Weird Waters: A Drexciya Playlist for Moby-Dick

by | Aug 9, 2021 | Essay | 0 comments

“It’s not down on any map; true places never are.”

When my students ask me what my favorite work of literature is, I usually say Moby-Dick. When they ask why, I tell them that it’s a really weird novel. When asked about the 1990s Detroit techno artist Drexciya, Mike Banks–whose record label Underground Resistance released much of their music–said in a 2007 interview with The Wire‘s Mark Fischer that, “I heard Drexciya, and I thought it was some of the weirdest space shit I ever heard.”

In addition to a mutual fondness for the weird, what does Herman Melville’s nineteenth century whaling novel have in common with the aquatically themed techno music produced by James Stinson and Gerald Donald, the artists behind the name Drexciya? Quite a lot, actually.

Like the ocean, Drexciya’s music is fluid and shifting, incorporating a wide variety of styles within the broader genre of Detroit techno, from ambient to hard techno to noise. Their sound signature is an otherworldly blend of electro and techno and strange sea sounds, though. Through their music, album and song titles, liner notes, and label art, Drexciya took listeners on submarine journeys which sadly ended in 2002 when Stinson passed away.

Both Moby-Dick and Drexciya take people on oceanic adventures and express wonderment at the power, beauty, and strangeness of the water as well as the deep-sea dwellers which lurk beneath the surface. Literary and sonic meditations on the water trigger the full spectrum of ocean vibes in readers and listeners, moving from calm to stormy, playful to scary, bright to dark, solitary to communal, hopeful to hopeless.

The weirdness of Moby-Dick derives in part from the fact that this ocean adventure story is densely mediated by a bunch of complicated texts ranging from the Bible to the works of Milton and Shakespeare, not to mention a lot of obscure scientific discourse about whales. The weirdness of Drexciya derives in part from the fact that their oceanic fantasies are filtered through Afrofuturist origin myths, one of which suggests that Drexciyans might be the mutant, water-breathing offspring of enslaved African women who were cast overboard during the Middle Passage.

Equally important to the latter is the dense array of sound technologies employed by the duo, including the Roland TR-808 drum machine and Korg Mono/Poly analogue synthesizer. As Mixmag‘s Marcus Barnes described it in 2020, “This preoccupation with water underpins everything Drexciya did. The music itself often sounds saturated, it percolates with energy, pads wash over you, synth lines squelch and appear soggy in places, there’s ambience and serenity, violent stabs, crashing percussion.”

A preoccupation with water underpinned much of what Melville did, too. In order to introduce Moby-Dick fans to the obscure sounds of Drexciya, Drexciya fans to Melville’s intimidating novel, and the general public to both, I’ve created a playlist of tracks that can be synced with a few chapters. I start with the A-side of Bubble Metropolis (Underground Resistance, 1993), which tells a story of aquatic locomotion through a wormhole, past an explosive island, into an abyss, and toward a submarine community called Drexciya, and branch out from there.

Putting the oceanic feelings of Moby-Dick into waves of sound is not easy. I think the late James Stinson and Gerald Donald, the Ishmaels of the Motor City, were up to the task, though.

Chapter 1: Loomings
Track: “Aqua Worm Hole”

In the first lines of the novel, we are introduced to the narrator, Ishmael, who has decided to go on a whaling adventure. “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world,” he says.

Why is Ishmael crazy about going to the sea? For the same reason that many people become commercial fishers, join the Navy, or work on a cruise ship: he is broke, bored, and depressed. He laments, “It was a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”

Just as Ishmael exclaims that, “As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts,” in an interview with Liz Copeland of WDET, James Stinson explained the motivation behind Drexciya: “I wanted to do something that involved a total concept and take people somewhere else instead of giving them the same thing they see every single day when they step outside their door.”

“Aqua Worm Hole” is the perfect track for the start of an imaginary deep sea voyage. The melody is magical and dreamy, opening listeners to the wonders of the ocean while the funky analog bass and drum patterns encourage the body to get up and move. Wavy synth lines are disorienting, suggesting that the familiar world is being left behind and we are slowly moving away from shore – a journey that is both exciting and a little scary.

Chapter 36: Quarterdeck
Track: “Positron Island”

Much like James Stinson and Gerald Donald, who kept their identities hidden from the public for most of the 1990s, Captain Ahab is a mysterious figure for the first thirty-five chapters of the novel. But here readers are exposed to Ahab’s explosive desire for revenge against the white whale, Moby Dick, that tore off his leg and “dismasted” him. Ahab is frequently described as an “isolato,” a combination of the words island and isolation.

Ahab paces furiously around the deck, his ivory prosthetic pounding the planks. “Soon his steady, ivory stride was heard, as to and fro he paced his old rounds, upon planks so familiar to his tread, that they were all over dented, like geological stones, with the peculiar mark of his walk.” We hear Ahab “humming to himself, producing a sound so strangely muffled and inarticulate that it seemed the mechanical humming of the wheels of his vitality in him.”

The pounding, aggressive, repetitive percussion of “Positron Island,” combined with the agitated, stabbing synthesizer feels claustrophobic and nightmarish, creating a soundscape that mirrors the violent monomania pulsing through Ahab.

Chapter 93: Castaway
Track: “Beyond the Abyss”

As with the Drexyican mythology mentioned above, race plays an important role in the story of Moby-Dick, and Pip is a young, African American sailor who is forced to go out on a small whaling boat with the harpooners because one of the oarsmen is injured. When a harpooner strikes a whale, the whale slaps the boat, and Pip jumps in the water. A long time passes before he is rescued, and the experience of floating alone and terrified in the immense ocean traumatizes him:

“The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and from before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.”

If the “strange shapes of the unwarped primal world” gliding past Pip were given auditory form, they might sound something like “Beyond the Abyss.” In addition to sound effects which create a muffled groove as if being heard underwater, the track includes tambourine rolls. Before his body was rescued but his mind lost at sea, Pip entertained the sailors by playing the tambourine.

Chapter 94: “A Squeeze of the Hand
Track: “Sea Snake” (Deep Sea Dweller, 1992)

After a whale is killed, the sailors must squeeze the valuable oil to prevent it from congealing: “Come: let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”

This scene of rugged sailors from all over the planet affectionately joining hands and rhythmically rubbing the whale oil is more than a little homoerotic, and it celebrates an offshore community of “mariners, renegades, and castaways,” as Melville described them – so aptly, in fact, that Trinidadian cultural critic C.L.R. James adopted the phrase for the title of his own work. Melville named his whaling vessel after a Native American tribe, the Pequot, who resisted the Puritan invasion of New England in the 17th century and were massacred almost to extinction.

Like Melville’s castaways, Drexciya is an offshore community shaped by an intimate relationship to the water. In Water and African American Memory, Anissa Janine Wardi argues that “water was one of the central tropes in the African American literary and historical tradition … Indeed, the materiality of the drowned, displaced, and disregarded recalls an African diasporic history that continues to wash on the shores of America.” The name Drexciya can be interpreted as a memorial to the estimated 1.8 million African slaves who were killed during the Middle Passage and were cast overboard.

The fluid and loving movement of bodies in this chapter calls to mind those utopian dance floors – the Warehouse, the Paradise Garage, the Loft, the Music Institute – where house and techno music were born. These floating worlds often functioned as places of refuge for people who, because of their race or class or sexuality, felt displaced and disregarded, like David Mancuso’s orphans, in American society. “Sea Snake” is funky and sensual, an appropriate soundtrack for a bunch of hard-working sailors getting their groove on.

Track: “Journey Home” (The Journey Home, Warp, 1995)

Herman Melville wrote a long, difficult novel, and it was a long time before readers and critics began to appreciate what he was up to. But the overall message of the story is simple: Don’t mess with Moby Dick. Ahab and crew messed with the wrong whale and paid a heavy price. The novel ends with our narrator Ishmael floating alone in a dangerous sea:

The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

In the two years before his death, Stinson spent some time talking to interviewers about the ocean and meaning of water, both as a symbol and as one the most important material forces on the planet. His comments were wide-ranging and touched on everything from melting polar ice caps to contaminated drinking water.

Much like Melville, the inspiration Stinson drew from the ocean was often aligned with a dark romanticism in which the beautiful merged with the weird. For Stinson, the ocean symbolized a deep, more-than-human temporality: “The reason I adopted the whole background and whole theme of water was for its longevity,” he told FutureBPM in 2002. “Water was here at the beginning before we existed and water will be here when we go away. It’s beautiful.”

In the first chapter of Moby-Dick, Ishmael asks, “Why is almost every robust healthy boy [or girl] with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to the sea?” Herman Melville, James Stinson, and Gerald Donald were, in their different and overlapping ways, crazy about going to the sea. The waters they imagined were strange and densely mediated by an assortment of texts and technologies. At the end of the day, though, their literary and musical productions perform the important work scratching that itch for remote places, of taking us someplace we don’t see every day when we step outside the door.

The past 18 months of the pandemic have been extremely damp and drizzly, and rereading Moby-Dick while listening to Drexciya helped me get through some of it. But one important question remains: where exactly is the aquatopian community known as Drexciya located? Perhaps like Kokovoko, the fictional home of the Pequod’s Polynesian harpooner/wave jumper Queequeg, “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

I would like to thank Steve Mentz for his helpful comments on early drafts of this essay.

John R. Eperjesi is a professor in the Department of English Linguistics and Literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. His article, “Imagined Oceans: Drexciya’s Bubble Metropolis and Blue Cultural Studies,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Through their music, song and album titles, liner notes, and label art, Drexciya imagined the ocean as being full of sound. In this article, Eperjesi interprets Drexciya’s imagined oceans in the context of marine environmentalism, a perspective guided by James Stinson’s interview comments, which expressed a passionate sense of wonder and respect for the ocean.

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