Tucked away in the shadowy early years of Warp Records' long and winding history, you'll find the debut album by trip hop stalwarts Nightmares On Wax. Originally a duo of George Evelyn and Kevin Harper (aka EASE and Boy Wonder), NOW emerged from the rough-n-ready world of the late-eighties U.K. rave scene, where they made waves spinning at Leeds venues like the Warehouse and Downbeat (the latter of which the duo actually ran themselves). They played a mix of dance music, jazz, soul, hip hop and electro, in keeping with the gloriously omnivorous spirit of the times. EASE quips No segregation in music back then, anything goes!1
A Word Of Science is suffused with that same anything goes spirit. It's an utterly original record that blends the post-disco sounds of electro, house and hip hop into the sonic equivalent of wildstyle graffiti, its fifteen skeletal tunes belie their spartan nature as they deliriously careen through dazzling, kaleidoscopic terrain. In his breakbeat primer Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide, Peter Shapiro rightly singles this record out for praise, calling it the kind of album we'll probably never hear again as it's so full of the innocent joy everyone's scared to show in this age of ludicrous image-consciousness and po-faced taste-makers...2a and that was written nearly twenty years ago.
Certainly straight hip hop tracks like Mega Donutz and How Ya Doin' stand out as hopelessly charming romps, overflowing with a youthful enthusiasm and the optimistic spirit of the times. The rolling Mega Donutz finds MC Tozz 180 recounting the group's history, while How Ya Doin' is essentially a signing-off track, its loping jazz funk beats filled with shout outs to the likes of LFO and Zulu Nation. Both tunes are quintessential U.K. hip hop — coming on like a blunted Shut Up And Dance in rap mode — offering an open-hearted counterpoint to the remainder of the record, which is an unabashedly minimal and moody affair.
The thoroughly smoked-out vibes of Nights Interlude kick the record off with a laidback downbeat rumination sourced in Quincy Jones' Summer In The City,3 laying the blueprint for a decade of languid downbeat splendor in the process. It also commenced NOW's series of Nights excursions that would pepper albums to come (see Night's Introlude, Les Nuits, etc.).
A significant portion of the album trades in downtempo beat collage just as Massive Attack were laying down the gauntlet with their epoch-defining Blue Lines, with the x-ray hip hop of Back Into Time and Playtime sounding like New York beats stretched out in skeletal slow motion.
Elsewhere, E.A.S.E. rides a baroque keyboard arrangement over click-clacking typewriter beats. These tracks are crucial early incursions of what would come to be labeled trip hop, even if they would be improved on sharply by NOW with later records like Smoker's Delight and Carboot Soul.
However, A Word Of Science has something those later albums do not: the maddening electronic grooves of its remaining nine tracks, which stretch the pulse of contemporary bleep 'n bass into unexpected shapes and curious rhythms. Crudely put, bleep 'n bass was the British rave sound that immediately preceded ardkore: sourced in U.S. (particularly New York) house and techno, but with an added bass pressure informed by U.K. soundsystem culture. You'd typically get these great brittle, treble-tweaking shards of sound cutting across a booming bottom end, these blank-eyed droning rhythms dished out by crews like Unique 3, Ital Rockers and the Forgemasters.
Warp Records, now a giant in the world of electronic music — particularly of the ambient, experimental variety — got its start caning this sound, with records like Sweet Exorcist's Testone, the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and LFO's LFO. Warp released the epoch-defining debut album by bleep 'n bass luminaries LFO — who enjoy a reputation as something like the Kraftwerk of British techno — in the summer of 1991, with NOW's debut hot on its heels a couple months later.4 Interestingly, these two LPs were the first single-artist, full-length albums to come out on Warp.5,6
In the austere company of the rest of the early Warp stable, A Word Of Science stands out by virtue of its blunted, hip hop-inflected edges shot through with a rough-hewn, homespun charm. Once again, Peter Shapiro nails it when he says Nightmares On Wax saw Techno as an outgrowth of the funk and hip-hop scenes and approached it with a herbalist's mindset.2b
The rolling discoid groove of A Case Of Funk, with that massive geometric bassline riding up against the sides of its percussion loops like a tire on the curb, betrays the duos love of vintage funk with its strikingly organic take on New York house music. In soon-to-be familiar British twist, you can hear the x-factor of that implied breakbeat snaking its way through the rhythm.
Aftermath, a 12" smash from the year prior, famously set this equation in stone, looping a sample of Cuba Gooding Sr. to maddening heights against a backdrop of droning vocals, speaker-shredding hi-hats, rolling percussion, the occasional electronic flourish and a bassline rising up deep from within. Similar magic is wrought from Biofeedback, with the N.Y.C. Peech Boys sample intoning the track's title over a loping bassline, stop-start percussion loops and a nagging refrain seemingly played on an out-of-tune keyboard.
Dextrous — taken from a 12" released way back in 1989 — represents this sound at its most minimal, riding some detuned synth tones over a spartan rhythm matrix as eerie chords loom on the horizon. It's all so artlessly constructed, yet it truly gets to the heart of the whole machine music enterprise, as if Kraftwerk had surfaced, delirious, at a Leeds warehouse party.
The brittle textures of Fun are cut from the same cloth, recalling eighties electro at its most dessicated, while Coming Down (a personal favorite) rides an ultra-repetitive, stop-start and rewind groove that captures the feeling of a helicopter hovering on the horizon as it rises and falls on currents of air. Sal Batardes is yet another crisp, electro-inflected endeavor, with ringing percussion figures that seem to recall the atmosphere of The Imperial Brothers' We Come To Dub. The two-minute sketch B.W.T.M. splits the difference between both sides of the record, running its trilling electro percussion and looped vocal snatches at a downtempo pace.
This is just the sort of record that would have been described as dated in the trend-conscious climate of the late 90s (when I first heard it), but — like much of my favorite slightly-older music that I scooped up at the time (think Bobby Konders and Todd Terry) — it sounds fresher than ever in the present. Where most of the big room anthems of that era have by now lost their luster — the overblown sheen rendered absurd by the passage of time — this tough little record really gets down to the heart of the matter, its skeletal rhythm matrix haunted by hieroglyphic ghosts of Sheffield, Detroit and The Bronx, drifting in and out of focus all the time. To borrow the title of their next album, it's a true Smoker's Delight!
Bringing to mind SST issuing two stone-tablet double albums, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mere months from one another in a blitzkrieg of overwhelming talent and ambition, two massively talented groups egging each other on.
A few years back, I started a limited series in which I'd post a weekly tune that was locked into the celestial. I called it Deep Space Music. It was loosely inspired, as is much of what I do, by something a bunch of forward-thinking cats did in Detroit back in the day. In this case, it was Deep Space Radio, a series of transmissions made in the mid-nineties in which people like Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson would spin far out techno and house over the city's airwaves, culminating in Saunderson's masterful X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio mix.
My own excursion was a much more minimal affair, hosted on the old version of this very site, titled (rather unimaginatively) Deep Space Music. It involved simply tossing up one tune a week — for just under a year — from one summer to another, spanning between 2012 and 2013. The idea was that each song would flow into the next as one long suite, thematically speaking, the patchwork whole unfolding like the weekly sci-fi serials of old. At any rate, it proved to be an enjoyable exercise and hopefully tuned some people into some great music in the process.
In researching a monster piece I've been working on lately (and coming at you in the near future), I'd been digging through the interplanetary archives and — in the process — discovered a tracklist of all the tunes that featured in the series. I'd nearly forgotten about the whole enterprise, but seeing as it fits in thematically with the trip we've been on lately I thought it might be illuminating to beam the results back to earth, commenting on each selection in the process.
You'll notice that a lot of these tunes have continued to crop up in the intervening years, via mixes and even featured in The Parallax 100, which should highlight the centrality of this selection to my own musical tastes. All of these should be relatively easy to get your ears on nowadays, via Youtube or some other means (like picking up the record, perhaps), so if something sounds enticing you know what to do...
Deep Space Music: Slight Return
Ashford & SimpsonBabies Dub VersionCapitol1984
The journey starts with rolling drums and guitars chiming off into the event horizon. Spacious pads with a gravitational pull all their own drift through the mix, that gently chugging bassline seems to propel this ship through the vastness of space in ethereal slow-motion. Don't you know that I live for this sort of thing?
This a François Kevorkian perpetrated dub of Ashford & Simpson's original (from their Solid LP), stretching it out across timespace with just a snatch of the original vocal. When Nickolas Ashford drops right into the mix, singing The love story's true, they didn't change me and you..., the track seems to stop and rebuild itself right before your eyes.
MtumeThe After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part IIEpic1983
Another flipside excursion, another featuring just a snatch of vocal input and another one of my favorite songs of all time. The original has one of the great synth progressions ever, pulling you in with a gliding futuristic optimism (think Tommorowland), but this second part — stripping the track to its essentials — is true space capsule music.
You find yourself waiting for the synthesized bass sound that just oozes into the track every other bar. Hearing this for the first time was one of those pivotal moments in my life, like a parallel universe unfolding before me, and everything contained within was right up my alley. I remember rustling up the album and 12" within weeks!
This tune and much of what follows are what I like to call Machine Soul, in essence a sonic strand stretching from Mtume through Model 500, into Timbaland and beyond.
This one takes me back to sun-glazed days in late summer, playing video games on the Atari 2600 (truly ancient technology by that point in the mid-nineties), tripping out to Solaris and the sound of machine rhythms in the scorching heat. This track was the basis for DJ Quik's Tonite, its rubberband, synthetic bassline spreading deep into the DNA of g-funk. True machine soul, you can picture yourself listening in some perfectly-engineered alien vessel, gliding over a neon vector landscape in the night.
DrexciyaRunning Out Of SpaceTresor1999
Perfection in just under two minutes, this would lend itself to a killer 7" single. That's a whole category unto itself. Sounding almost as if Tonight were fast-forwarded — all sonics twisted and filtered through fifteen years of electro boogie science — the track swoops and shudders on a nimble machine-funk rhythm before dissolving into a majestic, beatless coda. You could run a starship on that. Drexciya of course representing the life aquatic, they seem to be just as much at home in the deep black of space.
Turn-of-the-century Glasgow. A killer pop song seemingly sprung from the subconscious. The atmosphere heavy like a black hole, that shrouded bassline rising from within, drawing you deeper and deeper into gravity's pull. At the center of it all is Dot Allison), serenading the night skies in a druggy murmur. The song explodes into some psychedelic vision of deep space r&b, glowing shards of funky synthetic sound spiraling off into the stratosphere, northern lights ablaze.
I've gone digital about this one before. You're gliding across the grid, vectors scrolling under a moonlit sky, landscapes parallaxing in the distance. Keni Stevens drapes his absolute smoothest, most delicate voice over an elegant neon-lit groove, all the parts moving in perfect unity. The vocal and instrumental versions of the Ultra-Sensual Mix run together on the vinyl, giving you eleven and a half minutes of supersonic pleasure.
Sun PalaceRude MovementsPassion1983
I've noted before (another repeat!) how this record comes on like Carl Craig and Hall & Oates making music together in an elevator. I stand by that. Eighties smooth jazz isn't supposed to sound this exciting, but every element in this tune mixes together into the perfect palette and, against all odds, feels absolutely timeless. The perfect (quiet) storm.
YageTheme From Hot BurstJumpin' & Pumpin'1992
An exclusive from the excellent Earthbeat compilation, an indispensable round-up of glistening techno produced by a pre-FSOLDougans and Cobain. Crystalline synths drift whimsical over stuttering breakbeats, muted rave sounds trill just below the surface, with everything submerged in a deep, oceanic calm. Almost freeform in its construction, this track simply shimmers.
The Isley BrothersVoyage To AtlantisT-Neck1997
Why don't The Isley Brothers get more love? They're easily the equal of giants like Led Zeppelin or Stevie Wonder. What gives? They have loads of great records. This from their seventies 3 + 3 period — when the group's ranks swelled to six — in which they operated as purveyors of fine funk and peerless, sun-glazed soul. Voyage To Atlantis itself sways in stately slow-motion, exit music for a film. Cosmic, elegiac and beautiful.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience1983... A Merman I Should Turn To BeReprise1968
Aquatic, like Drexciya, but in tune with the cosmos. Hendrix got his start playing guitar with The Isleys before going down in history as arguably the greatest guitarist of all (the Forever riff in this song is one of the most inspiring things I've ever heard done with an electric guitar). This record finds him equally adept at using the studio as an instrument unto itself, rolling various movements and spaced out interludes into a nearly fourteen-minute sonic tapestry that works seamlessly as one long, flowing piece. The result is simply breathtaking.
The better part of this album, Risotto, is pretty spaced out as a rule, and I could have used anything from the blunted black hole trip Bermuda to the alien frequencies of Reeferendum to make the same point. However, Kitten Moon eclipses all other candidates with its relentless, chugging rhythm and a drop into pure atmosphere that leaves you standing on the edge of infinity.
KleeerTonight SA-RA Remix The SA-RA All Stars & Me'Shell NdegéOcelloRhino2005
The original Kleeer classic (heard above) has a long history of affection among electronic funk connoisseurs. SA-RA turn in what is, in truth, more an outright cover than a remix. I love how they take the relatively minimal original — a tune that seems deeply influential to their own group's aesthetic — and go all out with it, stretching out in widescreen with a big band in tow (including the inimitable Me'Shell NdegéOcello), with no expense spared. Sparkling in the discotheque.
Octave OneNicolette430 West1991
Octave One embody a certain sonic perfection, working out the internal logic of techno and house to arrive at a streamlined form that sounds unlike anything else. This from their classic Octivation EP, following on the heels of their debut I Believe. Detuned bleeps spill out from a low slung rhythm, the fusion of shuffling 909 beats and a wandering analog bassline, synth washes flowing beneath it all in such a way that r&b stations should've been playing it. In a word, DEEP.
Joe Gibbs & The ProfessionalsIdlers RestJoe Gibbs1977
Intergalactic dub reggae, sounding not unlike SA-RA holed up at the Black Ark. Hard to believe it's from 1977. Rock hard beats and bottomless bass kick into gear with siren synths blazing high up above. This from the second volume in Joe Gibbs' excellent African Dub All-Mighty series, which I was lucky enough to snag at Reggae World some years back (and just in time to spin at a New Years Eve party later that night).
Leon WareTamed To Be WildUnited Artists1972
Motorik machine soul from the first solo shot by this songwriter in the shadows. Think Suicide. Leon Ware growls over a chugging blues beat, rolling pianos and electronic bass that zig-zags beneath brooding verses before exploding into that near-gospel chorus. Ancient synths droning into infinity. It's all very Warp Records. Ware well-documented as a songwriting auteur, with Motown and Marvin Gaye, in particular (look no further than I Want You for the proof), benefiting from his way with the pen. Check those credits — from Quincy Jones to Minnie Riperton to The Jackson Five — he's everywhere!.
Jackson And His Computer BandUtopiaWarp2005
I remember being stumped as to how to follow up the previous track — so doggedly singular was that grinding tronik soul stormer — but this convoluted electro/house burner from the French auteur Jackson Fourgeaud did the trick. Intricate and overloaded, this track is — simply put — a monster. The whole of it seems constructed from shards of sound — electronic glitches and vocal snatches — shattered into a million pieces only to be reconstructed into a skewed vision of disco, churning under waves of droning sonics before dropping out into that heavenly chorus. Have you ever thought about utopia? Utterly bizarre, yet I challenge anyone not to be hooked by the second listen.
BeanfieldKeep On BelievingCompost1997
My brother Matt and I used to be obsessed with this tune. Still are, truth be told. One of my go-to tracks in defense of the practice of sampling. This tune essentially mashes up Vangelis' Let It Happen and the Batucada drums from Costa-Gavras' Z (Mikis Theodorakis in full effect), filtering them through deep space sonics and winding up with something utterly singular. But where did those blues vocals come from?
Medeski Martin + WoodMidnight Birds SA-RA RemixMainBlue Note2005
More SA-RA. They're all over the place in this break out! The MMM original is a swaying mirage of interstellar exotica, but the SA-RA version takes it on a wild, tangled trip into the unknown. Busting out wrong-footed on the 4/4 — like if J Dilla made a house track — this multi-part dancefloor burner seems fueled on unstable elements, kicking into a juke joint mid-section before it all collapses inna staggering machine rhythm that just dissolves into stray synths in the moonlight. The life and death of a star.
Jay DeeThink TwiceBBE2001
Speaking of J Dilla, this deep slab of downbeat bliss from Welcome 2 Detroit is the square root of all manner of twisted machine soul that's tumbled out of this blessed millennium so far. This could go on for hours and I wouldn't get bored. The Donald Byrd bit that goes Your love's like fire and ice, that's why we've got to think twice, followed by a little trumpet flourish, is catchier than most songs you hear on the radio. Then it flies off on a variation, the piano jukes then goes left, before once again drifting somewhere else entirely.
Smith & MightyAlice PereraI Don't Know 12" Mix 1Studio !K71998
It's beginning to feel almost as if I subconsciously drew from this nearly forgotten list when mixing last year's Radio AG transmissions! I suppose that speaks to their closeness to my heart (aww!). This one's so tied up with my own memories and experiences that I don't know where to begin. You just want to curl up inside the warmth of this song. In the surrounding context, it plays like a companion piece to The Martian's Sex In Zero Gravity: a love from outer space.
Me'Shell NdegéOcelloCome Smoke My HerbMaverick2003
Comfort Woman — the record from which this track springs — is on some serious Hendrix-level astral plane, its space rock dynamics swooping and shuddering in graceful slow-motion through the reggaematic machinery of dub. This is deep space as a return to the womb, and it's the swooning blur of Come Smoke My Herb that offers up the record's simplest, most exquisite pleasure: walking on air.
Divine StylerIn A World Of UMaverick2003
In between Styler's old school debut and underground return lies Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light, a record that draws on space rock, industrial and fusion as much as hip hop. This tune in particular is coming from somewhere else! There's that inevitable, descending chord progression — guitars running through sheets of chorus, trilling off into delicate metallic solos — rolling drums and Divine Styler's druggy murmur at the center of it all, cut adrift in wholly expansive inner space.
The PoliceWalking On The MoonA&M1979
Everybody knows this one, and for good reason. Andy Sumner's guitars chime into the endless deep while Stewart Copeland taps out a beat that seems to obey the laws of lunar gravity rather than the Earth's, and Sting sounds without a care in the world. I remember a particularly dark night back in the day when I listened to this song on repeat, non-stop until I eventually drifted off to sleep.
Early Simple Minds records are doubtless a treasure trove of weird new wave, but you'll also find some of the most atmospheric instrumentals of their era... or any other for that matter. Perfectly conjuring up visions of the titular African plains at dusk, strange shapes shifting in the darkness, this brings to mind Suburban Knight's The Art Of Stalking. I swear that you can hear mid-period FSOL in this densely articulated atmosphere. The first time I heard it, I thought What's going on now?! Today it might be my favorite thing on the album.
Philly soul craftsman gets loose in the studio, shearing into incandescent jazz funk. The song drifts in and out into radio transmissions — presumably picked up in deep space — chronicling the struggles of present-day Earth. Not much has changed! Wansel croons in silk over luminescent organs and a rubber-synth bassline, fragile and exquisite. A minor r&b hit at the time, it's a wonder this tune isn't more widely known.
The Steve Miller BandSacrificeCapitol1977
Glorious tripped out pop-psychedelia from the original space cowboy. Crystalline Rhodes shimmer in the moonlight over a downbeat rhythm, while Steve Miller pulls liquid shapes from his guitar and sings moody lines in the foreground. I've always been a sucker for that vibrato thing he tends to do with his voice: What a sacrifiyiyice.... This is, in essence, a jazz funk record. Which leads us into...
Roy Ayers UbiquityThe MemoryPolydor1976
DEEP jazz funk. The deepest. Drawing you slow-motion tumbling into a black hole, shadows and sound swirling all around, it seems to have a gravity all its own. Feel Surreal. Those drums are rock hard, pounding a tripped-out beat while deep Moog bass textures curl beneath. Liquid keys shimmer and gamma ray ARPs stream like sunlight through the darkness. Inner space music and subconscious soul, this track embodies the haunting words of its refrain.
Marvin GayeA Funky Space ReincarnationTamla1978
Taken from Gaye's exquisite kiss off Here, My Dear. I remember buying the record thinking, Well, it's supposed to be one of his weaker ones but I love What's Going On and then being completely blown away. A Funky Space Reincarnation has Gaye drifting through images of mental deep space travel over a downbeat disco rhythm — sort of half-singing/half-rapping — commenting on the sights he encounters along the way and putting the moves on Miss Birdsong.
Strangely enough, this always makes me think of those rolling ambient house numbers by The Orb like Perpetual Dawn and Toxygene, gently unfurling on an astral plane.
Bobby LyleInner SpaceCapitol1978
I first heard this in a Kirk Degiorgio mix and couldn't believe my ears. This came out when? How?? It's the secret ancestor to Carl Craig's Gaussian-blurred ambient excursions like Neurotic Behavior and A Wonderful Life, and a glorious track in its own right.
PsycheNeurotic BehaviorPlanet E1989
Which brings us to this, which strangely had the opposite effect: I couldn't believe it had come out so recently. Breathtakingly cinematic and vast in scope, it sounds simultaneously ancient and futuristic, like a sleek alien structure that the scientists can't seem to date. I remember compiling the Parallax 100 and originally planning to include 4 Jazz Funk Classics, but just couldn't resist this record's exquisite shades and absorbing timbres.
Elements is in that grey area of compilations that pull from just one or two years — see also The Three EPs by The Beta Band — but it just works too well as an album in its own right. It gets the pass! And just because his first stuff is my absolute favorite doesn't mean I don't love the rest of it... the man has gone from strength to strength, one of the most consistently compelling producers around.
The MartianSkypainterRed Planet1995
Motorik deep space drive. I've been a big fan of Red Planet for ages, and if I'm not mistaken have everything the label put out (there might be a Somewhere In Detroit record lingering, I can't remember). At the time I just couldn't get ahold of the records, try as I might. I first heard this and Midnite Sunshine (and, come to think of it the very next track as well) on Submerge's Depth Charge 3, a round-up of tracks that from their extended crew. I was in heaven.
This is the other one from that compilation, although its original home was a label compilation for Matrix Records (Sean Deason's label). As far as I know, this never had a release outside those two compilations. Deason was a rising star at this time, in what was called The Third Wave Of Detroit Techno, and I snapped up whatever I could by him. When he was on, he was really on. This spaced out organ jam, a sleek Martian cousin to Paperclip People's Steam, was one of those moments.
E-DancerWorld Of DeepKMS1997
I can now recall that there was a bit of a Detroit rally going on at this point. I was feeling good! This tune was actually featured on Saunderson's X-Mix that I mentioned above. It was hot off the presses at the time. Simply put, this is superb machine disco. Deeply psychedelic and absorbing, that bassline just takes hold. Are those synths or are they voices? You just have to close your eyes to this one.
More dazzling tronik house moves, this time by way of Chicago. Machine rhythms and a cascading bassline suck you into the pitch black, while blurred vocals invite you to take a ride. This is night drive music for a ride to Club Silencio.
Dark EnergyMidnite SunshineUnderground Resistance1994
This one from the awesome Dark Energy double-pack on UR. Credited to Dark Energy (aka Suburban Knight (aka James Pennington)), and offering up a flipside to the paranoid dread in earlier records like The Art Of Stalking and Nocturbulous Behavior: anything is possible and the future is wide open. Inspiring stuff. There was a later Dark Energy record that was quite good as well, this time on an electrofunk tip.
Taken from A Collection Of Short Stories, which is (if I'm not mistaken) Global Communication's auspicious debut. The record is a grab-bag of disparate styles — from ambient to breakbeat techno and grinding industrial — complete with an equally disjointed set of accompanying science fiction texts. This beauty in this track lies in its sheer inevitability as it works out its own internal logic — the synth's progression and that throbbing bassline, low-key breaks rolling beneath — its off-kilter funk running like illogical clockwork.
I've always been quite fond of this one. Its casual futurism is like viewing the Earth through a tiny portal from within the compact close quarters of the international space station... a tin can floating through the vastness of space. There's also loads of stuff by The Black Dog that I could/should have used in this list, but it must have slipped my mind.
China CrisisJean Walks In FreshfieldsVirgin1982
This unlikely jewel of space music in miniature lies nestled at the end of China Crisis' debut album, Difficult Shapes & Passive Rhythms. It drops you into the shadow of a nebula and is over in the blink of an eye.
Double HelixLow KeyRush Hour2002
I think this one first appeared on the All Access To Detroit's Music Festivals compilation, but it later got a 12" release. A clockwork rhythm taps beneath a glowing bassline as the deepest of synths roll out into casual infinity. Strangely, this often makes me think of the spaciest precincts of China Crisis' discography (particularly Red Sails and The Soul Awakening).
These gentlemen from Düsseldorf don't have an album dedicated to space, possibly because they already said everything they needed to within the shining six minutes of Spacelab. Partially inspired by the machine disco rhythms of Giorgio Moroder, this sounds like ambient house before house even happened.
QueenIn The Space Capsule The Love ThemeElektra1981
When Dr. Zarkov's space capsule disconnects from the rocket, that guitar strum etches itself into infinity. Queen in soundtrack mode here, this is beautiful like Tangerine Dream. It's the love theme for Dale and Flash, one one level, but on another it seems to gesture toward a universal love for all of humanity (and thus makes it Dr. Zarkov's theme as much as anyone else's). Perfect music for getting sucked into a vortex, I once made an abstract hip hop track that sampled those opening synths.
Mr. FingersStarsJack Trax1987
Glorious early deep house from Larry Heard (a legend doncha know?). You've got this gently chugging beat, a bassline that wanders all over the spectrum and shimmering synth sequences that rotate in slow-motion lunar orbit, always threatening to slip just behind the beat but staying in perfect time. Exquisitely psychedelic.
Dâm-FunkKeep Lookin' 2 The SkyStones Throw2009
Uptempo bizzness from the ever-reliable Dâm-Funk. Seeing him live made me realize that he's something like the West Coast equivalent to Moodymann: operating with the same vital foot in the present, informed by deep crates and a musical lineage stretching deep into the past (just swap out West Coast electro and Solar Records for deep disco slates and Motown). This is one of those moments when you realize that he's making, for all intents and purposes, techno.
MýaSisqó of Dru HillIt's All About MeInterscope1998
Produced by Darryl Pearson, cohort of DeVante Swing (mentor to Timbaland), and the sound's rubbed off in this fragile orbital torch song. I remember Simon Reynolds, back in the day, describing how midway through the song everything seemed to rotate on its axis. There's loads of great r&b moments that happen to be built on Art Of Noise/ZTT tunes (a list in itself there), and this must surely be among the greatest.
DJ Mitsu The BeatsAinjoy McWhorterNegative Ion SA-RA RemixPlanetgroove2004
SA-RA at their most deliriously decomposed (think Smokeless Highs and Hangin' By A String), but working with such lush source material that it manages to become a great pop moment in and of itself. Shamefully, I don't know anything about DJ Mitsu The Beats, as I only grabbed this remix EP after hearing it played out on SA-RA's Dark Matter & Pornography Mixtape.
And the men themselves for the grand finale. I can't overstate how epochal this crew have been in my own musical life, like something on the level of Led Zeppelin. They managed to tie together so many strands of music that I cherish and then took them supernova. This is zero gravity r&b, and a perfect end to this unplanned excursion into deep space music.
This is the first of a four part series that I'll be unveiling over the next few months, each focusing on a different aspect of L.A. rap's sweep. As I noted earlier, an excellent DJ Quik show last week inspired me to put this together (to give credit where it's due). I'm no expert on the subject, but I've lived with this music since it was first coming out and it has continued to inform my listening habits in myriad ways through the years. After all, coming up in this era, with this music and parallel sounds from near and far providing the sonic atmosphere of the day, can have a profound effect on somebody...
As early as the late '70s, Uncle Jamm's Army and The Egyptian Lover were developing the earliest foundations of a distinct West Coast style that would culminate in prime L.A. electro like Egypt, Egypt and Dial-A-Freak in the early 80s. Within a few years, pioneers like Ice-T and Oakland's Too $hort began carving out a harder, street-level aesthetic that gradually began to supplant electro's popularity. Then, a crew called N.W.A. entered the Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, CA and started putting out records on their own Ruthless Records imprint, culminating in the seismic impact of their debut album Straight Outta Compton.
The five years between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic were probably the most important stretch in the development of a distinctive West Coast sound, spanning the transition from N.W.A.'s hard, skeletal beats to Dr. Dre's fluid g-funk. This period was marked by extraordinary innovation, with a monumental soundclash of ideas and influences that would gradually be synthesized into a whole new thing. The following 14 records were all released within this timeframe, are undeniably classic material and trace this rough path of progression from Compton to The Chronic.
Ground zero. The earlier N.W.A. And The Posse record was but a preview of things to come, pulling early singles and some hastily recorded material into one package. This is the true arrival. I was in elementary school when this record dropped, and by the end of the year everyone seemed to be talking about it. That's the level it got to. The influence of this record cannot be overstated (just compare the first Geto Boys album with the second, for one obvious example). It kicked open the door for everything that follows in this list.
The opening three tracks — Straight Outta Compton, Fuck Tha Police and Gangsta Gangsta — form one of the great opening salvos of all time, a pump-action barrage of street-level imagery delivered with a brutal intensity. For the purposes of this discussion, Gangsta Gangsta seems to be Dre's first stab at what would one day be called g-funk (check that rude Funky Worm synth whine coming in after the Way back... part). It's still too raw, the beats too rugged, to be considered g-funk proper, but the ingredients are all there just waiting to marinate a little longer.
There seems to be a bit of historical revisionism at the moment about this record, claiming that the opening three tracks are the only real substance it has to offer. Not true. The Dopeman Remix is an incisive look at the drug trade with a barely concealed rage bubbling beneath the surface, matching the fury of that opening rush, while tracks like 8 Ball Remix, Parental Discretion Iz Advised and MC Ren's Quiet On Tha Set serve to further flesh out the world that this record inhabits.
Express Yourself (Dre's solo shot) and I Ain't Tha 1 (Cube's requisite battle of the sexes rumble) both offer moments of levity, while Something Like That is a pure old school throwback showcase. Something 2 Dance 2 even closes things down with an electrofunk workout featuring the legendary Arabian Prince. They really did think of everything!
Released nearly simultaneously with Straight Outta Compton, and at the time taken more or less as a companion piece to that record. They'd usually be listened to side by side. Releasing the follow up so quickly on the heels of Compton was a shrewd move in retrospect. People were hungry for more.
This LP picks up where 8 Ball left off. A reckless ride through the wild side of the Ruthless fun house, this party careens drunkenly through through the streets of L.A. with audacious Eazy-E acting as your unhinged tour guide. The Prelude recalls the sort of conceptual interlude Parliament specialized in, setting the tone for a particular sort of skit that would become an integral part of the landscape on West Coast records.
Where Compton had its share of hard, skeletal beats, the production feels slightly more fleshed out this time around (the Boyz-N-The Hood Remix notwithstanding). DJ Yella even gets in his first appearance behind the drum kit on 2 Hard Mutha's, an engaging sound that the group would engage in sporadically to fine effect. Even if Eazy-Duz-It doesn't hit with quite the same force as Straight Outta Compton, its incrementally looser rhythms and balanced sequencing do point the way toward the nineties.
The first record in this list to come from outside the N.W.A. organization, this is a collaboration between West Coast stalwart W.C. and DJ Aladdin. Low Profile made their first appearance on the previous year's Rhyme Syndicate Comin' Through compilation with the show-stealing Think You Can Hang?. That track isn't here, but this phenomenal record expands on its foundation. From W.C.'s deft, conscious microphone delivery to DJ Aladdin's loose, fleshed out production and devastating turntable skills, this is truly advanced technology for '89.
This is something of a conscious flipside of the coin to a lot of the game related platters listed here. I've often felt that this is something of a West Coast counterpart to Gang Starr's Step In The Arena. An off the wall comparison, perhaps, but I couldn't resist making it! Keep Em Flowin' even sounds like a Jazzmatazz beat! Just listen to How Ya Livin' back to back with Step In The Arena (the track) and tell me I'm crazy. Of course, We're In This Together came out a whole year earlier...
None of the records here are obscure, but for the longest time this one was incredibly hard to come by. You'd hear it whispered about by people in the know (it had a fearsome reputation as a lost classic), but you'd never see it in the shops. It was actually easier to track down on wax, along with the accompanying 12" singles. Well, Universal Japan has just stepped in with their Classic Hip Hop Best Collection 1000 reissue program, featuring this record among their first brace of releases. Don't sleep!
The D.O.C. was N.W.A.'s secret weapon. Starting out as a member of the Ruthless-affiliated Fila Fresh Crew, the Dallas native set out for L.A. where he ghost-wrote some of N.W.A.'s rhymes behind the scenes. Here, he gets his chance to shine. Portrait Of A Master Piece is a literally breathtaking fast-forward deluge showcasing the state-of-the-art flow of one of the great uptempo lyrical stylists. Through the entirety of this sterling LP, The D.O.C.'s mic skills are top notch.
This album catches Dr. Dre treating Audio Achievements as his own personal laboratory, further elaborating the sound of the previous records into a high-octane formula that he would continue to tweak over the next couple years. With a few exceptions, the drums are tighter and more compact (as opposed to the booming big beat of the earlier records), while the production has become more crisp and the rhythms increasingly fluid, with a greater emphasis on live musicians (not to mention further welcome appearances by Yella behind the kit).
The Formula, Let The Bass Go and the title track are the first attempts at chilling out the Ruthless sound, slowing the tempos and cooling out the atmosphere in the process: an important step on the road to g-funk's genesis. These tracks themselves aren't g-funk per se, but the production is certainly starting to move further in that direction. The closing track, The Grande Finalé is a stunning posse cut, featuring the entirety of the original N.W.A. rhyming over a tremendous build up (pinned down by another ace breakbeat from Yella). If I'm not mistaken, this is the last time the original group would all be heard together on record.
Old skool renegade from the N.W.A. posse strikes out solo. The Arabian Prince actually had a history stretching back much further than the rest of the group, operating as a contemporary of The Egyptian Lover in the era of Uncle Jamm's Army, and consequently, much of this record is built on a heavy electro undercarriage. That's no bad thing, since Brother Arab is right at home in the form. This is a fascinating sound that he cooks up here, existing midway between his earlier records like Strange Life, It Ain't Tough and the sounds Dre essayed on The D.O.C. album. Gettin' Down even locks a loping blues guitar loop into a hypnotic groove with planet rocking 808 beats.
However, the exceptions to the rule might be even even more compelling. Let The Good Times Roll Nickel Bag, a murky downbeat number built on an ever-tumbling breakbeat, is a fabulous bit of hip hop noir, while She's Got A Big Posse, the album's biggest single, rides a Zapp-esque bounce that totally prefigures the classic g-funk sound. To my mind, one of the crucial elements of g-funk is the linear quality of its groove, stretching horizontally into infinity (as opposed to hip hop's usual vertically arranged change-ups). What's missing here is the greater emphasis on live musicianship and those whining sine wave synths, but the groove is definitely in the same ballpark. Still not textbook g-funk, but certainly strong enough shades in evidence to warrant a proto- prefix.
This one's a giant step forward. Dr. Dre had a hand in producing this LP for these Ruthless proteges. Above The Law introduce a rolling, cinematic sweep to this music, evoking OSTs like Shaft and Truck Turner in its widescreen sensibility. Menace To Society is essentially a gangster film in miniature, while Murder Rap samples Quincy Jones' Ironside theme, establishing an intense, maddening atmosphere.
Another key development is the fact that ATL often operates on a laidback tip, as on Flow On Move Me No Mountain and Another Execution. Even on the uptempo numbers, they bring a nonchalant gangster lean to this material that would become a crucial element of the g-funk equation. N.W.A. even makes a cameo on The Last Song, certainly the most leisurely beat they'd yet been involved with.
ATL's Cold 187um and LayLaw later claimed to have invented the g-funk sound (developing it further on the following year's Vocally Pimpin' EP), influencing Dre in the process. Whatever the veracity of those claims, it's clear that this is the next step in the evolution, whether instigated by Above The Law or Dr. Dre (or both). The crew continued to hit hard on their second LP, Black Mafia Life, an excellent follow up that exists just outside the timeframe of this list: although it was completed before The Chronic, it wasn't released until early '93.
I've included three major N.W.A. records here, so crucial are they to the L.A. story. There's just no getting around their centrality. This EP was released on the heels of Ice Cube's AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and the title track seems to take on aspects of that record's monster production by The Bomb Squad. A widescreen epic running at a breakneck pace, it finds Dre splitting the difference between those uptempo D.O.C. tracks and Above The Law's cinematic sweep.
This EP also marks the beginning of the group's descent into pure nastiness, with Just Don't Bite It's lush production backing the sort of off-color humor that would really come to the fore on the following record. Still, Dre's production finesse is continuing to develop at a staggering rate. The intricate breakbeat rhythm of Real Niggaz and Sa Prize Part 2's liquid groove both demonstrate the new forms that were materializing at Audio Achievements. If there were a symbolic midpoint between Straight Outta Compton and The Chronic, then this must be it.
WC again! Another Texan transplant (a bit of a pattern here), WC was always on his own level with a sort of street-level consciousness that always managed to sidestep preachiness and never failed to carry a fatal sting. This record finds The Maad Circle in its prime, with Coolio still in the fold (Fantastic Voyage and Gangsta's Paradise still a few years off), a steadfast Big Gee in evidence and kaleidoscopic production from Crazy Toones, Sir Jinx and WC himself.
It's tempting to read this LP as a bracingly aggressive, West Coast gangsta take on Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, so all-encompassing is its scope. With eagle eye observation and insight, tracks such as Fuck My Daddy (a rumination on the destructive impact of an abusive, no good, two-timing father) and Behind Closed Doors (a scathing indictment of police brutality — especially relevant in light of current events) tackle societal troubles head on and fill the corners of this LP with a richly detailed chronicle of life in south central L.A.
WC would later hook up with Ice Cube and Mack 10 in supergroup Westside Connection, finally receiving widespread recognition and going double-platinum in the process. However, this and the Low Profile record remain absolutely essential listening, together offering a crucial glimpse into the man's unique breadth of vision. Both LPs certainly belong in any serious conversation about the best albums (hip hop or otherwise) to come out of L.A.
Ice Cube blazed a fierce trail through the early nineties, starting with his Bomb Squad produced debut, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, and running through Death Certificate and The Predator at a blistering pace of one album every year — BAM! BAM! BAM! — and all within the timeframe of this list. The Kill At Will EP, released just after his debut, is my absolute favorite record of his. As a matter of fact, this just missed inclusion in The Parallax 100 (a decision that still keeps me up at night).
Building on the sonic foundation of The Bomb Squad's work, this EP's masterful beat construction — by Sir Jinx, Chilly Chill and Ice Cube himself behind the boards — result in some of his absolute finest moments. The Product is a searing avalanche of fury, and one of the hardest hip hop tracks ever conceived (in both form and content). Cube weaves like a boxer through this densely-populated sonic matrix, chronicling the unforgiving circumstances that conspire to drag a young brother under, all while riding a jagged, amped up breakbeat. Jackin' For Beats showcases a rotating selection of hype rhythm tracks, switching them up rapid fire beneath one of the fiercest flows in the business.
Dead Homiez is the flipside of the coin, with Cube reflecting on the mortality of himself and everyone around him over his own moody, half-lit downbeat production. There's a barely concealed desperation that creeps in through the cracks here, adding further context to the record's hardest moments. In just over twenty minutes, this EP runs the spectrum from rage to sorrow in an uncompromising vision of the world.
As mentioned earlier, Ice-T looms large over L.A. hip hop, seemingly coming out of nowhere improbably early to lay the groundwork for the whole operation. Despite his comfortable niche with Law And Order nowadays, he deserves non-stop props for his trailblazing work as an innovator on the West Coast. His first three LPs are all crucial records, each providing an evolutionary step forward in development. O.G. Original Gangster finds him taking this sound into the nineties, moving with the times into an ever-funkier direction.
This is a sprawling double-LP that paradoxically finds Ice-T tightening his game. It sits comfortably with the surrounding records in this list, taking in some of their aspects even as it expands on them with a nearly unmatched breadth of vision. DJ Aladdin produces a handful of tracks here, including the awesome New Jack Hustler (originally appearing — along with Ice-T himself — in the excellent film New Jack City). The production is some of the loosest around, beats swerving and diving with a nimble touch, and often running at lightning speed. Ice-T is razor sharp on the mic, as usual, dropping gems left and right (I'm raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro). Even the interludes are unforgettable.
The final N.W.A. album is a production tour de force. The beats on this record are simply phenomenal, taking the developments of 100 Miles And Runnin' to their logical conclusion. Dre's production arguably reaches its pinnacle of elegance here, weaving intricate tapestries of lush texture through sticky funk basslines and crisply executed breakbeats, resulting in one of the most compelling sounds in rap music (or any other, for that matter).
Rock hard tracks like Approach To Danger and Real Niggaz Don't Die recall Compton even as they transcend it, improbably revealing a turn-on-a-dime agility beneath their monumental heaviness. Both tracks are shot through with an unresolved tension that reaches its apex in the frenetic roll of Appetite For Destruction. Stretching even further toward the future, Alwayz Into Somethin' — laidback, cooled out and boasting those whining sine wave synths — is generally considered to be the first true g-funk tune to hit the shops.
Despite sagging into a mid-record sequence where the blue humor gets out of hand and veers into the intentionally offensive, the production remains top-notch throughout the entirety of this LP. In fact, it would easily stand on its own as an instrumental record. Dr. Dre would leave N.W.A. within the year, the group dissolving shortly after into solo careers, concluding one of the most impressive winning streaks in hip hop and quitting at the top of their game. For further reading, this excellent L.A. Times article1 is essential reading for anyone remotely interested in the N.W.A. story.
This is an unabashed party record, featuring a handful of uptempo numbers (reaching their frenetic peak in Tear It Off) but generally easing back into a first-rate selection of West Coast bounce. DJ Quik had the linear g-funk thang down from the word go, spooling deep, funky grooves out into infinity. Part of Quik's appeal is the fact his sound seems to spring directly from the old school electrofunk sound of One Way and Kleeer, transforming that sound into something that could weather the '90s.
Speaking of Kleeer, Quik Is The Name features an interpolation of their immortal Tonight in the rolling, endless Tonite, surely a textbook example of g-funk proper that prefigures the sound writ large on both The Chronic and Doggystyle. These moves continue in 8 Ball and permeate the entirety of this thoroughly loose LP. Quik's Groove, a gentle instrumental, lets the beats speak for themselves and betray Quik's love of pure electric funk.
The closing Skanless is an engaging slice of slow-motion downbeat featuring AMG, Hi-C and 2nd II None, seemingly hewn from a longer marathon groove. In 1991, DJ Quik was also involved with Hi-C's Skanless and AMG's Bitch Betta Have My Money, the latter of which is an even looser, albeit less consistent, loony cousin to this record's non-stop party moves. The other day, I forgot to mention this video,2 an amusing interview with DJ Quik at Amoeba Records, and this seems as good a time as any to get in a mention.
It's difficult to choose the best CMW record. The outfit's first three albums, released in quick succession — one a year — starting in 1990, all have their strong points to recommend them. I tend to go back and forth. This one — their second — stands out for its loping downbeat rhythms and desolate atmosphere, what Peter Shapiro brilliantly referred to as DJ Slip's dark jazz.3MC Chill was sentenced to prison between the release of CMW's debut — It's A Compton Thang — and the sessions for Straight Checkn 'Em, leaving MC Eiht as the solitary vocal presence, further cementing the prevailing mood of downcast isolation in evidence throughout.
With Slip and The Unknown DJ behind the mixing desk, the approach here seems to prefigure Dre's for the epochal Deep Cover (even if nothing here hits quite as hard as that tune). There's a casual fatalism to tracks like Def Wish and Growin' Up In The Hood that mark this LP out as a tour de force of gangsta-noir. Can I Kill It? even slips into the classic Footsteps In The Dark beat a whole year before Ice Cube would use it as the basis for his immortal It Was A Good Day. Indeed, whole sections of this record predict not only the sound of hip hop's eventual descent into darkness, but even seem to raise the spectre of trip hop's twisted methodology.
Ready to leave N.W.A. and strike out on his own, Dr. Dre formed Death Row Records with Suge Knight and The D.O.C., kicking off the next chapter of the L.A. story. Dre's first solo record was Deep Cover (from the soundtrack to film of the same name), featuring vocals from a then-unknown Snoop Doggy Dogg. A Death Row release in all but name — it technically came out on Solar — Deep Cover was the first warning shot of things to come on Dre's full-length debut.
Snoop's off the wall personality inhabits this record. Tracks like Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat and The Day The Niggaz Took Over continue to develop the dread atmosphere of Deep Cover, yet that's only the tip of the iceberg. The Chronic is where Dre nails down g-funk as a formula, utilizing live musicians to create rolling epics such as Fuck Wit Dre Day and Nuthin' But A "G" Thang. It's important to note the importance of Dre's earlier experiments with smoother, more r&b-based material on his productions for artists like Michel'Le and Jimmy Z in developing the clean, polished sounds of The Chronic. The sun-glazed vibes of a track like Let Me Ride seem to flow directly from those smooth sonics.
Built on a sizable chunk of Parliament's Mothership Connection, Let Me Ride is just one example of p-funk's totemic importance throughout this record. Indeed, George Clinton interpolations are the order of the day here, cropping up all over the place. Between L.A. and Detroit, Clinton's influence seemed to be everywhere in the nineties. If you were aiming for the dancefloor — be it hip hop, r&b or techno — p-funk loomed large over the decade's excursions into rhythm.
Remaking hip hop in the image of earthshaking electric funk, The Chronic changed the face of West Coast rap and became its dominant sound for the foreseeable future. It's usually a stretch to put sea changes down to a single record, but this truly is a case where one record did provide that watershed moment. At the height of the sampladelic age, it opened rap up once again to the possibilities of both live playing and synthesized textures on the widest scale imaginable.
As its sound quickly spread worldwide, reverberations began to be felt everywhere, and one could largely trace the direction hip hop has taken in the ensuing years back to this record. Much like Straight Outta Compton before it, The Chronic catalyzed a whole new thing into existence that had to be acknowledged one way or the other. The rest is history...