It turns out I hadn't said everything I wanted to about Talk Talk after all. My little tribute to frontman Mark Hollis evolved slowly in the wake of his death, and the piece wound up a tribute to the band as a whole as much as the man himself. In truth, I'd been intentionally vague when it came time to discuss this particular album because I'd intended to dive into it with even greater detail as the March record of the month (appropriately enough, on the first day of spring).
By now, everyone knows Spirit Of Edenis my favorite record the band ever released. However, someone recently asked me where to start with Talk Talk. After all, that's a good question. Their career took a number of twists and turns, the major transition centering around their shift from the new wave, dancefloor-oriented pop of their early records and the freeform blissout of their later material.
Nestled at the very center of the band's five album run, The Colour Of Spring is the axis at which their sound hinges. Blending the indelible hooks of their earlier pop sensibilities with the abstract ambience of later records like Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, this record also features some of the band's most indelible songs (and with a group like Talk Talk, that's really saying something). As such, it makes the perfect place to start with the group. So take this record of the month as a gateway invitation to work your way forward and back through their discography, because this album — while wholly excellent — is just the tip of the iceberg...
The record opens with the casually unfolding rhythm of Happiness Is Easy, rolling on nothing but Paul Harris' drums and percussion for a solid half-minute before the first sparse accent of plaintive pianos enter the fray. The vocals of Mark Hollis enter with the twang of a guitar, as the song seems to gradually compose itself before your eyes. The throbbing, low-end rumble of double bass (played by Danny Thompson) drives the rhythm in a way that brings to mind Underworld at their most intimate, while the surrounding instrumentation takes on the mood of ECM's sleek European jazz, gently folded into the space of an unassuming pop song.
This sound often makes me think of Dave Stewart's soundtrack to the film Lily Was Here, especially the burning groove and sweeping atmosphere of the main theme, with Candy Dulfer blowing a mean sax in the grand central moonlight. Here, strings rise from the shadows — full of pathos — and underpinned by the organ playing of one Steve Winwood, all aspects swirling together over that unyielding, motorik rhythm as Mark Hollis leans into the chorus:
Take good care of what the priest says:
After death it's so much fun.
Little feet don't let your feet stray.
Happiness is easy...
In a surprise twist, a choir of children (credited as the Children From The School Of Miss Speake) carry the bridge back into the verse. At one point, a mutant horn staggers out of the mix (one of the hallmarks of Talk Talk is their utterly surreal warping of instrumentation into unrecognizable shapes). Showcasing the band's brilliance at shading between joy and sadness, the tune culminates in a sweep of uplifting strings, before receding back into an acoustic riff on guitar that accompanies the children's choir out into the long fade.
Mirroring the backing choir in Happiness Is Easy, the closing Time It's Time rides great waves of massed choir over a heavy downbeat stomp. In truth, it's my least favorite moment on the album, for a number of reasons. The drums are far too massive, with a crashing eighties sound utterly at odds with the organic crispness in evidence elsewhere. There's also a stark juxtaposition between the quiet verses and the booming chorus, whereas the rest of the record flows together quite naturally.1
Not that there's anything terribly wrong with the tune itself, it's just that the ragged execution sticks out like a sore thumb on an album that navigates such moody terrain so deftly. Subtle currents shift slowly in the shadows, with almost painfully intimate moments telescoping out into an all-encompassing widescreen sound like it were the most natural thing in the world.
The record hinges beautifully on this axis, as exemplified in a track like I Don't Believe In You, which is the split of Spirit Of Eden drawn in Spring's primary colors. There's a slow-burning intensity in the downbeat verses that gradually gives way to gorgeous HammondB3 organ in the refrain. The tune is punctuated by a great ragged guitar solo from Robbie McIntosh, writhing in slow motion against the tune's downbeat blues with wild abandon.2 The song is suited perfectly to the album's vivid chamber pop arrangements, which in large part manage to transcend their time of origin.
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that the band's bassist Paul Webb would later work with Beth Orton (under the pseudonym Rustin Man). I'd wager Portishead were huge fans of the group... one could even imagine the band doing a great cover of this tune. The downbeat rhythms — here and throughout this record — are more locked-down than they'd later be on Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, prefiguring the sound of moody trip hop like Massive Attack's Home Of The Whale. Even if they're not as brilliantly freeform as they'd become in a couple years, the rhythms do retain a thoroughly engaging sound, with tactile precision every tambourine and shaker seems to clasp at your eardrums.
In stark contrast, the cascading, widescreen sound of Life's What You Make It represents this album at its most direct and radio-friendly. Propelled by an invigorating electric guitar riff (this time from David Rhodes) that shimmers across its infectious four-note piano stomp, the sound seems to have more in common with the arena-sized ambitions of Simple Minds, with even the guitars themselves bearing a striking resemblance to something Charlie Burchill might play.
However, the band is wielding their strange powers of foresight once again, because this sounds not like the contemporary Simple Minds of Once Upon A Time but instead Simple Minds circa Real Life (which came out five years later!). I wonder if Life's What You Make It did influence the Scottish group's latter day sound (especially the song Real Life itself)? I wouldn't be surprised. From the breezy backing vocals to the swirling Mellotron and those great crescendos of organ, it's all there in technicolor, adding extra bite to the track's double-edged title.
It's worth noting that my Dad was actually the one to introduce me to Talk Talk's music way back in the day, almost by osmosis. I grew up on this stuff! Pops was a huge fan of the group's sound, and this song was a particular favorite. His thing is a strong appreciation of multi-layered music, which naturally rubbed off on me with all my atmospheric obsessions. It was actually his old cassette that I was rocking out to back in college, after putting a tape deck in my very first car. Pops' Talk Talk tape captured a perfect distillation of the band's sound in 90 minutes.
The similarly epic Give It Up is a massive organ stomp cut from the same cloth, although I contend that it's even better. Alternating between subdued verses — carried by haunting guitar lines and fragile lead vocals — and a piano-driven bridge, where Mark Hollis sings:
Gotta give it up
Gotta get a second chance
Gotta give it up
Gotta get a second chance and the joke's just started
And then a great swell of organs crash across the track in a massive wave of pure electricity. I already liked to this stirring performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1986,2 which turned out to be the last year the band would perform live together. It's without a doubt one of my favorite pieces of concert footage ever.
What this tune highlights is the band's gift for moving from the most serene passage to a pure rush of energy with unparalleled grace. Check out how after the mad heights of the chorus, the tune subtly collapses back into the muted verse with that gentle guitar passage. Or the way the tune's absolute climax builds into another surreal guitar solo, its twisted notes burning out in the darkness before the massive chorus wheels back once again to conquer all.
Closing out with a stripped-down coda, shades of gospel in Hollis' ad-libs over the backbeat as the organ line finally resolves itself once and for all. It's a very close call, but this might be my favorite track on the album.
The other contender is Living In Another World, which plays like the severe younger cousin to Happiness Is Easy, burning with a barely-controlled, exposed-nerve fury. It kicks off with a bang straight out the gate, in a roll of piano thunder and a snapping beat reeling out beneath shades of organ, Mark's moody couplets and acoustic guitars strummed with a precise rhythmic fury. The whole thing gradually builds until the organs swell into a flood of raw sound in the bridge — Hollis' impassioned lead vocals haunted by ghostly backing in the distance — before a bluesy harmonica enters the fray with a wild solo cascading up and down the soundscape.
The other day, I mentioned how important this record was for me in the dreary days of (early) high school, and no other song dovetails more perfectly with those memories than this song: Help me find a way from this maze... I can't help myself. Word, Mark, word... I couldn't have said it better myself.
Mention must also be made of the phenomenal bassline Paul Webb lays down in the chorus, throbbing and shape-shifting through the rhythm in fractal counterpoint to the lead progression. It's the true nth power behind the song's central groove, moving with a lunatic precision against the chiming, twin guitar attack of David Rhodes and Robbie McIntosh. Notably, Webb also provides the ghostly backing vocals in the chorus, haunting the melody with another indelible layer of intrigue. Rustin Man strikes again! Taken all at once in a great flood of sound, it adds up to a truly epic vision painted in sound.
If Living In Another World exemplified the record at its most intense, then the downcast shades of April 5th, played out on a lone piano while tambourine and shaker mark out the time. A fog of mutant horns hang in the distance, the tunings seeming to come from somewhere entirely outside the body pop, offering the strongest hint of things to come. The vocals of Mark Hollis are at their most delicate here, cradled by the warmth of that B3 organ that comes rising from the mist. I'm reminded of David Sylvian's Secrets Of The Beehive, even if this came out a whole year earlier.
It's worth noting two non-album b-sides from the period, It's Getting Late In The Evening and For What It's Worth, which were from the Life's What You Make It and Living In Another World singles, respectively. Both tunes further develop this abstract, ethereal mood, which turned out to presage the direction they'd begin to take a couple years later. Still, April 4th is the best of the bunch, sounding like a dress rehearsal for Spirit Of Eden.
Appropriately enough, The Future Sound Of London featured the song in their mind-bending BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 in 1995 amidst a sea of post punk, downbeat ambient and twisted psychedelia. Alongside iconoclastic records like Andrea Parker & David Morley's Angular Art, 23 Skidoo's Porno Base and Fleetwood Mac's Albatross, its drifting abstract ambience felt perfectly at home .
Chameleon Day is even more deconstructed, with detuned Blue Note horns hanging lonely over the sparse pianos... it's by far the most freeform, deserted track on the record, plangent sounds ringing stark against the dead quiet. Reaching beyond even Spirit Of Eden to the abstract deconstructions of Laughing Stock and the Mark Hollis solo record, its the record's most intimate and unadorned moment. With that Hollis croon accompanied by nothing but a lone piano and windswept horns, this tune could have come from the era of Chet Baker and Mose Allison, only with the wounded pain and vulnerability that comes with Hollis' voice. This deeply spiritual sound might have closed out the record brilliantly, albeit on a quite different note than Time It's Time.
It's sound that no one else could touch. Lying at the crossroads of the group's earlier dancefloor synth execution and the lush oceans of sound painted in their later music, The Colour Of Spring is where both sides meet in a flash of brilliance. It makes the perfect place to start with the band's music, but I must warn you... once you're hooked, you'll find yourself tracking their sound out in every subsequent direction. And few things in music are more rewarding than that.
I was quite saddened to hear of Mark Hollis' passing. As the frontman of Talk Talk, his voice was the extraordinary foundation upon which his group's sound was built, a boundlessly expressive well of understated emotion, passion and burning blue soul. It was a sound that got me through some rough times growing up, wide-open as it was to complex experiences and emotions that the world throws at all lonely souls, buffeted back and forth by the tides of time and accompanying tribulations free of charge.
My understanding was that Hollis had gradually receded from view as the band ventured further toward abstraction, reticent, and ultimately dropping out completely after a solo album and a couple guest appearances in the late-nineties. The truth seems to have dovetailed with the legend somewhat, as it appears that he retired from music to be with his family and out of the industry's media glare? At any rate, peace to the man and unyielding thanks for the music he left behind. By way of tribute, here's a short walk through the records he made...
Talk Talk started life as a sort of synth-inflected pop group. I say sort of because from the beginning there was nothing conventional about them. I'd often hear them lumped in with new romantics like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet,1 but there was a darkness and depth to their music from the very beginning that placed them more alongside groups like Depeche Mode, Tears For Fears circa The Hurting and A.R. Kane than anything else. However, this being only 1982, Depeche Mode was still recording chipper synth pop ditties, The Hurting wouldn't come out for another year and A.R. Kane were still half a decade away from their first record... which marks Talk Talk's debut out as pioneering from the start.
From day one, there was a gravity to Talk Talk's music, a natural force to be reckoned with. Everything here is imbued with a widescreen, cinematic quality, as if it were the soundtrack to a film happening in your mind. Chart-troubling tunes like Today and Talk Talk bear this out on the dancefloor, with booming rhythms and oceanic synths soaring across painted skies as Hollis' vocals drive through it all like a low-frequency vision blurred in waves of confused emotion. His voice is deep in every sense of the word: low in register, encompassing vast emotion, and cloaking cryptic meaning beneath a blurred painting in sound.
If there's one song I'd single out for praise, it's the title track. Opening with curious sequences that unfurl across a mid-tempo pulse for the verse before dropping into a slow-motion chorus that could only be described as epic, with crashing drums, mile-high synths and Hollis' vocal towering above it all. The tune is etched in my mind. These songs were on a tape I used to play endlessly in college — early days — alongside the steady stream of techno and trip hop that one would've expected of me at that time. Strangely enough, it fit in there perfectly. Which in retrospect, is hardly surprising at all...
...given that the title track of their sophomore record was no stranger to the proto-house dancefloors of the Muzic Box and the Paradise Garage, expanding the mood of the debut's floor-fillers into ever more surreal terrain. The sleeve art above gives an idea of what to expect,2 mirroring the fragments and strange sounds pealing from the tune in every direction like the cry of a thousand distant birds. Indeed, there's sounds on these records that I can't even begin to guess where they came from.
Such A Shame similarly grooves adrift in an ocean of sound, its great synths smeared in sadness against that mournful Hollis croon, before the counterpoint sequence echoes the sentiment with just a glimmer of hope. Like The Party's Over, it's a firm favorite. In fact, the two songs seem to share a similar mood, with Such A Shame the understated response by a group two years older and wiser. I've often thought both tunes veered into peak-era Derrick May territory with their icy strings, smeared synth stylings and undeniably emotive thrust. The alien dislocation of techno is but a whisper away.
In contrast, my absolute favorite thing here is Does Caroline Know?, which abandons the rolling tundra for the infinitely more inviting atmosphere of a crystal clear tropical lagoon. With its almost juju-style interplay of percussion, sound effects and scurrying bassline against a great sea of synth — swelling and receding like the tide — its the group's unlikely holiday at the Pier. Blink and you'd swear it was The Neptunes! It's also a great showcase for Hollis in a playful mode, weaving through spaces in the rhythm and reacting to the waterfalls of electronic sound that slide back and forth across the track. In a roundabout way, it hints at the direction the band would take next...
Not that The Colour Of Spring is where the band goes tropical or anything, but you do begin to glimpse the two prevailing trends in the band's music: an undeniable drift toward a more organic (but no less strange) sound, and an ever deeper plunge into abstraction. This is where the group's knack for left field pop hooks is married to a loose, almost freeform jazz sensibility. There's definite shades of ECM throughout, and a strong affinity with the lush, stately soundscapes of David Sylvian's Secrets Of The Beehive.
From the opening bars of Happiness Is Easy, you can tell times have changed. A (possibly machine-driven) rhythm casually begins to unfurl as the song gradually builds around it piece-by-piece, with the slow accretion of spare guitars, throbbing bass and piano accents opening the floodgates to strings, organs and even a children's choir, all of which swirl together in a rich tapestry of sound. The massive, Hammond-driven stomp of Give It Up manages to turn on a dime between downcast and uplifting, while Living In Another World is one of the band's greatest soundtracks in miniature.
I've always wanted to share this awe-inspiring clip3 of the band playing Give It Up live at the Hammersmith Odeon, and now is undoubtedly the right time. Check that passion! Mark Hollis don't mess around. The funny thing is, this is exactly how I used to picture him singing whenever I'd listen to the records. There's just no getting around it, you can hear it all in the voice. Incidentally, this album always takes me back to high school (circa 1996), when it was a hit of downbeat introspection even greater than the by-then-ascendant Radiohead. Truth me told, even now, none of these Talk Talk albums ever leave my iPod.
With the positively sublime Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk invented post rock in one fell swoop. The Rainbow starts with a lonely horn and a soft swell of strings — sounds that will come to define the record — for a movement of two minutes before the plaintive guitar line kicks into gear, the arcing blues of a searing harmonica heralding a lazy, loping rhythm. The mood here reminiscent of the cinematic trip hop that groups like Portishead and Massive Attack would explore as their music took a darker, more desolate turn about a decade later (on Dummy and Mezzanine, respectively).
The rolling waves of Eden creep in and out of focus on the interplay of bass and piano melting into guitar, all cut adrift on an ocean of sound where swells of organ come crashing in a rush of electricity. It's no secret that I'm an organ guy. I love me some Rhodes, and I absolutely adore the sound of the HammondB3. This record is awash in it. Desire opens with a foreboding theme played out on a lonely organ, trading notes with ghostly guitar and piano, horns droning in the mist. Hollis haunts the tune in the quiet before the storm, and then the breaks come crashing in, mad vocals rising through the racket as guitars cutting ragged shapes in the darkness.
If you're looking for the one record that really gets to the heart of Mark Hollis' greatness as a frontman, this is it. Particularly in the flowing beatless bliss of the second side, which is where the magic of this record truly lies. The gentle drone of Inheritance, slipping as it does into a shimmering climax (shades of Sylvian again in evidence), sets the stage brilliantly. Parallels might be drawn with side two of The Isley Brothers' The Heat Is On, strange as it may sound. That record's ARP-damaged soul is similarly lush and downbeat, mirroring the almost ambient sensibility of Eden's second side.
Which would make I Believe In You4 roughly the analogue of For The Love Of You, with the drone of its verses culminating in the warm, spiritual glow of a protracted chorus, replete with calming organ refrain and angelic choirs in the distance. Indeed, this is positively holy music. This point driven home by the record's final track, Wealth, wherein Hollis sings in an understated gospel style against a sea of B3 organ. When it all transforms into the final progression (around the four minute mark), it quickly becomes clear that you're witnessing something divine.
The group took their abstract obsessions to their logical conclusion with Laughing Stock, their storied swan song that's gone on to have lasting repercussions. This has gone down as one of the key records of the nineties, and for good reason: transcending the time and place of its origins, it remains at home in the ever-changing now. I love the very sound of this record, even if the songs on Spirit Of Eden mean more to me in the long run. The playing here even looser than before, you'd have to go to seventies spiritual jazz to find something similar.
Songs like Ascension Day build on the framework of Spirit Of Eden's first side, even as they seem to deconstruct it into a blur of modal guitar. This sound also defines New Grass, with its gentle guitar lines wandering amongst tumbling breaks,5 seemingly every end left open and unresolved. The gently rolling After The Flood even plays like a fusion of all angles of Eden, a moment of culmination played in the band's new wide-open style. I'll tell you one thing, it makes it very hard to choose between the two records.
Seven years after Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, Mark Hollis delivered this solo album, which is of a piece with that record. In fact, Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and this LP form something of a loose trilogy, with a sound that seems to gradually recede back into nature itself. Mark Hollis is the point when it all drifts up on a gentle gust of air through the leaves on the trees, back into the calm of the woodlands without a note out of place.
The man's first solo album would also turn out to be his last. In truth, he said it all here. This sparse, beautiful record is the embodiment of his oft-quoted philosophy, Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note — and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it. The serene soundscapes of Mark Hollis seem to pick up where Runeii left off at the closing of Laughing Stock, keying into the rich seam of spiritual ambience with The Colour Of Spring and even pure jazz with The Daily Planet. It's hard to believe this record came out in 1998, but then it would be hard to imagine when it should have come out!
The understated, casual brilliance of this record has more in common with the torch songs of yesteryear than any contemporary reference points, with Hollis' vocals taking their deserved place among the greats like Chet Baker, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday. He was that good, and in the context of a sound so spare and unvarnished, it quickly becomes clearer than ever. Serving as the perfect conclusion to the man's musical career, this album was the ideal landscape for that voice to roam once last time, into the countryside and beyond...
In fact, the asymmetrical breakbeat to New Grass would later fuel UNKLE's Rabbit In Your Headlights, from the album Psyence Fiction. Mark Hollis actually sat in on piano (uncredited) for the song Chaos, from the same album.
In the final crisp days of winter, we descended upon the weeds that had begun to take over the Gardens, encroaching on anything and everything the way only winter weeds can do. Veering from trip hop into soul/techno/jazz and then finally rock 'n roll, the soundtrack set the pace for the long project of bringing the Gardens back to good order. Time marches on, and the Garden Grooves pulse on through the Heights once again...
Kicking off the weekend with Björk's Debut (not debut), which remains my favorite thing she's done (although Vespertine does come close). I love the raw acoustics of something like There's More To Life Than This, that walking bassline so evocative of the era's excitement and gravity. The sound here defined by Bristol's Nellee Hooper, who Björk drafted in for production after his sterling work with both Soul II Soul and Massive Attack. As a result, there's the unmistakable spectre of trip hop hanging over the proceedings, which is no bad thing... trip hop as in Blue Lines, Bomb The Bass and Nicolette.
Speaking of the latter, by my estimation, Björk got all her dance moves from Nicolette. Nicolette's (actual) debut album — produced by Shut Up And Dance — is an inspired mash up of skewed jazz songcraft, rootsical trip hop vibes and junglistic breakbeat science-before-the-fact. It sounds about five years ahead of its time. Stripped down tunes like I Woke Up... and A Single Ring hinge on the axis of drums, bass and not much else, while the otherworldly pop of O Si Nene and Wicked Mathematics ply a sort of skewed voodoo magic that sounds like nothing else before or since.
This trip hop soundclash from Massive Attack's man with the baritone pipes hit the shelves a solid six years after Smith & Mighty's great DJ-KicksBristol showcase, and accordingly casts a wider net with selections from Willie Williams, Foxy Brown, The Meters and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all thrown into the strange brew. Hearing the awesome Gallic trip hop of Mélaaz's Non, Non, Non in the mix alongside Tricky's Aftermath just never gets old.
Tricky continues his mid-career renaissance with his latest album, which drives his sound further yet into Gothic post punk terrain. I saw him a year ago touring behind this album and the show he put on was phenomenal. Ever the visionary (my brain thinks bomb-like), Tricky's music manages the perennial trick of sounding remarkably at home in the ever-changing present.
The late-seventies album trilogy from Gil-Scott Heron partner-in-crime Brian Jackson is a stunning sequence that plays like the culmination of everything that had been wrapped up into 70s soul by that point. Secrets leads off with the impossibly lush and sensual Angel Dust, first heard (by me) on SA-RA's Dark Matter & Pornography Mixtape Vol. 30", which is driven by the soft neon glow of its electronic bassline and a tale as old as time. The remainder of the album follows suit, sounding like a Gaussian-blurred preview of all the best modern soul just around the bend.
Speaking of modern soul, Womack & Womack's debut is one undeniable stone tablet that the form tossed up right off the bat. Not particularly indebted to disco, it seems to draw its propulsion from somewhere else entirely. The title track is a great mid-tempo burner that prefigures the rolling, proto-Underworld neon vectors of Conscious Of My Conscience but the secret highlight is the graceful sashay of Baby I'm Scared Of You, which starts out smooth and mellow before gradually building to a resolute shuffle in the crescendo.
I've often thought that certain strands of Sean Deason's discography chimed in brilliantly with the prevailing trends in contemporary "urban" music. Something like the opening one-two punch of New School/Wisdom 2030 Mix bears this out, while Science Funktion comes at you like like hardcore rap's attitude translated into instrumental technoid form. He certainly showed greater comfort with jungle than just about any other Detroit producer, as the awesome Saxy Muthafucka Mix of the title track attests. This sturdy little album remains one of the great dark horse candidates among Detroit techno LPs of the era, and one that I still return to quite often.
Ah yes, The Velvet Rope. It's gone down as one of my favorites, and I never seem to tire of its convoluted twists and turns. This is an RnB that splits the difference between neo soul (and even trip hop in places) and unfussy dancefloor burners, with just a dash of the sentimental balladry that had by then become one of her hallmarks. At the time, I would have relished a radio station that played selections from this record and Razorback back to back (1997 bizzness, seen!). With a dash of Chez Damier and Romanthony, of course.
This bit of turn-of-the-decade funk grasps for the brass ring straight out the gate with the deeply chilled title track, which remains one of the great atmospheric slabs of soul ever committed to wax (generations of trip hop/hip hop/RnB heads certainly seemed to think so, if sampling was anything to go by). I remember when Kenny Dixon Jr. got interviewed at Red Bull Music Academy, he made the interviewer promise to play something off this album if he had to play one of his own Moodymann jams. Classic!
This was my first jazz album, and a natural progression from things like As One, Nation 2 Nation and Innerzone Orchestra that I'd been soaking up at the time. I suspect that this somewhat roundabout path isn't completely unheard of... I suspect a lot of us worked our way backwards from dance music. This is one of a select group of records I wish I could send back to myself just as I was entering junior high.
It's an easy album to take for granted — indeed, jazz purists hate it — but there's nothing quite like the funky synth attack of the title track or the loose-limbed proto-fourth world grooves that follow. Today, the wild abstraction of Sextant might be my favorite of Herbie's records, but this is where it all started for me. I've played it incessantly ever since, and that certainly counts for something.
This is cut from the same cloth, despite being separated by a gulf of decades. From the synths on down to the sleeve, this is a perfect elaboration on vintage jazz funk attitude in the era of broken beat. It certainly couldn't have happened in any other moment. Alongside Roy Davis Jr.'s Traxx From The Nile and Recloose's Cardiology, this had me thinking the loose agglomeration surrounding the whole neo soul phenomenon had reached something of a peak.
Stacey Pullen is one of the great under-recognized institutions of Detroit, with a wholly unique take on the music, ranging from Bango's tribal rhythms to the sun-glazed techno soul of Silent Phase and Kosmic Messenger's no-nonsense dancefloor moves. I only wish he'd had a chance to record more music at the LP level after this (if I had a label, I'd certainly try to get him to do a record). I'm forever threatening an extended feature on the man... maybe I should get off the dime and finish it up right quick!
This from the excellent run of Mizell Brothers-produced jazz funk slates that surfaced over the course of the seventies, in this case fronted by sax man Gary Bartz. This record happens at the axis of seventies smooth soul and the flowing post-modal jazz trip, much like the contemporary output of Weldon Irvine and Lonnie "Liston" Smith. Unlike the largely instrumental records of Donald Byrd, Bobbi Humphrey and The Blackbyrds, everything here features the homespun vocals of Bartz himself, prefiguring the general ambience of producers and musicians who'd moonlight behind the mic in the years to come. Appropriately, Bartz wound up playing on SA-RA's Nuclear Evolution: The Age Of Love.
This evocative slab of rock-inflected soul jazz is spiked with a heavy dose of contemporary psychedelia. With a vast sound arranged by Charles Stepney (during his storied tenure at Cadet) around the guitar pyrotechnics of Phil Upchurch, this dream jam session indulges in the under-explored terrain between David Axelrod and Jimi Hendrix.
This record ought to be much more widely known, lodged in all the lists alongside Dylan and The Stones. The Litter are perhaps most famous now for their blistering rave-up Action Woman (as heard on on the Nuggets compilation), but this record is another matter altogether. Existing at the precise axis between garage punk and hard rock, the band veers into proto-metal Blue Cheer/Sir Lord Baltimore territory with wild abandon, at times sounding like early Grand Funk Railroad and even the MC5. Needless to say, no headbanger should be without it.
After Peter Green burnt out and gave up the reins to what was largely still a British blues band, Fleetwood Mac wandered through varied climes ranging from acid rock to soft folk and even proggy psychedelia. Kiln House finds the band messing around with a sort of mutant rockabilly under the auspices of guitarist Jeremy Spencer.
This must have sounded so out of step with the prevailing trends at the time, but none of that matters today as we get to revel in this incongruous mash up of weepy country ballads and slacker rockabilly. Jewel Eyed Judy has the same unfussy melodic brilliance of Big Star and Badfinger, while One Together prefigures the burnished sound of Tusk's most gentle passages.
One could make the case that The Gun Club exercised the same impulse — plying a sort of rootsy, atmospheric rockabilly — albeit shot through the lens of punk rock rather than early-seventies soft rock. Their debut album Fire Of Love is usually considered the classic, but I listen to the ones that follow just as much (if not even more). In fact, I'd go so far as to say you can't go wrong with anything they put out in the 1980s. The Vegas Story is ragged and moody in the extreme, coming on like an unholy mash up of Repo Man, Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Drive in sonic form.
Trip hop quartet Red Snapper had the invisible soundtrack thing on lock in the 90s, a live band rocking in parallel to Maxinquaye and adding a dash of Can and King Tubby to the concoction. Prince Blimey's loping, bass-heavy dubbed-out sound is one of the great forgotten delights of the 1990s, picking up quite naturally from The Vegas Story as dusk begins to descend on the gardens.
The next day, my uncle was in town doing some work on the house so it made sense to go with Hendrix. My uncle's a rock 'n roll guy, after all. Electric Ladyland is where Hendrix really cuts loose in the studio — playing with edits and sound itself — and the record is accordingly thick with ATMOSPHERE. Of course, it doesn't hurt that it also has some of the man's greatest songs, from blazing rockers like Crosstown Traffic and House Burning Down to the sprawlingly epic 1983... A Merman I Should Turn To Be and Burning Of The Midnight Lamp, while heavy jams like Voodoo Child Slight Return and All Along The Watchtower lay the foundation for hard rock and heavy metal. Maybe the greatest rock 'n roll album ever?
This seemingly unassuming mini-album by the great grunge/metal outfit finds their sound burnished to a shimmering finish, led by the inimitable vocals of the great Layne Staley (I reckon he might be thee great rock voice of the decade). The very sound of this record is exquisite and totally unique, setting the stage for their sparkling MTV Unplugged album a couple years later, while the songs themselves are some of their best ever.
The moody, slow-burning Nutshell seems to tie up all of Dirt's loose ends into one moody, acoustic culmination of brooding grunge. I often think something like No Excuses isn’t a million miles removed from the sort of thing Larry Levan might have played at the Paradise Garage (in Van Halen mode), while I Stay Away is possibly the most inspiring rock song of the decade.
Moonshake's debut is ragged post rock avant la lettre, blazing a path out the gate of straight up indie rock into great churning waves of pure sound. I started out with the band's later album Dirty & Divine not long after it first came out, and then worked my way backwards. Eva Luna quite bracing and elemental, and even as the rolling dreamtime vibes pour over the circular rhythmic racket, there's a barely-contained fury bubbling just below the surface. Moonshake reside on the fault line that separates post rock and punk.
More rough 'n ready alternative rock, this time from the illustrious PJ Harvey. The connection here is that she actually recorded with Moonshake on their second full-length, The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow. I'm not ashamed to admit that I first discovered Harvey by way of the Batman Forever soundtrack... I'd argue that's one of the great compilation style soundtracks of the decade (which itself was something of a peak era for the phenomenon). Dry has the raw attack of all the best alternative, even blazing into Groundhogs territory from time to time. I only recently noticed that this was in Kurt Cobain’s list of 50 favorite albums, alongside Scratch Acid and the Marine Girls.
Pre-digital Jammy, back when he was still an apprentice to the once and future King Tubby. This is rock hard dub music on the order of contemporary Scientist and Brad Osborne/Clocktower. Immigrant Dub is an utterly absorbing downbeat excursion that rocks the splashing beats and percussion that his mentor perfected, before beaming the whole underwater trip into the eighth dimension. Strikingly tactile and three-dimensional, this music massages your mind.
Perched midway between surf and rockabilly, Link Wray arguably invented desert rock with a sound that conjures up imagery of souped-up heavy metal Triumph motorcycles blazing down a two lane highway stretching out into the horizon. This sound splits the difference between the Repo Man and Pulp Fiction aesthetics decades before the fact. Instrumental rock doesn't get much better than this.
And I love the way this album mixes prototypical Link Wray rockers like Fat Back and the title track with forays into demented swing like Steel Trap and the goofy proto-proto-proto-Sonics garage punk Mashed Potato Party, both of which are at first bound to disappoint fans coming from (killer) compilations like Early Recordings that boil the man's sound down to its red hot essence. Nevertheless, it's a great little record if you can forgive it for not just repeating Jack The Ripper twelve times in a row!
With the closing bars of Rumble staggering into the last rays of setting sun, the Gardens had been tended and everything was on balance in the Heights once again.
How can I be sure in a world that's constantly changing?Maxinquaye and Bristol, dragging breakbeats and bass from the dark side, dubbed-out shadows within and traces of the jungle bizzness in the mix. Mtume on the neon plane, slow-motion boogie equations drawn up in the sky, LowrellMellow Mellow Right On >> Massive's Lately and Shara Nelson in the soft afterglow of the night. Martina's lonesome voice in the ether three feet above the spectral crawl, shades of Dub Whip and Spying Glass (you live in the city) reggae en digital In A Lonely Place (you stay by yourself ) and the grimy breaks play on into the night...
SA-RA have long been one of my key musical reference points, even before I started Parallax Moves. If there's one 21st century crew that is my absolute favorite, then it's these guys (the trio of Shafiq Husayn, Om'Mas Keith and Taz Arnold). Though it's been nearly a decade since they last released anything under the name, the records they did manage to release in a mere five year window opened up possibilities in machine soul only hinted at before. Not since Timbaland's breakthrough had anyone done so much to innovate within the form.
SA-RA before SA-RA has become something like a cliché around these parts, almost as durable a shorthand as evergreens like it sounds just like Can or indeed just like Sun Ra. It's in effect just another way of saying insanely ahead-of-its-time and utterly brilliant.SA-RA built on a foundation of music like Kleeer's Tonight and Mtume's The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II, stretching those glimpses — portals to another world — into vast sonic vistas painted in freaky widescreen. At their best, they were untouchable.
SA-RA took in the tactile RnB grooves of Timbaland, J Dilla's knotty hip hop beats, and everything in between, shooting the results up with a psychedelic vision of electro boogie and more than a splash of Detroit techno's deep space fixations. Their discography plays like the textbook definition of machine soul, spiked with a proggy, twisted flair for decomposition that rivals the greatest trip hop and astral jazz. They picked up where Outkast left off with Stankonia, warping the music into the outer rim of Tau Ceti and recording the results.
Owing to their status as a true production unit — in addition to recording artists in their own right — they turned in (inter)stellar remixes and productions for other artists ranging from Erykah Badu and Bilal to Tosca, George Russell and even Kleeer. They opened up a sonic vernacular all their own, and — on a personal note — one that happened to speak directly to my own musical obsessions. Anything they did was a hunt-down-at-all-costs proposition. Throughout their protracted run, SA-RA were basically my Led Zeppelin.
I've meant to do this compilation for about ten years now, but always balked at the last minute. The closest I came was a 90-minute cassette that I dubbed circa 2009 for a drive up to L.A. (which planted the seed for tonight's excursion). What follows is an attempt to account for their sprawling brilliance in anthology form — boiling a vast and varied discography down to a (relatively) concise listen — on this the eighth Cheap Hotel release.
Originally the intro to their first full-length outing (The Hollywood Recordings), this seemed like the right way to start tonight's voyage. With its Detroit-style pads and ghosts-of-g-funk synth arcs, in just one minute it captures the latent optimism inherent in so much of the greatest machine soul. Which means it sets the perfect tone for this compilation...
SA-RA Creative PartnersHey LoveBabygrande
Everything promised in the Seagulls intro is delivered (and then some) with the achingly wistful Hey Love. Opening with a brilliant interpolation of Herbie Hancock's Textures, it quickly unfolds into sun-kissed ballad, underpinned by a typically tricky rhythm and the group's trademark homespun vocals. I always love the part where Shafiq interjects the immortal line, Mmm, mmm, mmm... thick in the thighs, which I still quote to this day!
SA-RA Creative PartnersWonderfulJazzy Sport
What set SA-RA apart from nearly anyone else in RnB up to that point was their penchant for instrumentals. Every record they put out features at least one, and more than a few 12"s were dominated by them. Wonderful come on like a twisted slice of electronic jazz, reminding me of peak-era Stevie Wonder in a dream jam session with Herbie Hancock (after which Anthony Shakir and J Dilla remix the results).
SA-RA Creative PartnersDeath Of A Star SupernovaUbiquity
One of the crew's rare detours into straight-up boogie, this skewed tale of an ill-fated would-be starlet is driven home by Dazz Band/Let It Whip synths and a backing chorus that doesn't just get stuck in your head... it holds it hostage. There's more than a bit of new wave about this one too, with a flourish of rhythm guitar that always makes me flash on Duran Duran's early singles.
SA-RA Creative PartnersRosebudsABB Soul
Deeply chilled downbeat RnB. Almost deceptively straightforward, it's one of the rare tunes in their oeuvre that one could imagine existing in the nineties (among things like Blowout Comb and Erykah Badu's debut). Still, there's a sustained suspension of gravity about the beat and a throbbing, deeply irregular bassline that mark it out as deep space music. Not to mention, bleeps aplenty!
SA-RA Creative PartnersGet InvolvedUnreleased
Back when SA-RA first emerged, their 12"s seemed to come from all over, U.S. releases, U.K. releases, Japan-only releases, and even a wealth of unreleased material that made the rounds on Soulseek (indeed, I fear/relish the idea that I might be missing a whole other disc's worth of material!). Many of these tunes showed up on later releases, but this one never did.
Get Involved takes a playful angle on the crew's latent jazz leanings, with juke-joint vibes and the memorable admission that they're the kinda guys your mama don't trust.Get Involved is that rare bit of tech jazz that calls to mind both Detroit Grand Pubahs and Jelly Roll Morton.
SA-RA Creative PartnersThe Bone SongUbiquity
The first of the songs from their long-awaited debut album (bizarrely, The Hollywood Recordings was technically considered a mixtape, even though it came out on double vinyl as well as CD). This supremely chilled bit of downbeat soul finds the crew at their most idyllic, with languid echoes of Janet's The Velvet Rope read in between the lines, it beats vast hordes of chill out music at its own game. Strangely enough (or not so strangely, depending on your perspective), the atmosphere here is haunted by definite strains of The Soul Awakening-era China Crisis.
SA-RA Creative PartnersJumboJazzy Sport
This psychedelic, technoid instrumental sums up a whole aspect of what made this crew so special... one could hardly imagine your typical RnB singer doing something this strange! Wordlessly ethereal bom... bom... bom vocals drift across an atmosphere that's more Deep Space Radio than anything else, its proggy, cinematic atmosphere is paradoxically conjured up in the most seemingly off-the-cuff manner. Which — come to think of it — isn't a half bad thumbnail explanation of the crew's genius.
SA-RA Creative PartnersGloriousBabygrande
This seemed to be the group's biggest joint early on, and its another one-of-a-kind slab of spaced-out noise with the unmistakable overtones of techno. Droning synths that sound something like T.O.N.T.O's stylish kid brother drift across a staggering clip-clop-hip-hop beat, while the group's vocals seem to barely creep above the unsteady pulse of the bassline. Suddenly, the flash of harmony hits in the one-word sing-song chorus, glorious!, with shades (again) of Duran Duran and The Notorious B.I.G. On Jupiter.
SA-RA Creative PartnersSecond Time AroundSound In Color
This was the first piece of SA-RA music that I ever heard. I still remember popping the CD in my truck's player out in the La JollaTower Records parking lot (uptown, baby!) and being blown to pieces. This warped, crumble-funk madness sounded nothing like what I was expecting (I'd bought it on sight based only on hearsay)... it was so much better.
Great slabs of bass drop in and out of the rhythm, held down by what might be the most trippy drum beat ever programmed, while the crew plead their bedroom paeans as black hole synths and a spectral horn tattoo swirls all around.
SA-RA Creative PartnersForeverJazzy Sport
This instrumental finds SA-RA once again in an idyllic mode, carried off on a snatch of female vocal and sepia-tinted pianos trilling faintly in the distance. With bass synths toasted over another staggered hip hop beat, its rhythm betrays a slight hesitation that speaks to the first days of springtime creeping into winter's reign.
SA-RA Creative PartnersSkit #1Unreleased
Technically a silly little throwaway from the unreleased CDr, this is just another example of SA-RA's unfussy brilliance. The new wave bassline drops into a clip-clopping downbeat before almost comical baritone vocals mimic the sequence. Then, without warning, it all swerves into the sublime as an unexpected harmony rises up from within the track, which is over in the space of a minute.
Erykah BaduThe Cell EditUniversal Motown
Erykah Badu had already guested on a couple SA-RA tracks when she drafted them to produce a significant portion of her fourth album, New Amerykah: Part One 4th World War. The crew had a profound impact on the record's twisted, gnarled sound, much as J Dilla's vision had on Mama's Gun, D'Angelo's Voodoo and the surrounding records by The Soulquarians.
Laying down a rolling Isley Brothers-style breakbeat and jazz-inflected Detroit keyboards, the group turns in a surprisingly straightforward groove for Badu to do her thing on. The track's frenetic pace stands out strongly on what is in large part a (brilliantly) downcast, weary album, and its machine-gun hooks just might be the record's absolute strongest, playing like a flash-before-the-eyes nightmare reprise of Baduizm.
SA-RA Creative PartnersEnter Sex SlopJazzy Sport
This instrumental squeezes everything great about post-1995 RnB into one sublime, staggering instrumental. Truth be told, it's not a million miles away from trip hop's m.o. either (although there's no surprise there),1 with a crawling beat that would sound great in either context. Like Wonderful, this is taken from the Cosmic Dust EP, which paired with its sister record Cosmic Lust is my favorite SA-RA outing ever.
SA-RA Creative PartnersHollywoodGetting Out Our Dreams
This is a funky little sidewalking ditty that was originally intended for Bilal's ill-fated sophomore album Love For Sale, which remains unreleased (aside from a couple promos). Still, it made the rounds on Soulseek. I contemplated using his version, but I'm always won over by the group's homespun vocals on their own V.I.P. version of the track.
Representing SA-RA at their most minimal, the focus here is on those fragmented arcade synths and that ragged, homespun vocal delivery. Closer to Sly Stone's lackadaisical style on Fresh and There's A Riot Goin' On,2 this is light years away from the diva histrionics of certain (overrated) pop RnB singers that shall remain nameless for the time being...
SA-RA Creative PartnersHigh Life Bone-Us BeatWonderful Noise
Tucked away on the jazzed-out The Decadent Dimensions EP, this Bone-Us Beat drags a ghost-of-horns mirage and triggered bass stabs over a snapping digital beat, with those electric synths trilling across it all like melted butter. Nearly an instrumental, but not quite, this features some breathy, almost subliminal vocals intoning the title at regular intervals.
SA-RA Creative PartnersMelodee N'mynorUbiquity
This track from their Nuclear Evolution: The Age Of Love tour de force doubles down on the shades of Sly Stone claustrophobic soul lingering in their sound. The spectre of trip hop hangs over the proceedings (again!), the vibe here weary but contented, with slacker horns and some of the crew's greatest bleary-eyed vocal stylings. When the chips are down, this might be my favorite SA-RA tune period.
SA-RA Creative PartnersLove StompJazzy Sport
Subtly shifting astral jazz that opens like the petals of a flower, underpinned by smashing 808 beats in miniature and squelching funk rhythms, while escalator strings slide across it all like rays of fading sunlight. With something of a modern soul flavor lingering in the end result, this is a perfect example of SA-RA's almost effortless way with a brilliant instrumental.
SA-RA Creative PartnersBitchBabygrande
Like Second Time Around, Bitch is a prime candidate for the first SA-RA tune I'd play for somebody who'd never heard them. With its plaintive, shimmering atmosphere dropping into that buzzing zero-gravity bassline and spidery broken beats, Bitch seems to boil the entirety of their sound down into its most potent form.
I always crack up at the indignant Bitch?!? response from the lady in the chorus! This also features one of my favorite snatches of lyric ever:
We can take a trip in my spaceship, girl, make love on Saturn's rings.
SA-RA Creative PartnersLove CzarsUbiquity
This extended eight-minute epic rides a slow-motion breakbeat and blues-tinged bassline with a gangster's limp in a tune that absolutely screams seventies. From the Trouble man, he's on fire, chorus to the curling fragments of guitar, this echoes prime Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes and about thousand other things that I adore (it also shades into pure trip hop). Showcasing the crew at their most organic and traditional, Love Czars it's nevertheless completely otherworldly and archetypically SA-RA.
SA-RA Creative PartnersAinjoy McWhorterNegative Ion SA-RA RemixPlanetgroove
This remix for the Japanese purveyor of jazzed-out RnB is almost completely untethered from earthly concerns, with a beat that barely keeps time and spectral atmospherics swirling in the ether. The track is inhabited by Roger Troutman-esque talk box vocals — tossing off seemingly ad libbed bits and pieces in the background — over deconstructed 808 beats that threaten to crumble at the touch. As the vocals claim, The future is here, and sure 'nuff this is just the sort of thing that could've only happened in the 21st century.
SA-RA Creative PartnersLove TodayUbiquity
Opening with that jazzbo kick into swirling Milky Way atmosphere in such a way that brings to mind Royal Scam-era Steely Dan, this zero-gravity, slow-motion torch song picks up where Me'Shell NdegéOcello's awesome Comfort Woman left off. With some of the crew's finest harmonies floating across dubbed-out reggae inflections in a spacious slab of soul jazz, this is the perfect ending to the first leg of our machine soul journey, taking us to that proverbial funky space station in lunar orbit Out Among The Stars...
SA-RA Creative PartnersScientists Of Sound IntroUnreleased
This was SA-RA's signature intro in the early years, best heard on the Dark Matter & Pornography Mixtape Vol. 30". Sourced from Kool & The Gang's Heaven At Once, it's the perfect counterpoint to SA-RA's utopian machine soul moves.
KleeerTonight SA-RA Remix The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcelloRhino
SA-RA remakes Kleeer's Tonight the only way they can, by going all out (after all, the original version already sounded like SA-RA). Don't be fooled by its title, this is more of a full-blown cover version than a remix! The big room, almost jazz-inflected vision in evidence here flies stark contrast to the futurist concision of Kleeer's stunning original, running parallel to other great slabs of twisted boogie like Consequences by Bugz In The Attic.
This originally appeared on the Atlantiquity compilation, which featured modern artists like Vikter Duplaix and King Britt remixing vintage cuts by the likes of Slave, Faze-O and Yusef Lateef from Atlantic's back catalog.
Continuing the general future jazz slant of the second disc, So Special opens with a sparkling Rhodes solo before dropping into another loose-fitting rhythm with growling electronic bass and hip hop beats. Rozzi Daime's vocals have all the earnest optimism of Carol Crosby circa 4 Hero's Universal Love.
In fact, this tune would have fit right in with that group's music circa Creating Patterns, when their 2000 Black imprint descended on an unsuspecting world with its soundclash of broken beat, twisted techno and RnB. See also Bugz In The Attic (once again) and Silhouette Brown.
SA-RA Creative PartnersGlorious ReduxBabygrande
As far as I know, this only saw light of day on a limited edition version of The Hollywood Recordings that could only be found at Best Buy (of all places!). It tacks on one new track and new Redux versions, and this is the best of the bunch.3 In fact, for my money this tops the original with its uptempo day-glo electronic Isleys-gone-jazz funk groove. Surprising the way the vocals seem to slip into the pocket of this version far tighter than in the rather abstract original.
You'll also find the unmistakable shades of digital Detroit — por ejemplo, Stacey Pullen, Sean Deason and Kenny Larkin — not to mention that revving up synth that sounds just like something Juan Atkins would have dropped on an Infiniti record (see the very proto-SA-RANever Tempt Me). Especially striking the way this explodes into that freeform astral jazz coda after the chorus, awash in a nebula of synth glissando and duck-and-dive vocal harmony.
Aside from maybe Recloose's Spelunking (and even then, we're talking a matter of degree), this drastically conceived remix for Medeski Martin + Wood absolute favorite bit of tech jazz ever. Moving through three sections with reckless abandon, this is everything you could want from the form. Starting with a rickety 4/4 groove (always threatening to collapse), the crew's wordless harmonies drift over a horn-driven synth display.
Then, it slips into the bluesy juke-joint midsection over deep space sonics before collapsing into the Was Dog A Doughnut? denouement, organs and spectral harmonies floating in the mist. In the twin worlds of techno and jazz, you'd be hard pressed to find such a wild collision as this.
SA-RA Creative PartnersBitch BabyUbiquity
Taking those blues-soaked vibes to their logical conclusion, this recasts Death Of A Star's tale of an ill-fated beauty as some parallel story from The Mack. Splitting the difference between Curtis and Tricky with trip-hopping torch song vibes, blues-tinged guitars strum over sticky beats and well-deep bass, with synth leads spiraling off into the shadows as the crew's vocals mesh with a swarm of femme fatale. This is one of those tunes that kicks into gear and you just know something ill's about to going down...
SA-RA Creative PartnersFunky ShitUnreleased
Built around a killer horn fanfare over loose drum beats, this tune practically defines the term The Thrill Of It All. Nothing but loose-limbed beats and the occasional stab underpin the quasi-rapped verses, but when this tune explodes into the chorus, all my shorty's out on the block, you're mainlining on a rush of pure excitement.
It always takes me back to long summer afternoons in the El Cajon heat, chilling in the pool out at the apartment complex where my family used to live and everyone else is there too. This would have been just before the Compass Point/Pier-style sound rewrote the rulebook, when there were still definite 1970s disco-era vibes lingering in the air. Good times for real real.
SA-RA Creative PartnersNasty UGetting Out Our Dreams
Speaking of disco, here's one of the crew's rare forays into four-on-the-floor territory (perhaps the most exceptionally so). Juan Atkins-esque synths are in strong evidence yet again, calling to mind the digi-funk sound he perfected with those Infiniti records. Think Vic Mensa's Down On My Luck, only more so. Techno by any other name, and so on...
Nikka CostaPrinceDo We Know Each Other SA-RA Remix - The Raw Re-Cut ReworkRawshots
It starts playing and that beat is almost too basic to be SA-RA, but then the Apache bridge comes into and it all starts makes sense by virtue of sounding unlike anyone else around. The killer bubblegum pop of the original 12"4 is reshaped as a moody epic, awash in underwater synths and crystalline textures. Nikka's sultry vocals in the verses rise to a screech in the chorus in the best possible way since prime Kelis.
There's also the mater of Prince's guest spot, short and simple but so perfect in response, which remains among my absolute favorite-ever from the man in spite (or perhaps because) of their almost tossed-off nature. I remember at the time hoping he'd bring the trio out to Paisley Park to produce his album. Sadly it never came to pass, but you've got to admit, that would have been amazing...
ToscaHeidi Bruehl SA-RA Remix SA-RAG-Stone
The connection between machine soul and trip hop made literal (not the first time, either). Tosca featured ½ of Kruder & Dorfmeister in collaboration with Rupert Huber. This one's slow-motion bump 'n grind is wrapped in ethereal cascading Rhodes, drifting synths and breathy vocals, with just a hint of tech jazz about the proceedings. The whole thing practically defines the term zero-gravity. This is every bit the equal of K&D's genre-defining G-Stoned (and that's saying something).
SA-RA Creative PartnersFrequenciesUnreleased
AKA Butterscotch. It never actually came out, so who can be sure? Another one from the unreleased CDr and, in my humble, the best of the bunch. Half-whispered vocals reverberate over a gorgeous electronic melody played out on a simple sequence of crystalline bleeps, while a motorik machine rhythm unfolds beneath, recalling the feel of a vintage rhythm box... this is Kraftwerk with a dirty mind. And SA-RA do dirty better than just about anyone else, retaining the humor and earthiness of prime-era George Clinton and Millie Jackson with a mischievous gleam in their eye.
SA-RA Creative PartnersPowder BumpUbiquity
This instrumental was tucked away on the b-side to the Love Czars II 12". Another one with unmistakable echoes of Kraftwerk. This one must be their simplest tune, with computer bleeps cycling up and down the fretboard over a simple, linear machine rhythm ticking endless onto the horizon. I couldn't help but include it.
Erykah BaduAgitationUniversal Motown
I love this little tune, completely dazzling and radiant, and over in a minute and a half. Taken from Badu's
New Amerykah: Part Two Return Of The Ankh, the sanguine, optimystic follow up to the ominous Fourth World War. The liner notes say Inspired by a brilliant idea by Shafiq Husayn for SA-RA Creative Partners.
It's another one with that great live-played broken beat feel, with playful piano and freewheeling vocals sparring in choreographic precision — What a day what a day what a day what a day — the kicker is that Stevie Wonder-styled harmonica solo in the climax.
SA-RA Creative PartnersMy LadyJazzy Sport
SA-RA rock the rhythm box with this laidback horn-driven number, threaded by a wordless vocal snatch that I want to say is Earth, Wind & Fire, but can't be certain. With infectiously squelchy bass, vintage cut-ups and The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker-style drum fills, this instrumental has a real ghost-of-the-1970s vibe about it (as do both volumes of the Sonic Seduction EP, from which it was taken).
SA-RA Creative PartnersPharoahe MonchFish Fillet Sound In Color
A welcome opportunity for Pharoahe Monch to go all out as only he can. Hardcore! Dig this one's pancake-flat shovel head groove, sounding like a stingray gliding across the ocean floor. The start/stop rhythm is driven by the by now expected clip-clopping beats and throbbing bass, while Stacey Pullen-on-Science synths rise from the depths. Pure Detroit, and thats before the string flourish hits, which always makes me flash on Derrick May and R-Tyme's R-Theme.
SA-RA Creative PartnersHangin' By A StringUbiquity
This twisted instrumental finds the crew at their absolute freakiest, with a freeform grinding electroid bassline and clip-clopping beats, the whole thing barely hangs together. Vocal splinters weave in and out of the mix and ethereal Solina strings haunt the soundscape as it crumbles from all around. File under deconstruction.
Erykah BaduTwinkle EditUniversal Motown
Had to rock a little edit on this one, which on Fourth World War features an intense extended intro. I really wanted to single out the brilliance of the tune itself, as a standalone single (don't hesitate to get the album though, it's totally essential). SA-RA's warped magic meets Badu's inescapable gravity, resulting in a black hole of machine soul that literally twinkles. And you can't beat that beat: tumbling over itself only to stop and then start all over again, fitting the over-and-over despair of Badu's words perfectly.
One of the greatest things they've done, its both perfectly crafted around her central vision and the most quintessentially SA-RA moment on the album (which is largely more in thrall to the 70s then is typical for the crew).5 As much as I love Baduizm (and everything else she's done, for that matter), I think this is Erykah's finest moment by a mile.
Where was this song when I was 14? As Rik Ocasek would say, it was just what I needed. With that crashing electro beat and the almost randomized glass-blown synths streaming across another grinding bassline (only more so), this embodies the never say die spirit one needs to get through this thing called life.
It also features show-stopping guest spots from Rozzi Daime and Lil' Kenny, augmenting the group's greatest vocal attack ever put down on wax. And I do mean attack in every senses of the word: as far as cosmically-vindicated retorts go, you're just a dark cloud, baby I'm a star, is pretty hard to beat.
SA-RA Creative PartnersIrisna GaleIntoxicatedJazzy Sport
You can only follow something so righteous with something subtle and divine... and Intoxicated certainly fits the bill. The lone vocal tune from the Cosmic Lust EP, this gently chugging number features characteristically fragile vocals from the group at their earliest stage. That throbbing heavyweight bassline is pure SA-RA. Another firm favorite of mine, I still swear this sounds like Depeche Mode gone RnB, but no one else I show it to seems to hear it. Maybe I'm crazy? At any rate, this is splendid stuff.
Goapele is one of the great unsung heroes of RnB,
plugging away in the 21st century while lesser lights get all the attention. Pay no mind, this is where its at. Perched midway between neo soul and machine music, hers is a winning sound, in many ways a sunnier version of what Erykah Badu would do three years later. This tune is simply just gorgeous, all of that only more so, capturing the rapture and limitless gravity of young love perfectly. Also features great backing vocals from SA-RA themselves, adding a whole dimension to the track.
SA-RA Creative PartnersWe Gonna Do It AgainSound In Color
Wildly unfolding deep space madness in slow-motion, tucked away on the dark side of the Second Time Around double-EP. With its staggering hip hop beat, grinding machine bass, shimmering synths and textures cascading around the group's ethereal vocals floating out into a nebula of harmony, it works as a thumbnail of the SA-RA oeuvre in miniature.
SA-RA Creative PartnersHollywood ReduxBabygrande
It may seem like a waste of space to include Redux versions of two earlier tracks (Glorious and this one), but they group managed to re-imagined each of them so expansively and brilliantly that they make a perfect showcase of the crew's genius at work. It would have been a shame not to include them.
If there was an RnB joint more deep space than this one, I haven't heard it (fill me in doe). Massive synths wash in from the distance as outer space/inner space sonics swirl all around in a languid, post-orgasmic chill. The crew's vocals weave through the supernova sprawl as downbeat bebop drop live drumming keeps the time, bass seeping through the cracks in the beat like melted caramel sweet as everything echoes out into the fifth dimension.
It's the perfect way to end tonight's journey, capturing everything great about the crew in one great interstellar swoop, cut adrift and at peace in the deep black of space with a lifetime supply of oxygen.
This compilation does represent the cream of the crop (from where I'm coming from, at least), but I had to leave out so much great music to fit it onto three discs.6
This meant tunes like We Can Do Anything, He Say She Say, Starwarz, New York City fell by the wayside, while outside production jobs like Deep Inside with Platinum Pied Pipers, Erykah Badu's That Hump, Goapele's Good Love, Dwight Trible's Equipoise and anything from Bilal's Love For Sale were casualties as well. Guest showcases like Fly Away Erykah Badu & Georgia Anne Muldrow, Scorpio A Night On The SunDebi Nova, Gemini's Rising Rozzi Daime and Lean On Me Kurupt, Lord Nez & Erika Rose similarly were locked out of the club, while ace remixes of N*E*R*D's Maybe, Goapele's Catch 22 and GB's Simply So Steve Spacek were just barely on the wrong side of the cut. Further remixes like George Russell's Helluva Town SA-RA "Go" Remix, Milt Jackson's Statement SA-RA RemixFour TetSun Drums And Soil SA-RA Creative Partners "On The Move" Remix, along with album cuts like And If Ty and Spacefruit Debi Nova — tunes that really showcased the deep jazz side of the crew — were similarly lost in the shuffle. Perhaps most sadly of all, instrumentals like Goldmine, Daylight, SA-RA Space Theme, Uh Oh Bone-Us Beat, God Made Dirt, Hominy Hominy, Go Ahead, Souls Brother and the two untitled instrumentals from the unreleased CDr were all excised in the name of concision. It was a tough job (tears were shed), but somebody had to do it. All of this is to say, the compilation stands, but there's a whole world out there. Dig deeper people, this is just the tip of the iceberg...
See Ginuwine... The Bachelor, Neneh Cherry's Homebrew, the Kutmasta Kurt Remix of Terranova's Turn Around, Cath Coffey's Mind The Gap, Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope, Ambersunshower's Walter T. Smith, Massive Attack's Lately and about a thousand other examples.
I wound up spending a lot of time on this final chapter of the Terminal Vibration saga — on and off — over the past few months, generating so much content in the process that I've decided to spin it off into its own series. In truth, all along I'd wanted to do a series on Machine Soul in its own right, so here's my chance! Consider this then a wrap up of everything we've been up to this last year on the TV tip, as well as a taster of things to come. I've decided to focus here on the stuff that touches the 80s — along with the previous TV chapters — most directly, with a couple notable exceptions so applicable that would have been glaring to exclude. We will be returning to all of this and taking it from the top again in due course, once we've concluded the whole TV saga with a grand finale: the Terminal Vibration 100.
After a year spent answering my original question — where does machine funk intersect with post punk? — we've finally arrived at its logical conclusion: the chrome-plated technicolor world of machine soul. It's arguably the most vital form of popular music (still!), and — from where I'm coming from — certainly the most exciting to follow over the last couple decades. In truth, I'd fallen in love with the form long before I'd even known what to call it. Dating all the way back to its de facto rise in the 1980s as a strange new formation, emerging in that interzone between post-disco electro boogie, techno's arcing feedback and the slowly unfurling hip hop inflections of r&b. It's a captivating, futurist vision of music that has remained the vital disturbing element in pop music right up to the present day.
For all intents and purposes, the machine soul story starts with the debut album of Roger Troutman' Zapp. Sure, there's a long and winding pre-history stretching back into the 1970s — through Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Parliament/Funkadelic and the motor disco of Giorgio Moroder — but this is where the form is distilled down to its essence. With Troutman's robotic talk box vocals taking the lead throughout, this is clearly a whole new thing arriving just in time for the dawn a whole new decade.
The sprawling nine-and-a-half minutes of More Bounce To The Ounce remain the undeniable blueprint for electrofunk, which slows down the tempo of disco boogie to a skull-snapping, low-rider pace. As with James Brown and The Meters's foundational relationship with funk proper, the electrofunk sound exists nowhere so clearly as within the Zapp back catalog. Appropriately enough, the electrofunk sound also lays the foundations for g-funk over ten years later, a genre whose sound was quite literally built on Zapp's music and the records to come in their wake (see also Ronnie Hudson's West Coast Poplock, One Way's Cutie Pie and the awesome 12" mix of George Clinton's Atomic Dog).
Predating even g-funk's adoption of Zapp's electrofunk sound, EPMD rode rolling loops from More Bounce To The Ounce and Kool & The GangJungle Boogie in You Got's To Chill. On Strictly Business, EPMD trade verses over long, uninterrupted loops in strikingly linear fashion — as opposed to the web of interlocking samples that would come to define golden age hip hop — prefiguring the extended interpolations of Dr. Dre's g-funk circa The Chronic. Tangentially, the more moody groove of It's My Thing seems to connect with the Wild Style soundtrack, particularly the atmospheric funk instrumentals provided by Chris Stein (of Blondie) over which early MCs like the Cold Crush Brothers, Rammellzee and Shockdell traded verses in unforgettable fashion.
Most of the early New York hip hop 12"s featured MCs rapping over what were in effect extended funk jams, as heard in songs like the Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight and Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation Throwdown. Over in Oakland, Too $hort mirrored this activity with early cassette-only releases like Players and Don't Stop Rappin' (sold directly from the trunk of his car), which featured $hort's laidback rapping over largely raw and extended electrofunk instrumentals. The subsequent sound of Bay Area giants like E-40 and JT The Bigga Figga) springs directly from these early forays, and truth be told, L.A. pioneers like Ice-T and King Tee were probably taking notes as well. The horizontal, linear quality running through most West Coast rap starts here.
Which of course all leads directly into peak-era g-funk like Dr. Dre's The Chronic, Snoop Doggy Dogg's Doggystyle and Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era, not to mention the increasingly atmospheric take of the form by the likes of Above The Law, Compton's Most Wanted and DJ Quik. The logical conclusion of all this stretching-out activity is the music of Dâm-Funk — true ambient g-funk and like Kleeer's Tonight the secret cousin to Detroit techno — culminating in his awesomely sprawling Toeachizown 5xLP set. It's fascinating to rewind to the music Mr. Funk was actually doing during this era, with the archival Adolescent Funk compilation, and its fascinating mash-up of proto-g-funk and new wave-inflected boogie.
It almost goes without saying that both electrofunk and boogie both find their roots in the weird terrain of George Clinton's Parliament/Funkadelic empire. Records like Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome and One Nation Under A Groove laid the blueprint for both forms, particularly in keyboardist Bernie Worrell's remarkably tangible synths and neon-lit three-dimensional basslines. The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is the final record from the original run of p-funk recordings, and truth be told it's actually my favorite. Out-weirding the freaks and going toe-to-toe with the post punk and the new wavers — already discussed here, it's a shocking deconstruction of the very electrofunk/boogie forms they dreamed up in the first place.
If there's a template for the prototypical boogie record in the wake of P-Funk's pioneering endeavors — as Zapp's debut was to electrofunk — then you'd be hard pressed to find a better candidate than D-Train's You're The One For Me. Emerging as it does from Prelude's disco-into-post-disco trajectory, this record marks boogie out as a twisted machine elaboration on disco's 4/4 pulse (as opposed to electrofunk's slightly more on-the-one mid-tempo backbeat). Or, to put it in terms of Funkadelic tunes, Not Just Knee Deep is boogie, while Icka Prick is electrofunk.
When you start talking about the electrofunk/boogie nexus at the dawn of the 1980s, there's just no getting around Prince. Without a doubt the greatest auteur working in either form, he was already doggedly pursuing his own path way back in 1978. I mean, what else sounds remotely like For You (his debut), and the apocalyptic monster groove of I'm Yours and Soft And Wet's nimble funk? He further developed this sound across albums like Dirty Mind and Controversy (splicing in increasingly new wave inflections along the way). With its lo-fi grooves and red light district atmosphere, Dirty Mind arguably invents the whole idea of new wave funk in the first place.
His first double-album 1999 is in many ways the culmination of the early Prince sound. By the time of Purple Rain and the extended Paisley Park experience, it's almost a whole other ballgame. This record features great pop songs like Delirious, Little Red Corvette and the title track, but for our purposes today I'd like to focus on a handful of machine funk gems. The eight-minute locked-down electrofunk monster jam D.M.S.R. is the first, rivaling even George Clinton's Atomic Dog for dancefloor power, while the more loosely-defined, nimble-footed groove of Lady Cab Driver plies a street-level atmosphere that often reminds me of The Clash's This Is Radio Clash. Both tunes clearly benefiting from the extended space afforded by a double-LP.
The latter — one of my favorite Prince songs period — is like an exclamation point to everything he'd been up to by that point, from Soft And Wet to the extended monster jam of Dirty Mind's second side. However, my absolute favorite moment on the record — indeed my #1 Prince song ever — is Something In The Water Does Not Compute. This is pure machine soul avant la lettre. Not only is its shimmying rhythm exactly the sort of thing The Neptunes would unleash twenty years later, but at the same time its rolling electronics and gravity room synths predict the inscrutable, world-within-a-world quality of all the greatest techno.
It's worth noting Prince's contemporary production for girl group Vanity 6, which for my money rival even his own records of the period. There's an unfussy, almost lo-fi sound to the record. The electro boogie groove of Nasty Girl kicks off the whole affair with a hip-tugging urgency, while the new wave touches of Drive Me Wild and Make-Up approach the levels of austerity found in the likes of latter-day electro purveyors like Dopplereffekt and ADULT. Of course, Prince went on to perfect the sounds intimated in this record himself with the Purple Rain-era b-side Erotic City, the slinkiest groove of them all.
By this point, new wave can be felt everywhere. Outside Prince's contemporary records, Kleeer's Intimate Connection just might be the most potent distillation of that fact. Both the opening and closing tracks — Ride It and Do You Want To?, respectively — encapsulate the new wave-inflected uptempo sound at the more poppy end of the spectrum, along with things like the Dazz Band's Let It Whip and Ray Parker Jr.'s Woman Out Of Control. Similarly, the relaxed mid-tempo grooves of Intimate Connection and You Did It Again predict the mood of g-funk's most languid precincts, particularly Warren G's debut (in fact, the delivery in the latter reminds me always reminds me of Nate Dogg!).
Even better is the awesomely mechanoid slow jam Next Time It's For Real, which in its clockwork neon-lit perfection seems to take a low rider's angle on Hall & Oates contemporary (peak-era) output. This would have been perfect for the Tron soundtrack, if it weren't a couple years too late! Best of all is the five-minute quasi-instrumental Tonight. I say quasi-instrumental because its lyrics are nearly incomprehensible, run through the effects (I'm assuming a vocoder) and sounding midway between Roger Troutman's robotic talk box forays and the almost subliminal android crooning in Underworld's Cups. Like all the best techno in its elegant simplicity, its one of the three or four key tracks on the table this evening.
Coincidently, Juicy Fruit is at the top of the heap as well (particularly the The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II). What atmosphere these records have! If you asked me for the one eighties funk record to own — or at the very least, the place to start — I'd point you toward this record. Aside from being the greatest front-to-back listen I've get encountered, it's also something like the skeleton key for understanding the music of this era.
Boogie? How about Hips and Green Light (the latter works particularly well with the other new wave funk of The Clash and A Certain Ratio). Uptempo pop? You're sorted with Your Love's Too Good To Spread Around. Electrofunk? Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an absolute killer, with post-Lightnin' Rod-style raps to boot. Modern soul? Ready For Your Love and Would You Like To Fool Around have that slow-motion boogie/proto-Alexander O'Neal midtempo burner thing down pat.
And of course you've already got your slow jam covered with Juicy Fruit, one of the greatest ever laid down. In fact, I have no doubt this was a key track for Dâm-Funk (probably Timbaland too, truth be told). Best of all is The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II, the strikingly atmospheric reprise, which is generously tacked onto the end of the album like exit music for a film. Immaculate stuff.
All of this gets filtered back into r&b through the prime conduits of The Neptunes and Timbaland (Outkast take a bow as well), culminating in the oeuvre of 21st century artists like Dâm-Funk and SA-RA. I can still remember my excitement when first confronted with this music, which was simultaneously unlike anything I'd ever heard before and at the same time the ultimate expression of nearly everything I loved in the intersection of soul and electronic music.
Like wandering into a place you've dreamt about many times before but never been — indeed never even thought existed — it just felt right, like everything falling into place as the sound unfolded. Their freaked-out, bubbling machine soul sound seemed inspired by many of the sounds discussed today even as it jumped off into completely new directions and ever more warped terrain. This was deep space music par excellence. Indeed, tracks like Death Of A Star SUPERNOVA embody the futurist sound and spirit of machine soul.
Similarly evocative of deep space, and even more dubbed-out and abstracted is this amazing dub version of Ashford & Simpson's Babies by disco don François Kevorkian. Moody mood music in the truest sense, this tune just stretches out through infinity and into a terrain that isn't disco, funk or even boogie but pure machine soul. There's strong affinities here with Compass Point too, particularly the Padlock record, with its neon-lit Larry Levan reworks of prime Gwen Guthrie material like Hopscotch and Seventh Heaven.
Quite a few soul veterans were more than ready to get down with the nascent machine soul sound. The Isley Brothers took the sound and ran with it, turning in one of the key records of the form with Between The Sheets. This track is the direct descendant of the ARP-led ambient soul they pioneered with For The Love Of You (and the rest of the second side of The Heat Is On, in fact). With the addition of machine rhythms and an extended bridge that to modern ears sounds an awful lot like techno, the transition was complete: it's not that far of a leap from this tune to Computer Love (be it the Kraftwerk version, Zapp's or even The Egyptian Lover's).
Similarly forward-thinking, this twilight-era West End jam is built on a framework that is almost pure electro. Liquid neon synths just ooze over everything, evoking city lights and long summer nights. Like so much here — from Kleeer's Tonight in DJ Quik's Tonite to Aaliyah's take on The Isley's Choosey Lover — this track had a slight return over a decade later, with Biggie Smalls and Lil' Kim riding its slinky groove into the 90s on Another.
If we're talking boogie at its most electro (and we are!), then there's no getting around Cameo. They're almost too easy to take for granted, but both Word Up! and Candy are bad jams, no question. I've got loads of their records and even if they're not always particularly consistent, many are well worth your time. This particular album might be your best bet, leading off with the awesome ice cavern boogie of the title track. Like Another Man, it's practically an electro track dressed up in boogie styles. The 12" version even includes a surprisingly hard-hitting rap from the the crew.
Cameo started out as a post-Parliament disco funk group along the lines of Slave before metamorphosing into a three piece with a wildly redefined sound touched by new wave and (eventually) electro. Don't forget that E-Dancer's Velocity Funk started life as the Kevin Saunderson remix of the group's 1992 single Money. Indeed, one could sketch a line from She's Strange to peak-era E-Dancer records like Heavenly and World Of Deep without too much trouble.
Alexander O'NealAlexander O'NealTabub/wCherrelleHigh PriorityTabu
Even though I'd already discussed Alexander O'Neal's debut in detail a few months back, it would be a mistake not to mention it in passing — along with its sister record, Cherrelle's High Priority — tonight. These records work remarkably well side by side. O'Neal even guests on Cherrelle's record, while she returns the favor on his sophomore outing Hearsay. It's 1985, smack in the middle of the decade, and Jam & Lewis are perfecting the Minneapolis sound they'd fleshed out with The S.O.S. Band's Just Be Good To Me. Both records are benchmark instances of modern soul, their tracks expertly crafted by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis around their respective vocalists with a striking attention to detail.
Jam & Lewis would find their perfect muse the following year, taking their sound to new heights with Janet Jackson's Control, who seemed to serve a similar extended working relationship with the duo to the one Aaliyah later would with Timbaland. This is one of the key turning points in the decade's urban music, from the Art Of Noise touches in Nasty to the moments of deconstructed boogie and electroid dance pop like The Pleasure Principle (with rather appropriate Gary Numan resonance) and its lush slow jams like Funny How Time Flies When You're Having Fun, which strips the lush futurism of Human Nature down to is purest (ambient) essence.
Prince does it again! This record lays down the gauntlet after his winning mid-decade Paisley Park dalliances after Purple Rain, records that reaped tons of great music across the spectrum with psychedelic flair. Paradoxically, it seems the double-album format was all it took for him to refocus on the machine. We're clearly in another era now. Indeed, there's a wealth of stuff on here that is pure machine soul. TLC covered If I Was Your Girlfriend seven years later and practically didn't change a thing... it already sounded like present-day RnB! The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker lays down a yet even more nimble, brittle funk, swimming in languid atmosphere, while the hard-edged electronic groove in Housequake was lifted wholesale by The Neptunesmultiple times in the years to come.
Ah yes, here's another one that I've already covered. Standing in for the likes of Surface and Loose Ends (whose Zagora is one of the early warning shots of what would come to be called neo soul), this is the last call for modern soul untouched by the all-encompassing influence of hip hop. Interestingly enough, in a couple years all of these figures wound up messing around with hip hop-adjacent forms one way or another, be it Surface's dalliance with swingbeat or Keni Stevens' with what might be termed soundsystem soul (the distinctly U.K. flavor of r&b directly adjacent to both trip hop a la Smith & Mighty and that interzone where Neneh Cherry and Soul II Soul dwell), while Loose Ends actually wound up splitting the difference between the two.
This 12" from Lillo Thomas is also right on the cusp, but with slightly harder beats in the Longer Luv Mix, it's tipping into proto-swingbeat just that little bit. Nevertheless, this is still in the drawn-out lacuna between the sounds of electro boogie and new jack swing where post-Control sonix reign supreme. I'm even reminded in places of James Ingram's sophisticated modern soul. Enjoy it while it lasts, because from here on out it's all hip hop!
Oran "Juice" Jones was an r&b singer signed to Def Jam, who put out this record at the remarkably early year of 1986, featuring subtle hip hop flourishes well before they'd become commonplace. The Rain is an atmospheric, mid-tempo burner that largely builds on the sound of figures like Johnny Osbourne, but then the beat to It's Yours has that distinctive digital hip hop kick pioneered by the likes of Mantronix. In fact, it sounds a lot like the freestyle-inflected dance pop records he'd later produce toward the end of the decade.
Swingbeat hit like a bomb when it first dropped. I can remember like it was yesterday: all of a sudden that trademark tikka-tikka-boom beat was EVERYWHERE! I loved it at the time and even long after it fell out of fashion I loved it still. I even used a lot of swingbeat-style rhythmic patterns in my earliest rave tracks back when I first started making beats! Teddy Riley was the prime architect of the form, in large part defining it in the public imagination (even getting drafted in by Michael Jackson for production duties on his 1991 smash Dangerous). Guy's debut is the point where Riley really introduced the sound to the world, and it remains a milestone (not to mention a classic bit of machine-driven r&b).
Suddenly, swingbeat was everywhere, coming from both the soul angle with Tony! Toni! Toné! and out of hip hop with Wreckx-n-Effect (another Riley production). This was the first real cross-pollination between hip hop and modern soul of the Jam & Lewis variety, becoming instrumental in the synthesis of r&b as we know it. This 12" single by the man who yells five-o! in New Jack City might be my favorite record that the form produced in the 1980s. The album version always seemed a tad stiff to my ears, but this extended 12" Mix oils up the joints into a lithesome robotic monster groove, featuring a vocodered chorus threaded into the beat itself. The beats matching the sleeve perfectly — Urban Haze to borrow a phrase from Basement Jaxx — this is Terminal Vibration music to its core.
Alongside hip hop, the other new form to feed into the nascent r&b sound was house. If I'm not mistaken, the Fingers Inc. album was the first house LP ever. It's also a key modern soul record, featuring the dueling vocals of Robert Owens and Ron Wilson against Larry Heard's sleek, futurist productions. Heard — who is probably the key conduit for soul and jazz into house music — also released the awesome Ammnesia the very same year — a record full of lush instrumentals that set the blueprint for deep house — which works as the perfect companion piece to Another Side. I searched high and low for these two records when I was first getting into beats, both of which were grails alongside Carlton's The Call Is Strong and the Earthbeat compilation.
On the Fingers Inc. album, Chicago street poet Harry Dennis guested on the track Distant Planet, which worked as a precursor to the album he'd later record with Larry Heard as The It. However, well before all this activity, Harry Dennis had laid down this record with Marshall Jefferson. The Jungle is defined by its lush rainforest sound, thick with atmosphere, evoking the concept of the urban jungle in something of a parallel with Jon Hassell's notion of Fourth World music. The bassline here so deep and the synths so absorbing, its impossible not to get caught up in the sonic imagery conjured up by the duo. There were two more Jungle Wonz records, both of which are well worth your time as well...
More Chicago house on the modern soul tip. Da Posse had a few records around this time, even cutting an LP for Republic in 1990. The instrumental It's My Life Aluh Mix is usually the song of theirs to get singled out for praise (even getting included on Warp's Warp10+1 Influences compilation), but this is easily my favorite thing the crew ever did. With its icy string lines cutting across a droning acid line and Martell's lonely nocturnal croon, Searchin' Hard is a longing slab of alien post-disco soul. I'm a sucker for this sort of lush, soul-inflected house music, shot through as it is with a sort of backroom, rough-and-tumble futurism.
It's a sound that crops up again and again into the 90s (and right up to the present day, in fact). To my mind, New Jersey's Romanthony — the dark prince of garage — was a key progenitor of the form, representing the very apex of the impulse. The sprawling Romanworld album was a blues-inflected, half-lit tour de force, with a scope to match Prince's Sign "O" The Times. Indeed, I think of Romanthony as perhaps the greatest of the artists to pick up where Prince left off, taking machine soul to soaring new heights of rhythmic dexterity. Nowhere is that more clear than on The Wanderer (particularly in its electro-garage CD Remix #9 version), which is quite simply heaven on wax.
As discussed earlier, Jamie Principle took Prince's raw sexuality and machine-inflected soul to ever more warped, new wave-damaged domains. Records like Baby Wants To Ride and It's A Cold Cold World created a template for house music that remains both strikingly intimate and deeply strange. I'm repeating myself here, but there were loads of people to move into Principle's slipstream: I've mentioned Blake Baxter and K-Alexi Shelby, but also later figures like Aaron-Carl, Blaqstarr and Green Velvet seem heavily indebted to Principle's striking initial vision.
My favorite record to run with Principle's template just might be this Reese record, which marries the whispered/claustrophobic vocal shtick to a characteristically rugged Kevin Saunderson groove, complete with the appearance of the greatest Reese bassline of them all (just ask Dillinja and Groove Chronicles!). This is just such an incredible sound captured here, somehow massive and spectral at the same time: a great, subsonic rumbling just on the edge of your perception. It's matched perfectly by the watery synth whistles that drift across its surface, while those naggingly spare keyboard loops run counterpoint. Hard to believe he put it all together in 1988, it's yet a testament to the sound genius of the man.
Of course Saunderson had his own forays into mainstream dancefloors (not to mention the charts) with Chicago diva Paris Grey as Inner City. Everyone knows uptempo hits like Good Life and Big Fun — indeed, they used to play these on Jammin' z90 during their afternoon old school sets — but tonight I'd like to single out Power Of Passion for praise. The album's lone ballad, it was actually cut from the U.S. version of the album (which was all I knew until the reissue came out). It's quickly become one of my key tracks, and I'd argue the great machine soul tune that nobody ever talks about. Sounding exactly like a Neptunes-produced Kelis ballad circa Wanderland, it even manages to predict the atmosphere of present-day alternative r&b. Paris Grey's vocals — which are belted out in a gutsy manner nearly everywhere else — drift ethereal across a lingering synth mirage and slow motion 909 beats. Exquisite!
The other great Inner City record from the 80s is this cover version of the Stephanie Mills disco staple. The Knuckles/Morales Def Mix is the one you want. You wonder how they could top the brilliantly understated groove of the Stephanie Mills original, but they somehow manage to pull it off, going for the jugular with a lush, string-laden soundscape that just chugs along a motorik 909 rhythm as Paris duets with her own backing vocals. When the blue notes of that piano line hit across its oceanic backdrop, I swear you're hearing the burnished edges of Massive Attack's Protection (particularly the Craig Armstrong arrangements in Weather Storm) five years ahead of schedule.
I'd even argue that the Def Mix even has traces of trip hop's soul about it, bringing to mind the early records to come out of Bristol. When it comes to trip hop, Massive Attack can say they were there from the beginning. Indeed, their original crew The Wild Bunch was the nucleus around which the Bristol blues scene formed in the first place. Their debut 12" Any Love (produced by Smith & Mighty) is a stone classic, finding the crew covering the Rufus & Chaka Khan disco staple in a winningly moody fashion, with Carlton's unmistakable falsetto soaring over rugged beats and a haunting snatch of electro boogie noise.
Smith & Mighty did as much as anyone to establish the blueprint for trip hop with records like Walk On... and Anyone (both released on their own Three Stripe imprint). Like Any Love, both records were cover versions (Burt Bacharach/Hal David numbers in Smith & Mighty's case), establishing the standard practice with which r&b artists like Playa (with Don't Stop The Music) and Gina Thompson (Why Do Fools Fall In Love would retrofit existing favorites and update them for a new era (shades of Jamaica's endlessly recycling versions, in which the future is constructed from fragments of the past).
Another cover version, this time the Fresh 4 take on Rose Royce's Wishing On A Star. Another Smith & Mighty production. Like I said, they were on fire at the time. The Rhodes atmosphere from Faze-O's Riding High swirls across the entirety of the track, its sound echoing in pure resonance inside your head as a slow-motion Funky Drummer loop unfurls beneath, drowned in reverb. You can sense the spectre of acid jazz in there somewhere.
Fresh 4 were slated by 10 Records to become a pop sensation, but got lost in a maze of record company politics and misunderstandings. Members of the group went on to play a key role in Bristol's drum 'n bass story, however, with Krust and Suv forming Reprazent with Roni Size and Flynn teaming up with Flora (as Flynn And Flora), while Smith & Mighty went on to produce Carlton's sterling debut album and stubbornly blaze their own trail through the ensuing years with records like Steppers Delight and Bass Is Maternal.
Carlton's debut exists in the shadow of Massive Attack's debut album, but is every bit its equal. Both are records I couldn't live without. I hope I'm driving home the trajectories of machine soul and trip hop have been intertwined from the beginning... they're flipsides of the same coin, really. On Blue Lines, obvious staples like Safe From Harm and Unfinished Sympathy hover in the moody interzone between hip hop, dance music and r&b, taking the notion of soundsystem soul to its logical conclusion. The oft-overlooked Lately — possibly my favorite song on the album — samples the radioactive glow of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On bassline over rugged hip hop beats in such a way that predicts nearly everything I love about nineties r&b.
I often think you could trace a lot of this RnB activity back to the U.K. either way. Soul To Soul's marriage of hip hop beats and r&b songcraft — spiked with house, dub and jazz inflections — epitomizes the idea of soundsystem soul, which is a fellow traveler with trip hop as much as hip hop proper. As was the case with swingbeat, nearly everyone wanted a piece of the distinctly Soul II Soul beat (as heard in Keep On Movin') at at the time. Even indie rockers like Primal Scream nicked the beat for Loaded and subsequently turned into the indie dance proposition that gave us Screamadelica! There's also more than a bit of neo soul's DNA about this record, along with the solo albums Caron Wheeler would subsequently release in the decade to follow.
Exhibit B: Neneh Cherry. Now that's attitude! Step-daughter of free jazz (and proto-Fourth World) pioneer Don Cherry, Neneh started out in post punk with groups like Rip Rig & Panic and latter day Slits (see Chapter 5) before showing up as a dancer in a couple Big Audio Dynamite music videos. Her debut album rewrites the rulebook: from the widescreen production of Buffalo Stance to the understated downbeat of Manchild, you can hear the nineties being born in the clash between the hard-edged dance beats and atmospheric production. Her follow up Homebrew — which features the awesome Buddy X — has an even more overtly trip hop flavor.
As I never tire of telling people, Sinéad O'Connor's debut album The Lion And The Cobra is the stepping stone between Janet Jackson's Control and Neneh Cherry's debut. There's also a fair bit of 4AD atmosphere mixed in among the diamond-edged beats, not to mention moments that seem to prefigure the sound of 90s alternative (Just Call Me Joe). Especially noteworthy in the context of tonight's machine soul affair is the 12" single for I Want Your Hands On Me, which features a very early cameo from MC Lyte.
A.R. Kane were operating at a similar axis of dance rhythms and post-4AD (they even recorded an EP for the label early on) atmosphere around the time of their second album, "I". Initially pegged by the music press as the black Jesus And Mary Chain, they were actually a much more complex proposition, stirring elements of dub, jazz, dream pop and alternative into a swirling, hypnotic sound that often flirted with dance. "I" is where the duo went all out, with tunes like A Love From Outer Space and What's All This Then? diving straight into the Second Summer Of Love dancefloor even as they continued plumbing the depths of their deep, strange sound with tunes like Sugarwings and Catch My Drift.
Interestingly enough, there seems to have been this subtle undercurrent of the duo's influence running through the freakier ends of hip hop and r&b ever since. Divine Styler's Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light for one (and perhaps most literally so). The dub-inflected deep space soul of Me'Shell NdegéOcello's Comfort Woman for another. I've often thought Seal owed a lot to A.R. Kane. I also remember Simon Reynolds comparing Outkast's Elevators Me & You to A.R. Kane back in the day. It all seemed to reach critical mass around the time of Kid Cudi and Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak, both of which seemed indebted to the duo's sound (alongside a healthy dose of Tears For Fears circa The Hurting).
Suddenly, without warning and seemingly against all odds, the sound was everywhere. We're still riding that wave. I wish my fifteen-year-old self could've seen this! Artists pegged as alternative r&b like FKA Twigs and Weeknd are very much in this slipstream (see also Tinashe's Aquarius). My favorite of the bunch is Cut 4 Me by Kelela, which I've gone onabout before, bringing things full circle in a clash of machine beats, post punk sonix and atmosphere. It's a fitting place to wind up with our answer to that perennial question, just one of many hovering around this half-lit interzone like a ghost in the machine.
Terminal Vibration 10:
CameoShe's StrangeAtlanta Artists
One WayCutie PieMCA
SA-RA Creative PartnersDeath Of A Star SUPERNOVAUbiquity
Barbara MasonAnother ManWest End
Ashford & SimpsonBabies Dub VersionCapitol
PrinceSomething In The Water Does Not ComputeWarner Bros.
ZappComputer LoveWarner Bros.
The Isley BrothersBetween The SheetsT-Neck
MtumeThe After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part IIEpic
PrinceThe Ballad Of Dorothy ParkerWarner Bros.
Fingers Inc.Feelin' SleezyJack Trax
Sinéad O'ConnorMC LyteI Want Your Hands On MeEnsign
Neneh CherryInna City MammaCirca
Fresh 4Lizz. EWishing On A Star 12" Mix10
Massive AttackAny LoveMassive Attack
KelelaFloor ShowFade To Mind
Inner CityPower Of Passion10
Christopher WilliamsTalk To Myself 12" MixGeffen
Da PosseMartellSearchin' Hard Vocals MixDance Mania
In the hazy shadow of r&b's ultraviolet hip hop inflections, its mirror image lingers like a haunting moment still hanging hazy in the air. Amid these discotheque dreams half-remembered, its pulse still beats a song of uptempo longing. One day Jamie passed the tape to Frankie and set those gears in motion, a mirage of disco, new wave and the cold machinery of the night colliding in this thing we call house. Certain shades hit hard and others turn strange, and others still run far beneath, diving deep into shimmering waters and the soul of the machine.
The question first posed by Mr. FingersCan You Feel It, rising from cascading waters, an ambient cousin born in the deep. Above The Clouds, these were Sceneries Not Songs, spread across records like Genesis and Black Oceans. Jazz shapes creep into the picture and are echoed in time by Glenn Underground, house Shifting Gears in a jazz funk style for the turning century. The sounds of Philadelphia International — so crucial at The Warehouse — met halfway by Marshall Jefferson, first with Move Your Body and then the lush soul sides of Ten City and beyond.
Street poet Harry Dennis worked with Fingers and Marshall both, as The It and Jungle Wonz respectively, shades of The Last Poets and Gil-Scott Heron in effect. He also turned up on Another Side by Fingers Inc., Mr. Fingers' (aka the great Larry Heard) vision of modern soul with Ron Wilson and the golden voice of Robert Owens. Deep slates like Never No More Lonely and Distant Planet were haunted by it, with the weird digital funk moves of Feelin' Sleezy echoed ten years after by Missy Elliott's Dog In Heat Method Man & Redman. It still stands as one of the key soul records of the era.
Owens went on to cut the silky groove of Tears with Frankie Knuckles and Satoshi Tomiie — all mixed down by David Morales in that Def Mix style — before doing it again (and better still) on I'll Be Your Friend. The Glamourous Mix moves hearts and mountains, strings slam into the groove and Tomiie pumps them keys as that voice soars to the heavens. Smack in between these two 12"s, he unfurled the Rhythms In Me LP, standing astride the twin worlds of house and r&b with a lush slab of modern soul. In a strange turn some ten years after, he winds up in unlikely collaboration with shadowy drum 'n bass man Photek over a grinding Reese bassline in Mine To Give, a twisted slab of dark house music with the Detroit chords of Inner City waiting in the wings. Kevin Saunderson livin' large in the 21st century on both counts. What else is new...
MK (aka Marc Kinchen) picked up the baton Reese brought to the city in the first place, his stripped-down dubs built on the idea of radical reinvention, the original track reshaped and mutated into another form altogether. He turned up on Carl Craig and Damon Booker's Retroactive imprint with the raw motor disco of Decay and Feel The Fire, the rugged edge of a discography that runs the line between the dancefloor and downbeat r&b. Sessions with singer Alana resulted in Surrender, a gently rolling tide of a record that met swingbeat and r&b halfway, while his dubs for Detroit auteur Chez Damier split the difference between both worlds.
Something special happened with the Chez Damier records on KMS, possibly the greatest balance struck between these twin worlds. I've often thought that songs like I Never Knew Love Change Up Mix and Don't Try It Mix #1 would have gone down a treat on a station like Jammin' z90 at the time. The latter is one of the two records he cut with Chicago don Ron Trent, along with Chez N Trent's The Choice (check out the crisp, raw jacking Witch Doctor Mix). Damier also had a meeting of the minds with fellow Detroit luminary Stacey Pullen on Forever Monna, a delicate fusion of the duo's respective house and techno sensibilities.
That tune originally cropped up on the aptly-titled Classic EP, which was put out by Antonio Echols' (brother to Santonio of Reese & Santonio fame) Serious Grooves imprint, a Detroit label specializing in lush, machine-driven deep blue soul of the garage-tinged house variety. Deep house trio T.H.D. — later known as the dark purveyors of techno Strand — laid down seven records for the label, while Claude Young did a trio of 12"s as Low Key and Younger Than Park (in collaboration with Terrence Parker). Terrence Parker recorded a whole brace of 12"s for the label — under names like Plastic Soul Junkies and Seven Grand Housing Authority — even doing the honors on the wheels of steel for Serious Grooves In The Mix, an awesomely slinky hour long mix of the label's music.
All this activity was mirrored in Mike Banks' corollary to his activities in UR, the Happy Soul and Soul City imprints, with records by everyone from r&b chanteuse Davina, Kenny Dixon Jr. and Aaron-Carl in the mix. Future member of Los HermanosGerald Mitchell recorded for both Soul City and The Burden Brothers' label 430 West, who also put out excellent house 12"s by Tokyo Gospel Renegades and L'Homme Van Renn that slipped in amongst the rugged techno of Octave One and Never On Sunday's instrumental ambient soul perfectly.
The Brothers' Direct Beat sub-label even honed a vision of electro down to a science, with artists like Aux 88, Microknox, Will Web and X-ile plying a chrome-plated futurist boogie that played like a fast-forward vision of Timbaland's most technoid sides like the Clock Strikes Remix and One Minute Man. Juan Atkins' Metroplex label had its own incursions into this terrain, even issuing a version Aaron-Carl's sleazy electro classic Down complete with remixes by DJ Marquis and The People Mover. This sound is showcased brilliantly on Atkins' Wax Trax! MasterMix Volume 1 alongside the sleek techno of Infiniti and Convextion, and deep garage-tinged sides like Blaze's Another Dae and BelizbehaInhibitions Clear Horizons Remix. At the interface between street-racing electro and machine soul, even ghetto-tech bad boys like DJ Assault could sometimes get sensitive with tracks like Sex On The Beach and its silken echoes of Prince's Erotic City.
This the era when Carl Craig's Planet E imprint was in the midst of a renaissance with figures like Recloose, Common Factor and Moodymann (not to mention Innerzone Orchestra, with Kenny Dixon Jr.'s superbly jazzed-out house reinterpretation of People Make The World Go Round) messing around in the fertile terrain between jazz, soul and house. Of course Craig had his own dalliances with the form in his recordings with vocalists like Sarah Gregory and Naomi Daniels, going all the way back to earlier labels like Retroactive and the short-lived I Ner Zon Sounds imprint with records like No More Words and Feel The Fire. One could certainly make connections between the ravishing, lo-fi synths of Craig's Psyche/BFC material and Silentintroduction's vast corridors of atmospheric filtered house.
Like Sly & The Family Stone's seventies records — with their copious overdubs upon overdubs — Moodymann's music seemed imbued with a spectral quality, as if haunted by grooves of sessions past. When Basic Channel turned out some deep house sides with the Round One, Round Two, etc. series on Main Street Records, the results were similarly spooked and atmosphere-drenched landscapes for the soulful vocals of Andy Caine (and later Tikiman). Round One's I'm Your Brother (itself based on Isley Jasper Isley's Caravan Of Love) was dubbed further into abstraction on Basic Channel's Quadrant Dub, a dazzling slab of lush, motorik techno. The Main Street sound must be understood as the basis for Luomo's turn-of-the-century masterstroke Vocalcity, a firm Parallax favorite.
By this point in time, Chicago's Roy Davis Jr. had been on a roll of his own with a blinding run of records at the machine soul interface like the filter-house madness of I'm Tha DJ, Rock Shock's hard-edged electro boogie (on Daft Punk's Roulé imprint, complete with a remix from Thomas Bangalter), and the deep soul magic of Gabrielle. The silky-smooth, slinky groove of the Live Garage version of the latter even proved to be profoundly influential on the burgeoning U.K garage scene. His turn-of-the-century album Traxx From The Nile — which drew from a series of recent EPs — seemed to bridge the gap altogether, recalling the elaborately conceived soul sets of Curtis Mayfield in the 1970s.
Bringing it all back home, Tony Humphries' vision of garage — as mapped out at his Zanzibar club — connected with the rich pre-history of disco and Philly soul, along with the of-the-moment output of labels like Easy Street and Big Beat that paralleled the contemporary developments of house and r&b. The music of New Jersey's Blaze, Romanthony and Kerri Chandler is something like the epitome of Humphries' vision. Of the three, Romanthony plunges deepest into the heart of machine soul. His 1996 double-album Romanworld had a vast, sprawling scope, at times reaching as far back as the blues with the sort of spirit that recalled Prince at his most ambitious.
The Wanderer was even better, and in the concision of its four tracks, was no less ambitious. Spanning the deepest house, instrumental dub and wild-pitch madness, it was the electro-fueled garage vision of CD Remix #9 that hit hardest of all, capturing the very spirit of machine soul in its nearly seven minutes of mechanized perfection. That all-to-human voice against the slipstream of an android rhythm, Lots of towns, lots of women, many places, the secret faces, crying out into the night with alien longing, It's the system that makes you a wanderer... It's the blues come so far, you've still got so far to go. It's electro visions living in the future, you're still haunted by the past. It's the sound of a wanderer's spirit. It's the soul in the machine.
The early years of house music in the mid-eighties turned up a whole brace of memorable figures, from Larry Heard and the soulful ruminations he unveiled as Mr. Fingers (which drew up the blueprints for deep house) to Farley Keith and his raw jack trax (which laid the foundations for acid), or even Marshall Jefferson, whose records like Move Your Body and The Jungle (as Jungle Wonz, with Harry Dennis) connected with a lineage stretching back to disco, Philly soul and — in the case of the Wonz — even The Last Poets. And yet, if there's one figure who stands above all else as the scene's singular visionary iconoclast from year one, then it must be Jamie Principle. That's right, I said Jamie Principle!
With a vision that seemed to refract the carnality of Prince through an almost Gothic — even cyberpunk — lens, and post-disco dancefloor moves shot through with a new wave sensibility suggesting a strong affinity with the European sounds of Depeche Mode, Visage and Kraftwerk, he plied an odyshape house-not-house sound that still strains at the confines of any misguided attempts to pigeonhole it. Imagine the brittle electro pop of Depeche Mode's Speak & Spell crossed with the darker vibes of Violator (ten years later) — right there in the middle of the 1980s — and fronted by the Black Bowie... and you'd still be only halfway there. That's because Jamie Principle was like the ghost in the machine, rerouting the circuitry — and possibilities — of a very limited set of resources to spawn a sound no one else had even dreamed of.
So he went on to become a superstar, right? Within the realm of house music he's one of those names, a figure who commands non-stop respect, but in the wider world of pop, a combination of factors prevented him from ever breaking through to the level of household name that he so clearly deserved (one could certainly imagine him being mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned Prince and Depeche Mode, along with figures like New Order and A.R. Kane). You see, some cats just come too early and too unique, running in overdrive and so busy doing their own thing, that others wind up crashing in to run with their templates and ultimately take all the recognition. That's the way of the world, Tilly.
Where Prince and Depeche Mode had the benefit of major label backing, a setting where they could gradually develop and ultimately flourish, Principle was forced to battle it out on a series of local independent labels (some of which turned out to have a reputation for ripping off their artists) before ultimately forging ahead on his own. Even New Order and A.R. Kane, themselves ostensibly on indie labels (Factory and Rough Trade, respectively), were given strong promotion muscle and considerable room to grow. By the time he did hook up with a major (Smash), it was seven years after his initial splash, and they didn't seem to know what to do with him. It's a story all too familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in dance music, and it breaks your heart.
When the dust settles, what one's left with is the records, records that betray the man's extraordinary vision. That his career never quite took flight in the decades to follow only serves to underline the mystique, with but a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been in the handful of records he left behind. It's a glimpse that nevertheless manages to dwarf the scale of many other, more visible artists whose careers have spanned decades, scores of records and acclaim. Somewhere in that series of about a dozen records lies an entire shadowy terrain, just waiting to be explored by curious, wounded souls the world over. So let's take a look...
Jamie Principle emerged in the heady days of house music's dawn in the city of Chicago, back when the term still just referred to the post-disco sounds being played at local clubs like Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse and the Powerplant, and Ron Hardy's Muzic Box. At this point, Principle was just an introverted kid who recorded intimate bedroom missives directly to tape, until he was eventually convinced in 1984 to give Knuckles a cassette containing an early version of the song Your Love. When Knuckles dropped it in the mix alongside the usual stew of Salsoul, Philadelphia International and new wave cuts, it sent the dancefloor into a tizzy and quickly became an anthem, a signature tune for the club.
Compared to other dawn-of-house records like Jesse Saunders' On And On (which was probably the first to ever be pressed up to vinyl), what's striking about Principle's records is the extent to which they are fully realized songs, with a sense of drama far exceeding the (brilliantly) funktional jack trax norms of the era. And at a moment when a lot of the magic had begun to seep out of the charts (with a definite sense of stasis and uniformity creeping in), Principle's sound returned a sense of drama to the dancefloor that rivals the greatest of the new romantics and even the divas of digital disco's reign. With a half decent marketing push behind them, songs like Your Love or Waiting On My Angel would have set dancefloors (and likely charts) ablaze the world over.
Instead, Principle's debut came out in 1985 on the resolutely underground Persona imprint, which in retrospect fit the mysterious contours of his sound perfectly. Make no mistake, this is one of my absolute favorite records of all time (#16, to be exact!), and one of the great debut splashes EVER. The tune itself is pure electricity: a tensile bassline — bounded within the digital drums' matrix of rhythm — pulses into a cloud-covered horizon as a four-note bleep pattern ricochets within the parameters of the groove. The drums are firmly grounded in the context of the mid-eighties dancefloor, but — with the same spirit as all the greatest Nuggets tunes — the circuitry's been rewired. Using the same tools as everyone else, corridors are opened beneath the well-traveled surface and possibilities unlocked, and Principle rewrites the rulebook in the process.
Plaintive synths bathe the track in an eerie glow, and young Jamie dives in with his singular vocal fingerprint. Like some unlikely negotiation of new romantic and proto-RnB — in spirit perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Prince at his most understated — his vocal attack is nevertheless utterly and completely alien, a clear case of an artist doing his own thing. His wordless scat in the bridge is worth the price of admission alone, catchier than the main hook-line in most other tunes of the day, while his periodic offhand laugh seems inspired by Alison Moyet's immortal chuckle in Yaz's Situation (the very same laugh that would later crop up in the epochal Nude Photo record by Derrick May, in fact).
Take special note of those lush rainforest strings, which tell a story of their own. When I first heard the b-side Dub Mix, I'd inadvertently left the turntable set to '33 (the b-side is actually '45, while the flip was '33), and the pitched-down result sounded like something Angelo Badalamenti would later cook up for one David Lynch's surreal dream logic visions. In truth, even played at the right speed it ain't too far off. All of this done on the dancefloor and with such a spare arrangement, like Model 500's Night Drive Thru-Babylon and Hashim's Al-Naafiysh The Soul, it augurs entire futures while still dwelling in the shadows, well outside the glitz of the media glare. Even that's a revolution in its own right (shades of UR and 430 West).
Following hot on the heels of Waiting On My Angel was the aforementioned Your Love, also released on Persona, a year later in 1986. Starting with another looped bleep sequence, this time a shade more relaxed and comforting, the drums come crashing in with a loping bassline and another set of plaintive synth strings. Enveloped within these cathedrals of sounds Jamie intones words derived from a poem he wrote for his girlfriend:
When I'm with you I believe that your love is true.
When we love you turn me out, you know what to do.
Visions really blow my mind fantasizing all the time.
The tune features the first of Principle's many trademark circuit-bent synth solos, keys dancing and searching across the track's progression in the sort of move that Derrick May would one day turn into a way of life. It's a sound once could get lost in, and with the full-length Club Mix spanning a cool eight minutes, there's certainly plenty of room to roam. The record came this time housed in a gorgeous sleeve reminiscent of Kraftwerk and The Man-Machine, which — combined with the extraordinary sounds contained within — cemented the otherworldly impact of Principle's sophomore slam and the man's status as a triple threat to watch.
These striking early endeavors led to house don Frankie Knuckles taking Principle under his wing and remixing Your Love as the b-side to Baby Wants To Ride, which was released on the mightiest Chicago label of the day, Trax Records. Both records made a considerable impact, but Baby Wants To Ride was particularly revelatory, a track you'd struggle to find comparisons for. In spirit, it bears a spiritual similarity with Prince twin penchants for surreal, conversation with God asides and striking moments of pointed protest (see The Ladder, America and Controversy), but the sound here is far stranger, galaxies away even, as unique as it is difficult to describe (but you know I'm gonna try).
With a svelte, futuristic rhythm loping in unstable forward-motion, one reaches for comparisons with punk funk and mutant disco when confronted with this utterly alien technoid boogie. Principle begins with a quick prayer before God replies, the half-spoken narration literally riding a groove of shuffle-funk bassline grinding against a compact drum loop and another arcade bleep pattern looping mindlessly within. Then, this great detuned synth explodes, smearing across the track in great waves, gradually receding onto the horizon before crashing against the beat again and again. In true Prince(iple) style, the spiritual intertwines with the sensual in a gradual buildup of tension and dread, before he throws the political in the mix as well.
Citing the Book Of Revelation and demanding, South Africa, let my people go, he adds Ronnie wants to ride me because he thinks he's king, but it's hard ride baby, when you're living in a fascist dream. Then we get the immortal couplet:
Make love, don't fight...
I wanna save a life.
Make love, don't fight...
I wanna fuck tonight!
Maybe I can see why it didn't trouble the Billboard charts after all! If the PRMC and Tipper Gore were losing sleep over Prince, quite what they'd make of Jamie Principle is anyone's guess. But, like I said before, completely unique and utterly alien. One wishes there were scores of tracks as brilliant, whole sectors of sound mapped around it and explored more thoroughly. Of course figures like Chicago's K-Alexi Shelby and Detroit's Blake Baxter (plus later auteurs like the sorely missed Aaron Carl) gave it a shot, and they're all fascinating, brilliant artists in their own right, but none of them could match the man's visionary scope and raw sense of gravity. I suppose there can only be one...
Principle managed to drop another set of gems on his final 12" with Frankie Knuckles, It's A Cold World b/w Bad Boy, rounding out what I'm now going to dub The Alien Era (roughly speaking, his first four records). It's A Cold World — appropriately enough — showcases Principle at his absolute iciest, its desolate sonic tundra defined by dead-eyed synths and a nagging bleep refrain over a lock-step bass/drum rhythm, haunted by another set of the man's lonely intonations. I'm reminded of peak-era Yello in places, and yes there's a real rubberband quality to these elastic rhythms. Stripped-down and nimble without one element out of place, they're miles away from the locked-down 4/4 rigidity that house proper is sometimes accused of.
The flipside's Bad Boy similarly taps into real new wave vibes, with Principle's delivery both wounded and defiant (an echo of his core duality a fusion of introvert the exhibitionist), its sexually ambiguous in a Man Who Fell To Earth/Beyond The Black Rainbow fashion. It's a perfect pop song, an anthem, widescreen on a shoestring and a rallying cry for the subculture that never was (or perhaps was, but spread across the globe in a diaspora of like-minded lonely souls hidden in the shadows). A simply perfect encapsulation of the sensitively articulated, street-level glamour/anti-glamour that one finds tucked away in places like progressive-era Detroit, the Bristol blues and of course early Chicago.
In the wake of It's A Cold World, Principle and Knuckles parted ways. Things seemed to have soured somewhat, amid a situation where Principle only received a subtle co-writing credit beneath a large FRANKIE KNUCKLES PRESENTS legend at the top of the records (with no mention of Jamie Principle afterward, as the vocalist). One of the open secrets of the Chicago house scene during this era is that jack trax were jacked left and right, artists were often left in the cold, and hardly anyone got paid. Trax label boss Larry Sherman was certainly noted more than once for his shady business practices. Chalk it up to another reason Principle's career was hamstrung in a by now long line of cascading bad luck.
Of course, the records we did get are stunning in their own right, and — in the context of mid-to-late 80s dance — a true phenomenon. Setting the stage perfectly for what I like to call The Auteur Trilogy, a set of records Principle released on his own freshly minted D.J. World imprint. Each of these 12"s are arranged as sonic cinema of sorts, spread across four distinct parts, with recurring features like The Movie and House Of Trix shared among them. The first one is Rebels Get Righteous, which is actually my least favorite. Moving ever-so-slightly toward normalcy, with the sort of clattering rhythm matrix one finds across the board during dance music of this era, but then — whoah! — there's that wild pitch-bend refrain underpinning the track's Say it loud, I'm a freak and I'm proud message.
Even better — and indeed my favorite of the bunch — is the x-rated groove I'm Gonna Make You Scream, with its warped, unctuous bassline sliding across the bleep/rhythm matrix and eerie futurist strings. Its infectious refrain I'm gonna make you scream, is underscored by a casually haunting yeah-yeaaah from Jamie, before the more — ahem! — direct chant of I'm gonna fuck you til you scream, follows. The tune memorably switches gears into an extended coda where the shouted backing gang chant of You know you are the one, finds Jamie replying a whole list of different women's names (Hey Mary!, Hey Shari!, Hey Suzie!, Hey Lisa!), before concluding, Yeah Mary, I heard about you... I heard you're a virgin, yeah... well... I'll teach you!
With its naggingly subtle bleep pattern, synth washes and grinding bassline, one suspects that Underworld were listening closely when they set out refashioning their sound with the Lemon Interrupt records (and even Dubnobasswithmyheadman, which often rocks a similarly deep bass sound). Every time that time-stopping snare rush hits in the breakdown, I always do a double-take: this came out in 1988?? The assorted moans — from both Jamie and unnamed female vocalists — come as an added bonus, including fragments of French thrown into the blender.
I haven't even mentioned the gloriously kaleidoscopic keyboard solo that soars up and down the groove at the midway point, sizzling with real sports cars on Mars vibes (see also R-Tyme's R-Theme and Top Gear 2). Quite simply sublime. Another case where I long for scores of similar songs in this terrain, speeding across the planetary surface as the vast expanse of deep space lies on the horizon. In other news, the flipside even features a loping 303-drenched Acid Mix and the proto-Italo House Of Trix Piano Mix, both of which are well worth your time.
When I hear the sheer inventiveness of Jamie Principle tunes like this one — or in truth, anything he put out in the 1980s — I marvel at what he would have done with an album-length canvas to work at this particular point in time. The world certainly could have used another great snapshot of Chicago house at this white-hot early moment (1988). I suspect it would have been at the very least on par with the stone classics of the era like Mr. Fingers' Ammnesia, Lil' Louis & The World's From The Mind Of Lil' Louis and Fingers Inc.'s Another Side, perhaps even managing to surpass them. Who knows? If these three EPs are anything to go by, I certainly wouldn't bet against it...
I'd like to offer as Exhibit H the third of the D.J. World EPs, this one a re-recording of Bad Boy. At first you think, Oh no, where's that unbalanced, slippery groove gone off to? Has it all gone locked-down and ordinary?? And yet, as Bad Boy The Movie starts to unfold — clockwork bleeps locked into a rhythm that's pure digital disco — you remember that you're still in good hands. There's hundreds of ways this remake could've gone wrong, and Principle sidesteps them all with an updated version that revamps the stunning original within the richness of the D.J. World production aesthetic. There's even a Game Boy-esque synth solo thrown into the bargain!
The flipside's House Of Trix Mix rocks Kraftwerk-tinged, proto-micro house touches, embellishing Principle's usual rotating-bleep patterns with extra shades of digi-funk before swerving into organ overdrive for the climax (think peak-era Fine Young Cannibals). It's worth noting the lineage of Jamie's micro-bleeps, tracing through Steve Poindexter's skeletal post-acid house missives and even the U.K. bleep 'n bass of LFO and Sweet Exorcist. In a very real sense, this Bad Boy revamp brings Principle's 80s career full circle, wrapping up this four track 12", the D.J. World trilogy and his career thus far with a bold redrawing of the tune that's always played like his manifesto. Appropriately enough, it also serves as a swan song for the untutored, bizarre beauty of the man's greatest era.
In late 1989, Principle hooked up with Steve "Silk" Hurley for an update of Cold World before turning out this remake of Eddie Kendricks' Date With The Rain (often pegged as the first disco song) to ring in the nineties. Dispatching with the strange shapes and introspective edge of his earlier material altogether, the cover version found Principle getting down and dirty with a peak-era, turn-of-the-decade crowd pleaser. With its loping analogue bassline (reminiscent of Kevin Saunderson's early work) tugging against rugged drum loops, a nagging sax loop spars with rolling breakbeats beneath an Italo-style piano vamp, his falsetto soaring alongside guttertronic disco strings and horn fills. It's proof positive that Principle could still hold his own when playing it relatively straight.
He continued in this vein with his long-delayed debut album two years later, The Midnite Hour. Often cited as a bitter disappointment — mainly in light of the wild possibilities thrown up by the man's earlier records — it's nevertheless a solid collection of peak-era club music. Private Joy and Hot Body both pick up where Date With The Rain left off, with breakbeat-driven grooves, piano-let melodies and infectious sax loops (it's suddenly becoming clear why Flo Rida's G.D.F.R. appealed to me!), while Sexuality and You're All I've Waited 4 move into smoother, jazz-inflected territory. There's even a couple ballads tucked away at the end of the record, I've Cried All My Tears and If It's Love, the latter of which lies somewhere between RnB and the Bristol blues (at one point in the bridge even reminding me the second side of Seal's debut).
Still, die hard fans of the man's weird and wired stuff are bound to be disappointed.1
In that case, I direct you to the title track, with its blank-eyed bass-heavy groove, rolling bleeps and spoken word stream-of-consciousness from Principle, offset by the gospel-tinged backing refrain. This is exactly the sort of thing one might have hoped for in a peak-era Principle LP. Similarly, Do It starts with another killer bleep loop and wordless vocal bumps, before dropping into a lush, garage-tinged groove in league with the bulk of the album. It's a winning fusion of two worlds, mixing the strange shapes of his earlier material with the more commercial aspirations of the surrounding album. There's even a cameo rap from hip house MC M. Doc!
When all is said and done, does the record match the unfettered brilliance of his earliest material? No. Would I be sorry if I never got to hear this album again? You bet.
After The Midnite Hour came and went, Principle seemed to recede into the background somewhat, writing songs for the likes of Kelli Rich, Raven Bush and Ce Ce Peniston. He'd pop up from time to time, most notably when he reunited with Frankie Knuckles for Bac N Da Day (from Knuckles' final album, A New Reality) in 2004, the track even managing to hit the #1 spot in the US Dance Chart (a first for Principle). But mostly he seemed to have stayed in the shadows, until last year emerging on the Gorillaz' Hollywood (also featuring Snoop Dogg), plying a sort of post-SA-RA motorik machine soul.
In a sense, it's a fitting place to be in 2019, expanding on the initial template he created way back in the day in an era he helped to shape. The possibilities unveiled in tracks like Baby Wants To Ride and Your Love gave wild house auteurs like Green Velvet an idea or two, while his new wave-inflected vision pre-dated the post-Tears For Fears (circa The Hurting) strains of everyone from A.R. Kane to Kanye West (circa 808s & Heartbreak), Kid Cudi and indie rockers like Kenna and TV On The Radio. With his twisted machine soul visions more in step with present day music than anytime in the past, perhaps its time for Jamie Principle to finally get his due? Maybe after all these years, the shadowy bad boy of Chicago house will have his day in the sun...
Of particular interest to these fans would be the handful of records he put out as Underworld Society, Sanctuary and The Principle Theory around the same time, which are the almost undisclosed flipside to The Midnite Hour, keying into the same spooked futurism as Principle's D.J. World output (in fact, I have a mini-feature on just these records in the works).
Dusk falls on Murray Hill, cloudy skies bathed in moonlight and the city lights below. In this secluded enclave hemmed in by hills on all sides, geology has its way with the streets, the buildings and the power lines, all arranged carefully around its ever-changing moods. There's a beautiful car parked in the shoulder of the road, snaking its way up through the pass... look closer, indeed it's a Camry in Catalina Blue (like the one parked miles away). Fingerprints in sound like One Way's Lady and shades of She's Strange in a Cameo accessed on the radio dial. Trees cut deep, dark shapes against the horizon, the city laid out in the grove below. New grass forms makeshift meadows in the the empty spaces between the places, sprung up swiftly like the city all around, memories of green a gift of rare California rain.
Four corners sprawl at the summit, paths branch out the compass rose. Cars hiss by my window en roundabout route to Lemon Grove and beyond, speakers bumping out into the night shades of The Gap Band into N-Tyce records and All City, the circle squared long before the change of the guard. Up in the mansions, streets run wide and lawns stretch out toward the horizon against the cool breeze in the night. Lost in the synth bass afterglow, Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On and its motorik pulse loping out toward infinity, years and years on warped through the sampler into Lately and Massive's spectral r&b.
Searching for a break in the buildings, a clear shot of the cityscape spread out below and a clear shot of the sky. What we already got is as good as it gets, it seems our world's to big for your mansion. The pristine walls and windows, driveways like the shoreline and manicured plants and fences, I'd trade them all for another spin of Mahogany Brown, Moodymann down Mohawk way, dwelling in the Gardens with Night Moves up on the display. Thoughts of cruising Eastward down the boulevard and Zapp's Computer Love — or Kraftwerk's or The Egyptian Lover's Sweet Dreams — threading vectors through every surface, illuminating the night in an iridescent neon glow.
Heading back down the hillside, traversing landscapes in descent, and strange synchronicities begin to swirl about. There's a house covered in palms and lights in motion, throwing wild vector shapes in technicolor neon, echoes of a memory, echoes of times soon come pass. A vision in the twilight, and apparition and the double-take... perhaps it all runs in one great parallel in the end? Lush pads seep into the moonlight, errant strains of Cheryl Lynn's In The Night and all the things Do'shonne would have played, SA-RA and The Isleys and J Dilla and Faze-O.
Sonics creep into every corner and occupy the space, inertia builds and synths take flight. Kleeer's Tonight, I Still Love YouCall My Name and Next Time It's For Real rise up through cracks in the pavement, drifting up and up into the glare of the floodlights where they hang like ghosts in the night. Vectors off the grid in parallax motion, memories of Tron and Neuromancer come flooding back into view, overwhelming the senses as a distant voice declares, Face it, even your memory banks have forgotten this funk!
Shadows of street lamp rhythms tapped out in the night, echoes of Freaky Chakra's Blacklight Fantasy and Meat Beat's Original Fire in the half-light on Zion and Clara Lee, dubbed to bits and pieces of the future and scattered like a rocksteady path into the light. Origin story to present day and the smell of fresh cut grass on the field, sprawling right there just out of reach, the crisp scent still hanging in the air. Someday even the machines on Murray Hill will be a distant memory too. Street corner crossing, the bustle of traffic, and it's still a long way home...
Every now and then one stumbles upon an utterly beguiling record that somehow sounds both intimately of-its-era and utterly out of time. I'm talking about tiles like Tokyo Tower by Terranova, Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man OST and Winning by Sun Palace. Upon reflection, the 1980s seem to have been an elysian fields of such records. With booming drums and often garish synths the order of the day, skeletal affairs like Derrick Harriott's Dub Whip, Prince's The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker and Kleeer's Tonight seem to spring fully formed from some alternate dimension's take on the decade, one where dance music's developments in the nineties and beyond were formulated in blacklit neon during the Age of Atari.
The Ultra-Sensual Mix of Keni Stevens' Night Moves is one such record, sounding like something a time traveler from the present day might have laid down upon walking into a secluded 1985 studio after hours (with all the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that scenario entails). In reality, it was no time traveler but a man of and at home this very moment — someone who emerged mid-decade — only just then beginning to embark on a solo career in earnest. It was Keni Stevens.
Keni Stevens emerged from the unique contours of a U.K. music scene that took in elements of Brit funk, jazz dance and lovers rock, playing with the band Raw Energy before spending time at Conflict Records working in an A&R capacity. During this period, he also did some session work providing backing vocals for the likes of Marianne Faithfull and Eddy Grant (interestingly, in both cases figures with connections to the Pier), before signing with Elite Records in 1985. Perhaps best known as the home of British jazz dance band Atmosfear, Elite's catalog ranged from post-disco workouts to slinky jazz funk, smooth soul and even the street sounds of electro.
Notably, their catalog ID was DAZZ, which (in similar fashion to the Dazz Band) appropriately enough represented the contraction of Dance and Jazz, a sound that held sway throughout the first half of the decade as jazz musicians got down at the disco (and vice versa). Signposts of the era include Freeez, The Delegation and (slightly later) Loose Ends, not to mention crucial imports like Maze's Twilight and ALL the Jamaica, Queens artists (figures like Leon Ware, Don Blackman, Twennynine, etc.). This was an environment within which Keni would fit perfectly, possessed of a smooth soul-man delivery that flirted just at the cusp of r&b.
He made his solo debut with the original 12" version of Night Moves, a misty confection defined by a flickering synth-bass figure, digi-drums like shuffling footsteps, cascading crystalline keys and a distant synth swelling on the horizon. A lone saxophone dances up and down the soundscape as Keni sings the refrain, Let's make... night moves... together, his voice ravishing into a falsetto in the corners of the mix and even harmonizing with himself in spectral half-life.
At the six-minute point, everything drops out beneath him for a count before returning with a vengeance for a two-minute coda. A deep, brassy synth crests into the groove, pushing it forward (think François Kevorkian's dub of Ashford & Simpson's Babies), while a one-note sequence marks out the time in repetition like the opening moments of Larry Levan's Padlock version of Gwen Guthrie's Peanut Butter. The resultant blend of heavy and smooth wraps up the whole affair in half-lit rainforest vibes that wouldn't sound out of place on Dimitri From Paris' Night Dubbin'.
By contrast, the Ultra-Sensual Mix (split into Vocal and Instrumental mixes) seems to escape gravity's pull altogether. You're no longer walking in the rain but gliding three feet above the surface of some vector landscape, apparently in a faraway galaxy (or inside the machine). This is another matter entirely, and the reason we showed up today. The busy rhythm matrix of the original version has been emptied out: the drums punch out a simple motorik rhythm, while the minimalist slap-bass holds it all down with aerodynamic intensity. Lush pads seep into the mix in a turquoise neon, like some rippling digital creek snaking through the landscape. The combination recalls the almost electroid twilight groove of Barbara Mason's Another Man, with its linear inevitability laid out like a simple twist of fate.
Distant synths fade in and out of earshot, even as a separate clutch of shimmering synths flutter across the surface like something that might emerge from Earthbeat studios at the dawn of the decade to follow (shades too of 808 State's Pacific State). Dub-disco snare drums punctuate the mix at various measures, their klang echoing against the rhythm for whole bars at a time. It's this element that happens to bridge together the two distinct halves of this mix, as Keni's vocals (and their female backing) hang acappella in the ether before the rhythm klang kicks into the track's instrumental mirror image. The effect renders both halves as one marathon 11.5-minute extended workout, ideal for long-distance grooving in the dead of night.
The inner label's spartan credits have this tile down as being recorded at The Madhouse, crediting Chris Madden — the engineer with a dozen or so Elite 12"s under his belt — and Elite label boss Andy Sojka (also of Atmosfear). These names throw up all sorts of interesting possibilities and connections, such as Chris Madden later washing up on household hero Tony Thorpe's Language Records in the mid-nineties for a cameo appearance (as Takshaka) on the label's first Miscellaneous compilation.
Tony Thorpe himself a strange attractor of sorts, with a career spanning from the late-period post punk of 400 Blows to a profound shaping influence on British house with his Warriors Dance label (not to mention recordings under some names you might have heard of... names like No Smoke and The Moody Boys). It makes sense that the Language imprint would find him at the cusp once again, with the appropriately titled Miscellaneous compilation taking in everything from the electronic jazz of Circadian Rhythms to Ian Pooley's deep house and even the environmental abstraction of David Toop.
All of which is to say that the Language imprint had a pretty wide scope for its time, centering around a sort of tech jazz sensibility, its relative omnivorousness prefiguring prevailing trends at the turn of the century per labels like Compost, Planet E and Studio !K7. In a sense, the label serves as a stepping stone between the Rebirth Of The Cool acid jazz era (Young Disciples, Omar, et. al.) and the fin de siecle convergence of Jazzanova, 2000 Black, Op-ART and The Soulquarians in a future jazz/neo soul/broken beat mash-up. Something like Jazzanova's Straight Dub Mix of Marschmellows' Soulpower, with its epoch-spanning acid jazz/funk/boogie hinting at a continuum stretching from Ethel Beatty to Erykah Badu, makes the point I'm trying to here.
It's a continuum that one could slide Keni Stevens into quite naturally, without any trouble at all. The man's subsequent output certainly bears this out. After two more stellar 12"s for Elite (and an album for sub-label Jam Today), Stevens signs with Debut Records, another conduit with myriad implications and connections. With its strong links to both Passion Music (home of proto-acid jazz funk visionaries Sun Palace) and even Jumpin' & Pumpin' (home of the Earthbeat-era Future Sound Of London), Debut also put out Dougans and Cobain's Mental Cube records (So This Is Love, Q and Chile Of The Bass Generation). That's a rather heady slew of records when all grouped together right there, and certainly food for thought when viewed through a Parallax prism.
This setting proved fertile for Stevens, resulting in a series of three albums that drew increasingly on soundsystem soul signifiers (likely in light of Soul II Soul's ascent and Smith & Mighty's rewriting of the British soul rulebook). Plying a sort of placid loverman sound in that late-decade period interzone between modern soul and r&b, a tune like Cannot Live Without Your Love brims with deep pools of smooth-as-glass atmosphere, languid and peaceful in the calm of moonlight. It's a logical progression from the template drawn up by Stevens himself with Night Moves and the Ultra-Sensual Mix, its motorik flight-by-wire projected into a future of its own design.
It's a sound, a vision, and a state of mind conjured up in tandem with a loose conglomeration of artists who laid down the elegant foundations of machine soul. From Mtume's Juicy Fruit to Kleeer's Tonight, it's a sound that crops up everywhere from U.K. garage (Ramsey & Fen, Craig David, etc.) to Detroit techno (Juan Atkins, Chez Damier, etc.), bleeding into the work of New Jersey's Romanthony and even late-nineties iconoclasts like Timbaland and The Neptunes. There's unmistakable line running through all of this activity straight into the likes of Spacek, SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Tinashe and beyond, a lattice of circuitry that defines this sound we call machine soul.
One might even make the case that it's another great chapter in the ongoing trans-Atlantic exchange that so much great music has sprung from over the years. There's always been a certain errant quality that creeps into the mix when a sound reaches British shores, be it jungle's transmutation of Mantronix and Marley Marl into Remarc and the Kemet Crew or the subtle infusions of reggae in trip hop and soundsystem soul — later running through garage and even grime (in light of Night Moves, thinking here of particularly RnB-tinged recordings like Wiley's Special Girl) — and their echo in something like Me'Shell NdegéOcello's turn-of-the-century masterstroke Comfort Woman. Good things happen on these trans-Atlantic currents, perennially spiking the punch in just the right measure whenever things get that little bit too comfortable.
All 'n all, it's a beautiful destination — and yet another node on the superhighway into the future — a stone foundation upon which Keni Stevens etched subtle hieroglyphs of his own. Right there at the dawn of his solo career, he laid down the subtle slice of moon-lit perfection that is Night Moves Ultra-Sensual Mix. This bit of deep space soul rode the solar wind of machine music into the outer rim, its rhythms mapped in perpetual motion across parallaxing vectors of iridescent turquoise, deep blue and aquamarine, a moment of quiet intimacy stolen in the midst of these vast digital landscapes.
It captures the essence of movement after dark, working equally well in the context of r&b or even smooth jazz late night radio as it would dropped deep in the mix on some underground dancefloor at 2am. Of all the songs to bear the name Night Moves, be it Bob Seger's, Grovesnor's or even Dee Dee Bridgewater's, it just might be the most fitting, the most evocative, and above all the greatest.