Speaker Music's DeForrest Brown, Jr. on Growing Up, Music Journalism, and Finding His Incredible Sound

Speaker Music's DeForrest Brown, Jr. on Growing Up, Music Journalism, and Finding His Incredible Sound

Few electronic records released this year have kicked me in the side of the head the way Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry did. DeForrest Brown, Jr.’s second release as Speaker Music arrived with no warning on Juneteenth of this year, and every time I’ve returned to it I’ve found myself totally immersed by his improv and extremely tactile-sounding percussion, paired with found footage and audio recordings capturing the uprising following George Floyd’s murder this year. It’s a spectacular sonic expression of the continued fight towards Black liberation that, even in its most explicitly outré moments, deserves to be heard by anyone with ears that’s still alive right now.

After months of saying to myself “I should interview him,” I did. Take that, The Secret! Read an edited version of our conversation below. Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry is coming out soon on vinyl, too.

Tell me about your upbringing.

I’m from Birmingham, Alabama, but I was born in Tampa, Florida because my dad was in the Air Force. When I was 4, we moved up to Birmingham, where my parents’ families are from. One of my earliest memory is the car ride to Birmingham to my great-grandfather’s house. He was a slave until 1930, and used the money that he swindled out of his slaveowner to buy land and materials to build a house. From the age of five to ten, I slept in his king-sized bed. We had extended cable and would just watch a shit-ton of television—Taxi Cab Confessions, 60 Minutes, Star Trek.

Talk about your earliest musical interests and what you heard when you were younger.

My earliest memories were the radio—that car ride, and commutes back and forth to work with my dad, who teaches economics at an HBCU in Birmingham. I was hearing the Art of Noise’s “Moments in Love” before all the nighttime R&B started [on the radio]. My dad is in the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, so there were all these theme songs like George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog.” He’d tell me lots of stories about driving up with his fraternity brothers that were DJs to go to raves in Chicago. He played a lot of proto-techno funk music around me, and my mom, who is from Queens, would play a lot of freestyle.

My grandfather would come down from Chicago every summer, pick me up, and make the eight-hour drive back with me, and he’d play me Jimi Hendrix live sets and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He went to Woodstock and was one of those jazz dudes. I was getting this swath of Black music without much context. Even trap music, you’d hear DJs on the air mixing ghetto house and proto-techno live.

My dad who played trumpet his whole life, and the guy who taught him as a kid taught me at the age of six. I played it all the way through college and got scholarships, which is interesting because Birmingham is known for this spot called [Tuxedo Junction], which is known for a lot of early big-band and swing sounds. Sun Ra’s from that part of town, too, and went to the same high school as my grandfather, so a lot of his early big band and church sounds started in that area.

I went to college in this town called Florence, where the famed recording studios are and where blues was started. They have a statue of W.C. Handy there. My musical learning was contextual. Lonnie Holley is also from Birmingham. Now that I’ve started releasing music, I’ve circled back to make those connections. My drums sound like trap drums, which is just what I grew up hearing. I like the sound of trumpets, because it’s what I played.

How did you progress towards the electronic music you’re releasing now?

It was a slow transition. There was always a lot of electronic music around, because my dad was always playing Cybotron and I was introduced to Juan Atkins as funk music. When my dad was raving, it was called “progressive music,” so he didn’t know what techno was and still kind of doesn’t. Hearing all those P-Funk synthesizer sounds and stereophonic mixing board stuff on Jimi Hendrix records was always really fascinating to me, and by the time I got to college everyone was making that transition away from indie music and towards electronic music—The xx, James Blake, Nicolas Jaar.

I also pivoted, but in a weird way. I was studying media theory, philosophy, and film theory, and I guess you could say that I thought too hard about it, but I put the trumpet down because I wanted to write about music. To put it politely, I saw a lot of logical fallacies occurring at music publications—inconsistencies emerging. After years of reading stuff about computer music and writing about music, I was having a hard time getting freelance work after moving to New York.

I settled for making music, which has been begrudging. I did not want to do it, because I wanted to be a critic. So it’s a complicated transition, where I’m using everything that I’ve learned at my life all at once now. People have been asking me for years, “What would your music sound like?” I never wanted to know, but now I do.

Tell me about the transition of style from of desire, longing to Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry.

My approach to these type of things is chess-like. There’s a lot of waiting, and I waited to reveal that I could make electronic music the way I did for this album. of desire, longing was actually a total accident. I got a cracked version of Ableton for something really simple, my partner fell asleep, and I was up all night playing with Ableton. Suddenly, this collage happened, and when she woke up I’d made this whole album. I grew up Southern Baptist, so I don’t want to call it a religious experience, but it was kind of like that. I was like, “Where did this come from?”

With Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry, I was playing iPad drums with my fingers. It was very tactile. It’s all my internal rhythm. The title of the record came to me in Februrary. I was on a flight from Amsterdam and was reading James Boggs’ The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. I was thinking about James Boggs’ political activism and reading about the prediction of automation, which we’re seeing now with thinkers writing about post-capitalism and “a world without work,” which is really just poverty for all Black people that get locked out of those technocrat rules. My dad has a prediction that all of Black wealth—specifically in the Black belt region—will dwindle to zero by 2050, and he’s cutting that in half right now because of COVID. It’s weird growing up with an economist for a dad, because he’s very future-oriented but materialist.

So I was going to make this record in 2021, with a lot of hard economic research based on W.E.B. DuBois’ data visualizations. But then George Floyd happened, and I watched that footage more times than I should probably admit. One night, I took some [mushrooms], improv’d over the course of two nights in a psychedelic session, and ripped out the record. I sent the record to [Planet Mu]. I was like, “If you want to put it out for Bandcamp Day,” because I saw they were doing Juneteenth releases. With going out to the protests and the helicopters over my house patrolling the area—and they’re still there—I got a lot of good recordings of the protests, along with news clips.

You have a forthcoming book, Assembling a Black Counter Culture, as well.

That’s part of why I wanted to wait on making this record. In the “old normal” of music releasing, you’d have your debut album, you’d tour it, maybe you’d put out an EP. To me, this was going to be my strong sophomore record—like Holly Herndon’s Platform. I’d level up, maybe get the cover of The Wire [Laughs]. That’s the funny thing about being a music writer [too]—knowing the backend stuff and how to gamble the music industry.

With the book, I was trying to trace a history of America, but also techno, and these music histories that originate in the Black belt region, in the towns I’d frequent. I wanted to shed light on why those sounds originated from there and trace the geographic migrations, which is what led me to James Boggs. He was in Detroit and theoretically predicted a lot of circumstances would lead to the depression that the Bellville Three grew up in, and the migration patterns that Drexciya explored on The Quest. Boggs was this missing link that I wanted to use to attach the South to Michigan and Chicago.

I moved to New York in 2013 because I was seeing a lot of the behaviors that are playing out now, like with the Proud Boys and stuff. I went to college with the Alabama Shakes and the Civil Wars, which says enough. The Civil Wars were nice enough people, but there’s people re-enacting the Civil War with costumes. So I was like, “Maybe I should go up North to see what the liberals are up to.” It started to seem like history was repeating itself, especially with what Boggs said about automation. We see it with Spotify draining all the value of music, locking it into an algorithm. Now we’re at a point where Beyoncé is doing multi-year deals with Peloton bikes.

The book and these records are me pointing at these future predictions that, on the ground, Black workers seem to keep stumbling upon while watching that future fall flat on the faces of everyone in America. We’re on the fifth cycle of that failed future.

Talk to me about the “Make Techno Black Again” campaign that you started two years ago.

I have a way of ending up at the right place at the right time. I was giving a talk at a gallery based around the records I was putting out on PTP with Kepla and building up these ideas about what a Black body is, historically, and what Black music could be—the data sets and research that eventually went into the Speaker Music project. My now-partner asked a really great question about Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, and after getting to know each other, I saw this hat hanging up at her house. Her clothing line she runs with her friend Luz Fernandez, Hecha, they produced a small run of the hats already, and as we were talking we got the idea for me to become a representative.

I’ll say, at this point, that I’ve become blacklisted from the music journalism boat. I had a lot of grievances to share, so it became this thing where I put on the hat and started this residency at the KW in Berlin with Steven Warwick. I wore the hat in Berghain—which is really funny that that’s the first place I wore it at. As a trio, we began our own PR. As a journalist, I knew what everyone’s taste veered towards, and as a stats analyst my partner would sit with me on Twitter and schedule these posts to titillate the music audience until something broke. The hat was a great way to get that slogan out there, but also for me to start writing about serious historic economical realities that unfortunately became super relevant around Memorial Day, with the George Floyd murder.

It’s interesting, with George Floyd being filmed. This is the first lynching we’ve seen played out in real time across a media device. The hat, in a lot of ways, gave people a nice phrase to get behind to talk about the realities about American behavior and what they’re willing to accept from public authorities and government. It was about techno, but it was about a lot of things.

A lot of music publications across genre professed a determination to reckon with their own past, present, and future after George Floyd’s murder. From your point of view, have any successfully made good on those professions?

Not at all. In fact, they’ve gotten more racist, and more covert and blatant at the same time. After George Floyd, I suddenly got a bunch of emails from people who had been really awful to me—editors from various magazines who told me that my cover story idea for the Kode9 or Jlin records weren’t decent, or the people who would tell me that DJ Earl wasn’t as good as DJ Rashad. And their tastes aren’t changing. The fact that we gave Taylor Swift’s folklore half a listen after watching Black people get killed by white authorities—an Appalachian folk record from a woman who is apolitical during the 2016 election but suddenly the PR marketing campaign allowed her to talk about voting for Biden—that’s the sort of stuff where I’m like, “Eh, they’re thinking about changing.”

What I’ve found is that white journalists don’t know how to change. I’m watching people talk to Oneohtrix Point Never about uniting Trump’s America. That’s idiotic—it’s Nazi behavior. So, no, I don’t think they’ve changed. They’ve started featuring lowercase Black artists that will help them. Resident Advisor will have some random Ugandan DJ, which is super nice. Put these people on. But these people that they’re putting on aren’t being cycled through the proper hierarchy—a news story, a feature, more news stories.

I see how white journalists are picking apart the normal ways of presenting artists. I think everyone thinks they’re doing the right thing, but there’s a clear disparity in wealth and recourses. If anything, music journalism has shown that it’s more useless now than it’s ever been, simply because they can’t find the humanity to put Black people in the spot where they usually put Bruce Springsteen or Sufjan Stevens or Taylor Swift, or Radiohead for the umpteenth reissue of OK Computer.

It’s been fun being on the other side as a musician, using that space to point the finger at other publications. And having worked at publications, when you look at the back end numbers, publications aren’t actually selling my record. Publications aren’t selling anyone’s record, really. It’s just a bunch of opinions from a bunch of people who probably should’ve let go of it ten years ago. I’m here to just say that I see them, and I see all of the sly ways that these journalists are trying to not enact diversity.

I actually made a magazine to go with Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry just to show people what a magazine looks like. I got a bunch of Black writers that had never been published by any of these publications. I was like, “If Planet Mu is gonna give me some money, I’m gonna pay out of pocket to show people how Black music should be covered.” No review has actually covered the PDF, and I think that’s purposeful—or, Americans just don’t like to read.

I think a lot of white journalists should just go ahead and say, “I’m sorry that I only like electronic music that’s perceivable to me through expensive gear.” They should write a letter saying, “We can’t stand Black music. We can’t stand world music. We have a compulsion where we have to see a white face on the cover. We’re sorry.” I think a lot of people would appreciate that.

In terms of dance and electronic music, and the way it’s covered, have you seen any positive signs that people are starting to become more self-aware?

The Mixmag Blackout week—and even my entry for that was pure blackmail. I reached out to the magazine and was like, “Hey, as your only Black employee that you unceremoniously fired, I refuse to allow you to put this out without me writing for this and auditing it. Or I’ll air you out.” And they were super nice about it! They sat there and worked with me.

The music industry’s getting everything it deserves at this point, with live shows shutting down and Spotify sucking up everything. The mere fact that Spotify exists and the music industry has validated it for ten years is proof that everybody is shitposting. They’d rather music be worth $0.004 than get people to buy records. And the music magazines cannot and will not come to an empathetic listening methodology that allows for music to be equitable, worthy, or diverse. The Blackout week was the closest thing.

Part of why I’m writing the book is to tie together stories that I don’t think music publications will ever get to. I remember someone from DJ Mag posting in a music journalists Facebook group, “What are some good dance music scenes in the Southeast region of North America?” And I was like, “Well, if you remember talking to me from when I was freelancing for you, you’d know that there are no scenes in the Southeast, because I came here to New York.” The person didn’t respond to me, the article or whatever they were looking for never came out.

That fight-or-freeze response seems to be all that music journalists, and white people in America, can muster. Having a little bit of humility and saying, “I’m sorry for listening to Radiohead for the last 30 years, let me open up and listen to another record,” it’s become a thing of ignoring certain people. Even as other Black musicians have been covered, my work has been sort of ignored. It’s been picking up now because there’s pressure since everyone has to do their Album of the Year lists. If there’s not a Black person at the top, then everyone will know they’re racist—but I feel like everyone’s gonna fuck up. I’m not sitting here waiting on it.

When I talk to other Black people in the industry, they’re giving up. I know DJs in Brooklyn who are like, “You know what, fuck this. Bandcamp Day’s not bringing in money anymore.” The only positive thing that can be done at the magazines is people giving up their jobs, or figuring out how they can become less of a marketing machine and more donation-oriented as a community support system—which of course will never happen. I don’t know what positivity can come from the fact that the same company that owns Billboard now owns Rolling Stone, or how Pitchfork is owned by the same company as GQ. So, no positivity, but we’ll see.

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Jamie Larson