"A lot of things have changed since the birth of Detroit techno,” says ever-present Motor City second waver Stacey Pullen. “It has been a movement and a statement. It's an expression," he goes on. “There’s a strong and vibrant tone that rings out from his words, even through the tinny compression of laptop speakers. “Growing up in Detroit,” he says, “it has been our outlet from oppression. We created our own path."
Stacey Pullen has been an integral actor throughout the many evolutions of techno over the past 30 years. While he is often referred to alongside Carl Craig, Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin as being part of Motor City's famous "Second Wave," Pullen is deeply linked with the Belleville Three, the legendary trio of Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May, that is credited with conceiving of this whole techno ruckus in the first place. Derrick May in particular is said to have mentored Pullen during his early days as a producer and DJ, so it’s fair to say the man has techno in his soul.
"Through the years, there have been a lot of struggles, lots of economic conditions that gave the city a bad reputation," he says. "We had crisis before there was a global crisis. So we've always been prepared to make ourselves better than what people expect."
Eschewing expectations is at the center of Pullen’s musical ethos, even if that means that most of his output comes in the form of rare, one-off singles, collaborations and compilation tracks, instead of more traditional models of albums, EPs, and promotional mixes. "I'm very choosy when it comes to doing mix compilations and putting anything out there with my name on it,” says pullen. “A lot of artists release so much music on different labels––that's why we have a saturated market."
Fittingly, Pullen’s only solo album was published in 2001, and his official mixes are few and far between. Luckily for us, though, he's just released a new one for Balance, the illustrious Australian mix compilation Pullen states always afforded him the flexibility to explore well beyond his techno roots. "For me, that was really important,” he says. “I wanted to do a more eclectic mix for this compilation, music that I don't get the chance to play in clubs. Music you project your own thoughts into."
Pullen also states that the mix is in reaction to his growing uncertainties about streaming platforms. "The mix compilation market has gone down a little because of the fact that you have all these websites that offer free mixes,” he laments, “but it was important to be able to showcase another side of my DJ skills."
That other side is the more intellectually-wound style of musical storytelling that a captive audience in private setting can appreciate. "In the crowd, they don't really have the patience to understand a DJ when he's taking you on a musical journey like that," Pullen explains.
In fact, Pullen's sets in Europe are mostly 2-hour affairs, compared to the sprawling all-nighters he pulls in his hometown, which, he says, he prefers playing. It’s a challenge he relishes. "I love to DJ when there's nobody there. I love to play from beginning to end.”
With this mix in particular, Stacey widened his palate to complete a vision that sits alongside some of the greats: "People like DJ Harvey, he's known for playing eclectic sets,” says Pullen. “Or someone like Theo Parrish, or Moodymann. Those guys, that's their niche. But for a person like me whose roots are based in a techno, four-on-the-floor aspect of music, it's more of a challenge to be able to play music like that."
Still, as we discussed the now-infamous video of Maceo Plex playing Four Tet's remix of Eric Prydz's "Opus" to a befuddled crowd at Amnesia, Pullen dismissed any critique of the club-goers. "I understand where he was going. But when you got 6,000 people like that, they expect to hear a certain sound, and when they don't get it they're like, ‘Whoa, what happened?’“
Pullen's identity seems to stretch between two leading totems: the crowd-pleaser and the innovator. The former represents Pullen as a veteran of Detroit techno, one eager to see "thousands of people moving to the same beat, reacting at the same time" and knows how to pull it off. The latter sees him as a 46-year-old producer who has always nurtured a need to experiment and never phones it in.
Experimentalism sits at the core of this Balance selection. Acts like Fake Blood and Anderson Noise bring an uncategorizable ambience to proceedings, but they’re contextualized in new ways. "Take a track like [Fake Blood's] ‘Music Box,’” he explains. “The melody is happy, it kind of reminds of you being a kid in an amusement park. You would never hear it in a club. But when you hear it in the context of a mix, it works."
Alongside solo works like the long-hidden treasure “I’m Coming” and his more free-wheeling “Save Ourselves,” Pullen brings together the future and the past with an assured authenticity that comes back to Pullen knowing exactly where his roots lie. Ask him about the Belleville Three, for example, and he instantly lights up, diving into a heartfelt recollection of the nascent days of computer music.
"Juan gave me the inspiration to understand that I could make music,” he says of Atkins. “I was at the kitchen table and I used to play his tracks and sort of, like, mimic his music. It spoke to me. Derrick, he showed me that you have to believe in what you do before anything else. Stay true to what you believe in, don't worry about what critics say about your music if you're happy with it.”
Stacey Pullen's Balance Mix is out now. Buy it here. Pullen is also the A&R of his label, Blackflag: he still hand-picks every track they publish. Their latest release comes from Youcef Elaid, upcoming from Stacey himself and Fabio Ferro.