For a music that started out sounding like George Clinton and Kraftwerk trapped in an elevator, as Derrick May famously described Juan Atkins’s early efforts, Detroit techno has aged about as gracefully as Three’s Company reruns. Wearing its “classic” sound like wide lapels, “Knights of the Jaguar” from Underground Resistance last summer may have been full of the lush, linear abstraction that made it Detroit’s biggest hit in 10 years, but with its “Love Boat Theme” strings, it was also the most anachronistic.
The problem is that, from Richie Hawtin trademarking the 909 drum machine for his mix CDs to Carl Craig’s oblique tech-house to Stacey Pullen’s fiercer take on the same not-quite-techno-not-quite-house gray area, Detroit producers, it seems, have only managed the Kraftwerk—leaving old George trapped in the elevator.
While ghetto-tech has done its part to funk up the Detroit legacy with electro raunch and hip-hop flava (see DJ Assault’s recent turn as a rapper and Disco D’s remix of 8 Ball and MJG’s “Buck Bounce”), nobody has taken May’s Clinton-Kraftwerk analogy as literally—or hilariously—as the Detroit Grand Pubahs.
A year ago, the DGP team of producer Andy Toth (a/k/a Dr. Toefinger) and unsung local Detroit DJ and eccentric Matt Goudy (a/k/a Paris the Black Fu) held up a funhouse mirror to the stiff-lipped techno scene with the quasi-hit “Sandwiches,” recasting the dubby minimalism of Germany’s Basic Channel with a helium-pitched vocal as horny as it was retarded: “I will be the burger baby and you will be the bun/So make your thighs like butter, easy to spread/ And we can make sandwiches on the dancefloor.” Good life, indeed.
Faced with making a whole album of like-minded tunes, Toth and Goudy prove they’re no Primitive Radio Gods, even if they aren’t quite the blip-and-bleep Mothership, either. Though it’s clear they’re trying: From an opening skit promising to find the “lost files of funk” and the ensuing P-Funk homage of the title track, with standin’-on-the-verge lyrics like “You can take your dead ass home if you can’t funk with this,” Funk All Y’All‘s mission statement is to re-acquaint techno with its funk roots, one cold techno beat and over-the-top vocal at a time—just like “Atomic Dog” two decades before.
“One Hump or Two” and “Ride”—like “Sandwiches”—spell out in no uncertain terms that for all the reams written about techno being digital-age jazz (so à la jazz, it’s populated by graying legends canonized in large, free public concerts like the Detroit Electronic Music Festival), historically this music is about moving behinds, not getting props. “One Hump” takes Lil’ Louis’s “French Kiss” and re-wires it as a booty call heard round the world (“Moscow . . . Taiwan . . . I wanna hump it!”), while “Ride” is ghetto-tech as songwriting, a fierce beat with a great chant: “Skirts up, pants down/Now you say ride/Ride!”
To Goudy and Toth’s credit, some of the album’s best moments happen off the dancefloor. “Afterschool Special” flips the ghetto-tech script of pimps ‘n’ ‘hos into a lost Flying Lizards single (with Paris’s pimp character sounding curiously like Bill Cosby), just as “Offbeat Killer” shares, in its cheeky way, the dramatic listenability of Nick Cave’s literati ramblings.
But in the words of Spinal Tap, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and before long, the Pubahs’ imagination starts to outpace their minimal techno palette. The narrated techno of “Schizophrenic Investigator” never finds the right balance of storytelling and beats the way, say, Green Velvet’s “Answering Machine” does. By the time the Pubahs’ pun-happy song titles get better than the actual songs (“Involvement Fluid”), and the vocals gum up otherwise slamming electro throwdowns (“The Suture the Future,” “Dr. Bootygrabber,” etc.), the Pubahs commit the greatest sin of all: forgetting this is, if not dance music, then at least party music, not a comedy album with a Groovebox.
While not as self-immolating as Armand Van Helden’s nyahh-nyahh-nyahh-nyahh-nyahh house of late—his upcoming album is such a goof-off that it comes off more like wallpaper with “Fuck You” scrawled on it than dance music—Detroit Grand Pubahs’ only crime here is saying “funk you” over and over, letting their tongue-wagging get in the way of tearing the roof off the sucka when maybe they should trust the funk to inspire us all to shut up and dance.