THE RISE & FALL OF ROMAN TECHNO, 1988-94
By Matt Anniss
From Red Bull Music Academy Daily
Industrial, dark, strident: that is how the new sound of the early 90s presented itself, a sound which would lead the Roman techno scene to be recognised internationally. The English music journalist Matt Anniss narrates the history of Roman techno through the records, protagonists and places which contributed to its affirmation.
A thunderous techno rhythm, infused with the body popping swing of beatbox electro and the metallic intensity of industrial music, rolls relentlessly onwards. Raw, bass-heavy and stripped back, its instinctive funk belies a fearlessly experimental agenda. In the midst of this unique musical melting pot is a lone voice — low, pitched down and druggy — repeating a simple mantra: «This is the sound of Rome.» To those around the world in 1991, from techno’s spiritual home of Detroit to the E-fuelled hardcore scene of London, the message was clear: a dance music revolution was taking place in Italy’s capital.
The song was Lory D’s The Sounds of Rome, and while it accidentally defined the style for those outside of the city’s seven hills, it was the single’s other two tracks that better encapsulated the slowly developing Roman techno sound. Dark, intense, spooky and laden with murky industrial textures, they both tipped a wink to what had come before while showcasing a unique musical vision — one that, 25 years on, still seems gloriously out-of-step with what was happening elsewhere in Italian dance music, and arguably club culture at large.
Lory D, like his contemporaries, was hugely influenced by dance music being made elsewhere — particularly the ragged pulse of acid house, the skittish energy of Detroit techno and the gut-wrenching heaviness of Richard D James’ early dancefloor excursions — but was capable of twisting these inspirations into something distinctively different. It’s for this reason that Rome’s first wave of techno records still resonate all these years on.
Rome’s unlikely techno tale bears many hallmarks of similarly revolutionary city-based dance music scenes. Like the emergence of techno in Detroit, the dawn of house in Chicago or the birth of “bleep” in the north of the UK, early Roman techno was the work of a handful of fired-up visionaries who simply did things differently. Amongst this small band of pioneers, you’ll find an electronics wizard who played his first live shows aged 16, twin brothers with a shared musical vision, a rave promoter turned producer with a desire to capture the zeitgeist and an obsessive DJ with an impressive collection of synthesizers. Then there’s the aforementioned Lory D, a DJ/producer whose enigmatic nature, radical approach and evasive reputation guarantees him “cult hero” status to this day. With the assistance of many other bit-part players and influential individuals, these principal players radically altered the course of Italian electronic music.
As with similarly celebrated visionaries in other key cities, Rome’s first wave of techno producers shared a desire to change the agenda, both in terms of the music they were making, and the environments in which that music was played. Just as Chicago had The Warehouse and the Music Box in which to shape a new musical future, Rome had raves in spades, alongside a smattering of small club spaces in which the city’s new heroes could ply their trade. Ironically, it would be their success — and those of the raves they promoted and played at — that would signal the beginning of the end for the sound of Rome. Crippled by politics and greed, this new Roman scene imploded almost as quickly as it had emerged, only to be rescued and rebuilt by later generations.
This, then, is the story of the rise and fall of Rome’s first techno revolution, and the small band of pioneers that shaped it.
ACT ONE: THE WINDS OF CHANGE
There was a healthy scene of talented DJs in Rome during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Paolo Micioni and, in particular, Marco Trani, impeccably blended funk, disco and jazz-funk — reportedly with the aid of three or four turntables, and all manner of drum tracks, vocal a cappellas and sound effects. Another beloved DJ was Faber Cucchetti, who shook up the scene in the early ’80s by showcasing synthesizer and drum-machine heavy cuts handpicked from the worlds of electrofunk, New Wave and Italo disco. (It was this latter style that naturally dominated, aided and abetted by local record shops tied to leading labels and recording studios.)
For those of a younger generation, though, Rome’s club scene was in desperate need of change by the time the mid-’80s rolled around. «Until 1983, the scene was OK, even if it was much too focused around a small number of clubs,» recalls Andrea Benedetti, the eldest of Rome’s soon-to-be techno pioneers. «Later the scene became much too commercial, and completely closed to spreading new sounds like electro, freestyle or straight hip hop.»
It was these sounds that most excited Benedetti, who had previously been beguiled by the skills of Trani and, more specifically, Cucchetti. He was not alone. For Rome’s new generation of DJs, technical skills were almost as important as the cutting-edge sounds of hip hip and electro.
Max Durante, who would later team up with Marco and Fabrizio D’Arcangelo to make hard techno workouts under the Automatic Sound Unlimited alias, was another would-be DJ and producer turned on by the emerging hip hop culture. From 1985 onwards he threw himself into DJing, and would later bag a residency at the Nisida Club in Ostia, the seaside suburb to the South of Rome that he called home.
Unbeknownst to both Benedetti and Durante, there was another young would-be DJ and producer to whom hip hop, electro and, in particular, turntablism would quickly become a way of life: Lorenzo D’Angelo, later to find fame under his now familiar Lory D alias. «When I was 14 and 15 years old, I would go to clubs in the afternoon,» he explains in a rare interview. «There I heard mixing and scratching from Faber Cucchetti. I wasn’t into Italo disco and new wave. I very much liked to scratch.»
With his friends Mauro Tannino and Francesco Zappalà, D’Angelo threw himself into turntablism, eventually competing several times in the Italian DMC championships. Alongside Zappalà, he would later give the first demonstration of scratching on Italian television. Warped scratch samples would, much later, also become a hallmark of his early techno productions.
On the rare occasions that big American hip hop stars came to perform in Rome, Lory D, Tannino and Zappalà would be in the crowd, alongside future techno contemporaries Andrea Benedetti and Max Durante.
«The hip-hop scene in Rome was small, but very solid,» Benedetti explains. «When Afrika Bambaataa and Ice T played in Rome for the first time, everyone was there. It was the first time I’d seen an 808 and a vocoder being used, and I was amazed. Then there was the whole Def Jam explosion, and at the Run-DMC and Public Enemy gig I saw Lory for the first time, though we didn’t know each other. I knew of him, though, as he was a well-known turntablist on the scene.»
When house music eventually arrived in Rome in 1987 — courtesy of Paolo Di Nola’s and Marco Miltello’s Paradise Garage-inspired Devotion event at Euritmia in the south of the city, and later the Doing night — it signalled the beginning of a new period in the city’s musical development. Arguably more significant, though, was the opening of a new kind of record store, called Remix. Owned and run by Sandro Nasonte with the assistance of local DJ Paolo “Zerla” Zerletti, it quickly became a hub for the city’s most open-minded DJs following its launch in the late ’80s, thanks in no small part to their ability to source the hottest house and techno records from Chicago, Detroit, New York and the UK.
«Sandro had this vision to follow tunes that no other shops followed,» Benedetti says. «When you went there you could find good techno and acid house music, and also the DJs in the city that played those tunes. It was an incredible and exciting period.»
Marco D’Arcangelo agrees with Benedetti’s assessment. «Remix was the only store that attempted to get in the underground electronic records that mattered,» he explains. «Sandro just knew what was good, and what wasn’t good. He was a hugely important figure in the Roman scene — he was like an apostle. If you were serious about DJing, that was the spot.»
Amongst the regular customers was Lory D, who quickly fell in love with acid house and Detroit techno. Another passionate buyer was a 16 year-old DJ and producer called Leo Anibaldi. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Anibaldi’s first love was not DJing, but making music. From an early age he was fascinated by the possibilities of computers, creating his first musical experiments on a Commodore Vic 20 in the early 1980s. By 1988, he’d bought his first sampling workstation, the Roland S-50, and within a couple of months had used it to create his first dance tracks.
«I got an opportunity to play live really early,» Anibaldi remembers. «A friend called Cesare Cerulli, who was a great DJ, gave me the possibility to play live in the best club of the moment, called Krypton. That went really well, and before I’d had a chance to DJ, I was playing live sets with my sampling keyboard. That allowed me to earn money to buy my first synthesizer, the Roland Jupiter 6, and later a Roland TB-303, TR-808, TR-909, TR-606 and various other drum machines and synthesizers. I spent my entire young life dedicated to building and arranging music.»
It was during one of his live sets at Krypton that Anibaldi met Lory D for the first time. «He always played the vinyl records he’d bought in London, that other DJs in Rome — aside from his friend Mauro Tannino — simply didn’t have,» Anibaldi recalls. «He really inspired me, and I think I inspired him, because my live show at the time was really rooted in a techno mood, rather than the prevailing music in Rome, so we developed an instant friendship. I was so happy with this, because I had finally found someone who was going in the same musical direction.»
During 1988, Anibaldi bagged a residency at a small club called Blue Zone. He would play for six hours every night, from 2 AM until eight in the morning, joining the dots between hip hop, garage, house, hip-house and, eventually, techno. «It was a surreal atmosphere,» Anibaldi enthuses. «Finally, I could play the music I wanted to after a period of buying vinyl and refining my technique. I started to develop my own style — strictly instrumental, with either 4/4 beats or funky breakbeats, dubbed drums and bass, with a few noises and vocal references. By the time I’d developed this, it was probably around 1989, and I was just starting to hear the words ‘rave party.’»
Lory D, too, was now hitting his straps as a DJ, and picking up plaudits for his technically adept fusions of hip hop-style quick mixing, scratching and increasingly acid and techno-centric sets. His fast rise to cult hero status in Rome came after a “road to Damascus” style moment during one of his frequent record-buying trips to London. It was the summer of 1989, and Britain was in the midst of a rave revolution. «I went to Rage in London at Heaven on a Thursday night,» Lory confirms. «I heard freestyle and breakbeats along with acid house and techno.»
He returned to Rome with a newfound enthusiasm and sense of purpose. Max Durante was similarly inspired by what he heard on a surprise 18th birthday trip to London a year previously. «It was a gift from my friends,» he says. «We went to clubs where Colin Faver and Paul Oakenfold were mostly playing acid tunes. I was amazed. The track that really hit me was Bam Bam’s ‘Where Is Your Child’ — an absolute masterpiece!»
For all the excitement amongst these young DJs — and those who history has forgotten, such as the notoriously wild Leo Young — around acid house, techno and the soon-to-emerge hardcore breakbeat sound, the vast majority of Roman club owners and party promoters were less enthusiastic.
Lory D, who by now was playing a mixture of releases from labels such of Trax, Dance Mania, Nu Groove, R&S, Transmat, UR and Metroplex, remembers it as a struggle. «The dancefloors were often empty,» he says. «Club owners told us to quit playing this stuff.»
Lory’s answer was to put on his own occasional events, alongside fellow hip-hop-to-techno convert Mauro Tannino. These were known a La Casa, and held in a Villa outside Rome. 1We did just two parties at that place,» Lory D says. «And slowly the interest for our kind of music became bigger.»
One thing that separates pioneering DJs from also-rans is that magical combination of evangelic spirit and sheer bloody-mindedness. Rome’s early techno DJs had both of these qualities, and were convinced that what they were doing was right. Eventually, they were proved correct.
However poor the initial response, it wasn’t long before former Roman disco DJ turned event promoter Chicco Furlotti spotted the commercial potential of putting on large-scale techno “rave” events. He was responsible for promoting the first techno rave in Rome in 1989, at the famous Euritmia site that had previously hosted the Devotion house parties.
«It was amazing,» Andrea Benedetti enthuses. «Lory and Mauro played an incredible mix of electro, acid house, freestyle, New Beat and techno. Lory’s set was dark and straight as a hammer. I was blown away.»
These kinds of raves — sometimes promoted by Furlotti’s company, and later by others — quickly grew in popularity, drawing a younger crowd away from the city’s clubs. «Techno and related music was avoided by all the discos in Rome, so raves were the only place that you could hear that music,» Benedetti says. «We all felt ourselves like revolutionary guys trying to change the status of the city. We meant no disrespect to the past generation of DJs, as they meant a lot to us in terms of their technical skills, but they were too focused on mainstream dance music at the time, and they didn’t like techno, mostly because they thought of it as typical Belgian ‘hoover’ tracks, rather than Detroit techno tracks.»
The feel of the raves — celebratory, wide-eyed and genuinely groundbreaking for the period — was in sharp contrast to the conservative stuffiness of Roman society at large. «Don’t forget that Rome is home to the Vatican State, and Italy’s political power,» Benedetti says. «It’s mostly a city of employers and middle class people, with an elite of very rich people. Raves and techno was like punk in England to me — it was just something that had to happen in Rome. The problem was, in comparison to people in other cities like London and Berlin, Romans didn’t have the same musical background. Most of the people that went to our raves didn’t know electronic music very well at all. This was good, as you could build everything from scratch.»
Of course, that’s exactly what Rome’s pioneering techno DJs did, throwing themselves into the studio to craft what would become the city’s trademark musical style. It would take until the tail end of 1990, though, for their efforts to begin appearing in record stores.
ACT TWO: THE SOUNDS OF ROME
At the end of 1989, Andrea Benedetti decided to build a recording studio with his former college friend Eugenio Vatta, and local musician Mariano Salvati, who had previously had a hit as part of Italian disco troupe Traks. «Myself and Eugenio had a common love for Pink Floyd and electronic music at large,» Benedetti remembers. «He had tons of synths. I was lucky to have Eugenio as a partner because he was a very skilled sound engineer and an open-minded musician. When we built the studio we bought a very good Soundcraft mixing desk, which had the automation, so we could save our mix downs and command it through the computer, which at the time was an Atari running Cubase. Alongside that we had all our synths and drum machines, as well as a Tascam one-inch tape recorder so that we could record guitars and voices to mix in with the electronics.»
On one trip to Remix Records in 1990, Benedetti got talking to Andrea Prezioso, elder brother of renowned Roman turntablist Georgio Prezioso. The elder Prezioso mentioned that Lory D had persuaded Remix boss Sandro Nasonte to fund a record label, to be called Sounds Never Seen, and that the turntablist-turned-techno DJ was looking for a studio in which to make his first record. Benedetti had no hesitation in offering up his shared studio, and soon after a long program of jam sessions began.
«When we met in the studio, Lory brought one of his synths and he showed us the track that would later become Sickness from the first Sounds Never Seen release,» Benedetti remembers. «The idea of the track was almost complete — myself and Eugenio just helped add effects and make a proper mix down.»
Sickness also saw the first appearance of the now famous «this is The Sound of Rome» vocal sample, alongside some decidedly dystopian electronics, sharp, rave-era stabs, liquid acid lines and a colossal, industrial influenced techno groove. All these years on, the track has lost none of its power, and remains a defining moment in rave-era techno production.
The same could be said about Leo Anibaldi’s Noise Generation EP, which hit stores on ACV — a more established label and studio run by businessman Tony Verde — around the same time as the first Sounds Never Seen 12-inch. Anibaldi had already set out his stall with the Italian House EP, a collection of luscious, Larry Heard and Burrell Brothers-inspired deep house tracks, but used Noise Generation to further explore his techno and hardcore influences. It wasn’t long before Anibaldi — already close friends with Lory D — was joining the Sounds Never Seen sessions at Benedetti’s studio.
«From the time that Lory introduced me to Andrea and Eugenio, we spent every moment we could locked up in the studio, day and night,» Anibaldi reminisces. «During that period me and Lory were like two twins searching for a new way to write hi-hat or snare patterns. There were no tutors or sound engineers to tell us how to get a special drum hit or synth sound, so we wrote a lot of grooves. We were always searching, passionately, for that sound or pattern.»
What Lory D, Anibaldi, Benedetti and Vatta were searching for, and slowly developing, was a sound that was as abstract and experimental in outlook as it was overwhelmingly dancefloor-friendly. That they managed to achieve this on their subsequent releases — both together, and on their own projects — is great credit to their skills as producers, not to mention their unique, shared musical vision.
«Originally Lory’s idea for the first few Sounds Never Seen releases was to have a simple title, like We Are in the Future, and no other credits,» Benedetti says. «It was meant to be a group or project that would change from record to record. If you go to Discogs, you will see that all the records are in his name, but that wasn’t his intention.»
Benedetti is keen to stress that Lory D did, though, have a very specific idea in mind for the tracks he would release on Sounds Never Seen. «Lory was very clear from the start, when he called the label Sounds Never Seen,» he asserts. «We all agreed that our true challenge was making cutting edge music that would change the status quo. Our aims were to get the best from our machines, and to break the rules. It’s easy to just do what your machines easily allow with presets and so on, to arrange a rhythm in the easiest way. For example, we never used to arrange hi-hats in the typical house mode. For us, hi-hats were very important, because through them you can shape and characterize a track. We never wanted to be satisfied with the first option available, and to be as experimental as possible while remaining on the dancefloor. Later, in my radio shows, I used to call this ‘the grey area between dance and experimentation.’ This attitude was typical of Lory: always go further.»
Outside of the studio, it wasn’t all plain sailing. While the DJs and producers pushing the sound forward remained on good terms, there were tensions between Remix’s Sandro Nasonte and Tony Verde’s ACV camp. Inevitably, it left Leo Anibaldi and ACV’s other high-profile Roman techno outfit, Automatic Sound Unlimited, very frustrated — particularly when they later discovered that their contracts were virtually worthless.
«To be honest I never had a great relationship with Tony Verde,» Anibaldi admits. «He was never really honest with me. Surely I was not alone in having problems with him.» When Max Durante joined forces in 1991 with the D’Arcangelo twins — later to enjoy great success with their unique brand of melodious IDM and “braindance” on Rephlex — it wasn’t long before they discovered just how Verde operated.
«He used to act in a way that we were competing with Lory and Sandro, but we never thought we were,» Marco D’Arcangelo says ruefully. «We knew each other and were friends. It was just Tony. He would say, ‘Look at what they’re doing — we can do better than that!’ For us, it was just a bit of a laugh, but deep down we knew he was ripping us — and Leo — off badly.»
The D’Arcangelo twins had worked with Max Durante before on rave promotion. On October 26, 1991, they put on one of the most significant raves Rome had ever seen. It took place inside an enormous circus tent on the site of the former Pathe film studios.
«We wanted to do a dedicated Plus 8 label party,» Durante remembers. «We had Speedy J, Richie Hawtin under his F.U.S.E alias, Cybersonic and Dan Bell. It was an enormous success. People reacted in an incredible way. Everyone wore very original clothes, or turned up in completely black outfits. Others were semi-naked, or wore strange fancy dress outfits. During that period, raves in Roman would attract between 3,000 and 9,000 people every weekend. They were massive.»
On the back of this success, Durante approached the D’Arcangelo twins with the idea of working on some music together. «At the time, I already had my EPS-16 sampler keyboard, which I’d just bought for a bit of fun,» Marco D’Arcangelo says. «Along with my brother, I would play around and make tapes. Max smelled an opportunity — a way into making music. He had no gear, but we did. He also had an ‘in’ with ACV, which we didn’t. So, we got together, had a laugh, recorded a demo and decided to stick together. I thought, ‘Yeah, whatever, this won’t go anywhere.’ Then, a few weeks later Max and Fabrizio said that they’d done a deal with ACV, that we could go into the studio with Robert Armani to properly produce our demos, and that they’d be released on a new sub-label called Hot Trax.»
Recorded in December 1991 and released in February ’92, Automatic Sound Unlimited’s Roman’s Attack EP further developed the twisted, industrial-influenced techno sound showcased on Lory D and company’s early Sounds Never Seen singles. High octane throughout, with rip-snorting rhythms, surging acid lines, scuzzy textures, ghostly melodies and heaps of distortion, it offered further proof of a distinctive “sound of Rome.”
«When we recorded it, we were three different guys with three different musical backgrounds,» Max Durante comments. «We started by deconstructing techno from our point of view. One of the first things we did was to use more broken beat patterns rather than 4/4 stuff. Then we started using distortion more often. It was a process of experimentation — a compromise between research and instinct. We thought of what we were doing as experimental techno, but really it was the first wave of Italian industrial techno.»
1992 was something of a vintage year for Roman techno. There was a third Lory D release on Sounds Never Seen — featuring un-credited contributions from Leo Anibaldi to get round legal issues with ACV — and a solo records on Sysmo from Andrea Benedetti under the New Acid Generation and Skull pseudonyms. The latter notable for featuring Judgement Day, a curiously nightmarish, out-there concoction full of odd military percussion, Giallo-style chords and a deliciously distorted bassline.
«Originally, the Skull EP was meant to come out on Sounds Never Seen as S.N.S.004,» Benedetti admits. «There were promos made, but then Lory changed his mind. At first I was quite disappointed, but in hindsight he was right. The tracks were good, but not really cutting edge like the previous S.N.S releases. Lory always had a clear vision for the label, and what he wanted to release. His ideas were radical, and I agreed with them. It’s this that makes Sounds Never Seen a cult label to this day.»
Confirmation of the growing stature of the Roman techno scene came later in the year, with the release of Leo Anibaldi’s debut album, Cannibald — The Virtual Language on ACV. While naturally brimming with the kind of pulsating, in-your-face abstract techno tackle that was fast becoming a Roman trademark, it also featured Anibaldi turning his hand to ambient (the undeniably creepy Always from Reality) and murky, otherworldly electronica (The Story Become) and relatively picturesque, if unsettling, IDM (Midi Message). Aside from Rephlex’s 2003 retrospective of the Sounds Never Seen back catalogue, it remains arguably the finest single collection of early Roman techno productions.
«That album was the result of a long process of experimentation, locked in the studio on my own, in the times I wasn’t with Lory,» Anibaldi says. «I tried to write different grooves, beats and sounds that had never been heard. A year or two later I met Richie Hawtin for the first time at a gig in London, together with Aphex Twin. They both said how much they liked the album. That was like a dream come true! Meeting Richard D James that day eventually led to me releasing the Void album on Rephlex in 1996.»
James and Rephlex partner Grant Wilson-Claridge would eventually offer many of the Roman techno pioneers — Lory D, Anibaldi and the D’Arcangelo brothers amongst them — a chance to escape the later politics of Rome. The influence of Rephlex and James in particular can certainly be heard in later Automatic Sound Unlimited releases, and the brutal, wayward intensity of Lory D’s RCA-released 1993 debut album, Antisystem.
«When Aphex Twin came to play in Rome for the first time, in 1992, that changed everything,» Marco D’Arcangelo says. «Because Richard’s music was totally different from anything else, it was hugely influential. It was hardcore with something different. The 1993 release of Analogue Bubblebath Volume 3 was the one that really changed our perspective. Sandro at Remix couldn’t get enough copies to satisfy demand! The way Richard used industrial sounds was a big thing for us. His way of doing it, with up-tempo breakbeats, 303 lines and kick drums, was hugely influential. It was not for everyone, but for us it was magic.»
By the time 1993 rolled around, the international reputation of the Roman techno scene was at its’ peak. Notable DJs from elsewhere in Europe were supporting the records, which sold in surprisingly high numbers. The likes of Max Durante, Lory D and Leo Anibaldi were booked as headline attractions at raves in Zurich, Berlin and London. Back in Rome, techno had never been more popular, with Luca Cucchetti — brother of famed Roman DJ Faber Cucchetti — helping to stoke interest via a popular, techno and rave-focused show on local radio. Behind the scenes, though, things were not quite so rosy.
ACT THREE: THE FALL OF ROME
Where once Rome’s rave scene had been a source of huge inspiration — a joyous, messy and life-affirming two-fingered salute to what had gone before — it was now reaching saturation point. The popularity of events, in particular, was causing new problems.
«In my opinion, after 1992 the rave scene got very bad,» Andrea Benedetti sighs. «Too many people wanted to make money organizing raves, or the organizers weren’t very professional.»
There were other issues, too. According to some reports, raves began to be infiltrated by Rome’s far-right. «When they began to appear at raves, it changed everything,» Marco D’Arcangelo admits. «The thing is, the right wing liked very dark, intensive music. I don’t remember ever hearing any communists talking about hard techno, or making their presence felt at raves. It’s a different association.»
Naturally, some of the scene’s major protagonists began to look elsewhere, searching for an escape route. «Things just began to get out of our control,» Max Durante says. «Techno became a well-known word and a lot of people outside of the scene, such as journalists, started saying a lot of shit about raves, like they were just drug-related, or that techno was only for crazy people and Nazis. The police began to get involved more, and raves were banned, just as they had been in London.»
Durante sighs deeply, as if the scars of this period still feel fresh. «In 1994 I had the idea to make an event called Save The Rave,» he says. «Unfortunately, it was too late. The police prohibited us from doing it. They sent away thousands of people, and those left eventually rioted. That was the end of rave for me. Some squatters began to take over buildings and put on parties, but it was not the same. It was a chaotic and surreal period. Bitterness and sorrow was carved on the faces of those who really believed. It was like the scene after a war, where everything has been destroyed.»
Durante swiftly moved to Switzerland, while Marco D’Arcangelo married a British woman and moved to London. As they departed, a new wave of Roman producers, inspired by their peers, jumped at the opportunities presented by the likes of ACV.
«The production scene became bigger and bigger, and many other Roman DJs and producers started making records,» Andrea Benedetti remembers. «In 1990/1991 I had a very good relationship with the likes of Marco Micheli, Gabriele Rizzo, the D’Arcangelo twins and Max Durante. They all had a similar point of view about techno music, even though everyone had his own style. Then I met Marco Passarani, Francesco De Bellis, Mario Pierro and T.E.W. Even if they produced different styles, and in different ways, they had a huge amount of respect for music and they always pushed the limits in anything they produced. But they were not alone — there were loads of other artists who did not have this respect. Our ideas at the beginning were very radical, and we were a small group of people, so it was easy to follow some ‘rules.’ As time went on and the scene expanded, this was not possible. The initial ideas of cutting edge techno, that some people call ‘The Sound of Rome,’ were lost.»
While many of those involved in production and DJing were shielded from some of the worst effects of the changing nature of Rome’s techno scene, they had their own problems: primarily a dawning realisation that some of the businessmen funding their vinyl releases were not playing fair.
Leo Anibaldi, who had been one of the earliest signings to ACV and, along with Automatic Sound Unlimited, one of the label’s greatest successes, ended up in a long legal battle with owner Tony Verde. «He was ripping me off,» Anibaldi says. «When I tried to leave ACV, Tony Verde did everything he could to try and stop my career. All of the artists had problems with him. I know my records were the largest source of income for him, and I’ve never really been paid.»
Eventually, Anibaldi was able to wrest back control of his back catalogue, and a collection of his early, ACV-era recordings was later made available on his own Cannibald imprint. Max Durante and Marco D’Arcangelo, too, had problems with Verde, with the former being forced to run down his contract before re-building his production career in the late 1990s. «It was like being a prisoner,» he says. «That’s why there’s a big gap in my discography. It was a very difficult time.»
For a period, Rome’s techno scene was in the doldrums. Techno became popular in other parts of Italy, with a distinctive, more obviously Detroit-influenced scene developing in Naples. As the 1990s progressed, the Roman scene was re-built, brick by brick, by a new generation. Marco Passarani and Andrea Benedetti joined forces to launch the Finalfrontier business — and a string of new labels, including Nature and Plasmek — in 1994, offering local producers the chance to press and distribute their own releases. By now, the nature of Roman techno had changed, but some of the stylistic ticks — most notably a desire for darkness and brutal energy — remained. Perhaps this, more than anything else, is the legacy of Rome’s original techno pioneers.
EPILOGUE: HAPPY ENDINGS
Today, Italian techno — from Rome, and elsewhere — is once again surfing the crest of a wave. Second and third generation producers, such as Marco Passarani, Giorgio Gigli, Modern Heads and Donato Dozzy, have continued to serve up hard, raw and brutal music that retains a trippy, unsettling feel. In some cases, it may lack the radical thinking and devotion to experimentalism, but it can nevertheless trace its’ roots back to that pioneering era.
It’s perhaps fitting that some of the original visionaries have found their careers re-energised in recent years. Max Durante, Leo Anibaldi and the D’Arcangelo twins continue to put out music, mainly on their own labels, and in a variety of electronic styles. Andrea Benedetti has taken a step back from production in recent years, but released a fine electro album under the Sprawl alias in 2009.
The most high profile of the original pioneers is, of course, Lory D, whose association with Rephlex, and now Numbers, has introduced his thrilling mixing style and dystopian musical vision to a brand new generation of clubbers. To this day, he remains relatively tight-lipped about his early career, seemingly reticent to cover old ground. This has, in many ways, only added to his allure.
Others, of course, were more than willing to talk, but still find it difficult to assess the legacy of a scene and sound they helped to craft all those years ago — or, for that matter, the reasons behind their Roman revolution. «In Rome, there was no sense of being pissed off at the government, and making techno as a kind of protest,» Marco D’Arcangelo says. «Underground Resistance had reasons to start a movement, I’m not sure we did. Lots of people took lots of pills, but there wasn’t that illicit culture that you associate with rave in the UK.»
Leo Anibaldi, too, struggles to explain what happened all those years ago. «In those years we did not make proclamations saying ‘We are the sound of Rome,’» he says. «We used to spend our daily lives in the studio, living in this restricted world. We were all lucky to meet, and find other people to share our passion and musical ideas with. I think I owe a lot to Lory D. It was he who threw the first stone of this movement.»
Perhaps we should give the last word to Andrea Benedetti, a man who spent much of the early 1990s chronicling the Italian techno scene from a position right at the epicentre. This was initially through his groundbreaking Tunnel fanzine, but later as a journalist and author. For those fluent in Italian, his book on the country’s techno scene, Mondo Techno, is well worth a read.
«There is no legacy to me,» he says wearily. «It was a style generated by a specific period, by a limited number of people. I think the legacy is only following the initial ideas: stress your machines and produce tracks that are danceable and experimental, at the same time trying not to follow other people’s ideas, but creating new paths.»
For a brief but oh-so glorious period in the early 1990s, Rome’s techno producers did just that.
This article was commissioned by and first published in “Red Bull Music Academy”.