King Britt on the Gear of Blacktronika History

For the last three decades and some change, Philadelphia-born DJ, producer, and educator, King Britt has been at the forefront of the many revolutions and catalytic movements that have shaped the tenor of electronic music. From his early '90s techno productions under the moniker E-Culture to the lush, futuristic soul of his Scuba remixes in the late '90s/early 2000s and beyond, Britt’s sound has evolved alongside electronic music’s search for new possibilities.

Britt has brought decades of experience to the University of California San Diego through his course, "Blacktronika: Afrofuturism In Electronic Music." Blacktronika celebrates and analyzes the contributions of people of color to the history of electronic music with a specific focus dedicated to the contributions of Black musicians throughout the African diaspora

With contributions from Goldie, Honey Dijon, Questlove, Jeff Mills, Todd Terry, Flying Lotus, Tokimonsta, A Guy Called Gerald, Masters At Work, Mad Professor, and more, the list of in-class guests is impressive and expansive. An ever-curious experimenter with synthesis, sampling, and drum machine technology, King brings this hands-on experience when teaching students about the practical and theoretical nuances of electronic music.

I had the opportunity to sit down with King Britt to play a handful of tracks that illustrate how Black musicians have used electronic technology in exciting and innovative ways.

Sun Ra and His Arkestra - "India"

I think I sampled this! Julian Priester’s on this, I had him in class. They really knew how to transport you into their world, always.

You can really hear the space where they recorded it. I love recordings like that.

That's what made Motown so great, too. They always had the EMT-140 (plate reverb), but the way they mic’d everything.

What does this tune bring up or conjure in your mind?

Well, it's like what we actually just started talking about—how music in general can transport you to a place. But something about Sun Ra’s recordings, especially the older ones, it just brings you into their world. It's kind of hard to describe, but their use of the space, the natural reverb within the space. I don't know if it's added on top as well, but there's a certain sheen and a dreamlike quality to this recording.

Yeah. In your mind, how important is Sun Ra as a figure in electronic music, specifically thinking about Black folks in electronic music?

Brother, listen. I have a very personal connection to Sun Ra and the Arkestra because my mom was friends with them, so I used to go to rehearsals as a kid. I've seen Ra and Arkestra and then Arkestra by themselves. And I played with them a couple times.

Minimoog Model D
Minimoog Model D

Sun Ra, he's the beginning for me, he's the beginning of seeing a Black band with these beautiful costumes paying homage to Egyptology, but also hearing these possibilities. You hear the imagination that Sun Ra was projecting to the world, and you hear it through his use of electronics.

The first time I saw him play when I was a kid, I think he had the Minimoog. I was a little young, but I definitely remember hearing these sounds that reminded me of Ultraman and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. So after school, I used to run home at three o'clock and these Japanese Sci-Fi shows would come on TV. They had orchestration, but they had these electronic sounds within it. And of course, there was Flash Gordon Star Trek, but I'd never heard it in this context, you know, and I always wondered what those sounds were.

As I got older and really started following not only Sun Ra but Herbie (Hancock), seeing them play these machines made it possible for me to pursue this in some fashion, you know? So Sun Ra is extremely important, but also in a historical context for Sun Ra to bring electronics into the jazz realm, that was the shift.A lot of people always refer to Herbie and Miles (Davis), when Herbie first played the Rhodes like "Oh, that was the moment." No, it was before that.

Right. Right.

It was Ra that did that and set the standard. The first keyboard [a Hammond Solovox] he bought in Alabama because there was a music store there. And you gotta remember that this was the Jim Crow era, so there was segregation everywhere, but [Forbes Piano Company in Birmingham, Alabama] was the one store that didn't abide by the Jim Crow laws. And so any person of any race could go in the front door and just explore these different organs. So Sun Ra used to go in there all the time and play and people would gather around.

Yeah, I love that story. I also wonder how many potential Sun Ras or Herbies who may have been in different places and didn't have the opportunity. You know what I mean? Who didn't have that space to explore, because Jim Crow and racism squashed their opportunities.

Stevie Wonder - "Living for the City"

This is one of the most important tracks to my childhood actually. Stevie's gone through so many generations and so many transformations of himself. And this was a very important time for him because he was trying to get out of that Motown factory, you know? That typical Motown sound.

That established order and way of doing things.

Right. So he heard Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Malcolm Cecil, and Robert Margouleff. The story was that Stevie went to their studio and basically knocked on the door. Stevie's there and he's like, "I love this record. I want to explore these sounds." So Stevie heard something in those synthesizer sounds, and he knew he would put the soul into it.

Those chords and the progressions and the use of the sounds, it wasn't just bloops and bleeps. He was taking it to a whole other level. So you had Sun Ra. Okay? Super important in the jazz realm and of course, Herbie was important in the jazz realm, but he hadn't explored the R&B side yet. So Stevie's the first person, the first Back musician to bring the electronics into the R&B side of things.

My dad owned a barber shop at 40th and Market in Philly, and my job as a kid was to play records in the shop. We would go record shopping on Fridays, then I would play the new records to keep the customers happy. We bought this record and he specifically said, "Don't play this one in the shop. Don't play it just because it's so heavy." He was trying to keep everyone happy.

By accident, I played it, and it sparked a conversation in the barber shop. They never really talked about politics so much in the shop. They always talked about sports, girls, and movies, they didn't talk about politics. But after that, I noticed more and more political conversations were happening in the barber shop. But also the music changed, too, in Philly with (Gamble & Huff’s) Philly international. All the lyrics were about what was happening. Motown with “What's Going On?” All of this music was speaking to the sociopolitical context of the time.

I'm curious about the shift that Stevie made into electronic instruments that ran concurrently with him wanting to speak out more about social issues and his music. How did that change hit you as a listener who was around back then? What was that like?

I remember talking to my mom and her friends about this record in particular. Stevie's always been a visionary, but with the way he used those sounds again like Sun Ra, he created this world that we hadn't explored before sonically in R&B. And it sparked all of our imaginations. We could feel his freedom to express himself politically because before that, he hadn't done that.

You could hear a freedom in it that you didn't hear in his previous work, and electronic music also gives you a sort of freedom—especially back then. There's certain sounds you can create that you don't get with acoustic instruments. And that was new in the R&B world. And so, introducing both of those simultaneously…

A whole new paradigm.

There you go, yeah.

Phuture - "Acid Trax"

Bro, I had Pierre in class and everything.

Oh, snap. Yeah. This track had to sound crazy when it first came out.

It's funny because you actually sparked the memory of some of this because you posted about The Bank [a famed Philly nightclub active in the 1980s]. First, let me just say big respect to Pierre. We had Pierre in class in the first quarter that I did Blacktronika and Pierre is the inventor of acid house. He is the guy.

He told us that he had gone over to a friend's house and they had a Roland TB-303, but weren't really using it, it was sitting in a corner. The 303 was supposed to be an accompaniment bass machine for lounge players or just a portable thing, if you're doing a wedding or something you can play along to it.

Yeah and it’ll play a little baseline.

Exactly. And they had Oscar Peterson, he was a spokesperson for one of the ads and stuff. So anyway, Pierre, he saw it and he heard it in its regular state. And then he said that he asked his friend if he could just, you know, start turning knobs and that's where the Acid came from.

Considering the contributions that Black people have made to electronic music, and in my research and contributing to the advancement of electronic music as well, I can definitely say with authority that whenever Black people have electronic instruments, we usually do something unorthodox that it's not supposed to happen. The turntable? It’s an instrument now and it wasn't before. So with the 303, Pierre single-handedly changed the game.

I talked to A Guy Called Gerald about this the other day, because the first time I went to Manchester, that's when I heard… well, I heard Pierre was working at Tower Records, but I went to England to hear Pierre because no one was really playing [Acid House] in the U.S. except in Chicago, Detroit and then we had in Philly (DJ) Jett who was playing at The Bank. He had this Acid House night on Wednesdays, which heavily influenced Josh Wink in his trajectory and all of us. It was this type of music, Acid House, all night long.


Jett was getting all these tracks from Europe because Acid House kind of infiltrated the UK and then it spread over Europe. This was the summer of love. This 303 sound was enhanced by the usage of ecstasy within rave culture. There's something about the frequencies that were being hit opening the filter and then increasing the resonance on the 303, something about that sound that is exciting and rhythmic.

And also they're playing this all live down the track. I believe that's the Roland TR-707. I think Pierre said that they were using the 707 a lot in Chicago and not the 909 until later.

Right, yeah, and you can hear it too. A lot of those early House records, they do not sound like an 808 or a 909, they sound like the 707.

And in my talks with A Guy Called Gerald, he mentioned how Phuture was such an influence on 808 State and if you listen to Newbuild, it's basically a homage to what Pierre and them were doing but Gerald in 808 State took it to a whole other level. And Gerald was saying how they were trying to sync up all these machines, you know, using DIN sync. So from the 606 to the Roland SH-101 using CV gate into the 303. And he said things would fall in and out of sync, but that's what made it so great.

Yeah. Create a little rhythmic tension 'cause they're not precise.

Absolutely, man. What a record. I'm so glad you picked that. And it's so great to see my students' faces when you drop any of this in the club. We have a club on campus and I play music, or even in class. I played (808 State) "Flow Coma" and it sounds better than half the stuff out now. Because now everything's so on the grid, whereas all of this stuff was just all over the place and you feel that humanness.

Ooh, you took that thought right outta my mind. It's electronic, but it feels like a person is behind it. It has a looseness and a roughness to it.

Right. And we can go back to Stevie and how Stevie did his thing. But also before that, how Sly Stone was using the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 and how he incorporated the drum machine into songs like "Family Affair." We can even go back to (synth pioneer) Don Lewis. It's because of him that we even have a programmable Acetone Rhythm Ace. Don Lewis had taken a Rhythm Ace and hacked it so he could program it himself 'cause he was an engineer. Yeah. And (Roland founder) Ikutaro Kakehashi IUR heard him at NAMM [in 1969] and he was like, "This is my drum machine. How did you do this?" and then the rest is history.

Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2
Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2. Photo by Techno Empire.

It's crazy how all this stuff is connected. You can tie a string and attach it all, if you know the points of reference.

Right. And I don't think it's a coincidence either. We're all sonic explorers, man. And we're all like-minded and we come together and it just kind of happens. But as Black people, we're all innovators and that innovation just gets passed down in the genes.

Yeah. I don’t think it’s said enough or acknowledged enough just how, in our speech, in our dance and music, everything that we do within this context of the Western world is weird. You know what I mean? They snatched us out of Africa and made us adapt. Everything we do is a little askew. And then eventually, the rest of the world catches up to it and it becomes a standard. Even looking at a scale, like a blues scale, flatted fifth or whatever. Woo. It’s just us fucking up a scale and altering it because we're weird and different. Everything we do is a little off.

Right. And I'll say just to add to that, we're weird through the lens of this Western colonial vision, but we're actually not everyone else is weird.

Right. That's what I was trying to get at.

Thanks for saying that, man. If you listen to all of Black music, even the trap stuff we're listening to now, there is a feeling of us searching for something. And that comes from what you said. We were taken from the motherland and there's this yearning, you know. I don't know if you've been to Africa, but when you go, as soon as you put your foot down on the land it activates something in your body. DNA-wise.

Jeff Mills - "The Bells"

I had Jeff in class two weeks ago. I played the original version of this and then I also played the orchestrated one with the Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra.

This track is so wild. Were they playing this on the radio with Detroit back in the day?

Yeah. So Jeff Mills is one of the founding members of Underground Resistance. We used to call them the Public Enemy of Detroit Techno. Very political, very, very dark in its exploration of sonics, but Jeff Mills was also known as "The Wizard" and he had a radio show. He had his radio show, but everyone in Detroit was influenced by the Electrifying Mojo, who had one of the most influential Detroit radio shows on Friday nights. And he would make the whole city flash their lights like "if you're listening to mojo, flash your lights," and the whole city would flash.

But anyway, getting back to "The Bells," I had Jeff in class a couple weeks ago, and we were just talking about process and machines that he was using back then. Jeff is the master of playing the 909 in real time, I've never seen anyone play the 909 in real time like him. And he said he makes all his tracks live, so we go back to the live aspect of electronic music. Same with Phuture, the same with Stevie, and whatever. It isn't just running a sequence, he's constantly playing it live and editing all the parameters on the 909. Stopping it, starting it.

Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2
Roland TR-909. Photo by Annie's Gear Bazaar.

Yeah, I was gonna say it's like an arrangement too. Like he’s working out the arrangement of the piece on the fly.

Exactly. He's arranging it all live right there but it's also minimal, and this is the blueprint for what Europe was gravitating towards what they called minimal. But really it was what Underground Resistance and most of Detroit was doing at this time, they kind of took the soul out of it. You know what I mean? I think Jeff said he had the Roland Juno-106, he had the 909, and one other keyboard, and everything was live and he didn't save any sequences or anything. Once it went down, that was it.

Right to tape.

Exactly. Tape. Wow. And to this day, that's still how he does it. He still follows that same process.

That's crazy to think about him not even saving the sequences or anything. That reminds me of what they say about the ephemeral nature of jazz and improvisation. It’s like you play, it goes out into the air, and then we done, and that’s it.

The other thing that made Jeff and Detroit in general—but especially Jeff and Underground Resistance, Rob Hood, Mad Mike Banks—were the kind of polymeters they used. It wasn't just straight four on a floor because the sequences around it (the kick drum), they may be three bars, five bars, so they would never land in the same place all the time. So it was constantly moving. And if you think about machinery in Detroit and the cogs and how things had a certain rhythm, that's how I listen to and what I heard in their music, you know?

Yeah, that's Africa too. Polyrhythms.

100% polyrhythms but through the machines. So speaking of polyrhythms…

Soul Dhamma - "Flower" (King Britt's Underwater Garden Dub)

This blew me away when it came out, man.

Silk 130 was my collective in Philly. We kind of came together at the Back 2 Basics party at silk city, which was one of the longest running parties. And so we did an album called When The Funk Hits The Fan, which sold over 500,000 worldwide and did really well. But then I did a second album called Re-members Only, and that had all my '80s heroes. ABC is on it, Alison Moyet from Yaz, Grover, Washington JR, Kathy Sledge—the list goes on and on.

But Lady Alma did a track called "Happiness" on it, and my good friend Blizz (Wayne McClure aka Soul Dhamma) used to dance for Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince and then he toured it with DJ cash money. But he's also a great, underrated producer out of Philly. I had asked him to do a remix of "Happiness" and he killed it.

Classic remix, classic classic.

I feel he could have been on the level of Masters At Work. Everything he released was incredible, so I said, as a favor, you know, let's trade remixes. That was our thing. All of us, we never really wanted to charge each other. So he's like, I got this song, "Flower," would you be into remixing it? So, I was really into experimenting.

Everything you heard right there was done on the MPC 2000XL. The additional sounds that were coming in and out, those were played and then sampled. So there was a JD-800 on there, which has all my Scuba sounds. Scuba was a moniker that I had. That was all my underwater music. I don't swim, so this was my way of swimming through sound. I did some acid one day and it opened something and I was exploring and it opened something, man.

There's certain keyboards that I use specifically for Scuba. The JD-800 was one, the Juno-106, and the MPC 2000XL. So I had the MPC and I was just going through records trying to find some inspiration. I knew I wanted to cut up some rhythm, so I was kind of looking for percussion and I still, to this day, can't find the record, but it was a David Sandborn record. I just took this (percussion) part, and I was retriggering in a way that created that rhythm, a new rhythm. So kind of time traveling in a way, right?

So I'm retriggering and I'm like, "Oh my God, this is insane." I added the kicks and I had a plethora of sounds that I've sampled, added those extra kicks in there. And then it was one of those days, you just keep it playing. I just kept building and building and building. I had to go eat dinner. I came back. I'm like, "Oh man, I gotta use something from his song." And my thing at that time was just taking the vocals. I took that one part and what I did was just loop the end of it, I just found the right part and looped that. So I would just hold it, press it, then press it again. So I treated it as a pad. So her voice (the singer Naturel) became a pad for me until that one break "Come fly with me," and it feels like you're flying.

Yeah, 1000% yeah [laughs].

The first person to champion this record was Giles Peterson.

Yeah, man. I think that's how I heard it was through Giles.

Giles was doing a party called That’s How It Is with James Lavelle at Bar Rumba in London. I remember giving it to Giles as a white label and that night he played it and I never heard it on a sound system and I literally almost cried because when you do music in your home studio and then it goes from home studio to a huge club and people are dancing, it's wild. It's like an out of body experience in a way.

Yeah, it's like you took a little piece of your heart and put it in all of these other people in the room.

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