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Techno group hopes its sound plays a role in fighting racism

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

By Kelly Delaney

On a rainy Monday night at the South Side's Memphis Lounge, five of the 11 members of the Technoir Audio record label are playing for a small crowd.

Some of the 11 members of Technoir Audio are, from left, Jwan Allen, Chris O'Connor, Luke Owens, Curt Jackson (in rear), Jesse Heady, Adam Ratana and Andy Bradford. Seated in front is Shawn Rudiman. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette photos)
Click photo for larger image.

Lucas Owens and Luke Mitchel, who perform together under the moniker The Lukes, stand behind two racks filled with synthesizers, drum machines and computers, pushing different buttons to produce the sounds they want. To their left, Jwan Allen mans two turntables and a mixer, nodding his head and bouncing in time to the records. Adam Ratana and Curt Jackson stand behind Allen, patiently waiting to play their records.

The patrons who are casually dancing to the techno probably do not realize that they are witnessing one of Pittsburgh's very own musical movements, grass roots at its core. Technoir Audio is an unlikely gathering of diverse individuals with two things in common: a passion for techno and a desire to see the controversial genre change Pittsburgh for the better.

Techno has long been associated with raves, which taints the genre's image in the minds of many music listeners. Tales of hedonistic young people overdosing on designer drugs, spending all night in an abandoned warehouse and dancing in time to the repetitive beats of techno have saturated the mainstream psyche. Recent television exposes of raves and the dangers that they pose to teenagers only solidified these perceptions.

"Once the media gave raves an image, everyone swallowed it up, and that's been a problem for people who are just into the music," says Ratana, who moved to Pittsburgh from Long Island to attend Carnegie Mellon University and now works as a software engineer for an insurance company.

When raves first arrived in Pittsburgh nearly a decade ago, they were received with skepticism. That did not stop techno and raving from becoming an indelible part of Pittsburgh's culture. As both the events and the music played at them started becoming more popular, the demands of people looking to be part of the music began to be met. Record stores that specialized in electronic music began opening throughout the city.

For the most part, all of the members of Technoir met in the late 1990s through their involvement with Hypervinyl, an electronic music record store that was in Oakland and is now in Squirrel Hill. Allen, Shawn Rudiman and Akil Harris, another DJ, were all employed there at one time. Jackson and Ratana, as well as Ashwin Tumne, Arnie Pannell, Andy Bradford, Chris O'Connor, and Alexander Gray, all DJs and supporters of the Technoir family, were regular customers who quickly became friends with the staff and Trevor Combee, the former owner.

"Everybody just ended up there," explains Rudiman, a woodworker from Hazelwood. Rudiman, who moved here from northeast Pennsylvania after finishing college, is also the techno producer behind Technoir's first two releases.

Despite the glaring differences in the demographics of the group, techno was something that they could all discuss comfortably. Technoir's members currently range in age from early 20s to early 30s, work at occupations such as software engineer and HIV researcher, and come from several different ethnic backgrounds.

"We break racial, age, sexuality and religious boundaries," says Rudiman.

"If you look at the background of everybody in Technoir and if you were to go by what society considers normal, we should not be friends," says Allen, a legal assistant originally from Plainfield, N.J.

In 1999, Rudiman and Combee decided to form their own record label under the Hypervinyl name. Over the course of just a few days, Hypervinyl's first release of two of Rudiman's compositions was mastered, pressed and ready to be distributed.

"That record did extremely well," says Rudiman. "It sold 700 copies of two no-name people on a no-name label, which is definitely saying something."

Despite several more successful releases and international recognition, the Hypervinyl label was having trouble gaining respect in its hometown. The artists and investors involved were also having difficulty recouping their expenses and it soon became apparent that the label would not survive much longer. Reluctantly, the label was retired and the store relocated.

"There was a long slump in between Hypervinyl and Technoir ... for about a year and a half," says Rudiman.

While all of the members were grieving the frustrating loss of the Hypervinyl label, Allen had an especially hard time. Due to his increased dedication to the Hypervinyl record store and the label, he soon found himself unemployed. Not long after being fired, a dispute with his landlord resulted in the loss of Allen's apartment. With his belongings in storage, Allen began crashing on the couches of Jackson and Rudiman while looking for employment and a place of his own.

"After we got through that period everything was all right, and we started Technoir," says Rudiman. "We still had ideas and we weren't happy to just call it quits. We just had to start again."

"We had a couple of discussions up at Hypervinyl late in the evening about what it means to bring the music to the people," says Jackson, a Pittsburgh native and a funding correspondent for a bank. "All at the same time we said, 'Wait a minute, there's a lot of talent and potential right here. We should do something about this.' "

After officially forming in the summer of 2000, Technoir set to work performing at local clubs, as well as clubs in cities like Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore. Rudiman even had the opportunity to go on a small European tour to London, Berlin, and Glasgow. The Technoir roster soon saw the addition of Owens, a web developer, and Mitchel, who works in the service industry. Both of the Lukes are from Shady Grove, Franklin County. and are hoping to release some of their work on the Technoir label in the coming year.

Also added was Jesse Heady, a visual artist and office assistant, who moved to Pittsburgh from Morgantown, W.Va., in 2001. Heady, who is commonly referred to as a VJ, uses projectors, screens, computers, a video mixer, video clips that he draws from films and images generated by computers. "I like to use images that will provoke someone's thoughts, images that will make them think, 'What is that?' " he says.

Heady, who performs alongside the Technoir musicians, manipulates the images so that they fit and seem to correspond with the music that is being played. This helps to create a wholly sensual experience for the audience. Last summer, with the Lukes and Heady in place, everything started to come together for Technoir Audio's first record release. In January, Rudiman's EP titled "Rubin's Place" was sent to distributors in New York City and Frankfurt, Germany. All 800 copies sold.

"For the first record on a no-name label from an artist who's kind of known, that's still a big deal," says Rudiman.

Shawn Rudiman, techno producer behind Technoir's first two releases, records music in his studio.
Click photo for larger image.

"We started getting e-mails from people all around the world saying how much they liked it," says Ratana.

Technoir's second record, "Rhythm Sexy," was released in April and was met with even greater enthusiasm. A third record is planned for fall.

Raves have declined in popularity over the past couple of years. Techno, however, shows no sign of fading from the general consciousness. "We are all still into the music even if there are no raves to play," says Ratana. "Everyone loves the music and that's what we saw when we got together. It's a passion that we all share."

Even with their success, the members of Technoir admit to still being frustrated with Pittsburgh at times. During their time here, the members have noticed that the city segregates itself when it comes to night life and artistic activities.

"One thing that I found when I first moved here from Ontario," says Tumne, an HIV researcher, "is that the state of segregation here is unbelievable, even compared to most American cities." During Tumne's first few months here, he attended music and poetry events in Shadyside and Homewood. After talking to people in both neighborhoods, Tumne noticed that most of the people at these events had many common interests, but had little desire to cross the neighborhood boundaries.

"You have the black section of town and the white section of town, and never the two shall meet," says Jackson, who has had the same frustration as Tumne when visiting local bars. "In the Strip District, there are all of these bars and they're all filled with white folks," says Jackson. "Then you travel down the road a couple of blocks and there's one bar with a black dude painted on the side so that you know that's where the black folks hang out."

All of the members believe that techno can only help to desegregate the city, due to its refusal to be associated with only one demographic group as some of the more popular music genres tend to do. As Technoir itself shows, techno is created and enjoyed by people of all racial backgrounds.

"Techno transcends that black-white dichotomy because it arose from so many different musical influences," says Tumne.

"Part of the reason that we want people to come out to the events that we do is to try something new," says Allen.

"If all of us coming from totally different backgrounds, parts of the country, and family situations can work together and be friends," says Ratana, "you can do it, too."

Tomorrow: Pittsburgh will have a chance to see all of the members of Technoir Audio performing together at Club Havana, 5744 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. The event is free. More information can be found at Technoir Audio's Web site, www.technoiraudio.com, or by calling Club Havana at 412-661-2025.


Kelly Delaney is a freelance writer for the Post-Gazette.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 23, 2003) The last name of freelance writer Kelly Delaney was misspelled in a story in Wednesday's editions on Technoir Audio.

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