Sun Ra’s Planetary Explorations Still Influence Dance Music
Sun Ra

Photo: Jim McCrary/Redferns

Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.

Almost twenty years ago, Mutant Dance Moves first met the acquaintance of Herman Poole Blount and his music. To proper government authorities, Blount was known as Le Sony’r Ra; to jazz fans, he was Sun Ra. Unfortunately, I learned about Sun Ra’s music only after he left this earthly plane in 1993, when Kurt Loder of MTV News reported on Ra’s passing and kindly offered listening suggestions from a discography that reached into the hundreds. One album in particular, entitled Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy, was recommended for those seeking to reach the outer limits of sound. My ticket for Saturn was promptly purchased.

For a white boy from the suburbs of Texas who found plenty of noise to be had in Sonic Youth and Nirvana’s “Endless Nameless,” Sun Ra’s music suggested an entirely new universe of sound (and the bass line of “Moon Dance” still kills me). And there were entire galaxies of Sun Ra’s music to explore in his four decades of recording: swinging Ellingtonian big band and primitive synth sounds, woozy doo-wop singles and skronk fests, astral space chants, nuclear war noise and whimsical polyrhythmic miniatures.

Mike Huckaby

Mike Huckaby photo courtesy of Facebook

Which is all well and good, you might say, but I don’t see “dance music” anywhere in those above descriptions. True, but in the past few years, Sun Ra’s influence on modern dance music makers has come to the fore. Dealing with a jazz marketplace that didn’t put a premium on outsider art and extraterrestrial noise, Sun Ra began pressing, releasing, and distributing (and more often than not, hand-drawing the covers of) his own music some decades before the notion of pressing up your own music became de rigueur in the techno world. And there were always traces of his eclectic sound and iconoclastic personal vision in Detroit producers like Theo Parrish, Moodymann and Rick Wilhite. There was a hypnotic track on Wilhite’s Analog Aquarium from last year, “Music Gonna Save the World,” that juggled the mantra of the title line, some gravity-free jazz chords, buzzing synth noise and some loose-limbed percussion that evoked numerous strands of Ra’s music.

Most explicitly though, Rush Hour last year released the first EP in a series entitled Sun Ra: The Mike Huckaby Reel-to-Reel Edits. The work of revered Detroit producer (and influential Record Time shop owner) Mike Huckaby, it was that rare bridge between the worlds of jazz and techno. “I was heavily into jazz as a kid,” Huckaby tells me via email. “Later I was into fusion jazz, so this led me to appreciate a musician such as Sun Ra later on. The messages in his music and poetry concerning planet Earth and the black race was influential to me. And his concept of discipline was a great example to follow as a musician.”

Hieroglyphic Being

Hieroglyphic Being photo courtesy of Mathematics Recordings. Photo: Beth Rooney

He’s not alone in feeling that influence. “Sun Ra’s music was a shock to the system at firs,” Chicago-based producer Jamal Moss –better known by his techno moniker of Hieroglyphic Being – told me via email. “His music wasn’t about making sense: it was just about receiving these transmissions, this knowledge.” Moss first encountered Sun Ra’s music growing up in Chicago and in some ways, the music of Hieroglyphic Being continues a singular heritage that stretches from Ra (who lived in the Windy City from the mid-‘50s until 1965) to Music Box house icon Ron Hardy. Moss adds: “His music felt like a great form of escapism, too, but Sun Ra taught me that there are no boundaries and no limitations. Ra’s crazed synth solo noise and astral chant bliss music are what did it for me. It let me know that there was more to the world around me. It expanded my total self.” (Moss plays in New York tonight, April 20, as part of Unsound Festival).

Across numerous releases, Sun Ra’s vision can be seen clearly in Hieroglyphic Being’s discography. There are album titles like ANKH and The Sun Man Speaks, with one particular limited edition CDR, Strange Strings, name-checking Sun Ra’s 1966 album of the same name, easily his most outré recording (which is really saying something). And across a few vinyl EPs, which also cite Sun Ra album titles, Moss grappled with that legacy directly. “It was my form of an homage, paying tribute to the one who came before me,” he said. “Using just an Akai keyboard, Korg DW-8000, Boss DR 5 and a field recorder, Strange Strings was down in one take live. For the other projects, I listened to albums like Magic City, Calling Planet Earth, Heliocentric Worlds over and over again until I could sit down and re-harsh (sic) my own takes or interpretations properly without it sounding offensive or gimmicky.”

In fact, Hieroglyphic Being’s music is some of the most visceral analog techno to be had at the moment and “Calling Planet Earth” is a prime example. Over a merciless, distorted kick, Hieroglyphic Being scatters shards of a broken synth line across it. Dense atonal clusters burst, a menacing drone arises amid the jackhammering beat and the track somehow intensifies.

And yet Huckaby’s work illuminates a different side of the polymath musician. “For me, the most important element of Sun Ra’s playing style — aside from his tenderness — was his ability to introduce chaos within a chord progression, while following a strong sense of resolution,” Huckaby said. “Most of what he is playing is not noise. Trust me on that.  His comprehension of the scale, and how to resolve chord progressions, are achieved like no other musician.” While the first volume of the Reel-to-Reel features a rollicking, freewheeling cut like “UFO” as well as the rhythmic strut of “The Antique Blacks,” the second volume emphasizes the evocative and ethereal space chants of Ra.

Might there be a third volume forthcoming? “I will only do another volume if there is some interesting Sun Ra material to edit, or to restore,” Huckaby said. “I don’t want my name on a Sun Ra record for no apparent reason. Most of the material I have edited is more of a restoration effort than it is an edit; many of the tapes are heavily damaged and need to be restored.” In the meantime, Huckaby continues with his own deep productions and also DJs nights featuring all Sun Ra music. “I was told that this Sun Ra party would never work, that no one would ever come,” he said. “But I have now done this party all over the world and it’s always packed. It’s just a matter of following your gut feelings and first mind while shutting out negative influences or voices.” Spoken like a true disciple of Sun Ra’s spiritual and musical teaching.

Hieroglyphic Being (Mathematics Recordings) plays tonight, April 20, as part of New York’s Unsound Festival. Get more information and scheduling at the Unsound Festival site.