I've always loved this quote from Derrick May, which is quite crisply evocative of the rich undercurrents of depth and mystery running through techno music. Actually, I'm worried I might be paraphrasing somewhat (in fact, it's rather likely, since I can't seem to find the interview I heard it in anywhere). But what the hell, it's a great quote and really ought to be in wide circulation. I'm willing to risk it... so there you go. Needless to say, if anyone can point me in the right direction for the original interview, I'd be most grateful...
Anyway... Techno. Born in the shadows of Detroit's 1980s progressive scene and forged in the unforgiving crucible of the global stage, it's truly one of the key building blocks of modern music — alongside house and hip hop — in the post-disco diaspora. One could trace a thin line leading back to 1970s Düsseldorf, all the way back to the Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, when excavating its prehistory.
As Kodwo Eshun brilliantly put it, Düsseldorf is the Mississippi Delta, and expanding on that idea, Kraftwerk are to Techno as Muddy Waters is to The Rolling Stones.1Detroit is where the sleek German engineering of Computer World got rebuilt like an American muscle car, souped up for its joyride across dancefloors the world over. Juan Atkins just plugged it all in.
To further extend the metaphor, Atkins' Metroplex was to Sun Records as Derrick May's Transmat was to Chess (with Fragile standing in for Cadet), with Kevin Saunderson's KMS corresponding to Atlantic Records. Ok, ok, I realize that the timeline is inverted, but please believe the comparisons are airtight! You've got the laboratory on one hand and the conservatory on the other, with the proto-Motown assembly line of KMS/Atlantic waiting in the wings. And at that point, it's time to play domination.
Very quickly, it becomes a global affair. You've got vibrant forms springing up all over the place, from Sheffield bleep 'n bass to Belgian new beat and elegant Dutch techno to London ardkore. Auteurs start springing up everywhere, untethered to any sort of centralized scene (albeit often in orbit of crucial outposts like Warp, Sublime and R&S). The meme spreads and mutates and spreads and mutates and spreads... it's a beautiful thing.
The interesting thing to note with techno is how nearly everyone knows the term but so often they haven't actually heard any. Has there ever been a genre so misunderstood? Images of 2 Unlimited and Dance Dance Revolution hang in the public consciousness, even if neither have nothing much to do with techno qua techno. If you tell someone you listen to techno, chances are what they're hearing in their head isn't techno at all but some caricature drawn in broad strokes (the phrase boom boom boom springs to mind).
So at some point I just started saying Detroit Techno when the subject comes up. Not because I'm some sort of purist (I've actually got no time whatsoever for the impulse), but because it short circuits all the pitfalls that might wrong-foot whoever I'm talking with. Suddenly, you're starting from scratch rather than working against a bunch of assumptions. And you've reimbued the term with a sense of mystery which was its birthright all along...
I'd dug dance music in it's various forms going back to Janet Jackson circa Control (hell, Michael Jackson circa Thriller), running alongside the new wave of Depeche Mode and the Talking Heads on through what you'd call early indie dance (New Order and Big Audio Dynamite). Plus the obligatory swingbeat and hip hop, things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, Wreckx-N-Effect's Rump Shaker and the Jungle Brothers. All of which seemed to flow naturally into things like Massive Attack, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Still... I can remember like it was yesterday when I got hit by the straight stuff.
It came in the form of Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, and it quite simply blew my mind wide open. This was like everything I'd ever loved in music, only more so. Pure, uncut. I remember wondering about all the names on there: Who is this mysterious Outlander (R&S sorted me out right quick)? What sort of crew is Octave One (for whatever reason, I imagined them as a gang of Germans)? Why are half of these tracks credited to Dobre & Jamez (because they're awesome)?!
From there it was a short step to discovering techno strongholds like Submerge, R&S and Studio !K7 (surfing a rather hardcore crest at the time). I was set for life. I still remembering placing my first mail order, getting things like Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation, Octave One's The Living Key (To Images From Above) and Drexciya's The Quest on a hot summer afternoon. Give all those to a high school kid in the late 90s and see what happens!
As a kid, I grew up in various apartments with my parents — who were actually quite young in retrospect (usually around a decade younger than the parents of my peers) — and later my brother Brian once he came along. We moved once a year for the first five years of my life before sneaking into the suburbs once school started. I remember nothing quite made sense again. The kids were different (some awful kids, truth be told! But some cool ones too... it all evens out), etc. Whatever. I suppose I should have adapted, and I suppose that in my own way I did, but then I always was a dreamer...
I used to dream to books, movies, video games... whatever I could get my hands on. I remember just laying on my back looking up at the sky, imagining other worlds. Then, around junior high music hit me full force. Before that I'd been into music at the level of osmosis, the ambient sounds around when you're young, but suddenly it was everywhere! I was feelin' it MAN!!
Like I said, stuff like new wave, hip hop, r&b, certain alternative records. I suppose deep, rhythmic music always appealed to me at the most basic level. Intercut it with a heavy sense of harmonic mystery, and I'm sold.
So when I came across techno it was a match made in heaven.
Walking around town, it wasn't the sound of Nas or Nirvana that would swirl in my mind, but things like 69's Ladies & Gentlemen, Mental Cube's Q and Jark Prongo's Spadet (that and Tricky's Aftermath, Primal Scream's Trainspotting and Bomb The Bass's One To One Religion Skankapella Mix on the downbeat flipside). It all seemed to move at the speed of life. At the end of the day, the vibes just synced up with my frequency I suppose...
So what do I like about techno? For one, it's the frequency, the vibe. Amiri Baraka's changing same. That low-slung groove, the scratchy high-end funk chopping between the beats, the compression of ideas. It's the Bug In The Bass Bin, the ever present spectre malfunktion that nevertheless pulses faithfully on. It's the ghosts of jazz and funk and kosmische and disco and industrial and juju lying just beneath the surface.
Not to mention the sense of longing, the alien wonder running through its core. It's Stranger In A Strange Land music, so naturally it made sense to me. Connected to the earth, the stones beneath my feet, but always surrounded by strangers. Something like Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped by Digital Justice makes the point better than I ever could... I mean where the hell else are you gonna find something like that but in techno?
It all routes back to a time when I used to dream about living alone on Mars (ha, used to he says!), riding some ancient starship with vast corridors and digital readouts in vivid crimson, three-year-old dreams back on Mollison in the hazy afternoons of late summer. Come to think of it, that was the last time I had a room of my own until college!
Space in both sense of the words. Room to think, room to breathe! That's what I found in techno. No matter what was going on, I could put on some headphones and play Dark Energy's Midnite Sunshine and everything would come into focus (or drift out of focus, if need be).
Put simply, it was an escape route into the rest of my life, when things would begin to make just a little bit more sense. Future music that gave me the gift of a future. Its beat pulsed faithfully like lights along a runway, guiding that starship into the pitch black darkness of the midnight sky. And all along, without a doubt, it helped a young brother find his way...
There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul.
The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularly germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in.
Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
If we're talking day-glo, then there's no better place to start than with The Beat. Coming from the late-seventies ska revival (as spearheaded by The Specials and their Two-Tone stable of artists), they stand out by virtue of their sumptuous sonic palette. The Specials debut — with its stark black-and-white sleeve design and Elvis Costello's no-frills live-in-the-studio production — was thoroughly monochromatic working week music. From the baleful tenor of Concrete Jungle to the dead-end doldrums of Too Much Too Young, it was packed with no-nonsense photo-realistic documentary reportage.
In contrast, I Just Can't Stop It leaps out the speakers in vivid shades of violet and magenta, like neon lights dancing against the jet black of night. Mirror In The Bathroom, from the production on down, must be one of the most futuristic records ever produced. With five humans locked into the metronomic pulse of Everett Morton's drums and David Steele's creeping basslines, it almost seems to approach a state of machine music in its motorik drive and clockwork precision, with every texture clutching at your ear and pulling you deeper into its world.
You can sense the glitz of disco seeping into the post punk vanguard here,1 cementing the day-glo aesthetic that would color so much of the decade's music. An affinity with Giorgio Moroder's motor-disco, the spangled shapes of Prelude and above all the tropical, dubbed-out sounds of the nascent Island disco output can be felt throughout. The music spread across the entirety of this LP seems to exude a balmy glow, practically defining the word vibrant. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it remains one of my absolute favorite pure pop records of all time.
This is the point where post-disco morphs into eighties electro-boogie (see also Kleeer/Universal Robot Band, along with everything going down in Minneapolis at the time). You're The One For Me maintains the metronomic linearity of disco, lacking the top-heavy verticality of eighties electrofunk, but its machine rhythms do bear a striking resemblance to those of the electro boom looming on the horizon.
James Williams' soaring vocals swoop and glide over spangled synthetic shapes, wired into that central electronic groove, while Hubert Eaves III (the man behind the seventies jazz funk tile Esoteric Funk) gets busy on the keys. The instrumental version even begins with a liquid synth figure that sounds like loose wires shooting electricity across the third rail, kicking off a wild subway ride into the depths of the New York night.
Indeed, the whole Prelude aesthetic sits comfortably within the day-glo realm, from the rambunctious electronic shapes of The Strikers' Body Music, shifting and burning over tight mechanical rhythms, to the more organic sounds of Empress' Dyin' To Be Dancin', still firmly grounded as they are in the rules of disco proper.
Much of it has a vivid, compact clarity that seems to predict the architecture of eighties dance, but D-Train's You're The One For Me represents that crucial step forward, heralding a sea change in the way dance records would be constructed. Just compare 1980's Gap Band III to 1982's Gap Band IV, Cameosis to Alligator Woman or even Off The Wall to Thriller!
Another well-documented favorite of mine. It's also another singular pop record shaped in disco's shadow, combined with the arch grandeur of film music in an overwhelming clash of sonics. A definite case where the sleeve really captures the sumptuous moods found within. This music suggests ornate ice sculptures spiraling into the sky, crammed with so much richness of detail that they threaten to come crashing down at any moment, while Billy MacKenzie's shrieks pierce through their crystalline corridors with wild abandon. Every texture seems to pulsate fiercely, wherein unstable elements garland paranoia and raging emotion: this is blacklight affair music.
Songs like It's Better This Way and Skipping careen at a furious pace, seeming to combine euphoria and dread into a single emotion, every surface shimmering like storm clouds caught in a ray of sunlight. Conversely, No and Gloomy Sunday glide along at a more stately pace — with MacKenzie almost seeming to revel in his grief — but are no less overwhelmingly powerful for it. Every corner of the record is imbued with a raging intensity, as if all the colors — shades of blue, green and violet — were burning too bright to last for long. The dreamlike Party Fears Two is something like the embodiment of this sensation.
The CD reissue includes a wealth of bonus material (up there with Fifth Dimension's bonus tracks in terms of enhancing the original album experience), including an astoundingly raw early version of It's Better This Way (titled The Room We Sat In Before) and the moody instrumental Grecian 2000. The former is a splendid showcase for Alan Rankine's guitar finesse, as he strangles strange tangled shapes from his instrument, while the latter is a masterpiece of electronic noir: a captivating post-disco pulse cloaked in a haunting synth refrain, evoking paranoid pursuit through deserted city streets in the dead of night.
Needless to say, it's exactly the sort of thing we dig here at The Parallax Room.
The Island disco sound that I'd mentioned in passing while discussing The Beat, was in large part fueled by the inimitable Compass Point All Stars. The All-Stars were a crucial conduit through which both discomix reggae and dubbed-out vibes entered the eighties mainstream, and everything they touched was shot through with lush tropical flavor and a new wave glow. They backed Gwen on her first three albums (Gwen Guthrie, Portrait and Just For You), picking up where they left off with Grace Jones' excellent Island trilogy (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing and Living My Life).
The Padlock mini-album finds Larry Levan remixing a selection of tracks from Gwen's first two LPs into one extended atmospheric trip. The production here conjures up images of a steamy dancehall bathed in primary colors as viewed through a fun house mirror, evoking the spirit of Levan's Paradise Garage in its verdant, gently psychedelic atmosphere.2 The abstract machinery of dub remains in full effect throughout, righteously casting this cutting edge post-disco boogie as the head music of the eighties. Just keep in mind, this is the sort of head music that you can't help but dance to.
Tracks like Getting Hot, with those glimmering electronic flourishes spiraling out into infinity, and Peanut Butter, riding atop those insane rolling basslines, both burn with a raw, almost tactile sensuality. Hopscotch appears here in its most minimal version, while the title track (as featured on Parallax Pier) gives you a front-row seat at Club Paradise. When Gwen sings We'll sail away to shores... in Seventh Heaven, backing synths pouring through in a rush of sunlight, it's as if the feeling of pure ecstasy has been captured on wax.
Soul woman Barbara Mason had a history in the seventies as a no-nonsense truth-talker, rough hewn and down in the nitty gritty, smoldering with hard-won intensity on records like Shackin' Up and Caught In The Middle. Coming out nearly a decade later, Another Man is a sequel of sorts to her ballad She's Got The Papers I Got The Man, picking up where that tune left off — once the dust had settled on its romantic intrigue — with a humorous tale of infidelity and the realization that she really might not be his type after all.
Another Man has the shadowy, dubbed-out flavor you'd expect from a West End record, but it's wired to a cutting edge electroid groove that seems to be infused with hot pink liquid neon. Like D-Train's You're The One For Me, it's another killer late-period record from a disco powerhouse label that seems to cavort with electro in the half-light, laying out a blueprint for the future in the process. Notorious B.I.G. later used its sleek, depth-charging groove as the basis for his hit record Another, but trust me — you need to hear the original tune in all its glory.
The title track is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of atmospheric machine soul (especially The After 6 Mix Juicy Fruit Part II version), while its striking music video3 perfectly captures the whole aesthetic on showcase tonight: day-glo and neon burning in the twilight. The florid magenta hues of those jackets they're wearing on the sleeve give you the first clue as to the vibes found within. Fog hangs over late night city streets bathed in neon. Cars creep in slow-motion by while the sounds of the corner disco seep out into the wider world, coloring the evening of the passers by.
This is post-disco funk music, fueled by rubberband basslines and twilight atmosphere (it's after six), cutting edge for its time it remains a pungent sound full of possibilities in the present. From Green Light's nimble, sure-footed boogie to the low key sway of Ready For Your Love, the group slide from dancefloor to bedroom with impeccable finesse. It all flows together so naturally, even as they take you to some unexpected places along the way (Hip Dip Skippedabeat is an electrofunk monster with a proto-rap that — in a strange twist of fate — recalls Lightnin' Rod's Hustlers Convention), that you can't help but get caught up in their moonlight vision. Without a doubt one of the great funk LPs of its era.
Compass Point's main keyboard man Wally Badarou strikes solo with an instrumental excursion that bravely expands on the groundwork laid out by the earlier Compass Point records, meshing lush jungle atmospherics with the power grid of the city. It's a rather astonishing tune to drop smack in the middle of the eighties, as it seems to predict whole swathes of the next decade's beat-oriented music even as it remains grounded in the gloriously lush post-disco climes of its day. The best of both worlds, in other words.
The original version — from his 1984 LP Echoes — was excellent, but the Vine Street mix on this 12" takes it to a higher plane altogether. When the verse's sleek groove unfolds into that insouciant low key moonwalk during the chorus — synths bathed in hypnotic half-light — it's as if you're gliding three feet above the ground. That it was released on 4th & Broadway is a perfect touch, as this was the label that would deftly navigate post-disco waters in the interzone between hip hop and house (charting the emergence of swingbeat and trip hop along the way). Rather appropriate for a record that plays like a roadmap to the future.
The original version, firmly of-its-era modern soul, gets stretched and spaced-out into timelessness by Andy Sojka (owner of Elite Records), Chris Madden and Keni Stevens himself at The Madhouse. The Ultra-Sensual Mix flows from its vocal to instrumental version flawlessly, recalling the low key half-lit brilliance of Lowrell's Mellow Mellow Right On when that tune memorably stretched out into its extended instrumental coda.
The central groove has been stripped down to an ultra-light frame and rebuilt like a graceful aero-glider, with not one element out of place. This has always struck me as something of a sister record to Barbara Mason's Another Man, those same sleek machine shapes grooving gently in the shadows. Yeah, I've gone on before about its rolling deep blue vectors bathed in moonlight, and yeah it's something of a touchstone around these parts; it's still a tremendous record. Paradise and polygons, you're in the grid now.
Early Detroit bizzness, which finds Juan Atkins picking up where he left off with Cybotron and No UFO's, venturing even deeper into nocturnal atmosphere and dubbed-out electronic shapes. Night Drive Thru-Babylon is surely one of the key records of eighties. It's just perfect, with Atkins' narration riding atop an elegant, starkly minimal electroid groove.
He's bombing up and down deserted Detroit streets, encountering strange freaks and existential loneliness in the darkness. That beat, a perfection of the electro structure, glides along like a rebuilt street racer. The vessel is cast deep blue on black, rushing past in luminescent streaks on the highway, everything bathed in scattered rays of unnatural moonlight. You're feeling the dread in that bassline, tronix swooping and rising like sparks over shimmering synth surfaces in otherworldly harmony, and your hands slowly tighten on the wheel...
Late eighties post-disco action produced by Bob Blank (of Blank Tape Studios), with the fingerprints of one Arthur Russell in evidence throughout. Certainly many other Russell tracks could qualify here — the cavernous shapes of Dinosaur L's Corn Belt and Indian Ocean's madly abstract Treehouse/School Bell spring to mind immediately — but this one's low key brilliance sits most comfortably among present company. Its swirling texture and slow-motion groove seem to evoke the feeling of floating underwater,4 and as is usually the case when Russell is involved, that water is gonna be deep (inna Larry Heard stylee).
Every texture pulses, throbbing against that gently chugging rhythm like unsteady electrical current running through a wavering light bulb. Think early Carl Craig, particularly the Gaussian blurred strokes of his Retroactive and Psyche/BFC material, but here everything is vivid and hyper-textured. Lola Blank's untamed vocals burst in and out of the mix as if she were inhabited by different personalities, while Arthur Russell does his inimitably subtle backing vocal thing (see also Loose Joints' Is It All Over My Face) throughout, poised just on the edge of the mix and weaving around Lola's breezily captivating lead to satisfyingly hypnotic effect.
Such a beautiful record, filled with the most absorbing house music you could imagine, made simply and elegantly by two Chicago kids armed with not much more than a DX-7 synth and a TR-707 drum machine. The Virgo album is essentially an expansion on the Ride EP, doubling the tracklist and stretching out into a thoroughly engrossing, immersive sonic trip. Sure, the gorgeous sleeve gives tantalizing clues as to the sounds held within, but dropping the needle on the record still never fails to take my breath away.
Do You Know Who You Are?, cloaked in lush synths cast in deep aquamarine, throws smooth shapes at placid angles off the clubhouse walls; it's as if you've passed through a door into the backroom and wound up on the far side of the galaxy. Tracks like In A Vision and Ride persist on a course through deep space, with luminescent textures routed through a hall of mirrors, cascading gently into infinity.
Starting with Ride, a handful of songs feature murmured vocals, feeling like a soft-focus take on what Jamie Principle had been up to during the preceding four or five years, placing sensitive, introspective men among the machines. Here, the duo fade into the mix like ghostly apparitions. All The Time is one such moody burner (vocals glide over the shifting ocean surface, locked onto the horizon), while Never Want To Lose You has the duo sneaking Bowie-esque into the foreground while an uncredited female vocalist intones acid house phrases like move your body! and listen to that beat!.
This lush machine soul reaches its twin peaks in both Going Thru Life — with those cascading synths and stark piano lines in spiral orbit over the deepest bassline you could imagine — while the warm geometric pulses of School Hall anchor a touching missive that surpasses even Kraftwerk's Computer Love in teaching machines to cry. There's this recurring moment when everything stops and the bassline just hangs there for a second — in suspended animation — before dropping back into the mix in a tumble of tones... oh man, it's one of my favorite things in the world.
More prime deep house, this time from New York's Mark Wilson. The whole Nu Groove aesthetic fits snugly within this realm (things like Rhythm Masters, The Sound Vandals and Bobby Konders' records spring to mind immediately). In fact, I often think that Nu Groove picked up on what the Compass Point All Stars had done and ran with it, bringing it into the nineties with their singular, multifaceted take on deep house. It's a sound that folds disparate strands of dub reggae, hip hop and r&b into its digital disco, offering up a definitive New York take on house music and a crucial stepping stone into the next decade.
Go directly to the New York Mix. Every surface is immaculate: that rolling bassline rides a gliding, shuffling rhythm with impeccable finesse, while underwater synths pulse deep in the background (making it feel something like a distant cousin to Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector). That oceanic synth — springing as it does from deep within the mix — certainly helps strengthen the comparison, sounding strikingly similar to the one rolling beneath long stretches of Badarou's track. Tons of tones tumble in and out of the ether, scattered against light reflected off the cityscape, as all surrounding entities are submerged into the deep. Shimmering and aquatic, this is underwater music for real.
The next node in the sequence brings us to the UK. So appropriate that this follows, as I've often thought that Dougans and Cobain's early records owe a huge debt to not only the Nu Groove aesthetic but also Compass Point's: they wired that same verdant, kaleidoscopic atmosphere into rave's kinetic breakbeats and the stark futurism of Detroit. This is where the two meet.
A definite cyberpunk flavor can be felt throughout, with shades of Cabaret Voltaire lurking between the cracks and of course Buggy G. Riphead's gorgeous artwork remaining a key period signifier. The Blade Runner vibes are most apparent in the shades of paranoia threaded throughout the record, and also in tracks like Moscow and Central Industrial, with the duo living up to their chosen name.
Accelerator is the culmination of all their early records, released under names like Humanoid, Mental Cube and Indo Tribe (indeed, many of these tracks had already appeared in various forms on the four volumes of The Pulse EPs). The opening track, Expander, rolls in on clouds of foreboding before dropping into a loose breakbeat groove, the unstable synth notes of the chorus spiraling out into crimson swirls.
On the flipside, Central Industrial closes the record with a staggering downbeat rhythm, each and every texture piercing into the darkness like an early prototype of the duo's Yage visions. In between lies all manner of magic, from the freewheeling calypso shapes of Stolen Documents (yet another track that seems to recall Badarou's Chief Inspector) to the sumptuous shades of While Others Cry, with its uncredited vocals seeming to connect literally to the tropical flair of Compass Point.
A key ingredient running through many of the tracks is a riverbed of percussion lying just below the surface, placed within dubbed-out caverns of echo (see tracks like It's Not My Problem and 1 In 8)5 while another is the near-constant stream of subspace breakbeats threaded through a 4/4 techno beat-matrix. Tracks like Calcium and Pulse State unveil shimmering vistas, hypnotic swirls of sound painted in vibrant color against Monet-like skies. These are some of the album's deepest moments, during which FSOL perfect a sort of rolling, filmic techno, as if a perpetual motion machine's course had been charted into the sunset.
Then there's the matter of Papua New Guinea, which rides a slice of gently unfurling breakbeat magic over a bassline lifted from Meat Beat Manifesto's Radio Babylon, prefiguring the path of rampant sampladelia the duo would engage in for the remainder of the decade. Further related capers can be found on its 12" single, with an excellent Dub Mix and the Journey To Pyramid version in particular shot through with the vivid colors of a certain day-glo psychedelia.
The one you want is Guido's Aquasonic Ice Rink Dub. Check that bassline, the awesome DX-100 bass sound that graced hundreds of records from the era, sparring with the nagging refrain of an after hours organ emerging in violet shades from the darkness. The vocal version is no less special, with the presence of an uncredited dancefloor diva wailing defiantly against the track's sumptuous nocturnal backdrop.
I still remember stumbling upon this record at an indispensable thrift shop (whose name eludes me) that once existed down the street from the Clairemont Library back when I worked there after school. The place was a goldmine of dance and hip hop promos that had apparently been shed by local DJs in an effort to pare down their collections. I used to drop by every Thursday during my lunch break and pull loads of killer garage and rap cuts for next to nothing, so I've gotta give props to those cats for hooking a young (broke) brother up back in the day.
Lush, melodic Bay Area hip hop. The cognoscenti seem to prefer his earlier Playaz N The Game, but I reckon that this one's his masterpiece. Every surface seems to exude a warm glow as shapes shimmer in the darkness and colors get scattered at random. From the title on downwards, it's as if JT had immersed himself in the studio on a mission to conjure up the most amazingly vibrant sounds possible, smearing the rough-hewn edges of these homespun studio mixes into a sleek flow of rolling machine music. The result is casually psychedelic, but electrofunk tight.
All techno heads must hear Root Of All Evil immediately. Like E-40's In A Major Way, with its astonishing shades of Drexciya atmosphere, this seems to share an affinity with those same plangent computer sonics (via West Coast rap's roots in electro). The drums snap with a quintessential coastal crispness that dates back to the days of Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover, while the bass itself seems to melt into the spaces between.
JT's tight flow is augmented here by guest spots from Rappin' 4-Tay and San Quinn, along with other Bay Area luminaries like E-40, Mac Mall and Celly Cell elsewhere on the record, while shadowy figure The Enhancer crops up behind the boards on both Representing and the aforementioned Root Of All Evil. Free-flowing horizontal grooves like Ain't Something Wrong and Bay Area Playaz perfectly capture the feeling of cruising down the 5 as the late afternoon blurs into evening, the world half-lit somewhere between darkness and daylight (like in the movies), while the sun and moon ease onto the horizon at opposite ends of the sky.
Glorious technoid house from Chicago original Marshall Jefferson, released on the heels of his Day Of The Onion album but surpassing it in every way. That's a whole mini-category right there... Robert Owens' I'll Be Your Friend and Romanthony's The Wanderer spring to mind immediately. At any rate, I suppose that trilogy sits so comfortably together also because they're each instances of brilliant house artistes operating at the peak of their powers to forge masterful statements of futurist soul. All three of them stone cold classics.
The Horse is a fast-forward house rhythm, 909 snares bouncing everywhere — sparks shooting royal blue into the night, every surface glistening — and evoking the feeling of careening at top speed down the freeway in the middle of the night. The flipside almost sounds like something Kevin Saunderson might have knocked off during the same era — just think of The Dream, or even the E-Dancer remix of Blackwater — with a grinding bassline and rough cut percussion battling in full effect throughout.
Pairing these tunes together was a stroke of genius, as the 12" taken as a whole seems to stand astride the twin worlds of house and techno, its unshakable trancelike shapes shimmering gloriously in the milieu of late-nineties dance.
Around the turn of the century, the minimal sound of micro-house revealed itself to be one of the leading hot spots in dance music for a spell. In truth, it's a sound that had been bubbling under for the better part of five years, but its sleek, gliding surfaces seemed the perfect sound to take house into the 21st century. Labels like Force Tracks and Kompakt became powerhouses, practically defining the sound in the public imagination.
The form threw up loads of great 12"s and even a handful of excellent albums, but — with the possible exception of Isolée's Rest — this one is my absolute favorite. It's a wholly surreal record that slips and slides through six deeply hypnotic missives of luminescent alien disco, perfectly capturing the state between consciousness and sleep... when dreams can bleed out into reality. Every track lasts ten minutes or longer, gliding on liquid machinery and fixed to the endless horizon, pairing lush machine shapes with seductive (and uncredited) human vocals.
The jazzed-out, three-dimensional electronic chords of Market set the stage, sparring with a squelching bass figure that gradually gains momentum, before swooping into a kinetic groove at the track's midpoint that seems to rearrange itself before your eyes. Getting down to the root of the matter, the flowing motorik drive of The Right Wing is closest thing here to the dubbed out techno of Basic Channel, who without question had a profound influence on the whole micro-house/minimal scene.6
Luomo share a similar mastery of the architecture of atmosphere, and employ it on a shadowy dancefloor half-lit in the moonlight under the stars. My absolute favorite moment, Synkro, is also the record's most spacious, with fathoms deep disco set adrift in a neon haze. Every element so lush that you feel as if you're swimming in its fluid textures as they tumble and cascade over one another. The mix practically defines the term four-dimensional.
Matching the deft play of mood and texture throughout this record is some truly stellar songcraft. Even without its heady production, Tessio would make for an excellent pop song. With the production factored in, the track is quite simply mind-bending, scattering those spongy bass tattoos — that seem to slide and shift gears beneath a clicking rhythm track — all across the soundscape, as two mystery singers engage in a fractal duet. Listening in feels like you're surfing waves of blurred emotion.
Throughout their tenure as Atlanta's unofficial hip hop ambassadors, Outkast had traded in verdant shapes and sounds. As far back as ATLiens, and even on their debut Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, their music always seemed to exude a warm neon glow. Stankonia is the culmination of everything the duo had been up to during the nineties, and finds them descending even deeper into a sort of psychedelic machine soul.
The vibrant technicolor dream of Ms. Jackson is universally known (and deservedly so) — its lush sonic imagery could be heard everywhere at the time — and to this day it remains a masterpiece. The spectre of Prince looms large throughout, not only in Andre 3000's vocal moves but also in the record's dense, multi-faceted synth-led sound. Indeed, songs like Ms. Jackson and Humble Mumble seem imbued with the spirit of Paisley Park.
The electra glide textures of Zapp, Mtume and Kleeer, are in evidence throughout, laying the groundwork for the next decade's glorious blurring of hip hop, funk and r&b. I'll Call Before I Come gets into undeniable Atomic Dog territory, but Stankonia goes even deeper into the realm of Funkadelic with the twisted psychedelic soul of the title track. Between its Eddie Hazel/Jimi Hendrix guitar figure and that wailing group chant, it conjures the same dread vibes as March To The Witch's Castle and predicts Brain On Drugs a couple years ahead of schedule.
This long, strange trip curdles with Red Velvet's gnarled computer funk and the strung out psychedelic soul of Toilet Tisha, offering a starkly modern update of Superfly for the new millennium. Perhaps nothing sums up the record quite like ?, a strange junglist sketch and the album's shortest track, it's title hovering over these proceedings like a spotlight... hinting perhaps that even to this day, Stankonia remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma: try as you might, you'll never get to the bottom of this one.
Seeing these last three records together makes the turn of the century seem like some sort of golden age! Well, I suppose it was, after all. Jaxx's debut Remedy was easily the better record, but its sonics were sourced in wild pitch house and seventies disco (with Rendezvous and Red Alert coming on like turbo-charged Studio 54 gear).
Rooty, on the other hand, seemed informed by the new wave eighties (with the duo at the time referring to their sound as punk garage), and moves beyond house into a sort of crazed maximalist boogie (I think they've got the kitchen sink in there somewhere). Which, of course, makes it right at home in present company...
Hard-edged tracks like Where's Your Head At (built around a renegade Gary Numan riff) and Get Me Off roll with reckless abandon through the gutters of the red light district, trading in just the sort of sleazy, low-slung glamour that I wish pop could manage to muster in 2016 (although next year will be another story altogether, I'm sure of it... fingers crossed!).
Like contemporary Outkast, the duo channel Prince in Breakaway, sounding like a wild fairground ride experienced through a cracked fun house mirror, while the album-opening Romeo recalls Sheila E. Coming on like Remedy gone freestyle, its squelching synths seem shot through with hot pink liquid neon.
Two years earlier, Jaxx paid tribute to the machine soul moves of Timbaland with U Can't Stop Me, a strung out slice of stop-start machine funk built on an approximation of the man's trademark spidery beat matrix. Circa 2001, it looked like they'd returned the favor, with Timbaland's work on Missy Elliott's 4 My People and The Neptunes' productions for Britney Spears (Toxic, in particular) sounding like dead ringers for the relentless house sound of Basement Jaxx.
Golden age is right!
That initial run of Metro Area EPs were excellent, picking up where The Driving Memoirs left off, but introducing an expansiveness to the proceedings and opening up the soundscape considerably. This record is a culmination of those earlier releases, encapsulating a very special time with incredibly crisp, deep production that stands comfortably with the best records of the turn-of-the-eighties era that it's so clearly inspired by.
Dan Selzer's stunning sleeve art really captures the mood here, all those half-lit mystery dancefloors out of the past, present and future. I played this one over and over at the time, even if I thought that Morgan Geist's contemporary Moves EP was even better. Now I'm not so sure. This is one of those records that takes a sound previously confined to 12" singles and tucked away on b-sides and gives it room to breathe across an entire double-LP.
The record kicks off with two tracks featuring the tight string arrangements of Kelley Polar. I've always though that Dance Reaction sounded a bit like a long lost dub of Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough. The first record seems to emphasize live musicianship, with everything from piano to terse vocal harmonies and even acoustic guitar embellishing the warm, uncomplicated soundscapes. Piña rides a Latin piano figure before slipping into Spanish guitar for the placid, dreamy coda. Itis Tandoor's live percussion runs through half the tracks here, opening up the sound considerably into a tactile, physical experience.
The string section and live playing give way to gorgeous machine disco on the second record, where things get down and dirty in a moody stylee. Those bright spangled synths take over, bouncing off the nightclub walls all around the listener as if Super Breakout had gone musical. I've always thought that Soft Hoop was this record's quiet masterpiece, that spongy synth sparring with the bassline in chambers of the deep, while Atmosphrique traps the listener in its hall of mirrors with an almost psychedelic play of, you guessed it, atmosphere.
The closing Caught Up seems a fusion of both sides of this record, pairing the strings of the Kelley Polar Quartet and a gorgeous piano/organ duet with the rubberband synths and dubbed-out rhythms of the last four tracks in a moving conclusion to a quietly powerful record.
Nearly everything this crew put out would be eligible, but this one's here for a few reasons and they all have to do with the b-side, Death Of A Star SUPERNOVA. First, those blacklight synths that seem to spray across the track like day-glo champagne, bathing its chanted vocals even as they threaten to take center stage. Second, those guitar trills that seem to recall nothing so much as peak-era Duran Duran, driving the beat before shearing off into the distance.
Third, is the energy, the fire and the tune itself — after all, it wouldn't mean anything if it were just a finely executed pastiche — marking it out as one of the tunes of the decade. Conjuring images of some outer rim nightclub nestled among the stars, its cosmic disco spheres orbiting as they cast glimmering lights all across the firmament. And yea, this is another sleeve that perfectly illustrates everything the record's about.
This is the point where the day-glo impulse really came into focus again and began to catch fire underground, culminating in a lot of the best music from the last decade or so. The strung out auto-tune r&b of Double Dutch CO CO POPS predicts the sound of the latter half of the decade, even if I've never been crazy about it.
As usual, however, the instrumentals are something special. SA-RA Space Theme is a low-key entry in their line of astral jazz outings — picking up where Herbie Hancock and Dexter Wansel left off — sounding for all the world like Herbie and Sly Stone jamming circa Fresh. Hangin' By A String, on the other hand, comes on like liquid neon, staggering along on a stop-start beat it seems to have been synthesized from unstable, radioactive elements. Part of SA-RA's charm lies in the fact that no one else sounds remotely like them.
I liked the first Gorillaz record a lot, so at first I missed the dubbed-out vibes of Dracula and Clint Eastwood. I got over it pretty quick though, as this is very much the superior record. What's more, parts of it seemed to key into the machine funk of Kleeer and Mtume... who would have guessed!? Check that synth squiggle in Feel Good Inc., featuring De La Soul in fine form, rough house rhyming over an electroid beat that cuts out just in time for the acoustic Staring At The Sun-esque chorus.
The sound at first seems more stripped down than the first record, but its really just a sleeker, more aero-dynamic approach. Tracks like Kids With GunsNeneh Cherry and El Mañana are skeletal tunes built on spartan drum machine rhythms and glistening analogue tones. Opener Last Living Souls is cut from the same cloth, only in slow-motion. All Alone features Roots Manuva doing his bashment thang over roughneck breakbeat riddims and a garage bassline while Martina Topley-Bird swoops in angelic and sublime for the breakdown.
The masterful Dirty Harry is that rare track to feature a children's chorus that works, spiraling into electro-funk territory once it really gets going and sounding like a dream version of something from Whodini's Escape. When The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown drops in on the mic for the guest spot, a ragged breakbeat takes over with its grinding bass accompaniment.
Dare is just perfection. Clearly one of the finest songs of the decade, it seems to pick up where the Dazz Band left off before immersing it all in vast cathedrals of sound. The record goes through various twists and turns before ending in a bizarre Brian Wilson hinterland, with Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey's Head featuring Dennis Hopper's narration (recalling old-time radio serials like Escape and The Mysterious Traveller) and the sumptuous Surf's Up moves of Don't Get Lost In Heaven, before swerving into the Rotary Connection-esque Broadway soul of the title track.
This double-CD (5xLP!!) album is the perfect distillation of decades of West Coast machine soul, ranging from the rolling basslines of g-funk to the computerized rhythms of electro, taking in the squiggling shapes of Solar Records, boogie and even mysterious shades of straight-up techno for good measure along the way.
Every track seems bathed in computer blue moonlight, wired up to neon (literally LAtrifying, as one song puts it) and drifting through a dreamlike haze. It's the perfect soundtrack to those late summer evenings spent cruising the sprawling web of city streets in the south side of California, just as dusk begins to fall, palm trees cycling by in the rear view mirror.
I certainly can't think of a record that better encapsulates the vibe of late afternoons and late nights down here in San Diego. It's the sound of crashing waves, the freeway stretching through rolling hills in burnt sienna and the grid of the city nestled within, the calm heat of the desert hanging wraithlike in the air. It's the sound of late night trips to your favorite taco shop, cruising down El Cajon Boulevard at midnight, or flipping through a stack of Parliament and Zapp records at your homeboy's spot. It's a million different memories all rolled into one, drifting bittersweet and beautiful out of the past like a mirage.
For instance, I Gots 2 Be Done Wit' U always takes me back to August of '95 and afternoons spent listening to One Way and Kleeer, soaking up their atmosphere while playing Atari 2600. Later I'd go roller-skating with my brother and our main man Gregory, the day seeming to stretch on forever.
Tracks like Spacecapades and Keep Lookin' 2 The Sky seem to key into a stream of pure techno soul, as if the sounds of Detroit were refracted through the cool water of the Pacific Ocean to sound right at home in the Golden State. In a sense, it sheds some light as to why this music always made perfect sense to me, a kid growing up two-thousand miles away. Parts of this record bring back vivid memories of bombing around San Diego back in the day, listening to Model 500 and Drexciya in the moonlight, taking the longest route home to hear just one more song and stretch the magic out across the electric shades of the evening.
A wildly inconsistent record, but a fascinating one with an engaging sound, seeming to exist comfortably alongside SA-RA and Dâm-Funk in the context of 21st century machine soul. Its release was tucked away toward the end of a year that had already seen one Leslie LP, his self-titled debut. Transition was apparently inspired by a late-summer romantic affair and knocked out in an off-the-cuff series of sessions.
That its release was buried is the only way I can square the fact that it didn't bother the charts with songs like You're Not My Girl and Zodiac, sounding something like the hypothetical album Michael Jackson might have released between Thriller and Bad (circa Kleeer's Intimate Connection and The Isley's Between The Sheets).
Leslie made his name producing Cassie back in 2005, and after a few years he got the chance to launch a solo career of his own. This and the self-title debut came out during a period when I was mainlining on SA-RA and seeking out anything and everything in a similar vein. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had just seen release the previous year, featuring tracks produced by SA-RA, and it seemed like something special was in the air.
I remember when this and the Kid Cudi album dropped, and I was totally sold on their sleeve art from the jump: this had to be interesting. Actually, the sleeve is not a bad place to start if you're looking for a thumbnail sketch of the sounds held within, conjuring images of deep green vectors unfurling in slow-motion neon. The album-opening Never Gonna Break Up more than lives up to the anticipation, with Leslie slinging luminescent analogue synths across a gently chugging rhythm while doing his modern soul man routine on vocals. Leslie 's thing is switching between r&b vocals and quasi-raps, which suits his productions just fine.
A track like Sunday Night flows gracefully on moody synth swirls, while Nothing trades in almost new wave shapes. The new wave thing is actually in full effect throughout: All My Love even seems to recall New Order in its string/synth progression. The slow-burning post-disco boogie of You're Not My Girl just might be the finest thing here, rolling along on that nagging verse before slipping into its sublime refrain.
This lot have been the biggest surprise since SA-RA, coming out of nowhere with a killer record that sounds unlike anything else around. I've gone in depth on them before. Not much to add, but I still can't quite believe that they exist... and I don't understand why they aren't the biggest thing around right now. Sari and I have caught them live twice, and both shows were excellent in different ways. I suspect they can make any venue their own, their atmosphere seeps into every corner of the space.
Possibly the first group to spring fully-formed from within the day-glo aesthetic, rather than approaching from a tangent (be it post punk, disco, hip hop or rave). I've said before that they seem to build their songs out of texture as one would sculpt matter: everything here is like day-glo cast in gold and chrome liquid set against jet black skies, where everything glows gently.
It would have sounded incredible on the dancefloors of the Paradise Garage, yet it's perfectly at home in the context of now-pop, excelling most of the half-finished ideas that currently set the charts ablaze. This of-the-moment music exists in a continuum stretching back decades... nevertheless it sounds unlike anything that's come before.
Ranging from resolute floor-fillers like Busy Earnin', Time and Julia to moody burners like Accelerator, Drops and Platoon, Jungle imbue everything here with a sense of gravity and physicality. There's a deeply haunting nature running through these atmospheric reveries to the night. In effect, its a stone cold masterpiece. This crew are more than suited to take this sound screaming into the future, and I'm awaiting their next record more anxiously than any other. These are the things that dreams are made of.
Whereas before it was disco's method, its production techniques that were taken on board by the post punks: artists like PIL ejected the sunshine and engulfed their tracks in pure dread. Even The Human League were still making righteously strange synth music at this point — see 1980's Travelogue — at times Moroder-inflected yet stark and severe, with the full-on pop of Dare! still a year away.