Seeing as we've moved into the dog days of summer, the moment seems right to bring back the Motion series. A couple entries tumbled out of the Other99 blog (this site's precursor) back in the day, which were basically playlists to accompany long distance runs in either the early morning and evening. Perhaps I'll dig up some of those old playlists — if I can find them — but for now, we're resetting the counter to 001.
The Motion reboot begins with a sequence born in the crucible of the early morning circuit in the Heights: down Reservoir Dr., along the trolley tracks in Alvarado Canyon and looping back again. However, it found its true home in an early evening route along the San Diego Harbor, alternately as the sun set on the horizon or beneath overcast August skies.
This selection happens to include some of my all-time favorite techno music — which places it comfortably among my favorite music, period — so it made sense to start it up again here. In light of the general technoid-come-r&b drift of this summer (as we enter the final chapter of the Terminal Vibration saga), it makes perfect sense within this context as we descend deeper yet into the realm of machine soul...
Motion 001: Hi-Tech/No Crime
Dave AngelEndless MotionsR&S
Classic tech jazz inna UR stylee, this one had a profound impact on me back in the day. I used to studyDave Angel's unmissable Classics compilation, of which this was undoubtedly the centerpiece, back when I first started making beats. A round up of Angel's material on the R&S/Apollo labels, it also happens to include the entirety of the excellent 3rd Voyage EP.
This liquid groove runs at an accelerated European pace, a searching bassline and lush pads holding down the groove as sparkling sonics flutter across it all. This the next step on from Eddie Russ' See The Light, it sets the perfect tone for a sequence that hovers in that verdant interzone between techno and soul.
Jimi TenorCan't Stay With You BabyWarp
Ostensibly, this is the other side of the coin (see also Compost Records, Kirk Degiorgio, et. al.), Jimi Tenor nevertheless had a distinct approach all his own. Conjuring up images of some lounge singer solo on an organ in some hotel bar, he epitomized the sort of 90s-era profound unlikeliness that also tossed up figures like Beck and Stereolab.
I often think of Tenor as a post-Thomas Leer troubadour of bedroom electronica, offering up an idiosyncratic take on the music in the clubs, thoroughly warped and sounding like nothing else around. Can't Stay With You Baby finds the man in the glitzy cascade of city lights just as rush hour begins winding down. With shades of Prince in the vocal delivery and strong undercurrents of modal jazz, this is above all else a killer pop song. Should be far more widely known.
TronikhouseSmooth Groove The Smooth MixKMS
Vintage Kevin Saunderson from the dawn of the 90s, this
takes a laidback angle on his Reese material, with the trademark organ-esque bass figure one comes to expect from the man who brought you E-Dancer's The Human Bond and Reese's Just Want Another Chance.
Dig that ever so subtle, Blue Bayou synth hovering over the whole thing like an Everglades mist. Skeletal and vibed-out to the extreme, and locking in at only three-and-a-half minutes, it's another great pop moment and one of the first tunes I'd direct someone to if they were curious about techno.
An exclusive from the Digital Sects 2 compilation (although it later appeared on Submerge's Depth Charge 3 compilation), a showcase for Sean Deason's Matrix Records which was only just on the rise. A tune from the man himself (in his Freq guise), this organ-led number finds Deason pumping some serious keys over a moody, half-lit groove.
This the secret cousin to Paperclip People's Steam, only on the after hours, 3 In The Mornin' tip. One of the great night drive traxx for real, this is right up there with peak-era Hashim and Underworld. As far as I know, this never made it to wax... so CD-only techno in full effect!
YennekSerena X Inner Zone MixBuzz
Arguably Kenny Larkin's finest hour, this Carl Craig rework (featuring an early allusion to his Innerzone Orchestra project), which takes the original version's pristine aquatic groove and funks it up with the same febrile rhythms you'd find in his AMAZING Psyche/BFC material.
Those synths though! Such style, gliding as it does over that loping bassline and clattering percussion, and as such instantly recognizable as the work of Craig. A match made in heaven, Kenny Larkin returned the favor a couple years later with his equally brilliant remix of Craig's Science Fiction.
Carl CraigSparklePlanet E
This exquisite slice of digital disco is cut from the same cloth — and generally speaking, the same era — turning up on a timely reissue of Carl Craig's epochal Landcruising (re-titled The Album Formerly Known As... for the re-up). Hard to believe that a tune this mind-blowing — from the Landcruising sessions — sat unreleased in the vaults for a decade!
Similarly, this has a great swinging rhythm and insane synth work, traveling in great arcs in the Blade Runner mode and deliciously tactile bleeps flowing all over the shop. Once again, that nimble bassline and and shuffling beat epitomize the type of techno I dig above all else.
Kosmic MessengerDeath MarchElypsia
I'm a huge fan of Stacey Pullen. Indeed, I have a long-delayed feature dedicated to the man coming at you later this month. Until the doors opened on his Black Flag imprint, Kosmic Messenger was his most dancefloor-dwelling moniker, with tunes like Eye 2 Eye, I Find Myself and Flash omnipresent for much of the 90s. It's a perfect complement to his more contemplative material as Silent Phase, picking up where the Bango records left off.
I first heard this tune on Pullen's excellent DJ-Kicks, where its grinding chord progression and shimmering loops perfectly matched the record's Blade Runner file-under-futurism ambience. Pullen's shadowy history as a drummer in his high school marching band seems to surface between the cracks in that rolling martial rhythm. I've often thought that Kosmic Messenger output was a direct descendant of Parliament/Funkadelic's freakiest moments.
The 4th WaveElectroluvPlanet E
The grand finale! The most lush, incredibly baroque synth work soars over an clattering, intricately arranged techno rhythm. It makes sense that Carl Craig would snap it up for release on Planet E, fitting in as it does with the label's mid-period output (post-Intergalactic Beats and pre-Silentintroduction) brilliantly.
The 4th Wave was British techno purveyor Steve Paton, who later washed up on both Kirk Degiorgio's Op-ART and James Lavelle's Mo Wax imprints. This tune is quite simply amazing, hailing from the three-track Touched EP (the sole 4th Wave release on Planet E). There's something very rich and ancient lurking somewhere in its DNA (those organs in the breakdown are the kicker) that seems to call back the 70s (it always makes me think of those early-morning training sequences from the first Rocky movie).
As the mix winds down, the closing misty bards of Electroluv ringing in our ears, we arrive at our destination. I hope you've enjoyed the journey...
In 1999, Material released Intonarumori, a sprawling double-album sourced in the seedy underbelly of hip hop stretching from the Wu-Tang Clan and Company Flow all the way back to Schoolly D and the Death Comet Crew. The record was as ugly and twisted as you could hope for. Demented downbeat jams rubbed shoulders with asymmetrical big beat symphonies that owed as much to Tackhead as they did the RZA, while Killah Priest rapped over a beatless illbient soundscape of eerie flutes and droning tambura before a dusted beat drops in at the last minute.
With old skool legends like Rammellzee, Kool Keith, Flavor Flav and DXT (consequently all of which warrant further exploration today) trading verses with the grimiest voices in dead end underground hip hop (including a cadre of figures from the WordSound crew), it's a perfect culmination of the most abject and abrasive tendencies in New York hip hop.
Of course, by the end of the century Material bassist and ringleader Bill Laswell's involvement in rap music had already spanned the better part of twenty years. As covered in Terminal Vibration V, the original incarnation of Material was a downtown post punk group that specialized in bass-heavy punk funk records like Temporary Music 2 and Memory Serves. When they signed with Celluloid Records, the group were tapped to produce a series of rap records for the label.
Ultimately clocking in seven 12" singles (all released in 1982), ranging from electro-tinged slated like Grand Mixer D.St. & The Infinity Rappers' The Grand Mixer Cuts It, The Smurfs' Smurf For What It's Worth and Phase II's The Roxy to odyshape post-p-funk grooves like Fab Five Freddy's Change The Beat and Une Sale Histoire, Tribe 2's What I Like and Futura 2000's The Escapades Of Futura 2000 (which featured an electrofunk backing from The Clash!), these were records of varying quality that nevertheless managed to consistently offer up a left field take on rap (the original undie records?).
By the early 90s, Laswell was producing the sessions for what would become the Jungle Brothers' ill-fated third album, Crazy Wisdom Masters. The unreleased tapes — recently leaked on the web — reveal a druggy, abrasive sound very much in the vein of Intonarumori (albeit informed by a greater sense of demented humor).
The record that finally did surface in 1993, J. Beez Wit The Remedy, may have tightened up the edges and introduced a spoonful of sugar in the shape of downbeat summer jams like Good Lookin' Out and My Jimmy Weighs A Ton, but that only served to highlight the strangeness of the material that was preserved from the initial sessions. Tunes like Spittin' Wicked Randomness and For The Heads At Company Z were complemented brilliantly by the smoked-out, Gaussian blurred beats that the crew had come up with in the intervening years. In either form, it was clearly one of the most unique rap albums of the decade (and incidentally my #1 rap album ever).
In 1999, the same year that Material's Intonarumori hit the shops, the New York-based WordSound label put out a stunning four track EP of recordings from the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (this long before anyone had heard the untouched masters) on the Black Hoodz subsidiary imprint. Hinting at the rougher edges of the initial recordings, Battle Show and Ra Ra Kid were abrasive, asymmetrical slabs of left field big beat hip hop. Naturally, this fit the WordSound aesthetic perfectly, which was a grimy, staggering vision of hip hop informed by dub's bottom end gone lost in the wastelands of the big city. Releasing records by the likes of Spectre, The Bug and Dr. Israel, it was something of a stateside, gutter mirror image of James Lavelle's Mo Wax empire.
Crucially, WordSound was also linked with the Axiom imprint that Bill Laswell was running across town, with Laswell contributing substantial material to WordSound's output — including the Crooklyn Dub Consortium series — while various WordSound personnel would regularly appear on Axiom releases. One such figure was Sensational (aka Torture), an iconoclastic MC who had a profound impact on the Crazy Wisdom Masters sessions (and by extension J. Beez Wit The Remedy). The (possibly apocryphal) story goes that Laswell introduced the JBs to Sensational while he was freestyling over a Stockhausen record as he was scratching it!
Although not all of his raps survived to the finished product, one can feel the spirit of his contributions in a continuum stretching from Gram Parsons' on The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo to J Dilla's on Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope. Whatever the case may be, he managed to release two excellent records of skewed hip hop as the 90s drew to a close. Loaded With Power, in particular, is a brilliantly claustrophobic slab of decomposed hip hop (think REQ's Frequency Jams) that descends into the same sense of hydroponic psychosis showcased on Tricky's contemporary records (especially The Hell EP, recorded in part with the Gravediggaz).
Meanwhile, across the city DJ Spooky was mirroring trip hop's modus operandi with his own vision of dub-soaked, abstract hip hop, a sound that he called illbient. Importantly, Spooky was not only a DJ and producer but an arch theorist, ruminating on hip hop's sampladelia with the most intricate detail since David Toop started checking the music in the early 80s. His own music stalked the outer rim of what would come to be called dark ambient, with low slung hip hop beats squeezing through the claustrophobia of bass pressure and slow-motion industrial sonix.
Nevertheless, with a keen ear for a hook, Spooky also excelled at the sort of block rockin' hip hop that would fit right in with the likes of EPMD and The Beatnuts (not to mention the jungle of Dillinja and Roni Size). Tunes like Object Unknown, Galactic Funk and Peace In Zaire would have been radio staples in a parallel world where figures like and Rammellzee became superstars and managed to reshape hip hop in their image.
Indeed, Rammellzee is surely one of the key figures in the development of an abstract, avant garde strain of hip hop. Appearing on stage clad in a trench coat with Shockdell during the climactic show at the end of the film Wild Style, he provided one of the most memorable moments of the film, rhyming rapid-fire over an awesome synth sequence with a mic in one hand and a toy machine gun(!) in the other. This sense of the strange carried over into his collaboration with K-Rob and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the epochal Beat Bop (a record that Peter Shapiro once declared the Rosetta Stone of trip hop1), a record that in retrospect sounds about a decade ahead of its time.
The Death Comet Crew record followed swiftly afterwards. A collaboration with Ike Yard's Stuart Argabright and Michael Diekmann (along with Shinichi Shimokawa), the Death Comet Crew realized perhaps the most uncompromising fusion of rap attack and angular post punk sonix yet essayed with Rammellzee rapping over uptempo electroshock beats cooked up by the remainder of the group. These tropes were further explored a couple years later on the Death Command/Lecture 12" collaboration with Shockdell, which culminated in the excellent Missionaries Moving LP by the Gettovetts.
In many ways, Kool Keith was the figure in rap's next generation who picked up the baton of rap's mad scientist. Starting out as the scatological court jester of the Ultramagnetic MC's, he also happened to be by far the greatest MC in the crew, spitting his surreal wordplay (informed by mathematics, non sequiturs and bizarre insults) in singularly nasal fashion.
The Ultramagnetics turned out a trio of excellent LPs — the utterly essential Critical Beatdown, the deeply unpopular (though I've never understood the hate for it) Funk Your Head Up (which nevertheless turned up the epochal Poppa Large) and the bleak hip hop noir of The Four Horsemen — before Keith struck out on a long and singularly weird solo career.
His first move was the Dr. Octagon record (recorded with Dan The Automator), a surreal slab of perverted hip hop whose eerie downbeat atmosphere boasted a startling détente with the contemporary trip hop of Tricky and DJ Shadow (indeed, the record was even licensed by hip downbeat institution Mo Wax).
Similarly, Mo Wax also put out a record by abstract hip hop pioneer Divine Styler. Wordpower 2: Directrix featured Styler rhyming abstract-to-the-max over ice cold breakbeat geometry, which found the MC entering the slipstream of the burgeoning hip hop underground. Of course, he'd laid some of the foundational architecture for that underground in the first place with the first Word Power record (check Tongue Of Labyrinth) in 1989 when he was still aligned with Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate.
In between those two records lies the enigma of Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that would strain at the confines of any generic definition, let alone rap. Grey Matter, the one moment of more-or-less straight up hip hop, shares space with extended spoken word pieces like Heaven Don't Want Me And Hell's Afraid I'll Take Over and spacious post-Hendrix psychedelia like In A World Of U and Walk Of Exodus. This album is one of the most unexpected moments in rap's winding history, and remains essential listening for curious minds.
Divine Styler's dalliance with rock mirrors Ice-T's controversial thrash metal output with his band Body Count, as well as T's embrace of noise on the recordings that bear his own name. Early records like Rhyme Pays mirror Code Money's crashing productions for Schoolly D, while O.G. Original Gangster runs parallel to the dense noise-collages that The Bomb Squad unleashed behind Public Enemy and Ice Cube (with a hint of Dr. Dre's contemporary productions with N.W.A.).
Public Enemy and N.W.A. both flirted with elements of metal in their music at times (see Public Enemy's She Watch Channel Zero?! and The D.O.C.'s Beautiful But Deadly), a tradition that dated at least back to Run-DMC with Rock Box, King Of Rock and Rock This Way). Def Jam-co-founder Rick Rubin (that notorious heavy metal head) is the other great conduit of rock dynamics into hip hop, a primary example of which is his production of Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill (which also turned untold hordes of rockers onto the sounds of rap).
Moving beyond literal rock 'n roll sonics, the crucial element in this strand of hard-edged hip hop to surface in the 80s was in their harnessing of noise: looped snatches of atonal sound, heavy on-the-one stabs, and huge, skyscraper-crumbling beats. Upon their emergence, Run-DMC's beats hit harder than just about anyone else's and ushered in what would become rap's second era.
The stark minimalism of Rick Rubin's drum machine matrix in productions for the likes of T La Rock, the aforementioned Run-DMC, Beastie Boys and especially LL Cool J honed hip hop down a stripped-down essence of an shouting over block rockin' beats, defining the dominant sound in rap for the next couple years (with Jewel-T's I Like It Loud a particular highlight). Schoolly D and Code Money amplified the sound to a preposterous degree (see P.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"), inadvertently spawning gangster rap in the process.
Ice-T's Rhyme $yndicate, who had their own significant strains of hard edged hip hop, produced by the great DJ Aladdin, seemed to pick up where Schoolly D left off. Along with that other forefather of West Coat rap, Too $hort, they laid the foundation for the twin poles of L.A.'s rough/smooth dialectic, with Ice-T's hard-edged beats playing the bad cop to Too $hort's low-slung street funk.
This thread was picked up most infamously by N.W.A., who took Ice-T's hard-hitting beats to a whole new level, spiked with a generous helping of intricate funk programming dished up by Dr. Dre. Starting out in the World Class Wreckin' Cru, sequined purveyors of West Coast electro par excellence (see 1984's Surgery), Dre moved into this heavier style to complement the heavier subject matter being explored by MCs like Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Ren, along with the rest of the posse.
Interestingly, early N.W.A. member Arabian Prince had similarly strong roots in electro before hooking up with the crew, ultimately splitting in 1989 to put out the excellent Brother Arab, a shadowy fusion of computer beats and proto-g-funk.
The D.O.C. turned out possibly the greatest negotiation of Dre's hard-edged production style on Straight Outta Compton and his later g-funk sound with the aptly titled No One Can Do It Better, featuring a dense sonic concrete jungle that found Dre expanding his earlier innovations into the sound that would inform the rest of his career. N.W.A. upped the ante with 100 Miles And Runnin' EP, alongside up-and-coming L.A. crews like Compton's Most Wanted and Above The Law, nearly managing to outdo everything that came before with their final LP, Efil4zaggin.
Efil4zaggin is a production tour de force, featuring Dre's most fully-realized productions ever, it only suffers from a descent into puerile humor and less inspired detours in its second half. It seemed the crew needed Ice Cube around to keep things focused (see AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and the Kill At Will EP), although one wonders what might have gone down if The D.O.C. had never had his car accident and folded into the group to take Cube's place...
Of course, at the center of any talk of hip hop's noisescapes will always be Public Enemy and their production masterminds The Bomb Squad, who tore up the fabric of sound a stitched it all back together again into a dense collage of confrontation. This sound, which utilized hard breakbeats, guitar stabs, vocal exhortations and illogical snatches of sound was the perfect complement to the stentorian vocals of Chuck D and Flava Flav's wise guy antics (who fulfilled a role similar to Kool Keith and Eazy-E in their respective crews). The turntable skills of Terminator X provided that certain x-factor of scratchadelic noise, so crucial to the era, rounding out Public Enemy's unique sonic attack.
The Bomb Squad's approach had a crucial influence on not only the next wave of hard-hitting hip hop but also the feedback-drenched, distorted breakbeat sound taking shape across the Atlantic, a sound that would come to be called big beat. Bomb The Bass were out the gate early with records like Into The Dragon, even continuing to have hard moments (the big beat perfection of Bug Powder Dust) even as they sprawled out into a sort of post-hip hop blues.
However, if there was one crew that shaped this sound (and they don't get nearly enough credit for it), it was Meat Beat Manifesto. The group's mastermind was Jack Dangers, who gradually took their sound from a sort of heavy industrial-inflected, post-Bomb Squad rap (imagine a dystopian, J.G. Ballard-damaged Beastie Boys) into a densely populated breakbeat sound that split the difference between big beat and trip hop (with a healthy dose of dub thrown in for good measure). There was a paranoid aspect to the music, bordering on psychosis, that only became more unhinged as the group pared down to the central figure of Dangers. In 1998 — the same year as Actual Sounds + Voices — Dangers even collaborated with Public Enemy, producing Go Cat Go (along with Danny Saber) for the He Got Game OST.
A lot of big beat leaned heavily on the classic rock side (Fatboy Slim springs to mind), which is not relevant to this discussion, but a lot of it was heavily indebted to the hard beats Bomb Squad-era hip hop. The Prodigy, for one, betrayed Liam Howlett's roots in UK hip hop after their ardkore era had run its course with Music For The Jilted Generation, even collaborating with Kool Keith on the album to follow (1997's Fat Of The Land). Howlett's mix adventure The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One encapsulates this drift perfectly, featuring Public Enemy acolytes Hijack's awesome Doomsday Of Rap. There's that whole lineage of UK rap that fits squarely into this continuum, crews like London Posse, Hi-jack and Ruthless Rap Assassins.
The Chemical Brothers offered the best of both sides of the big beat coin, indulging in blissed out reveries like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively) and Tomorrow Never Knows-inspired sixties psychedelia worship with Setting Sun even as they unfurled feedback-drenched beats like Loops Of Fury, Song To The Siren and Block Rockin' Beats.
Records like Exit Planet Dust and Dig Your Own Hole seemed to exist in the tradition of instrumental hip hop landmarks like The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels of Steel and The 45 King's 45 Kingdom (not to mention Frankie Bones' series of Bonesbreaks records).
Representing this phenomenon at its darkest, although he did have moments that predicted the Brothers (see Shaolin Buddha Finger), is one Jon Saul Kane. As Depth Charge, he combined the hard beats that were big beat's calling card with the oppressive atmosphere and dragging tempos that would come to define trip hop. Combining a pervading sense of sleazy darkness with copious martial arts samples, Depth Charge created a unique sonic vernacular all his own out of whole cloth. Notably, Kane also released the Beat Classic compilation on his own D.C. Recordings imprint, which made scarce hip hop grails available once more (often in instrumental form).
If the equation of bleak soundscapes, heavy drums and martial arts samples sounds familiar, it's probably because a certain East Coast crew happened to be taking a similar approach into the charts around the same time. Master producer the RZA wove desolately downbeat sonic tundras for his cadre of MCs to haunt. Figures like the GZA, Method Man and Ghostface Killah provided the perfect counterpoint to the RZA's visions of doom.
The early Wu-Tang records — records like Liquid Swords, Tical and Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — might be as close as rap ever got to post punk sonix within the mainstream drift of 90s hip hop. Strange, decomposed moments like Sub Crazy and 4th Chamber rubbed shoulders with hits like Bring The Pain and C.R.E.A.M., while peripheral Wu-Tang records like Soldiers Of Darkness/Five Arch Angels by Sunz Of Man took this sound to its outer limits. Collaborations with figures like Tricky and Genaside II were scattered amongst the crew's extended discography, while Method Man's Release Yo Delf was even remixed by Liam Howlett of The Prodigy!
One thing that Wu-Tang seemed to lay the foundation for was what would become the modern hip hop underground. I once read an interview with El-P where he explained that when he started out, the underground was merely the seedy underbelly of hip hop culture, whereas it would ultimately break off into its own world that bore less and less resemblance to the body hip hop. The Company Flow and Cannibal Ox projects that he masterminded certainly bear this out, during an era when rap was becoming increasingly electronic.
This the era that southern rap was on the ascendant, and empires like Cash Money and No Limit were firmly established. Records like Lil Wayne's Tha Block Is Hot and Juvenile's 400 Degreez seemed to recreate the density of sampladelia with digital materials, harking back to Mantronix even as they often bore striking resemblance to the atmosphere conjured up by The Prodigy circa Music For The Jilted Generation. There would be an interesting echo of this in Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury half a decade later.
It's rather appropriate that these twin wings of rap would eventually meet in the middle — no matter how unlikely — with Run The Jewels, featuring an elaboration on El-P's production for Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music that resulted in a full-scale collaboration for three albums (and counting). Which takes us right up to the present day, where Kanye West puts out Yeezus — a stark slab of an album featuring EBM/grime/Code Money-inflected hip hop — on Def Jam (the original home of hard beats). Likewise, Vince Staples' Hell Can Wait was also released on the label, sounding like something Terranova might have produced at the turn of the century.
It all ties back to those base materials, the idea of rap conjured up by Material's Intonarumori, a grimy cyberpunk vision of hip hop, where droppin' science is meant to be taken literally. This is the realm of Rammellzee, Dr. Octagon and Hank Shocklee, where mad scientists split the atom again and again, refracting rap's beat matrix through the bleak prism of Metal Box, Liaisons Dangereuses and Front 242. A place where breakbeats collide with guitar stabs, found sounds, rude electronics and pure noise, as MCs unfurl tangled mathematical phrases over the surface. This is the sound of rap at the edge of no control...
TV007: Edge Of No Control
Killer MikeBun B, T.I. & TroubleBig BeastWilliams Street
Meat Beat ManifestoGod O.D. Part 1Mute
Jungle BrothersBattle ShowBlack Hoodz
Public EnemyShe Watch Channel Zero?!Def Jam
Schoolly DP.S.K. "What Does It Mean?"Schoolly D
Kanye WestOn SightDef Jam
Method ManRelease Yo Delf Prodigy MixDef Jam
Ultramagnetic MC'sPoppa Large East Coast MixMercury
Ice-TNew Jack HustlerSire
Ice CubeThe ProductPriority
MaterialAhlill The Transcending Soldier, phonosycographDISK & Jerome "Bigfoot" BraileyFreestyle JourneyAxiom
Lil WayneRemember MeCash Money
Public EnemyGo Cat GoDef Jam
Vince StaplesFireDef Jam
DJ SpookyPrince Poetry & Pharoahe Monch of Organized KonfusionRekonstructionOutpost
With Spring beginning to take flight, it was high time for the crew to get involved in some horticultural escapades at the Parallax Gardens. Consequently, here is the third edition of Garden Grooves (aka the music we played). Spanning a casual week of afternoon work, here's the selection as it played out:
Kicking off the whole affair was this bass-heavy deejay record, Toyan's proto-dancehall tour de force. What sleeves these records have! Ranking Toyan does his thing over crisp, dubtastic riddims laid by the Roots Radics and mixed by Scientist. A Henry "Junjo" Lawes production.
My second favorite Grace Jones LP by a country mile. Unlike my #1 pick (Nightclubbing) it's comprised almost completely of Grace-penned originals (the one exception is Melvin Van Peebles' The Apple Stretching). Boasting killer tune after killer tune (My Jamaican Guy, Nipple To The Bottle) and the descending neuromantic boogie of Unlimited Capacity For Love (choice), Living My Life rounds out Miss Jones' Island trilogy with aplomb.
Discovered this record only recently over the course of formulating the whole Terminal Vibration trip. This rounds out another trilogy alongside Full Circle and the Snake Charmer mini-LP, featuring Wobble in collaborative mode (this time with the Invaders Of The Heart, who he'd hit full stride with in the 90s). Hauntingly exotic post punk/post-disco moves inna My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts stylee.
Arthur Russell's abstract disco freakout, knocked out with rolling percussion and seemingly improvised vocals. You hear these Arthur Russell records and they really opens up the whole idea of 80s music, straining at the confines of the predictable collective memory of the era to inhabit similar climes to Hindustani music, cosmic jazz and krautrock. Much like King Sunny Adé's Ma Jaiye Oni, my favorite part is when the keyboards take the reins about 2/3 of the way through.
Sumptuously three-dimensional new wave disco from the Tom Toms' second album Close To The Bone, the 12" gives the groove room to breath with those sublimely detailed synths and tactile percussion. The flipside's dub version is a real treat, and like Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector plays like a proto-house instrumental (once again, those synths!). Clearly, there was something in the water down at Compass Point.
Shiny post punk funk on the Y imprint and featuring prior members of The Pop Group and the Glaxo Babies. I always want to give this, along with The Slits' Cut and Come Away With ESG to every 15 year old I know. Coming on like a left-footed, untamed English Beat circa Special Beat Service, its brilliant skanking rhythms square the circle between new pop and punk funk better than anyone else. Shame that it isn't more easily available...
...and with the closing bars of All Wrapped Up!, we put away the tools and kicked back for the evening. The following day found the clouds rolling in, and the overcast skies had a decided impact on the playlist as it unfolded...
New York crew get down and dirty with storied 4-track EP, wringing magic from the whole affair only to get ripped off by Grandmaster & Melle Mel's White Lines Don't Don't Do It. As much as I love White Lines, the original loping groove in Cavern is where its at. Plus, you've got Optimo's Central Park conga jam and the rolling clockwork downbeat groove of the post rock-predictive Out. A true gem of a record. And non-stop props to Señor Lavelle for putting out the Liquid Liquid comp on Mo Wax back in the mid-nineties.
Sophomore full-length outing from old Ian and co., this is often classed as a disappointment but have you heard it lately? Sounds to me like a worthwhile follow up to New Boots And Panties!! and the slew of ace 7"s The Blockheads spat out over the course of the late seventies, with a heavy emphasis on post-disco rhythms, a couple quasi-reggae tunes and even shades of Lodger. Something like Sink My Boats is utterly original, definitively seventies — like watching six hours of The Rockford Files and then falling asleep to a fever dream where Barry Newman, Rudy Ray Moore and Peter Wyngarde wander into The Last Of Sheila — and somehow manages to sound unlike anything else around.
Rock hard reggae soundtrack from the 1980 film starring Aswad's Brinsley Ford. Scored by the great Dennis Bovell, it also features Aswad's Warrior Charge (a Parallax staple). Great cloudy day reggae (see also Horace Andy's Dance Hall Style) this was the perfect way to wrap up the second day, with darkness settling in on the Eastern horizon.
Forrrce's slap-bass odyssey kicked off the third day, the proto-raps unfolding over dub disco production as we cleared our way into the herb garden and the various banana groves scattered about the premises. The awesome Keep On Dubbin' With No Commercial Interruptions takes matters even deeper into left field with François Kevorkian dub-inflected hall of mirrors approach in full swing. At this point, the sun was hanging heavy in the sky and the 4/4 pulse was in full effect.
Moody minimalism from Andrew Weatherall and Keith Tenniswood on temporary holiday from their Two Lone Swordsmen project, at this point gaining full steam. Neuphrique is like a dress rehearsal for No Red Stopping and is very much in the 2LS deep house vein. A quintessential '97 record, you could take this, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Primal Scream's Echo Dek and have a decent thumbnail sketch of where I was at the time. Blue Pole Dancer always reminds me of 44's Groove Station, even if it came out a couple years earlier.
Sparkling guttertronics from Nigerian synth wizard William Onyeabor (his final record in fact). This is very much in the chipper bubblegum Kraftwerk vein of Depeche Mode's Speak & Spell (or latterly Hot Chip's latest record), but shot through with a distinct highlife flavor. I picked this up seven years ago (at Amoeba Records in San Francisco) on my honeymoon.
His records were extremely hard to come by at the time, and I absolutely adored Onyeabor's Better Change Your Mind (as featured on the Nigeria '70 compilation) and the Body And Soul 12" with the Scientist remix (which I did have). I couldn't believe my luck at finding this ace reissue and upon returning home and dropping it on the turntable instantly fell in love with the sounds contain therein. Fast-forward a few years and Luaka Bop releases the lavish Onyeabor box set (containing his entire discography), and the world rejoiced.
As if to drive the point home, here's that latest Hot Chip LP. I quite like this sound they've arrived at, perched midway between Cowley/Moroder synth-disco pulse and twinkling bubblegum electropop. There's even room for the odd surprise, like White Wine And Fried Chicken's slow-motion country ballad. Good stuff.
The conventional wisdom on Patrick Cowley seems to have always been that his album ventures like Megatron Man and Mind Warp were disappointing and that his productions (Sylvester's Your Make Me Feel Mighty Real) and remixes (Cowley's psychedelic Mega Mix of Donna Summer's I Feel Love) were where it's at.
Well, sure it's hard to top those highs, but I quite enjoy these full-length electro-disco excursions (think Cerrone and Moroder). What with the recent reissues of his cosmic synth music (School Daze and Muscle Up) and abstract post punk (Catholic), he seems almost like a West Cost, mechanoid Arthur Russell.
Last year's Weatherall solo shot plys a sort of instrumental electro-inflected krautrock. This very much reminds me of Death In Vegas' Satan's Circus, in that it plows a similar furrow with live drumming and spiral sequences that conjure up a sound that strikes me as ever familiar and yet I'm unable to place it. Mr. Weatherall's been on a roll this decade, with four solo LPs, The Asphodells' cosmic disco extravaganza and The Woodleigh Research Facility record, all of which I've enjoyed immensely.
With the sun setting and parties split off to procure dinner from The Tako Factory, Czukay's haunting solo endeavor seemed a natural choice. Ode To Perfume is quite simply a masterpiece, eighteen minutes of low-slung imaginary soundtrack music that rides a loping rhythm as guitars tears into the mix sounding like some distant cousin of Can's Deadlock. Czukay even works in his beloved French horn.
Back in the mix with late-period Can — we're pulling Winter weeds, turning the Northside lawn into a putting green — whose liquid rhythms pour over the morning dew-covered grass and out into the palms. For me, this record is in the upper echelon with Ege Bamyasi and Future Days, it finds the band spooling out that Moonshake sound across an entire record. If I've said it before, I've said it a hundred times: if this were by some new band called Jar or Receptacle, and not coming in after Monster Movie and Tago Mago, we'd all mention it in the same breath as the Talking Heads' Remain In Light and the Meat Puppets' Up On The Sun. Exquisite.
Mr. Cale's music is one of the great understated treasures to spring from the 1970s. This the fifth of his LPs from the decade, and you'll want all of them. His rhythm box is still fading in and out of the mix — perfectly integrated with the live instrumentation, like in a Moodymann record — with some tasteful synth licks creeping in here for good measure. Like the four records to come before, the production is otherworldly, exquisite. Alongside Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, one of the great songwriters of the era.
Prince Far I's classic platter found us back on the Southeast Terrace to work some landscaping magic. This is one of the deejay records (alongside things like Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town and Dillinger's CB 200), with Prince Far I's stentorian delivery front and center over peak-period Joe Gibbs backing. A stone cold classic, this record.
Incidentally, I got turned onto Prince Far I via the instrumental Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 1 dub outing (mixed by Adrian Sherwood), owing to Long Life's featuring in a Rockers Hi-Fi mix.
This compilation of (put crudely) Caribbean funk and disco is an unmissable romp, put out by compilation heavyweights Strut. Highlights include Amral's Trinidad Cavaliers Steel Orchestra's instrumental version of Gwen Guthrie's 90% Of Me Is You and Cedric Im Brooks' Blackness Of Darkness. There's even a cover of Barrabas' Woman!
Some tracks veer quite close to afrobeat territory, nevertheless I suspect that this contains the germ of the Compass Point/Parallax Pier sound. It's all quite evocative to me of time spent on the island back in the day, especially the way influences will run to and fro between the islands and the mainland. It's all very cosmopolitan in a casual way. Upon reflection, I suspect that some of these sounds were still hanging around when I first visited Puerto Rico, such is their lingering familiarity.
The Sweet Talks were a Ghanaian highlife band that sprung up in the mid-seventies and developed something of a profile, touring the world and ultimately winding up in L.A. and recording this little album, full of sparkling guitars and driving 4/4 rhythms. It's nearly impossible to overlook this music's compatibility with contemporary disco. I wonder if — like Manu Dibango's Soul Makossa — it made it's way onto any of the era's disco dancefloors?
Crack band from the Bahamas cut killer funk LP, on par with James Brown and Cymande's contemporary output. This very nearly made the Golden 200. Funky Nassau is one of those great 7" singles, and you get the whole thing right here at the record's opening. Interesting to think that this band were doing their thing in Nassau about a decade before the Compass Point All Stars coalesced into an institution.
Discovered this only recently thanks to the Singles As Bs & 12 Inches box set put out by Repertoire (check out the excellent Roger Dean sleeve). I have the Black Ant and a handful of their LPs, so this anthology filled out the gaps quite nicely. I had no idea about the band's 80s output, and this record clearly stood out as something special and I tracked a copy down accordingly.
Featuring BIG production, like ABC's How To Be A Zillionaire! (in fact, that very well could have been the next record played — if this hadn't been the last), it could slot right into a contemporary soundtrack during some montage scene. It's all about the Bush-Fire-Mix. I was momentarily certain that the getting hot, getting hot chorus showed up in Ice Cube's No Vaseline, but that notion appears unfounded (it was just a (sample) mirage).
Appropriately, this provided the grand finale as we wrapped up work on the Parallax Gardens, the assorted terraces and groves now properly prepared for summer just around the bend...
So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here — about half the records in the crate — brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original — blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of — for all intents and purposes — rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery.
It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms traveling across a grid at strict right angles.
Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint — incidentally where The Human League started out as well — the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP.
Entertainment! is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound — free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues — and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb — bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow — giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album.
The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant.
We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love — which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix — is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5
Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise — often getting lost in the Factory shuffle — but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes.
They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett.
Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water — with the Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip — is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me).
The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are veryJamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or — once again — Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals — straight out of the electro playbook — A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals — think Mike Skinner in The Streets — and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!).
The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics — this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex — must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus Autisticus. Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, reveling in Dury's clever wordplay.
While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularly good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue — of what sounds like a torture scene — floats over the top.
It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch.
Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity.
In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive — almost tribal — sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record.
The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music — encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records — is quite simply essential listening.
Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk — well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century — that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off.
Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. — even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts — became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space).
The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top.
The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line — which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style — as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity.
Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack.
The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack — more distortion! — while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins — and Gang Of Four's sister band — the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms.
The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heat waves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals. The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last).
Double Nickels On The Dime — famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) — was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
Terminal Vibration 4: Rockers Revenge
A Certain RatioFlightFactory
ESGMoody Spaced Out99
VortexBlack Box DiscoNeutral
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm StickStiff
The ContortionsContort YourselfZE
MinutemenMore JoyNew Alliance
Gang Of FourReturn The GiftEMI
Delta 5Train SongKill Rock Stars
Bush TetrasSnakes Crawl99
The Red Hot Chili PeppersBlackeyed BlondeEMI
Iggy PopAfrican ManArista
Grandmaster & Melle MelWhite Lines Don't Don't Do ItSugar Hill
A cornerstone of the band's early sound, Slovak was the Chili Peppers' original guitarist until 1988, when he died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by the beloved John Frusciante on the Mother's Milk album.
I remember being quite impressed when Woebot included them in his The 100 Greatest Records Ever list, which was actually my introduction to his writing in the first place (thanks to a timely link from Simon Reynolds). I distinctly remember being ensconced in the heady atmosphere of the 1808 in the dead of Winter and reading down the list with delight: first Ryuichi Sakamoto, A.R. Kane and then A Certain Ratio and Mark Stewart + Maffia and thinking this is the best list ever!
Check out the charts at the end of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, where one finds tunes like Liquid Liquid's Cavern and ESG's Moody tucked comfortably in the lists for not only Larry Levan's Paradise Garage, but also Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, Ron Hardy's Music Box and The Roxy. It's a testament to not only these records' utility on the dancefloor, or even the open-minded turntable policy of the clubs themselves, but the fluidity of the era's music across the dancefloors of the day. It all sounded good together in the mix and thus shared the same space in time. And what a time it was!