- Ahead of a new reissue compilation, Kirk Degiorgio looks back on Likemind Records, a landmark in '90s melodic techno that sounds just as stunning today.
- The UK techno scene of the early '90s is often viewed as a golden era for electronic music. Taking its inspiration from the aesthetics of Detroit techno, UK artists like The Black Dog, B12, Global Communications (and myself) enjoyed early acclaim releasing on a small community of DIY labels, making enduring tracks that would end up being licensed by larger operations like R&S, Peacefrog and Warp.
This is all well-known history for most UK techno fans. But the mark of a real connoisseur is knowledge of the mythical Likemind label, and in particular, the artist Nuron, who has once again teamed up with Likemind owner Paul Smith to reissue eight of his finest tracks in an eagerly awaited double-pack.
Likemind 01 first came to my attention in 1993 when Mike Golding of B12 mentioned he'd heard the tapes for a new EP. Like many UK techno EPs from that period, it was a compilation of various artists. Side one included three tracks from Stasis—real name Steve Pickton—who I knew as an avid record collector from my time behind the counter at Reckless Records. Both of us would also frequent Fat Cat Records in nearby Covent Garden.
Side two included a new name to me: Nuron, AKA Nurmad Jusat. It turned out that Jusat was a close friend of another Reckless Records regular, Ben Sims. Sims had mentioned a mate who was making amazing techno. It was indeed the same person.
I spoke with Sims about Nuron. "I've been friends with Nur since high school, and we used to DJ together at local parties, experiment with lame acid tracks and go to loads of raves together—happy days!" he recalled. "We met Stas' (Steve Pickton) via his cousin, Tony, in '90 or '91. Steve was a couple of years older than us and far more talented and knowledgeable musically, so he had quite an impact on us all, plus he was always selling gems from his record collection, so we'd go round to his place and hear early production efforts."
Sims and Jusat actually completed an ill-fated acid breakbeat EP which Ben says "thankfully never saw the light of day," then Jusat really got serious and started acquiring more equipment, learning how to properly produce.
Mike Golding recalls Likemind 01 coming in the wake of Warp's highly successful Artificial Intelligence compilation a few months previous. "We didn't really know at the time but '92-'93 was a classic time for UK electronic music," Golding tells me. "A lot of people were making music, so when I was introduced to a new person making techno there was no real surprise. Nur was a friend of Steve Pickton's, a quietly spoken man who I met several times before hearing any of his music. I eventually heard one of his tracks, later to be known as 'Madam 6,' which I was immediately impressed with."
Golding was in an enviable position of getting very early exposure to the Likemind tracks, as Pickton and Jusat asked if Golding could do the computer layouts for the new label (no doubt impressed by the neat, classic label designs of the B12 releases). "At the time I was doing the typesetting, layouts and print separations for a few of the independent labels in our circle," Golding told me. "So out came the CorelDRAW v3.0 and a few floppy discs later the LM01 labels were done." Mike would continue to design the labels for Likemind throughout its short life and also contributed a track to Likemind 03 with Steven Rutter as Redcell.
"Madam 6" is the height of this fabled era of UK techno. Its busy rhythmic structure, with intricate percussion beneath yearning pads and solo strings, is reminiscent of late-period Rhythim Is Rhythim or early Carl Craig.
That track is followed by the punchier dance floor number, "Electric Arc." The aching harmonies are still present, but a tougher 909-driven rhythm section propels a procession of melodies perhaps more influenced by the emergent European techno sound of Djax-Up-Beats and Eevolute.
"Madam 6" is the track included on the new Likemind 06 reissue. It clearly exhibits Jusat's more complex, melodic approach and stands the test of time, head-and-shoulders above so much current "melodic" techno. At the same time, four-to-the-floor techno has developed vastly production-wise over the years, leaving these earlier tracks feeling a touch lightweight in comparison.
Sims remembers hearing the first tracks Nur recorded for Likemind as a marked advance on what the pair had experimented with together on those early efforts. "I was totally blown away, amazed even. Nur's production skills had advanced so much in a relatively short time. The sound was proper sublime and intricate, proper Detroit-leaning electronica that sat alongside Stasis, As One, B12 and even heroes like Carl Craig," Sims told me. "You could hear all the influences, the music we loved, but it was more than just a by-numbers tribute, these were unique and distinctive and I was really proud my mate had created such beautiful music (and to be honest a bit fucking envious too)."
I was also impressed by "Madam 6" but it was Likemind 02, a four-track EP split between Jusat's monikers Nuron and Fugue, that really grabbed my attention as something special and timeless. It's no surprise that all four tracks from this EP make it onto the reissue double-pack, a welcome relief to those who balk at paying three-figure sums for the original vinyl on the used market.
The opening track "Mirage" brings a melancholy, soul-boogie synth sound to techno, sounding more like Arnie's Love's "I'm Out Of Your Life" or Maze's "Twilight" than any Euro techno of the time. "In Motion" is a flange-heavy ode to Detroit with the kind of dancing, digital bassline beloved by UK techno artists of this era.
Jusat ran down some of his earliest musical influences when I interviewed him for this review. "I studied music theory at a young age but stopped when I moved to the UK," he told me. "Growing up in Malaysia in the early '80s it was hard to find any type of music other than mainstream pop music. My sister was studying abroad and brought back cassettes and videos when she came home for summer holidays of synth-pop bands like Depeche Mode, Human League, Duran Duran and Howard Jones, and I was fascinated with the synths they were using. I moved to the UK in 1985 and soon discovered hip-hop, house and techno. I went to my first warehouse party and from then on decided that I wanted to make this kind of music."
It's an interesting background that makes it unlikely Jusat would have been familiar with the Arnie's Love and Maze songs referenced previously. By the time he began making these tracks he was "very much influenced by a lot of the early house and techno records from Chicago and Detroit."
Jusat recalls his early rave and music-making days: "I got into DJing after meeting some kids at school who had decks, one of whom was Ben Sims," he said. "I started off making drum beats with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and RAM Music Machine and sold the tapes on a music magazine I made in school. Then I started buying equipment. TR-606 was the first, after that a TB-303, TR-909, Juno 106 sequenced with an MSQ-700. My first tracks were more rave -influenced as I got my first sampler—an Ensoniq EPS16—and was going to all these rave parties in fields, etc."
It was by being exposed to music at clubs such as Lost and Knowledge that Jusat's musical influences widened and his productions became less about samples and more about his own sounds and melodies.
Unlike most of us in the UK at this early stage of our productions, Jusat invested heavily into equipment. His gear list during the recording of the Likemind EPs is extensive compared to the usual "bedroom studio" setups most of us had. It includes the typical drum machines of the time, and the ubiquitous Yamaha DX (this time a DX21, rather than the more common DX100), but also demonstrates a very early preference for analogue synths that weren't popular at the time, such as Korg MS series and rare items such as the British-made OSC Oscar.
The investment clearly paid off and the Fugue tracks on Likemind 02 are perhaps the high mark of UK techno of any era. "Contrapoint" especially is hard to beat for that floating-in-space, introspective, highly emotive techno vibe.
Jusat contributed just the one track, "Minutes," to the third Likemind release, a various artists 12-inch called Likethemes. But this cut is remarkable for its early use of programmed drum rolls, possibly influenced by Carl Craig's "Bug In The Bassbin"'s marching band-like ghost snares, as well as early drum & bass, which was breaking through at the time.
Likemind 04 was another split artist release with Nuron on side one and two tracks by myself on side two. It's the most highly sought-after of the original EPs and fetches eye-watering prices on the used market. (I often wish I'd not given away all my copies many years ago!)
Likemind owner Paul Smith faxed me with a request for some tracks in 1995, a period when I was starting to collaborate with Photek. I did, however, have two tracks from my earlier era that would fit the label. This was my one and only (and brief) contact with Smith, until I spoke with him for this review. He just kept in the background and trusted us creatively.
It's interesting how important the location of the artists was in the Likemind story. I spent a lot of this period living with my grandparents in Leytonstone, East London. It was literally a ten-minute drive from there to Mike Golding's house in Redbridge. Stasis lived a further five minutes in Barkingside and Sims was in Goodmayes. It's a factor not considered to the same extent these days, with everyone connectable online, but it really was an East London-Essex outskirts scene.
"I kind of gravitated towards people in my area who shared similar musical tastes," said Smith. "I was lucky enough to have a loose group of people living local to me who were all into electronic music and all very much inspired by Detroit techno and Chicago house. The cool thing was we had all come to that point from being into other music, early hip-hop and electro, soul, funk, jazz, rare groove. Myself, Nur, Steve (Stasis) and Ben Sims all lived within walking distance of each other. Mike from B12 was also local. Most of us briefly played on the same local pirate radio station and that's how I met Nur."
One of the appeals of Likemind is its limited amount of releases—just the four records in three years. "The ethos behind Likemind from my point of view was to put out music I loved," said Smith. "If that meant one release a year, then so be it. What was important for me (or us) was to be able to look back and be proud of the music on the label. I think it wasn't until we actually decided to start the label that Nur gave me a tape of his tracks, but it was evident straight away that his take on Detroit had something more to it. It felt deeper, more personal, but also very British."
Jusat and Smith actually ran the label together at first. "Around '93 I knew Nur was working on a bunch of tracks, so we discussed the possibility of starting a label as an outlet for his music and also other people we knew," Smith continued. "Likemind was born out of that. We created and ran it together back then.”
Smith remembers being "totally consumed with electronic music, specifically Detroit and then later the emerging UK scene. Non-stop record hunting. Marathon sessions listening to and discussing electronic music with friends."
He added: "[We were] listening to everything coming out of Detroit, Chicago, through to Sun Ra, Can, Soft Machine, Liquid Liquid, Tortoise, collecting early hip-hop and electro that I had listened to as a kid, and at the same time getting really excited about what was coming out on B12, ART and Black Dog. There weren't really any clubs playing the music we were putting out, so at times it felt like we were in our own little bubble, other than the few other labels doing the same thing, yourself, Mike (Golding) and Steven (Rutter), but we loved the deeper offshoots of Detroit techno so that's what we championed regardless of what else was going on."
The reissue double-pack has been a long time coming. It's been beautifully mastered and packaged for a whole new generation. It presents a truly unique voice in Jusat, an artist who took an influence and ran with it to create his own sound, an unsurpassed sonic world of beauty and timeless harmony.
Smith has the final word. "I think the main thing that stood out to me back then was the emotional essence within his music," he said. "As someone who's always gauged the music I listen to on its ability to conjure thoughts, feelings and memories, Nur's tracks literally became a transportation device, a subliminal soundtrack to my favourite sci-fi films and books. His music was and still is a very personal take (and continuation) of Detroit foundation, in my opinion."
"The thing is, Nur will probably tell you that it's just a bunch of tracks that he knocked out over a period of time," Smith added. "But that's what makes his music all the more intriguing. To create these tracks that haven't only stood the test of time, but are understood by different generations, is an amazing thing."
The full gear list from Jusat:
Atari ST with Cubase
Roland Alpha Juno 2
Roland Juno 106
Roland Jupiter 8
Roland JD 800
Roland MC 202
Roland TB 303
Roland TR 909
Roland TR 606
E-MU Vintage Keys
Korg MS 20
Korg MS 50
Korg SQ 10
Yamaha DX 21
Yamaha TX 802
Yamaha RM 50
Alesis 3630 (Yes, everything went through this! LOL)
A1 Nuron - Madam 6
A2 Nuron - In Motion
B1 Fugue - Contrapoint
B2 Fugue - Interlagos
C1 Nuron - Eau Rouge
C2 Nuron - Slipstream
D1 Nuron - Mirage
D2 Nuron - Minutes