came out in November, includes a sleek, commissioned remix by Bones, along with interpretations by hotshots Raito and Carlo Lio, plus a heavy filtered b-side: ‘Light It Up.’
To understand what was going through his head when he created the original, Ghost Deep talked to Bones about the deep varied currents and rocky urban places that inspired his words (see the full Q&A below).
Like reefs under the waves, each verse of ‘Call It Techno’ described worlds within worlds. You had to hear it down below the flash in its native context on a dance floor. And then one could feel it— and know, that the future was here. Hearing energetic electrons pushing sound through the air at raves, generated a cultish religiosity filled with optimism about the great electronic unknown, a heady convergence of humanity and new technology.
And yet, for most of the world, it was a slower takeover. Mass hysteria had visited pop culture before in the form of Elvis Presley’s gyrating rock ’n’ roll and the subsequent “devil music” backlash, and in the form of Beatle-mania — white English kids giving white America a safer distance from rock’s roots. But the “dance cult underground” was different. In America, it was a decades-long insurgency thumped out one renegade party at a time. Kicking off almost 30 years after the 1960s — during the height of the AIDS epidemic — it was more secret and more subversive than rock, moving unseen in the shadows.
Looking back on it now, few were ready for it. “The techno wave has grown / with a style of our own / direct from Brooklyn!” declared Bones. “Essential funk, kick and snare / make you feel it over there / out in London!” And the chorus: “We call it techno! / You can feel the bass! / Call it techno! / Techno bass, bass!”
You could hear the ferocity and fervor in his voice cresting over the waves of a hybrid sound, slinging fully formed ideas in street code with a common touch, set to the crunching breaks of hip hop and electro, the sensual groove of C + C Music Factory’s ‘Seduction,’ and ghostly synths hovering in like the fog.
With simple words and his “techno house sound,” Bones was addressing the emergence of a global underground. He was talking to London, and Detroit, and connecting the power cables near the Hudson. And he wasn’t going to take shit from no one.
Computer Noise And Pounding Bass / Hits You In the Face / Like A Hammer
And yet no one really knew how to talk about it. True, there were the visionary words of Juan Atkins on Detroit techno classics, like ‘No UFO’s’ and ‘Night Drive (Thru Babylon),’ both from 1985. Or the gospel call and response of Bernard Fowler on N.Y.C. Peech Boys’ ‘Life Is Something Special,’ going back to 1982 — “Can you feel it!?” — on to Chicago house anthems like Larry Heard’s ‘Can You Feel It?’ and Marshall Jefferson’s ‘Move Your Body.’
But the difference is no one had described the movement those songs inspired in stark international terms— a techno-social wave that would go on to sweep the world. The clues were just barely knowable, if not yet universal (read the full lyrics to ‘Call It Techno’). After the tumult of the ’60s and ’70s, Westerners were just starting to formulate feelings about the great leaps ahead, from the end of the Cold War to the Information Revolution to China’s economic rise to today’s cyber delusional storms. As life accelerated through the ’90s, the past seemed to recede with ever greater speed.
Until it didn’t. Today, the Cold War is back. The truth is on life support. And the shadows of the Great Depression linger in antsy brains. As Bones is fond of noting, the inverse of techno’s manifest destiny also applies: when the past meets the present, that’s when the future arrives. It’s the logic of the loop that goes back to the genesis of hip hop.
And that loop was going faster and faster.
The same year ‘Call It Techno’ went to press, the first internet service providers went commercial. Communism ebbed away in Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall came down. The same day Bones put out his single, the Chinese government murdered and bulldozed students protesting for democracy in Tiananmen Square. At the other end of the spectrum, corporate control of Western music ensured pop vanilla from the likes of Rick Astley, Richard Marx, Skid Row and Milli Vanilli, ruled the airwaves.
The following year? Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby.’ Imagine that. Imagine if it was still all about vamping “word to your mother”?
If free-thinking people were to survive the transitions, AND transgressions, of the ’90s and beyond — into hacked identities and Russian brainwashing, from smartphone addictions all the way to “Fake News” and Fake Intelligence (A.I. or otherwise) — then they would need an underlying context that reminded them how they got there and who they were.
For many, that grounding would become techno — the Music of Machines.
Bones brought a powerful subtext to that riddling context. A native son of New York City, he grew up next to train tracks in Brooklyn, tagging brick walls with his graffiti call sign, “BONES” (given to him for his wiry, skinny frame), crawling through subway tunnels, chowing down hot dogs at Coney Island, tearing it up at disco roller rinks, and mining records with every cent he had.
Once he became a man, he picked up the mic. His father died four years before he recorded ‘Call It Techno.’ He could talk about himself. Or he could talk about the city he loved. He could talk about his anguish. Or he could talk about his theory of a unifying beat at the heart of the world.
So he wrote five verses that gave voice to a critical moment in time, this New Yorker bringing a hip hop attitude to the techno dance party. He punctuated the emerging technological groove with a sense of mission. He told the story of rave’s birth, of cold cities that gave harbor to the blues of former slaves, of a flash point in Europe, of Brooklyn crashing London in the cover of night.
We’re a long way from 1989. But sifting through the story on ‘Call It Techno,’ the same stakes have little changed and his defiance applies now more than ever. Asking this Johnny Appleseed of Techno about how his manifesto came to be, he explains the experiences and records that informed his style, and how “rave” was just revolution by another name.
GHOST DEEP: ‘Call It Techno’ talks about the Brooklyn style. Can you define what that style is and where it came from?
Frankie Bones: In 1978 and 1979, two iconic movies being Saturday Night Fever and The Warriors, were stories written for and about Brooklyn. But that being said, living in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s was an identity crisis, a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s identity is questioned due to a change in their expected roles in society.
That was Brooklyn Style. It wasn’t a style at all. It was more just about survival in the streets. If you claimed a style, you were going to be picked on and bullied.
An earlier Brooklyn film from 1974, titled The Education Of Sonny Carson, depicts this even better, and I only mention that because John Travolta was first appearing on a TV show called Welcome Back Kotter, also based in the same Brooklyn neighborhood Saturday Night Fever was based a few years later: Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Coney Island — our stomping grounds.
What else was going on in Brooklyn at that time that inspired you?
We moved into Flatbush, 982 East 38 Street to be exact, last house on the left of a dead end street, on August 7, 1973. Put the address in the search bar and you can see a small modest house. It was more beautiful back then. This was the same weekend Kool Herc threw the very first hip-hop party in the Bronx. I was seven.
But I began collecting records early on. Very early on. Because I lived next to railroad tracks and there was a flea market only a few blocks away.
This is hillarious, but the scene in Boyz In The Hood — “You wanna see a dead body?” — the railroad tracks next to my house were exact and the same. I never saw a dead body, but there were things. Things to explore, things to break, to light on fire. There is a sense of isolation on freight train tracks, especially in a city as big as Brooklyn. The World Trade Center was just completed. New York City was changing.
When those movies came out though, we lived our lives through those stories. We wrote graffiti. We did hip hop. Breakdancing. Our young friends also became famous years later. It was dangerous and yet exciting.
Who were those young friends who became famous and what did they become famous for?
They were mainly graffiti artists such as Ghost, Reas, JA, Kaves and my brother who wrote as Ven. They left a mark which lasted decades. Otherwise, producers like Omar Santana and Carlos Berrios, who did rather well in the music industry.
So that’s the emotional background to the song, this mixed up identity of New York City in the ’70s and ’80s. So what were you trying to capture in terms of the future with the song’s lyrics and vocal delivery?
‘Call It Techno’ was written after we first got the phone call to play at these big all-night raves in London. I worked with Northcott Productions: Silvio Tancredi (R.I.P.) and Tommy Musto.
They had just built a studio and office for their label, which became Fourth Floor, on 25 West 38th Street. We started making tracks every single day. We had a pressing plant. We were distribution and independent. I started working there in 1987. After one year and lots of releases, a weird trend became totally visible to us and us only: we were shipping more records to London than we were selling States-side.
This began in 1988. And it was my Bonesbreaks 2 where there was this massive paradigm shift. London was going through some sort of revolution in our eyes because the records magically just started to have a big demand in the U.K. and we wanted to know why.
Right, so the concept for ‘Call It Techno’ first came from that London connection?
Well, we get the phone call. We knew it was coming actually. I remember getting that offer to come and play in London. I had already had steady DJ gigs in New York, but they were talking about 5,000 people parties in London. With just DJs.
This was unheard of in New York City. New York had mega-clubs: Paradise Garage, Studio 54, Fun House, etc. But it never had multiple DJs per night. It just didn’t happen. You got “track acts,” live P.A.s performing. But unless you were Jam Master Jay performing with Run-DMC, you were not going to DJ in these clubs. They had one resident DJ only. And you had to produce commercial music to create a buzz.
We actually had already done that with freestyle and electro, but in 1987, house music became the sound and it had evolved through disco. The Chicago and Detroit styles were strictly underground-based and filtered to DJs who spent time in record stores.
So if this new sound was filtering into New York DJs over time, did techno need such a manifesto in your opinion? What were the thoughts you debated in putting words to what has often been wordless music?
The paradigm shift I mentioned was from Bonesbreaks 2 . We were just fucking around with these bizarre mash-ups, which were basically breakbeats and house and smashing TR-Roland 808 drum machines and the preferred Casio RZ-1 synthesizer, over us just mixing records and releasing them as DJ tools. Knowing that was way over the top for 1988 standards and hearing that our records were in higher demand than the previous Chicago and Detroit releases were in London, a bell went off in my head.
I went in and made a freestyle song using Detroit Techno sounds. I perform the song. Cut out the middlemen, who were actually young female singers who sang on our songs. I was quite successful writing popular freestyle tracks at the time. I did a ton of ghostwriting for Omar Santana and Carlos Berrios, who were also making big waves in their careers. And I always loved Egyptian Lover’s records from ‘Egypt, Egypt’ onward. 2 Live Crew. “I could do this.” No problem.
I didn’t actually ever have a problem writing hip hop songs. My only issue was being this kind of goofy white kid from Brooklyn who already knew the stakes well in advance. I knew in advance that I was going to London to DJ, and have an opportunity to have no limits and no boundaries.
‘Call It Techno’ was my way of arriving with a new passport and telling the Brits, “Hey, I get it.” You guys are some kind of “Dance Cult from the Underground and Techno House is the Sound.”
Tech-house? In 1989? Imagine that.
Hold Up / Wait A Minute / Let Me Put Our / Bass In It
Bones opened up Groove Records in 1990, a small record store in the multiethnic Bensonhurst enclave of Brooklyn, that focused on selling techno vinyl. It would later reincarnate as the long running Sonic Groove record store, in partnership with his younger brother Adam (known best as Adam X) and Heather Lotruglio (better known as DJ Heather Heart). Their business would go under following the cultural and economic aftershocks of 9/11.
But the year after ‘Call It Techno’ impacted dance floors, the future opened wide with a sense of possibility. For over a decade Bones and his crew would help lead the “dance cult underground’ in various capacities. Infamously, they jump-started the New York rave scene by throwing their gutsy “Storm Raves.” They cut bolt locks and set up speaker stacks in brickyards and train yards. They wired their gear into street lamps for power, jacking into the city’s electric grid, setting up a parallel universe of uncompromising music.
It was that same Brooklyn Style that Bones talks about — improvisational and risky. In the early ’80s, as is widely misreported, disco had “died.” But only a few years later, it came back as a robot. In abandoned warehouses across the Hudson and under bridges, the great cosmopolis, the Big Apple, got its “computer noise and pounding bass.”
Bones made good on the spirit of ‘Call It Techno.’ He captured, predicted and helped carry out its proclamations. But in many ways, New York just as easily could have stayed a hip hop town speckled with underground disco haunts — one without the pulse, the other without the boom.
It was that intersection that always caught his ear. He heard it in Afrika Bambaata and the Soul Sonic Force. He heard it in Cybotron’s ‘Clear.’ That intense connection to funk.
He loved electro and hip hop for their hybrid, diverse energy. He loved how they cut through barriers. When his father, who drove taxis for an extra source of income, was killed, it was the young Bones’ love of hip hop at a time when the city was seething with racial strife, that helped him channel his sorrow in a more hopeful direction.
It’s those shards of life and music that helped define his unique sound. He’s not only a DJ who conjures mayhem from the decks but who writes dark, wily records like 2017’s excellent ‘I’m Taking Control,’ and who can slam words over songs and DJ sets on the fly. He sees the world in terms of rhyme.
GHOST DEEP: The lyric “It started in Detroit / but I had to exploit / the way I hear it” pays homage to Detroit’s genesis of “techno.” When did you first hear a Detroit techno record?
Frankie Bones: The untold story of Juan Atkins, who I dearly respect, but what people never caught onto. ‘Clear’ by Cybotron. Juan produced it in 1982. Legendary Electro. Everyone knows ‘Clear.’ Clearly Juan has stated time and time again that he never heard ‘Planet Rock’ when he penned ‘Clear.’ He didn’t hear it.
I know Juan dearly for many years and he is an honest and truthful man. The can of worms opens when you read the record label. It says MIXED BY JOSE “ANIMAL” DIAZ — a New York DJ whose mix was modeled 100% to the mold of ‘Planet Rock.’ Find Juan’s original from the album. I always pay attention to detail. The original song sounded like an electro-funk song of its era, with no bottom end.
‘Planet Rock’ had changed everything and it was a New York classic straight out of the crate. The music was made in big session studios with big budgets. $150 an hour type stuff. It wasn’t made in someone’s bedroom.
So was that Detroit record the first techno record you ever heard?
Cybotron, yes, but Juan’s Metroplex records, which were electro and not labelled techno, fueled the fire all the way through, from 1982 on. It allowed me to realize there were people making these type of records outside of the New York electro scene: Miami, Detroit and Hollywood. We were making “Electro,” “Freestyle,” and “Breaks,” and most of it filtered through hip hop, where it wasn’t really taken seriously.
What is Detroit techno in your book? Where did it come from that is not often talked about, like the cultural strains that it evolved from?
Yes, I absolutely can, with an award from Detroit’s Metro Times newspaper giving me the 1999 Best DJ award for my four-year residency at Motor Lounge as an outside talent.
I was a natural for Detroit, being from Brooklyn. Mad Mike Banks from Underground Resistance and I have been dear friends since 1992, just because “I get it.” I wasn’t just let in. Detroit cats will test every single bone in your body before letting you just come into town and feel at home. Eminem had me so confused in 1999… He chose me to DJ his homecoming party.
But getting back to what “Detroit” is? It’s a people mover. Like the little train downtown that loops around in Downtown Detroit and doesn’t do anything much more than go around in circles in one direction only. Kind of like a record on a turntable. Motown left to California along with more than half of the city’s population. The ‘67 Riots ripped a hole into the heart of the city. The people who stayed worked for General Motors, Ford, etc.
I find most of the kindest, warm hearted people in Detroit. People who respect you for the character in your soul rather then the color of your skin. Their music was their only escape. The only way to have faith in the future in Detroit, was through music.
Without it, they would have not been able to survive.
So then on the Belleville Three — Detroit techno originators Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May — you call out Juan in particular on the record label sticker for ‘Call It Techno.’ Why did you call out Juan specifically?
There is no such thing as the “Belleville Three.” It’s a myth. But let me explain. It’s because I know Juan, Derrick and Kevin as individuals. They were on the same timeline, which makes them a trio. But not for one minute is there any “band” there.
I remember Metroplex when it was Metroplex. KMS [Kevin Saunderson’s label]. Transmat [Derrick May’s label]. I can go deeper into that with Fragile, Planet E, Accelerator, UR. I gave the shout-out to Juan because ‘Clear’ is clearly layered throughout ‘Call It Techno.’ I didn’t sample Kevin or Derrick on the record.
The thing is, there are so many different samples on the original track, you just hear layers of sounds, sometimes when you combine sounds, they cancel each other out, but if you go back and listen, it’s clear as day.
The label notes also call out Seduction’s (Clivilles & Cole) house classic, ‘Seduction.’ When did you first hear that record? Why did you choose to use that bass line?
The original mix of ‘Call It Techno’ says “House Mix.” The bass line was the preferred sound in NYC house music at the time in 1989. Todd Terry, Kenny and Louie [Masters At Work] were big on bass lines. C + C Music Factory [Robert Clivilles and David Cole] just kind of made anything underground into a pop success because they were a great production team.
So when I said “Hold up, wait a minute,” the bass line comes in as a friend. Like “this techno stuff is weird, I don’t like it”… I put the bass line in so you can calm down, not lose any mascara, so I can get into my next verse. I mean, I got five verses, which was a lot for any song.
Right, speaking of, in another great verse, the lyric “In the club or in your car / the sound will take you far / we know you feel it,” says a lot about the contexts in which you were listening to techno at the time. Were you playing mixtapes in the car? Were you hearing techno on the radio?
Mixtapes and car systems in 1989 were like peanut butter and jelly as a kid. It just made fucking sense. But in 1989, techno was not played anywhere in New York City. Not even by the most underground DJ.
Those who did follow Chicago Trax, did get their first taste through acid house. But again, talking about paradigm shifts, Todd Terry was instrumental in making house music popular in New York by sampling Chicago songs and old electro cuts, and making house cool for everyone in the streets. Prior to that, house music was a clique or a club. A camp even.
You had to be down with the people in the scene to be a part of that. That began to change in 1987.
The lyric “House was once innovative / but now we’re in a state of / acid” seems to be saying that acid house was a leap forward. You follow that “With acid house there was confusion / over a drug use illusion / but I don’t use it.” In respects to “techno” and “house,” where does “acid” or “acid house” fit in from your perspective?
We arrived to play at Energy in the U.K. on August 26, 1989, to find the largest event in its history currently in progress — where the 5,000 people expected became 25,000 people and “acid house” was all the rage.
Their media called these parties “Wild Acid House Parties” with kids going insane from doing LSD. Nobody was on LSD. Not one person. Ecstasy was pure MDMA and I would imagine that every single person was doing it because it was so freaking awesome….how bout dat?
The state of acid was the confusion between a Roland TB-303 Acid Box and the drug known as LSD. The ability to have a machine make sounds that made people think you were on drugs and once that happened, the innovation was gone. Chicago had already made acid house. They were moving onto 1990.
People like Hardfloor, Josh Wink, Richie Hawtin, Misjah & Tim, and Underground Resistance, gave the 303 a second life in my opinion.
So then I want to ask you specifically about the phrase “techno house.” What do you mean by that exactly? I bring it up because like “EDM,” these words have lost a lot of their meaning because the context has shifted so much.
“Techno House was the sound of the Dance Cult Underground out in London.” The U.K. birthright of rave was mostly house music. But they green-lighted techno with the arrival of the “Techno” albums that Neil Rushton put out on 10 Records (a label) before his Network label came to life.
But to appreciate real Detroit techno, as this British revolution was happening, was the biggest blessing of all. And when I use the word blessing, it’s the feeling of being in the middle of 17,500 people dancing to ‘Strings Of Life’ as the sun comes up at 6 a.m.
Then in your mind, is techno an American sound or a U.K. sound or a global sound? Or both, and how?
Techno IS the future. Maybe the future past by now. But I believe it was absolutely global. That being said, “It started in Detroit,” while exploiting what happened next.
And Now You See How We Rock / Without The Kid Down The Block / Party People
A cult is a closed community, as is a club. Whether we’re talking about Charles Manson’s murderous “Family” or Pink Floyd’s late ’60s psychedelic UFO club. When you get there, you close the door. You maybe even lock it. But the “underground” means something bigger. It’s not just a congregation or an inconspicuous place. It’s an idea, about the freedom of ideas, that undergirds the whole counter-cultural continuum. Anyone can come and go. The only constant is an obsession with the unknown.
For ideas to survive, they must find a wider audience. ‘Call It Techno’ was built to last in this way. Bones’ new remix rumbles deeper down. His voice is lower, but renewed with vigor. Twenty-eight years in his head, his words roll out with ease, un-rushed, tempered by the vision of someone who has seen it all. Drums trickle up to the sky like reverse rain. Bass wakes the primal spirit. It’s the dawn within the night.
So what was that dawn within dawns really about, when you look back through time?
Bones’ generation, Generation X, grew up in the shadows of the Baby Boom, from Vietnam and Woodstock to Reagan and Gorbachev, having seen a lot before we even got to Obama and Trump. When electrons woke kids up with loud synthetic bass, it revealed the power of disembodied funk. The question was, could they absorb it, and then re-communicate their innermost thoughts?
By the late ’80s, it all seemed to connect in a series of chain reactions. While much of the change started to pulse from Silicon Valley and Washington D.C. in the form of technological and geopolitical waves, musically speaking, even bigger explosions were emanating from Berlin, Tokyo, Manchester, London, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and of course, New York City.
In a lot of ways, techno was a cyber dimension on a par with the Web itself. It was open to just about anyone who found it, long before Snapchat, Facebook or Russia’s Internet Research Agency. At its best, it was about the freedom of thought. It wasn’t mind control, even if its repetitive sounds worked with the efficiency of computer algorithms. Its true genius was human.
That was as clear as day in the hands of Bones. The continued relevance of ‘Call It Techno,’ both in its old and new forms, demonstrates how effective that man-machine contrast was, in teaching the oppressed how to face the future. Imaginations can dance to a kind of clairvoyance — skeletal in its precision but voluptuous in its impressionism.
On the one hand, it’s worship. On the other, it’s heresy.
And yet 30 years into this intellectual revolution, it appears the world needs an anchor more than a cutting prow. Demographic silos and data clouds have whipped many of us into a kind of mass psychosis. From cults and mindless compliance to revulsion and reflection, human nature is hardcoded. No robot can erase it, only take advantage of it. Still, the underground runs deep in our collective operating system — the “unconscious.”
When it comes to “techno house,” you have to go back to the era of MS-DOS floppy disks and vinyl-based “EDM” to locate today’s invocations. In fact, the first vinyl pressing of ‘Call It Techno’ was floppy. It bends with gravity. As if it could turn to liquid — like our grip on reality.
Because the world forgets. Genocides. Hate crimes. Round and round we go.
Until someone picks up a microphone. It’s all champagne and tax cut kicks, set to the backdrop of white supremacists in Charlottesville, mass shooting rampages without end, and a growing Great Recession backlash. The question remains the same, because we’ve been here before. Can we hold it forever?
For Bones, the answer is deeper than skin. Engraved on a tombstone outside New York City is a roller skate. It says:
“Miles Mitchell, Devoted Husband & Father — Forever in Our Hearts.”
Bones’ father, who was juggling two jobs as a taxi driver, was taken away by a single bullet shot by a stranger on a cab ride. Miles was “cool as fuck,” says Bones. He loved soul and rock ’n’ roll, and he loved disco, he loved to dance, and he loved to skate. Bones never forgot: “Considering how many miles I have traveled through techno, I believe he would be proud.”
Miles’ son does a neat thing on his new remix. He chuckles as he did on the original, but this time calls out his production partner, Christopher Petti. He did the same back in 1989, like the hip hop M.C.’s of old, calling out the Brooklyn Funk Essentials crew, keeping it democratic.
It’s yet another reason why ‘Call It Techno’ is timeless. We need words even if it takes a generation to find the righteous ones, reconstructed within lines of concentration and mixed to a rhythm. It can’t be lived through screens or phones.
In a club or in your car, a series of images and memories form new ideas. Put down on paper or in a song. Pouring out into psyches before resolving back into new letters and code. Core to you. Like bones.
GHOST DEEP: Who is the “kid down the block” when you call out to “party people”? Why was it important to have an archetypal blocker to resist, to lead folks your own way?
Frankie Bones: Ha ha…It was actually aimed at Todd Terry, who actually did live down the block at the time. He had a very big impact on the industry in 1988 and 1989, and until I went to the U.K., I had felt that I wasn’t getting any respect in New York and when I did ‘Call It Techno,’ I switched up the style knowing I was doing that for London.
You rap about the “essential funk” of “kick and snare.” How is funk “essential” to techno? How are the “kick” and “snare” important? Is it about polyrhythm and syncopation?
Lenny Dee and Victor Simonelli were known as The Brooklyn Funk Essentials in 1988. They were hired by Arthur Baker, who was God to us as teenagers because of ‘Planet Rock’ in 1982. Arthur Baker basically made the 808 record of its era. It was the first time you heard an 808 kick like that.
As far as syncopation goes, it’s huge. It holds it all together the way your neighbors’ kids’ grunge band could never. Everything we were doing was essential to us, because we were carving our path into tomorrow.
A lot of my records back then were anything but funky, but sometimes the magic happened, like if you somehow could wear 12 different colognes at once and come up with a new scent, rather then have the TSA suspect you for being a person of interest for stinking so bad that you would have to be someone up to no good.
We were all over the place. We were into everything and everything electronic music had to offer.
The lyric “Computer noise and pounding bass / hits you in the face / like a hammer” is visually arresting. Can you describe how you came up with those words, and what is it about those sounds that make techno so powerful, both physically, musically and psychologically?
Yes. Working in Arthur Baker’s Shakedown Studios in 1988 was the first time I worked in a huge NYC studio, and the monitors in the main room had like 9" portholes that literally punched you in the chest so hard that it was like a stun gun. Then it dawned on me why Baker’s productions in 1983 sounded like the bass wasn’t part of the production, all treble. Like the first royalty check from ‘Planet Rock’ was delivered in this beautiful studio with a few kilos of cocaine to keep up with your production schedule.
I cannot confirm nor deny if this is actually true, and I’m not suggesting Arthur would ever participate in such shenanigans, as much as I would say the same for myself and my comrades.
You talk a lot about “bass” in the lyrics. It’s foundational. How was bass important to the creation of techno culture then?
I mean in layman’s terms and pun intended. If the music was the actual pick-up, the bass line was the guarantee you were getting laid. The bass is what made the chips of paint come off the walls, set speakers on fire literally and pretty much the reason the police arrive to close down the party. Because if you are not part of the bass line, then it’s a frequency that disturbs people.
It’s not just the sound but the timing. You have a great meter to the lyrics. What is that based on? Was that a rap rhythm you were inspired by? You’ve talked to me before about how much hip hop influenced you as a kid and teen. Why did it have such an affect on you?
“I wanna rock right now, I’m Rob Base and I came to get down, I’m not internationally known, but I’m known to rock the microphone.” ‘It Takes Two’ by Rob Base & EZ Rock pretty much was my first influence.
There was a second influence that some people may be able to figure out, but if I had to come straight out and tell you, I would have to kill you.
Back to Rob Base, I was about to be internationally known, with no clue how to rock a micro-phone, so I figured I better try before finding out the hard way. In the end, ‘Call It Techno’ became the anthem for the German scene, which can be checked on Youtube by searching for “We Call It Techno”.
There’s another thing you do. “The techno wave has grown / with a style of our own / DIRECT from Brooklyn” — It’s the way you emphasize “grown” and “own,” but punch it home with “direct.” It’s the same rolling groove with swinging hits on other verses. It’s incredibly effective. Why and how did that vocal style work its way into your performance?
If people have read this far, I would invite you to Youtube to search for a song called ‘My Heart Holds The Key’ by Marie Venchura. Omar Santana and I were making lots of Freestyle Music and by 1988, we figured out every little trick in the book to make popular music.
I wrote lyrics from a shoebox of letters girls gave me in my teenage years. I’d take a sentence and make it rhyme and turn it into a song.
The Marie Venchura record is virtually unknown to my catalog but it is so over the top in it’s final version, you can instantly understand I was good at wordplay before techno ever even became part of the equation.
What did you write the original lyrics for ‘Call It Techno’ on? Where were you specifically when you did?
House music really started to become popular in 1987 and 1988. Whatever techno tracks that came out were considered house also, but I knew about techno because I was buying a lot of Detroit labels and I knew a second wave of music was coming behind house.
I would have never even wrote ‘Call It Techno’ had I not known I was going to London. But it was kind of obvious that a huge scene was happening in the U.K. and I didn’t want anyone there to think I was just a house music DJ from New York. I did write the song in advance of itself. Like I had an instinctual vision of what was yet to come.
The Techno Wave had grown to about a dozen people in New York City at that point. I figured if twelve more people got into it at least I wouldn’t be lying. We were already producing music daily at our studio in Manhattan. Go in at noon and sometimes work as late as midnight, every day like having to go to work. I wrote the lyrics at home in a couple of hours.
I already had been writing songs for other artists for a few years so something like this, and me being the artist, probably took four to six hours to write the lyrics and the whole next day composing the tracks. It was done in those two steps, lyrics then music the next day. All in one shot.
So then what was it like to perform them vocally, your own words?
It was fun because I made it for the kids in London who really didn’t care if I ever spoke a word to them so as long as I played the music they liked from me.
Right, because what’s important about the human voice versus computer noise and pounding bass?
Identity. A song is a song and a track is a track. But sometimes it depends on who is listening and what they like.
What is different about the power of words versus the power of sounds?
That would be best answered between House vs. Techno. Most house music that is popular comes from good lyrical content. Techno relies on technology and futuristic sounds. But sometimes it takes different parts of both to be interesting.
You’re known for a bravado sound and persona. Where does ‘Call It Techno’ fit into that larger narrative inside you?
We started off this story talking about the movies of 1978 and 1979, which influenced me as a young teenager. New Yorkers are proud people, especially when you venture out into the outer boroughs. Whatever I did for DJ culture is a part of a great moment in time in a crucial part of its history.
Chicago historians will have a problem with what started in Detroit. Because what started has a bigger part in our history. The truth of it all is that it always was part of New York. Dance music was based in New York City.
It came through the disco era. We have the biggest part of DJ culture via hip hop and the discotheque era of the ‘70s.