October 18, 2022

A Subaquatic Journey Through Sound: Father Dukes Playlist

Words by
Henry Ivry
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The liquid legacy of Drexciya is what keeps DJ Hailey Dukes, AKA Father Dukes, returning to Detroit electro duo Drexciya over and over. Across these ten tracks of contemporary American dance music, she takes this mandate in two ways. First, she uses the aquatic influences, sounds and themes of Drexciya as homage—just check the track titles from Huey Mnemonic and D. Strange. But there's something more subtle at play here, as Dukes maps out a slightly subtler, deeper influence. 

"Water has the power to provide vitality," Dukes says to me via Zoom. This life-giving force is central to the Drexciyan mythology of subaquatic sea dwellers, captured in large part by the artwork of Abu Qadim Haqq. Drexciya's music was inspired by a fictional race of sea dwellers who were the descendents of enslaved people who had either been thrown off of slave ships or had themselves jumped. According to the Drexciyan lore, those who escaped or were thrown off learned to breathe underwater, creating an entirely new aquatic cosmos. 

But there’s also something else to Drexciya’s obsession with water. It can also "cause fear, destruction, and erosion," as Dukes explains. She points to how the ocean occupies two positions within larger narratives of Black critical and creative work, something distilled in the music and surrounding story of Drexciya. On the one hand, the ocean is the site of the largest mass grave in history, the Middle Passage of the slave trade. This is the place that Toni Morrison famously critiqued as interring "60 million or more" and, more recently, the location that has produced what Christina Sharpe describes as slavery's endless wake.

At the same time, there's an alternative history of the ocean that emerges in the work of James Stinson and Gerald Donald. The ocean is also the site of rebirth, a place of curiosity and a home for an alternative, Afrofuturist ideology that continues to pulse through Black culture. Dukes calls this the "resiliency of culture" that takes "music as a cultural output and force of vitality and creation."

This tension between violence and rebirth, destruction and generation, is central to the music that Dukes puts together in this playlist. Moving across key nodes of Black and Brown American electronic music, the tracks here play with both of these tropes, sometimes in the course of a single track. The drum programming on HLX-1's "Issa Detroit Thing," an intergenerational duo of Underground Resistance alumnus Scan7 and up-and-comer The AM, is haunted and broken. But the groovy bass and the vocal refrain feel cautiously hopeful, almost optimistic, while celebrating Blackness. D. Strange's "Bioluminescence" hits similar notes, contrasting venomous synths with dubby chords that unfurl to soften the blows, carving out breathing room beneath the track's 808 fury.   

At its best, the playlist looks beyond the more obvious Drexciya reference points. Sure, it's easy to see the duo’s influence in the hard hitting electro and acid of Aux 88, but it's even more exciting to look for the group in less expected tidal pools. Dukes is interested in the larger cultural and political roadmap that Drexicya provided. For her, this comes down to the way that their music created destinations and inspired imagination. Her playlist, as she explains, is "a subversion of the modern capitalist system founded on slavery and a rejection of ill-informed mainstream dance music," which also established a system of "travel and exchange of culture." This is a place where sound becomes, as the cultural theorist Nettrice Gaskin has it, "a vehicle for self-determination" (Dukes also views music this way).

Take "Masbaha In The Bentley" by DJ Rawaat. The buoyant kick drum underneath has echoes of happy hardcore, but over top he mixes Arabic singing and melodies, creating, as Dukes describes it, a space "fusing traditional rhythm and song with unique explorations into techno ambient and trap." The result is as political as it is aesthetic. 

"Rawaat's music comes from strong concept of identity and cultural expression. Like the concept of water, his music and performance spans geography," Dukes says. The transnational geography Rawaat is tapping into is part of his own identity as part of a large Middle Eastern diaspora who has found a significant home in the Detroit Metro Area. 

"Capitalist, political and imperialist struggle are some of the reasons that many immigrants have found home and community in Detroit," Dukes adds. "Through tribulation adaptable groups and individuals have created a world renowned hub fused with Detroit music and influences. Cultural fusion and movement of people terrestrially and across bodies of water create something new. Through cultural adversity paired with innovation,new cultural products are born." 

Straddling the boundary between history and the future is how Rawaat's music continues Drexciya's legacy, as Dukes sees it. This is also a why she's drawn to other producers across the playlist, like the Mexican-American Detroit native, MGUN. Dukes points out that, while Detroit's music is steeped in Black history, it's also about building relationships with other communities in the city.. MGUN's music is a reflection of this, as he champions "Mexican American culture while pushing [it] to new places unlike any other producer." 

The underlying thread you can trace from Rawaat to MGUN, not to mention the other producers collected here, is a focus on community and a "preservation of culture in a rapidly changing city." It's not about utopian daydreaming but instead figuring out ways to make the world better from within the current conditions. Putting on DC producer James Bangura's "Black Lazarus (Tunnel Trip Version)," you can hear this enacted sonically: the pillowy chords and runaway drums seem to create a world unto themselves from within the techno grid. 

In many ways, this is an outgrowth of dance music's history more generally. Dukes points to the nightclub utopianism and Black rave culture that runs through the works of AceMo, Leonce, and Jasmine Infiniti: "Underground queer club culture [is] an boundless frontier for community members and allies to explore identity, connection, and creating the spaces we’d like to see in the world."  The ten songs collected here do precisely that. This is not about Drexciya nostalgia, but about taking their political, aesthetic, and cultural building blocks to build and expand cultural offerings and acceptance in the world we live in. 

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