Jamie Principle

Classic photo of Jamie Principle in deep concentration
The bad boy of Chicago house

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!

Jamie Principle in designer suit circa The Midnite Hour
Jamie Principle: The songwriter, the producer and the diva

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.

Depeche Mode Violator Mute

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.

Prince Controversy Warner Bros.

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.

Grainy photo of Jamie Principle in a leather jacket and lipstick
Jamie Principle circa 1985

Apparently just after stepping off the pages of a William Gibson novel

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...

The dancefloor's bumpin' down at The Warehouse, circa 1978
Dancers at The Warehouse (Chicago)

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.

Jesse Saunders On And On Jes Say

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.

Jamie Principle Waiting On My Angel Persona

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.

Rhythim Is Rhythim Nude Photo Transmat

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).

Various Artists Mulholland Drive Milan

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).

Jamie Principle Your Love Persona

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.

Jamie Principle Baby Wants To Ride Trax

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...

Jamie Principle It's A Cold World Trax

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.

Jamie Principle Rebels Get Righteous D.J. World

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.

Jamie Principle I'm Gonna Make You Scream D.J. World

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!

Underworld Dubnobasswithmyheadman Junior Boy's Own

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.

Scene from the Super Nintendo version of Top Gear 2, spliced with images of the Milky Way galaxy
Racing sports cars on mars in the rewired Top Gear 2

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.

Lil' Louis & The World From The Mind Of Lil' Louis Epic

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...

Jamie Principle Bad Boy D.J. World

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.

Jamie Principle Date With The Rain Atlantic

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.

Jamie Principle The Midnite Hour Smash

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.

Gorillaz The Now Now Parlophone

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.

Jamie Principle performing live at the Meadows Music And Arts Festival with the Gorillaz
Jamie Principle live on stage with the Gorillaz

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...

Footnotes

1.

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).

Machines On Murray Hill

Do'shonne and Kraftwerk look on in the Heights moonlight, a lattice of circuitry connects all the nodes as one
Machine soul by the roadside boogie and city lights beyond...

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.

Lowrell Lowrell AVI

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.

Zapp The New Zapp IV U Warner Bros.

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.

Cheryl Lynn In The Night Columbia

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.

Kleeer Winners Atlantic

Sonics creep into every corner and occupy the space, inertia builds and synths take flight. Kleeer's Tonight, I Still Love You Call 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!

Freaky Chakra Blacklight Fantasy Astralwerks

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...

Keni Stevens – Night Moves

Keni Stevens Night Moves Ultra-Sensual Mix

Elite 1985

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, some years later, leans up against a wall in violet
Keni Stevens, modern soul man

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.

Loose Ends So Where Are You? Virgin

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.

Keni Stevens Night Moves Elite

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.

Dimitri From Paris presents Night Dubbin' Mixed by The Idjut Boys BBE

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'.

Barbara Mason Another Man West End

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.

808 State Quadrastate Creed

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.

400 Blows Declaration Of Intent Illuminated

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.

Various Artists Miscellaneous Language

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.

Jazzanova The Remixes 1997-2000 Compost

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.

Various Artists Earthbeat Jumpin' & Pumpin'

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.

Keni Stevens Blue Moves Jam Today

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.

Romanthony Romanworld Azuli

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.

Me'Shell NdegéOcello Comfort Woman Maverick

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.

RAG019: Winter 2019

Radio AG Episode 019: Living In The Flood

Winter 2019

The roots of this mix go back a few years, when I began mapping out an Autumn entry of Radio AG to close out the first year of seasonal episodes. Needless to say, fate had other plans, and the last few years took me in other directions (some of which I couldn't possibly had imagined). In the process, I'd all but forgotten about this putative mix — even working up an entirely new canyon-centric episode last Fall — when I stumbled upon the sketches I'd made of this mix in one of my old notebooks and it all came rushing back to me.

Strangely enough, the ideas expressed within make much more sense at the dawn of 2019 than they ever could have at the time, so it's interesting to note that my head was already residing in this space before we so rudely interrupted. Indeed, I'd even meant to launch into the whole Terminal Vibration trip the following November, upon returning from a week spent in the bay area... and any fool knows I've been a machine soul man from day one.

More than any other Radio AG entry so far, this one gets to the heart of what I'm all about, musically speaking. The series started as a simple recurring mixtape for my brothers, Pops and assorted others, and as such its selections were colored by the perceived tastes and inclinations of the intended audience. However, gradually — and perhaps inevitably — the vibe began to feel gravity's pull toward my own perennial obsessions, in truth a place I'd always secretly hoped to wind up. Trip hop, post punk, smooth soul, techno, kosmische, afrobeat, jazz fission, house, r&b and jungle, this really is the realm where my heart of heart lies, heavy music at the axis of atmosphere and rhythm (and obviously, the presence of synths doesn't hurt any)...

So this time out we're coming at you from that heady realm between the twin worlds of Machine Soul and Terminal Vibration — and all the parallaxing terrain that entails — the mix settling in the pocket of a blazing mid-tempo groove and largely staying there for 80 minutes. Such has been the prevailing mood down in the lab at the moment, so it seemed only natural that it would wind up reflected in the mix. It's the sound of cloud-covered days and rain-slicked streets, backroom circuitry and moonlight drives, half-lit street corners and errant rhythm boxes spooling out the Chiba City blues. This is the sound of Winter 2019, somewhere in The Heights...

Listen Now

  1. The Parallax Sound Lab Radio AG Intro
  2. Greetings from The Other Side Of Town...

  3. Curtis Mayfield The Other Side Of Town Curtom
  4. Vintage Curtis Mayfield, from his stunning 1970 debut. No one's worn a mustard suit better before or since. The man's music so often has a widescreen sweep — like a film in miniature — it nevertheless manages to maintain an intimate, homespun nature at its core. It only makes sense that he'd be the natural choice for later soundtrack work like Superfly and Short Eyes, which he'd imbue with a pathos and humanity beyond the scope of the source material.

    As an aside, I've always loved Henry Gibson's excellent conga work that's all over his early records, heard with striking clarity on the utterly classic Curtis/Live! set (which came up in conversation just the other day).

  5. Mulatu Astatke Fekade Amde Maskal Nètsanèt Amha
  6. Pungent Ethiopian jazz from hero Mulatu Astatke. Impossibly cool in its rhythmic sway, I've always found its atmosphere strikingly evocative of a seventies Addis Ababa that — granted — I never had the opportunity to see for myself. Just as Fela Kuti flows logically from fellow traveler James Brown's body of work, it's interesting how naturally Nètsanèt seems to spring from the lush Curtom sound in the mix.

  7. Three 6 Mafia Long Nite Prophet
  8. Gothic rap from Memphis. Do 3-6 qualify as horrorcore? This from their Mystic Stylez debut (although they'd already put out countless mixtapes by this point in time), which is split more or less evenly between hardcore terror-rap and spectral downbeat jams like this one. I love the voodoo touches writ large on this production: the ghosts of Marvin in the mist, those spectral congas, taut basslines, synth-string suspense and the crew's fraught raps darting through it all in flickering candlelight.

    I've often thought that so much of what was going down in the South at the time — be it this or DJ Screw — sat remarkably comfortably next to the nascent trip hop sound, even if actual crossover moments between the two were thin on the ground (the axis seemed to hinge on the East Coast, which of course made perfect sense as well).

  9. Tricky DJ Muggs and Grease Bom Bom Diggy Mad Dog Island
  10. Case in point is this three-way collaboration between Tricky, Cypress Hill associate DJ Muggs and Dame Grease (of DMX's inner circle). I bought this the day it came out. More skyline voodoo, this time from Tricky's Durban Poison organization. I only recently put together that Mad Dog was in fact Bionic of U.K. rap pioneers London Posse!

  11. The Amorphous Androgynous The Prophet Harvest
  12. Psychedelic funk from the duo formerly known as The Future Sound Of London, during their extended post-hippie incarnation as The Amorphous Androgynous (which by now has lasted longer than their initial cyberpunk-tinged run). Apparently an extended jam on the Yes My Brother from The Isness. I love all the deliciously fake, retro-tinged instrumentation, which recalls firm favorites from their Electronic Brain Violence days like Oil's Slight Of Hand and FSOL's awesome We Have Explosive (Part 3).

  13. Playa Don't Stop The Music Def Jam
  14. Peak-era Timbaland production for the RnB loverman trio of Static, Smokey and Black, who weave their deft post-swingbeat harmonies through Tim's bionic drum machine matrix. With skull-snapping beats, rapid-fire samples and a radioactive synth bassline (and little else) holding down the groove, this minimalist quasi-cover version of the lush Yarbrough & Peoples' electro boogie original is a sterling moment for all parties involved.

  15. Barrington Levy Here I Come Time 1
  16. Killer digital dancehall cut from the dawn of the form, right there in good old 1985. I was four years old at the time. This stuff sounds like Burning Chrome or Count Zero, its booming rhythm full of portent and roots-n-future widescreen sound evoking visions of city skylines and freeway overpasses. Real Terminal Vibration music. Of course, Broader than Broadway is one of the great hook-lines of all time, and the obvious choice for a title of the book to be written about the complete story of dancehall (or at the very least least, Levy's biography).

  17. The Alan Parsons Project A Dream Within A Dream Charisma
  18. One from Pops record collection. I remember him breaking out the wax back when I was in high school and showing me this stuff in light of the beats I was immersed in at the time. Alan Parsons was the consummate studio engineer, working on both The Beatles' Abbey Road and Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, eventually getting to do his own records as the seventies wore on (this tune from his Edgar Allan Poe-inspired debut).

    I've often thought that his records as The Alan Parsons Project are an unwitting precursor to the likes of Massive Attack, Slam and Death In Vegas, producers working with a rotating stable of artists in collaboration within the context of extended, often moody instrumental excursions.

  19. Devin Alright Randy-Ran Rap-A-Lot
  20. Slow-motion southern rap from Devin The Dude, although at times his music almost ceases to be hip hop and shears toward the most sun-glazed smooth soul of figures like Gil Scott-Heron and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. From his self-titled debut, one of the great gems of the era that never seems to make the lists, even if it undoubtedly deserves to. This is also unexpectedly moving and profound, if you're really paying attention.

  21. Max 404 The Case Of The Creeping Fox Terrier Clone Eevo Lute
  22. Dutch techno producer works the bassbins in this off-the-cuff hip hop workout, from his sturdy Love & Mathematics full-length debut (released on Stefan Robbers' Eevo Lute imprint). That was a great little record, moving between lush downbeat excursions, gritty techno, proto-micro house and ambient drift with ease, it's evocative of a time when these sounds weren't all cordoned off from one another by the cognoscenti. Shades too of trip hop throughout, with some almost subliminal rapping tucked away in shadows. Dig that scratching take center stage, here practically becoming part of the beat.

    Overlaid here with...

  23. Nino Rota Le Nozze Sul Mare United Artists
  24. Nino Rota's otherworldly score for Fellini's Satyricon. I love the movie, and the accursed, unheimlich sounds Rota conjures up here match perfectly the utter surreality of Federico Fellini's Roman epic. Notably, Rota went on to write the theme to The Godfather, which I imagine everyone on Planet Earth has heard.

  25. A Certain Ratio Rialto Factory
  26. Grimy post punk from the Manchester crew's underrated Sextet LP, this shadowy noir funk is another moment of pure Terminal Vibration. Despite the fact that lot seem to be forever damned with faint praise, I dig nearly everything they put out. Simultaneously funky and creepy, Rialto is haunted by the wordless vocals of Martha Tilson.

  27. N-Tyce Hush Hush Tip Wild Pitch
  28. Ah N-Tyce! This is one of my top five or so rap records ever, right up there with Rammellzee vs. K-Rob's Beat Bop. With gloriously doom-laden production from Wu-Tang associate 4th Disciple and Method Man on the hook, it's nevertheless N-Tyce's charming delivery that steals the show. The mischievous spirit here recalling The Slits and ESG at their finest. N-Tyce later turned up in the Deadly Venoms, a female supergroup of sorts aligned with Wu-Tang Clan.

  29. REQ Blimpot Warp
  30. The four LPs that REQ put out on Skint and Warp in the late 90s through the turn of the decade are all utterly essential excursions into the heady terrain of instrumental trip hop. The spooked Dobro loops of Blimpot ride a crisp downbeat and ace scratching that serves brilliantly as the hook's counterpoint. Strikingly alien and forbidding, this is true dead end music.

  31. Show & A.G. You Know Now Payday
  32. Stunning hip hop noir from the Diggin' In The Crates duo. Taken from their follow up to the classic Runaway Slave, this dark downbeat is miles away from the sunny climes of their golden age-era debut. Indeed, there was a real overcast quality to much of the mid-decade hip hop that almost magically aligned with the frozen wastelands of trip hop.

    I've often thought the atmosphere here, even down to the production itself, has eerie predictions of the Pi soundtrack.

  33. Blahzay Blahzay Posse Jumpa Mental Magician & Darkman Fader
  34. This joint from the largely forgotten East Coast crew is cut from the same cloth. Known primarily as a one hit wonder for the blistering Danger, this is nevertheless a rock solid album. Hovering in that interzone between the charts and the underground, this illustrates the way pre-97ish — rather than being a completely separate world — the hip hop underground was just the seedy underbelly of what you'd hear on the radio. I'm talking about things like East Flatbush Project and Divine Styler. Indeed, this shadowy hardcore is but two steps away from both M.O.P. and Company Flow.

  35. Prince Jammy Wafer Scale Integration Greensleeves
  36. Prince Jammy's digital dancehall stone tablet, featuring ten diamond hard riddims cut with ruthless precision. More Terminal Vibration music, definitively so. Notionally a counterpart to the Wayne Smith Sleng Teng album, you also get the instrumental to Barrington Levy's epochal Here I Come. This record is completely essential if you dig electronic music as a quantity unto itself, and would appeal to fans of everything from Kraftwerk and Model 500 to Cabaret Voltaire and Terranova.

    I've got loads of Prince Jammy records, ranging from rock hard dancehall to earlier dub slates like Strictly Dub and Prince Jammy Destroys The Invaders..., and they're all choice material.

  37. Sly & The Family Stone Let Me Have It All Epic
  38. Dusted downbeat soul brought to you by Sly & The Family Stone, taken from the O.G. machine soul tile Fresh. Building on the gently chugging funk template laid out by There's A Riot Goin' On, the follow up took the sound into an ever more emaciated and bloodless extreme (in the best possible sense). This vampire soul might actually be an even better introduction for the uninitiated to the glorious sound of seventies Sly Stone.

  39. J Dilla Two Can Win Stones Throw
  40. This sparkling hip hop instrumental is just one of many delights to be found on J Dilla's kaleidoscopic swan song Donuts. The record was a revelation when it first came out, taking the spirit of a vintage hip hop mixtape and burnishing it down to a shine with Nuggets-like intensity. I've often thought this shares the tantalizing vintage glamour of Camp Lo's Uptown Saturday Night, seemingly imagining the possibility a hip hop LP cut way back in an alternate 1976.

  41. Black Moon Enta Da Stage Wreck
  42. Boy this mix does have a lot of rap from the mid-nineties — roughly speaking the period from late 1993 to 1996 — when darkness descended on the golden age sound (thanks in large part to The RZA), but before the chrome-plated sound of the South started to be more widely felt.

    Black Moon's debut is a stone cold classic of shadowy hip hop that had the misfortune to be released one week after the Wu-Tang Clan's debut. I'm that weird type of guy that actually prefers the dark jazz of Enta Da Stage (although there's no knocking 36 Chambers), especially when the brilliance of its surrounding 12" singles are taken into account.

  43. Rejuvination Subtle Indoctrination Soma
  44. Killer instrumental hip hop from the unjustly forgotten techno duo out of Glasgow, who along with Slam formed the basis for the powerhouse dance label Soma Quality Recordings (the labels first release was a split 12" between the two artists). Their sole LP wanders freely between filmic trip hop burners, pulsing techno, proto-trance and space music with ease, all of which is shot through with the spirit of both Curtis Mayfield and The Clash.

  45. Recloose Cardiology Malik Alston Planet E
  46. I was already a huge Recloose fan by the time his debut album Cardiology hit the shops. He'd already been responsible for a pair of great EPs filled with skewed house music and downbeat electronic jazz when he started working with vocalists and fellow Detroit musicians like Paul Randolph, John Arnold and Jerrald James, refashioning his sound into a tighter rhythm matrix hovering in the interzone between neo soul, jazz funk and moody techno.

    Cardiology — the track — features a great chanted refrain by Malik Alston and forward perpetual momentum with strange shades of SA-RA a couple years early.

  47. Marvin Gaye "T" Stands For Trouble Tamla
  48. Opening with a bit of dialogue from Mickey Rourke's Year Of The Dragon, we slip into a choice cut from Marvin Gaye's awesome Trouble Man soundtrack, large swathes of which rank as my idea of perfect music (this track included). There's just no getting around those effortlessly funky beats, especially when you factor in the liquid synths rolling off them like chocolate syrup.

    This continues the thread starting with What's Going On — particularly Inner City Blues Make Me Wanna Holler — and running through I Want You directly into Here, My Dear (particularly tracks like Anger and You Can Leave, But It's Going To Cost You). Foundational machine soul bizzness, in other words, and more often than not the day to day soundtrack down at The Parallax Room.

  49. Shake Can't Turn Back Sublime
  50. Taken from Sublime's excellent Eleven Phases compilation, which features a raft of Detroit techno producers (including Sean Deason, Robert Hood, Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen) contributing hip hop instrumentals to a program rivaling even Studio !K7's concurrent 3 Minute Blunts series. Anthony Shakir always struck me as one of the biggest hip hop heads in Detroit techno anyway, with instrumentals not unlike this one peppered throughout his discography (Mr. Shakir's Beat Store springs to mind).

  51. Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson 1980 Arista
  52. The final entry in the dynamic duo's great run of 70s records starting with Winter In America. The sound they managed to achieve on these records (especially the final three) is easily among my favorites ever, an impossibly lush street-corner soul with more than a hint of jazz between the lines. It's a vibe Moodymann's would later distill down to an potent elixir at the turn of the century. Recorded at Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff's T.O.N.T.O. studios (pictured on the sleeve), you get loads of tasty synths — also heard on Stevie Wonder's classic seventies records — thrown into the bargain.

  53. Redman Pick It Up Def Jam
  54. One last check-in from hip hop's mid-nineties (I couldn't help myself!), with the inimitable Redman getting down on his classic Muddy Waters set. Rounding out the trilogy he started with Whut? Thee Album and continued on Dare Iz A Darkside, this is blunted and bizarre rap par excellence from an era when the nastiest MC was unstoppable. Bask for a moment in that groove's casual bump, and take a moment to dig Redman's twisted flow.

  55. Double Helix Lowkey Rush Hour
  56. This lush bit of techno soul turned me round when I first heard it on Planet E's All Access To Detroit's Music Festivals compilation, released on the heels of the DEMF's first iteration at the turn of the century. Its cascading synths and gently chugging rhythms have always reminded me of China Crisis at their absolute lushest and most atmospheric, particularly album closers like The Soul Awakening, Blue Sea and Jean Walks In Freshfields. Pitched down for effect, this is Ocean Of Sound music, pure and simple.

  57. Dâm-Funk I Wanna Thank You For Steppin' Into My Life Stones Throw
  58. From the great Dâm-Funk's indispensable 5xLP debut, a universe of lush machine soul in that interzone between funk, techno and RnB. Just one of many highlights contained therein, this immortal slow jam is on par with stone classics by the likes of Mtume, Kleeer and The Isley Brothers. It's that good! The tenderness on display here harks back to the era of Alexander O'Neal's A Broken Heart Can Mend, Mtume's Juicy Fruit and One Way's Don't Stop. It's all so very, unabashedly romantic that one can't help but be drawn in.

  59. System 7 Fractal Liaison 10
  60. Arising as if a natural occurrence in the landscape of the mix, Steve Hillage's guitar glissandos arc across Derrick May's lush Detroit synths in the two-minute ambient sprawl of Fractal Liaison. This from System 7's debut, which was part of the initial wave of ambient house alongside The Orb, Ultramarine and Sun Electric (not to mention fellow travelers like Biosphere and Deep Space Network). Flowing logically and organically from Hillage's 70s records like Rainbow Dome Musick, this is splendid, heavenly stuff.

Radio AG Curtis Mayfield - Curtis Mulatu Astatke - Ethio Jazz Three 6 Mafia - Mystic Stylez Tricky - Juxtapose The Amorphous Androgynous - Alice In Ultraland
Playa - Cheers 2 U Barrington Levy - Here I Come The Alan Parsons Project - Tales Of Mystery And Imagination Devin - The Dude Max 404 - Love & Mathematics Nino Rota - Fellini Satyricon
A Certain Ratio - Sextet N-Tyce - Hush Hush Tip/Root Beer Float REQ - Car Paint Scheme Show & A.G. - Goodfellas Blahzay Blahzay - Blah, Blah, Blah Prince Jammy - Computerised Dub
Sly & The Family Stone - Fresh J Dilla - Donuts Black Moon - Enta Da Stage Rejuvination - Introduction Recloose - Cardiology Marvin Gaye - Trouble Man
Shake - Eleven Phases: Detroit Compilation Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson - 1980 Redman - Muddy Waters Double Helix - Funxtiles Dâm-Funk - Toeachizown System 7 - System 7
RAG019: The Records

Credits

Edits: Do'shonne and Slye.

Time stretching: Klytus and Nautilus Jones.

Vibes: Year Of The Dragon, Durban Poison, Mesa Q, Nick Rhodes, Terminal Vibration, Rammellzee, William Gibson, Hashim, Percussitron, FSOL ISDN, Cabaret Voltaire, Trouble Man, Mickey Rourke, ARPs, Moogs, Jazz And Things, Dancehall, Atari Jaguar, Tackhead, The Prodigy, Lab Life, The Toyota Camry, La Mesa Blvd., Walking In The Rain.

Timbaland

Timbaland sashays backwards in the cyberpunk hallway from The Rain music video, while the vector head from Freaky Chakra's Blacklight Fantasy looks on
The godfather of machine soul

In the lingering afterglow of the New Year's Eve 25 From 97 list, I've spent a couple weeks immersed in the fun house, hall-of-mirrors world of Timbaland (a place I'm always down to dwell). After all, '97 was the year during which the producer reigned supreme from behind the controls, with no less than four records making my top 25 from that year (quite a feat in a year that, musically and otherwise, ranks as one of my favorite of all time). Further yet, standing as we are at the precipice of the machine soul vector of Terminal Vibration's upcoming final chapter, it chimes in perfectly with the prevailing mood at the moment down in The Parallax Room.

And if we are talking machine soul, there's absolutely no getting around the man's body of work. There's r&b before Timbaland and r&b after, with a seismic shift lodged right in there between, hinging on the axis of his chrome-plated vision. Filtering post-disco modern soul/electro boogie/swingbeat through the cracked lens of street level hip hop, he blended it all into a derezzed cocktail and scattered it back across the grid like a shimmering constellation. In the process, he crafted a lush sonic world around his extended crew Da Bassment, with which they stormed the walls of hip hop radio and changed its face forever. Mixed with all the crisp detail of vector science, his shade of RnB futurism arrived just in time for the 21st century.

His was a machine soul vision so potent that one could focus on nothing but 1997 and its orbiting months — roughly speaking the two years spanning between 1996 and 1998 — and still come up with a wealth of epoch-defining material. From one summer to another, that's just what we're going to do: focus on the two years of his initial splash, an early peak when the man was running tings across the board. This the era when he built up a reputation as the producer to watch, and it remains the foundation upon which his legend still stands. So rewind your mind back to 1995, and zoom in on a little Virginia crew called Swing Mob, where today's story begins.

Jodeci The Show · The After Party · The Hotel MCA/Uptown

Swing Mob was Tim's original crew (which would later morph into Da Bassment), rounded out by loverman Ginuwine, rapper Magoo, Playa (the trio of Static, Smokey and Black), Ginuwine, Magoo, engineer extraordinaire Jimmy Douglass and the one and only Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott. Putting in work on 4 All The Sistas Around Da World by Sista (Elliott's original girl group), they were discovered by Devante Swing of swingbeat sensation Jodeci, who drew them into the group's orbit on the sessions for their second album, the awesome Diary Of A Mad Band. Staying in the fold into the summer of 1995 for the crew's third and final album — The Show · The After Party · The Hotel — Timbaland continued working behind the scenes on tracks like Bring On Da' Funk and Time & Place, which were largely peak-era r&b bump 'n grind, albeit colored by strange post-disco electronic timbres that offered the faintest trace of things to come.

Various Artists Dangerous Minds: Music From The Motion Picture

MCA 1995

The very same month that Jodeci's swan song dropped, Timbaland unleashed his crew's de facto debut, hidden in the middle of the Dangerous Minds soundtrack. More widely understood as the home of Coolio's chart-busting Gangsta's Paradise, it's the low key downbeat of True O.G. (credited to Jodeci's Mr. Dalvin & Static of Playa) that burns brightest in its shadow. Perched midway between rap and r&b, it's the first warning shot of Tim's trademark electronic sound, flickering there just below the surface.

With those trademark treble-heavy, snap back beats, burning bassline and a warped guitar slowly drip-dropping into lush pools of wah, it's already some distance traveled from contemporary r&b: Tim's future sound in chrysalis. With one foot in the present and the other in the future, it lurks in the space between both halves of the decade. It's the perfect soundscape for Dalvin to trade raps against Static's smooth swingbeat croon, an ace negotiation of the era's mid-range groove and party-down vocal stylings.

The record also features a cameo from Devante Swing himself on Gin & Juice, another minor highlight of the record. It's interesting to note the way Swing's relationship with Timbaland mirrors new jack king Teddy Riley's concurrent mentorship of the young Pharrell Williams, in both cases the future visionaries given a chance to make their first steps into the pop landscape by luminaries of the prior era. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense to find the origins of modern r&b's prime architects firmly grounded in swingbeat (the original hip hop soul).

Various Artists The Nutty Professor Soundtrack

Def Jam 1996

Then, a year later, comes Da Bassment's Love You Down, to my knowledge the first unveiling of the newly rechristened crew. Tucked away at the end of another summer soundtrack (for Eddie Murphy's remake of The Nutty Professor), this is the true line in the sand. The production is credited to Devante Swing but I'm not convinced... the whole thing screams Timbaland. This is the moment that his vision arrives, fully formed. With its treble-heavy, rapid-fire hi-hat/snare click beat underpinning a spare guitar figure and strange sonic flourishes — warped vocals in the bridge, occasional wind-rush synth hydraulics and what sounds like digitized birdsong — it has all the hallmark's of Tim's peak-era sound, laying the groundwork for a little record that would arrive later that summer...

Aaliyah One In A Million

Blackground 1996

Aaliyah's One In A Million is where the floodgates truly opened. Less than half the tracks on Aaliyah's sophomore album were produced by Timbaland, but it was more than enough canvas for the man to set the world ablaze. Tunes like Hot Like Fire and Ladies In Da House were hip hop soul of a shade not yet heard before, taking a lackadaisical angle on boom bap with the stuttering clickety-clack of its riddimatic beats and deep stoned atmospherics (keys/synths/guitars) drifting in the ether, splitting the difference between Juan Atkins and Blue Lines (by way of Al Green's I'm Glad You're Mine). The almost incongruous commentary from Timbaland behind the boards highlights another key element of his sound, with his low key, almost subliminal baritone raps echoing the off-the-cuff in-studio exhortations of Jamaican producers like Mikey Dread, Keith Hudson and Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Even if all these innovations had already hit hard enough — and they did — they were eclipsed by the slow jams, where the record made its biggest splash. I'm talking about 4 Page Letter, Heartbroken and most spectacularly One In A Million (the track). The latter, with its body wah keyboards and stardust synths underpinned by that trademark stutter-riddim tricknology, it effectively works from the blueprint of Love You Down and beams the results across the galaxy. Sounding like a secret ballad eloped from the ethereal second side of Model 500's Deep Space, the song's every texture seems run through the gauntlet of effects, with strange tics tucked away in corners of the soundscape (not to mention the sound of crickets looping in the background the entire time!).

Even if Tim's productions are its undoubted highlights, the record remains a sturdy tile of lush r&b, with the cover version of The Isley Brothers' Choosey Lover (subtitled Old School/New School) a personal favorite. Despite the seeming gulf of light years between the aforementioned tracks and everything else, it all manages to sound of a piece, flowing remarkably well as a complete album experience. I suspect that this is really down to the way tracks like Never Comin' Back and If Your Girl Only Knew (the last two of the Timbaland productions) work as a bridge between both worlds, melding his new beat science with the full-bodied sound of mid-decade r&b. As if to say, yea, I can do that too...

Ginuwine Ginuwine... The Bachelor

550 1996

Hot on the heels of One In A Million comes this record, which was Timbaland's first top-down production. Everyone knows Pony (which should really be heard in its 12" Extended Mix, with the elongated instrumental bridge), and rightfully so. Maybe it's the best thing here, but the surrounding album sets the perfect stage for its reign. With the running Keyser Söze/who is this Ginuwine? theme in both the intro and interludes, the off-the-cuff beats tucked between songs, and the general moody air of loneliness, it's the ideal setting for Ginuwine's loverman moves to melt into Tim's vector-drawn soundscapes.

What sets this record apart from everything to follow is its subtle sense of isolationism. Despite the lush sensuality of tracks like Pony, Ginuwine 4 Ur Mind and Holler, the lion's share of the record is given over to a lonely desolation that verges on trip hop (I'm sick of being alone). The mournful I'll Do Anything/I'm Sorry is built on a sample from my favorite Stevie Wonder song (Visions), its downbeat melancholy paralleling the bleak torch songs on Tricky's 1996 records (see Live W/Yo Self, Poems and Makes Me Wanna Die). As if to drive the point home, the awesome G.Thang (featuring Missy Elliott and Magoo) even rides the spectral organ line from Portishead's Numb while strings plucked like clockwork ricochet across its skull-snapping beat.

Tell Me Do U Wanna — with its Derrick May Rest-style synths and lush Sonic Sunset keyboards — locks into the same alien dislocation one finds in techno (the record's other big parallel). Holler's melody materializes in a haze of acid synth-lines, distant pads and almost subliminal bleeps, while Hello is a slowjam constructed almost entirely from dial tones, a phone message, more bleeps and another synth straight out of Detroit techno. Lonely Daze splits the difference between Bristol and Detroit, with its spaghetti western guitar runs trading verses with another techno soul synth flourish (someone should really be keeping track!). Not to mention another synthetic birdsong.

Of course the record's most techno moment is also its most famous: Pony rocks a slow-motion pole dance groove — built around a snatch of Zapp-style android talk box vocal — while lavish synths pour into the chorus (think lush mid-decade techno like Stacey Pullen's Silent Phase record and Kenny Larkin's Metaphor). I've always liked the way Tim would reprise specific elements from big tunes, the way that Pony's yeahh robot hook crops up in Ginuwine 4 Ur Mind and yet again in World Is So Cold (not to mention its teasing presence in the Intro). The music video for Pony is ace as well,1 sharing fish-out-of-water good ol' boy vibes with the video for Beck's Where It's At2 (both videos remain twin classics of the era).

Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott Supa Dupa Fly

The Goldmind 1997

Similarly, the music video for The Rain Supa Dupa Fly was a stone cold classic of the form (only more so),3 turning the era's glamour chase on its head. Of course, the song itself is even better, with all the elegant futurism of its kung fu beats, squelching radioactive bassline, weather storm atmosphere and echoes of Ann Peebles' I Can't Stand The Rain underpinning Missy Elliott's surreal wordplay. The combination is quite simply infectious. Like I was saying the other day, every other line gets stuck in your head and stays there.

The title track's solitary nature — featuring nothing but Elliott and a couple ad libs from Timbaland — mirrors that of Ginuwine... The Bachelor (which aside from appearances by Missy Elliott and Magoo was an intimate affair), but the remainder of this record is another story altogether, featuring guest spots for everyone from Aaliyah, Ginuwine and 702 to Busta Rhymes, Lil' Kim and Da Brat. It's the most laidback party of the year, captured on disc in a haze of ganja smoke, all backlit in vector neon. If you're looking for that one front-to-back album-length masterpiece, the place to start with Timbaland and Da Bassment, then look no further.

The crisp downbeat of Hit 'Em Wit Da Hee — with its almost subliminal guitar/tone interplay — makes the perfect introduction to their world, coming at you like a warm up while Lil' Kim and Missy trade verses, it slowly builds and builds without ever showing its hand or breaking a sweat. Check the Remix Extended Version on the 12" promo for a burning remix, complete with new lyrics, an added guest spot from Mocha and more stabs than Norman Bates (not to mention a tasty sample from Björk's Jóga in the climax).

It's this casual, tossed off nature that sets Timbaland apart from a lot of the try-hard producers to come in his wake. When he does approach the filmic, as in Sock It 2 Me — with its 70s-tinged baritone horn loop sounding like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed going ten rounds in the ring4 — it's done in such a loping, offhand manner that it somehow manages to negotiate the space between machine soul and hip hop sampladelia with uncommon ease. It's that rare tune that would work equally well alongside both SA-RA and DMX in the mix.

The last of the big singles was Beep Me 911 (which didn't come out until the following year), with its gloriously distressed backing vocals from 702 and almost Juan Atkins atmosphere, although there's plenty of other moments that could have set the airwaves ablaze. Izzy Izzy Ahh rides a rambling bassline and fatter-than-usual beat as Missy unfurls stoned non-sequiturs over the top, the end result sounding not unlike some killer digital Jamaican deejay record.

In contrast, the blissed-out balladry of Friendly Skies features a duet with Ginuwine, its sun-kissed strings augmented by yet another reprise of the Pony synth and the distant sound of whirring propeller blades offering the perfect counterpoint to this Marvin Gaye-esque ballad (Flying High On The Friendly Skies indeed!), with subtle shades of Kraftwerk/Zapp/The Egyptian Lover's Computer Love and Eightball & M.J.G.'s sun-glazed Top Of The World slipped almost subliminally into its dreamlike vision.

I could go on and on, believe me... I've only scratched the surface. I could talk about the way Why You Hurt Me walks a tightrope between heartbreaking and hilarious, or how Don't Be Commin' In My Face and They Don't Wanna Fuck Wit Me embody the quintessential Timbaland sound, or even the snap-crackle-and-pop attack of Gettaway and Pass Da Blunt's dusted downbeat, but we're still only halfway through 1997... and we've still got a whole other handful of fire to go.

SWV Can We vs. Total What About Us

RCA/LaFace 1997

As the summer continues, the Supa Dupa Fly vibes get picked up on and expanded for a couple soundtrack moments by a pair of r&b girl group trios. Both tunes seem to split the difference between the Missy record and One In A Million, imbuing the music with a carnality only hinted at before. Lifted from the Booty Call soundtrack, SWV's Can We is actually my absolute favorite thing Timbaland's ever done. From the gliding quicksilver tones of the melody to its crisp, unhurried beats and the ladies' intricate harmonies (not to mention a choice rap from Missy Elliott), it's just so effortlessly perfect.

Total's What About Us comes from the Soul Food soundtrack, and it's another roots 'n future triumph with just a touch of dread. There's unlikely shades of the 1970s in there somewhere (not to mention street corner doo wop), its piano staccato and plaintive guitar line bringing to mind Curtis Mayfield, while that subliminal 303 line, swirling synths and bionic beatboxing from Tim mark it out as a product of the future/now. His show-stopping rap particularly noteworthy, especially in light of what's just around the corner...

Timbaland And Magoo Welcome To Our World

Blackground 1997

In which Tim steps out from the shadows to trade verses with partner-in-crime Magoo. He may boast that I ain't gotta rap, all I gotta do is talk on this track and you'll still buy it, but rap he does, all over this record (and thankfully so). I know that his rapping comes in for criticism in some quarters, but I don't even care. I've always been a huge fan of the man's casual baritone style, seemingly unfurled in the mix in such an offhand manner. Coming in as he does from behind the boards to drop the occasional phrase on most of the records he produces (adding that trademark touch to an already unmistakable atmosphere), it's a real treat to hear him stretch out over the course of a 75-minute album.

After the protracted intro of Beep Beep, the opening groove of Feel it sounds so fresh, so very cutting edge, with Tim sounding on top of the world as he unfurls subtly amped couplets with glee. Plenty of these tunes found their way onto the radio at the time, from the clockwork groove of Up Jumps Da' Boogie — which finds beeps, bleeps, raps and harmonies interlocking into a makeshift machinery — to the high speed chase of Clock Strikes Remix with its Knight Rider motor sequence and quotations from The Junkyard Band's Sardines. One of three tracks to appear on the record in both original and remixed version, its motorik update of the loping original is so drastic that it's practically a whole new tune!

Even more so than Supa Dupa Fly, Welcome To Our World comes on like Da Bassment's party of the year, and everyone from Missy and Ginuwine to Playa and Aaliyah are invited. The hit Remix version of Luv 2 Luv U burns endless on a motorik computer riddim, but I might like the melodramatic original even more. Draped in dramatic soundtrack strings and shot through with more of those infectiously tweaked backing vocals, it even finds Tim sneaking in the line Do you wanna ride it, my pony? as Shaunta and Playa weave their vocals in a numbed ennui. The latter also ignite Smoke In Da' Air, with crystal clear swingbeat-redolent harmonies soaring over cutting edge riddimology.

The trip hop vibes of Writtin' Rhymes once again mirror Tricky & Laveda Davis' Live W/Yo Self, while 15 After Da' Hour has an unmistakable dancehall flavor. The latter rocks a crazy repetition that would probably drive most people crazy, but I love it! When Magoo closes his rap with Drinkin' like a sailor, pass out drunk, at 7:15 had a dream I was a monk and Tim chants the title in full on ragga mode, it comes as a total release.

I actually think that beat-for-beat this album rivals Supa Dupa Fly, losing out mainly because Magoo can't hope to compete with Missy's surreal vision (even if he does have the odd turn of phrase that gets under your skin). Still, you get Timbaland's rhymes thrown into the bargain, and that's no small thing. At any rate, there's a reason why all his beats work as instrumentals in their own right, often hovering as they do in that interzone between Deep Space and Mind And Body, and Welcome To Our World works as the perfect showcase for all of that.

Playa Cheers 2 U

Def Jam 1998

The last of the core crew to get an album, Playa's Cheers 2 U dropped in spring of '98. Static splits the production duties with Timbaland, giving this record a strong grounding in post-swingbeat fundamentals, with less focus on the strange shades of techno and trip hop cropping up elsewhere today. Still, the awesomely spare digital funk of Don't Stop The Music finds the trio riding skull-snapping beats and a triggered bass stab with a remarkable sense of of minimalism. The burning post-disco electro-boogie of Yarbrough & Peoples' 1980 original was futuristic enough, but this strips everything out in the spaces between the spaces and rebuilds it as a low riding Cadillac, leaving the crew to weave their harmonies through its syncopated interplay.

However, the vast majority of the record is densely populated with the smoothest of slow jams. In many ways the flipside of Ginuwine's dread trip hop vibes, this is very much descended from the spirit of Jodeci's records from the first half of the decade. Case in point, All The Way is — despite the stutter-funk beat and chirping samples — a lush piece of balladry firmly in the new jack tradition, the trio's harmonies soaring over a body wah of strung out soul guitar. The title track's moondust atmosphere recalls The Isley Brothers' Between The Sheets sound, its gliding strings festooned with clockwork tones and fluttering fragments of saxophone.

Aside from Don't Stop The Music, the one exception to the rule is Ms. Parker. Boasting a great stoned sound, it's built on a rapid-fire Random Noise Generation-style fragment of warped guitar looped to repetition just like The Burden Brothers would do it, with yet another instance of tweaked backing vocals smoldering beneath it all. Even managing to sneak in Missy Elliott for the rap, the trio imbue their vocal attack with a strong sense of forward propulsion, resulting in an infectious burner fit for long summer days and sunset cruising.

Nicole Make It Hot

The Goldmind 1998

Nicole's Make It Hot has similarly dusky vibes, along with another rap from Missy Elliott (this time plus Mocha) and a nagging synth stab that — when paired with the triggered vocal and looping plucked string — always makes me think of Octave One. It shares the barely-contained sense of trepidation betrayed in Total's What About Us, spiked this time with just a touch of Pre-Millennium Tension. I dunno, to my mind this stuff is indivisible from things like Portishead and Martina Topley-Bird. Trip hop, to a man. Certainly more so than the chill out hordes that were beginning to creep into vision around this time... I'm not naming any names though.

It's at this point that hordes of young Timbaland pretenders also began to make their presence felt in spades (there's too many producers that's livin' off these fraud beats). You'd hear it everywhere! Which is no bad thing, when it was done well. Possibly my favorite instance being Mýa's It's All About Me, which was produced by Tim's old Swing Mob associate Darryl Pearson. Jam & Lewis did great things with it as well, particularly on Janet Jackson's exquisite album The Velvet Rope (two tracks from the album, Go Deep and I Get Lonely, even got the Timbaland remix treatment on their respective singles). Still, there were just as many lame imitations (once again, not naming any names!). It seemed almost everyone was trying their hand at his signature sound...

Aaliyah Are You That Somebody

Blackground 1998

As if in response, Tim dropped Are You That Somebody (another stowaway from a blockbuster Eddie Murphy soundtrack, this time Dr. Doolittle, which is widely agreed to be his crowning achievement. An utterly strange record, it's nevertheless skewed pop at its absolute finest, and accordingly set the charts ablaze. The first time I heard it, my response was something like WTF is going on?! The second time, I was still floored. The third time, all the elements of nagging brilliance started to individually unfold: the Game Boy synths, the cooing baby from Prince's Delirious, Aaliyah's fraught delivery ('nuff tension!), the Oompa Loompa-esque backing vocals and the rapid-fire drum machine/stab interplay all blend into a hypnotic sway. It just shuttles you to the rings of Saturn...

This is a record defined as much by its gaps between the sound as anything else, an utter triumph of minimalism without drawing attention to the fact. It's not until you examine the track (as I suspect most people who make beats have, surely?) that you realize how much Tim achieved with so little. Not to mention that, once again, he puts down another great little rap (possibly his most memorable ever?). It's just the icing on the cake of an unforgettable record. A definite case of the master laying down the gauntlet for everyone else, it's the perfect climax to the era, embodying everything that made the man's music so special.

Timbaland & Magoo in the fifth dimension

Its influence can be felt in everything from records to come in its immediate wake like TLC's Fanmail and The Writing's On The Wall by Destiny's Child to the increasingly electronic sounds of chart-storming hip hop (Country Grammar for real). His solo album (Tim's Bio: Life From Da Bassment) later that year prefigured his work with rappers like Ludacris, Ms. Jade and Jay-Z. And of course, there were more great records in store from Da Bassment, especially turn of the century outings like Aaliyah's Try Again, Ginuwine's 100% Ginuwine and Missy's Miss E... So Addictive, records that defined the era alongside The Neptunes and other southern outposts like The Dungeon Family, No Limit and Cash Money.

It illustrates the way everything here set the stage for the 21st century machine soul style embodied by everyone from deep space explorers like Spacek and SA-RA to strung out sirens like Kelela and Tinashe and even the future funk of figures like Dâm-Funk and Jimmy Edgar. Even The Neptunes and Outkast's Stankonia seem indebted to his vision. It all seems to shine through the prism of that blueprint he laid down at the tail end of the decade, refracted like stardust into seemingly countless possibilities and directions. It was the fulcrum, the point at which early-nineties swingbeat tripped and fell into the future... and there was no turning back.

Zoom in perhaps it all gets a bit more complicated (as it usually does). Of course there were figures dabbling with the sound as far back as the 1980s... for instance, Mtume and Kleeer (to say nothing of Marvin Gaye), and there may also have been plenty of fellow travelers in the nineties as well, ranging from Juan Atkins to Romanthony. Still, as symbolic moments go, they don't come much better than Da Bassment. What set Timbaland apart from all the others was that he made the sound his full-time job — it even became his calling card in the process — making him the indisputable godfather of machine soul.

Footnotes

1.

Ginuwine. Pony. Ginuwine... The Bachelor. Lucero, Michael. 550, 1996. Music Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbnoG2dsUk0

2.

Beck. Where It's At. Odelay. Hanft, Steve. Bong Load, 1996. Music Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPfmNxKLDG4

3.

Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott. The Rain Supa Dupa Fly. Supa Dupa Fly. Williams, Hype. The Goldmind, 1997. Music Video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHcyJPTTn9w

4.

Although it was actually sampled from a record by The Delfonics.

25 From 97

A selection of 25 most excellent records from 1997, and a trio of photos from the selfsame year

A couple weeks ago, Sari, Kayli and I traded lists of our favorite records from 1997 in a New Years Eve extravaganza. Why 1997, you ask? 1997 was without a doubt my favorite year in memory, and its music more than lived up to the times. If the era's clash of dancefloor futurism, breakbeat science, dusted hip hop beats, chrome-plated r&b and rock's smoldering embers in this year's music remains potent today, it can only have been even more so at the time. Having been skulking around at the time as a moody 16 year old, best believe I can vouch for that. Indeed, I can remember like it was yesterday...

After a 10th grade spent in the depths of hardcore depression, this was the year that I discovered beats (and started making beats of my own), opening up a whole world I'd only glimpsed before: the twin joys of discovery and creation. Suddenly it seemed there might be a way to make it through this crazy thing called life, even for a scared lonely kid like me who never quite fit anywhere else. As such, it's bound to have some of that you had to be there-type magic specific to my own personal recollections. Nevertheless, upon revisiting the music, I suspect there really was something special about that year after all...

25. Depeche Mode Ultra

Mute

Synth pioneers get down with that '97 sound, folding hip hop beats into their trademark style with a wink and a nod toward rave culture. Of course, the lads had been on this path ever since Black Celebration (even chilling in Detroit with Derrick May at The Music Institute), but Ultra benefits from superb post-trip hop production by Bomb The Bass' Tim Simenon and even a cameo appearance from Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums (The Bottom Line). Even if I grew up with their music, this was the very first Depeche Mode album that I owned for myself. It was my way into their Gothic world of electro-blues dread, and to this day remains one of my favorite things they ever did.

24. Photek Modus Operandi

Science

This is one that my man Snakes tuned me into, so I've gotta give credit where its due. It sounded utterly alien to us at the time. I even remember him saying that he didn't get it yet, but could tell that it was important. The x-ray beats of Photek's spectral drum 'n bass vision seemed to align more with trip hop's dread vibes than the mad breakbeat fury that had been jungle's calling card up to that point. Pre-Millenium Tension, to borrow a phrase from Tricky (who released three albums in '96, but not one in '97). The soundtrack to paranoia, Modus Operandi is like The Parallax View, Pi and The Manchurian Candidate all mashed up into one nightmare vision, one that makes more sense in the conspiracy-drenched present than it ever did in sunny 1997.

23. Radiohead OK Computer

Parlophone

I was already a huge fan of these guys when OK Computer came out, having listened to The Bends over and over in 10th grade (no wonder I was so depressed!). I remember at the time having the distinct impression that they were going to drift toward beats somehow, which actually turned out to be true with this record (which they envisioned as The Beatles produced by DJ Shadow). Hearing Paranoid Android on the radio for the first time was one of those great WTF?! moments in my musical youth, and the rest of the album turned out to be just as good (my favorite moment the twisted quasi-trip hop dirge of Climbing Up The Walls). Thom Yorke must be fun at parties...

22. Rockers Hi-Fi DJ-Kicks: The Black Album

Studio !K7

Rockers Hi-Fi were in many ways a second-tier outfit, existing in that satisfying interzone between trip hop and dub reggae, their own records were solid enough but lacked the visionary spark of fellow travelers like Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty. However, magic was wrought when they descended into noname studio late one foggy night in Birmingham to work up this smoked-out DJ mix for Studio !K7, taking in trip hop, dub, abstract techno, jungle, vintage roots reggae and everything in between, dubbing it all into oblivion with MC Farda P toasting over the top like a madman. Along with Smith & Mighty's records, this was my doorway to the music of Jamaica.

21. Blur Blur

1997

Blur's self-titled 4th album found them effacing their own shiny britpop sound and image with a grimy set of songs that come on like a hybrid of "Heroes" and The White Album. Inspired by the burgeoning underground of American indie rock, the band married those shambling lo-fi sounds with a very British knack for penning an indelible hook, resulting in a totally unique album experience. This is where the globe-trotting Damon Albarn, who would go on to record Mali Music, drag his band to Morocco and take part in setting up Honest Jon's Records, is truly born. Best believe, the seeds of the Gorillaz are sown here (look no further than Death Of A Party, which comes on something like a dress rehearsal for Clint Eastwood)!

20. Timbaland And Magoo Welcome To Our World

Blackground

The first of the Timbaland records in this list. What can I say, he was running tings in 1997! Basically an extended victory lap after his phenomenal winning streak running through records like Ginuwine... The Bachelor, One In A Million and Supa Dupa Fly, it's also a stunning showcase for his chrome-plated machine soul sound. Even though Tim's raps come in for criticism in some quarters, I've always loved his low-slung baritone style, trading verses here with sidekick Magoo along with most of Da Bassment crew. With everyone from Missy Elliott to Ginuwine, Aaliyah and Playa getting down here, he basically managed to capture the party of the year on wax.

19. Ken Ishii X-Mix: Fast Forward & Rewind

Studio !K7

It's a party rivaled only by Ken Ishii's gloriously schizophrenic entry in Studio !K7's X-Mix series, which manages to blend nearly every strand of post-rave music into a seamless 70 minute fun house ride like it was 1992 all over again, even as the entire tapestry was beginning to unfurl in every possible direction. This was the craziest shit I'd ever heard as a 16 year old, with every moment somehow more off the wall than the next, and alongside Odelay my soundtrack to that summer. Just like on Ishii's own records, it's the sound of a guy doing things his own way and sounding utterly unlike anyone else in the process by virtue of being halfway around the world and having to dream it all up from scratch.

18. Ween The Mollusk

Elektra

Cutting a demented path through the nineties, Ween were like Frank Zappa and The Beatles all rolled into one wise-ass package. With a skewed vision informed by surrealism, stoner logic/humor and a sprawling anti-mythology running through their entire discography, they also had the nerve to possess a knack for penning great tune after great tune that ranked up there with the greats. This proggy, nautical-themed LP is anchored by brilliant moments like Buckingham Green, Ocean Man, Mutilated Lips and the immortal Waving My Dick In The Wind. The Mollusk catches the O.C. And Stiggs of indie rock at the top of their game, and it remains their finest hour.

17. Total What About Us

LaFace

A Timbaland production for Bad Boy girl group Total, taken from the Soul Food soundtrack. The ladies' harmonies bob and weave through the interstellar machine beats (replete with an almost-subconscious acid-303 line) before Timbaland drops a trademark man-behind-the-boards rap and the four-dimensional beat-boxing enters the fray to take things to another dimension altogether. Back in the early 90s, it used to be that you'd wait out the r&b songs for the hot rap joints on Jammin' z90. Suddenly, everything flipped and the r&b tracks were where it was at, and tunes like this were the reason why.

16. Primal Scream Vanishing Point

Creation

Inspired by the 1970s Barry Newman film of the same name, this twisted trip is everything I want in a rock record from 1997. If OK Computer was like The Beatles produced by DJ Shadow, Vanishing Point was something like The Stones mixed by Lee "Scratch" Perry with creative input from Ravi Shankar, Tricky and Joe Henderson. Nearly everything here is bathed in a smoked-out haze of swirling effects and bass pressure, adding even greater depth to killer tunes like Kowalski, Stuka and Burning Wheel. With the added bonus of instrumentals like the jazzed-out Get Duffy, Trainspotting (from the film of the same name) and the mutant g-funk of If They Move Kill 'Em, the album plays like a gripping movie in its own right.

15. Kosmic Messenger Electronic Poetry: The Collected Works Of Kosmic Messenger

Elypsia

An unmissable round up of Stacey Pullen's most dancefloor-oriented sides, this quasi-compilation (over half the songs are exclusive to this set) is Detroit techno soul of the highest caliber. Basically picking up where Funkadelic left off with The Electric Spanking Of War Babies — much like his DJ-Kicks mix from the previous year — it expands that electronic funk template far into the future and never looks back. Pullen had actually played drums and percussion in his youth, and that grasp of polyrhythms always gave his tracks an added physical dimension that set them apart from the linearity of the creeping minimalist brigades, drawing you into their atmospheric, synth-drenched world with a gravity all their own. I've always thought this stuff would have sounded great on the radio alongside contemporary r&b and rap like Masta Ace and Ginuwine.

14. U2 Pop

Island

I simply had to include this one. At the time, I lived this record. Drafting in trip hop maven Howie B. behind the boards, this is the perfect marriage of the indie dance they'd been dabbling in since Achtung Baby and the sun-baked dusted sound that was everywhere by this point (Odelay, #1 Crush, Doin' Time, etc.). Indeed, large parts of this play like an alternate soundtrack to Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, and fittingly when it came time to release a concert video it was their Mexico City date they chose. This was basically the one time U2 seemed like underdogs, delving deeper yet into dance music against the will of seemingly all their fans (people hated Pop!), and I loved them for it.

13. Carl Craig More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art

Planet E

This was Carl Craig's lush techno masterwork, even if there's a handful of his records that I love even more. In a sense, it's barely even a techno record — running the gamut between house, jazz, trip hop and ambient — which of course makes it techno to its core. Spanning the smeared electronic stylings of his early Retroactive days (Suspiria, As Time Goes By Sitting Under A Tree) to moments that predict the tech jazz of Innerzone Orchestra (At Les, Goodbye World), it's the record that showcases the many facets of Carl Craig. In fact, he loved all this material so much that he recorded an entire other album (1995's Landcruising) while under contract to Blanco Y Negro, just so that he could eventually release this one on his own label!

12. The Beta Band Champion Versions

Regal

Now I didn't even know about this one until the following year, when it was reissued as part of The Three EPs compilation. Still, I would have loved it if only I'd been lucky enough to be buying vinyl in the UK at the time! I'd been following Astralwerks (a key outlet for electronic music in the States) closely at the time, and what's this... suddenly they'd signed a rock band? I had to check this out! The Beta Band's brand of slacker rock lies somewhere between Beck's dusted pop and The Beach Boys' 70s records, a perfect and wholly original sound that feels both out-of-time and quintessentially late-90s in the best possible sense. It's hard to resist the sun-baked sway of tracks like Dry The Rain and Dog Got A Bone, as I'm sure John Cusack will tell you.

11. Marshall Jefferson Animals EP

KTM

Chicago house don Marshall Jefferson had been around since the scene's mid-eighties beginnings, responsible for epoch-defining house records like Move Your Body, 7 Ways To Jack and The Jungle. Like KRS-One, he could say, I was there. However, this much later 12" release — tucked away on Tresor's sister label KTM to little fanfare — is more a techno record than anything else. The Horse blew me away when I first heard it, sounding like a bullet-train ride through Chiba City, and its unlikely combination of drum machine frenzy and atmospheric serenity still slay me to this day. The kicker is that the b-side, a grinding bass-heavy missive — sounding like a great lost Kevin Saunderson track — is every bit its equal. Night drive music... just keep an eye on the speedometer.

10. Locust Morning Light

Apollo

Former purveyor of dark electronica Mark Van Hoen wakes up one day and decides he wants to make a Kate Bush record. He wound up turning in one of the great dream pop albums of all time, managing to transcend everything he'd done up to that point in the process. This music sounds impossibly ancient, mysterious and evocative, the perfect backdrop for a raft of breathy vocalists like Zoe Niblett, Craig Bethell and Wendy Roberts. This collection of ethereal torch songs plays like a daydream in musical form, conjuring up images of a fairytale world imbued with both great darkness and light (like all great fairy tales). In fact, the title of The Girl With The Fairytale Dream alone just about sums up the whole affair... this is a record to get lost in.

9. Roni Size/Reprazent New Forms

Talkin' Loud

21st century cybernetic jazz from the Bristol crew, fronted by the great Roni Size, whose position in the crew was analogous to The RZA's in The Wu-Tang Clan. Like that group's album of the same year, this sprawling double-album was a dense world defined by a singular, all-encompassing vision. Needless to say, I dove right in! A perfect melding of past and future — evoking images of juke joints, high rises, dimly-lit street corners and monorails — its pungent, jazz-inflected drum 'n bass vision took a striking live band approach to what had previously been seen as computer music. The double-bass and chopped live drums give instrumentals like Brown Paper Bag, Mad Cat and Ballet Dance a remarkably three-dimensional feel, while vocal tunes like Heroes, Share The Fall, and the title track (featuring Bahamadia) remain among the best songs of the era.

8. Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott Supa Dupa Fly

The Goldmind

Was anyone cooler than Missy Elliott back in the day? Who else could wear a giant trash bag in their music video, chill out inside the Windows 95 wallpaper and still make everyone else look unglamorous and ordinary?! No wonder she could get seemingly everyone who was anyone to make a cameo in the video (Timbaland's little backwards sashay might be the greatest thing ever to appear on MTV)! His beats are at their futuristic peak here, which in any other case would threaten to overshadow the singer, but Missy Elliott is larger-than-life even at the worst of times. Every other line gets stuck in your head and stays there: I sit on hills like Lauryn, my hormones jumpin' like a disco, I smoke my hydro on the d-low, and my ass cheeks they sweat these beats, tell me where the party at, tell me where the party at. Needless to say, this is where the party at.

7. Camp Lo Uptown Saturday Night

Profile

These cats couldn't have been much older than I was at the time (they look so young in the music videos!), but they had the 70s down pat. All the vintage vibes tucked away in the beats and lyrics — obscure references and dusty samples galore — made them something like hip hop's counterpart to the neo soul moves of figures like Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. Coming on like a rap LP recorded in 1976, this album's almost too good to be true, squaring the circle between platinum rap and Native Tongues-style hip hop (even roping in De La Soul's Trugoy The Dove for an appearance) just as the twin strains were about to diverge for good.

As an aside, it's funny to note that the 70s crop up so much in this list, but then I guess the burgeoning interest in the era (initiated by grunge?) really came to a head in '97. Which is just another thing to love about the year...

6. Moodymann Silentintroduction

Planet E

Similarly, Kenny Dixon Jr.'s debut album dropped in '97, and it was to house what Camp Lo were to hip hop, so it makes perfect sense that they show up here back to back. Pioneering the filter-house sound that Daft Punk took into the charts, Dixon's records also seemed haunted by the ghosts of soul music past. His output seemed to resonate with everything from Marvin Gaye to Gil Scott-Heron, Larry Heard and Chic, and at this point chiming in perfectly with the rise of The Soulquarians. Indeed, it's a shame that Jay Dee didn't get to do a solo record in '97 too. Imagine if the trinity of Erykah Badu, Moodymann and J Dilla (to my mind roughly comparable figures in relation to their respective scenes) had all debuted the same year!

5. Janet Jackson The Velvet Rope

Virgin

Of course Dilla had a crucial shaping influence on this record, providing massive (uncredited) inspiration to master-producers Jam & Lewis for tunes like Got 'Til It's Gone (which rather than complaining about, he just remixed to a higher state altogether for the single!). Much like The Soulquarians' output, The Velvet Rope has a retro sensibility but never a retro sound, taking in everything from dancefloor stormers to trip hop downbeat and all manner of moods and grooves over its extended 75-minute running time. You could always count on Ms. Jackson... going back to the days of Control, she was like the older sister I never had! And being considerably younger than The Jacksons, she managed to get hip hop in a way that her older brothers never could, granting her career unprecedented longevity and relevance in a cruel and unforgiving industry, stretching right up to the present day.

4. Terranova Manuel Göttsching

All Good Vinyl

German trip hop crew hook up with 70s krautrock legend Manuel Göttsching and cut the great late-nineties jazz record. This sounded like it was beamed in from another planet, seemingly harking back to a shadowy 1970s even as it felt as futuristic as the metropolis evoked in its title. Chiba City blues, for real. The b-side Clone is just as good, evoking images of The French Connection and The Parallax View. In fact, Terranova were the only crew that almost made this list twice (with their 70s-drenched 12" Contact/DJ-Kicks EP). Even though it was released in December 1997, it felt more like a '98 record (which is when the crew's accompanying DJ-Kicks mix actually came out), so I decided to set it aside on a technicality (and also to give everyone else a chance!). When Terranova were ON, they were unbeatable.

3. Octave One The Living Key To Images From Above

430 West

The Burden Brothers! In high school, this Detroit crew were my Led Zeppelin. I was obsessed with Octave One, who let their beats do the talking with the perfect geometrics of that smooth onyx sound. This CD combined two EPs into one conceptual masterpiece. Along with Kevin Saunderson's Faces + Phases, I bought this in the first order I ever placed to Submerge (in those days, the central emporium for Detroit techno). It felt something like a rite of passage. I often think of this as a sister record to Photek's Modus Operandi, and similarly its rugged street-level minimalism took a minute for me to get a handle on... but once I had, best believe I was hooked for good.

2. SWV Can We

Jive

The last of the four Timbaland records here, this is also my favorite. In fact, it's my absolute favorite r&b record, and one of my favorite records period. Another tune made on order for a soundtrack (this time for the Jamie Foxx vehicle Booty Call), like Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? it transcends its origins to stand as one of the key records of the decade. Its unhurried perfection just unfolds around the ladies, who weave their harmonies through the beats as naturally as you'd expect from a girl group who came up in the heady days of new jack swing. It showed up later in the year on their solid third album Release Some Tension, although nothing on it (save the eerily Reprazent-like double bass moves of the title track) matches its brilliance.

1. Kevin Saunderson X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio

Studio !K7

Number one! Indeed, this is probably my favorite single musical object of all time. All time! Featuring one of my key musical heroes in his prime on the wheels of steel, it captures the vibe of Detroit's recurring Deep Space Radio show for posterity (complete with station idents and narration by DJ Minx). Mixing techno from Detroit, garage from D.C. and a whole brace of tracks from Dutch duo Dobre & Jamez (under myriad guises), its even features both sides of Saunderson's then most-recent 12" Velocity Funk/World Of Deep (which this mix stands in for) and a killer remix of Belgian rave classic Outlander's The Vamp. The whole thing is pure vibe, capturing nearly everything I love about techno. It's got loads of atmosphere sure 'nuff, but its also got unforgettable tunes in spades, and that makes all the difference in the world. If you are at all interested in the intersection of dance and electronic music, you shouldn't spend another day without it.

Kelela – Cut 4 Me

Kelela Cut 4 Me

Fade To Mind 2013

Kelela's Cut 4 Me is without a doubt one of my absolute favorite records in recent memory. Early readers may even remember its quite respectable placement in The Parallax 100, lodged in there at #70 (nothing to sniff at). Interestingly, it was initially released not as a double-gatefold album statement, but as an unassuming digital mixtape. That tape's origins lie in the L.A. singer's decision to write a set of songs around a selection of beats from the twin Night Slugs and Fade To Mind crews, haunting their striking sonic futurism with a bewitching vocal presence. The tape's Trans-Atlantic origins and down-and-dirty reality (essentially, a singer freestyling over some beats) places Cut 4 Me at odds with much now-pop, which often suffers from suffocating over-production, in which all life is strangled from the song in the process.

Kelela out among the stars

Cut 4 Me is a record defined by its contradictions: on one hand it's strikingly ethereal and absorbingly atmospheric, like a Detroit-inflected 4AD, while on the other it's possessed of a rugged bottom end that will ring familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with grime. With more than a hint of déjà vu with regard to the angular attack of that 21st century art form, this is RnB at its most unselfconsciously futuristic. One thinks of The Neptunes, not just their sonics but even the visions conjured up by their very name. Cut 4 Me sounds like a pop music sprung from the supersonic waters of Neptune. Bodies dancing in slow-motion beneath blacklight, iridescent skin aglow in shades of azure a million light years from home.

And yet, the strange secret is that even at its iciest, plumbing sub-oceanic depths, the record somehow maintains a warm, soft glow running through its very core. The record's lyrical preoccupation lies with love, and the battlefield that so often springs up around it, even as it plays like a soundtrack for situations and emotions that haven't even yet arisen. Future music, in other words. So, let's dive into the peculiar world of Cut 4 Me, and in the process, maybe take a peek at what's in store...

Kosmic Messenger Electronic Poetry: The Collected Works Of Kosmic Messenger Elypsia

The record opens with the looping struck metal of Guns & Synths, a motif that we'll return to time and time again, before electro-shock snares snap a proto-rhythm along its bow like gunfire. Moody Detroit-style sequences (think Kosmic Messenger) arc into earshot, and then the track really begins to unfold, riding a gently chugging synth pop bassline in graceful slow-motion. In a striking twist, the bass drops out and the track seems to snap around Kelela's soaring vocals, its extreme downbeats seeming to trip into hallucinatory double-time. Her refrain is echoed by what sounds like flutes, but might well be her own vocals sped up ardkore style.

The Prodigy Music For The Jilted Generation XL

A wicked track in other words, and one that I swear has distinct shades of The Prodigy's DNA about it (particularly circa Music For The Jilted Generation). It's the sort of thing that I well could be imagining — synapses firing in distorted recognition of a flame's shadows on the cave wall — but even so, it's an impression I haven't been able to shake since the day I first heard it... so maybe there's something to it after all? The beats here by Night Slugs/Night Voyage auteur Bok Bok, which underline the play of fragile atmosphere and jagged beats throughout the record, all of which is given an otherworldly glow by Kelela's haunting vocal presence. It all seems to call back memories half-remembered, mixed together like oil in the ether.

Vangelis Blade Runner Atlantic

Similarly, Go All Night — with its strung-out synth architecture and power up electronic sweeps — evokes distinct memories of the Blade Runner soundtrack, not to mention The Prodigy's ambient coda to Speedway Theme From Fastlane (which itself sampled liberally from the Vangelis score). The liquid synths hover somewhere in that undefined territory between organ and distended string-section drift beneath, while Kelela's vocals weave through it all in graceful slow-motion like an errant solar sailer.

The Solar Sailer takes flight

Gliding on a post-Timbaland chrome-plated riddim trading moves with a muffled beat box, fellow Angeleno (and Night Slugs moonlighter) MORRI$' trap-style beats uncoil in the purple haze of alien dreamtime as Kelela unveils the chorus:

Stayed up talking all night.

Take my body it's so right.

Dyin' but we go all night...

Baby I don't know if that's all good.

With the unmistakable echoes of Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? in its sentiment, the hesitant longing gradually gives way to the inevitable feeling of gravity's pull (we smokin' out baby).

Zapp The New Zapp IV U Warner Bros.

By now adrift through inner space, a vocodered bridge on the order of Zapp's Computer Love intones oh, my baby on loop, carrying into the next verse where Naughty By Nature chants build the zero-gravity momentum like it were the most natural thing in the world. This is Chiba City RnB, par excellence. The tune appears in two abridged versions on Cut 4 Me, interludes subtitled Let Me Roll and Let It Burn. Frustratingly — like the World Of Deep interlude on E-Dancer's Heavenly — the track isn't present here in its entirety (it was a stand-alone single). On the bright side, it does work remarkably well scattered through the record in a series of glimpses.

The Orb Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty Ultra

Further dreamtime vibes are unveiled on an extended mix of Bank Head, which seems to build on a progression of nineties — if not earlier — electronica over clickety-clack percussion. Think The Orb's Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty, particularly Readymade's Ambient State. That same sense of weightless drift, over which the vocals swerve without warning into a searing falsetto. Despite the double-time clap pushing things toward 4/4 trance territory, it's just not gonna be that simple, and everything's left remarkably unresolved.

Fade To Mind's Kingdom drags renegade kick drums beneath it all, weaving snatches of the vocal — sped-up into chipmunk velocity — its twisted tapestry lying somewhere between freestyle, ardkore and peak-era Jam & Lewis. Kelela's untreated singing is pure RnB, rendered otherworldly in sheets of intersecting sound. The roar of distant thunderclaps tremble in the distance as the track sneaks into skipping double-time, building towards track's inevitable conclusion. Kelela intones, time goes by, with no effect and with no warning whatsoever, the dream is over.

Dizzee Rascal Boy In Da Corner XL

Which brings us to the more abrasive corners of the record. This is still surrealism, but one with all the jagged edges — the bite — retained in full force. The strident lead into Enemy comes on like struck sheet metal, ringing in combination against its ricochet percussion, bringing to mind the similar Sylvian-esque shades of Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner and its koto grime moves. Fittingly, Nguzunguzu (of Fade To Mind) drags in what sounds like a spiraling koto and threads it through the rapid-fire percussion, the sound of breaking glass folded into the beat like a hidden bear trap.

Wiley Treddin' On Thin Ice XL

It's all of a piece with the frozen wastelands of Wiley's awesome Treddin' On Thin Ice LP (another Parallax favorite), with its unlikely collision of harsh grime soundscapes and occasional flourishes of vintage RnB (Special Girl). The paradoxical clash of Kelela's hazy vocals and up front, knife-edged riddims also brings to mind Alice Perera's towering performance on Smith & Mighty's Big World Small World, a record defined by its rootsical widescreen textures and often stark, post punky beat architecture.

Smith & Mighty Big World Small World Studio !K7

Keep It Cool recalls similar terrain, with Kelela's soaring vocals cutting through the track like a knife, even as an almost under-the-breath delivery offers up the counterpoint. Crashing industrial beats lie at the center of Keep It Cool, building the ideal framework for a grinding Reese-style bassline to push the track into overdrive, sawing through its center with a raw and rugged fury. The sentiment of Kelela's vocal even sounds like something from an old ardkore track:

Round and round inside our heads we're going nowhere.

Focusing is hard you're telling me 'cause I'm not there.

This ain't no coincidence taking all I've got,

I almost surrendered, why must we...

Why must we keep it cool?

The effect lends an almost ungainly, staggering quality to whole affair, bringing to mind some of the best techno (thinking here of Kevin Saunderson's E-Dancer Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater). The searing production from Night Slugs stalwart Jam City is firmly in the tradition of Detroit's unlikely pact between the rough and the ethereal. Flutes flutter in the rafters like digital birdsong, while synths and vocals clash with one another at jagged perpendiculars. It's at times like these that one wonders if this record isn't in many ways a vision of a downbeat vocal techno. Like the music of Dâm-Funk, it does seem to hover between both worlds...

Japan Tin Drum Virgin

Driving the point even further is Floor Show, a sprawling slab of machine soul par excellence. A twisting, gnarled synth lead winds through the track in slow-motion, while another Japan-style synth progression pins the counterpoint, the rhythms trading bars between muffled percussion and crashing drums. Kelela's voice soars (although, truth be told, her voice soars everywhere here) across it all, offering another biting glimpse of romantic intrigue:

Ain't never left although I tried a million times.

Wonder how it feels, I'll never know you're never mine.

You should stop the front before I catch you in a lie.

You forget my name, but you say it every night.

A stanza worthy of TLC right there, with all the subdued venom that implies. This woman's been burned one time too many. And yet it's delivered in such an uncanny manner that it manages to transcend all the drama, all the lies, watching them recede onto the horizon in a mist before arriving at another plane altogether (now that's something you don't see every day!).

TLC Fanmail LaFace

This is dream city music, nocturnal and cut adrift in the same way Go All Night was, but there's also the unmistakable bitter aftertaste of trip hop menace lurking within the proceedings. Girl Unit (chalk up another one for Night Slugs) manages to blend a spoonful of RnB, trip hop and Detroit techno into a blazing cocktail of otherworldly dream pop, sounding utterly unlike anything else in memory.

Then, without warning, everything drops out but a lone ethereal synth, and Kelela breaks it down once and for all:

Giving you my everything,

You turned around and did things your way.

I try to fight the urge to define,

Letting go of things that ain't mine.

At which point the ghost town climax hits, with its towering organ refrain:

Desperate for another day,

Wish I knew the thing to say.

Spent my time building you up,

And now it's falling down.

And you're left, deserted, to walk alone among tombstones, through a graveyard of broken hearts and dreams...

Erasure The Innocents Mute

Like an apparition, Do It Again creeps into view on a plaintive, shimmering synth line (something about it makes me flash on Erasure's When I Needed You). It cuts crisp and clean through the mix, driven by NA's (score one for Fade To Mind) floor tom accents in a soundtrack style. With her vocals right there in the forefront this time, unabashed and unvarnished in the extreme, Kelela alternates between drifting, drawn out phrasing and a counterpoint wherein she repeats the track's title in rapid monotone — Doitagain, doitagain, doitagain —  like some sort of android left on the forbidden planet.

The Black Dog Spanners Warp

Plangent synth tones breathe darkness into the mix, before the percussion builds into a throbbing rhythm for the last minute of the tune's stay. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as the skittering digital percussion on The Black Dog's arty techno missives circa Spanners (particularly End Of Time and Chase The Manhattan), capturing that same sense of hurling oneself into the void without the slightest inkling of who or what is out there. Choice stuff.

Janet Jackson Control A&M

The title track draws further into 1980s-style arrangements, with its sparkling tones, big drum hydraulics and a bassline that seems to bounce along the top of the rhythm like a skipped stone. Kelela's searing harmonies are at their tightest here, strikingly crisp even as the track gradually veers toward the hallucinogenic in ways you wouldn't quite expect. This is the second of the Kingdom tracks, although it's wildly different from the preceding Bank Head. That tune was one of the record's most atmospherically dreamy, while this one's surrealism hinges not on the axis of spacious production but the strange juxtaposition of its base materials. The production here remarkably up-front and in-your-face, like the clattering soundscapes crafted by Jam & Lewis on Janet Jackson's Control.

Prince And The Revolution Purple Rain Warner Bros.

With a dejected synth pinned to a beat like collapsing buildings, Send Me Out similarly comes on like the granddaughter of Prince at his most disarmingly deconstructed — songs like Girl and The Beautiful Ones — underlining how often this record, for all its absorbing ambience, is actually quite skeletal and nimble. The sound is a rather shy one, refusing to reveal itself right away, like the first shades of spring rising from the depths of winter.

Sun Electric Present Apollo

Casual synths make their cameo in the chorus, evoking imagery of ascending glass escalators is the fading afternoon sun, underpinning one of the most traditionally RnB set of vocals on the record. The third of the Kingdom productions, its faint echoes of prime electronica — shades even of R&S/Apollo, and the similarly fragile glass escalator sounds of Sun Electric circa Present, perhaps — and Paisley Park make perfect sense in light of Bank Head and the title track, rounding out a key trilogy underpinning the record.

Kenny Larkin Metaphor R&S

Something Else (the second Nguzunguzu production here), is similarly deliberate and delicate, drifting at the other end from the stark percussive attack of Enemy. It's all quite stripped down, with little more than a slight snatch of analogue warmth from a synth to carry the melody, its rhythm defined by little more than a recurring snap. Fragments of a fluttering digital synth sneak in just a hint of ornate filigree, bringing to mind Kenny Larkin's shimmering Kurzweil excursions circa Metaphor. It's also another moment haunted by the spectre of trip hop, particularly Björk's Post-era flirtations with the genre, sounding something like the skeletal remains left behind by another song...

I already know, I've seen the future and it's over

The Art Of Noise Who's Afraid Of The Art Of Noise ZTT

Of course there's a coda tucked away in the last minute of the song to catch you completely off guard, when Kelela loops a wordless staccato to echo The Art Of Noise's Moments In Love! It's a fantastic moment of circular logic, harking back to the slice of instrumental dream pop that turned out to make an unlikely1 splash on both the Billboard Hot Dance/Disco Singles and Hot Black Singles charts in 1986 (see also Mýa's It's All About Me, with its subtle shades of Moments In Love sketched in). To this day, you can still hear Moments In Love on Magic 92.5 from time to time, a reminder that RnB and dream pop have been au fait from day one.

Locust Morning Light Apollo

The plaintive recline of A Lie is probably the most dream pop moment of the record. Drifting in on pure atmosphere, it opens with twenty-seconds of the rhythm of a car's windshield wipers, seeming to capture the moment the rainclouds part as the wipers are switched off, the windows rolled down and the melody of birdsong fills the soundscape. A lonely Rhodes enters the fray to lay out the plaintive melody, and the vocals drift like mist across its surface, finding Kelela at her most solemn and wistful. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as Locust's dream pop masterpiece Morning Light (particularly Jukebox Heart).

Grey and cloudy, it rains every day

The vocals might be the record's most traditionally RnB, evoking the peak-era balladry of SWV and Aaliyah, particularly their turn in the chorus:

Bound, though you are free to do what you want.

It'll be just fine and I know it.

More Rockers Dub Plate Selection Volume One More Rockers

The second of Bok Bok's soundscapes (after the opening Guns & Synths), there's a fitting shadow of jungle in its errant bleeps, slipped into the placid atmosphere in such a way that should break up the magic yet only adds to the whole effect. I'm once again reminded of Smith & Mighty, or even More Rockers, all those junglist torch songs on Dub Plate Selection Volume One and Selection 2 like I Need Some Lovin', Kissing Game and Rainbows. Like everywhere else on this record, there's such a powerful sense of atmosphere swirling around the song that it compounds its gravity until you can't help but be drawn in.

It's only a matter of time, couldn't hate you forever.

Alter Ego Alter Ego Harthouse

It all comes full circle with the closing track, Cherry Coffee, wrapping up with a fusion of nearly every aspect of the record that's come before. Starting with nothing but a rhythm tapped out on a shard of metal, sounding like sonar in the deep, it lasts a solid minute of isolation before spectral synths shear into view with an effect that splits the difference between spooked and soothing. This is pure ambience, reminding me of nothing so much as the first Alter Ego record — especially the languid pools of synthesizer in Soulfree — and its sleeve's evocation of Joe Henderson's Inner Urge perfectly hints at the mood shaped here.

Octave One The Living Key To Images From Above 430 West

A fretless bass provides the tune's central melodic motif, along with most of its rhythmic propulsion, before piano chords drop in out of nowhere like a relic from the relics. Much like the pianos that turn up unannounced amidst the lush techno of Octave One's Burujha, they seem to conjure up the mood of 1970s invisible soundtracks and all the imagery that implies. Put crudely, we're talking about The French Connection, Curtis Mayfield record sleeves, Herbie Hancock's shirts and the orchestral arrangements of Charles Stepney all swirling in a mnemonic mist.

Janet Jackson The Velvet Rope Virgin

The vocals weave a tapestry in the same way Janet Jackson's often would, something like the mahogany moodiness of Velvet Rope by way of Control's chrome futurism at its most wistfully atmospheric. The almost Liz Fraser-esque vocal treatments (think Cocteau Twins circa Four-Calendar Café and her angelic cameos on Mezzanine, with just a dash of Mýa thrown in for good measure) mesh beautifully with the ambient synth washes and a sublimely delicate atmosphere is conjured up deftly in the blending of the two. Little surprise that it's Jam City behind the boards again, with his firm grasp of Detroit-inflected futurism. Its a perfectly executed Gaussian drift, and the perfect ending to this stunning record.

Kelela Cut 4 Me Deluxe Edition Fade To Mind

Unexpectedly, Cut 4 Me was later issued on both double CD and 12" vinyl a couple years later, coming on the heels of The Parallax 100 and my demand that it come out on wax... not that I want to take credit for it or anything. Actually, it was bound to happen either way: the record works as such a perfect album experience, it would have been a crime if it hadn't happened. The truth is, this is one of the great RnB albums of the 21st century, which itself has hardly been a slow era for the form (if not its very peak).

We are stardust

Indeed, Cut 4 Me is a sketch of everything of-the-moment RnB should aspire to. Transcending its rugged origins even as it uses them to its benefit, what began life as a mixtape puts to shame the lion's share of the more self-consciously important album statements in recent memory. This is a music from the outer rim, deep space music that links everything from Detroit techno, low-slung trip hop, chrome-plated RnB and rave's morning-after come down in a stardust constellation of pure machine soul.

And yet this inscrutable, nebulous music soundtracks the vagaries of the heart, matters that will resonate with most of us. I Second That Emotion, and so on and forth. For all it's futurism, this music is of a piece with the lush, Another Green World-esque smooth soul of Marvin Gaye circa Here, My Dear and the fragile soundscapes of the Trouble Man OST. In fact, the unspoken truth of the matter has been with us from the very birth of machine soul: that within its tricky rhythms, liquid synth architecture and futurist intent, lies an all too human heart. A contradiction perhaps, but above all else, that's what makes it so special.

Footnotes

1.

Or, perhaps not so unlikely, considering The Art Of Noise's prior pedigree: placing in at #2 on Billboard's 1984 New Black Artists chart and records like Beat Box and Close To The Edit placing at #10 and #17, respectively. Not to mention their work on Malcolm McLaren's incursion into electro/hip hop D'ya Like Scratchin', another record that had an outsized influence on RnB of the next decade (and beyond).

It’s Going Down For Real

Welcome to 2019

The song creeps onto the dancefloor, slow-motion beats twist and turn as the refrain gets chanted over and over, a sick sax loop slithers across booming 808s... ghosts of Low Rider, sounds looped to infinity, and War's crisp sound echoes in the ether. The crisp unfolding percussion sounds in 1975 like a blueprint for large swathes of machine soul — alongside Fresh, Sly Stone and Marvin's Trouble Man — with just an errant bit of saxophone in the fade to lay dormant for a solid 40 years before reawakening, punched up wildly in the mix in vivid 3D. Flo Rida/Low Rider... almost like it was etched into the code way back when.

Call back the subroutine and run again, loop back and then fast-forward... that's the way works, after all. Playing with time, turn back the page for a moment to envision the future, and cut a jagged crab walk toward enlightenment. Two steps forward, one step back. Rethink/remodel: how else do you work your way back from a dead end? A couple years spent in the wilderness, but that's a temporary condition too: every trend fades to make way for another, before sometimes returning like History Repeating. After awhile, you begin to see the patterns.

So as we stand at the precipice of 2019, you can almost see the ones and zeros criss-crossing and cross-pollinating, arcing toward the real once again. After some delay, the shock of the new returns like an old friend (file under futurism). Wrapping up the last couple pages of the Terminal Vibration in the first quarter of the year, as we reroute the circuitry into sprawling realms of machine music (and beyond), and it feels like A Sort Of Homecoming. 1997 or 1993... or something else entirely? It seems only time will tell. After all, it always does in the end.

Machines On The Grid

Flynn passes through the digital red light district in the movie Tron
Scenes from the grid

Rolling vectors spill across the shimmering surface of the game grid, your vessel moves silently over the face of the waters. Lost in the slipstream of Tron 1982, new wave post-disco Radio Clash bizzness mashed into Mtume's Green Light. Plant life blooms between the cracks in the bassline of Veridis Quo, prefiguring Daft Punk's return to the grid a quarter century later, once everything had changed. At the time, 12:51 seemed an anomaly; in retrospect it looks an awful lot like a warning shot from a sub-generation dwelling in the shadows.

It's a long way back to the wilderness years, sidewalking in the nineties to sounds old and new, rearranged in parallel and both imbuing each other with a layer of meaning beyond the literal. Kleeer 's neon-lit boogie, cruising like a light cycle through the corridors of your mind, while DJ Quik picks up the echo of Tonight/Tonite and the possibilities refract into endlessness. Zapp's Computer Love seems to stop time in its tracks. Squares light up and back out again on the grid of the dancefloor, shifting in time to the music, the bassbins seem to trigger their state beneath the feet of the dancing people.

Solar Sailer soars lonely into the night sky, and Carl Craig's Landcruising casts a long sprawling shadow out across its path. The Mind Of A Machine thinking a quarter century ahead in mere moments, forecasting the future like some sort of chrome-eyed oracle rattling binary figures off into the ether. The Infoworld sprawls out in every direction, vectors stretch like frail fingers to link it all up to the mainframe. You are the computer. Like DJ Rashad, Feelin' the city lights like circuitry spread out beneath a silicon sky... the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.