Dubdisco diva: high priestess of the dancefloor.
Dubdisco diva: high priestess of the dancefloor.
Two years ago, when Kayli was staying at the Parallax Room, I put together this little mix in the spirit of the moment. Summer was dawning, the heat was rising and the palms was swaying, so the time seemed right for a little Compass Point action. Parallax Pier was born, and it became the seventh Cheap Hotel release, seeming as it did to flow naturally from The Clash At The Edge Of Forever compilation. I was all set to upload this mix way back in December but there seemed to be something wrong with the idea of putting such sunny music out there in the dead of winter! This is summertime music, pure and simple, post-disco music with gulf stream tendencies (linking New York to the Caribbean, the Black Ark to the Paradise Garage). This is music born from the place where the ocean meets the shore, hence the compilation's central theme.
Over the last decade or so, there's been lots of ink spilled on the yacht phenomenon - put crudely, canyon folk and jazz artists getting down with a light disco groove in the mid-seventies onward (see Crosby, Stills & Nash's Dark Star, Pablo Cruise's Love Will Find A Way, Steely Dan's Hey Nineteen, etc.). There's even a yacht cover band making the rounds locally! Of course there's loads of great music that's been mined from this seam, but the sound I'm discussing at the moment is a very different phenomenon.
If yacht is muted pastel shades, sports jackets and boat shoes (think Carly Simon at Martha's Vineyard), this music is all vibrant colors, Hawaiian shirts and worn sneakers (inna Club Paradise stylee). This is the sound of post punk new wave going to the beach, the vibes and production techniques of Jamaican dub and Afrobeat creeping their way into the pop charts, the post-disco wave breaking on the shore and pulling back into the sunset to reveal all manner of ocean life dancing in the sand. This compilation captures this very select strain of tropical boogie that just so happens to encompass some of the greatest music of its era. Its spiritual home was Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas and on the dancefloor at the Paradise Garage, and its spectre lived on in the output of leftfield house labels like Nu Groove, Warriors Dance and Jumpin' & Pumpin'.
Slye and I have mixed the original compilation into a non-stop excursion through the coastal vibrations of the Parallax Pier. Apologies for a few of the more ramshackle transitions... please bear in mind that the original compilation's sequencing was planned without the mix in mind! Simply click the play button below to listen...
... and we're off!
Pushing off with this slab of calypso-inflected new wave from LA, we find that the Parallax Pier is not a million miles removed from Club Paradise. Discovered this only recently thanks to a Pops-initiated endeavor in which we were scouring the 91x Top 91 songs by year, looking for forgotten gems that he'd dug back in the day. At first you think it's just another zany new wave trifle but then that gorgeous climax hits you like a wave crashing on the shore. Apparently lead singer Tim McGovern re-recorded the song very recently, which is available for download...
Surely everyone knows Eddy Grant's electro-tinged post-disco evergreen? Gloriously warped sonix prevail and yet that beat is locked down inna grid Devo-stylee. I've long had a fascination with Grant and his whole ICE setup, the Coach House Rhythm Section, Time Warp and so on. His records predict the spirit of Compass Point more explicitly than just about anything else I can think of (with certain exceptions to follow!).
The original plan was to include Walking On Sunshine - the opening track to his 1978 album of the same name (which also features the excellent Living On The Frontline/The Frontline Symphony suite) - instead, but ultimately figured that Electric Avenue's production was a tighter fit with the rest of the music here. Still, it's something to consider for the inevitable second volume...
Crisp, immaculately arranged electronic post-disco action from the great Patrick Adams and Peter Brown. Five years on from Atmosphere Strut, this takes that record's gaussian-blurred psychedelia into the eighties with those same trademark synths writhing against an electroid bassline and geometric percussion patterns while an uncredited vocalist intones the title over and over and over. I've always wanted a copy of Don't Let This Rainbow Pass Me By - the midpoint between both records - but have yet to come across it in the field.
I'm often intrigued by Brown's Heavenly Star imprint, which dealt not only in excellent post-disco boogie but also the sounds of early hip hop. Catching my eye as I was thumbing through Freddy Fresh's The Rap Records1 some time ago, I only recently noticed that the label put out a remix 12" of Spoonie Gee's Spoonie Rap, my absolute favorite first-wave seventies rap record.
Big chant! Sting echoes the track's title (and not much more) over his own twisting bassline while Andy Sumners cloaks everything in chiming guitars, Stewart Copeland holding everything down with his inimitable presence behind the drum kit. This was big on dancefloors of the era (along with the Common Sense cover version), indeed its gulf stream vibes seem to epitomize the sort of freewheeling exotic moods and grooves you might find at the Paradise Garage at the time. The track's durable rhythm managed to weave itself into the very fabric of post-disco music in the ensuing years, from hip hop (Chill Rob G) to house (KC Flightt) and even r&b (702 featuring Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott).
The Compass Point All Stars are all over Grace Jones' Island trilogy. This peerlessly engineered rubberband post-punk disco is from Nightclubbing, the second record in the trilogy and a documented Parallax favorite. I've gone on at great length about the Compass Point All Stars before - what I really ought to do is gather all of this content into a feature - but suffice it to say that they are the The Funk Brothers of this whole sound (that is, the key element in this story).
Only recently discovered the ultra-vibey music video, featuring a be-suited Jones doing her thing as Blade Runner-esque cityscapes cycle past in the background. Needless to say, Ms. Jones is a thoroughly fascinating character. I've been looking forward to reading her recently-published autobiography, I'll Never Write My Memoirs, as soon as I get my hands on it.
Along with the Jellybean Benitez-helmed Holiday and Into The Groove, my favorite Madonna tune. Maybe the first hint of her later direction, heralded by the conceptual Like A Prayer LP, which marked her out as a permanent institution in the pop marketplace. The production maybe not quite as fabulous as its surroundings here, it's nevertheless a sumptuous, wistful reverie.
Killer electro pop. I remember loving this one at the time - it dropped not long before my second trip to Puerto Rico as a kid - and I'll forever associate it with what was a very special time in my life. Nu Shooz were a husband/wife duo from Portland, Oregon. Nevertheless, they managed to capture perfectly the hot fun in the summertime atmosphere: palm trees swaying in the breeze as seagulls circle above, swimming pool reflections dancing off every surface (appropriately, the album is titled Poolside) as the sun settles on the horizon.
More dawn of sampling bizzness from Mick Jones and co. Curiously in thrall to the nascent digital dancehall. I've always loved the drum sound throughout this album, but especially in both the electroid Sudden Impact! and this track, which are from it's under-explored second side (all the hits are from the first). Especially cool how Jones chants the lyrics for the first 3/4 of the song's running time before Don Letts drops in to reiterate the selfsame story in rapid-fire ragga chat, squeezing it all into the last fourth before Leo Williams emerges with the baritone response.
Note the presence of Paul "Groucho" Smykle behind the boards, in the midst of his excellent eighties run engineering everything from reggae slates like Gregory Isaacs' Night Nurse (Discomix) and Derrick Harriott's Dub Whip to the post punk disco three-way of Jah Wobble/The Edge/Holger Czukay's Snake Charmer 12", a killer remix of Ja Funmi by juju icon King Sunny Adé and Wally Badarou's sterling mid-eighties work.
Case in point this sublime bit of low key, rolling synth-boogie. Just casually brilliant post-disco magic brought to you by Compass Point's key(board) man, taken from his excellent Echoes LP (which also features Mambo, the basis for Massive Attack's Daydreaming. The 12" version - which I reckon is one of the key records of the decade - is even better (but runs just a bit too long for the purposes of this compilation), featuring Groucho himself behind the boards yet again.
More Compass Point magic from post-disco chanteuse Gwen Guthrie, this EP of the same name came out on Garage Records (Larry Levan's label associated with the Paradise Garage) alongside N.Y.C. Peech Boys and the Black Mamba record. Levan stretches out five of Guthrie's tracks and dubs them to abstraction, Gwen's voice resplendent throughout, inhabiting her environment like a queen in a crystal palace. One of the great kiss-off tracks, I always love it when Gwen sings You blew it, you blew it, you blew it! just before the chorus hits.
With Tina on holiday from the Talking Heads, the Weymouth sisters - with Chris Frantz in tow - get down at Compass Point with the All Stars and turn out one of the great girl group records of the era2 (the self-titled debut). This single, a cover of The Drifters' perennial favorite, followed hot on its heels and wrought the same magic from all parties involved.
Offbeat coda to the original version of Billy Idol's solo debut, which was replaced by Generation X's Dancing With Myself for the US release. Maybe not as earth-shattering as that hit new wave record, but with Idol chanting nonsense over a dubbed-out conga rhythm for about a minute - bringing to mind Iggy Pop's awesome Jungle Man - it's certainly a strange bit of something special.
The group's debut, I Just Can't Stop It, was so exceedingly brilliant that their follow up albums couldn't help but pale in comparison. This track, however - from their swansong Special Beat Service - is the equal of anything on the debut, seemingly drawing from soca, highlife and South African jive to work up an utterly infectious slice of new wave dance pop. A great song to dance to.
Sparkling soukous from Tanzania. From their excellent Agwaya LP, which was among the first African records that I ever owned. The band shifts and turns like clockwork over a wonderful 4/4 pulse, liquid bass propelling from within and driving the whole thing relentlessly forward. Apparently this track also had a 12" release at the time. Band leader Remmy Ongala went on to have a solo career later in the decade, hooking up with Real World for a couple albums.
This was another one that came to light in the Pops-helmed excavation of 91x's old yearly charts. I'd always heard the name and assumed they were synth pop in the vein of Heaven 17, rather than the glittering indie-pop contemporaries of Aztec Camera and Orange Juice that they turned out to be. I djed and my old room mate's wedding a few years back and when my set was over I threw this album on and everyone jumped into the hotel pool, still dressed to the nines. It's A Wonderful Life at The Pearl!
Incredibly lush and verdant disco-inflected reggae. Like much of Eddy Grant's seventies output, this sounds just preposterously, stupidly ahead of its time. If you played this for me in the late-nineties, I would have guessed it had come out something like five years earlier in the decade. Of course, it's from 1978. A shimmering reggae cover version of The O'Jays' standard, stretched out to nearly eight minutes, its pulsing 4/4 beat and liquid organ-tinged groove is effortlessly propulsive.
Bringing it all back home is Crashers' island-tinged post-disco chestnut Flight To Jamaica (Cool Runings). Like nearly everything else here, that central groove is just exquisite, rolling along at a lazy mid-tempo as the uncredited vocalists moonwalk across its surface with their soaring refrain. Those sun-glazed ARP strings and shimmering melodica stylings are just the icing on the cake. Features the immortal line, I'm so cool, I'm about to... freeze! Which, come to think of it, just about sums up this whole affair to a T...
1 Freddy Fresh, The Rap Records (1st Edition) (Howlin', 2004), 97.
2 No mean feat, considering the likes of the Bangles, the Go-Go's, Klymaxx, The Pointer Sisters, Bananarama, the Mary Jane Girls, Vanity 6, ESG and The Slits were all plying their trade around the same time.
Picking up from last time (nearly a year ago!), here's another Garden Grooves session coming at your from the Heights. This outing was squarely in the roots 'n future neighborhood, where dub, house and trip hop all shuffle in the shadows, matching the mood as we cultivated the fern gardens in the shady glen of The Southwest Terrace. Spanning a weekend of work, here's the selection as it played out:
Jumping off into our horticultural escapades with Rodriguez's debut, an unqualified masterpiece. Peerless folk coming from Detroit, masterfully produced and arranged by Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, Rodriguez himself is never less than compelling. One of those records packed with potential hit singles (Hate Street Dialogue, Sugar Man, Jane S. Piddy, etc.) that the label nonetheless fumbled, not knowing how to market. Such a shame!
Phenomenally lush chamber jazz on the BYG/Actuel imprint, rendered doubly fascinating in the context of that label's illustrious free jazz pedigree. I reckon this even tops New Africa, Moncur's free outing of the previous year on the same label. Utterly unique, this is one of my key Jazz Mosiac records. It always makes me think of walking around Balboa Park in the late afternoon, the Timkin, the Botanical Gardens, etc.
Supreme latin funk masterminded by the late, great Eddie Palmieri and his brother Charlie. I've gone on record about Palmieri before, suffice it to say I think he's one of the great visionaries of salsa music, stretching it out in the same way Miles did jazz around the same time. You might call this dread, moody funk tile something of a sister record to The World Is A Ghetto. Carmello requested this and the next one when he rolled up for some digging time.
Awesome discomix version of the Dazz Band's immortal Let It Whip, a key Blacklight Affair track that also gets regular play on Magic 92.5. The Dub Whip version on the flipside is utterly essential, drenching the track in reverb as every aspect trails off into deep space.
Which takes us into Señor Konders rootsical deep house vibes. This indispensable compilation (assembled by none other than Frankie Bones) was my introduction to the man's work after hearing the immortal Let There Be House in the mix. This pre-dates the (also excellent) A Lost Era In NYC 1987-1992 compilation on International Deejay Gigolo by a good seven years; I dig the focus on the early Massive Sounds sides during the latter half of this compilation, prefiguring as they do Konders' latter ragga-infused direction while remaining firmly grounded in New York house.
The lone LP to result from Smith & Mighty's signing with FFRR, an ill-fated deal that promised to deliver a flurry of records before becoming bogged down in label politics. Paired with the Steppers Delight EP, it makes as excellent case for the duo's status as the godfathers of Bristol blues. Carlton himself is a revelation. It's a shame he didn't get to do more vocal work as the decade progressed... one could see him linking up with a UK garage crew and doing serious damage later in the decade.
Roots reggae stalwart and frequent Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy's LP on Massive's Melankolic setup. Just a great modern reggae record, with tracks like After All and Juggling offering up a shimmering take on roots music. Still, there's a definite modernist tilt to songs like the Johnny Too Bad cover and the awesome Doldrums (produced by 3D). A careening ragga track riding a beatbox rhythm, it's one of those tracks that remain impossible to date: it could have come out in 1989, 1999, 2009 or even two years from now.
Neuromancer post-disco blues. Makes an excellent case for giving supermodels record contracts. Jones cut through the decade like a bejewelled dagger, unfurling a swathe of superb records like Warm Leatherette, Slave To The Rhythm and this record, a Parallax favorite. I've gone on about this one many times before (and many times to come, no doubt), but today I'd like to single out I've Done It Again for praise, a lazy windswept chanson, gently swaying like Luquillo palms at sunset.
Excellent soukous from The Congo. There's not a great deal written about this record, although it does make Muzikifan's illustrious African Top 50. The title track is simply exquisite, those lilting guitars do their thing over a pulsing 4/4 beat as an ebullient Mangwana dances atop the whole thing like Fred Astaire. One of my favorite sleeves as well, evocative as it is of a particular time and place.
Peak-era Thomas Leer, on the heels of his 4 Movements EP and basking in the same gulf stream vibes. Leer's bedroom sonics somehow manage to make the whole thing sound anachronistic by about fifteen years - pre-dating the likes of Jimi Tenor and Uwe Schmidt - and betraying unlikely similarities with prime Compass Point material like Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector.
This was a huge record for me at the time. Indeed 2006 (over ten years ago!) was the last time I remember feeling overwhelmed by a surplus of great records (it's been diminishing returns since!). Cheikh Lô's third album finds him truly mastering his writing, with a rich, full bodied production (think Ali Farka Touré). World Circuit were tearing it up at this point, with the aforementioned Touré, Oumou Sangare and Orchestra Baobab releases all surfacing within months of each other. The awesome Kelle Magni (Encore) is an unacknowledged Balearic chestnut, just waiting for someone to pick up on it in the club. I remember hoping for a 12" release at the time.
Quintessential Warriors Dance magic, this mutant house tile - like Bang The Party's Back To Prison - is utterly essential listening. Unlike the BTP record, this one never saw release on CD. Don't believe people who tell you there aren't great house albums! This is the next step down the road from Bobby Konders' Massai Women, creeping further yet into fourth world territory and all the better for it.
I've always been a huge Bandulu fan. This was the first thing of theirs I scooped up back in the day (oddly enough, it was the easiest to find, despite Cornerstone being a new release at the time). This is a dubbed-out, Detroit-inflected high desert head trip unlike anything else I've heard. There's plenty of widescreen epics like Earth 6 and Invaders, but a song like Gravity Pull - with its clanking percussion and droning sonics - is a surreal atmospheric missive not entirely removed from Basic Channel/Chain Reaction. I've always adored the bassline in Messenger (a distant cousin to Carl Craig's Psyche/BFC output), and speaking of Craig, the man surfaces here with the Innerzone Mix of Better Nation is, a spiky slab of street-level techno on the 21st century b-boy tip.
Similarily, I've always adored Andrew Weatherall's output, especially from this point up to just before Two Lone Swordsmen went post punk. Weatherall was a huge fan of The Clash, and damn if he didn't create a body of work that approximated what Joe Strummer and co. might have sounded like if they'd caught the vibes at Shoom and descended deeper into electronics. A superb album, hovering at the nexus between dub, breakbeat and techno, where the spirits dwell.
The Revolver of the nineties. The culmination of everything the duo-turned-trio had been up to in their wilderness years, this is strictly rough cut bizzness. I liked the way Kevin Pearce invoked Sandinista! when discussing this album in A Cracked Jewel Case. It's a mess, but beautifully so. With vocal showcases like Drowning, Down In Rwanda and Higher Dub continuing the crew's tradition of first-rate vocal showcases, its the instrumentals like Yow He Koh, Maybe For Dub and Jungle Man Corner that manage to get to the heart of the matter and steal the show.
Awesome digidub compilation on the Nubian setup, which I know next to nothing about. Featuring mostly (but not just) Bristol artists, this features the mind-blowing Peter D. showcase Jah Pure & Clean, which I first heard on Smith & Mighty's fiery DJ-Kicks outing back in 1998. The liner notes rather helpfully have bios on the crews involved, along with label contacts and other background information.
The midpoint between the breakout proto-big beat of Into The Dragon and Beat Dis-era and the breathtaking hip hop blues of Clear. You hear very little about this record but trust me, you want to check it out. Like John Saul Kane's Depth Charge output, it splits the difference between big beat and trip hop while submerging the results in murky waters. Unlike Kane, Tim Simenon works with vocalists like Loretta Heywood and carves out a peerless raw-edged sound (this the same year as Blue Lines!). The Air You Breathe, with its spine-tingling Tell me you were never one of them sample, is quite simply sublime.
Post punk Jacob Miller cover version that predicts trip hop a whole year before Mark Stewart got around to it? Apocalyptic spaghetti western discomix showcase built around dialogue samples from Duck, You Sucker and Once Upon A Time In The West?? Cinematic fourth world dub breakdown straight out of William Gibson's Zion??? It's all here, baby.
Spiralling breakbeat magic on Leftfield's Hard Hands imprint. Bought on sight from the cheap bin (along with Anthony Shakir's Tracks For My Father, if memory serves) at the record store next to Club Elements back in the day, Snakes and I had no idea what was in store. Two sides of marathon wildstyle percussion freakouts, loping basslines and not much else - like Niagara getting down with an AKAI - it turns out. Moog In and Moog Out.
People can get pretty sniffy about this duo, and I've never understood it. This cinematic club music splits the difference between house and trip hop, the results shot through with both dub and techno vibes throughout. Songs like Afro-Left, Space Shanty and Black Flute sound like the lush, organic flipside to Bandulu's electronic dub equations, picking up the same thread laid out by Bobby Konders and Warriors Dance. Who could argue with gentle moments like the widescreen ambient of Melt and Original's downbeat splendor. Perhaps people disliked the Lydon guest spot, Open Up? Snobs! That track is phenomenal. At any rate, even the most hardened purist couldn't knock the wild breakbeat moves of Storm 3000.
Awesome dub platter. I always think of this as the sister record to King Tubby's Dub From The Roots. Houses the epochal dub version of Jacob Miller's Baby I Love You So - in the form of the title track - which should be your first port of call if you've never heard a dub track.
Bonkers dubbed-out roots reggae from the great Keith Hudson, whose sound isn't remotely like anyone else's. This LP quite simply is the sound of the jungle: lush, all-conquering vegetation creeping over everything in sight, from roads and buildings to stone heads and pyramids. There's also a sweet, lovers rock aspect to the record that seems to phase in and out of view before Hunting, Stabiliser and My Nocturne roll back in from the darkness.
And with twilight descending, that the next phase of the project was completed...
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'s Green Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
Pieces of the crew were down at the Blacklight Joint the other night, chillin' with Do'shonne and Slye, drafting up the blueprint for the future. Nautilus and Marisol were there, along with half of Palm Grove and Imani, soaking up the vibes down in deepest Oak Park. The subject was a room, not a building but a place where the myriad strands of the Parallax experience could be explored in the depth that they required. A prism through which to glimpse the shadows tucked away within the glorious sprawl of the Heights, this place we call home.
And the evening stretched on and the plans expanded and the music kept right on playing...
The sounds of Bobby Lyle, Silent Phase and Kleeer pulsed out from the swamp deck bassbins, dancing across the surface of Chollas Lake with the ultraviolet lights and the glow of the gibbous moon. This is the Oak Park strut, the glide of your ride on these citystreets, all your travels soundtracked by the moods and grooves at the nexus of heavy atmosphere and wild rhythm. It's the stretch of road pouring into Mesa Q, nestled into that spot where the city meets the edge of the world.
Turn right and you're headed downtown; turn left and your trajectory leads up into the mountains where the Gypsum 5 dwell. South takes you to Palm Grove's Skyline acres, street level with Sweetwater just beyond. North leads to the birthplace, the Gardens, flanked by Mission Trails and Ramona further still, where our man in the hills still dwells. All of it stretches out like a matrix from this solitary point, a Maze in the Twilight, vector lines glowing deep blue against the silhouette palm trees and the crisp air of nightfall.
The sound of drum machines and breakbeats sparring on a liquid synth backdrop set in stark relief against the atmosphere encircling in spiral patterns all around. Depth Charge 808s tattoo the pavement beneath our feet while 303s thread the spaces in between, ARPs and MOOGs and sounds beyond the sounds bathe the corner of 70th in sumptuous texture. And all of this remains in mind as pieces of the crew draft up the blueprint for the future.
Emanon and Vega arrive deep into the night, their residencies concluded for the evening, their input in 4/4 time with a wallshaking bassline to match. Synthesizers like stained glass beamed in from the four corners of the globe, rerouted through the earth beneath our feet, this place we've haunted and will continue to. The designs begin to coalesce as a cool breeze drifts across the glass surface of the lake beyond. Northern Dark played as the moon blazed its path across the sky...
The lovely Sari launches her new music blog Musical Sauce with a post on Larry Heard's classic Mr. Fingers tile, Ammnesia, in what is sure to be the first of many stellar posts.
Tucked away in the shadowy early years of Warp Records' long and winding history, you'll find the debut album by trip hop stalwarts Nightmares On Wax. Originally a duo of George Evelyn and Kevin Harper (aka EASE and Boy Wonder), NOW emerged from the rough-n-ready world of the late-eighties U.K. rave scene, where they made waves spinning at Leeds venues like the Warehouse and Downbeat (the latter of which the duo actually ran themselves). They played a mix of dance music, jazz, soul, hip hop and electro, in keeping with the gloriously omnivorous spirit of the times. EASE quips No segregation in music back then, anything goes!.1
A Word Of Science is suffused with that same anything goes spirit. It's an utterly original record that blends the post-disco sounds of electro, house and hip hop into the sonic equivalent of wildstyle graffiti, its fifteen skeletal tunes belie their spartan nature as they deliriously careen through dazzling, kaleidoscopic terrain. In his breakbeat primer Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide, Peter Shapiro rightly singles this record out for praise, calling it the kind of album we'll probably never hear again as it's so full of the innocent joy everyone's scared to show in this age of ludicrous image-consciousness and po-faced taste-makers2... and that was written nearly twenty years ago.
Certainly straight hip hop tracks like Mega Donutz and How Ya Doin' stand out as hopelessly charming romps, overflowing with a youthful enthusiasm and the optimistic spirit of the times. The rolling Mega Donutz finds MC Tozz 180 recounting the group's history, while How Ya Doin' is essentially a signing-off track, its loping jazz funk beats filled with shout outs to the likes of LFO and Zulu Nation. Both tunes are quintessential U.K. hip hop - coming on like a blunted Shut Up And Dance in rap mode - offering an open-hearted counterpoint to the remainder of the record, which is an unabashedly minimal and moody affair.
The thoroughly smoked-out vibes of Nights Interlude kick the record off with a laidback downbeat rumination sourced in Quincy Jones' Summer In The City3, laying the blueprint for a decade of languid downbeat splendor in the process (and also commencing NOW's own series of Nights excursions). A significant portion of the album trades in downtempo beat collage just as Massive Attack were laying down the gauntlet with their epoch-defining Blue Lines, with the x-ray hip hop of Back Into Time and Playtime sounding like New York beats stretched out in skeletal slow motion. Elsewhere, E.A.S.E. rides a baroque keyboard arrangement over click-clacking typewriter beats. These tracks are crucial early incursions of what would come to be labelled trip hop, even if they would be improved on sharply by NOW with later records like Smoker's Delight and Carboot Soul.
However, A Word Of Science has something those later albums do not: the maddening electronic grooves of its remaining nine tracks, which stretch the pulse of contemporary bleep 'n bass into unexpected shapes and curious rhythms. Crudely put, bleep 'n bass was the British rave sound that immediately preceded ardkore: sourced in U.S. (particularily New York) house and techno, but with an added bass pressure informed by U.K. soundsystem culture. You'd typically get these great brittle, treble-tweaking shards of sound cutting across a booming bottom end, these blank-eyed droning rhythms dished out by crews like Unique 3, Ital Rockers and the Forgemasters.
Warp Records, now a giant in the world of electronic music - particularily of the ambient, experimental variety - got its start caning this sound, with records like Sweet Exorcist's Testone, the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and LFO's LFO. Warp released the epoch-defining debut album by bleep 'n bass luminaries LFO - who enjoy a reputation as something like the Kraftwerk of British techno - in the summer of 1991, with NOW's debut hot on its heels a couple months later.4 Interestingly, these two LPs were the first single-artist, full-length albums to come out on Warp.5, 6
In the austere company of the rest of the early Warp stable, A Word Of Science stands out by virtue of its blunted, hip hop-inflected edges shot through with a rough-hewn, homespun charm. Once again, Peter Shapiro nails it when he says Nightmares On Wax saw Techno as an outgrowth of the funk and hip-hop scenes and approached it with a herbalist's mindset.7 The rolling discoid groove of A Case Of Funk, with that massive geometric bassline riding up against the sides of its percussion loops like a tire on the curb, betrays the duos love of vintage funk with its strikingly organic take on New York house music. In soon-to-be familiar British twist, you can hear the x-factor of that implied breakbeat snaking its way through the rhythm.
Aftermath, a 12" smash from the year prior, famously set this equation in stone, looping a sample of Cuba Gooding Sr. to maddening heights against a backdrop of droning vocals, speaker-shredding hihats, rolling percussion, the occasional electronic flourish and a bassline rising up deep from within. Similar magic is wrought from Biofeedback, with the N.Y.C. Peech Boys sample intoning the track's title over a loping bassline, stop-start percussion loops and a nagging refrain seemingly played on an out-of-tune keyboard.
Dextrous - taken from a 12" released way back in 1989 - represents this sound at its most minimal, riding some detuned synth tones over a spartan rhythm matrix as eerie chords loom on the horizon. It's all so artlessly constructed, yet it truly gets to the heart of the whole machine music enterprise, as if Kraftwerk had surfaced, delirious, at a Leeds warehouse party. The brittle textures of Fun are cut from the same cloth, recalling eighties electro at its most dessicated, while Coming Down (a personal favorite) rides an ultra-repetitive, stop-start and rewind groove that captures the feeling of a helicopter hovering on the horizon as it rises and falls on currents of air. Sal Batardes is yet another crisp, electro-inflected endeavor, with ringing percussion figures that seem to recall the atmosphere of The Imperial Brothers' We Come To Dub. The two-minute sketch B.W.T.M. splits the difference between both sides of the record, running its trilling electro percussion and looped vocal snatches at a downtempo pace.
This is just the sort of record that would have been described as dated in the trend-conscious climate of the late-nineties (when I first heard it), but - like much of my favorite slightly-older music that I scooped up at the time (think Bobby Konders and Todd Terry) - it sounds fresher than ever in the present day. Where most of the big room anthems of that era have by now lost their luster - the overblown sheen rendered absurd by the passage of time - this tough little record really gets down to the heart of the matter, its skeletal rhythm matrix haunted by hieroglyphic ghosts of Sheffield, Detroit and The Bronx, drifting in and out of focus all the time. To borrow the title of their next album, it's a true Smoker's Delight!
1 Nightmares On Wax - DJ-Kicks (Liner Notes)
2 Peter Shapiro, Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide (Penguin, 1999), 322.
3 Quite possibly before anyone else thought to (see also The Pharcyde's Passin' Me By and Peanut Butter Wolf's Run The Line).
4 Bringing to mind SST's issuing of two stone-tablet double albums, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickles On The Dime mere months from one another in a blitzkrieg of overwhelming talent and ambition, two massively talented groups egging each other on.
5 All of this just before Warp redrew the parameters with their Artificial Intelligence series and began to focus on ambient electronica at the album level.
6 Also interesting to note that Nightmares On Wax are the longest serving artist on Warp's roster.
7 Peter Shapiro, Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide (Penguin, 1999), 320.
The Mental Traveler, moving orchestras on a dime.
I recall wandering the vast corridors on an indoor mall only to find a record shop nestled in one of its murky corners. Two separate instances swell from the ocean of memory to overlap: the first was some time ago in the tropics of Camuy on the north side of Puerto Rico, while the second came more recently in the sun-baked heat of Palm Desert. 12" disco dubs in the mall's casual spaces, Jark Prongo records and Dimitri From Paris way back when and Ronnie Laws and Bowie's David Live nestled in the stacks. It brings to mind summer of '98 up in the Bay Area, nights at Mushroom Jazz and long afternoons on the pier. Beginnings at an errant house party, Chicago and The Bucketheads - Street sounds swirling though my mind - with the steaming percussion of Fela Kuti in the mix.
Cut adrift in the dog days after disco had died, in retrospect a golden age when the dancefloor was suffused with the deep dubbed-out flavor of island sounds. It turned out that you couldn't kill it after all, no matter how hard you tried, it lived on in the electroid boogie of D-Train's You're The One For Me and the tropical slow-burning post-disco mirage that had begun to take shape. Wild shapes permeated Larry Levan's lush sonics at The Paradise Garage, the gulf stream drift of Eddy Grant and Grace Jones setting the stage, with Compass Point and the All Stars fleshing it out into four dimensions. The masterful fourth world Juju Music of King Sunny Adé & His African Beats and Tony Allen's Afrobeat 2000 excursion rubbing shoulders with Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts launched it all into the outerrim.
Wally Badarou's shimmering synths flow through it all at low tide, from Echoes in 1985 through Jamie Principle and Larry Heard's early sides on into Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and beyond - the Nu Groove flavor (Here Comes That Sound Again). Scores of moody 12" records blur the lines between deep house, downbeat hip hop, rave and dub reggae, while a secluded path drops out into Bristol, stretching from Carlton to Massive Attack and a whole new decade on the rise.
The low-slung flavor of The Brothers Palmieri and Harlem River Drive flows just below the surface all along, and the sampladelia laid out by Marley Marl, Prince Paul and The Dust Brothers brings it back into the foreground, mirroring those earlier incursions of low-slung, sun-baked riddims in the era of the breakbeat. Countless groups and their records heed the call, filling out the shoes of Nuggets for the nineties. Perhaps the likes of B.A.D. and Neneh Cherry were the bridge between the twin poles, along with myriad other elements thrown into the blend (as is so often the case).
At any rate it's been there all the time, surfing below the surface like the Vertigo Steel out in Lakeside, representing all the discos that could have been. Multi-colored lights flash against mahogany brown, mirrorball spins in slow-motion to the throbbing pulse of Moroder's tronik disco. The skeletal strains of Morgan Geist's Moves EP and the psychedelic filter disco of Kenny Dixon Jr.'s Silentintroduction bridge the gulf of twenty-odd years, and the raw chicago sonix of Steve Poindexter and DJ Skull get down and dirty with a hard-edged magic all their own. Old Reese records like The Sound and Just Want Another Chance lay the bedrock, Tronik House's Smooth Groove and E-Dancer's The Human Bond too, while Todd Terry's blinding 12" slabs of noise are never far from the turntables.
On the road again in the space between dances, rolling low to the pavement in a little brown Dodge Colt and bumping the sounds of Beck's Deadweight, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator and The Egyptian Lover's My Beat Goes Boom - 808 beats banging through the vehicle walls down into the steaming asphalt of Mission Gorge Rd. in the blazing heat. Modern Funk Beats soundclash featuring the blurred edges of If Mojo Was A.M. and Carl Craig's skewed take on hip hop. People Make The World Go Round. Nothing wrong with a little history in those grooves, passed down through the years and picking up 'nuff flavor along the way.
Between the proto-hip hop beats of The Meters and Chic's lush disco grooves lies a galaxy of sound; betwixt Gwen Guthrie's neon-spangled shapes and the dusted beats of Cypress Hill lies a lifetime. The blunted corners of those Soul Machine EPs seem to split the difference between the two, spooling out their various strands into a fatback beat before unfurling back again, out into the möbius of time... there's more to come when they inevitably return.
It's 4/5. '45. Little slabs of sunlight cut on seven inches of wax. From rock 'n roll to roots reggae and post punk to soul, it was the great equalizer: the domain where the upstart musician could go toe to to with the stars. Of course some of the biggest names were masters of the form - look no further than The Beatles' and The Stones' killer run of singles through the sixties for just one example - tucking away stellar tracks on the flip that wouldn't show up anywhere else for years, but figures like The International Submarine Band and The Del-Vetts would come out of nowhere with records like Sum Up Broke and Last Time Around and drop heat of their own. Although it would increasingly lean on the LP format in years to come, rock 'n roll was born on the 7" single.
If there was one genre that dominated the form, then surely it must have been reggae. From the Wailing Souls' Without You to Augustus Pablo's East Of The River Nile and Zap Pow's River Stone, there was a practically endless stream of brilliant 7" singles flowing from Jamaica for decades on end.
The other obvious contender is the soul/funk continuum, boasting James Brown's run of People Records (not to mention his own records!) and Sly Stone's genre-defining rubbing shoulders with The Beginning Of The End's Funky Nassau and Dark Skin Woman by Sir Mack Rice. This isn't even taking into account the winding catalogs of Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International.
Post punk had it's own horde of stone tablets like the five-pronged attack of electronic records coming from the likes of The Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer, The Normal and Cabaret Voltaire. The flipside was twisted records like The Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good And Evil, PIL's Public Image and the Minutemen's Paranoid Time (indeed, this the era that you'd get loads of 7" records that were essentially micro-LPs, records like Minor Threat and the Meat Puppets' In A Car).
In the nineties you had things like Beck's Deadweight come out on 7" (and why couldn't White Gold have been the b-side to The Dandy Warhols' Get Off like it was on the CD?). There were loads of records that would have lent themselves to the format, even if they never did surface. Records like Roller Rinks & Chicks by Freddy Fresh, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator, The Orb's 7" Edit of Toxygene... practically any of the dusted records of the era would have lent themselves to the form.
In the digital era, a lot of exclusively 7" music finally found its way onto other formats, via expanded reissues or compilations like the Nuggets box sets. Labels like Strut and Soul Jazz chronicled entire genres/scenes around the 7" single, breathing new life into the form. And there's still nothing quite like a good b-sides collection...