- 12 Mar 01
EAMON SWEENEY reports on Detroit's pivotal Underground Resistance label, and the controversy ignited when Sony released a 'cover version' of one of the label's best-known tracks.
"Isn't it obvious that music and dance are the keys to the universe? So called primitive animals and tribal humans have known this for thousands of years! We urge all brothers and sisters of the underground to create and transmit their tones and frequencies no matter how so-called 'primitive' their equipment may be. Transmit these tones and wreck havoc on the programmers! Long live the underground!" - Undergound Resistance, Detroit.
In a dramatic twist of fate from this original mission statement, it appears that the commercial programmers have turned and wreaked havoc on the underground, or at least on legendary Detroit-based electronic label Underground Resistance.
UR was founded by Jeff Mills, 'Mad' Mike Banks and Rob 'Noise' Hood in the early 1990s. The UR catalogue is marked by a ruthless fusion of Motown and Chicago soul with bruising techno, acid, electro and house. While Mills left in 1992 to launch a highly successful and lucrative international career, Banks remained to push the underground ethos to new ideological and musical extremes, releasing cult records such as the provocatively titled 'Message to The Majors'.
In March 1999 UR released an EP that made an undeniably major stamp on club culture. It was entitled 'The Knights of The Jaguar' on The Aztec Mystic EP, the debut release by new young UR protigi DJ Rolando.
Rolando had yearned to make a statement, not just on techno but about who he was and where he came from. The result was a track that genuinely sounded like the spirits of the past meeting the music of the future. It became the biggest underground hit in years, often mentioned in the same breath as the seminal 1997 classic, 'Strings of Life'. Dance lovers who normally mightn't go near a specialist shop or a UR record were hopelessly hooked.
In late 1999 things got very, very weird. A subsidiary of Sony Music Germany called Dance Divison wished to release the track. Unsurprisingly, Underground Resistance did not wish to license the music or have anything to do with any further commercial releases or compilation inclusions, as the bedrock philosophy of UR was always to refuse to co-operate with the mainstream industry. UR even refused to enter into any correspondence or negotiations with Sony Germany A+R man Dirk Dreyer.
Dreyer persisted in commissioning a tone by tone re-recording of the track, not using any samples or direct elements from the original but by starting from scratch and creating a 'cover version' of the track. In early December twelve inches under the moniker 'Jaguar' started appearing in record stores in Europe. Many stores, including the Dublin branch of Tower Records, were baffled by the re-appearance of the track under the Sony name as this act completely contradicted the UR ethos. Underground fans flooded the Sony offices with phone calls and e-mails expressing their confusion and anger at what had happened.
Dirk Dreyer posted an open statement to Rolando and Banks on the internet: "I bought the 12" six months ago and enjoyed hearing 'The Jaguar' all summer. The feedback to the track is amazing. I have never seen people enjoying one tune like this one. It seems to be the first genre-crossover track for years since the split of techno house in the early nineties into different styles and fanbases. In my way of 'industry thinking' it is a track worth being available to a lot of people, much more than people who go to vinyl shops."
"As we don't want to be seen as the guys who rip off or bootleg a well known track, we have chosen the way of re-recording the track tone by tone. On the CD there will be the original writer and publishing credits so that you will get the publishing money that you deserve."
On December 17th Dance Distribution withdrew all copies after selling only 2,000 vinyls. No vinyl copy gave any credit to either Rolando or Underground Resistence. Furthermore, the packaging featured an ecstasy tablet sporting a 'jaguar' emblem, which again wrought the fury of the underground who detest such tacky and cheesy debasing of dance music as merely 'drug' music.
Last week Dreyer issued the following e-mail statement to Hot Press:
"In this case Sony can be reproached for picking up someone else's idea for profit reasons without taking care of the attitude of the inventor. We realise that even though we are safe on the legal side and the reactions from the 'overground' to our version are euphoric, its commercial release would cause a damage to the relationship of the industry to the underground that could not be compensated. We see ourselves as a company supporting and benefiting from inventive artists."
Dreyer also states that the producers of the cover version have signed a deal to BMG/Arista. "Both parties are aware of the protests, they don't care. Sony has no control about further actions and we don't get an override." In a forwarded apology issued to UR Dreyer concludes, "We are sorry that we have hurt your feelings. Finally, at least the UR record will benefit from the story. We wish you good luck and a lot of sales for this classic piece of music."
While legally watertight, the consequences for all musicians, and not just underground electronic producers, could become one of the most important and far-reaching cases for contemporary music writers. Some will scoff at Underground Resistance for not capitalising on a 'hit', but everyone involved in the music industry at every level must be reminded that underground artists are absolutely crucial to the development and evolution of new music. Debasing their work in such a cynical manner has set a horrible precedent for how the music industry could operate in the future.