Sydney, Australia and Detroit, USA. From the people to the weather to the political climate, the two cities couldn’t be much more different. Yet when it comes to music, the two are indelibly intertwined, due in no small part to the Sydney-based techno/electro label, Southern Outpost. Founded by Patrick HAF and Phil Chan, Southern Outpost has been putting out records since 1998 and teaming up with key figures in Detroit’s music scene long before that time.
But why Detroit? Why not Los Angeles or Berlin? What about New York or Manchester? According to Patrick, there really wasn’t much of a question. A DJ for more than 12 years, he dabbled in various genres early on, but continually found himself drawn to the sounds coming out of Detroit. “When I started DJing I was buying different genres of music. The records that I always came back to were (Detroit techno label) Underground Resistance records. You never knew what they were coming up with next. Underground Resistance and other labels like Metroplex and groups like Cybotron changed how I thought about music and how music was done. I never knew the background of all these people. I just based my love of the music on the content of the records.”
While Detroit’s musical legacy spans genres as diverse as jazz and hip hop, all of which have influenced his own music production, Patrick’s fascination peaked with electro. Elaborating further, he differentiates between the Detroit sound, and electro’s other hotbed, Germany. “I like some of the German stuff but I keep coming back to the Detroit sound because it has that raw grittiness to it, it has that street sound. From what I’ve heard, German electro seems to be colder, almost mechanical. That’s a very big generalization. The Detroit stuff seems to be directly influenced by what people in the inner city listen to when they go out: hip hop, Miami bass. That’s what it seems that Detroit electro is about, fusing those two styles together.”
Patrick began making music with friends in the mid-nineties, before formally starting his own label in 1998 with Phil Chan. Once again, Detroit was a direct influence as Patrick had developed a friendship with Underground Resistance head “Mad Mike” Banks. “One day I just called a number on a record. It was the early 90s and I just started speaking to him. I kept coming back, building up a relationship and I started to understand his ideas about being independent and being militant with the media and things like that. It really struck a chord with me.” During a 1998 visit to Detroit, several conversations with Banks prompted the formation of Southern Outpost, which quickly grew to include artists such as Data and ShapeShiftr.
Since that fateful visit, Patrick has been back to Detroit on different occasions to meet some of the key players and see the environment that spawned the music. The city that birthed the auto industry remains fascinated with technology, thus, musically speaking, it should be no surprise that techno started there. While the city is currently on an upswing, it has unquestionably faced some hard times over the years. Says Patrick, “It’s sort of hard to describe my impressions. It has such an interesting history to it. Like downtown you can see huge burnt out buildings still standing from the (riots of the) late 60s. It’s definitely a tough city. People have been in a tough situation, especially being in a city that’s been run down over the years. The government has played a part in it. The whole inner city vibe, it’s like living on the edge.” Ironically, this tough edge has led to another form of music, known by various titles including booty, electro bass, and ghetto tech.
Unlike the militant, socially conscious approach that labels such as Underground Resistance take to electronic music, ghetto tech is known for its foul-mouthed, often misogynistic lyrics. A mishmash of hip hop, Miami bass, techno, and electro sounds played at the accelerated pace of drum and bass, the genre has gradually spread beyond the confines of the Midwest United States. Considering the intense impact Underground Resistance has had on Southern Outpost, it may surprise some that Southern Outpost is distributed by Twilight 76, which is co-run by DJ Godfather, one of the key figures in the ghetto tech and Detroit electro scene.
Yet at a closer look, both genres were birthed out of the same environment, by many of the same people, and share the same independent, do-it-yourself work ethic. These two genres overlap quite a bit and the manner in which Patrick connected with Godfather parallels his experience with Mad Mike. “The first time I came over to Detroit in 1998 I was into electro. (Except for AUX 88), I saw all of this electro stuff that I had never heard before. I didn’t know all this stuff existed so I pretty much brought every single one of them and took them back. I just kept going back to Twilight 76, Databass, and Electrofunk. I was one of the people that initially started bringing all of these labels down to Australia. When we first started putting out records, I got in touch with Godfather and sent him a couple and he said he wanted to distribute them. I was impressed with what Twilight 76 was doing and decided to go with them.”
While Detroit’s influence on Southern Outpost is pervasive, how is their reception back in the D? “They freak out,” says Patrick. “They’re surprised that someone in Australia is making music that gets radioplay in Detroit. Many don’t know Southern Outpost is an Australian label. They don’t generally think of Australia as a big music outlet beyond Kylie Minogue or INXS.” Although various Detroit performers have made their way down under, it doesn’t always work both ways, making Patrick’s frequent trips to Detroit even more critical in promoting the Australian scene. Producer DJ Marquis says that before meeting Patrick, his thoughts about Australia were pretty much limited to pop music and the typical tourist attractions such as the Opera House. “It really is a small world. I didn’t know his name, but after we first spoke, I realized that I knew about him from friends who had worked with him. He’s like a long-lost family member. I became real curious as to how everyone hooked up and what the underground scene was like in Australia.” Former Underground Resistance label manager Cornelius D adds, “Southern Outpost has been at the forefront of pushing Underground Resistance in Australia and keeping us aware of what’s happening down there.” As the Southern Outpost names spreads, producers are starting to seek them out. Digitek, who has released music on Twilight 76, Nu Flava, and Breakin’, among others, tracked Patrick down, which lead to the current Southern Outpost EP, released under his Shadow People alias. Past releases have featured collaborations with the likes of Keith Tucker, Strand, and DJ Godfather.
By now, it should be quite obvious that the name Southern Outpost reflects the collective’s desire to bring help bring the Detroit sound to the South Pacific. However, Patrick makes it a point to emphasize that their influences move beyond Detroit, and Southern Outpost music draws upon their local environment and personal experiences. Southern Outpost hasn’t neglected its foundation in Sydney, even if the electro scene is small and definitely not a money-making venture. “We’d be lucky if we sold 60 or 70 records in Australia.” Patrick contends that in general, Sydney partygoers lean towards more commercial sounds, which is influenced by factors beyond mere musical tastes. “The main problem hindering the growth of underground dance music is the lack of venues that will support (it). It’s hard to find a club that will let you play what you want because the rent is so high it pushes up (cover) prices to make it worthwhile. There have been some parties where you can pull 300 to 400 people but you can’t do that every week.” Yet they plod on. The collective throws many of its own parties, including the recent Journey to the 10th Planet event. Furthermore, Patrick hosts the Dark Energy radio show on 2SER along with James Bond and Colour. The key of course, is balance: maintaining the home front and making a mark abroad.
“What we’re trying to do is push our music internationally because that’s the only way we can survive. Our whole agenda was to get our music overseas and basically get it out there with the other established labels such as Twilight 76 and Metroplex. You have to be of a certain calibre to keep up with those labels and we don’t want special treatment because we’re an Australian label. I try not to categorize (our sound). Hopefully people listen just because of the music. We’re just trying to make decent music that will appeal to a lot of different people.”