English

At the close of another long, hot summer of racial reckoning in America, DJ and producer John FM surfaced with a sober collection of songs entitled American Spiritthat trace the last five years of his personal and musical journey. John FM describes the album’s minimalist photoshopped album art of an outline of a black music note superimposed over a white backdrop as an act of infiltration. The century spanning history of racial segregation and tension is palpable in American Spirits,represented in the form of loose and lucid parables that decode the surreality of everyday American violence. Having lived in and around the city of Detroit for most of his life, John FM’s songs bridge a structural gap in the city’s musical history that extends from the gospel and early rhythm and blues of Joe Von Battle’s establishment of the “Detroit Sound” in the 1950s, which was disrupted by the enhanced overdubs of Barry Gordy’s Motown Soul in the 1960s to the DIY progressive electronic experiments that would become Detroit techno from 1973-1985.“I’ve always been like a five minute drive from the border of Detroit, so me living here is very much like I’ve always been here,” John FM explains that he had gone out for a long ride on his motorcycle to Bell Isle, 982-acre island park in the Detroit river that marks the border between the U.S. and Canada. Chatting about the feeling of being out in nature after a year indoors during the first few waves of the pandemic, John points out that he’s neighbors with his mentor and frequent collaborator, Omar S, who’s known for his love of cars. Detroit famously was the leader in automotive production being a home of the three largest manufacturers Ford, Chrysler and General Motors, which grew the Motor City’s economy by millions, employing many people across the metropolitan area including an influx of African-Americans who migrated north to escape racial segregation, violence and voter suppression in the Deep South during the economic and political fallout of the Civil War. John FM’s own experiences in the workforce and labor market informed him of the anti-union beliefs that have plagued Detroit and America since political activist James Boggs penned his manifesto against free market labor extraction in the 1963 book The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. John FM jokes, “I have an unsourced infographic in my head that basically says ‘when the Great Migration happened, a lotof people from Alabama went to Detroit and then like a lot of people from New Orleans went to Chicago and L.A.” Navigating the topographies of early 20th Century Black migration, John FM touches on an central theme explored in both James Boggs’ writing asa Detroit autoworker who moved northward from Alabama and Drexciya’s out of print compilation album The Quest, which presents a visual timeline of the diasporic subjugation of African Americans from the Transatlantic Slave Trade from 1655-1876 to the migration of rural Blacks to Northern cities in the 1930s and 40s before illustrating Detroit techno being exported to the U.K. and continental Europe in 1988.The alignment and comprehension of American social tropes is an underscored subject in John FM’s music and conceptual framework. One of his earliest EPs Where My Roots Lie, released through Omar S’ FHXE label, employs several tropes at a time to convey a singular sound image of his position within the communal development of techno. Poly-linear drum programming foregrounds John FM’s vocals speaking truth to power, “They say in the beginning that there was house, and house had groove, and with the groove came techno, and techno had no rules. That’s why Detroit techno is timeless, it’s the rhythm that keeps the heart beaten and bleeding and otherwise…” His “New Detroit Anthem,” reinforced with a strong four-on-the-floor kick with a two keyboard solo slowly builds and introduces compositional parts through its ten minute runtime that lays the groundwork forthe dismantled Hi-Tech Soul music that makes up
his 2020 output of American Spirit. “The essence of American Spiritis in what’s happening in America right now that everyone else in the world is watching as a movie for entertainment,” Referencing the 1998 film Truman Show, John nods to the “weird and performative” nature of living in a country that broadcasts its news and culture abroad as a means of so-called public relations and mythmaking. “It’s like everything that we do as a country, and whether you’re trying to participate or not, you’re just ultimately locked in because you’re here. We’re here. We have to all be involved,” John FM figures the “crumbling individualism” of present-day America is always going to be a central focus of the country’s collective cinematic reality.American Spiritbears colloquial sentiments and moods that merge them together in a way that recalls at once the sultry soul of Moodymann and earthbound folk of Lonnie Holley. “These tracks made sense over time,” John FM said of the five tracks that make up the EP. “Teachers will tell you that you should add the title last. The puzzle fits together when you realize that the individual pieces you’ve been looking at is actually a flower.” Similarly,he encapsulates his own fragmented experiences and run-ins with theAmerican Spiritthat lies and scams anyone who invests in it. “February” opens the EP with a soundbite of a storm and a song from a local elder instructing that “We burn the wicked with the real hot, hot fire.” With additional arrangements and mixing by Detroit DJ and producer Black Noi$e, the introductory clip gives way to a smothered soul ballad that according to John FM tells the story of a love triangle and a break-up. “This is like a very American dream, like it’s just one of those things that you see from the outside,” John frames the story as a recollection of events the morningafter. For John FM “February” leans into the next track “Holster,” a song composed of live baritone saxophone and warped hip hop production overlaid with John’s own vocals telling of a shooting at a party from multiple perspectives as well as the larger narrative of the EP. “I was at a show my friend was performing in one of the more cutareas in Detroit, and the whole night had been a disaster in the sense that I literally left or like halfway through this party.Some of the friends of the people who were running the party decided it was a good idea to break into all of the cars on the block to see what they can get out of it. “I’m drunk as shit. I’m Black. I’m literally confronting one of the people who are like five minutes from me leaving the party, and I’m like, why are you yelling?” While people from around the area–who John FM notes actually live in the area–were checking out the scene, people from the party ran out into the streets after a gun was drawn. “Guns have a way of solving problems,” He laments the social tensions that emerge in an individualistic society where there are issues of confrontation and ownership built into everyday American dramas. “They can’t get what they want, so they shoot up the place from the outside. And that becomes likea speculative effort because it just becomes another thing on the news for anyone in Europe.”An interluding track aptly titled “Interim” offers listeners what John calls a ‘meanwhile’ moment with hollow sound design and circular metallic percussive programming that cycles through American Spirit’s central theme of “a battle of the people and their screams being the soundtrack for 400 years of oppression.” John FM feels like “Interim” more than any of the other tracks are where America is right now with perpetual protests for justice that won’t be served, but will certainly be televised. “Lockjaw,” subtitled “7 Deadly Winnin” addresses a celebration of individual freedom and the hedonism and inhumanities that comes along with free will. “Lockjaw is this weird, dreary, druggy sort of come down song that has the most house and techno sounds of all of the songs, but that’s just like it slowly lends itself like a crash moment. Like what do you do after that?” John FM details the ego death and realization that America has yet to have, but he sees coming from a mile away. “You celebrate the sort of focus along the way. It fits into the narrative of all the worst shit and then we glorify it, you know.” The Southern trap-inspired slow jam “Forever” closes the EP with vocoded vocals in a brief and inspired nod to the self-inflicting solipsism that he feels plagues the American imagination and emotional well-
being, “America’s lack of a future is part of American culture. Like how many women have you deceived and how many drugs can you take? We don’t know…”Shrugging off a horizonless vision of the American Dream, John FM makes light of the chronic and inevitable downfall of a “weird alpha male syndrome that has been backed up by the fact that you’re carrying a nine millimeter.” He’s seen this ruthless self-interest mirrored in both the music industry as well as the trials and tribulations of the general workplace. “Outside of the excessive amounts of capitalism and consumerism that we have in America, the price on people ends up being very small. Business management basically measures worker’s trade metrics and work efficiency with quotas.” The specific kind of U.S. originated industrial capitalist human labor extraction and systems thinking is off-putting to John FM because of the clear and present connection between the operational structures of slave-run plantations and union-busting manufacturing plants like Amazon’s fulfillment centers, not to mention the assembly lines of the auto industry. “I was fortunate enoughto have mentors around me, my father being like his own business person for the longest time, and teaching me to be sort of like an entrepreneur. It’s so fucked up because it’s like I don’t want to promote, but I do like the idea of working for yourself, and I’ve always been encouraged to sidestep the bullshit.” With the follow up to American Spiritslated for release later this year, John FM doesn’t want to fall in line with the idea that private ownership and profit is good, instead focusing on a desire to make good music for himself and others: “I love house music, I love techno music. I’ve always had a desire to sing and I want to survive in the creative sphere. Unfortunately for me part of that is dancing and doing this crazy sounding music that is just pop sensible enough. So I think that’s what I was trying to capture with this weird EP.”