Tracks For My Father is the first Anthony Shakir record I ever owned, having picked it up nearly twenty years ago. I remember finding the 12" in the cutout bin (at the old record store next door to Club Elements) while digging with Snakes after school one crisp Autumn afternoon. I'd heard ofShakir before but hadn't yet heard his music, and with its evocative imagery (on Daniel Bell's 7th City imprint) and $1.50 price tag (which even to a broke high school kid isn't an awful lot of money) it seemed like the ideal place to start.
When I took the record home and put the needle 'pon the record, the effect was like a hidden door opening somewhere in the back of my mind. I hadn't heard anything remotely like it. Fractured beats seemed to tear open cracks across the shifting surface of their own skittering rhythms, cracks through which bass, synths and texture poured out over it all like molten soul. Nowadays you might call it broken beat, but at the time this malfunktioning, hip hop-inflected techno soul felt like the missing link between contemporary Timbaland and Kenny Dixon, Jr.
The good good, in other words, and to this day it remains my favorite record by old Anthony "Shake" Shakir.
My thing was trying to learn how to make music and the only reason I got into electronic music was that the early 1980s R&B just sucked. I didn't like the last Parliament record, Trombipulation, so I started finding out about these other records.
I've always liked this quote because it's at the axis of r&b, techno and house that Shake's music pivots, placing him firmly within the context of machine soul's protracted development. Centrally, in fact.2 In many ways, Tracks For My Father is like UR's The Turning Point, unfurling four sprawling movements that draw inspiration from the rich grooves of vintage jazz, funk and soul even as they manage to augur uncharted futures of their own.
For one, take a look at The Turning Point's striking imagery of Carlos Santana, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Aretha Franklin emblazoned across their center labels. In the case of Tracks For My Father, we get snatches of an interview with some old-time soul man3 interspersed between tracks, as if you were tuning into some late night radio transmission as you venture into the city beneath the pale moonlight. So let's take this journey and see where we end up...
The record opens with the deranged synths of One Beat Just Won't Do shearing into focus. It sounds like the machines are warming up as those synths cycle in and out of range, and then the front door opens and you're dropped out into the world. Submerged in the sounds of the city, now you're shuffling down the sidewalk, alone among the teeming masses. The words One beat, just won't do, ring out from some car stereo passing by, the words hanging in the air on repeat. You weave through the pedestrians, all on journeys of their own, while cars negotiate the traffic on the rain-slicked streets beside you.
Drums cycle in a stop-start rhythm, matching your movements as you juke your way down the boulevard. Beats punch in and out of that still-looping chorus like one of Theo Parrish's MPC workouts (with his deep house vibes subtracted and shot through with a sort of skewed electro-jazz hip hop flavor). Then, the vocals cut out altogether and a warped organ hangs over the beat like a fog, before the beat vanishes as well, synths and organs twisting in unison eight feet above the ground.
Once again, the beat kicks into gear and you're back on the move. The whole city's linked up in a network of concrete and asphalt, glass buildings rising from the pavement in a circuitry of steel. Traffic streams in grid-like patterns like a torrent of pure information, and you're part of the flow. As the music slowly fades, another voice comes into focus, this time the deliberate exchange of a late night interview in progress:
Yeah Joe, you know, we were talking earlier — just before we started this — that we've seen the business go from really creative music, you know, to corporate business control. Well, how do you feel about that?
Well they changed the business. In other words — I guess — in the sixties, we had at least — I don't know — forty recording companies who recorded the music of Soul America. By 1982, we had six recording companies. And what they did was put the music of the soul labels into a vault and they fired everyone. And suddenly, in the mid-eighties all of the soul singers just sort of vanished...
Mhmn, that's true...
They vanished. And they have definitely changed the culture. And you know I love the big business too. I love paychecks and all of that, but if the culture has got to suffer... the musical culture, the enormous contribution that we gave to the world in the 20th century, then I say nuh-uh they just kinda screwed it up a little.
Without warning, Fact Of The Matter kicks in with an electroid slab of skewed, introspective techno. In a sense, it's the most conventional track here, perhaps even reminiscent of something like Live For Friction (from the Iconoclastic Diaries EP). You've arrived at the club, once again weaving through a crowd of people, this time veering toward the bar to order your drink and then proceed to the dancefloor. An archaic synth progression pulses from the soundsystem, all warmth and silicon soul, scattering stardust across the room before it gets sucked back into its own vortex again.
That mutant electro beat still taps out its rhythm while a deep six bassline seems to jump rope across its surface. One's reminded of Carl Craig's masterful More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art and its fizzing electronics, those gentle computer rhythms cycling like clockwork in the night. No surface is constant, no measure unchanging, as textures move in and out of phase as if viewed through a prism. Rhythms rewind and slip into eddying tide pools — where only a flickering bassline accompanies the synths — before flowing back into the slipstream once again.
Like Kraftwerk remixed by Kenny Dixon, Jr. the whole thing just unfolds like sonic origami.
On the flipside, Roaming opens with a melody fashioned from a snatch of atmosphere, a simple cluster of sparkling synths that just seem to hang in the ether. An errant bassline taps out the counterpoint and you've stepped back into the world. A crisp breakbeat stomp propels you back down the boulevard toward your point of origin, starting you on the long walk home. That bassline returns — this time plucking down at a lower register — sounding like some bebop-era wood bass reconstructed in virtual reality. This is what tech jazz is all about...
Roaming is, rather appropriately, the most linearly propulsive thing here. There's no rewinding beats, no tangents of rhythm, just non-stop forward motion. I reflect for a moment on 4 Hero's transition from ardkore jungle into the cosmic jazz of Creating Patterns and the broken beat excursions of their own 2000 Black imprint, a sound that Tracks For My Father seems to parallel as a vision of everything jazz could become.4
It's a vision that stays with you even as the track begins to recede onto the horizon, and we return to the interview and further words of wisdom...
The one thing that we did find — as you know — in traveling all over the world, the one level of communication that we had that overcame language barriers and everything else was the music, you know?
It was the music.
And now that — and you know — and of course the corporate world ain't gonna like this, but I'm sorry this is the way it is: the corporate world stepped in and took away the creative process, and started making it the financial process.
Drifting in on a silicon haze, Travelers is by far the most ethereal thing here, its gently flickering shadows quite minimal even in the context of this record's brooding, cracked jazz soundscapes. Celestial synth textures phase in and out of earshot like a hazy morning mist. You're shuffling homeward back down these same city streets — by now nearly deserted — and you can just begin to see the first glimmer of sunlight on the horizon, bathing the face of certain eastward facing buildings even as you roam the darkness below.
A pulsing synth pattern seems to bounce along the center of it all like a coiled spring, while a simple keyboard melody plays gentle counterpoint deep in the distance. The drip-dropping percussion enters subtly, splashing into focus like footsteps upon the rain-slicked sidewalk. Everything seems to drift in and out of focus, threatening to crumble into dust even as it staggers ever forward, taking you home to your front door once again. And then, our journey ends.
Over in the space of twenty-five minutes, this four track EP hits you like a vintage soul album in miniature (albeit shot through with a healthy dose of Future Shock). Part of the reason this record means so much to me is that it seems to cram a whole double-LP r&b song cycle's worth of ideas into the space of four tracks and two interludes. Submerged beneath its deceptively simple surfaces are hidden vast corridors left for you to explore, reaching deep into the past even as they uncovers possible futures.
The record seems to fuse the sensibility of Moodymann's Black Mahogani with the x-ray electro of Drexciya's Neptune's Lair and 4 Hero's jazz-inflected stone tablet Creating Patterns. Of course, none of those records had even come out yet, which further highlights the record's singularly visionary nature. The sound and spirit of Tracks For My Father have everything in common with the music of 21st century figures like SA-RA Creative Partners, Kelela, J Dilla, Erykah Badu, Kamasi Washington and Kendrick Lamar. In other words, music that we're still catching up with.
Tracks For My Father springs squarely from the very particular environment of late-nineties Detroit, an era when records like Urban Tribe's The Collapse Of Modern Culture (which Shakir had a hand in developing) and Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed were fusing techno with the twin spectres of progressive soul and jazz. It's a world that remains quite tantalizing to this day, evoking images of Blade Runner intercut with Detroit 9000 in its Future/Past negotiation.
I remember even at the time thinking that this record is what the future would sound like... now wouldn't that be something if that someday turned out to be the case after all.
I suspect that the man in question might be Joe Hunter (of legendary Motown house band The Funk Brothers). But don't quote me on that... (Needless to say, if anyone has any information, please do share!)
It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport To Alpha Centauri, which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance), which flooded the racks and stocked jukeboxes by the truckload. The Opinionated Diner once quipped that the 7" is the spiritual ancestor of the mp3,1 a sentiment that makes perfect sense.
The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry — and proving ground — for breaking artists. This was the format with which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts, and tiny upstart labels like Stax and Motown could crack the mainstream wide open. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).2 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude3 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues — artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf — often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album.
The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd — artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies — made their initial splash.
Soul music — despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre — began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'sGreen Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook). After all, where would we be without Norman Whitfield's great productions on records like The Temptations' Cloud Nine, which were — alongside James Brown and Sly Stone's innovations — crucial stepping stones on the path to 70s soul?
Ah yes, the 1970s. If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock — progressive everything, truth be told — with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form.
Indeed most rock — bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet — was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade — even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised — while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoing Parliament/Funkadelic saga.
Even reggae — that stalwart of the 7" single — was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, with killer records like Burning Spear's self-titled debut, The Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub and Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town all making a profound impression, even informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade.
Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tablets of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed — even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums — and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded.
Similarly, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You simply can't knock the digital perfection of Virgo's self-titled album from 1989, while Fingers Inc.'s Another Side remains a touchstone of soul-inflected machine music — a true tour de force — predicting whole swathes of nineties music from Ginuwine to Chez Damier.
Aside from dance music — which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) — the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot.
Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space and Carl Craig's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art to Bandulu's Cornerstone and Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarly, jungle — like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre — had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case4 really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. Gerald Simpson even had a royal pair of superb jungle albums in 28 Gun Bad Boy and Black Secret Technology.
In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. When I think of this era, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above are usually the first two albums that come to mind. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject — 20 great dance CDs — kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Outkast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty — figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift — clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
Woebot on the one with a couple essential mixes, first tackling Detroit1 techno's winding history before jumping into some Chicago house mayhem.2 With a little luck, we'll get a New York one — Nu Groove/Strictly Rhythm/Fourth Floor bizzness in full effect — in the near future. It being 3/13 I would have liked to jump into a Detroit selection myself — there's been plenty of the skewed electronic jazz of late-nineties Anthony Shakir, Carl Craig and Stacey Pullen bumping through the Parallax Room as of late — but the perfectionist in me is still tweaking that full-length feature at the moment. For now, check Woebot's mix for a true sonic journey...
There were a whole bunch of startling omissions — where was Alter Ego/Sensorama, Luke Vibert/Wagon Christ, Susumu Yokota (indeed all of Japan for that matter), early Black Dog and Plaid's Mbuki Mvuki- and figures like Biosphere and Deep Space Network, whose absence wasn't necessarily surprising, but certainly disappointing. The list seemed to miss the point of the whole endeavor! But then Pitchfork never truly understood electronic music, did they?
I had a similar experience reading FACT Magazine's The 50 Best Trip-Hop Albums Of All Time...6 a sort of wow, this all meant something totally different to me back then effect. Now I love FACT — don't get me wrong — and it was a pleasure to read (plus I was thrilled with the #1 pick — one of my top 5 albums in any genre). But there were a couple things that started to get to me after awhile. The apologetic/embarrassed tone for one, like this music is somehow a guilty pleasure (I mean, we're only talking about some of the most crucial records of the decade here).
Embarrassment over the trip hop tag itself, which I do remember being a common gripe even at the time (and one that I never quite understood),7 and apologetic that a bunch of corny chill out artists came riding its coattails into the mainstream and supposedly de-fanged the music in the process. I don't know that I've ever bought that narrative.
First off, when has the lackluster output of bandwagon artists ever truly discredited what made a sound exciting in the first place? Surely it gets tiresome in the moment, hearing all these lame imitations, but it's been twenty years now! There's been plenty of time to cleanse the palette and re-focus. Secondly, the chill out thing was a totally different project, distinct from trip hop's m/o even as it often operated within it: Kruder & Dorfmeister and Air touched the sublime in their blissed out blunted beats. It was in the concentric circles of the imitator that the flavor was lost... that's when it became lifestyle music for young professionals and scenesters.
That it started cropping up in Zach Braff movies is evidence enough. There was certainly some overlap between the two — no more than with reggae or dub though (far less, truth be told) — but the media ran with that narrative and suddenly there was no room for a record like Pre-Millenium Tension. Tricky had lost it. And yet the record was flush with a deeply strange, skewed b-boy blues that was anything but easy listening and remained true to the roots-n-future warped downbeat vision that lie at trip hop's beating heart ever since Smith & Mighty remixed Mark Stewart.
In truth, the jagged underbelly of nineties hip hop and r&b's glistening phantasmagorias had always had more in common with trip hop than any of the chill out brigade ever could hope to. Think of Timbaland sampling Portishead in Ginuwine's G.Thang or weaving Björk into the remix for Missy Elliott's Hit 'Em Wit Da Hee. Coming from the other side of the divide, picture Tricky & Laveda Davis' Devils Helper and Massive Attack's Lately, dusted r&b sides ensconced in trip hop clothing. Or picture even Mélaaz and Les Nubians' awesome Princesses Nubiennes, showing there was no divide all along...
My second big complaint was the creeping sense that there was just too much zaniness in the list... and a little goes a long way. Things that I only ever came across on compilations and never ventured any further. Even at the time a lot of that stuff came to be as big a turn off as the chill out stuff, with a bad aftertaste to boot, like it was all some big inside joke between people who thought they were better than the music. A dead end if there ever was one.
The last thing that threw me was the approach of limiting the list to one record per artist. I think that's a mistake when talking genres/scenes, because certain artists nearly always manage to define the sound and transcend their surroundings. One couldn't imagine a sixties rock list that limited The Beatles to a single record. Then why trip hop, when there were some obvious movers and shakers in the mix from day one?
I don't want to get bogged down in specifics at the moment — reason enough, I'd been planning to do an in-depth series on trip hop in the near future — but right off the bat I can say that the first three Massive Attack LPs put the whole scene in stark relief, signposting the whole project. Without them, you're missing something...
It always struck me as an apposite description of the music, which was the bastard offspring of hip hop and soundsystem culture. Trip as in staggering, the beat dragging along, also as in tripping out, psychedelic b-boy music for real.
I recently noticed that I'd loaned out my copy of Derrick May's Innovator and thought, what a great compilation that was, followed by I really hope that I get it back. The double-disc version is that rare compilation that acts as both a primer, rounding up most of the man's seminal Rhythim Is Rhythim material in one place, as well as a showcase of unreleased material from the vaults. The downside was that my copy had many of the track titles transposed so that I went through high school thinking that Nude Photo was The Beginning and so forth. It was only later, after tracking down the original 12"s that I was able to piece together the true story.
I remember rolling around town in my 1980 brown Dodge Colt, a single tape distillation of this anthology perpetually lodged in the deck, soundtracking life I made my way through the Heights. There were a steady supply of homemade cassette tapes in rotation, including E-Dancer's Heavenly (augmented with the full-length version of World Of Deep) and a Carl Craig tape with Landcruising on one side and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art on the other.
I even seem to remember one that, for whatever reason, paired C.J. Bolland with a bunch of tracks from Claude Young's Pattern Buffer series. At any rate it felt pretty good being able to bump techno in that vehicle, even if the car itself was in the unfortunate habit of stalling and/or not starting up. But I digress...
Back to Innovator. This compilation features a generous selection of unreleased material, which I'd like to focus on today. Ranging from fully fleshed-out songs to interludes and even sonic squiggles that last for but a few seconds (Daymares, with its string-led drift that coalesces into a series of stabs running the scales up and down), it's an indispensable glimpse into the Transmat vaults and the mind of an innovator.
Rest acts as an introduction to the whole anthology, capturing in just one minute the whole magnetic allure of this music: the mystery, the melancholy, the soul. Resolute in the face of ruin. Another Relic From The Relics is perhaps the most gorgeous of the interludes, capturing that triumphant optimism that one so often finds in this music, leaning defiantly as it does toward the future. One wishes there was a full version of this track kicking around somewhere. I remember reading an interview with May some time ago where he alluded to an ill-fated Rhythim Is Rhythim album that remains unreleased to this day. Perhaps this is a glimpse at that storied record?
The pointillist digital disco of Freestyle, one of the full-length tracks that seem to be exclusive to the set, is pure night drive music (comparable to The Dance) and of a piece with the minimal side of FSOL's Accelerator. Then, there's the Juan Atkins mix of Wiggin', which seems to soundtrack the orbital skyway and is a cousin to Jazz Is The Teacher, its hollow organs dancing over shuffling rhythms of pure machine funk.
There's one sketch that features this great tattoo of stabs that sound like they're going to build into an epic along the lines of The Beginning before stopping at a mere ten seconds. I originally knew it as A Little Spaced Out, but — when confronted with the corrected tracklist — it turns out to be untitled. Elsewhere, there's an edit of R-Theme (by R-Tyme) that opens with a rude synth stab (which is not in the original) but unfortunately cuts out some of the 12"s most glorious moments. Indeed, the one weakness with this set is that some of the songs appear in edited form, while others are split into various interludes and alternate versions.
It's worth noting another crucial compilation, Relics: A Transmat Compilation (with it's stunning sleeve, designed by none other than Abdul Haqq), which covers not just May but many other artists on his label, including Suburban Knight (The Art Of Stalking), Model 500 (Infoworld), BFC (Evolution) and a piano-led remake of Psyche's Crackdown).
The whole set is bookended by two songs titled A Relic. The opening relic (credited to Long Ago) is insouciantly captivating sci-fi music, its mad swelling synths draw you into a gentle gliding melody. It feels not unlike walking into the dome city from Logan's Run. The closing relic (credited to Longer Than Long Ago is a moody, organ-led number that later turns up on Innovator — split into two parts called Phantom and More Phantom — which this time feature toughened beats and no organ.
Relics also features a series of brilliant Intervals that are similar in spirit to the interludes on Innovator, only better. Some longer moments are spread across multiple, shorter intervals, while others are allowed to breathe a little (Interval IV even masks the same tune found in Another Relic From The Relics). The down and dirty final movement (Interval X) is almost like an ultra-funky slow-motion version of Fix's Flash. Once again, you long for full-length cuts of each of these tracks.
It would be wonderful if someone (perhaps even Derrick May himself) would put together the definitive compilation of this material, with all of the original 12" versions of these classics and a whole brace of tracks from the archives. What we really need is for the unreleased Rhythim Is Rhythim LP to finally see the light of day. In light of some of the excellent reissues that have surfaced in recent years (the Drexciya box set on Clone come to mind), it seems like the perfect time for a comprehensive archive of the man's epochal body of work: a long overdue return to the relics.