Underground great Patrick Russell talks DJ history ahead of all-day Minneapolis party

Patrick Russell

Patrick Russell Seze Devres Photography

It’s going to be a busy New Year’s Eve in the Twin Cities, but it’s a New Year’s Day party that’s this weekend’s most exciting.

At the Exchange in downtown Minneapolis, house-music true believer Steven Centrific is bringing a big all-day lineup of locals, as well as a pair of front-rank out-of-town guests, both with deep Midwest roots. Dan Bell has a raft of classics to his name. Here are three: Cybersonik’s “Technarchy” (1991), made in collaboration with Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva; “Losing Control” (1994), as DBX; and The Button-Down Mind of Daniel Bell (2000), a glorious mix CD whose patient groove offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might be in store on Sunday.

Patrick Russell isn’t as well known as Bell, but his appearance here is equally exciting. Growing up in central Michigan, he started spinning records out during the bustling mid-'90s rave scene in Detroit. Today he’s the resident DJ at The Bunker, New York’s longest-running (its 14th anniversary is next weekend) and best techno party. A compulsive pruner of his own collection, Russell’s vinyl numbers in the low 3,000s, quite modest for a DJ, but as he pointed out recently to Resident Advisor:

“If I'm playing it, it has to be powerful enough to me that I think it could create that experience for someone else. I want to play it in the way that it deserves to be played, so it leaves that impression on these people where they go home and they're like, ‘Holy shit, he played this one track ...’ If I can do that, then I feel like I've totally done my job.”

I spoke with Russell at length on March 5, 2013, when I was researching my book in U.S. electronic dance music, The Underground Is Massive. What follows is an edited excerpt from that session, which lasted two-and-a-half hours and included lengthy digressions (on my part far more than his) on the grocery bag of old rave flyers he brought out about an hour into our discussion.

City Pages: What’s the path from learning about house music to going to your first rave?

Patrick Russell: It must have been some time around ’91 I started finding out about the U.K. techno music. Again, very strange considering I was so close to Detroit. But a mutual friend had given me an Underground Resistance CD in ’92: “They’re from Detroit.” “Really? Weird.” This really turned my perspective around. Around that time I started finding out about the Belleville Three and immediately took a quick understanding: “OK, got it, let’s go down and check this out.”

In late ’92, I started going down to a club in Pontiac, just north of Detroit, called Industry. It must have been 18-and-over. That was the one real club you could consistently go with a mixed crowd and hear pretty good quality techno, especially Friday nights. The Factory was what they’d call their Friday night. You’d regularly see as residents Mike Huckaby, D-Wynn. Immediately I was taken to it. I’d stand there behind the DJ booth and watch them. I always wanted to know more. It was mixed racially, gay-straight; that’s something I should probably point out. That was a really significant thing back then, how mixed it was.

A friend who was helping me get into all this stuff going on in Detroit, his sister lived in Westchester or something. He was coming out to New York often. He’d say, “I went to this NASA party, it was crazy,” showing me flyers. It was much different in Detroit. The music was definitely more uptempo house and early techno, but it wasn’t that breakbeat, crazy music we associated with New York and the U.K. It was deeper. You heard a lot of Chicago tracks in there, too.

We stopped going to the club in Pontiac and started going to more loft parties. There wasn’t all the glow sticks and big, colorful clothing. It was just dark, dirty, and music in these places, which I immediately fell in love with. To this day it’s my archetype for a party. There wasn’t even ecstasy -- the drug wasn’t even in Detroit at that point.

I was being warned, I remember, even in ’93, while I was standing in line with some people who were taking to my friend and I into their fold: “If someone offers you that, don’t buy it. It’s probably just heroin.” It wasn’t a thing yet. September of ’93 was the first time I went to what I consider something that was really a significant, crazy warehouse rave. When I say “rave,” we didn’t even call them those back then. We just called them parties.

CP: What was your path to becoming a DJ?

PR: I had started out DJing these small house parties. I hadn’t really known about blending house records, techno records, until I started going to Detroit and seeing it firsthand. By the time early ’94 came around, I had just borrowed from friends little cruddy turntables with little pitch wheels on them and started practicing in my bedroom. I had practiced at least some of the fundamentals of DJing before that, but it wasn’t till ’94 that I started practicing pretty hardcore blending records. By December ’94 I was playing my first party in Detroit, Breach. It was on a big lineup with Juan Atkins, Stacey Pullen, and Alton Miller.

I had made a mixtape. Brian Johnson, who passed away, was co-founder of Burst -- they were the first big rave audio system [in Detroit], so to speak -- I gave it to him at a rave in the fall of ’94 called Power, which was gigantic for the time -- huge: Dan Bell, Born Under a Rhyming Planet, and Mike Dearborn. It wasn’t more than a week or two later that Brian called up and said, “OK, we have this sound system and we’re going to do these parties. Play this first one.”

Those guys had a terrible track record, unfortunately. Their parties always got busted. Which is unfortunate, because they sounded fantastic. I remember when the cops showed up and took the promoters away. It was a real drag. I was standing with Juan Atkins and talking with him for the very first time. We all shrugged our shoulders and walked out. We never felt like the cops were that much of a threat. They weren’t going to arrest us for hanging out. I never heard of anybody getting a ticket, going to jail, anything like that; maybe the promoters.

CP: Was that the typical attitude at that point?

PR: Yeah, was the prevalent attitude. It wasn’t until after Spastik [an August 1994 party put on by Richie Hawtin] when I noticed the crowd got younger. The crowd doubled in size, late ’94-early ’95. I’d say it was flashier. Kids were dressing more in this “ravey” kind of way. Ecstasy was now on every weekend’s table, it seemed like. It was almost getting out of hand with some people. That’s when it started giving some notice. The cops were like, “We’ve got to do something about this.” By ’95, ’96, we were starting to make a lot of trips to Chicago.

CP: Did you go to any particularly memorable events in Chicago?

PR: In late ’95 there was one called Jak the Nation: that was all Chicago and Detroit artists -- Blake Baxter, Traxx, Suburban Knight, pretty much any of the Chicago guys you could think of. It was at a high school -- I don’t even know if it was a functioning school or not. But it had a gymnasium upstairs, this other area downstairs. It ended up flooding. The cops broke it up. They had an after-party that lasted until noon, which was pretty fun.

CP: One place that I’ve heard a lot about with regard to mid-’90s Detroit is Zoot’s. Did you go there?

PR: Yes, I did. Zoot’s was great. It was just a little coffee shop near the Wayne State University campus. Monday nights they would have the EXAT nights, which was their experimental and ambient techno theme night. That’s where you would see kids from the weekend sometimes. They’d be hanging out on the steps there.

The inside wasn’t very big. It was nice. It was really bohemian, old furniture — it looked like the inside of a house, almost. There was a couple of small rooms. You sometimes were just sitting on the floor and would hear trippy ambient or downbeat music. Artists who were still in town for the weekend after playing a rave or something would swing by and play. Having people come through and play a chill set was always sought-after.

[By] ’97, ’98, I was getting out of going to the bigger parties. To me they were getting overrun with increasingly trashier, more druggy kids.

CP: The candy ravers were coming in.

PR: Yeah. I was getting into Theo Parrish and Kenny Dixon Jr. at the time. I was starting to go to that stuff. I was going to disco. Not to sound [snobbish], but I was missing that black-and-white integration. What I didn’t realize was that going to some of these parties how racially divided things were starting to get. I was going to these parties and suddenly it wasn’t like it used to be, where you’d come in and, “Oh, they’re playing some house music -- cool.” Now it was people at the door [saying], “What are you here for?”

It was more about house loft parties. We felt like they included everybody. But there were certain times like it was, “Wow -- I’m straight up the only white person here.” You weren’t sure if everybody was cool with it. You’d see somebody with a beer and be like, “Oh wow, they have beer here? Can I get one?” They’d just look at you. You’d go down to the basement and there’s a light bulb and two black dudes playing pool; you’d get down there and they’d just stop and look at you. It was right of a movie; it was classic.

CP: Where does No Way Back come into your life?

PR: This would have been December 2007, the first No Way Back. It was originally a one-off party. This was a conversation that BMG from [the label] Interdimensional Transmissions -- I’ve known him for quite some time. I had been playing their IT parties for a while. They never subscribed to any of the other bullshit going on in Detroit -- never the minimal thing.

It was about dirtier little places like [the club] Oslo, or little lofts, warehouse space, always small; a really weird mix, very DIY. At this point, we had seen everything move into clubs. OK, now we’re really at the point when we’re far removed from the dark-room, big-sound-system, dance-in-front-of-the-speaker, playing acid music. Let’s do something about that.

Brendan finds this old bank, a shell of a building out in the middle of nowhere in Detroit: no working toilets, no power, nothing. We had to bring in port-a-johns, run power from the basement of next door [for] the sound system. It’s in this long cement room. We put two stacks of speakers and a DJ booth in between, at the end of the room. You walk in the back, and it’s all the way down to the end.

I ordered all this black visqueen and spent all day up on a ladder, stapling it to the wood beams. The whole room was in black plastic. Camouflage netting -- side to side, front to back, down to the DJ. Emerald lasers shining down through the netting, creating these crazy effects. When people walked in there were gasps. It turned a lot of people on their heads.

There was a blizzard that night, which was super-crazy. I had a friend of a friend in the sheriff’s department, so we got a head’s up if the cops were nearby. We had to get these cannon-style heaters for the inside of the place, because it was freezing. We had a couple of kegs in there. About 9 a.m., we went, “There’s not a lot of people here. Do we want to wind down?” Carlos Souffront decides, “Fuck that! We’re going to noon.”

The music didn’t shut off till 1 p.m. The sound guy was finally like, “Can we take our stuff and finally leave, please?”