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 Tron1982, 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.
I'm in Texas this weekend, which is strangely enough an ideal time and place to talk about the machine soul exploits of one Damon Riddick, aka Dâm-Funk. Ideal because of that Houston connection — UGK, DJ Screw, E.S.G., Fat Pat et. al. — and its strange affinity with L.A.'s sprawling funk. Those low-slung horizontal soundscapes, zero-gravity funk on an endless horizon, a sound that seemed to have a reciprocal impact on L.A.'s g-funk just as N.W.A. had earlier on the Geto Boys between the release of Making Trouble and Grip It! On That Other Level. It's just another example of your classic cross-country exchange of ideas, moods and grooves, a meeting of the minds that has the added benefit of becoming a multiplier of sorts for all parties involved.
As much as the central L.A.-Egyptian Lover/Ronnie Hudson thread of post-Zapp machine funk, Texas always seems to be lurking there just beneath the surface (see The D.O.C., Snoop Dogg, etc.), spiking the drink with a a heady dose of sun-glazed psychedelia. It's the sort of thing you wouldn't necessarily notice at first glance, but look at it long enough and eventually the pieces come together, like a magic eye painting it gradually all becomes clear. Alongside the twisted world dreamed up by George Clinton's P-Funk empire and Public Enemy's hard-edged Bomb Squad soundscapes, it's all part of the cocktail that came together to mutate L.A.'s sound toward the streamlined g-funk of The Chronic (as outlined here).
The g-funk sound reached its overcast, burnished apogee with Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era, a record that seemed to get at the heart of g-funk's smooth flight of fancy from the grittiness of Efil4zaggin toward the sound and imagery previously essayed by jazz refugees like Roy Ayers, Norman Connors and Lenny White, delving as they did into a jazz/funk/boogie interzone that was sun-glazed and moon-lit in equal measure. See the oft-quoted (with outsized incredulity) Michael McDonald samples in Regulate, although it all becomes less improbable with context (James Ingram, Steely Dan, et. al.).
Just like I'm always talking about SA-RA before SA-RA records, I've got my mini-pantheon of proto-Dâm-Funk outings. As much as L.A.'s preceding records, I hear a lot of Bay Area rap like Too $hort, E-40, Ant Banks in his music as well. However, the big one for me is JT The Bigga Figga's awesome 1995 album Dwellin' In Tha Labb, which prefigures that same neon-lit vector geometry, its sound like a long, free-flowing superhighway stretching along the Pacific coast with the sunset looming on the horizon. It's the sound of the great Trans-Californian highway, cutting a slow-burn path through its center — between the mountains rising to the east and the ocean waves rolling in the west — palm trees and pines swaying in the breeze to the rhythm of the music.
Which brings us to the man of the hour, Dâm-Funk. I remember hearing the first rumblings of Riddick's rise about a decade ago with things like the Rhythm Trax Vol. 4 mini-album and the Burgundy City EP. It was all so casually unassuming that I never could have imagined the heights it would all lead to. These records cropped up on the newly reinvigorated Stones Throw — recently given a new lease on life thanks in large part to J Dilla's epochal swan song Donuts — just as it was branching out from underground hip hop roots and stepping into its next chapter as a multi-faceted powerhouse. Riddick himself was something of an enigma, a figure swathed in mystery in the finest Detroit tradition. When it came to facts on the ground, it was largely a matter of rumor and conjecture... word was that he'd been a behind-the-scenes figure on various g-funk records back in the day, building up a cache of his own idiosyncratic beats over the years.
This era's music later manifested in the Adolescent Funk archival collection, featuring a bunch of music dating back to the late-80s/early-90s fulcrum-between-eras, from the prime new wave pop of It's My Life! to the post-Sign "O" The Times machine funk of Sexy Lady, and even the florid proto-techno of I Love Life and When I'm With U I Think Of Her's rubberband deep house inna half-lit Nu Groove-stylee. In other words, even way back when, his sound was already fully formed, his vision laid out on a series of bedroom-taped audio cassettes.
Do U Feel Like I Feel? already sounds just like the sort of thing that would later define his 5xLP masterwork, Toeachizown. Maybe less-polished, less-widescreen, the unabashedly youthful vocals in particular betraying a winning amateurism, but all the elements are there in a gloriously lo-fi, nimble and skeletal funk (see also Raindrops and Attitude, with their Hashim/Primrose Path-esque slap bass grooves). It's so evocative of a very particular place and time — an era and locale when I first really became aware of a lot of this music (a lifelong affinity forged) — that it may as well come housed in a DeLorean.
The man made his big splash with Toeachizown right there at the end of the decade, with the awesome 5xLP extended excursion Toeachizown. The record was a well-deep rumination on everything from Mtume and Kleeer to Prince and DJ Quik to Larry Heard and Juan Atkins, enshrining the whole interzone between boogie, g-funk, r&b, deep house and techno (what I've loosely termed machine soul) into a sprawling nocturnal wonderland laid out beneath a neon glow. In many ways, it's comparable to records like The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. and Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, which — coming from the rock world — enshrined a mythic vision of roots-inflected rock 'n roll within towering slabs of gatefold glory.
Running parallel to — and likely springing from — his strange brew roots-n-future cocktail, Riddick has also had a strong propensity to work with various figures that have been influential or important to him. I believe the first instance came with his stellar production for Slave's Steve Arrington on the Goin' Hard EP, a three-song venture (with vocal versions on one side mirrored by their instrumentals on the other) that culminated in the Higher LP (jointly credited this time to Steve Arrington & Dâm-Funk. I still remember the week it came out: I was up in L.A. for the weekend on a record-buying jaunt with Pops, at the Poo-Bah record shop up in Pasadena, only to be confronted with this stunning slab of wax hanging on the wall.
On discussing it with the owner, it turned out that not only had Riddick once worked in this very shop back in the day, he'd even featured it in a cameo in the music video for Hood Pass Intact when he gives the owner handshake and a pound over the counter! A great shop, Poo-Bah, with a welcome focus on the boogie/funk/r&b side of things. There were even stacks of bargain records in the anteroom, where I came upon a cache of old Inner City 12"s! At any rate, further collaborations came with fellow travelers like Nite Jewel (as Nite-Funk) and Snoop Dogg (on the 7 Days Of Funk record) over the next few years.
I was lucky enough to catch Mr. Funklive at The Casbah on the date of release for what remains his latest LP, Invite The Light. The album followed on the heels of the Steve Arrington collaborations with further links made into the realm of classic, no-nonsense electro-funk. Featuring figures like Junie Morrison, Leon Sylvers III (and IV!) and Jody Watley, you also get MCs like Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg thrown into the bargain, not to mention frequent collaborators Nite Jewel and Computer Jay, and even fellow Angelenos like lo-fi wizard Ariel Pink and The Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist extraordinaire Flea! The record found him branching out from the atmospheric, largely instrumental debut in a brave attempt to throw the biggest intergalactic party of the year on wax in classic P-Funk tradition.
And then he came out of nowhere with an entry in Studio !K7's beloved DJ-Kicks series, immediately following the outing from anotherParallax hero, Moodymann! Not since the golden years of Terranova and Smith & Mighty has there been such a concentration of figures close to my heart to be found back to back within the halls of the series. With a vision spanning from the peak-era West Coast electro of Uncle Jamm's Army to Chicago house maven Gemini's deep house slates, it merged a whole raft of hard-to-find vintage boogie with the ambient drift of Gaussian Curve's Broken Clouds and a few modern tracks (by himself and fellow travelers) in an understated tour-de-force of back-to-the-future machine boogie.
Alongside more recent 12"s like the EKKAH collaboration and the Architecture EPs, its just another reminder that Dâm-Funk is one of modern music's most solid, indefatigable institutions. In the aftermath of SA-RA's apparent dissolution nearly ten years ago (we've all wept!), he's carried the torch for vibed-out machine soul well into this following decade with a style all his own. After all, it's a 21st century, Back To The Future, wormhole-in-time kinda thang. Detroit may have the great Kenny Dixon Jr., but on the West Coast we've got Dâm-Funk... and thank goodness for that.
That's where we left it before stopping off in the canyon for a spell, but now we're back again for the final chapter. The destination in our protracted journey — teasing out the connections between post punk and machine funk — lies in the rolling silicon hills of machine soul, music which as often as not sounds as if it were carved from slabs of onyx. The line between techno and machine soul is sometimes so subtle as to be barely detectable (see the oeuvres of Dâm-Funk, Juan Atkins, SA-RA Creative Partners and Anthony Shakir, for instance), but it's there nonetheless.
This faint delineation highlights that which is so undeniably distinctive about each form — even as they run parallel to each other as post-disco flavors of machine music — both are thrown into stark relief by their inherent proximity to one another. Like the colors red and green or orange and blue residing across one another on the same color wheel, one seems to illuminate the other, making it pop from the page. The juxtaposition of Anthony Shakir's Tracks For My Father against Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics with Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul or Missy Elliott's Da Real World with UR's Interstellar Fugitives seems to animate the sound and vision of all parties involved with an amplified clarity, serving as a decoder ring of sorts in getting to the heart of both musics.
Throw in the breakbeat science of 4 Hero, A Guy Called Gerald, Shut Up And Dance and the Kemet Crew — on one hand — and Tricky, Terranova, Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty's time-ravaged trip hop noir on the other, and you've got a stunning image of the intersecting, criss-cross paths of modern music coming into their own at virtually the exact same time. Even now, we're still riding that wave, felt beneath the surface of today's pop fabric even if a frustratingly large swathe fails to live up to the initial promise. Diminishing returns, or a momentary calm before the storm? My money's on the latter... it has to be.
In the meantime, over the course of this year it seemed to make sense to check in with this particular stretch of post-punk/post-disco road, one that seemed (in part at least) to imbue the music with tactile physicality and a sense of ATMOSPHERE. This was music that emerged from somewhere — be it Bristol, Chicago, New York or Detroit — with a singular story to tell, a story that was told as much between the lines as within them. Perhaps it's at this axis of human and machine interface — I'm talking about Mike Dean's basslines and Jimmy Douglass behind the boards, The Prodigy's on-the-fly mix-downs and Moodymann's mirage of sequencer programming and live instrumentation — where the magic happens?
At any rate, just as with all the others, the final Machine Soul chapter of Terminal Vibration will feature a handful of satellite entries (the first of which we've already seen with the Alexander O'Neal record) cleaving to its theme, which in this case will last us for the remainder of the month (and year, for that matter). Then, we'll wrap up the whole Terminal Vibration saga with a monster break out to kick off the new year. There's also one record that perhaps makes sense of the entire selection, which we're going to give the deeper look-in it deserves, along with a bit of back story that improbably crosses wires with the canyon (but then, as I often say, it's all connected... it's all of a piece).
In the annals of great soul men, Alexander O'Neal stands astride the worlds of smooth soul and modern r&b like a colossus. His incomparable croon took center stage on a prime selection of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis' finest productions, a series of machine-driven soul missives that defined the idea of the Minneapolis sound, alongside the output of figures like The S.O.S. Band, The Time and Prince himself. This was era-defining pop at the height of electro boogie's protracted reign, and a state-of-the-art retrofit of the smooth soul blueprint that went on to send reverberations throughout the remainder of the decade (and beyond — just ask The Neptunes).
O'Neal was originally a member of funky rabble-rousers The Time before being shunted aside (the reasons vary depending on who you ask), leaving Morris Day to embody the mischievous personality of the band in the public consciousness. It turned out to be an unlikely case where everyone seemed to benefit — most of all the listener — as The Time indulged its deliciously impish sense of humor across a series of wild, careening funk LPs while O'Neal's more subdued approach became the very definition of modern soul. Grown folks music, to borrow a phrase. So as much as it might be perversely enticing to imagine these very disparate approaches juxtaposed on the same slab of wax, the listener is free to enjoy twice the amount of good music than they likely otherwise would have. And that's always a good thing.
At any rate, this freed up Alexander O'Neal for to pursue a solo career in earnest, encouraged by Jam & Lewis (who themselves had been edged out of The Time shortly after). The duo crafted a lush sonic penthouse around O'Neal, which he inhabited with singularly debonair style, distinguished by an elegant, soulful voice and tailored suits to match. From the cover image on down, O'Neal's self-titled debut conjures up images of late night rendezvous, city lights, moonlight drives and panoramic, ECM-esque twilight skies. Naturally, the music itself is the perfect soundtrack to such furtive nocturnal activities, an ideal nighttime record whether you're out for a night drive or just chilling at your spot for the evening.
With his self-titled debut, Alexander's overriding preoccupation lies with matters of the heart. In fact, that might have made an accurate alternate title for this record: Matters Of The Heart. Throughout the album's 42 minutes, he chronicles various states of heartbreak and healing in a frieze of passionate emotion, putting the soul in the machine with what sounds like a well of tortured experience to draw upon. From dramatic balladry to motorik mid-tempo burners and even maddening electro boogie workouts, Alexander O'Neal offers seven varied snapshots of this crazy thing called love.
The record opens with the sultry strains of A Broken Heart Can Mend, an unhurried mid-tempo slow burner that chugs beneath Alex's smoldering vocals as they glide across it all with an effortless panache. Coming on like deep house pitched-down about 10bpms, its lush groove seems to gently unfurl on an infinite, motorik plane while Alex is enveloped in the surrounding moonlit production. In a way, it even predicts the sound of the Frankie KnucklesBig House Mix of All True Man from six years later, underlined by the way those backing vocals coax out the chorus, offering a reassuring repetition of the song's title sentiment and comforting the wounded loverman in his declared vows to press on. Brilliant!
The graceful twilight architecture of If You Were Here Tonight follows, dropping the tempos way down into prototypical slow jam territory. This kicks off a three song run of prime balladry, all produced by Monte Moir (also of The Time). Don't tune out though, all you footloose kiddies, for this is one of the true highlights of the record (and that's really saying something with a tracklist this stellar). Crystalline harp-like synths duet with a Spanish guitar over crashing drums and a sustained proto-techno bassline in this towering quiet storm epic. Needless to say, Alex's vocals soar gracefully throughout.
He imbues each and every word with the most searching tone imaginable, and when he sings if you could only know my feelings, you will know how much I do believe, it's as if time itself stands still. He's for real, man! Deep synths sweep beneath it all in the aftermath of the chorus, embodying a sense of shelter from the storm. The whole thing brilliantly capturing the seeming life-and-death struggle and intolerable gravity of a soul caught in the throes of passion and romantic love. I imagine many could relate...
It all fades to reveal a loping percussion figure, the only thing accompanying Alex's sensual ad libs in a sea of reverb. It's the first of many seemingly off-the-cuff moments that give the record its buttoned-down, almost live feel. I'd compare its strikingly evocative effect to that achieved by Moodymann — specifically on things like the Kenny Dixon, Jr. Remix of Innerzone's version People Make The World Go Round — paradoxically managing to imbue these machine music proceedings with a strong sense of human intimacy.
Note also the rather expressive music video, the mood of which captures the whole nighttime in the city vibe of this record with a perfectly 1980s (that is, early music video-era) charm. But then, I suppose I'm a sucker for such things...
After the fathoms-deep raw power of If You Were Here Tonight, you're more than ready for a bit of a breather, something a little less emotionally draining, and Alex delivers yet again in the shape of Do You Wanna Like I Do. The song lies in the middle of a three-song stretch of slow jams, building a sort of opulent momentum as the record progresses. The lovesick melody is carried by a bevy of crashing pianos, while an electro-funk bassline's pulse weaves through the gaps in the chord progression in studied slow-motion. The lustrous, shimmering atmosphere conjured up by Monte Moir offers the perfect counterpoint to Alex's pleas in a stirring fusion of hi-tech heartbreak, setting the stage for Hearsay's lush slow jams like Sunshine and Crying Overtime a couple years later.
The record's last big slow jam comes into focus with Look At Us Now, which couldn't be further from the twin desperate pleas of If You Were Here Tonight and Do You Wanna Like I Do. With its casual saxophone sway evoking shades of Sade's Diamond Life, it seems to capture the quiet glow of contentment even as it finds Alex begging his woman to stay. It's almost as if he were trying to evince a quiet confidence in their state of affairs as he goes about building a case for her to stick around.
The effect takes every mildly disparaging remark you've ever heard about the aspirational aspects of this era's soul music and simultaneously fulfills and transcends them at once in a great cresting wave of world-weary optimism. The whole tune just shimmers, hanging there in midair as if suspended on nothing but moonlight and a prayer. It closes the first side leaving you ready to take on the world, and my bet is that she does stay after all.
Conversely, the Innocent/Alex 9000/Innocent II medley opens the second side with a ten-minute strong electro boogie monster jam, still resolute but this time coming from an entirely different direction. It's the record's one true (extended) moment of uptempo funk, firmly in the tradition of marathon Minneapolis workouts like The Time's The Walk, Sheila E.'s The Glamorous Life and Prince And The Revolution's America. Featuring backing vocals from Tabu Records label-mate Cherrelle, with whom O'Neal would duet later that year on Saturday Love (from her debut LP, High Priority), the effect is not unlike that of The Glamorous Life's deadpan backing refrain.
At the four-minute mark, the tune's snaking electro boogie synths spiral into a strained solo (nascent shades of proto-techno in evidence) before the tenor begins to shade toward the intimate. Then, fellow ex-Time member Jellybean Johnson starts shredding some guitar for the protracted mid-section, which also features gang shouts a la New Order's Confusion and some Prince/Ready For The World-style whoah-oh backing chants. Brilliant stuff, yeah?
Then, with but a minute-and-a-half remaining, the tune transforms entirely amid a rush of snares into a funky coda led by Terry Lewis' slap bass and the gang shouts as they return with a vengeance. This seems to be the Alex 9000 portion of the trip. The group vamps on the theme for a spell before cresting into Revolution-style buildup for the climax. Finally, the original groove returns for a couple bars (Innocent II) before collapsing completely into a cascading synth figure and the tortured distortions of Jellybean's guitar still hanging in the air.
What's Missing seems to fuse all the different aspects of this record — from the atmosphere of the lush slow jams to the motorik groove of the mid-tempo burners and even a casual return of nimble digital funk — into an infectious tonic that just might be my favorite thing here. On the face of it, the tune seems understated, slight even, but when that chorus hits — with Alex's passionate we used to have good love, but now its gone a naggingly infectious hook — I'd wager its the tune you'll have the most trouble getting out of your head.
In fact, of all the tunes here, I'm absolutely certain I remember hearing it on the radio when I was a kid (back when Michael Jackson was Captain EO and the Padres still wore brown and gold). I just noticed that there's some footage on Youtube of the man's performance of What's Missing on Soul Train, looking ten times more in-his-element than in any high concept music video. I should probably apologize in advance for the difficulty you'll have in getting this song out of your head, but trust me... you'll thank me later!
The record closes with You Were Meant To Be My Lady Not My Girl, the title alone of which hints at this record's intended mature, sophisticated audience (see also Stephanie Mills' If I Were Your Woman). Alex ain't messing around here, he's down for commitment! The tune's slow-burning mid-tempo groove mirrors the opening moves of A Broken Heart Can Mend (shades too of The Gap Band's carefree Outstanding), this time offering the sweet catharsis of renewal.
In certain ways, the tune's elegant synth flourishes make me flash on the cascades of atmosphere in certain dreamy China Crisis moments (on one hand) and Larry Heard's mid-period, jazz-inflected soul man forays on the other. There's a definite sense of winding-down as the tune casually unfolds — even finding the band messing around and then collapsing into laughter over its extended coda of percussion — in contrast to the preceding songs' dramatic catharsis.
This is the sound of hard-won contentment, made all the more poignant in light of all the emotional turmoil that came before. It's the perfect way to end the record... the culminating moment in a survey of assorted conditions of the heart.
When all is said and done, this is simply a superb album. The midpoint between Marvin Gaye's I Want You and Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, it's a crucial outpost connecting two very distinct eras of music. Alex's soulful delivery exists in the tradition of everything from Solomon Burke to Teddy Pendergrass, while its carefully-crafted song cycle evokes memories of classic records by the likes of Eddie Kendricks, Leroy Hutson and Isaac Hayes.
Meanwhile, its steel-rimmed dreamtime loverman moves seem to sow the seeds for everything from Chez Damier's lush deep house slates and Larry Heard's post-Mr. Fingers output to Janet Jackson's Jam & Lewis-fueled trajectory into the 90s and even Timbaland's post-disco r&b moves as laid out on records like Aaliyah's One In A Million, Ginuwine's The Bachelor and Playa's Cheers 2 U. It's a roots 'n future mash-up in an entirely different fashion than you'd usually expect.
Moving into more recent, esoteric terrain, Spacek's acid jazz-limned techno forays (especially the first album) seem to be the logical descendant of the record's most motorik mid-tempo moments, while even SA-RA's remarkably physical manifestations of machine soul seem to fulfill the promises made in Alexander O'Neal's electric blue twilight moves. In that sense, it's future music, pure and simple, in which entire futures are augured within its neon-lit blueprints.
As such, it's one of the decade's greatest, most important records, lodged in at the axis of the decade alongside other crucial incursions like Jamie Principle's Waiting On An Angel, Model 500's Night Drive, Wally Badarou's Chief InspectorTenor Saw's Fever and Mantronix's debut album, sharing with all those records a set of undoubtedly far-reaching implications. This lays out the foundations for a future music in the same way Fingers Inc.'s Another Side, Smith & Mighty's production for Fresh 4's Wishing On A Star and Guy's self-titled debut all would a few years later. Taken together, those four records are something like a compass rose for everything would come to be called machine soul.
As such, it makes this the perfect antidote to your typical 1980s decade overviews that tend to neglect the music from these shadowy corners of the soundscape for the more straightforward rock/new wave/synth pop/alternative-derived canon (plus rap — if you're lucky). There's a whole world out there! In a sense, that's what this whole Terminal Vibration saga is about, breaking open the more typical view of the decade to tease out some of its most innovative sounds, hidden in plain sight.
Alexander O'Neal is certainly definitive within the context of this trip's long-delayed machine soul-shaped denouement, setting us up perfectly for the final chapter. As such, for curious souls looking to unearth the shadowy origins of machine soul magic scrawled between the lines in this most misunderstood of decades, Alexander O'Neal is the perfect place to start. It's a key record or the eighties packed with great music... you can't go wrong.
This latest Motion playlist dates back to late summer, with the tempo dropping accordingly. Still, the mix managed to hang around as the days grew shorter, its machine soul/trip hop/techno mash-up the perfect soundtrack to running at dusk as the city lights begin to switch on. As me move back into Terminal Vibration territory — particularly its final Machine Soul chapter — it seemed as good a time as any to blog it on up here...
Motion 002: Trip Into The Groove
The HerbaliserWhat WhatBring ItNinja Tune
Tripping back into action with a bit of downbeat hip hop from Ninja Tune stalwarts The Herbaliser, we start out our trip on the downbeat tip (that way it's harder to fall behind the pace!). One of three tracks from their sophomore set Blow Your Headphones to feature the great Jean Grae (back when she was still known as What What), this is firmly in the vein of stoned mid-period hip hop like Bahamadia, The Pharcyde and Guru's Jazzmatazz series.
PlayaDon't Stop The MusicDef Jam
Peak-era Timbaland, featuring his chrome-plated r&b vision writ large on this production for the trio of Smokey, Black and Static. Static (aka Stephen Garrett was one of the songwriters in Timbaland's Bassment crew, responsible for tunes like Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? and Try Again.
This quasi-cover version of the classic Yarbrough & Peoples boogie chestnut is prototypical machine soul, picking up where Juan Atkins left off three years earlier with The Flow G-Funk Mix. Dig those deft harmonies weaving in and out of that trademark digi-funk riddim, the pulsing synth bassline shadowboxing Tim's clipped drum machine shuffle.
The line between the finest trip hop (in the Smith & Mighty tradition) and this sort of pre-millennial tension is a thin one indeed.
MélaazNon, Non, NonBMG
Smoked-out French rap, this was picked up by Ultimate Dilemma for the Musical Dilemmas compilation and thus became something of an trip hop stone tablet by default, even showing up a decade later on Daddy G's stellar DJ-Kicks outing. Hardly surprising, given that it fits Massive Attack's remit perfectly (in fact, it would slot right in on Protection's cinematic second side).
Having picked this up back in the day, I was pleased to get a little more context on the record in Kevin Pearce's excellent nineties dance tome A Cracked Jewel Case.
Timbaland And MagooClock StrikesBlackground
More Timbaland, this time from his own record with Magoo. Effortlessly funky machine music. His beats from this era are perfect for all your running needs. I know a lot of people don't dig it, but I'm actually a huge fan of Timbaland's style on the mic, midway between low-rocking trip hop mumble and Jamaican producer behind the boards, punching in on the mix.
I used to listen to this album on continuous loop with Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above, Reprazent's New Forms and the East Flatbush Project record, which along with Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix was my early '98 in a nutshell.
Tricky DJ Milo & Luke HarrisHow's Your LifeStudio !K7
Recentish Tricky with fellow Bristol luminary DJ Milo. I was crushed that I missed the tour behind this album, which stopped in Linda Vista's Belly Up Tavern. This decade's found Tricky back in the groove in a big way, indeed recent records like False Idols rival his nineties output.
Case in point How's Your Life. This is so subtle, so smooth even, and yet it's totally savage. I love the almost subconscious inevitability of that quiet storm loop, apparently from a mid-eighties Larry Carlton record. It just draws you into concentric orbit, Tricky running tings below the radar.
SadeSurrender Your Love Kenny Larkin RemixIllegal Detroit
Slowly swinging up to a house tempo with this killer Sade bootleg from Detroit. Not much to add to what I said here, but at this point in the run things really slide into the groove. Machine soul keeps you running like a machine, and for this tune's eleven minutes, you feel like you could keep on running forever.
YageCoda ComaJumpin' & Pumpin'
Some tasty Jumpin' & Pumpin' action, taken from Yage's Fuzzy Logic EP. This is up there in the upper echelon of post-Detroit work by the likes of 4 Hero, Basic Channel and The Black Dog. Killer breakbeat techno, its soaring synth choirs chopped with soundtrack strings and funereal organs that all recede gracefully into the overcast horizon. A snatch of dance vocal slides in over its rugged analogue bassline before the breaks kick back into gear.
Another under-acknowledged masterpiece from the pre-FSOLDougans and Cobain (and believe me, there's more where that came from), this is the equal of anything on Accelerator.
Chaka KhanI Know You, I Live YouWarner Bros.
Sublime post-disco almost-boogie from the great Chaka Khan. All would-be divas take note of that soaring chorus, it's like sunlight reflecting off the surface of parting storm clouds. Later the basis for Agent-X's awesome Detroit house slate In The Morning, warped post-Kenny Dixon Jr./Moodymann filter-disco of the highest caliber. Hearing Chaka's original for the first time is such a joy.
Throbbing GristleHot On The Heels Of Love Ratcliffe RemixNovaMute
Impossibly lush take on this O.G. industrial crew's creepy slab of claustrophobic proto-techno. This remix by one half of Basement Jaxx takes it into big room, widescreen territory. Shimmering multi-layered synths shift and glide over a heavy Reese bassline and shuffling percussion. There's even an exotic vocal snatch chucked into the bargain.
First heard this in a Luke Slater mix where it rubbed shoulders with Isolée and Dopplereffekt, this is originally from a compilation of remixes of Throbbing Gristle tunes by contemporary dance artists. Carl Craig even provides another, more faithful mix of Heels Of Love, but make no mistake: this Jaxx version is where its at. Visionary stuff.
Alec EmpireSuEcideForce Inc.
Closing out the mix, and giving you that last little boost, is a pure adrenaline rush of rave techno from the pre-Atari Teenage Riot/Mille PlateauxAlec Empire. This would be a stone cold killer if it were just the sub-bass locking with the stop-start funk sample, but then that proto-trance lead drops into the mix and sends it all over the edge to the sublime. It just glides over the whole of it.
The effect is breathtakingly cinematic, indeed this sort of thing belongs not in a museum but in a movie (preferably something based on a William Gibson novel). I've often thought that this track is a kindred spirit with Carl Craig's 69 output.
And that's it, you're back through the front door. Repeat as necessary. From downbeat to uptempo, once you dip into the second half of the mix you'll be impossible to stop. You are the machine.
This time of year — when late autumn begins giving way to the dawning chill of winter — often takes me back to the year 2001, when I spent my days going to community college out in Grossmont and shelving books at the Clairemont Library to make a little money. Then, I'd spend my nights making beats and spinning out mix after mix down in the lab (this the era of Futureform, Percussitron and Mettrex Recordings), bouncing tracks and ideas back and forth with Snakes three blocks over across the web. Good times. It was in this climate that — after a few years of hardcore focus on my twin loves of trip hop and techno — I'd begun to branch out into the wider world a little.
Primary lines of flight included the music that the Detroit gang came up on during the progressive era — loosely put the records The Electrifying Mojo played in the early eighties — alongside the dub/reggae/post punk/hip hop cocktail that the Bristol scene emerged from. I'm talking about Smith & Mighty, The Wild Bunch, Tricky, and so on. I'm going to set aside the Bristol contingent for the moment, since that's a story of it's own (that I'll return to next year). I was also feeling gravity's pull from the jazzier end of electronic music (those crazed skyscrapers-on-the-moon tonalities) and the throbbing discoid vibes of house music, both of which urged me to dig deeper into the dusty past. Like Lamont Dozier, I was Going Back To My Roots.
It all started when I picked up the first B-52's record, a tile I'd borrowed extensively from my uncle back in the day but never actually owned for myself. I suppose it was only natural that it'd all start here, since new wave was my first musical love, a sound that stayed with me through the nineties (which didn't always go over well at school, let me tell you!).
Coincidentally, the Detroit cats were mad for it back in the day, folding it into a selection of post-disco music on the slipstream of the era's more adventurous dancefloors. For me, Dan Sicko's coverage of this pre-history was one of the highlights of Techno Rebels, which I'd have been reading right around then (2000-2001).1 In the context of the moment, it made an ideal wormhole in time through which to go back and explore a little further.
That was what progressive-era Detroit was all about, club kids getting down to exotic European sounds alongside a bedrock of post-disco/post-Parliament funk. You'd hear guys like Kevin Saunderson repping New Order, Prince and The B-52's in interviews. They were speaking my language! Carl Craig even put out a compilation of material from that era featuring the killer B-52's cut Mesopotamia (Hey, there's the vocal loop from that one Shake record!) alongside George Clinton's Atomic Dog and Cybotron's Alleys Of Your Mind. I never actually owned the disc itself (called Abstract Funk Theory), but I used its tracklist like a roadmap, checking out all the tunes that I hadn't heard before and digging up all the ones I had, throwing them on and hearing them anew.
With Derrick May's oft-quoted Kraftwerk/George Clinton roots-of-techno equation, those twin dynasties were the next port of call. I started with a Parliament compilation and the Chocolate City LP, before happening upon a late-period Funkadelic round up. That led me to grab Uncle Jam Wants You, bought primarily for the full-length version of Not Just Knee Deep (clocking in at 15 minutes of electro-tinged madness, it's one of the great extended night drive grooves). At first I dug p-funk at its most electronic (the 12" version of Atomic Dog a particular revelation), but gradually worked my way back to the acid-fried climes of Maggot Brain and Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow.
I'd already dove into Sly Stone's oeuvre earlier that summer. I remember buying the O.G. Greatest Hits — along with Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed, Horace Andy's Living In The Flood and the Skylarking compilation — after an ill-fated beach party that never really came off. At first it sounded ancient. Drum breaks recorded from beyond the dawn of time. That was the thing that used to always jump out at me with sixties music back then, for whatever reason: the drums sounded old.2 I didn't really grow up around much sixties music; Pops was a 70s/80s kind of guy. He was the next generation.
There's A Riot Goin' On is what I was really after (I'd heard rumors of drum machines), but for whatever reason it was impossible to find at the time. NONE of the music on the Greatest Hits was from the 70s! However, it gradually grew on me to the point that I bought all the albums (Riot was actually the last one I managed to get ahold of), and to this day they're one of my favorite bands of all time. It's funny, I hadn't thought about it until just now but that Greatest Hits must have been the first sixties record I ever owned. Although that MelankolicSkylarking compilation did have some tracks from the sixties on it too, so consider it a tie...
Of Sly's seventies albums, Fresh was much easier to get ahold of. Fresh is great, a more streamlined follow up to Riot. Claustrophobic, almost desiccated production. Rhythm boxes all over the shop! Everyone wants to hear If You Want Me To Stay at a party when they find out you have this. Not that I blame them... that's a bad jam right there. What really gets me with this record is the atmosphere. From the opening machine rhythm pulse of In Time, it's as if you've been hooked by a cosmic lasso that's just drawing you in. Seven-hundred overdubs interlocking over the great black hole hum of tape hiss. This is the template for all the Moodymann records. Bedroom disco vibes spooling out into the studio, the lonely auteur hunched over the mixing board, moving sounds across the field of vision and playing around with time.
My other big proto-Moodymann record in this little makeshift theory is C'est Chic. More tenuous, perhaps, but also with more literal connections. You've got the opening (sampled) crowd noise setting the stage, for one. Obviously the I can't kick this feeling when it hits sample (what am I gonna do?). But also the slightly askew, sun-glazed production touches. Casually psychedelic. Happy Man seems to glide by in slow-motion, synths and strings melting all around you in a strange brew warped concoction. Just like on Silentintroduction. Those same unhurried, mid-tempo grooves burning away in the shadows. Savoir Faire feels like a slowjam, but then maybe it's not much slower than anything else here. You lose track of time. These tunes could go on forever. Once again, a case where it's all in the atmosphere. I picked this up around the same time as all these others... in fact, I think it was my first real disco record (the lines do get blurry).
The Chic Organization is something like the missing link between Parliament and the other side of the Detroit equation, Kraftwerk. Moroder too. Snakes bought Computer World first. We used to zone out to it after a marathon studio session. Marvel at the synths. I got it a little bit later, in a cache of cutout Kraftwerk CDs at the Point LomaMusic Trader. Everything after Autobahn in one fell swoop... what was the deal? I don't think the remasters came out until a decade later. A lucky break, then. Nights spent getting lost in the computer rhythms of The Man-Machine followed, the Moroder-esque discoid grooves of Spacelab and Metropolis spiraling off into the distance.
There's a million things you could say about Kraftwerk, and by now most of them have already been said. They're like The Beatles that way. To single out just one personal note, the first time I heard Metropolis I remember thinking that it sounded like the secret blueprint for The Metro by Berlin. That was a crucial song for me growing up — it's probably the closest thing I had to techno up to that point in my life — and it remains one of the great electronic pop songs ever. Up there with The Model, which might be thee greatest.
All of which is to say that this music keys back into new wave, but this time from another angle. Figures like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Telex, Alexander Robotnick, My Mine and Yello operated at the axis of the dancefloor, and all of them were big in Detroit. Which is how I found out about them in the first place. Aside from Yello, who an uncle had tuned me into a good deal earlier (he also told me to check out Devo and Public Image Ltd.). He fixed me up with their Zebra album (at that point their latest release), which I dubbed to one side of a cassette. At the time, it made perfect sense alongside records like Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman, and I worked my way back from there. I snagged the 12" for Oh Yeah a bit later, from a thrift store in Santee of all places.
Alongside Yello, the other big one was YMO. These groups were like Led Zeppelin to me! The rubberband synth-basslines of Solid State Survivor pick up where The Model left off, retooling the Germans' stately chanson with amped-up bullet train velocity, ready for the nascent world of fast-forward anime imagery (it's but a small leap to Ken Ishii's Echo Exit from here). All of these groups offering up an alternate view of the 1980s, in retrospect straining in the wake of disco to invent modern dance culture. It's all very — dare I say it — Terminal Vibration! It just needed to one more round of the old trans-Atlantic ping-pong effect to really come into its own...
Illustrated by something like 808 State's Newbuild, which must be the first LP to come out of UK's rave culture. Made when A Guy Called Gerald Simpson was still in the crew. This stone tablet got a timely reissue on Richard D. James' Rephlex imprint in 1999, and I picked it up not long after. It sounded ancient, evoking a grimy, less-polished eighties spanning from Spoonie Gee to Hashim and Bobby Konders. Terminal Vibrations to a man.
This is truly evocative stuff. A track like Narcossa is just dripping with atmosphere. Compulsion, with its recurring incantation of R-E-L-E-A-S-E-Y-O-U-R-B-O-D-Y. Shades of the Suburban Knight in its loping bassline. This is an electronic music with real physical heft to it; you can just feel the back story lurking in its grooves. Images of grimy basement studios and clandestine backroom dancefloors, punters getting down to the music as bassbins pump the rugged sonic geometry into the night.
All of which is summed up in Juan Atkins' Wax Trax! MasterMix Volume 1, a CD I played endlessly that winter. Atkins links up the minimalist strains of contemporary techno like Maurizio, Convextion and Black Noise's Nature Of The Beast with deep garage-inflected cuts from Blaze, Rick Wade and Streetlife Originals (he even managed to split the difference by including his own Infiniti track, the sublimely ethereal Skyway).
The real kicker is a handful of vintage cuts like A Number Of Names' impossibly rare Sharevari (year one techno, 1981 don't you know... that's a mighty good vintage too, if I do say so myself!) and Martin Circus' Disco Circus (my favorite disco record ever). You even get an awesome slab of nagging post-Erotic City machine soul thrown into the bargain, in the shape of DJ Assault's Sex On The Beach. Yeah, try and get that one out of your head!
In retrospect, it's not much of a surprise that the Detroit guys were so open and enthusiastic about their roots. It seems there's always been this yin-yang push and pull going on between the break-with-the-past/innovate-at-all-costs push of Toffler's Future Shock-of-the-new and the centripetal pull of the Motor City's rich musical heritage, stashed away in the vaults of labels like Westbound, Motown and beyond. You can hear it all over the place to varying degrees, but perhaps most clearly in the music of figures like Anthony Shakir, Terrence Parker and Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann).
Hearing records like Tracks For My Father, Detroit After Dark and Silentintroduction for the first time felt like doorways opening into whole worlds of sound, worlds that I'd only been vaguely aware of till then. It was an open invitation to dig a little bit deeper into the names behind the names. The soul man interludes and broken beats of Roaming beckoned from the mysterious corridors of jazz, while something 3 Minute Blunts hinted that hip hop's thriving underworld stretched even deeper into the past than I'd ever imagined, and the twisted filter-groove of I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hits whet the appetite for the sounds of peak-era disco.
This happened to coincide with the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, which featured a memorable, supremely buttoned-down set from Kenny Dixon Jr. himself. He opened with Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson's We Almost Lost Detroit, a dreamy slab of deep soul that was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard. Give or take. It took awhile to track it down (by that point it hadn't even made it to CD yet), but I eventually scored an old radio station copy from WHMC in Massachusetts. That was pretty cool.
Bridges itself is an incredible record, and one that (despite being over twenty years old) felt firmly in step with the times. I was never a new music whore (coining term for later use!), but this was one of many instances that opened me up to the idea that time wasn't a straight line. It twists back on itself and runs in parallel, lean times and golden ages twist in a double helix with future music scatted throughout. The way you can dig into the past and soak it all in, mess around with the results and wind up with the Renaissance. And this was just the first song in the set...
Dixon's set picked up to a dancefloor pace immediately after the Gil Scott-Heron, with cuts from Theo Parrish and his own Moodymann cut Shades Of Jae rubbing shoulders with Curtis Mayfield's Love Me, Love Me Now and the 1978 version of William DeVaughn's Be Thankful For What You've Got. It was all of a seamless piece, with the fresh house cuts and the vintage disco-era soul sounding perfectly at home together. He even got Jalal Nuriddin of The Last Poets out there to MC over the booming disco of Larry Page Orchestra's Erotic Soul! Interestingly, the set seemed to hinge at the axis of Kool & The Gang's Take My Heart If You Want It (a secret cousin to both Donald Fagen's I.G.Y and Cheri's Murphy's Law), where it took an unexpected turn into the fertile terrain of electro boogie.
André Cymone's The Dance Electric was the highlight of this long stretch of boogie, the point where Moodymann and Dâm-Funk meet, conjuring up the same vectors-sweeping-over-city-lights imagery that I used to daydream about in my youth.3 We're talking about things like Tron, Captain EO and... the Star Wars arcade game! This stretch of the mix was rounded out by things like the Prelude post-disco of The Strikers' Body Music and The Brides Of Funkenstein's Never Buy Texas From A Cowboy. It was the perfect long sunset to what had been a stunning Motor City excursion... you just put on your shades and recede onto the horizon.
Manuel GöttschingE2-E4Inteam GmbH
Like KRS-One, I'd love to say that I was there for the first DEMF, but that's not the case. There was this ill-fated plan to actually Move To Detroit (circa 2000), but it wasn't meant to be (too many responsibilities in the local). However, the good folks at Groovetech made loads of footage from the event available on their website. Groovetech was an online record shop that specialized in dance music, yet they had a pretty wide brief beyond that (por ejemplo, they fixed me up with a copy of Manuel Göttsching's E2-E4). Both the shop itself and their online content proved to be an invaluable resource in moving from node to node across the musical landscape in my ongoing exploration.
Soul DesignerEP 1F Communications
In addition to the DEMF content (which included — off the top of the dome — live performances from Kenny Larkin and Sean Deason, along with DJ sets from DJ Spooky and Dego MacFarlane of 4 Hero), Groovetech would also invite DJs into their studio to spin live sets and then post the videos online (comparable to what the Boiler Room does today). Long before the advent of Youtube, you could check out figures like James Pennington (aka the Suburban Knight), Ken Ishii and Ian O'Brien in the mix. That James Pennington set was a particular highlight, featuring the skewed electronic boogie of Soul Designer and the Purveyors Of Fine Funk. There's still some of these videos floating around on Youtube, I believe...
Ian O'Brien's sets at Groovetech — and this is what initially brought all of this to mind, as autumn's canyon escapades sheared into Steely Dan — were also pretty eye-opening. New 12"s from Moodymann, Drexciya and 4 Hero rubbed shoulders with vintage slates from Lonnie Liston Smith, David Axelrod and Chaka Khan. He closed out a set with Joni Mitchell's Free Man In Paris! All of which sent you back scouring the used bins for dusty records from the past.
This spirit was writ large on The Soul Of Science compilation series that he and Kirk Degiorgio curated, its three volumes juxtaposing new jazz-inflected techno and broken beat with vintage electro-damaged material from figures like Graham Central Station ('Tis Your Kind Of Music indeed... this insanely ahead-of-its-time sun-glazed machine soul is my kind of music), George Duke (with the skittering tech jazz instrumental North Beach) and The Pointer Sisters' Chainey Do (taken from their Steppin' LP, which was produced by Herbie Hancock).
Similarly, Kirk Degiorgio's Checkone and Synthesis mixes blurred the lines between the past, present and future. I didn't track down the former until a little bit later, but Synthesis was a crucial find at the time. This was the conduit that sent me back to things like Sun Ra's Lanquidity and Herbie Hancock's Sextant, much as other contemporary records like Roni Size's It's A Jazz Thing had sent me back to Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes' Expansions. Degiorgio also curated the Op-ART Hall Of Fame, which was an untold treasure trove of prime jazz and soul-related recordings. A real resource, that. I could spin off a whole other feature just on the records that list tuned me into.
For now, let's focus on Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, after all this is where I started with jazz in the first place. This record's technicolor grooves exist in a continuum of electronic jazz stretching all the way up to the present day, within which it remains a foundational cornerstone. From here, I checked out Miles Davis' On The Corner and Sun Ra's Lanquidity (I can't recall which came first), and then worked my way backward to Coltrane's Impulse! recordings and Charles Mingus' Mingus! Mingus! Mingus! Mingus! Mingus! Perhaps a roundabout way of getting into jazz, but I suspect not altogether uncommon for people coming at it from electronic music. After all, Head Hunters isn't that far removed from techno, is it?
The lines between the two were getting especially blurry at the turn of the century. Look no further than As One's 21st Century Soul, which seemed to spring from the same rich, jazz-inflected furrow as The Soul Of Science compilations. As One was Kirk Degiorgio's main outlet for his own recordings. The song Problems, featuring vocals from Jinadu in what would be the first of many collaborations, felt like an instant classic. A song that had been around for years. Two parts Fresh and one part I'm Still In Love With You, it was a perfect slab of deep-grooving soul.
However, the lion's share of the album consisted of tumbling tech jazz instrumentals hovering in the interzone between Stacey Pullen's Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday and Les McCann's Layers, Recloose's Spelunking and Johnny Hammond's Gears, and Fretless AZM's Astral Cinema and Eddie Russ' See The Light. This was man-made jazz at the interface of electronics, each pushing the bounds of the other in some strange sonic communion. Not a bad blueprint for future music, when you think about it...
My introduction to the music of As One came not with this record but with an earlier one, 1997's The Art Of Prophecy. I stumbled upon it completely out of the blue down at the El CajonMusic Trader (of all places), in an unlikely cache of prime electronica. Along with the As One, there was The Black Dog's Spanners, Max 404's Love & Mathematics, Drax's Tales From The Mental Plane, the Source RecordsHeadshop compilation... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Records that I'd only read about. I'd even found my copy of Moodymann's Silentintroduction there, filed in the rock section and marked down to $5! Even now, I have to shake my head at the sheer unlikeliness of it all.
Warp's contemporaneous issue of Trainer, an anthology of Black Dog-offshoot Plaid's early recordings, chimed in perfectly with this era. I'd been getting deeper into what you might call living room techno. That is, electronic music aimed not at the dancefloor but home listening. It made a perfect complement to the motorik pulse of techno, jungle's rugged breakbeats and house's discoid grooves that had been my lifeblood for years now. Plaid's Not For Threes was a firm favorite, and this compilation — filled with tracks from alter egos like Balil (heard first on the Intergalactic Beats compilation), Atypic and Tura — was an invaluable snapshot of Plaid's colorful back story.
Trainer even included the duo's first album Mbuki Mvuki in its entirety, which was impossible to find at the time! Also present was the awesome Angry Dolphin, which I'd first heard on Nicolette's DJ-Kicks (picked up the same day as Andrea Parker's DJ-Kicks outing and the Blade Runner soundtrack, come to think of it). Andrea Parker's debut album Kiss My Arp was another one that hovered around this general terrain, somewhere between mutant electro and abstract trip hop. All of which is ideal music for the winter months. I suppose that at this point Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92 almost goes without saying.
Of course, Detroit was no stranger to electronic music that leaned toward the abstract, the impressionistic. Think of Tony Drake's ethereal instrumentals like Muse & Twilight, Diana or the Texture LP (swimming in the same crystal waters as Larry Heard's Sceneries Not Songs records), or the great The Detroit Escalator Co. The Black Buildings LP was full of blissfully ambient machine soul, its drum machines pattering through hall-of-mirrors production as synths drift in a spectral haze, the occasional errant sequence emerging from the fog. A definite sense of dread and mystery hangs over the proceedings. Picking up where Urban Tribe's stone tablet The Collapse Of Modern Culture left off, it's like the x-ray of both Motor City techno and chrome-plated r&b, presaging the likes of Spacek, Dâm-Funk and SA-RA. Deep space bizzness, seen.
I mentioned this record in passing earlier, but still need to give it a prolonged shout. Stacey Pullen's Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday is one of the great mergers of techno and jazz, it's visionary retro/future mash-up picking up the latent shades of paradoxical 1970s digitalism in his nine-minute DJ-Kicks The Track and stretching that vibe across an entire LP. It's rugged breaks and prismatic sheen made the perfect soundtrack to walking through bustling city streets under overcast skies, dodging traffic, or even shambling down University St. after dark in the Colt on my way home from work.
Similarly, Recloose's Spelunking was another critically early incursion of electronic jazz into my psyche. This actually came a couple years earlier, so naturally I heard it earlier. In fact, I'm fairly certain I bought it the week it came out. It seemed to take a whole brace of sounds that made an impact on me growing up and shuffle them through the illogical machinery of hip hop. There was the skewed fractal boogie of Get There Tonight and Landscaping's juke joint stomp taking center stage, but tucked away on the second side was the x-ray downbeat of Insomnia In Dub. Like wandering a deserted shopping mall long after closing time, it was a spectral image of jazz radio fed through the haunted corridors of the echo chamber.
With 1997's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, Carl Craig seemed to gesture in both the direction of living room techno and electronic jazz all at once, highlighted by songs like Televised Green Smoke and At Les. Pulling in roughly five years worth of carefully crafted material, its fizzing electronics sparred with almost live-sounding drums to stunning effect. Two years later, Craig delved into jazz wholeheartedly with Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed, featuring a loose coterie of musicians centered around the core trio of Carl Craig, Francisco Mora Catlett and Craig Taborn.
The record merged MPC-powered flight of fancy through hip hop (The Beginning Of The End), mercurial tech jazz (Eruption) and unsettling ambience (Blakula) with a set of seemingly improvised jams, some of which even centered on earlier Craig material like At Les and Bug In The Bassbin. It was a tour de force, and with the ensuing issue of a pair of 12" singles centered around the group's cover version of The Stylistics' People Make The World Go Round, a truly unmissable event. Featuring a jazzed-out house version from Kenny Dixon Jr.4and a boom bap rap hip hop re-rub by J Dilla, it's scope reached out in myriad directions at once.
I'd already known Kenny Dixon Jr.'s music for some time, but the two J88 mixes on the Innerzone 12" were my introduction to the work of J Dilla (or Jay Dee as he was then known). I hadn't yet heard the late-period Tribe and Pharcyde albums he was involved with, his years in the production unit The Ummah, so my intro came a bit later with the Welcome 2 Detroit LP (along with Slum Village's Fantastic Vols. 1 & 2). As usual, I worked my way back. The moody beats of Think Twice — based on an old Donald Byrd tune — were revelatory, casting electronic jazz as the hidden stepping stone between the worlds of dance music, hip hop and r&b, hinting that they weren't so far apart at all.
In a strange way, this parallels the early years of rave, when everything from hip hop to house, techno and rare groove would all rub shoulders on the dancefloor (more of that please!). Just substitute E's are good with Hennessey and smoked-out flavor. At the time, Jay Dee was at the epicenter of the Soulquarian collective, alongside figures like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, and The Roots' Questlove and James Poyser. Records like D'Angelo's Voodoo and Badu's Mama's Gun were loose-limbed slabs of mahogany soul, their off-kilter relationship to straight r&b comparable to Moodymann's with house music on records like Mahogany Brown and Forevernevermore.
Like I said, it's all of a piece with the jazzed-out corridors of electronic music. You can't quite slap a label on it, but you can feel the lattice of connections running beneath it all. 4 Hero's astral jazz flight from Parallel Universe to Creating Patterns found them working with neo soul chanteuse Jill Scott and spoken word poet Ursula Rucker, both of whom were in the Soulquarians' orbit. Dego and Marc Mac even rope in Cadet folksman Terry Callier (whose powerful What Color Is Love was featured prominently in the Op-ART Hall Of Fame) on The Day Of The Greys. Indeed, echoes Charles Stepney's lush, intricate orchestral arrangements on classic Cadet sides like Rotary Connection's Songs and Marlena Shaw's The Spice Of Life could be heard throughout 4 Hero's contemporary output.
Similarly, Jazzanova featured Vikter Duplaix on their long-awaited debut album In Between, although nothing could match the soaring bebop shuffle of Fedime's Flight (from their debut EP). Their two-disc remix anthology — released in the interim between those EPs and the album — was also superior, featuring prime jazz-inflected cuts like Marschmellows' Soulpower Jazzanova's Straight Dub Mix, along with remixes of 4 Hero's We Who Are Not As Others, Roy Davis Jr.'s Watch Them Come!!! and Ursula Rucker's Circe. The latter even showed up on a Groovetech set from Detroit's DJ Genesis that opened with the sultry downbeat of Abstract Truth's We Had A Thing before mixing into Circe's hypnotic, jazz-infused sway.
In the midst of all this jazz maneuvering, Dego and Marc Mac set up the 2000 Black label, which quickly became synonymous with the West London sound that came to be known as broken beat. This compilation — which was issued in the States by Carl Craig's Planet E imprint — pulled together twelve tracks on the label from artists like Titonton Duvanté, Nubian Minds and even Marc Mac's Nu Era project (previously associated with The Deepest Shade Of Techno). There was even a cameo from O.G. vibes man Roy Ayers, who reprised his 1980 monster-jam-with-Fela Kuti2,000 Blacks Got To Be Free in MMBlack's titular 2000 Black.
Broken beat was a tech jazz form that had spun out of jungle in its painful transformation into drum 'n bass, much like its more glamorous twin, UK garage. UK garage was to broken beat as platinum r&b was to neo soul, and I dug all of it about equally. Except for drum 'n bass, the new records of which I wasn't really feeling. I tried so hard with that second Reprazent album, but wound up hating it. They were still cool at 2001's Coachella though, even if the afternoon set by fellow Bristolians Smith & Mighty's was probably the highlight of the whole event for me.
Whereas Dieselboy's set was the worst! It was everything I hated about contemporary drum 'n bass boiled down into a rigid, linear, tinnitus-inducing treble-fest. I couldn't get down to it, had to make an excuse to go buy some (overpriced) water to recuperate. When I returned to the tent, a gust of wind blew the doorway flap open and the razor-blade hi-hats that poured out sent me reeling. I had to wait for the set to end before I could re-enter. Poor Snakes had been inside all along, still waiting for the water!
It kills me to be so negative about In The Mode, but that's only because Reprazent's first album is a stone cold classic, an album near and dear to my heart that I played to death at the time. I remember freezing in my room (which at this point time had no insulation or roof!) in the dead of winter,5 munching on Ramen and listening to Brown Paper Bag! New Forms is a sprawling double-album with a singular take on electronic jazz, all shot through a silicon-inflected, junglistic lens. A case where the record is housed in the perfect sleeve, this is 21st century music ahead of schedule.
Highlights are almost too numerous to count, but I'll try anyway. The rolling street-corner jazz joint Share The Fall (featured in two versions) and its bass-driven instrumental counterparts Hi-Potent and Brown Paper Bag, for one. The title track's twilight junglism sparring with Bahamadia's raps in a parallel dimension take on Supa Dupa Fly (which came out only a month later), mirrored by the ragged r&b of Watching Windows' block rockin' boom box beats. Share My Life's fragile atmosphere and nimble percussion moves, that arresting twang of the guitar seeming to stop time, and the plangent 21st century torch song that is Heroes.
Digital's bleep-tastic noir seems to open a Pi-shaped wormhole into the 1920s, where even the juke joint drum solo interlude (The Sounds Of Now) is a standout, coming on like a Bristol take on Silentintroduction. Yeah, yeah, I know this album has it's detractors. I hear the voices saying things like But it won the Mercury Prize!It's so jazzy/worthy/polite/aspirational!Give me some REAL jungle any day!I'm hard, no really! What can I say, they're all wrong. New Forms still slays with no apology whatsoever. There's whole worlds tucked away in these grooves, and I love all of them.
My biggest jungle record of the year, however, was even older! I'd finally managed to track down a copy of 4 Hero's Parallel Universe, and from then on it was never far from the soundsystem. On my lunch break I used to walk over to the Clairemont Bowl to grab a bite to eat, soak up the atmosphere, play some video games and map out the future. This was the soundtrack running through my mind during those sessions. Like UR once said, Something Happened On Dollis Hill. Despite being seven years old at the time, it seemed oddly in step with everything that was going on around me.
You could even make the case that it was some sort of foundational text in the whole endeavor, breaking away from rave and blurring the lines between everything that was then called urban music. Even in 2001, Dego and Marc Mac were still on fire. There was not only the Creating Patterns LP and the 2000 Black compilation, but the brilliant skewed electronica of Nu Era's Broken Techno EP. All of which were equally marked by their distance from the bygone days of jungle's reign. By this point, 4 Hero had long since left jungle behind.
Around the same time, Photek also departed from the drum 'n bass noir of of his previous records, heading into the deep blue waters of Solaris. Snakes and I were huge fans of the man's music. He'd tuned me into Modus Operandi years earlier, a record that we continued playing incessantly through the new millennium. Its claustrophobic, paranoid soundscapes split the difference between Pi and The Parallax View, twisting strange shapes and textures into a spectral work of foreboding. Far out!
Then out of nowhere Photek's making house music, still steeped in dread, but light years away from anything he'd previously done. Two unclassifiable breakbeat jams — Terminus and Junk — opened Solaris, hovering in darkness somewhere between jungle and trip hop with drums sounding like shearing metal, they plied a similar rough-edged b-boy vision as contemporary Terranova. It's all very Terminal Vibration. Paired with the pristine, ice cold synths of the record's denouement — the stretch of bleak trip hop in Halogen and Lost Blue Heaven through the stark isolationism of Under The Palms — it came on like an alternate soundtrack to Heat (shades of ECM in the wings). So lonely, but among palm trees.
The record's big surprise was it's dark heart of moody house music, beating in 4/4 time. Glamourama and Solaris molded the paranoid atmosphere of Modus Operandi to a pumping 4/4 beat, while Mine To Give and Can't Come Down both featured the vocals of Chicago house don Robert Owens. Reese basslines all over the shop. I'd been a big fan of Robert Owens through Tears and I'll Be Your Friend, in particular. For some reason, I was under the (mistaken) impression that Bobby Konders had produced the latter, probably due to some mix up in my mind with Jus' Friends' As One (the record Konders and Owens actually made together). Then there was that excellent Love Will Find Its Way box set that came out soon after, pulling his whole career into focus. That's an invaluable cache of modern soul right there.
All of this activity dovetailed beautifully with the night I picked up Roy Davis Jr.'s brilliant Traxx From The Nile album, which is the most lush, spiritual garage record you could ever hope for. Imagine a disco record that exists in the continuum of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Stevie WonderTalking Book and Curtis Mayfield's Roots, and you're still only halfway there. I remember like it was yesterday: I was staying on Mohawk for the week, where I'd lugged my system over to make beats, bombing back and forth between school, work and the record store in my uncle's truck. I walked out of the record store and into the night and put Traxx From The Nile into the player and just cruised around town, tunes like Remember The Day, About Love and even a live version of Rock Shock enveloping me in the vehicle's womb-like interior.
Ah yes, it's all coming back to me now! A flurry of records at the deep end: Glenn Underground's The Jerusalem EP's (jazz funk gets down at the disco). Marshall Jefferson's The Horse Is Coming (I used to zone out to its trancelike shapes, even if its rapid-fire/fast-forward electronic soul made it hard not to speed behind the wheel). Lil' Louis' From The Mind Of Lil' Louis and Journey With The Lonely, along with the French Kiss 12" with all the remixes (visionary, half-lit post-Prince/Jamie Principle odyshape house music... that's a story in it's own right). ALL the Paperclip People records (punk-disco to a man). Theo Parrish's First Floor (faded, low-slung deep house with all the rough edges still intact). Dubtribe Sound System's Bryant Street (which is 84% stunningLarry Levan-would-have-played-this-at-the-Paradise Garage Latin-tinged disco magic, 16% you wish dude wouldn't try rapping over some of the beats). Jungle Wonz's The Jungle (the missing link between Jamie Principle and The Last Poets). Larry Heard's all-instrumental classic Ammnesia.
That last one, the Mr. Fingers record, I couldn't even find at the time. I'd downloaded it and burned to disc, and then a little later only had a vinyl bootleg. It wasn't until Japan's P-Vine imprint6 reissued it a few years back that I finally had the real thing. You've got stone cold classics sure 'nuff, tracks like Can You Feel It, Washing Machine and Mystery Of Love, tracks everyone knows and loves, but then there's these shimmering, shadowy gems like Bye Bye, Amnesia and Let's Dance All Night tucked away on the b-side. Not to mention Stars, which is the square root of Lil' Louis' French Kiss (which is itself the square root of trance). Thinks back to teenage me exclaiming, What am I hearing?! What is this amazing music?!? Where has this been all my life?!?!?
Those burnished machine soul shapes of the Bye Bye/Amnesia/Let's Dance All Night trilogy seemed to hint at what he'd be up to in the coming decade, first with Mr. Fingers' Introduction and then his twin Sceneries Not Songs records. All of which were deep, downbeat house slates that infused his trademark warm electronic grooves with strong jazz and even Andreas Vollenweider-esque new age shapes (I always dug the way Moodymann pulled a similar trick with Runaway!). Headphone music. This was house music that worked alongside Massive Attack's Blue Lines, a connection made literal by Heard's remix of Any Love, as included on the eponymous Massive Attack EP.
Heard's tracks would even crop up on trip hop compilations like Mo Wax's Headz and Wall Of Sound's Give 'Em Enough Dope. I always wanted a copy of the Black Oceans 12", but it's inclusion on the Deep States compilation meant I'd still get to hear it. Against all odds, I did find his mid-nineties Alien LP at the Pacific BeachMusic Trader. That's a great record right there. The Dance Of Planet X is the direct link between jazzed-out nineties Larry Heard and all those eighties Mr. Fingers records. It's a sound one wishes had a higher profile in the mainstream of its day, after all it would have perfectly complemented what was happening in the twin worlds of r&b and techno. Even the jazz stations could have given it a look-in.
Heard developed this sound further yet with turn-of-the-century records like Genesis and Love's Arrival, which are exquisite late-night-city-lights music. Vibes. You even had that great Theo Parrish dub of Missing You on the 12", all spooked electronic high-pitched organs draped over a low-slung groove, sounding like something from The Parallax View. That's the name for a whole sub-genre I've been meaning to conjure up: Parallax House. Watch that take off! Hand to the forehead, it just came to me. See also Solaris and Green Velvet. Anyway, back to Larry Heard. Larry HeardLarry HeardLarry Heard. Larry Heard is the man. I dig nearly everything he's put out, but his earliest material is what lies closest to my heart (Ammnesia at the epicenter). Strangely enough, it always pairs in my mind with the early output of a certain duo from Dollis Hill...
No, not that pair, silly! I'm talking about Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain, aka The Future Sound Of London. FSOL's early beats have the same doesn't sound quite like anything else quality that Ammnesia does. On this score, their early releases are where it's at. The Earthbeat compilation rounds up a brace of some of their best material, starting with Stakker Humanoid and culminating with the splendid Accelerator LP. This is music that Snakes and I were mainlining on at the tail end of high school, and it wound up being a huge influence on what we were trying to do with the Aztek and Mettrex setups.
The records collected on Earthbeat7 were released under names like Mental Cube, Semi Real and Yage, along with prime material spread across the four-record series of Pulse EPs. This is prime breakbeat-driven techno, all surfaces shimmering across its rugged bottom end, it seems to split the difference between Acen and The Scientist on one hand, and Mr. Fingers and Rhythim Is Rhythim on the other. Like Cabaret Voltaire, it's the perfect soundtrack to the great cyberpunk film that hasn't yet been made. The stunning, derezzed sleeve art of both artists seems to bear this out. You can't beat the glitz of a track like Candese's You Took My Love, which more than anything else here harks back to Brian Dougans' earliest club-friendly material as Humanoid.
Which if you dig vocal dance music of the Inner City variety, or even hip house and freestyle for that matter, you really shouldn't sleep on. Last I checked, the 12"s are still pretty findable. This is flashy vocal club music firmly in step with the times (the times in this case being the late eighties). Stuttering samples everywhere. Back in the day, when all our records were at The Snakepit, I had a Humanoid cassette that I'd taped from the 12" singles for Slam and The Deep (which we'd found at Frankie Bones' Sonic Groove online shop!) and the Global Humanoid album. There's an almost undisclosed cache of acidic instrumentals hidden within as well, tracks like Cry Baby and Sunshine & Brick, not to mention that the record opens with that epochal slab of British acid Stakker Humanoid (here titled simply Humanoid).
Speaking of Inner City, I've gotta throw a little love in
Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey's direction. Back in late '99, I was in the racks at the Hazard CenterWherehouse after getting off work (delivering Chinese food), when what do I see but this CD staring back at me. Inner City... I knew Ahnongay from Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation. Also that Inner City had mainly done vocal tracks. Could it be? It certainly looked like old Master Reese staring back at me, decked out in a leather trench coat and shades (like Morpheus before his time!). After consulting the credits and finding Saunderson's name, I made the plunge. It turned out to be the U.S. issue of their debut album. As someone who'd been primed on Faces & Phases and Deep Space Radio, I must admit I was shocked! In place of the heavy sonics I was accustomed to were a set of chipper club-friendly house trax!
Like Sly & The Family Stone, the shock gradually wore off and it became another favorite. I remember doing an 80s set on Stevie G.'s Radio E show around that time, and closing out the set with the Def Radio Mix of Inner CityWatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin' (which was included on this U.S. version in place of Power Of Passion). The full Knuckles/Morales Def Mix is truly something to behold, eight minutes of languid downbeat house perfection. To this day, I swear that you can hear the germ of Massive Attack in there somewhere
(Unfinished Sympathy, Weather Storm, et. al). I think its in the pianos somewhere, the sighing string section and the slow-motion splendor.
Incidentally, Power Of Passion is also a great tune. I'd always read it was lame, the critics seemed to concur that it was the worst track on the album, so I put off getting the original version of the album (titled Paradise) for years. They're all wrong, of course. A true anomaly within the context of the original album (which is probably why they hated it), it drags the tempos way down to a casual 909 shuffle, its combination of Gaussian-blurred synths and Grey's ethereal croon sounding like some improbable precursor to Kelis' digital sun-glazed ballads on 2001's Wanderland!
Which is quite stunning in itself. If I'm not mistaken, it never had an American release, which is insane! This is the sister record to N*E*R*D's In Search Of..., both of which achieved this weird détente between platinum rap (in sound) and neo soul (in spirit) right at the turn of the century. I always thought the atmosphere here bore a strong resemblance to UR's whole Nation 2 Nation series of records. Actually, at the time I had this whole fantasy of merging the two, r&b and techno in deep space. That was the idea with the Shadez Of Colour project (what do you think the Neptune Orbit One suite was all about!?). Ah, well, SA-RA beat me to it!
In Search Of... is nearly as good. I always thought Simon Reynolds' comparing this music to seventies Isley Brothers records like Harvest Of The World was incredibly apt. An astute observation. I'll make the claim that these are the best Neptunes productions until Hell Hath No Fury (with Wanderland being their best ever). I hear you with your Drop It Like It's Hots, your Hollaback Girls and even Toxic, but trust me, The Neptunes were never this good again. These 2001-era records are like 2001: A Space Odyssey, while all those others are more like 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
Speaking of Toxic, I always thought that tune was The Neptunes trying their hand at sounding like Basement Jaxx. There was this great to-ing and fro-ing between Jaxx and American r&b at the time, with Remedy's U Can't Stop Me inspired by what Timbaland had been up to and then Missy Elliott's Miss E... So Addictive seeming to take a page out of the Jaxx's handbook. That's what it's all about: exchange of ideas. Meeting of the minds!
Man, I loved Basement Jaxx. They had this beautiful punk-disco thing going on, all frenetic edits and rough edges, that I just couldn't get enough of. I mean, I love Daft Punk as much as the next man, but put them head to head and for me it's no contest. I'm weird that way. And I always wished that the 48-second Gemilude had been stretched out into a full-length track! In passing, I just realized that I forgot to mention Gemini's A Moment Of Insanity (featuring the great Crossing Mars), Le Fusion and In Neutral in that wall of house paragraph earlier, all of which were in heavy rotation as well.
Jaxx even keyed into things like eighties electro boogie and freestyle on their sophomore album Rooty, riding the first stirrings of the crest that would culminate in the full-fledged 80s revival, and putting them right up my alley. Maybe less consistent than the debut, but the peaks? Romeo, Get Me Off, Breakaway and Where's Your Head At... oh my! The continuum running from Fly Life to Yo-Yo to Get Me Off to Lucky Star (although that last one's outside today's time frame, featuring as it does the great Dizzee Rascal) is an exquisite track-by-track five-year trajectory that speaks for itself.
One of Rooty's big eighties signposts was Prince, whose direct influence rapidly began to felt once again as the millennium turned. Most notably in Outkast's Stankonia, which found the duo spiking their Atlanta rap with a healthy dose of Paisley Park. Ms. Jackson! See also the Atomic Dog stylings of I'll Call Before I Come and Humble Mumble's intricate digital boogie. Echoes of Funkadelic, Mantronix, Miami bass and Mtume, Curtis Mayfield and Cameo, Electric Ladyland and the Minneapolis sound. Spinning them all off in myriad different directions, of course.8
It's all so patently at the ground floor of whole swathes of 21st century music that it winds up being the perfect place to end this (extended) riff. A little walk down memory lane that sets us up for the next monster segment, the final stretch of Terminal Vibration: the story of Machine Soul. Wherein the chassis of funk and soul are shot through with the cold silicon implements of electronics, RoboCop-style. New Detroit. The soundtrack to the future.
I remember thinking the same thing about Chicago's 25 Or 6 To 4, off of Chicago IX: Chicago's Greatest Hits, which was the oldest sounding record Pops listened to a lot. Although that's also the record that first got me acclimated to this era back in high school (Beginnings was the jam!).