The Other People Place: Lifestyles of the Laptop Cafe
Last year, Ian Fenton (the man behind the Frozen Reeds label responsible for reissuing Julius Eastman’s Femenine) pointed out a parallel between the artwork that adorned Detroit electronic duo Drexciya’s albums and the illustrations made by Emory Douglas, artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. It came as a history rediscovered, re-connecting the black roots of techno back to its heritage of protest. Listen closer to the frenzied tracks that James Stinson and Gerald Donald crafted over their ten years as Drexciya and the anger is audible. For all of their electro and techno roots, Drexciya’s live wire tracks (some clocking in at two minutes) always felt closer to the furious outbursts of punk. Which made sense, as the group’s origin story was a brutal one: Drexciya was the duo’s name for an underwater country colonized by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off of slave ships during the Middle Passage. It read less like science-fiction/fantasy and more about the modern horror and cornerstone of our American reality.
But by the time James Stinson released what would be his lone solo album as The Other People Place, that anger had been somewhat tempered. By turns luminous and melancholic, low-key and sensuous, wry and soulful, Lifestyles of the Laptop Café hinted at new vistas for Stinson. He had talked about touring, a rarity for the reclusive duo. But Lifestyles couldn’t have had a more star-crossed release, coming out on September 3, 2001 and vanishing soon after. Less than a year later, Stinson would be dead due to heart complications, Lifestyles the last record to be released during his lifetime.
For the duration of Drexciya, neither member revealed their names, so attempting to draw a biographical connection is haphazard at best. That said, there’s a gentleness and humanity to Stinson’s programming and production as The Other People Place that makes it sound like a reconciliation of fate, a looking back at the world around him not in anger but instead with a twinge of heartache and a smile. That sensibility seeps through Stinson’s machines and makes it stand apart in Drexciya’s catalog. As such, it’s the perfect gateway for those standing at the banks of their oceanic body of work looking for a way into its depths.
Stinson conveys rich sentiment with the slightest of gestures. With a few hums, the tap of a ride cymbal, and rippling pads, “Eye Contact” casts a spell, both seductive and a little silly. “Something’s happening to my transmitters/Starting to overload/Sitting here in this café/Drinking my latte,” he purrs two minutes in—adding some Chicago acid vocals (think Adonis’ “No Way Back”) reconfigured for the Starbucks set.
By 2001, the “Second Wave of Coffee” was upon us and Starbucks seemed to be on every street corner, one of the few places to enabled users to have high-speed internet access. Stinson looks out onto a world increasingly disassociated, communicating by computers instead of voices. Rather than replicate café society and its public conversations, said cafés now feel eerily sterile and near silent, patron faces lit by the glow of phones and laptops. It makes for a sad state—or as the last single from The Other People Place put it—“Sorrow & A Cup Of Joe.”
Beneath the skittering 808s, unsettled chords and fidgety songs, a sense of melancholy and resignation flow. The twinkling keys Stinson sets atop “It’s Your Love” set off his digitally treated voice, so that he sounds like a heartbroken alien, wistfully sighing: “It’s your love that’s keeping me so lost.” A female vocalist whispers across the snares and swelling synths of “You Said You Want Me,” but as the track flickers its seductiveness gets balanced by sadness and failure to connect, that “want” turning into the past tense. Even the anthemic electro of “Let Me Be Me” has a bittersweet tinge, its chords opening little wormholes of doubt.
The title itself cheekily suggests a room full of people, mute and withdrawn into themselves and their devices, so that even a song like “Eye Contact” reads not as eyes interlocking on the dancefloor but rather two people who can only connect via their laptops. It’s prescient in imagining our current connected-yet-disconnected state, our daily lives increasingly valuing FaceTime over face time, and the album itself anticipates a shift in how people even interact with electronic music, geared more towards home listening than the club. The album ends on a hopeful note though. “Sunrays”—with its bubbling melody, placid ticks and a female voice whispering “relax your mind/slowly unwind”—sounds like Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” for the new century. It’s a warm sunbeam that can best be felt away from a laptop screen.