Dec 1, 2002 12:00 PM, By Christine Hsieh
September 3, 2002, came and went like any other day — until that evening, actually, when a message, startling to most, raced through the electronic-music world with lightning speed. James Marcel Stinson, the driving force behind the enigmatic Drexciya outfit, was dead.
No fanfare, no fuss and no media hoopla surrounded Stinson's passing. Eulogizers had little to work with, save for a smattering of interviews, cryptic liner notes and sketchy biographical information. But, tellingly enough, what serves as his greatest legacy is the impressive body of work he left behind and the arresting, compelling and ultimately political message buried within it.
Details of Stinson's life are beside the point, really. What is known is that the story of this remarkable man began in Detroit. Characterized as a racially divided, gritty urban landscape, Detroit somehow became the locus of fantastical, emotional robot music created by free spirits and creative souls, and Stinson was very much a part of the intensely serious group of producers and DJs who formed the second wave of techno. The mechanical whirs, clicks and pops championed by the original innovators burrowed their way into Stinson's consciousness, and henceforth, he devoted his life to translating musical ideas into physical space.
Beginning in 1991, Stinson and his longtime collaborator (who remains anonymous to this day) unleashed their technoid electro through a series of EPs on labels such as Tresor, Hyperspace and the infamous Underground Resistance, which is run by the equally reclusive “Mad” Mike Banks. The duo, producing together as Drexciya, brought the electronic-music world to its knees. Their name, according to the liner notes of The Quest (a collection of their UR output compiled by Tresor in 1997), refers to a fictional Atlantean subcontinent inhabited by a marine species spawned from the thousands of pregnant African slaves who were callously tossed overboard by slave traders because they were troublesome, sickly cargo. This mythical underworld comes to life through Drexciya's music — slithering onto land and into the airwaves as a myth translated into fantasy, distorted by machines and electrified with soul.
Stinson's work as Drexciya revolved around this myth. Indeed, their earlier recordings, with EP titles such as Bubble Metropolis (UR, 1994) and The Unknown Aquazone (Shockwave, 1994), are inspired “conversations” with this imaginary world. When they dropped their first full-length artist album, Neptunes Lair on Tresor in 1999, the Drexciyans arrived at a fantastic level of fame and praise — especially for a group with no public profile.
Toward the end of his life, Stinson struck forth with several solo releases under the guises of the Other People Place (with an LP, Lifestyles of the Laptop Café , on Warp Records) and Transllusion. His final piece as Transllusion, titled L.I.F.E. (Rephlex, 2002) — and the last full-length work he released while alive — is a murky, contemplative and deep account of submarine anxiety, nervous delusions and twisted experimentation. How fitting that Stinson should end his life with this piece, a moody commentary on evolution and impending revolution. His final “Message to the World,” spelled out in the liner notes but woven inexplicably into the richly textured strands of his music, is as follows: “Life is fast ending — so live!”
Stinson was, and shall remain, a true visionary. His music struck a chord with those who sought an outlet from the intense pressure of socially stratified and increasingly mechanized life — not because it provided the all-too-easy answer of quick release and careless escape, but because lurking underneath the nebulous, often acidic and always intriguing surface of his music lay an uncompromised vision of hope, survival and tenacity.
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