3MB feat. Magic Juan Atkins is a story of a musical friendship being forged, of techno spreading its steely tentacles, and of Berlin’s musical rebirth. To understand 3MB—Berlin producers Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann, joined here by Detroit techno originator Juan Atkins—you need to know about Tresor, the Berlin club turned label, which imported the tough, metallic sound of second-wave Detroit techno to a city still rocking on its heels from the fall of the Berlin Wall. The music of Black Detroit found a second home in Berlin, a German city whose desolate, lawless edge and abandoned spaces mirrored Detroit’s own history of industrial decline.
Both club and label launched in 1991, with X101 (the heavyweight trio of Jeff Mills, Mike Banks, and Robert Hood) providing the label’s first release, followed by an album by Detroit’s Blake Baxter. But it was record number three, 3MB featuring Eddie Flashin’ Fowlkes, that really ushered in Tresor’s spirit of cross-Atlantic collaboration. The record paired von Oswald—who would later form influential dub-techno duo Basic Channel with Mark Ernestus—and Swiss producer Fehlmann, later of the Orb, with Fowlkes, a pioneering Detroit DJ whose 1986 record “Goodbye Kiss” was a landmark of techno’s early years.
3MB feat. Magic Juan Atkins, which is being re-released as part of Tresor’s 30th anniversary celebrations, was the pinnacle of the Berlin label’s early collaborative force. The combination of Atkins’ peerless synth melodies, as heard on his groundbreaking electro records as Cybotron and Model 500; von Oswald’s love of bass pressure and the artful echoes of dub; and Fehlmann’s ambient textures, all barrelling along at Tresor’s pacey tempo, marks the exact meeting point between three distinct visions of the electronic music sound. Across dueling mixes of three different tracks, the record presents a cosmopolitan view of techno as a receptacle for diverse influences—an open-minded philosophy that’s far from the retrenched business-techno model that holds sway today.
The von Oswald and Fehlmann mix of “Die Kosmischen Kuriere,” for example, combines echoing synth lines, astral pads, a bumping Detroit drum-machine beat, and a sternum-thumping bassline, a mixture both elegant and fierce. The Magic Juan edit of “Bassmental” plots a similar course from Detroit to Berlin via downtown Kingston, with delicate shreds of electronic melody bobbing around on shuddering waves of sub-bass like paper boats in a storm. The elements themselves are familiar; the juxtaposition unique and magical, only failing on the album’s cumbersome closing track, “The 4th Quarter,” where the awkward rhythmic mesh of bass and treble suggests two incompatible records blending in a DJ’s headphone.
For such an important moment in techno’s global creep, relatively little has been said about the record’s origins. Atkins has spoken of meeting von Oswald in the early ’90s when the latter came to Detroit to buy musical gear; Fehlmann has said the album was produced in von Oswald’s Berlin studio, “all hands-on jamming, with no real plan.” We can presume that the Magic Juan edits of “Bassmental” and “Jazz Is the Teacher” see Atkins take the lead, while the von Oswald and Fehlmann mixes of “Die Kosmischen Kuriere” and “Jazz Is the Teacher” were overseen by the Berlin producers. Such close analysis may not be entirely in the spirit of the album’s wonderfully simpatico meeting of minds. But having two alternative mixes of “Jazz Is the Teacher” offers a fascinating insight into how one musical idea—the incorporation of jazz into techno—can play out in two very different ways. The Berlin producers’ mix of the track is literal, layering a sample of live jazz drumming over a rudimentary electronic thump; Atkins’ take is more figurative, his drum machine itself swinging with all the chaotic precision of improv. That the song also features the album’s best synth melody, a kind of cosmic lament, is the icing on this particular space cake.
The reissue, 29 years after the fact, drives home that this historical artifact still retains its power. Like many great, important records, 3MB feat. Magic Juan Atkins is both a history lesson you can dance to and a corporeal joy you can study. It portrays the nightclub as a place for wild abandon and cultural exchange, with unlikely music partners finding freedom in improbable reciprocity.
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